BMCR 2017.05.49

Divine Honours for the Caesars: The First Christians’ Responses

, Divine Honours for the Caesars: The First Christians’ Responses. Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015. x, 338. ISBN 9780802872579. $35.00 (pb).


Winter sets out to show that an all-pervasive imperial cult had a profoundly negative impact on first-century Christians in the Greek East. Discussion of the epigraphic, numismatic and archaeological evidence for imperial cultic worship is in two parts. The spread, characteristics, and operation of the imperial cult in provinces of the East are the focus of Part I (Chapters 2-5). Then the variety of Christian responses to the imperial cult, as found in the New Testament (NT), are the focus of Part II (Chapters 6-12). Each paragraph of what follows is devoted to a chapter of the book.

Part I, Divine Honours for the Caesars and the Roman East

Imperial cultic veneration spread rapidly because it was incorporated into the cultural and sporting activities and liturgical events of Asia. Members of the imperial family were honoured at the regular festivals of cities in the East as well as at entertaining games and spectacles. Significant points in the career of Augustus, including the birthday ‘of the most divine Caesar’ on which the new year began, were celebrated as ‘no work’ days throughout the year.

However, Winter wonders whether the words ‘imperial cult’ adequately describe the reality that the first Christians faced. An inscription from Sardis mentions all three imperial cultic activities: sacrifices to the gods for Augustus; prayers to Augustus; and sacrifices and prayer to the gods by Augustus for the empire.1 According to the inscription, all in the city were to show their loyalty by wearing wreaths on imperial high and holy days when sacrifices were made and prayers offered. Moreover, an endorsement by the koinon of Asia at the beginning of the inscription shows this was not an isolated case. Archaeologists have found seventeen (first-century) and fifteen (first half of the second century) imperial cult temples or sanctuaries in Asia Minor.

The more legally appropriate title divus, rather than deus, was conferred on Julius Caesar and Augustus by the Senate after their deaths. A comparable term did not exist in Greek, so in the East the emperor was often referred to as θεός. However, as Price shows, honours given to emperors in the East ‘were equivalent to those given to the traditional gods, but they were not the same’2, i.e., it was understood that the emperors were lesser gods. Thus, Tiberius generally adhered to his father’s convention of refusing diplomatic offers from the East, since temples were for the gods alone, but he did approve a cult to himself in Smyrna in 26. Winter suggests, following Fishwick, that this may have contributed to the rise of the Cult of the Sebastoi (divine emperors) after his principate.

Josephus reports a decree of Augustus which gave the Jews the right to follow their ancestral customs ( Ant. 16.162). Claudius later affirmed the decree of Augustus for Alexandria and then the empire ( Ant. 19.289-91). As a sign of loyalty to Rome, Jews offered a daily sacrifice in the Jerusalem temple to God, not the emperor, for the safety of the latter. Images were not required and Jews did not have to engage in cultic veneration in imperial temples or participate in festive activities. Winter takes this position based on a robust defence of the accuracy of Josephus with respect to decrees that concern the Jews (119-23).

Part II, Divine Imperial Honours and the First Christians’ Responses

The first port of call in the NT is Athens. On the basis of imperial cult temples on the Acropolis and in the agora and forum, as well as altars and inscriptions, Winter argues that the first-century response was enthusiastic. He finds philological support for reading Acts 17:16-34 – which he accepts as historically reliable without discussing other views, an anomalous omission given his earlier defence of Josephus – as an official meeting of the Areopagus called to decide whether Paul’s new god should be admitted to Athens. Paul appears to reject Stoic and Epicurean accommodation of the imperial cult. This reveals, says Winter, Paul’s ‘theological framework and arguments against religious pluralism’ and the challenge they posed for the Christian communities he established (158-9).

Achaea is examined next. A decree from Messene, dated AD 1 or 2, which marks a victory of Gaius over the barbarians, states that two days were taken from the days of Augustus for annual holidays and sacrifices on behalf of Gaius and all were ordered to wear wreaths and to sacrifice to the gods for his safety. According to another inscription dated to 37, all of the inhabitants of the ancient Greek Leagues personally offered a sacrifice on the accession of Gaius, and there is a description by Philo of altars, victims, sacrifices, and crowds filling the streets for the festivities. Winter then surveys the evidence for imperial cultic activity in Corinth long before Paul came to town, and argues that when the Corinthian Jews brought a case against Paul soon after his arrival in c. 51, the ruling (Acts 18:12-15) of the proconsul effectively identified Christians with Jews and in so doing gave the former a de facto exemption from imperial cultic obligations and the right to meet weekly.

Nonetheless, Winter proposes that some Corinthian Christians elected to participate in imperial cultic celebrations. Paul’s mention of ‘so-called (οἱ λεγόμενοι) gods either in heaven or on earth’ (1 Cor. 8:5) is seen as an allusion to deceased and living members of the imperial family, and a parallel of sorts is found in an Athenian inscription which mentions the office of ‘high priest of the divine Caesars and Caesar’s family’ (204, 212). Paul’s admonition not to ‘partake of the table of the Lord and the table of δαιμονίων’ (10:21) is then interpreted as a reference to the divine genii of emperors rather than demonic forces. 3 Several inscriptions are adduced and a statement by Tertullian that Christians were accustomed to casting out daemons or geniuses rather than swearing by them ( Apol. 32.2-3). On these two somewhat tenuous bases, Winter argues that some Christians at Corinth reclined ‘in the idol temple’ (1 Cor. 8:10) at imperial cultic banquets in 54/55.

From Galatians 4:17 (ἐκκλεῖσαι ὑμᾶς θέλουσιν ἵνα αὐτοὺς ζηλοῦτε, ‘they want to shut you out so that you would emulate them’), Winter argues that circumcised (Jewish and Gentile) Christians were shutting uncircumcised Gentiles out of fellowship to try to force them to be circumcised and become proselytes, with the sole aim of avoiding legal prosecution for meeting weekly and refusing to participate in the imperial cult. On the basis of literary, papyrological and inscriptional evidence, he proposes that ἒχων πρόσωπον means ‘having legal status’. Thus Galatians 6:12a (ὅσοι θέλουσιν εὐπροσωπῆσαι ἐν σαρκί, usually translated ‘as many as want to make a fair show in the flesh’), is rendered ‘as many as want you to demonstrate legal status in the flesh’ or similar. While this is intriguing, there is no evidence for imperial cultic persecution in Galatia and no mention of idolatry in Galatians. So Winter turns to references in Acts (13:50; 14:5, 19; cf. 14:22) which, however, refer not to imperial cultic but to Jewish incited persecution.

Examination of the situation in Thessalonica begins by linking a decree of Claudius against Jews from Syria and Egypt fomenting unrest (dated to 41) with a Jewish accusation before city officials that Paul’s associates were revolutionaries plotting against Caesar’s decrees (Acts 17:6-7). Winter proposes that when converted the Thessalonians immediately ‘ceased giving any divine honours before the statue of Claudius in the imperial temple’ (255; cf. ἐπεστρέψατε πρὸς τὸν θεὸν ἀπὸ τῶν εἰδώλων δουλεύειν θεῷ ζῶντι καὶ ἀληθινῷ, 1 Thess. 1:9b). The description of the man of lawlessness – ‘the one opposing and exalting himself above every so-called god (λεγόμενον θεὸν) or object of worship, so that he sits in the temple of God proclaiming himself to be God’ (2 Thess. 2:3-4) – is then compared to language used of the emperors. Winter dates Paul’s visit to Thessalonica to c. 50-51 and identifies Nero (54-68) as predicted man of lawlessness. Paul’s praise for the Thessalonians’ steadfast faith under ‘persecutions and afflictions’ (2 Thess. 1:4-5) is the final plank in an engaging argument. But while Paul may have had a future Roman emperor in mind, neither Gaius nor Nero ever appeared in the temple at Jerusalem claiming to be God.4

Winter then turns to the letter to the Hebrews. ‘In earlier times after they were enlightened’, the letter’s recipients had ‘endured much conflict of sufferings’, including ‘being publicly exposed (θεατριζόμενοι) to both reproaches and afflictions, and had also been partners of those so treated’ (10:32-33). In addition, they had ‘sympathised with prisoners, and had accepted with joy the seizure of their possessions’ (10:34). But none of these verses actually says that the addressees had been imprisoned, as Winter insists. Condemnation on a capital charge brought death, exile, or slavery (48.19.2), as well as confiscation of property ( The Digest, 48.20.1).5 Because of the mention of seizure of possessions (Heb.10:34), Winter finds a coded reference to impending exile. But, in context, the admonition ‘let us go with him outside the camp bearing his reproach’ is hardly more than metaphorical encouragement to willingly imitate Jesus who had ‘suffered outside the [city] gate’ (Heb. 13:13, 12). So too much may have been read into a metaphor. The Digest also says that there had been instances of relegation which had, properly or improperly, involved confiscation of property (; 48.22.14).

In the final chapter on Revelation, Winter argues that market overseers had such tight control that no one in the province of Asia could ‘sell or purchase essential commodities’ unless they had ‘“the name” of “the beast” inked on their right hand or forehead’ and had worshipped ‘the statue of the emperor in the imperial cult temple’ (286). Non-compliance ‘resulted in summary execution’ (288). Winter identifies Nero as the first (sea) beast and C. Fonteius Agrippa, proconsul of Asia in 68-69, as the second (land) beast of Revelation 13.6 The latter was transferred after only one year; but not before enforcing this unique honour for Nero. The motivation for so doing, Winter speculates, may have been the unprecedented tax exemption granted to Achaea by Nero in 67. In response, an Achaean inscription states, it ‘was decided by both the magistrates and councillors and the people to dedicate for the present an altar by [the statue of] Zeus the Saviour, inscribing it, “to Zeus Eleutherios Nero forever”’.7 In support his theory, or perhaps inadvertently, Winter incorrectly translates: it was ‘decided by the magistrates and councillors and the people to worship him [Nero] at the existing altar dedicated to Zeus the Saviour forever’ (300).

In the final analysis, while the evidence for the spread of the imperial cult in the East is sound, Winter’s case about its profoundly negative impact on first-century Christians falters in the second half of the book. There are two reasons for this. One is a tendency to overreach when the argument is heavily reliant on the NT. Explanation of the text is either ‘bent’ to the historical evidence or vice versa. The second reason is that, despite there being plenty of evidence for persecution of Christians in the NT, it is difficult to find anything overt about the imperial cult. For both reasons, the end result is a dense and information-rich but provocative and ultimately flawed contribution to an increasingly contested area of NT related scholarship.


1. IGRR 4.1756.

2. S.R.F. Price, ‘The Greek Language of the Roman Imperial Cult’, The Journal of Hellenic Studies 104 (1984) 88 (79-95).

3. All translations are mine unless otherwise stated.

4. While the language of 2 Thess. 2:3-4 clearly alludes to Dan. 11:36-37, as Winter notes, Dan. 8:9-14 (and, therefore, the temple at Jerusalem) is also a point of reference.

5. The Digest of Justinian, Vol. 4, tr. and ed. A. Watson (Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 1998).

6. Cf. It ‘is tempting to think that the establishment of the provincial cult of Domitian at Ephesus, with its colossal cult statue, is what lies behind our text’: S.R.F. Price, Rituals and Power: The Roman Imperial Cult in Asia Minor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984) 197.

7. δεδογμένον εἶναι τοῖς τε ἄρ|χουσι καὶ συνέδροις καὶ τῷ δήμῳ καθιερῶσαι μὲν κα|τὰ τὸ παρὸν τὸν πρὸς τῷ Διὶ τῷ Σωτῆρι βωμόν, ἐπι|γράφοντας, Διὶ Ἐλευθερίῳ [Νέρων]ι εἰς αἰῶνα ( SIG 3 814, ll. 48-50). My translation slightly modifies that of Price, ‘The Greek Language of the Roman Imperial Cult’, 83.