Roman Religion in the First Century

Introduction back to top

Throughout the vast Imperial Roman Empire of Paul's day there existed a diversity of religious cults. These religions were not well coordinated and the prevailing attitude of the day was one of general religious tolerance. While there was an underlying fear on the part of the Romans of offending foreign gods, they were also convinced that those who did not worship the religion of Rome should recognize its ceremonies.

Polytheism back to top

In the center of the religious world were Polytheism and the worship of the great mythological gods. These gods were originally of Greek origin but were given Roman identity through a process known as Interpretatio Romana. The prominent position given to these gods is attested to by the erection of a great temple for Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva (Zeus, Hera, and Athena) on the Capitoline hill in Rome and the recorded restoration of 82 temples throughout the Empire during the reign of Caesar Augustus. Although there are no recorded incidences of Paul's interaction with worshippers of these specific gods, he must have been reminded of his address at the Areopagus in Athens.

With the expansion of the Empire came further assimilation of foreign gods, especially when they were considered more potent deities, and therefore, militarily advantageous. The first officially recorded importation of a god was the transference of the black stone of the goddess Cybele from Pessinus to Rome in around 204 BC. This move was believed necessary to rid Italy of Hannibal in the Second Punic War.

Many city-states within the Empire retained their own gods. Most, however, passed through an Interpretatio Graeca or Latina and emerged as equivalents of the great classical gods. In the end, these new, syncretized deities resembled little of the original Graeco-Roman deity.

Imperial Cult back to top

Alongside the Olympian Polytheistic religious system emerged the Imperial cult, with the divinization of the state rulers. In early Roman history, Romulus, the founder of their city was deified in the 4th century BC. Later, after the death of Julius Caesar, the Imperial cult emerged.

The divinization of Caesar after his death made Augustus, as his adoptive son, the son of a divus. In turn, Augustus was officially divinized after his death by the Roman Senate. This created a presumption that there was a divine component in an ordinary emperor who had not misbehaved in his life. This also reinforced the trend toward the cult of the living emperor. With the Flavian dynasty and later with Antonines, it was normal for the head of the Roman State to be both heads of the state religion and a potential or actual god.

In Paul's day, the Imperial cult existed as two distinct groups in the provinces. Rome and the divine Julius were for Roman citizens and Rome and Augustus was for the non-Roman provincials. The provincial Imperial cult for Rome and Augustus was founded in the Roman province of Galatia as early as 25 BC and is attested to by the uncovering of the major Julio-Claudian imperial temple at the Roman colony of Pisidian Antioch. There is also evidence of its existence at Iconium with a priest of Tiberius. In Corinth, the Imperial cult temple of Octavia was known to exist and possibly a statue of the deified Julius Caesar has been located there. The Imperial cult was not universally accepted and admired. Seneca is recorded as ridiculing the cult of Claudius while Tacitus spoke of the cult as Greek adulation.

Astrology, Mystery Religions, and Philosophy back to top

Not everyone in the Roman Empire of Paul's day worshipped the gods or the Caesar. Some turned to Astrology, some to mystery religions, while others found the answers to life in philosophy. Although the schools of Plato and Aristotle had declined from their heights by the time of the Empire, the Cynics, Stoics, and Epicureans were popular.

A religious anomaly in the Empire, which played a significant role in the spreading of Christianity, was Judaism. Although Paul experienced opposition along his missionary journeys, it was Christianity's close association with Judaism that kept it from being labeled an illegal religion by the Roman governing authorities. Acts 18 records Gallio, a proconsul of Achaia, perceiving Christianity to be a sect of Judaism which was permitted in the Empire. The major confrontation between Christianity and Rome over the Imperial cult did not occur until around AD 81 during the reign of Flavian Domitian.