Bible Dictionaries

Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary


Additional Links

from ειδωλολατρεια , composed of ειδος , image, and λατρευειν , to serve, the worship and adoration of false gods; or the giving those honours to creatures, or the works of man's hands, which are only due to God. Several have written of the origin and causes of idolatry; among the rest, Vossius, Selden, Godwyn, Tenison, and Faber; but it is still a doubt who was the first author of it. It is generally allowed, however, that it had not its beginning till after the deluge; and many are of opinion, that Belus, who is supposed to be the same with Nimrod, was the first man that was deified. But whether they had not paid divine honours to the heavenly bodies before that time, cannot be determined; our acquaintance with those remote times being extremely slender. The first mention we find made of idolatry is where Rachel is said to have taken the idols of her father; for though the meaning of the Hebrew word תרפים , be disputed, yet it is pretty evident they were idols. Laban calls them his gods, and Jacob calls them strange gods, and looks on them as abominations. The original idolatry by image worship is by many attributed to the age of Eber, B.C. 2247, about a hundred and one years after the deluge, according to the Hebrew chronology; four hundred and one years according to the Samaritan; and five hundred and thirty-one years according to the Septuagint; though most of the fathers place it no higher than that of Serug; which seems to be the more probable opinion, considering that for the first hundred and thirty-four years of Eber's life all mankind dwelt in a body together; during which time it is not reasonable to suppose that idolatry broke in upon them; then some time must be allowed after the dispersion of the several nations, which were but small at the beginning, to increase and settle themselves; so that if idolatry was introduced in Eber's time, it must have been toward the end of his life, and could not well have prevailed so universally, and with that obstinacy which some authors have imagined. Terah, the father of Abraham, who lived at Ur, in Chaldea, about B.C. 2000, was unquestionably an idolater; for he is expressly said in Scripture to have served other gods. The authors of the Universal History think, that the origin and progress of idolatry are plainly pointed out to us in the account which Moses gives of Laban's and Jacob's parting, Genesis 31:44 , &c. From the custom once introduced of erecting monuments in memory of any solemn covenants, the transition was easy into the notion, that some deity took its residence in them, in order to punish the first aggressors; and this might be soon improved by an ignorant and degenerate world, till not only birds, beasts, stocks, and stones, but sun, moon, and stars, were called into the same office; though used, perhaps, at first, by the designing part of mankind, as scare-crows, to overawe the ignorant.

Sanchoniathon, who wrote his "Phenician Antiquities" apparently with a view to apologize for idolatry, traces its origin to the descendants of Cain, the elder branch, who began with the worship of the sun, and afterward added a variety of other methods of idolatrous worship: proceeding to deify the several parts of nature, and men after their death; and even to consecrate the plants shooting out of the earth, which the first men judged to be gods, and worshipped as those that sustained the lives of themselves and of their posterity. The Chaldean priests, in process of time, being by their situation early addicted to celestial observations, instead of conceiving as they ought to have done concerning the omnipotence of the Creator and Mover of the heavenly bodies, fell into the impious error of esteeming them as gods, and the immediate governors of the world, in subordination, however, to the Deity, who was invisible except by his works, and the effects of his power. Concluding that God created the stars and great luminaries for the government of the world, partakers with himself and as his ministers, they thought it but just and natural that they should be honoured and extolled, and that it was the will of God they should be magnified and worshipped. Accordingly, they erected temples, or sacella, to the stars, in which they sacrificed and bowed down before them, esteeming them as a kind of mediators between God and man. Impostors afterward arose, who gave out, that they had received express orders from God himself concerning the manner in which particular heavenly bodies should be represented, and the nature and ceremonies of the worship which was to be paid them. When they proceeded to worship wood, stone, or metal, formed and fashioned by their own hands, they were led to apprehend, that these images had been, in some way or other, animated or informed with a supernatural power by supernatural means; though Dr. Prideaux imagines, that, being at a loss to know how to address themselves to the planets when they were below the horizon, and invisible, they recurred to the use of images. But it will be sufficient to suppose, that they were persuaded that each star or planet was actuated by an intelligence; and that the virtues of the heavenly body were infused into the image that represented it. It is certain, that the sentient nature and divinity of the sun, moon, and stars, was strenuously asserted by the philosophers, particularly by Pythagoras and his followers, and by the Stoics, as well as believed by the common people, and was, indeed, the very foundation of the Pagan idolatry. The heavenly bodies were the first deities of all the idolatrous nations, were esteemed eternal, sovereign, and supreme; and distinguished by the title of the natural gods. Thus we find that the primary gods of the Heathens in general were Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Apollo, Mercury, Venus, and Diana; by which we can understand no other than the sun and moon, and the five greatest luminaries next to these. Plutarch expressly censures the Epicureans for asserting that the sun and moon, whom all men worshipped, are void of intelligence.

Sanchoniathon represents the most ancient nations, particularly the Phenicians and Egyptians, as acknowledging only the natural gods, the sun, moon, planets, and elements; and Plato declares it as his opinion, that the first Grecians likewise held these only to be gods, as many of the barbarians did in his time. Beside these natural gods, the Heathens believed that there were certain spirits who held a middle rank between the gods and men on earth, and carried on all intercourse between them; conveying the addresses of men to the gods, and the divine benefits to men. These spirits were called demons. From the imaginary office ascribed to them, they became the grand objects of the religious hopes and fears of the Pagans, of immediate dependence and divine worship. In the most learned nations, they did not so properly share, as engross, the public devotion. To these alone sacrifices were offered, while the celestial gods were worshipped only with a pure mind, or with hymns and praises. As to the nature of these demons, it has been generally believed, that they were spirits of a higher origin than the human race; and, in support of this opinion, it has been alleged, that the supreme deity of the Pagans is called the greatest demon; that the demons are described as beings placed between the gods and men; and that demons are expressly distinguished from heroes, who were the departed souls of men. Some, however, have combated this opinion, and maintained, on the contrary, that by demons, such as were the more immediate objects of the established worship among the ancient nations, particularly the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, we are to understand beings of an earthly origin, or such departed human souls as were believed to become demons.

Although the Hindoo inhabitants of the East Indies deny the charge of idolatry, using the same description of arguments as are so inconclusively urged by superstitious Europeans in defence of image worship, it is still evident that the mass of the Hindoos are addicted to gross idolatry. The gods of Rome were even less numerous, certainly less whimsical and monstrous, than those at Benares. In Moore's Hindoo Pantheon are given exact portraits of many scores of deities worshipped, with appropriate ceremonies, and under various forms and names, by different sects of that grossly superstitious race. Some of these portraits are of images colossal to a degree perhaps unequalled by any existing statues; others are exceedingly diminutive. Some are metallic casts, and some apparently extremely ancient, which exhibit every gradation of art from the rudest imaginable specimen, up to a very respectable portion of skill, so as to approach to elegance of form, and to ease and expression of attitude.

The principal causes which have been assigned for idolatry are, the indelible idea which every man has of God, and the evidence which he gives of it to himself; an inviolable attachment to the senses, and a habit of judging and deciding by them, and them only; the pride and vanity of the human mind, which is not satisfied with simple truth, but mingles and adulterates it with fables; men's ignorance of antiquity, or of the first times, and the first men, of whom they had but very dark and confused knowledge by tradition, they having left no written monuments, or books; the ignorance and change of languages; the style of the oriental writings, which is figurative and poetical, and personifies every thing; the scruples and fears inspired by superstition; the flattery and fictions of poets; the false relations of travellers; the imaginations of painters and sculptors; a smattering of physics, that is, a slight acquaintance with natural bodies and appearances, and their causes; the establishment of colonies, and the invention of arts, mistaken by barbarous people; the artifices of priests; the pride of certain men, who effected to pass for gods; the love and gratitude borne by the people to certain of their great men and benefactors; and, finally, the historical events of the Scriptures ill understood. "One great spring and fountain of all idolatry," says Sir William Jones, "was the veneration paid by men to the sun, or vast body of fire, which ‘looks from his sole dominion like the god of this world;' and another, the immoderate respect shown to the memory of powerful or virtuous ancestors and warriors, of whom the sun and the moon were wildly supposed to be the parents." But the Scriptural account of the matter refers the whole to wilful ignorance and a corrupt heart: "They did not like to retain God in their knowledge." To this may be added, what indeed proceeds from the same sources, the disposition to convert religion into outward forms; the endeavour to render it more impressive upon the imagination through the senses; the substitution of sentiment for real religious principle; and the license which this gave to inventions of men, which in process of time became complicated and monstrous. That debasement of mind, and that alienation of the heart from God, and the gross immoralities and licentious practices which have ever accompanied idolatry, will sufficiently account for the severity with which it is denounced, both in the Old and New Testaments.

The veneration which the Papists pay to the Virgin Mary, and other saints and angels, and to the bread in the sacrament, the cross, relics, and images, affords ground for the Protestants to charge them with being idolaters, though they deny that they are so. It is evident that they worship these persons and things, and that they justify the worship, but deny the idolatry of it, by distinguishing subordinate from supreme worship. This distinction is justly thought by Protestants to be futile and nugatory, and certainly has no support from Holy Writ.

Under the government of Samuel, Saul, and David, there was little or no idolatry in Israel. Solomon was the first Hebrew king, who, in complaisance to his foreign wives, built temples and offered incense to strange gods. Jeroboam, the son of Nebat, who succeeded him in the greater part of his dominions, set up golden calves at Dan and Bethel. Under the reign of Ahab, this disorder was at its height, occasioned by Jezebel, the wife of Ahab, who did all she could to destroy the worship of the true God, by driving away and persecuting his prophets. God, therefore, incensed at the sins and idolatry of the ten tribes, abandoned those tribes to the kings of Assyria and Chaldea, who transplanted them beyond the Euphrates, from whence they never returned. The people of Judah were no less corrupted. The prophets give an awful description of their idolatrous practices. They were punished after the same manner, though not so severely, as the ten tribes; being led into captivity several times, from which at last they returned, and were settled in the land of Judea, after which we hear no more of their idolatry. They have been, indeed, ever since that period, distinguished for their zeal against it. See IMAGE .

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Idolatry'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. 1831-2.

Search for…
Enter query in the box below:
Choose a letter to browse:
Prev Entry
Next Entry