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idols ‘Idol’, from the Greek word eidolon (image), first takes on a religious meaning in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible known as the Septuagint (third to second centuries bce), where it refers to physical representations of deities. It is used to translate a number of Hebrew words, among them elilim — weak, insignificant, nothing; pesel — free-standing carved statue; and tselim — image. Throughout the Hebrew Bible, idol is given a pejorative meaning as it is used to describe non-Israelite or non-Jewish divinities considered to be false or alien gods. These are the gods of other nations from whom the Israelites are commanded to separate themselves. This meaning passes into New Testament usage in the Acts of the Apostles (7: 41; 15: 20), Pauline letters (Romans 2: 22; 1 Corinthians 8: 4, 7; 10: 9; 12: 2; 2 Corinthians 6: 16; 1 Thessalonians 1: 9), 1 John (5: 21), and Revelation (9: 20). Paul in particular makes it clear that idols are entities made and then worshipped by humans (Romans 2: 22).

Insofar as an account of idols can be derived from the Hebrew Bible, two related issues emerge: concern with the worship of alien gods and concern with the worship of images meant to represent Yahweh. Most prominent is the insistence that the Israelites avoid the worship of other, alien gods. Prophetic texts, in particular, warn the Israelites against turning to the gods of their neighbours or those of foreign queens (1 Kings 11: 7, 33; 13: 1–8). These deities, the prophets claim, are empty (Isaiah 44: 14–17), dead, or even demonic (Deuteronomy 32: 17).

Archeological and textual evidence suggests that use of images to represent the divine was the norm among Israel's neighbours in west Asia and along the Mediterranean basin. The statues, often life-sized, stood in temples or other sacred places. They were the recipient of sacrifices, libations, prayers, and votive offerings, were sometimes bathed and clothed, and in general had a ‘living’ quality that suggests the deity was understood to be present within them in some way. These practices mirror those found in a variety of African and American traditions, within Hinduism, and within some medieval and modern Catholic Christian communities.

There is evidence in the Hebrew Bible, moreover, that, despite prohibitions, representations of Yahweh were made. In Judges 17: 1–5, Micah makes a pesel and a massekhah, a carved image and idol of cast metal. After the schism of 935 there appears to have been a cult in the northern kingdom of Israel that worshipped Yahweh in the form of a bull (1 Kings 12: 25–33; 2 Kings 15: 24). In the post-exilic period (c.539 bce), the prophets, in line with the legal code's prohibition against making representations of the divinity (Exodus 20: 4–6; Deuteronomy 4: 15–19; 5: 6–9; Leviticus 26: 1), fight against the use of images and any tangible representations of the divine, insisting that these practices are empty, futile, and absurd.

By the New Testament period, idolatry seems to have ceased to be a problem, as it is not mentioned by the gospel writers. However, with the movement of the early Christian community into the gentile world, the prophetic denunciations return as early Christians confront Greek and Roman religious practices. In Galatians 4: 8, Paul argues that pagan gods have no substance, following the prophets who claim that idols are nothing but stone and wood (Jeremiah 16: 20) and utterly vacuous (Isaiah 44: 14–17). Paul argues in 1 Corinthians 10: 19 that in venerating idols one calls on demons.

Early Christian thinkers developed the claim that in worshipping idols one worships the demonic. According to Augustine, for example, by venerating part of the created realm as god, idolaters subvert the natural order and pay service to demonic forces. Rather than being mere stone and wood, these human fabrications are invested with demonic force by the perversion of human nature entailed in their worship. In this way both the Pauline texts and their elaboration by early Christian thinkers extend the notion of idolatry to include any created thing or being put in the place of the divine.

Similar prohibitions against idols are found in the Qur'an, where again the primary offence is the confusion of created things with God. All three of the major Western religious traditions, then, understand idols as created entities that are claimed, by their worshippers, to be divine. The shared assumption is that God is uncreated, immaterial, and disembodied.

The pejorative connotations of the term ‘idol’ were instrumental in Western, particularly Christian, encounters with other religious traditions. The images of divine beings found among the peoples of Africa and the Americas, for example, were understood to be not simply representations of deities, but themselves, as material objects, worshipped. Hence for European Christians encountering the religious practices of parts of Africa and the Americas, an idol was not merely an image of a deity, but itself reputed to be, and treated as, divine. In this way, Western monotheistic beliefs about the immateriality of the divine and the exclusiveness of their own deity were conflated, and the association of idolatry with materiality emphasized. The complex theophanic nature of images within Hinduism and many other traditions — despite occasional parallels with Christian practices, particularly in the medieval Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches — is only beginning to be acknowledged and studied by Western scholars of religion.

Amy Hollywood


Ackerman, S. (1998). Idol, idolatry. The Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, (ed. D. N. Freedman). Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI.
Eck, D. (1985). Darsan: seeing the divine image in India. Anima Books, Chambersburg, PA.
Ries, J. (1987). Idolatry. In The Encyclopedia of religion, (ed. M. Eliade) Macmillan, London and New York.