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Bible Dictionaries

Holman Bible Dictionary

Emperor Worship

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The practice of assigning the status of deity to rulers and high ranking officials so honored by the ruler.

Old Testament Kings who conquered a nation would displace the local gods in favor of their own as a way of establishing authority. Frequently this included worshiping the king himself (or queen). The assumption was that only a god could rise to such a high position on earth. Entire religions were built around the worship of the ruler, including ceremonies, sacrifices, statues, and images.

In the Book of Esther, Haman was made part of the imperial cult by King Ahasuerus; all the people were required to bow to him and hail him (Esther 3:1-5 ). The most obvious example of emperor worship in the Old Testament is the well-known story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (Daniel 3:1 ). King Nebuchadnezzar made an image of gold, presumably of himself, and commanded everyone to fall down and worship the image or be killed (Daniel 3:5-6 ). Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to commit idolatry by worshiping the image (Daniel 3:16-18 ). They were thrown into a furnace, but were not burned (Daniel 3:27 ). Thereafter, Nebuchadnezzar permitted them to worship their God unhindered (Daniel 3:29 ).

New Testament Emperor worship was firmly in place in the Roman Empire in the early days of Christianity. During the reigns of Nero, Domitian, and other Roman emperors, persecution of Christians was severe because of gross misconceptions regarding the practice of the Christian faith. Christians were considered undesirable and were vigorously rooted out. Standing trial if they worshiped the pagan gods, that is, the emperor and the imperial cult, they would be freed. If not, they would suffer all manner of punishments and death. All the suspected Christian had to do was sprinkle a few sacrificial grains of incense into the eternal flame burning in front of the statue of the emperor. Since the punishments were so horrible and the means of escape so easy, many Christians gave in. Many did not and were burned alive, killed by lions in the arena, or crucified.

A specific New Testament example of emperor worship is the worship of the beast in the Book of Revelation. Revelation 13:1 speaks of a beast that is given ruling authority. An image is made of the beast, and all are commanded to worship it ( Revelation 13:4 ,Revelation 13:4,13:12 , Revelation 13:14-15 ).

Donna R. Ridge

Copyright Statement
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Emperor Worship'. Holman Bible Dictionary. 1991.

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