Emperor Worship and the Book of Revelation

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by Neil Godfrey

A reader of the previous Revelation post commented,

But at first glance, Emperor worship seems a pretty minor issue compared to the other shit that was going down in that period.

Detail of cover of Rituals and Power by S.R.F. Price. Coin from Ephesus showing temple with statue of emperor inside.

Agreed — “at first glance”. Why would the Book of Revelation make such ado over a cult that had been part and parcel of everyday life throughout the empire since the days of Augustus? Surely Christians could just stay at home or hide themselves behind the latrines when the day came for the city officials to offer their cultic devotions to the emperor. But is there evidence that something about emperor worship changed in a major way at a relevant time?

From the discussion that I outlined earlier Thomas Witulski raises the following question:

  • When, specifically, in the Roman province of Asia and between 45/50 and 155/160 CE, can we find a massive intensification of cultic-religious emperor worship accompanied by the propagation of the emperor’s divine salvation role?

Emperor worship was introduced into the province of Asia during the principate of Augustus between 30 and 10 CE. Witulski takes the extent and practices of Augustan worship as the yardstick by which to measure subsequent forms of the cult. After Augustus the emperor cult remained fairly much the same for most of the period up to the early years of the second century. During the time of Vespasian (69-79 CE) and his son Titus (79-81 CE) there even appears to have been a waning of the frequency and magnitude of the cult practices associated with emperor worship. Domitian (81-96 CE) took some steps to revive it but he did so by instituting it as the cult of the ruling Flavian family, not that of a sole emperor. This Flavian cult, Witulski notes, did not give rise to any “new cultic-religious situation for the inhabitants of the province of Asia as a whole.” It was confined to Ephesus.

In view of Domitian’s reign, there can be no question of a significant intensification of the cultic-religious veneration of the reigning regent and of his accompanying inappropriate deification in the Roman province of Asia. (Witulski, p. 135, – translation)

Trajan (98-117 CE) established a provincial cult of Zeus Philios in the city of Pergamon with himself, the emperor, to be worshiped alongside Zeus. The intention was to establish a cult in the province of Asia that was peer to Rome’s cult of Dea Roma and Divi filius Augustus. An inscription informs us that Trajan was propagandizing himself as a “new Augustus”. There is no evidence that there was any wider magnification of the cult of emperor worship in the province.

So in the opening years of the second century we find Trajan presenting himself as an equal of Augustus but the emperor cult does not go beyond anything that Augustus himself had inaugurated over a century before.

In view of this and in view of the fact that the cultic-religious veneration of the Roman emperors belonged to the everyday life of the inhabitants in the province of Asia on the provincial, but especially also on the municipal and private level, it is difficult to claim that with the inauguration of the cult of Ζεύς Φίλιος and Trajan in Pergamon a fundamentally new cultic-religious situation arose for those inhabitants of Asia who did not live in Pergamon. (p. 136 – translation)

With Hadrian, everything changes.

Hadrian was the first reigning emperor to have more than one cult centre in Asia. His cult was practised at sanctuaries in Smyrna, Ephesus and Cyzicus. The establishment of these cults had been at the initiative of provincial leaders.

Hadrian was the first Roman emperor in office (after the mad Gaius Caligula) to be worshiped apart from the normal tendency for emperors to be worshiped as part of the household of another deity. [Im Rahmen der asianischen provinzialen Kaiserverehrung wurde Hadrian als erster im Amt befindlicher römischer Kaiser nach Gaius (Caligula) ohne θεός σύνναος verehrt. p. 136]

In Athens the sanctuary of Zeus Olympus was consecrated in partnership with Hadrian who was venerated as assimilated into Zeus – as Hadrian Olympus. At the same time a new provincial organization of Asian cities that could prove they had some Greek roots — the Panhellion — also initiated provincial-wide cultic veneration of Hadrian.

With all this, the cultic-religious veneration of the reigning Roman emperor crossed the provincial borders for the first time in its history and, at least with regard to the east of the imperium Romanum, attained a supra-provincial dimension. (pp. 136f – translation)

At the same time as the Athenian Zeus Olympus sanctuary was established another sanctuary and priesthood dedicated to Hadrian Zeus was established in Asia. Altars with officiating priests dedicated to Hadrian Olympus were set up throughout the province of Asia. For the first time the official and public cult was ordered directly into the private, domestic and family sphere. All private homes were required to install altars dedicated to Hadrian Olympus.

The province-wide veneration of Hadrian as σωτήρ καί κτίστης [saviour and founder] associated with the erection of these altars characterized the reigning ruler as a universal savior and the period of his reign as an epoch of universal salvation. In that the cultic-religious veneration of Hadrian thus at the same time opened up a new understanding of time, it reached beyond the boundaries of cultus in the narrower sense. Before Hadrian, only Augustus was worshipped in the Roman province of Asia with similar cultic-religious implications. (p. 137 translation)

Coins were a major medium of imperial propaganda and Hadrian minted them with reminders that as surely as he had “arrived/adventus/parousia” as a divinity even in his personal absence he nonetheless proclaimed his ongoing presence among them.

Looking back at the previous practice of cultic-religious emperor worship in the Roman province of Asia, it becomes clear: Hadrian’s cultic-religious worship not only approached that of Augustus, but still clearly surpassed it. Hadrian was propagandized as a universal savior throughout the entire Roman province of Asia and far beyond by the year 132 A.D., the period of his reign was defined as a universal time of salvation, the cultic-religious veneration of his person was implanted in the private sphere and at the same time organized on a supra-provincial basis. Thus, the practice of cultic-religious emperor worship in the Roman province of Asia advanced in various fields into new dimensions not yet explored in its history up to that time. (p. 137 translation)

In later posts I will write more about a close advisor and companion of Hadrian, the rhetorician and sophist Antonius Polemon. Polemon was a provincial from Asia who held several high political offices as well as being a priest of Bacchus. He boasted prophetic abilities which on at least one occasion were said to have saved the emperor’s life. He delivered the ceremonial address at the consecration of the temple of Zeus Olympus. Polemon was a major influence on Hadrian and a leading driver in the creation of the Panhellion organization of Asia that coordinated and oversaw the expansion of emperor worship.

Witulksi’s basic thesis is summed up:

In view of the writing of the Book of Revelation, this result leads to the following basic thesis: with his Revelation, the apocalypticist aimed at the events of the year 132 AD and the intensification of the cultic-religious veneration of the emperor Hadrian that can be proven at that time. With his work he presented a counter program to a state-imperial conception, within which the incumbent ruler is assigned a soteriological relevance, and a response to the intensification of his cultic-religious worship.” In Hadrian, the apocalypticist saw the first θηρίον [beast], the eschatological antagonist of the άρνίον [lamb] Christ, the high and final point in the line of Roman emperors, who embodies the hubris of the imperium Romanum like no other Roman princeps and enjoys cultic-religious veneration in a manner unknown up to that time. Thus, the writing of Revelation is to be dated to the time immediately after 132 A.D., i.e. approximately in the period between 132 and 135 A.D.. Since it can be assumed that the apocalypticist reacted quite soon to the events taking place in 132 AD, a considerably later dating of Revelation would be unlikely. (p. 138 translation)

In support of the thesis that Christians of the time looked on Hadrian as the eschatological antagonist of the Lamb Christ, Witulski calls on the Epistle of Barnabas as a witness. This work is thought to have been written about the same time as Hadrian. Without going into an analysis of the Greek text and source criticism (and Witulski does engage with opposing arguments), I simply note Witulski’s conclusion that the author wrote as if he believed the last conflict of the age, the crisis prophesied by the prophets like Daniel, had already arrived and was present as he penned the text:

It behooves us therefore to investigate deeply concerning the present, and to search out the things which have power to save us. (Barn 4:1)

The last offence has arrived [τό τέλειον σκάνδαλον ήγγικεν], concerning which the scripture speaketh, as Enoch saith. For to this end the Master hath cut the seasons and the days short, that His beloved might hasten and come to His inheritance. (Barn 4:3)

Wherefore let us take heed in these last days . . . (Barn 4:9)

That is, the author of Barnabas, like the author of Revelation, may be understood as believing that the time of Hadrian was the climactic time of conflict against God, or that Hadrian was the one who directly opposed God.

Also at the same time we find our first “Church Fathers” writing apologies addressed to the emperor attempting to explain that Christians were not opposed to the emperor’s rule despite their refusal to participate in his cult. Quadratus and Aristides argued at length that Christians were genuinely obedient and virtuous and that the hostility they faced from authorities and communities was unjustified. Aristides even attempted to submit that Christian prayers were responsible for maintaining the preservation of the earth — perhaps a daring claim if directed to Hadrian who saw himself as the world’s saviour — though I doubt that such apologies really reached the person of the emperor.

The major argument of Witulski’s book follows. This consists of a detailed analysis of chapters 13, 21:1-8, 2:12-17, 18-27; 17:9-14 in the context of archaeological and literary evidence of a Hadrianic context.

Witulski, Thomas. Die Johannesoffenbarung Und Kaiser Hadrian: Studien Zur Datierung Der Neutestamentlichen Apokalypse. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2007. pp. 133-142


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26 thoughts on “Emperor Worship and the Book of Revelation”

  1. OK, I have a prejudice here: I like to think of Revelation as a Jewish text in response to the catastrophic failure of the Bar Kokhba rebellion. Would the text suffer if “Jesus” were replaced everywhere with “Yahweh/Elohim/HaShem”?

    Btw, this is worst text of the NT, it reads like a QAnon/MAGA dispatch.

    1. James Tabor has pointed out that explicitly Christian references are only a superficial gloss on the text and can be easily removed without changing anything substantive. Bar Kochba was a Christos himself.

  2. So, if Revelation, which Gmirkin, many mythicists, and even some Christians (albeit obliquely!) note is a very primitive Christian text, dates to the time of Hadrian, would this mean that Christianity only arose during that time period? Such a dating would fit with claims by later Christian apologists that Christianity remained united until the time of Hadrian, if one keep in mind the fact (emphasized by Doherty) that the early Christian movement was theologically diverse. According, therefore to a model in which Christianity arose during Hadrian’s time (which I am not supporting, just considering), later proto-Orthodox Christians, wanting to add authority and antiquity to their movement, acknowledged the real diversity at their religion’s beginning but invented an earlier, unified, past in order to give to their proto-Orthodox Christianity more authority.

    1. The notion of Christianity emerging no earlier than the second century has crossed my mind but I have not been courageous enough to follow the thought through. Revelation itself begins with messages to churches that sometimes imply that they have been in existence for quite some time.

          1. Well, … let’s agree to disagree. That link only deals with a small subproblem. To see what a hot mess the whole thing is, have a look at chapter 2 of Markus Vinzent’s “Marcion and the dating of the Synoptic Gospels”.

  3. If of interest, Stromholm (1926/1928, Hibbert Journal available on archive.org) argues that, being the Book of Revelation written before the earliest gospel, the two witnesses episode is a trace of a very old and lost source, where the crucified was not one, but two. And two were equally the risen ones. Similar traces going in that direction: the resurrection of Lazarus, target of the pharisees just as Jesus (and victim as him of a crucifixion?), the Good Thief saved by Jesus (the same Lazarus?), the finger of Thomas, the rival “twin” (Lazarus?) having him also the title of risen one, hence in need of a confutation + official act of submission. Without ignoring the lacuna found in the mss of Revelation (potentially raising the possibility that the two witnesses were “crucified”, hence moving the scribe to add the glossa ‘where also their Lord was crucified’).
    So, in the original source, Jesus and Lazarus were crucified in the same time, then Jesus rises and by his power has Lazarus also risen: in short, Lazarus was risen by the RISEN Jesus.

  4. I seem to recall that D.H. Lawrence, himself no mean critic of literature, found Revelation to be rather a dynamic work. Possibly he was the one who asked the reader to imagine the NT without Revelation as a closer. (My own vote for most dreary writing in the NT are the three letters of John. And, speaking of votes, was it necessary (in a venue such as vridar.org) to toss in the barbed comment about QAnon & MAGA? Ever read anything by Amherst College Professor Emeritus of Jurisprudence Hadley Arkes? He voted for the MAGA president, too.)

      1. Thank you, Andrew. And now back to Name That Beast: when I was in a conservative seminary (2/3 of a lifetime ago) I turned in a paper on Biblical Eschatology only to be docked points by the student grader after adding that it was difficult to identify any empire-wide persecution of Christians during the presumed window in which Revelation was (taken to have been) written. The student justified his or her reduction in points by inscribing “Domitian’s persecution, 96 AD” in the margin. I almost gasped as even the conservative scholar George Eldon Ladd had noted in his 1972 commentary on the Apocalypse that Domitian’s persecution was limited to a handful of families in Rome. Which leads to a question: can one profitably date Revelation without playing Name That Beast [Nero, Domitian, Hadrian]? For example, might its few references to the pierced or crucified Lord (and to the Pauline-sounding Nicolaitans [= Nicolaus of Antioch, himself the bookending “last” to Stephen’s “first” in Acts 6?]) push it back to a time or place wherein Paul was both influential & despised?

      1. So who’s the fascist here–D.H. Lawrence, Hadley Arkes, or the author of the post in which both were invoked? (If you insist on pursuing a political point irrelevant to the larger discussion, itself terribly intriguing.)

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