Graeco-RomanAntiquities & the New Testament
There are things you can tell about an entire ocean even if you have only one cup of water from it. Naturally a scientist would like to have as many cups and as broad a sampling as possible, but even a single cup is of some help. The same is true when investigating the world of the New Testament. You can learn something even from one ancient document, though the explorer of the ancient world would like to have as many documents as possible.
I hope once a week to present a small sample of information that mirrors some aspect of the ancient world surrounding nascent Christianity.
Sometimes it is difficult for modern, western believers to appreciate the difficulties involved in the early Christians’ attack upon idolatry. The writings of Paul (1 Cor. 8-10), the book of Acts (Acts 19:18-19), and the Revelation of John highlight the reality that even those who were already believers had to be warned to stay away from idolatry. In the book of Revelation John brings up this issue of idolatry within congregations both in the letters to the 7 churches (Rev. 2:14, 20) and in his description of who will be excluded from heaven (Rev. 21:8, 15).
Of course, the opposition to idols expressed by early Christian writers was built upon longstanding Jewish teachings against idolatry, expressed early on in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20; Deuteronomy 5). Even later in Israel’s Scriptures, a strong polemic against idolatry can be seen in the book of Isaiah (chapter 44) and in the Psalter, the song book of Israel (Pss. 115:4-8; 135:15-18).
It is helpful to think about the reasons that so many people, including believers, felt the attraction of idolatry. The evidence from the city of Ephesus can furnish some insight into this issue. The dominant deity in this capital city of Roman Asia was the Ephesian Artemis. This goddess’s influence was, of course, known through the magnificence of her temple. In the first place it was a physically powerful piece of architecture, being much larger than the Parthenon on the Athenian Acropolis. This temple would not have made it into the prestigious list of the “Seven Wonders of the Ancient World” had it not been a marvel and a source of civic loyalty and pride. It certainly was a building of international renown, since we know of pilgrims who came from all over the Mediterranean to worship the goddess there.
If a person considered pulling away from the worship of the Ephesian Artemis, it would require being willing to “swim against the tide” of religious reputation and prestige on an international scale. The goddess and her religion were also deeply embedded in the economic structures of the Roman provence of Asia. More than one pagan author comments on the wealth of the Temple of Artemis as well as her involvement in the economy of Roman Asia. It was not only the silversmiths mentioned in Acts 19 who were concerned about the economic impact of questioning the reality of the Ephesian goddess. It would require a deep Christian conviction for someone to support anti-idolatry preaching that actually devalued the local economy and possibly threatened the employment of friends and family.
|Cult statue of the Ephesian Artemis, with
the signs of the zodiac arranged as a necklace
above the breast-shaped objects on her statue.
The cult statue of the Ephesian Artemis is well known, and has been studied by many scholars. Rather than talking about the “breast-shaped” objects on the front, top part of the idols of the goddess [which may not have been associated with fertility], I would prefer to point out the zodiacal necklace that adorns many of the cult statues of the goddess. This religious necklace contains the various signs of the zodiac. By having this zodiacal necklace the religion of the Ephesian Artemis was promising her followers and worshippers that she controlled destiny, especially their astrological fate. Astrology in the Roman period was not a marginal religious belief. At that time astrology was widely believed, was supported by many of the popular philosophies, and was interwoven with the science of astronomy. Astrology was often relied upon by both religious and leading political figures.
This means, then, that to abandon the worship of the Ephesian Artemis required the strength of conviction to reject the comfort and consolation that this wealthy, internationally acclaimed goddess offered to her followers. Was one willing to align himself with this peculiar Christian sect at the expense of rejecting the promises of the Ephesian goddess, who promised to guide and guarantee the destiny of her worshippers by means of astrological fate and horoscope?
When John demands that believers reject idolatry, he is requiring a total repudiation of many important cultural and spiritual values of the contemporary culture. Some believers could not/would not hold tight to the Judeo-Christian convictions about the futility of idols and their worship. It is little wonder than in the context of John’s description of the New Heaven and New Earth he writes, “Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood” (Rev. 22:15).