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IDOLATRY . The word idolatry is formed from two Greek words, eidōlon, "image," and latreia, "adoration." Etymologically, idolatry means "adoration of images." Authors have given idolatry and idol widely differing definitions thereby revealing the complexity of the problem. Eugène Goblet d'Alviella uses the term idol to mean images or statues "that are considered to be conscious and animate" and sees idolatry in the act of "regarding an image as a superhuman personality" (Goblet d'Alviella, 1911, p. 126). In a relatively recent article, J. Goetz (1962), trying to get a better grip on the problem, establishes, first, that in the wake of etymology idolatry "designates the adoration of images by emphasizing the specific nature of the cult surrounding the objects, a cult of adoration, which strictly speaking expresses a feeling of absolute dependence, especially through sacrifice." He then states that the terms idolatry and idol remain inaccurate, and that "the authors who have tackled the problem of idolatry most often defined the idol as an object in anthromorphic form, intended to represent a spirit, the object of worship." Finally, venturing onto the terrain of religious phenomenology, he risks a definition of idol: "any material object that receives a form of worship more or less structured," idolatry being this form of worship.

The concept of idolatry originated in a very specific historico-religious context: the monotheism of Israel. Consequently, an authentic approach to the concept must refer to the Hebrew scriptures. In his research on the prophetic reaction to pagan religious concepts, Christopher R. North presents two ideas taken directly from the prophets. First, "Idolatry is the worship of the creature instead of the Creator and, to make matters worse, the creature is made by man, who is himself a creature" (North, 1958, p. 158). He then states: "Idolatry is the worship of what in modern terms we should call process, the 'life-force,' the élan vital, or what we will, instead of the Creator who transcends and is in some sort external to creation" (ibid., p. 159). Finally, here is another, more recently formulated definition: "Idolatry may be defined as the worship of an idol (eidōlon, image, portrait) considered as a substitute for the divine" (M. Delahoutre, "Idolâtrie," Dictionnaire des religions, Paris, 1984).

This brief survey should help situate this article's discussion. The concept of idolatry originated in the application of the second commandment. It acquired definitive formulation in censure by the prophets of Israel of the pagan cults and their influence on the chosen people. This biblical heritage passed into the New Testament and early Christianity, blazing its way through the forest of pagan cults. The monotheism of Islam adopted this Judeo-Christian concept and made it one of the foundations of its beliefs and its faith.

Beginning with these notions formed with the help of the dogmatic thought as well as the polemic stance of the three great monotheisms, the historian of religions enlarges his vision of idolatry by studying this religious phenomenon through the behavior of homo religiosus in relation to the representation of divinity. However, this study becomes vast and includes other very important aspects: images for worship, symbolism in religions and cults, religious art, veneration of images, iconoclasm. The present study is limited to idolatry, which it will approach on two levels: On the one hand, the historico-religious fact that the three great monotheisms censured the worship of idols; and, on the other hand, the phenomenon of humankind's attitude of worship in the presence of a visible representation of divinity. The study of these two aspects is made with reference to the historical documentation left by the homo religiosus concerned.

Historical Semantics

In ancient Greek texts since Homer one rarely finds the word eidōlon. Formed from eidos (n.), "aspect, shape," the word eidōlon has diverse meanings: "phantom, undetermined form, image reflected in a mirror or in water." It also means an image formed in the human mind. Thus in the ancient Greek world, eidōlon did not have a religious meaning.

One must therefore turn to the biblical Greek world, where eidōlon is found in the Septuagint. Used 70 times in the protocanonical texts, it translates 16 different Hebrew words, as for example aven, vanity; elil, nothing; gillulim, excrement; pesel, carved statue; tselim, image. For these protocanonical texts the Vulgate uses idolum 112 times and simulacrum 32 times in order to translate 15 Hebrew words. Eidōlon also appears many times in the apocryphal writings. The Hebrew Bible uses 30 different nouns in order to talk about idols and mentions 44 pagan divinities. Thus eidōlon designates the false gods and does so with a scornful nuance, for they are vanity, lies, nothingness, vain images, molded metal, carved wood. It is therefore through choices made by Greek translators of the Bible that eidōlon acquired the religious sense of representing a pagan divinity considered to be a false god. Thus the Septuagint gave eidōlon a new pejorative and polemical meaning. (By extension, eidoleiōn means a temple in which idols are found.)

Eidōlon passed into the Greek New Testament. The word does not occur in the Gospels, but it appears elsewhere (Acts 7:41, 15:20; Rom. 2:22; 1 Cor. 8:4, 8:7, 10:9, 12:2; 2 Cor. 6:16; 1 Thes. 1:9; 1 Jn. 5:21; Rev. 9:20). The Vulgate sometimes translates it as idolum and sometimes as simulacrum. One passage (1 Cor. 7:10) has the word eidoleion, "temple of idols," which the Vulgate preserves, Latinizing it as idolium. The New Testament passages show that in the eyes of the compilers, the pagan gods have no substance (Gal. 4:8). Behind their worship hides the work of demons (1 Cor. 10:19).

The word eidōlon passed into patristic terminology. Its usage is common from the second century on. In the Epistle of Barnabas, the eidōla are the pagan gods to which the Hebrews turned in the desert. Justin Martyr (1 Apology 64.1) designates as an eidōlon a statue of Kore, who was considered to be the daughter of Zeus. In speaking of pagan gods, Clement of Alexandria made use of all the richness of Greek vocabulary of his time. Evidence of this can be found in chapter 4 of the Exhortation to the Heathen, devoted to statues of gods, agalmata. He calls them idols (4.53.1) and includes them among the demons (4.55.1), which are impure and base spirits. He invites his readers to approach these statues (agalmata ) in order to uncover the error that they conceal: "Their exterior clearly shows the mark of your demons' inner dispositions" (4.57.1). Later he reproaches the Greeks for having given themselves models of sensuality in these idols (4.61.1). Justin proclaims that Christ came to liberate people from the domination of idols (Dialogue with Trypho 113.6). These pagan gods are only phantoms that take possession of the human spirit and give the pagans the illusion of divine worship (Athenagoras, Libellus 23). These few samples, taken from the arsenal of the polemic of the apologists and the Greek fathers, show how the meaning of eidōlon expanded in the Greek world during the first centuries of the common era.

The Latin fathers adopt the same vocabulary and an identical stance. Tertullian shows that the pagan gods have no substance (Apologetics 10.2); then he attacks the statues as inert matter, simulacra made of material related to that of vases and ordinary utensils (12.2). In a similar fashion, Firmicus Maternus speaks of the imagines consecratas of public pagan worship (Octavius 24.5). Augustine gives a definitive structure to this criticism of idolatry made by the Latin apologists. Speaking of the pagan gods, he shows the semantic relationship between simulacrum and idolum: "simulacra, which in Greek are called idols" (Expositions on the Psalms 135.3). In his eyes, the idol worshipers are daemonicolae. The idol lets the demon make his own revelation (Mandouze, 1958).

The words eidōlolatria and eidōlolatrēs are found neither in secular Greek texts nor in the Septuagint nor in the writings of Philo Judaeus. They are a specific contribution of the New Testament and Christian literature of the first Christian centuries. Paul considers idolatry a grave sin and puts it on the list of sins that Christians must avoid (1 Cor. 5:1011, 6:9, 10:7, 10:14; Gal. 5:20; Col. 3:5; Eph. 5:5). The writer of 1 Peter 4:3 speaks in analogous fashion of the worship of idols that ought to be rejected by Christians. The same idea appears in Revelation 21:8 and 22:15.

The use of the two words becomes constant in Greek patristic literature. Clement of Alexandria even leaves a definition of idolatry: "the extension to numerous divinities of what is reserved for the one true God" (Miscellanies 3.12). The Christian church opposed idols and condemned their manufacture. The second-century apologists left a veritable arsenal of arguments on which Christian polemicists would draw until the age of Augustine.

Idolatry and the Hebrew Scriptures

The formal condemnation of idolatry is found in Exodus 20:35. The biblical God (whose unvocalized name is YHVH) simultaneously forbids the worship of foreign gods and the making of images that claim to represent him, because it is impossible to represent the God of Israel. A confirmation and amplification of this commandment are found in Deuteronomy 4:1219. The interdiction pertains to both theriomorphic and anthropomorphic images. It pertains also to symbolic animal representations of the divinity. Thus idolatry is vested with a double aspect: the idolatrous worship of Yahveh as well as the worship of false gods.

The Mosaic prohibition

The second commandment forbids the making of representations of the divinity (Ex. 20:46; Dt. 4:1519 and 5:69; Lv. 26:1). A rigorous tendency took this Mosaic prohibition literally by banishing all ornamentation of religious buildings. This tendency, which became widespread among the Pharisees, insisted on the spiritualization of God and radically opposed the danger of idolatry. A more liberal tendency has always existed, however, as attested by the animal and human decoration of certain synagogues discovered by archaeologists.

Idolatrous worship of YHVH

Biblical texts refer to this worship on various occasions. The Hebrew tribes underwent the influence of Canaanite culture (Jgs. 3:56, Dt. 7:15). Micah of the tribe of Ephraim made a pesel and a massekhah, a carved image and idol of cast metal (Jgs. 17:113), perhaps an image of God. After his victory over Midian, Gideon made use of the gold taken from the enemy to make and set up an efod (Jgs. 8:2227). Moreover, there is evidence of the tauriform cult of YHVH in the northern kingdom of Israel after the schism of 935 (1 Kgs. 12:2632, 2 Kgs. 15:24). In 1 Kings 12:28, Jeroboam presents God, symbolized by the bull (Hadad and Teshub, fertility gods), as the liberator of Israel at the time of the flight from Egypt. The writer of 2 Kings 15:24 speaks of the erection of statues of divine bulls. This is the religious tradition of the golden calf.

The prophets fought the use of images because they represented the danger of superstitition. Hosea 3:4 assails the stelae (matstsebot ) erected next to the altars, the efod, which are either images or instruments for interrogating Yahveh, and the terafim, which closely resemble the efod. Thus, the prophet aims at the elimination of even the accessories to worship. Jeremiah went even further, proclaiming around 587 bce that he would no longer speak of the Ark of the Covenant of Yahveh, which would be neither remembered nor missed, and which would never be built again (Jer. 3:16).

The prophetic argument is simple. It rejects all tangible representation of God as dangerous because the image is distinct from God. Hosea, moreover, refers to the past, to the youth of Israel, and to the flight from Egypt (Hos. 2:17). Thus, prophetic polemics find support in the Mosaic tradition. It is in this context that the incident of the golden calf (Ex. 32) must be understood and seen in terms of a protest against the worship of the tauriform Yahveh. Clearly, one is confronted here with a total rejection of the symbolism of the idol.

Idolatry as worship of false gods

The second aspect of idolatry holds a much larger place in the Bible; to understand it is necessary to review the history of idolatry in Israel. The ancestors of the chosen people practiced polytheism. Joshua recalled this in his address to the assembly at Shechem: The father of Abraham and Nahor served other gods (Jos. 24:2, 24:14), and even in Egypt some Hebrews worshiped pagan divinities. Upon their return from Egypt, the seminomadic Hebrew tribes who settled in Canaan came under the influence of the surrounding pagan culture and were always tempted to adopt their gods (Jgs. 10:6; 1 Sm. 7:4, 12:10). Furthermore, kings often advanced polytheism by the introduction of foreign wives who kept their gods (1 Kgs. 11:7, 11:33). Amos accuses his contemporaries of worshiping Sakkuth and Kaiwan (Am. 5:26), two astral divinities. The prestige of the Assyrian pantheon exercised a profound influence on the populations of Israel. During the reign of Manasseh (688642 bce) a serious religious crisis broke out. Shaken by the triumphs of the Assyrians and the Chaldeans, the faithful turned to the gods of the conquerors (2 Kgs. 21:19, 23:414). They worshiped the sun, the moon, the baal s, and the Astartes (Jer. 2:8, 7:9). Nergal and other divinities reigned in the sanctuaries (2 Kgs. 17:3031). After 587 came the trial of exile, followed by a spiritual reform. The prophets' orations were beneficial for the piety of Israel, which regained consciousness of its monotheistic faith. Upon returning from exile, they were vigilant about keeping their distance from idolatry, which continued to threaten the people because of the populations that remained in Palestine, especially in Samaria. The reaction against idolatrous cults was especially characteristic of the syncretic attempts under Antiochus IV Epiphanes (2 Mc. 6:2). The entire Jewish nation drew tightly together around the faith in Yahveh.

The most formidable opponents of idolatry were the prophets and their prophecies. At the solemn unveiling of the golden calf at Bethel, a prophet appeared before Jeroboam and announced Yahveh's threat (1 Kgs. 13:132). Elijah and Elisha fought against the worship of Baal and his priests (1 Kgs. 18:2240). Amos reproached his Judean compatriots for letting themselves be seduced by idols (Am. 2:4). Hosea spoke harshly also, because in his eyes the worship of Israel had become idolatry (Hos. 4:1213). Isaiah attacked the idols and announced their fall (Is. 2:20, 17:78, 30:22).

One of the important themes of the prophetic polemic is the emptiness of false gods. Idols are nothing but stone and wood (Jer. 16:20). Hosea does not hesitate to liken idolatry to fetishism, for in his eyes the image is set up in place of God (Hos. 8:46). Isaiah writes veritable satires of the Babylonian gods, whom he compares to nothingness (Is. 44:1417). These mindless gods are carried about by beasts of burden (Is. 46:12). The theme of the idol as vacuous will continue its march, to be exploited by subsequent prophets (Bar. 6, Dn. 13:6514:42). Moreover, it will crystallize into an imposing number of ironic and scornful terms: nothingness, insubstantial puff of wind, lie, corpse. Ezekiel's favorite word is gillutim ("dunghill"). Derision of false gods is a biblical tradition antedating the prophets and continuing after the exile (Preuss, 1971).

The Wisdom of Solomon, written in Greek on the eve of the common era, holds a veritable trial of idolatry, especially in chapters 1315. The author rejects the worship of nature, idolatry, and zoolatry (worship of animals). However, while remaining completely faithful to the biblical tradition, he reflects his time by paying homage to the beauty of nature and works of art. He attacks the Stoic conception of gods according to which Zeus was the ether, Poseidon the ocean, and Demeter the earth (Wis. 13:119). He attacks the dynastic cult of the Ptolemies (14:1720) and the mystery religions (14:23). In his view, the adherents of zoolatry have completely lost their reason (15:1819). It is in terms of an authentic Yahvism that he judges pagan religions. He considers idolatry a fundamental disorder because it gives the name of God to that which is not God (13:2, 14:15, 14:20). Furthermore, the faithful adore dead idols that are incompetent and powerless. This disorder, which comes from seduction, leads to a mental aberration that in the end produces a moral deficiency among the faithful, who fall into error if not into lechery. Yet even while condemning these mistaken ideas from which Abraham and the chosen people escaped, the author speaks of his admiration for art. The Wisdom of Solomon has left a veritable synthesis of biblical polemics against idols, a synthesis into which certain ideas from the contemporary Greek world have already entered.

Idolatry and Christianity

The study of idolatry from the point of view of early Christianity is linked to problems of the birth of Christian art and the question of images, their worship, and the refusal to worship them. The attitude to adopt toward idols had been prescribed to the Christians from the first decades of the church. The Christians coming from Judaism had very strong traditions. Christians who converted from paganism radically separated themselves from idols and their worship. They all lived in the midst of pagan populations who had proliferated temples, altars, statues, sacrifices, processions, and festivals in Egypt, Greece, Rome, and the Middle East. The rapid expansion of Christianity into the provinces of the empire obliged the church to take very clear positions in regard to pagan cults.

The biblical heritage

Traces of the Old Testament opposition to idols are found in the New Testament, where eidōlon appears several times in the Pauline epistles. Galatians 4:8 takes up the common theme of pagan gods who have no substance. In 1 Corinthians 10:19, Paul states that when one venerates idols, one is appealing to demons. This idea had already appeared in Deuteronomy 32:17 and was developed after the exile as a result of the success of demonology. The Pauline polemic revives the notion that the pagans offer sacrifices to demons. Demonolatry is also denounced in Revelation 9:20. The double biblical theme of the emptiness of idols and the demonic character of idolatry will be taken up later by the apologists and the church fathers.

The biblical heritage concerning idols also reached Christians by a second route, namely that of Philo Judaeus. In Allegory of the Law Philo tries to differentiate the divinity from any human likeness, because "anthropomorphism is an impiety greater than the ocean" (On the Confusion of Tongues 27). In On the Decalogue (5280) and Of the Contemplative Life (39), he writes two accounts of the pagan gods. Both follow the same five-point outline: (1) a critique of the deification of the elements (earth, water, air, fire); (2) a critique of the deification of the sun, the moon, and the cosmos; (3) a critique of the gods considered as actors in mythology; (4) an attack against idolatry; and finally (5) a critique of zoolatry. J. Schwartz (1971) has called this "the Philonian schema." It influenced the critique of idolatry by Greek and Latin apologists, who drew on it for part of their own polemical material. On the subject of the worship of statues and divine images, Philo writes, "Their substance is of rock and wood, which was completely formless just a little while before. Fragments which were their brothers or their family have become vessels for bath water or foot-washing basins" (On the Contemplative Life 7).

The Greek apologists and fathers

In his first Apology (9.15), Justin Martyr collects the principal themes of second-century polemics against idols: The human form is not suitable to divinity; idols have no soul and are made from a base substance; they are works of depraved artisans and bait for thieves; they bear the names of maleficent demons in whose appearance they are clothed. In his Apology Aristides of Athens has no sympathy for the idols of the Greeks. He severely condemns the sin of worshiping created things but is even harsher toward the barbarians, who revere earth, water, the sun, and the moon, and create idols they present as divinities. In his Libellus, another Athenian, Athenagoras, attempts to show that making statues of divinities is recent. All such statues are the works of people whose names are known. The artists have therefore made gods who are younger than their creators. In short, all these idols are no more than fragments of creation that the faithful adore in place of the creator. After this interpretation of idolatry in the sense of fetishism, Athenagoras explains the manipulation of idols by demons. The demons urge the faithful to block around the idols, then during the sacrifices they lick the blood of the victims. But all these gods had once been humans. A heritage of the secularized Greek age of the centuries just prior to the Christian era, this theme of euhemerism was to be a weighty argument, one the Fathers would use continuously.

Clement of Alexandria wrote his Protrepticus in order to convince the worshipers of the gods of what he held to be the stupidity and baseness of pagan myths. He first tries to determine the origin and nature of idols. Blocks of wood and pillars of rock in ancient times, they became human representations thanks to the progress of art, of which the author gives a well-documented survey. Then Clement poses the fundamental question: Where did the gods represented by idols come from? The historical response to this question, inspired by euhemerism, is the deification of human beings, of kings who have declared themselves divine, and of kings by their successors. Clement then gives a theological answer, partly inspired by Plato: The pagan gods are demons, shadows, infamous and impure spirits. Consequently, the error and moral corruption of idolatry becomes clear. The error is serious, for it leads the faithful to worship matter and demons as divine. The corruption of morals is a consequence of error: Idols excite lust and sensuality, which were invented by demons. To idolatry, Clement opposes the adoration of the true God, who shows humanity its proper dignity. Clement indicates this path of happiness by invoking Deuteronomy (5:8), Exodus (20:4), the Sybilline Oracles (4:47, 24:2730), and Christian doctrine (1 Pt. 2:9; Rom. 6:4; Jn. 8:23). Chapter 4 of the Protrepticus is a veritable synthesis of the Christian concept of idolatry at the end of the second century.

The Latin apologists

The position taken by the Latin apologists in regard to the pagan gods constitutes a final stage. Here one again finds the Philonian schema of the De vita contemplativa (39). Yet, this schema is not a dead weight that condemns the argumentation of the Fathers to die-hard conservatism. Two facts emerge from the study of these documents: On the one hand, the researcher is witnessing a permanent renewal of the antipolytheistic argument; on the other hand, the authors take into account changes in the pagan cults, especially the rise of the mystery cults with their new religiosity. The documents appear at intervals from the late second to the fourth century: To the Nations, Apology, and On Idolatry by Tertullian; Octavius by Minucius Felix; To Donatus, To Quirinius, To Demetrianus, Quod idola di non sint by Cyprian; Divinae institutiones and Epitome by Lactantius Firmianus; and De errore profanorum religionum by Firmicus Maternus.

The pagan gods are not idols, states Tertullian: "We stopped worshiping your gods once we realized they do not exist" (Apology 10.2). He first substantiates his statement through history, for it is known where these gods were born and where their tombs are. He reproaches the pagans for claiming that their gods became gods after death because of their merits in the service of humans. After these considerations inspired by euhemerism, Tertullian tackles the question of simulacra. The statues are only inert matter, just like vases, dishes, and furniture. Insensitive to outrage or homage, these statues are given over to commerce if not to destruction. Tertullian treats these questions at greater length in On Idolatry, which undertakes to show that idolatry is the gravest sin, encompassing all others. He condemns painting, modeling, sculpture, and participation in public festivals, because idolatry hides beneath seemingly innocent actions. Furthermore, he forbids Christians to teach or to conduct business, for both pursuits require contact with idols. In short, all the powers and dignities of this world are alien to God; for this reason, Christians must likewise be forbidden the military life.

The Latin apologists also developed the idea that pagan gods are demons. Demonology held a place of honor at the beginning of the common era. Both Greek and Latin apologists transformed the false gods into demons. The fathers seized the opportunity to turn these demons, intermediary beings between humanity and divinity, into characters lurking in the shadows of idols. Minucius Felix explains that "the demons hide behind statues and sacred images and, by exhaling their breath," exercise their mysterious effectsspells, dreams, prodigies (Octavius 27.13). In To the Nations Tertullian speaks of the pagan gods represented by idols that the demons use as masks to deceive men, and in On Idolatry, he curses artists and workers who fashion these bodies for the demons. Minucius Felix does not hesitate to make the demons the beneficiaries of sacrifice. Taking up Tertullian's notion that the devil, in the mysteries of Mithra, mimics the Christian faith, Minucius Felix accuses the devil of having plagiarized Christian ritual in the religions of Mithra and Isis. Firmicus Maternus develops this theory further and discovers the devil everywhere in paganismin idolatry, zoolatry, the deification of sovereigns, and astrology. Thus a shaken paganism faces a decisive condemnation of idolatry and idols.


In his Against the Pagans, completed in 311, the convert Arnobius attacked paganism, denounced the anthropomorphism of the pagan cult, ridiculed the pagans' conception of the gods, censured their myths, and attacked the mystery cults. His disciple Lactantius, converted, like him, under the persecution of Diocletian, and began his Divinae institutiones in 304. Lactantius demonstrates that monotheism is the only form of belief in God consistent with truth and reason. Speaking of the general evil of polytheism, he explains it by euhemerism and by the ruse of demons who get themselves adored under divine names first in families and then in cities.

On August 24, 410, the hordes of Alaric entered Rome and subjected the city to pillage. The pagans accused the Christians of having destroyed the worship of the gods and thus chased away the city's protectors. Augustine's answer was the City of God, written between 413 and 426, whose twenty-two books constitute the last great apologetic work against ancient paganism.

The pagan gods were a prime target, but Augustine found himself confronting a paganism with multiple and contradictory aspects. Besides the divine populace of country rituals, there were the gods of the classical pantheon, deified men, and a Stoic pantheism that turned Jupiter into a world soul. Throughout the first ten books of City of God, Augustine launches a critique, in turn acerbic and ironic, of the Roman gods, polytheism, and mythology. To strike a fatal blow at the idols, he brings in Varro, Cicero, Seneca, Euhemerus, Apuleius, and Plato. He tries to fight Varro's theology with its false gnosis of etymologies of divine names and its tripartition of gods introduced by poets, philosophers, and heads of state. But Augustine knows that idols are not mere beings without substance, invented during the course of history. These idols are also in the hearts of worshipers, for idolatry consists of worshiping creation or a part of it as God. This theme is developed in On Christian Doctrine and On True Religion, in which Augustine, not content with a critique of the idol, launches a critique of the idol's worshiper, whom he considers a devil worshiper.

Thus, an essential aspect of Augustine's criticism of idolatry is his study of demonology. After having reviewed some of the major themes of his predecessors, he virtually psychoanalyzes the work of demons in the life of idol worshipers. Evoked by humans, demons take possession of idols. The simulacra become animate, and the work of demons can be achieved because the idol is no longer inert: An invisible numen is present. The idol serves as body for the demon. It receives life from the demon, to whom it lends itself. By this means, the demon accomplishes his revelation. For this reason, Augustine repeats incessantly, "The gods are demons, and worshipers of idols are worshipers of demons." Yet in book 8 of City of God, he diminishes the power of demons somewhat, because they are not gods. For Augustine, these false gods are lying angels who continue their struggle against the true God. The malice of the sin of idolatry is thus exposed.

Christianity since Augustine

Ever since the conversion of the empire to Catholicism, paganism had been in retreat. After one last revival under the emperor Julian, it found a tough opponent in Theodosius the Great (r. 379395), who forbade idolatry as a crime of lèse-majesté. The fifth century witnessed the demolition of temples and idols; Augustine gave the final blow to pagan theology. But the church remained vigilant in order to uproot the last implantations of paganism and squelch its influence among the people. This preoccupation would be translated in three ways: penitential discipline enacted against the sin of idolatry; the teaching of morality, beginning with the writings of Tertullian; and the constant purification of Christian worship and vigilance regarding the veneration of saints. Several great controversies, especially iconoclasm and the Reformation, show that idolatry remained a preoccupation. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Protestants often accused the Catholic church of maintaining ceremonies and traditions tainted by idolatry. Recent discussions about the cult of the saints, the worship of images, and the origin of Christian worship show the historical and theological importance of the problem.

Idolatry and Islam

An Arab proverb recorded by al-Maydānī says, "When you enter a village, swear by its god." On the eve of the Hijrah, Arab tribes venerated many gods. In his work Kitāb al-anām (Cairo, 1914), Ibn al-Kalbī described the prosperity of the cult of idols in the pre-Islamic age (Jāhilīyah). These idols were anāb, or raised stones; garis, or stones upon which the blood of sacrifice was poured; sacred trees; and statuettes that were bought and sold at fairs and markets. Another word used by al-Kalbī, which is also found in the commentators of the Qurʾān, is anam (pl., anām ), "an object venerated next to God." The word has a Semitic origin and seems close to the Hebrew semel, "representation." The word is found five times in the Qurʾān (6:74, 7:134, 14:38, 21:58, 26:1), designating the "idol" rejected by Muslims. In the pre-Islamic age anam designated diverse objects: statues sculpted like the god Hubal, statues around the Kaʿbah in Mecca, and sacred trees and stones. These stones, which received libations and became objects of worship, were anāb (sg., nuub ); the Arabs carried them in their migrations. Therefore anam does not mean "divinity."

Al-Azraqī says that in Mecca there was an idol in every house. Through this proliferation of idols, the Arab invoked divinity. The gods of this vast pantheon brought the divine into the everyday realities of existence. The distinctions between various epiphanies resided in the names given them and the numerous sanctuaries. Onomastic documentation takes one back to a distant age where these idols existed, epiphanies of the divine. In addition, Hellenism introduced into Arab paganism heroes, ancestors, and genies from Petra, Palmyra, and other Hellenistic cities.

Another word is shirk (mushrikūn ), which designates the act of associating a person with divinity; it is the word for polytheism. In the Qurʾān the word appears in the Medina sūrahs, where its use is frequent in Muammad's attacks on the associators, the mushrikūn (sūrah 6:94, 10:19, 30:12, 39:4). Such persons are to be avoided by believers. One must not pray for them, even if they are relatives (9:114). Their sin will not be pardoned. The word kāfir, "unbeliever," is more general and includes both the associators and the possessors of scripture (Jews and Christians). In the Qurʾān shirk, "associator," is the opposite of muslim, "worshiper of God." Shirk retains this meaning in the adīth.

Muammad's opposition to idolatry is a Judeo-Christian inheritance. Abraham becomes the prototype of the monotheistic faith that Muammad espouses. Abraham is to the prophets what the Arabs are to other Muslim peoples. Beginning with Abraham's revelation, Muammad goes on to see in Islam not only the true monotheism but primordial hanifism (from anīf, one who follows the original and true monotheistic religion; a Muslim), which was transmitted by Abraham's son Ishmael, following in his father's footsteps. It is in this original path that one discovers the Qurʾān's opposition to idolatry.

Idols are the enemies of God and his worshipers. Referring again to Abraham, the Qurʾān condemns them along with the whole Semitic ancestral tradition, which is the origin of their worship, a worship radically opposed to the worship of the one true God (26:6983). The same idea is found in the text of sūrah 21:53/52 to 70, which tells how Abraham smashed the idols worshiped by his countrymen. These idols had no substance and were incapable of creating anything (25:35/4). Moses had to intervene against the sons of Israel who, after their flight from Egypt, began to worship the idols that they made for themselves (7:134/138). Thus Muammad orders his followers to avoid the stain of idolatry and to serve God in complete fidelity (22:31/30).

Throughout the whole Qurʾān is found opposition to idols and idolatry. One must turn away from them (15:94) for they bring unhappiness to their worshipers (41:5/6), who are nothing but liars upon whom God will inflict torment after torment (16:88/8690/88). The idolators' error is a grave one because they have no faith in God (12:106), to whom they compare mere creatures (30:30). A terrible punishment awaits them: They will be treated like their idols (10:29/28), who will abandon them to their sad fate when they stand before the fire (6:2329). Because of the seriousness of this error, the law of the Qurʾān demands that Muslims neither marry a woman idolator nor give their daughters to idolators in marriage (2:220221). The Qurʾān makes a distinction between idolators (associators) on the one hand, and possessors of scripture on the other, that is to say, Jews and Christians. However, the two categories of non-Muslims are guilty of infidelity in respect to God, as emphasized in surah 98. In sūrah 22:17 (evidently a later text), is found the opposition between Muslims on the one hand, and Jews, Christians, Sabaeans, and Zoroastrians on the other. The Qurʾān demands that Muslims fight idolators (9:36).

Idolatry consists of associating a god or gods with God (51:51, 50:2526). This idea keeps recurring; it is the Qurʾān 's definition of idolatry, whence the word for associators. Idolatry is an insult to God, because honors reserved for him alone are bestowed on false gods. Sūrah 17:111 shows that there are three degrees of association: children, associates in kingship, and protectors (sg., walī ). The idea of the protector is found several times in the Qurʾān. In sūrah 39:4/3, saints are divinities that the faithful worship because they consider them intermediaries who will bring them closer to God. From the beginning, in Islam, fear of idolatry led to the suppression of all mediation between the faithful and God. Association in kingship consists of putting false gods on an equal footing with the one and only God (14:35/30, 26:92, 26:98). It involves an actual insult to God, for the power of the Creator is given to beings who have no substance (32:3/4, 40:69/67, 29:41/42). These idols are only names (12:40); God is the sole master of the world and people. A third means of association consists of attributing children to God (43:81), an idea that appears repeatedly in diverse forms. The Qurʾān is undoubtedly alluding to polytheistic myths and statues of divinities in temples. Sūrah 23:93/91 tells of the quarrels of the gods who claim to be superior to each other. There is also mention of goddesses, daughters of God (43.15, 52:39). The most famous passage is sūrah 53:1921, satanic verses about the three goddesses of the Kaʿbah. These goddesses were highly honored in the pre-Islamic Arab world, with great financial returns for the tribe of Quraysh. At the beginning of his preaching, the Prophet did not dare touch them. After the seizure of Mecca in 630, however, he had all the idols of the Kaʿbah destroyed in his presence.

The essence of idolatry resides in the insult to God by the associators, who confer on mere creatures the honors and worship reserved for the Unique, the Creator, the Master of the World. Like the apologists and the Fathers of the church, the Qurʾān insists on the work of the demon who impels men toward idols. Abraham asks his father not to worship Satan (19:45/44), who turns men away from the worship of God (27:24). The demon is the patron of idolators (16:65/63) and as such is opposed to God (4:118/119). Consequently, idolatry becomes the demon's auxiliary (25:57/55). In sūrah 4:117, the Qurʾān says that idolators pray only to females, or to a rebellious demon.

Allāh is the creator God, judge, dealer of retribution, unique and one in himself, all-powerful, and merciful. He reveals himself through his prophets. He does not show himself, but is recognized in the signs of the universe, in the signs of God, āyāt Allāh. He can be known only by his word, his names, his attributes, and his deeds. In any case, he cannot be represented by an image or a representation. Islam is a religion without icons.

Idolatry and Homo Religiosus

Idolatry is a historical-religious concept that finds expression in the response and behavior of the three great monotheisms when confronted with the beliefs and the practices of the polytheistic religions they encountered along their way. This concept was developed in the course of discussions and confrontations with these monotheisms: three religions of the Book, depositories of a revelation, animated by prophecy and doctrines of salvationreligions that join humanity to a personal God who appears in history. Idolatry means divine worship of beings who are not God in the eyes of those who have defined worship as idolatrous. The word has a negative and pejorative connotation because to the faithful of a monotheistic religion, attitudes, behaviors, and rites that should be strictly reserved for the true God are turned by the idolator toward false gods. Thus, idolatry is a fundamental religious disequilibrium due to two paradoxical facts: on the one hand a divine cultus, on the other a substitute for the divine that is not God.

Fetishism is a historical-religious concept developed in the modern age by ethnologists and historians of religions, with a view to explaining the creeds of primal black peoples of western Africa. In Du culte des dieux fétiches (1760), Charles de Brosses tried to apprehend humankind in its archaic state of raw nature. He observed that ancient peoples worshiped animals, trees, plants, fountains, lakes, seas, stars, and rivers as contemporary primitives still do. To this worship, de Brosses gave the name fetishism, a term formed from the Portuguese feitiço ("witchcraft, bewitched subject"). Humanity sees an active presence in the fetish, which provokes fear and the need for protection. Humankind obtains protection through the observance of rites. Thus, the fetishist worships the object directly, unlike in polytheism, which de Brosses viewed as a more structured religion in which symbols are characterized above all by the image and the statue.

Research has made the notion of fetishism more precise. Fetishism is the belief in the existence of a power, concentrated in beings or objects, that humanity must harness for its own well-being. This power is obtained by means of individual or collective rites. The beneficial result will be a function of the force obtained; therefore humankind uses a whole web of rituals in order to increase the force and then capture it. The context here remains one of worship, but one in which ritual receives the greatest emphasis.

This parallel between two phenomena of worship, idolatry and fetishism, will allow one to better situate idolatry as a religious phenomenon perceived by the historian of religions. In this view, idolatry is the worship of a divinity represented by a substitute for the divine, called an idol. To grasp the different dimensions of this worship, the historians of religions center their research on homo religiosus at work in the exercise of this worship. They seek to understand human behavior through human rites and in the implementation of the human symbolic system.

In the Greco-Roman world, voices were raised against the adoration of divinity in human form by Heraclitus, Xenophanes, Pythagoras, Euripides, Diogenes and the Cynics, and Stoics such as Zeno and Seneca. Reflecting on the divinity, these thinkers tried to establish themselves as intermediaries between the philosophers' religion and that of the people. In this area, Plutarch's thought becomes apparent. Seeking to avoid the two extremes of superstition and atheism, he emphasizes that divine life and intelligence are not subordinate to humans. Likewise, he refuses the application of gods' names to insensate natures or inanimate objects (De Iside 6667). In Egypt, he confronts zoolatry, which may lead to repugnant aberrations because of the worship of sacred animals. However, observing that the Egyptians were extraordinary inventors of symbols and emblems, Plutarch accepts the symbolism of the divine manifested in the life of beings. Consequently, he approves of those for whom these beings are an occasion to worship the divine.

During the first century of the common era, Dio Cocceianus (Chrysostomos) of Prusa, writing an apology for Greek art, affirmed: "We invest God with the human body since it is the vessel of thought and reason. In the complete absence of a primitive model we seek to reveal the incomparable and the invisible by means of the visible and the comparable, in a higher manner than certain barbarians who, in their ignorance and absurdity, liken the divinity to animal shapes." For Dio, plastic beauty expresses the divine. A century later the eclectic Platonist Maxim of Tyre treated the question of the legitimacy of portraying the gods. He notes that the Persians adored the divinity in the ephemeral image of fire; that the Egyptians contemplated their gods in objects and beings worthy of scorn; and that though the images may vary, the essential thing is to worship divinity: "God, the father of all things and their creator, existed before the sun and is older than the sky. Since we cannot grasp his essence, we seek help in words, names, animal shapes, figures of gold, ivory, and silver" (Philosophumena 2.10).

Augustine leaves numerous allusions to the allegorical interpretation of idolatry by pagan authors. In Expositions on the Psalms 113 he speaks of certain people who claim that their worship does not really address itself to the elements themselves but to the divinities who are their masters. The same idea is found elsewhere in the same work (96), where the idolator declares that he worships the statue he sees, but submits to the god he does not see; the statue is only a substitute for the divinity. The pagan authors targeted by Augustine are perhaps the emperor Julian, Porphyry, and Varro.

The history of religions approaches idolatry in terms of those four fundamental aspects of religious belief and practice that homo religiosus has been evolving from prehistoric times down to the present: the sacred, myth, rite, and symbol. The idol represents a hierophany in which humans perceive a manifestation of the sacred that clothes the object in a new dimension. This dimension is obtained by means of rites consecrating the objects of worship, altars, divine statues, and temples: Sacral presence and sacred space are indispensable. Through consecration, the image or object now belongs to the divinity and can no longer serve a secular use. The Egyptian rituals for opening the mouth, eyes, nose, and ears of a statue made to represent a divinity attest to a theology of the sacred in which the idol is an incarnation of power and life, a personification; it evokes the greatness of the god. Greek art tried to render this sacral dimension through the whiteness of marble or through protective coatings applied to the idols. Worship reactualizes myths that put the worshiper in contact with primordial time and furnish him models for his life. Thanks to this celebration, humanity again becomes contemporary with the primordial event, which awakens and maintains its awareness of a world distinct from the secular world.

This mythical behavior of homo religiosus is likewise found in Christian worship, but with an essential difference: The return to a primordial event is not a return to mythical time, but to the historical time of the life of Christ. The Incarnation is effected in a historical time: The Christians who celebrate the mysteries of Christ know that they are simultaneously attaining the historical time of Jesus and the trans-historic time of the Word of God.

Idolatry is the area in which rites and symbols are multiplied. For humankind, it is a matter of transcending the human condition through contact with the sacred. The human reference point remains the archetype. This is the role of ritual. Religions have left extraordinary documentation on the rites of celebration, as for instance the sacrificial rites of ancient Greece and Rome, as well as sacred meals with mystical participation of the gods through statues led in procession; rituals of sacrifice with three fires in the Indo-European world; rites of soma in India and of haoma in Iran; the symbolism of the cults of Cybele and Mithra; the rites of daily worship in Egyptian temples; the power of the rite and of the word in the imitation of the primordial gesture of the god Thoth, creator of the cosmos; funeral rituals of embalming in ancient Egypt, linked to the Osiris myth; and the symbolism of the altar and of gestures in Hindu temples. Incorporated in the life and existence of homo religiosus, the symbolism of worship has the function of revelation, for it is the language of hierophany. It reveals a dimension that transcends the natural dimension of life. Consequently, it introduces a new significance into the life of individuals and society. In the celebration of worship, such sacred symbolism, myths, and rites help humankind to penetrate the mystery of salvation, a mystery that is represented by the holy history of human religion and culture.

See Also

Anthropomorphism; Demons; Devils; Fetishism; Hierophany; Iconoclasm; Iconography, article on Jewish Iconography; Images; Synagogue.


Barthélémy, Dominique. God and His Image. New York, 1966.

Baumer, Iso, Hildegard Christoffels, and Gonsalv Mainberger. Das Heilige im Licht und Zwielicht. Einsiedeln, Switzerland, 1966.

Baynes, Norman H. "Idolatry and the Early Church." In Byzantine Studies and Other Essays, pp. 116143. London, 1955.

Bevan, Edwyn Robert. Holy Images: An Inquiry in Idolatry and Image-Worship in Ancient Paganism and in Christianity. London, 1940.

Campenhausen, Hans von. "Die Bilderfrage als theologisches Problem der alten Kirche." In Tradition und Leben, edited by Campenhausen, pp. 216252. Tübingen, 1960.

Clerc, Charly. Les théories relatives au culte des images chez les auteurs grecs du deuxième siècle après J.-C. Paris, 1915.

Dubarle, A. M. La manifestation naturelle de Dieu d'après l'écriture. Paris, 1976.

Duesberg, Hilaire. "Le procès de l'idolâtrie." In Les scribes inspirés, vol. 2. Paris, 1939. Second edition (1966) written in collaboration with Irénée Fransen.

Gelin, Albert. "Idoles, idolâtrie." In Dictionnaire de la Bible, supplément, vol. 4. Paris, 1949.

Gilbert, Maurice. La critique des dieux dans le Livre de la Sagesse. Rome, 1973.

Goblet d'Alviella, Eugène. "Les origines de l'idolâtrie." In Croyances, rites, institutions, vol. 2, pp. 125147. Paris, 1911.

Goetz, J. "Idolâtrie." In Catholicisme hier, aujourd'hui, demain, vol. 5. Paris, 1962.

Mandouze, André. "Saint Augustin et la religion romaine." In Recherches augustiniennes, vol. 1, pp. 187223. Paris, 1958.

Marion, Jean-Luc. L'idole et la distance: Cinq études. Paris, 1977.

Michel, A. "Idolâtrie, idole." In Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, vol. 7. Paris, 1921.

North, Christopher P. "The Essence of Idolatry." In Von Ugarit nach Qumran, edited by Johannes Hempel and Leonhard Rost, pp. 151160. Berlin, 1958.

Prat, Ferdinand. "Idolâtrie, idole." In Dictionnaire de la Bible, vol. 3. Paris, 1912.

Preuss, Horst Dietrich. Verspottung fremder Religionen im Alten Testament. Stuttgart, 1971.

Sauser, Ekkart. "Das Gottesbild: Eine Geschichte der Spannung von Vergegenwärtigung und Erinnerung." Trierer Theologische Zeitschrift 84 (1975): 164173.

Schwartz, J. "Philon et l'apologétique chrétienne du second siècle." In Hommages à André Dupont-Sommer, edited by André Caquot and M. Philonenko, pp. 497507. Paris, 1971.

Vermander, Jean-Marie. "La polémique des Apologistes latins contre les Dieux du paganisme." Recherches augustiniennes 17 (1982): 3128.

Will, Robert. Le culte: Étude d'histoire et de philosophie religieuses. 3 vols. Paris, 19251935.

New Sources

Bernand, Carmen, and Serge Gruzinski. De l'idolâtrie: une archéologie des sciences religieuses. Paris, 1988.

Deacon, Richard. Image and Idol: Medieval Sculpture. London, 2001. Exhibition catalog.

Flynn, Tom. The Body in Three Dimensions. New York, 1998.

Gombrich, E. H., and John Onians. Sight and Insight: Essays on Art and Culture in Honour of E. H. Gombrich at 85. London, 1994.

Guillou, André, and Janice Durand. Byzance et les images: cycle de conférence organisé au musée du Louvre par le Service culturel du 5 octobre au 7 décembre 1992. Paris, 1994.

Hawting, G. R. The Idea of Idolatry and the Emergence of Islam: From Polemic to History. Cambridge, U.K., 1999.

Julius, Anthony. Idolizing Pictures: Idolatry, Iconoclasm, and Jewish Art. New York, 2001.

Kamerick, Kathleen. Popular Piety and Art in the Late Middle Ages: Image Worship and Idolatry in England, 13501500. New York, 2002.

Mazur, Eric Michael. Art and the Religious Impulse. Lewisburg, Pa., 2002.

Mills, Kenneth. Idolatry and Its Enemies: Colonial Andean Religion and Extirpation, 16401750. Princeton, 1997.

Julien Ries (1987)

Translated from French by Kristine Anderson
Revised Bibliography

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Greek eidōlon originally meant "image" or "fantasy." By the time of the Septuagint the term was used for images of gods. "Idolatry" is literally "image worship." To grasp the character of image worship in biblical literature one must first realize that the Bible describes the worship of all "strange gods" as idolatry, or the worship of "wood and stone." In addition, one must distinguish the biblical polemics against these gods from the opposition to the use of certain images in the service of Yahweh. At times the use of these images is equated with the service of other gods. It should also be borne in mind that there is no necessary connection between aniconism (opposition to images) and monotheism. On the one hand, a monotheistic religion, Roman Catholicism for example, can make use of images. On the other hand, there is evidence of aniconism in polytheistic religions among Israel's neighbors in biblical times (Mettinger).

in the bible


illicit gods in israel

Although the books of the Bible are in agreement that Israelites are required to worship Yahweh (also known as El, Adonai, Elohim, El Shaddai) exclusively, they are likewise in agreement that what Morton Smith called the "Yahweh-alone" party was in the minority for centuries. Although Yahweh was the national god to whom every Israelite owed allegiance, biblical and extra-biblical evidence demonstrate that the worship of additional gods had strong popular support. According to the Bible, the worship of these gods was often promoted by kings and members of the royal court. Sometimes the biblical writers attribute illicit worship to the initiative of foreign queens (Maacah, Jezebel, and her daughter Athaliah and Solomon's numerous wives). The nature of the foreign cult is not always clear. It is not always possible to determine, with any degree of certainty, whether a particular cult was wholly "foreign," syncretistic, or just a form of the worship of Yahweh that the particular biblical writer deemed corrupt. The most popular cults among the Hebrews were of Canaanitic origin, such as those of *Baal, *Asherah, and *Ashtoreth. The Book of Judges (2:11ff.; 3:7; 8:33; 10:10) and i Samuel (12:10) attribute the setbacks of Israel to the worship of Baal (im) and Ashtaroth. The popularity of Baal worship is attested by the strong reaction of the people against Gideon (Judg. 6:29ff.) for destroying (at God's command) the altar of Baal (Judg. 6:25). Samuel had to exhort the people before facing the enemy in battle to cast away "the foreign gods," i.e., "the Baals" (i Sam. 7:3–4). At the end of Solomon's reign there were erected altars to Chemosh, *Moloch, and Ashtoreth (i Kings 11:5–7), for his foreign wives. Abijam, probably at the insistence of his mother Maacah (who was half Aramean), continued the practice of foreign cults (i Kings 15:1–3). The cult of Baal, as well as other foreign cults, gained prominence in the North during the reign of Ahab who built an altar to Baal and worshiped at it in public (i Kings 16:31). Four hundred and fifty priests of Baal and 400 priests of Asherah were in the entourage of Queen Jezebel (i Kings 18:19). Her missionary work seems to have been very successful. According to the testimony of the Bible, 7,000 people had abstained from bowing down to Baal (i Kings 19:18). A strong attack against Baal worship, especially against its promotion by the royalty (i.e., foreign queens), was launched by Jehu. He put to death Queen Jezebel (ii Kings 9:33), destroyed the sanctuaries that she had built, and killed the priests and followers of Baal (ii Kings 10:18ff.). The cult of Baal in Judah (at least its promotion by the royalty) seems to have been introduced by Queen Athaliah (Jezebel's daughter). It came to an end with the uprising engineered by Jehoiada the priest (ii Kings 11:17). According to the Bible, the most thorough cultic purge in the history of Israel took place in Judah, during King *Hezekiah's reign. The purge was directed primarily at long-standing native practices, including the brazen serpent whose origin was traced back to Moses. A strong criticism against the cult of Baal is voiced by Hosea (1–3; 11:2; 13:1) and Jeremiah (2:4ff.; 9:13; 11:13, 17; 12:16; 19:5; 23:13, 17, 27; 32:29). The biblical writers attribute the most enthusiastic support of illicit cults to the son of Hezekiah, King Manasseh. The boldness of King Manasseh's reform can be measured by the fact that instead of building sanctuaries to the foreign deities outside the Temple, as Queens Jezebel and Athaliah had done, King Manasseh transformed the very Temple of Jerusalem into a pantheon (ii Kings 21) where Yahweh was served along with other gods. The practices that were in vogue during King Manasseh's reign were described by Ezekiel (8–11; 16:17; 20; 23). Later generations attributed the fall of Judah in 586 to the lasting effects of Manasseh's sins (ii Kings 23:26–27; Jer. 11:9ff: 15:4). Other cults, illicit by prophetic standards but popular in Israel, were child sacrifice to Yahweh (Jer. 7:31; cf. Ezek. 20:25); to Moloch (ii Kings 23:10; Jer. 32:35); to Baal (Jer. 19:5; 32:35); the institution of kadesh (i Kings 14:24; ii Kings 23:70) and kedeshah (Deut. 23:18; Hos. 4:14c–15; the traditional understanding of these last as references to cultic *prostitution has been challenged in recent years), and the cult of *Tammuz (Ezek. 8:14). Astral worship seems to have been widespread. The sun and the moon, known as the "Queen of Heaven" (i.e., Ishtar), are referred to throughout biblical literature as objects of worship (cf. Amos 5:26). Ezekiel (8:10) mentions also the worship of animal images.

images associated with the worship of yahweh in israel

The erection of pillars, maẓẓevot (pl. of maẓẓevah), in the Israelite cult (not to be confused with the commemorative maẓẓevot, such as in Gen. 31:45–52; Ex. 24:4; Josh. 4:4–9) was considered legitimate by some biblical writers. Jacob erected a maẓẓevah in Beth-El to be used in the service of the divine (Gen. 28:18, 22; 35:14). In contrast, this mode of worship is proscribed by Deuteronomy (16:22) and the Prophets (Ezek. 26:11; Hos. 3:4; 10:1–3; Micah 5:12). Likewise the planting of a tree for the service of "Yahweh the Eternal God" was practiced by Abraham (Gen. 21:33). This form of worship too is proscribed by Deuteronomy (16:21). The use of maẓẓevot and the planting of trees for the cult of God was widely in use during the time of the Monarchy (i Kings 14:15, 23; ii Kings 17:10; 23:14). The "brazen serpent" seems also to fall in this group (see ii Kings 18:4).

The *golden calf worshiped in the sanctuaries of Dan and Beth-El (Ex. 32:1–8; i Kings 12:28; ii Kings 10:29; Ps. 106:13–20; Neh. 9:18; ii Chron. 13:8) falls into the same category of disputed cultic objects. There was nothing inherently wrong with using bovine imagery to describe Yahweh (Gen. 49:24; Isa. 1:24), and 12 oxen supported Solomon's Sea of Bronze in the temple (i Kings 7:25). But because of the prominence of the calves in Northern tradition the golden calf was transformed into an idol by polemical Judahite writers, who traced its origins to the misdeeds of the people at the foot of Mt. Sinai (Ex. 32:1–8). In the Southern narrative retelling of an ancient Northern cult legend, the people of Israel wanted to "make" a god ("Make for us a god"; Ex. 32:1). The narrative (Ex. 32:4) describes how the calf was consecrated and makes use of the plural to compound the enormity: "These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt." In other words, the Judahite writers distorted the Northern conception by which the calf stood for Yahweh's pedestal, and misrepresented it as a substitution of Yahweh's worship by the worship of other gods. The rabbinic report (Hizkuni a.l.) that the golden calf was made as a replica of the bull in the divine throne corresponds to the religious ideas current in the ancient Near East. Reference to the "heavenly bull" is found in very ancient Egyptian sources. The bull was considered to be the seat of different gods in Egypt, Babylonia, and Aram (Wainwright, in bibl.). Micaiah (Jud. 17–18) made an image of Yahweh. Gideon made a golden *ephod, possibly an image (Judg. 8:27). The eighth-century prophet *Hosea (Hos. 8:6), but not his ninth-century predecessors *Elijah and *Elisha, denounced the images worshiped in the Northern sanctuaries as idols. This form of worship, iconic worship of Yahweh, accounts for most of the denunciation of image worship in biblical literature (see Kaufmann, Religion, 133ff.).

Legitimate Images

Not all images were proscribed in the biblical cult. The figures of the cherubim (*cherub) were embroidered in the curtains (Ex. 26:1; 36:8) and in the parokhet, "veil," of the Tabernacle (Ex. 26:31; 36:35) and the Temple (ii Chron. 3:14); they were carved upon the walls (i Kings 6:29; ii Chron. 3:7; cf. Ezek. 41:18, 20, 25) and doors (i Kings 6:32, 35) and in the mekhonot, "molten sea" (i Kings 7:29, 36) of the Temple. There were two golden cherubim in the Tabernacle (Ex. 25:18–22; 37:7–9) and in the Temple (i Kings 6:23–28; 8:6–7; ii Chron. 3:10–13). The cherubim seem to represent the cherubim of the heavenly chariot (see Ezek. 1:5–14; 9–11; cf. ii Sam. 22:11; Ps. 18:11). The Lord "sits on the cherubim" of the Sanctuary (i Sam. 4:4; ii Sam. 6:2; ii Kings 19:15; Isa. 37:16; Ps. 80:2; 99:1; i Chron. 13:6). In considering the biblical view of idolatry one must examine the ground upon which a distinction between permitted and illicit iconolatry is possible. U. Cassuto (Perush al Sefer Shemot (1952), 285) was of the opinion that the distinction between illicit images and the cherubim was based on the character of the images: illicit images represented actual beings, whereas the cherubim did not represent actual beings. This view is too vague and too subtle. The actual form of the cherubim of the Temple is unknown. According to rabbinic tradition (Suk. 5b; Ḥag. 13b) the cherubim were in the form of young children. Moreover, even if one concedes that the form of the cherubim did not correspond to any actual being, one can not help wondering whether this subtlety is at all relative to the religious values and criteria of the ancient Near East and the Bible. In contrast, Jewish medieval authors, Karaites (Jacob al-Kirkisānī, Kitāb al-Anwār, ed. L. Nemoy (1938), 6) and Rabbanites (Judah Halevi, The Kuzari, 1:96) expressed the view that the distinction between permitted and illicit iconolatry is fundamentally arbitrary: certain images were prescribed by the Law and others were proscribed. This view involves standards of values that fully agree with the basic theology of the Bible: the one God must be worshiped only as prescribed by the Law. The difference between the biblical ceremonies and their counterparts is not intrinsic but simply the fact that the former are prescribed by the Law while the latter are not. In the Bible, to worship the only God with rites that are not prescribed by the Law is an act of idolatry (more precisely, avodah zarah, "nonprescribed cult," which is the Hebrew equivalent of "idolatry"). This conception of religion is grounded on the belief in the absolute omnipotence of God. (see Faur, in bibl., 47–48).

The Biblical Injunction Against Idolatry

The biblical injunction against idolatry comprises three more or less separate matters: the worship of idols, the worship of Yahweh with pagan rites, and the making of idols. The biblical injunction against idol worship includes (1) idol worship conforming to the pagan rituals (Ex. 20:5; Deut. 12:30; cf. Sanh. 61b); (2) bowing down (Ex. 34:14); (3) offering a sacrifice to another god (i.e., to idols, Ex. 22:19), which, according to the rabbis, includes the performance of any of the rituals that form part of the cult prescribed for the service of the Lord (e.g., the actual slaughtering of the sacrifice, the offering of incense, the offering of libation), although that particular ritual is not generally used in the service of the idol (Sanh. 7:6; cf. Sanh. 60b); (4) paying homage to an idol (Ex. 20:5) – according to the rabbis this prohibition refers to the veneration of an image, even if there is no intention of worshiping, such as kissing the idol or caressing it (Sanh. 7:6; cf. Sanh. 63a). The actual worship of superhuman beings, such as angels, is not explicitly proscribed in the Bible (cf. Judg. 13:16). Indeed, in the earlier sections of the Bible there is considerable fluidity between angels and Yahweh (Judg. 6:1–24). The rabbis, however, consider the worship of angels idolatry (Tosef., Hul. 2:18). In many instances (e.g. Deut. 12:31) biblical writers defame Israelite practices of which they disapprove by associating those practices with the gentiles.

Making idols is explicitly prohibited (Ex. 20:4, 23 [20]). According to the rabbis this prohibition applies both to one who makes an idol to worship it himself or for others to worship (see Sifra 7:1 end).

the biblical polemic against idolatry

The Bible attacks idolatry on two independent grounds: it violates the Covenant, and it is useless. Since idolatry is specifically forbidden (cf. Ex. 20:4ff.), its practice constitutes a violation of the Covenant (Deut. 31:16, 20; Jer. 11:10). The second argument can be properly understood in light of the belief held by gentiles and many Israelites as well that phenomena such as fertility, rain, health, and so on may be controlled by recourse to other gods than Yahweh, or by worship of their images (Hos. 2:7–14). Since, according to the Bible, God is in control of these phenomena, idolatry is useless (cf. Isa. 41:23–24; 44:6–21; Jer. 10:1–5). Furthermore, as Maimonides observed (Guide, 3:30), the Bible emphasizes that since idolatry is a violation of the Covenant, it produces negative results; as a punishment God will turn nature against the idolaters (cf. Deut. 11:13–18; 28).

Idolatry in Near Eastern Religions

In order to determine the character of idolatry in the religions of the Near East, and in order to have a clear understanding of the biblical attitude towards it, two interrelated matters must be examined in light of the ancient Near Eastern sources: the question of whether the images were conceived as dead matter that represented some superhuman power, or what wouldlater be called natural phenomena, or whether they were conceived as "living idols," and the question of how the image became fit for worship.

"living idols" in pagan religions

An idol, in the pagan mind, was a living and feeling being. The idol was not necessarily equivalent to the god; the god had a separate (though not independent) existence from the idol. The god's spirit dwelt within the idol and was identified with it. The god was not confined to a single idol or a single shape; rather his spirit dwelt within many idols of varied shapes. The god perceived and sensed whatever happened to its idol (see Oppenheim, 48–49, 54; van Buren, 75ff.). The prayers, ceremonies, and cult offered to the idol were fully sensed by the god. Since the god identified fully with its idol, the images were "living idols" (see van Buren, 81; Blackman (1924), 55, 57). In Egypt and Mesopotamia the ceremony of washing and dressing the idol was practiced (see Erman, 273ff.; Moret; Oppenheim, 188–92). The idol also ate, drawing from the food offered to it the energy needed for its subsistence and the execution of its numerous activities (see Blackman and Fairman, 84; Oppenheim, 191–2). The idol felt, saw, heard, and spoke (Blackman and Fairman, ibid.; Maspéro). The cult opened the mouth, eyes, and ears of the idol (see van Buren, 81; Blackman (1924), 55, 57; Berlejung). At night the idol slept and in the morning the sunlight would awaken it and it would speak (see Blackman and Fairman, 84). The idol made its will known by influencing the lots that were cast in its presence, through prophecy, and through a variety of signs. The will of the idol was a divine imperative not only in religious matters but also in the political affairs of the state and the private affairs of the individual (see Blackman (1925), 249–258; (1926), 83–95; (1941), 136–190). Since the god fully identified with its idol, whoever controlled the idol also controlled the god. When the king of Elam saw that he was about to be defeated by Sennacherib, he took his idols and fled in order that they should not fall captive (Luckenbill, Records, 1 (1926), 242; 2 (1926), 350). The custom of taking captive the idols of the vanquished was ancient and widespread (Luckenbill, Records, 1 (1926), 222, 223, 231, 232, 310; 2 (1926), 341, 518, 520, 521, 530, 532, 538, 580, 804; Uehlinger). In light of this practice the incident with Rab-Shakeh (Isa. 36:18ff.) is quite clear. Rab-Shakeh wanted to impress upon the people of Judah the fact that the gods of the neighboring nations failed to protect them from the armies of Sennacherib (Isa. 36:18–20; 37:10–12). The reply of King Hezekiah is to the point: the God of Israel alone is truly a "living God" and no comparison should be drawn between Him and the idols of the neighboring nations (Isa. 37:4, 16–20; cf. 10:5–19; 37:23–29). Tiglath-Pileser (Luckenbill, Records, 1 (1926), 230), and Adad-Nirari ii (ibid., 380) offered the idols of the vanquished to their own idols. This practice was well known to the biblical writers (see Isa. 46:2; Jer. 43:12; 48:7; Hos. 10:6 (cf. 8:6); Dan. 11:8). When in enemies' hands, the power of the idol vanished. The vanquished kings would come and beg for the return of the idols (Luckenbill, ibid., 518, 536, 538, 731); to return an idol to his temple was considered an act of mercy (ibid., 507, 659). Because of his fear of the enemy, the god would leave the idol (ibid., 2 (1926), 295, 513, 528) "and fly to the heavens" (ibid., 649, 659, 662; Jer. 50:1–3 makes reference to this belief). Elijah's ridicule of Baal (i Kings 18:27) and Isaiah's mocking of the idols (Isa. 44:9–21) were designed to shake the widespread belief in "living idols." The argument offered by the Psalmist (Ps. 106:36; 115:9), "they have eyes but they do not see" should be taken literally. It attempts to disprove the belief that the idols were in possession of sensory faculties. The biblical description of idolatry as "sacrifices to the dead" (Ps. 106:28) and of idols as "wood and stone" (Deut. 28:36, 64), and similar descriptions, challenge the pagan claim that the images they worshiped were in fact "living idols."

the making of an idol

The identification of the god with the idol was effected by a special ceremony of consecration known as the "washing or cleaning of the mouth." Egyptian and Babylonian records dating from the biblical period give minute details concerning the rite of consecration by which the image is transformed into a living idol (Schiaparelli; Budge; Blackman (1924), 42–59; Baly, 173–86; Smith, 37–60). By virtue of this ritual the gods also identified with the reliefs that were in the walls of the temples: the pictures of the gods were able to eat and drink the sacrifices and libations that were offered during the services, and thus acquire the necessary energy to be and act as living gods (Blackman (1935), 6–7; Blackman and Fairman, 84ff.). The ceremony by which an image is consecrated and thereby made into a god is recorded in Daniel (3:2, 3).

[Jose Faur /

S. David Sperling (2nd ed.)]

The View of Kaufmann

The polytheistic religions of the ancient Near East were highly developed, sophisticated systems. Theogonies told of the creation of the various deities. Other myths discussed the rule of the gods over physical phenomena and over the lives of individuals or nations. Sexual qualities and benevolent and malevolent personalities were attributed to these gods. Artistic representations of the deity were symbolic of its cosmic power and formed the center both for elaborate temple cults and for simpler home ceremonies. Kaufmann maintains that the Bible shows no knowledge or understanding of this kind of paganism. It tells of national gods – Baal, Chemosh, Ashtoreth – but there is no hint of their mythological qualities. The gods are not understood to be living beings or mythological persons symbolized by their images. The biblical writers usually conceive of image worship in the Bible as nothing more than fetishism (Deut. 4:28; Isa. 44: 9–20 are characteristic). Kaufmann is correct in his description of the biblical characterization of the worship of other gods than Yahweh, but the biblical description is not objectively descriptive. Instead, it is polemical and disingenuous. In contrast to Kaufmann's claim that polytheism perished in Israel's earliest times, it is now clear that monotheism, or better, mono-Yahwism, took centuries to win the day, and that its adherents employed the rhetoric of "wood and stone" to discredit Yahweh's rivals. Indeed, several passages in the Bible permit the inference that some biblical writers considered the gods of the nations to be living gods (e.g., Ex. 12:12; Num. 21:29; 33:4; Judg. 11:24). It was just they were inferior to Yahweh and should not be worshipped by Israelites.

[Gershon Bacon /

S. David Sperling (2nd ed.)]

In the Talmud

Idolatry is considered by the rabbis as one of the three cardinal sins, which one is enjoined to suffer martyrdom rather than transgress (the other two are incest and murder ("the shedding of blood": Sanh. 74a)). Various aspects of the prohibitions concerning idolatry and related practices are dealt with at length in tractate Sanhedrin, while an entire tractate, *Avodah Zarah, is devoted to the practical problems of social contact and economic interaction with idolatry and idolaters. The abstention from it is "equivalent to the fulfillment of all the commandments of the Torah" (Hor. 8a), and Daniel 3:12, "There are certain Jews…" is interpreted to teach that "he who denies idols is called a Jew" (Meg. 13a). Contrariwise, "he who recognizes idols denies the whole Torah" (Sif. Deut. 54). Despite this fact, the possibility of Jews practicing idolatry is largely discounted by the rabbis. Together with circumcision, it is cited as an example of those precepts which "because Israel submitted to death at the time of the royal decree [i.e. one of the times of persecution of Judaism], it is still firmly adhered to" (Shab. 130a). The lessened stress on the danger of succumbing to idolatry as compared with immorality is strikingly expressed in a passage of the Midrash: "God created two evil inclinations in the world, that toward idolatry and the other toward incest; the former has already been uprooted; the latter still holds sway" (Song R. 7:8; cf. Yoma 69b). The passage goes on to discuss whether this "uprooting of the evil inclination toward idolatry," which was so marked a characteristic of the religious life of the Jews during the period of the First Temple, took place in the time of Mordecai and Esther, or of Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. These passages reflect the historical fact, which is borne out by all the available evidence, that during the period of the Second Temple and that of the Talmud, there was no tendency on the part of the people to succumb to idolatry and it was never regarded as a serious danger. A study of the tractate Avodah Zarah makes it clear that the rabbis regarded contact with idolatry and idolaters solely from the point of view of the dangers arising from social contacts.

That idolatry was regarded as a "theoretical" and not a practical danger is also borne out by the fact that it is almost a commonplace of the rabbis to stress the gravity of social and ethical failings by stating that he who is guilty of them is "as though he were guilty of idolatry," whether "saying one's prayers while intoxicated" (Ber. 31b), or giving way to excessive anger (Shab. 105b), or not practicing charity (Ket. 68a), succumbing to evil inclinations (tj, Ned. 9:1, 41b), breaking a promise, or even leaving crumbs on the table (Sanh. 92a). Although idolatry is prohibited in the Seven *Noachide Laws which according to the rabbis are binding upon all mankind, and its transgression involves the death penalty, the rabbis on the whole took a tolerant attitude toward idolatry on the part of gentiles. Idolaters are preferable to sectarians, since whereas the latter have knowledge of God and deny Him, the former act out of ignorance (tj, Shab. 16:9, 15c). When a philosopher asked Rabban Gamaliel how he came to bathe in the bath of Aphrodite in Acre in view of the prohibition against any contact with idols (Deut. 13:17), he answered: "I did not come within her boundaries; she came within mine" (Av. Zar. 3:4). It was permitted to mock at idolaters, which is the only mockery permitted (Meg. 25b), and it was the custom to refer to them by derogatory names which were a distortion of their real names (Sif. Deut. 61; cf. also *Euphemism). The violent reaction of the Jews against the Roman legions displaying the Roman eagle on their standards, as well as their determined resistance to statues of the emperor being set up in Palestine, had, of course, definite political undertones.

In general it was forbidden to have any dealings with gentiles during their festivals and for three days prior to them and to sell them anything which was obviously part of their idolatrous worship (Av. Zar. 1:5). Included in the prohibition were a number of superstitious practices given the general name of "the ways of the Amorites" (Tosef. Shab. 6, 7). It was naturally forbidden to harbor in one's house any images which were worshiped. A special prohibition was the use of libation wine, and it was treated so seriously that the prohibition was extended as a precautionary measure to all gentile wine (setam yayin). The regulations with regard to this extend over half of chapter 4 and the whole of chapter 5 of the tractate Avodah Zarah (see *Wine). It was forbidden to use concoctions prepared for idolatrous rites for purposes of healing (Pes. 25a; Ex. R. 16:2). The rabbis had a remarkably comprehensive knowledge of every kind and form of idolatry practiced in the East. "If the names of all the idols were to be enumerated, all the donkeys in the world would not suffice to carry them" (Sif. Deut. 43, ed. by L. Finkelstein (1939), 97). They included astral bodies, mountains and hills, marshes, sources of rivers, the dust of the feet, standing corn, fire and water, vapor, winds and clouds, trees, eggs, doves, animals, reflections, and all kinds of statues and images. Specific mention is made of Peor, the worship of which was said to consist of uncovering oneself and defecating in front of the idol (Sif. Num. 131; Sanh. 7:6; tj, 10:2, 28d), and of Mercurius, Aphrodite, the Saturnalia, and slaughtering over seas and rivers to the "Prince of the Sea" (Poseidon: Ḥul. 2:9, 41b). Certain idolatrous rites mentioned are not known from any other sources. They include a circular incision in the hearts of animals (Av. Zar. 2:3) which was apparently connected with the mysteries of the worship of Demeter and Attis. The reference in Sanhedrin 7:6 to sweeping, besprinkling, washing, and clothing an idol apparently refers to some Egyptian cult.

In the Tosefta (Av. Zar. 6:8) there is a reference to three places in Ereẓ Israel where the worship of the Asherah was still practiced at that time. Although there are references to obscene rites connected with idolatry (Sif. Num. 131) there is in the talmudic literature no reference to the formulas of heathen rites. A special prayer, "Blessed be He Who hath uprooted idolatry from the land," had to be recited when seeing a place where idol worship had been formerly practiced (Ber. 9:1).

[Louis Isaac Rabinowitz]


P. Scholz, Goetzendienst und Zauberwesen bei den alten Hebraeern (1877); G. d'Alviella, in: rhr, 12 (1885), 1–25; E. Schiaparelli, Libro dei Funerali, 1–3 (1882–90); H. Zimmern, Beitraege zur Kenntnis der babylonischen Religion (1894); A. Erman, Life in Ancient Egypt (1894), 259–305; Ch. Fossey, La Magie Assyrienne (1902); A. Moret, Le Rituel du Culte Journalier en Egypte (1902); G. Maspéro, Causeries d'Egypte (1907); E.A.W. Budge, The Book of Opening of the Mouth, 1–2 (1909); A.M. Blackman, in: Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, 10 (1924), 47–59; 11 (1925), 249–58; 12 (1926), 176–85; 21 (1935), 6–7; 27 (1941), 136–90; T.J.C. Baly, ibid., 16 (1930), 173–86; G.A. Wainwright, ibid., 19 (1933), 160–2; H.W. Fairman, ibid., 32 (1946), 84ff.; Kaufmann Y., Toledot, 1 (1937); Kaufmann Y., Religion; H. Junker, Die Goetterlehre von Memphis (1940); E.D. Van Buren, in: Orientalia, 10 (1941), 65–92; J.A. Wilson, in: H. Frankfurt et al. (eds.), The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man (1946), 62–71; R. Follet, in: Recherches de science religieuse, 38 (1951/54), 189–208; A.L. Oppenheim, Ancient Mesopotamia (1964), 171–227; J. Faur, in: Tradition, 9 (1968), 47–48; Y. Kaufmann, in: jbl, 70 (1951), 179–97. in the talmud: S. Lieberman, Hellenism in Jewish Palestine (1950), 115–38; idem, in: jqr, 37 (1946/47), 42–53. additional bibliography: M. Smith, Palestinian Parties and Politics that Shaped the Old Testament (1971); A. Berlejung, in: K. van der Toorn (ed.), The Image and the Book (1997), 45–72; C. Uehlinger, in: ibid., 123–28; T. Mettinger, in: ibid., 173–204; M. Greenberg, in: ibid., Studies in the Bible and Jewish Thought (1995), 175–88; S.D. Sperling, The Original Torah (1998), 94–112; idem, in: D. Snell (ed.), A Companion to the Ancient Near East (2005), 408–20. G.J. Blidstein, paajr, 41–42 (1973–1974), 1–44; idem, jsj 5 (1974) 154–61; L.H. Schiffman, in: L.M. Hopfe (ed.), Uncovering Ancient Stones (1994), 159–75; M. Halbertal, in: G.N. Stanton, G.G. Stroumsa (eds.), Tolerance and Intolerance in Early Judaism and Christianity (1998), 159–72; N. Zohar, Sidra, 17 (2001–2002), 63–77; E. Friedheim, Be-Khol Derakhekha Da'ehu, 10 (2000), 63–78; idem, Tarbiz, 69 (2000), 167–75; idem, World Congress of Jewish Studies, 12:2 (2000), 21–44; idem, Tarbiz, 70 (2001), 403–15; idem, Be-Khol Derakhekha Da'ehu, 14 (2004), 47–72.

views updated

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pulsatory, purificatory, reificatory, revelatory, rotatory •natatory • elucidatory • castigatory •mitigatory • justificatory •imprecatory • equivocatory •flagellatory • execratory • innovatory •eatery, excretory •glittery, jittery, skittery, twittery •benedictory, contradictory, maledictory, valedictory, victory •printery, splintery •consistory, history, mystery •presbytery •inhibitory, prohibitory •hereditary • auditory • budgetary •military, paramilitary •solitary • cemetery • limitary •vomitory • dormitory • fumitory •interplanetary, planetary, sanitary •primogenitary • dignitary •admonitory, monitory •unitary • monetary • territory •secretary • undersecretary •plebiscitary • repository • baptistery •transitory •depositary, depository, expository, suppository •niterie •Godwottery, lottery, pottery, tottery •bottomry • watery • psaltery •coterie, notary, protonotary, rotary, votary •upholstery •bijouterie, charcuterie, circumlocutory •persecutory • statutory • salutary •executory •contributory, retributory, tributary •interlocutory •buttery, fluttery •introductory • adultery • effrontery •perfunctory • blustery • mediatory •retaliatory • conciliatory • expiatory •denunciatory, renunciatory •appreciatory, depreciatory •initiatory, propitiatory •dietary, proprietary •extenuatory •mandatary, mandatory •predatory • sedentary • laudatory •prefatory • offertory • negatory •obligatory •derogatory, interrogatory, supererogatory •nugatory •expurgatory, objurgatory, purgatory •precatory •explicatory, indicatory, vindicatory •confiscatory, piscatory •dedicatory • judicatory •qualificatory • pacificatory •supplicatory •communicatory, excommunicatory •masticatory • prognosticatory •invocatory • obfuscatory •revocatory • charlatanry •depilatory, dilatory, oscillatory •assimilatory • consolatory •voluntary • emasculatory •ejaculatory •ambulatory, circumambulatory, perambulatory •regulatory •articulatory, gesticulatory •manipulatory • copulatory •expostulatory • circulatory •amatory, declamatory, defamatory, exclamatory, inflammatory, proclamatory •crematory • segmentary •lachrymatory •commentary, promontory •informatory, reformatory •momentary •affirmatory, confirmatory •explanatory • damnatory •condemnatory •cosignatory, signatory •combinatory •discriminatory, eliminatory, incriminatory, recriminatory •comminatory • exterminatory •hallucinatory • procrastinatory •monastery • repertory •emancipatory • anticipatory •exculpatory, inculpatory •declaratory, preparatory •respiratory • perspiratory •vibratory •migratory, transmigratory •exploratory, laboratory, oratory •inauguratory • adjuratory •corroboratory • reverberatory •refrigeratory • compensatory •desultory • dysentery •exhortatory, hortatory •salutatory • gustatory • lavatory •inventory •conservatory, observatory •improvisatory •accusatory, excusatory •lathery •feathery, heathery, leathery •dithery, slithery •carvery •reverie, severy •Avery, bravery, knavery, quavery, Savery, savory, savoury, slavery, wavery •thievery •livery, quivery, shivery •silvery •ivory, salivary •ovary •discovery, recovery •servery • equerry • reliquary •antiquary • cassowary • stipendiary •colliery • pecuniary • chinoiserie •misery • wizardry • citizenry •advisory, provisory, revisory, supervisory •causerie, rosary

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The subject of idolatry was raised as a religious polemic, a monotheistic appraisal of the polytheism. Idolatry is concerned with the rather ubiquitous belief among indigenous cultures that images of gods can become a repository of divine power, one development of animism, in which all of nature was imbued with supernatural forces. The sympathetic magic of images depended upon the image being a proper representation of the god, and also being installed through a special invocatory ceremony. Although the early Judaic commandment not to worship graven images implied a new separate form of worship, the statement that the Jewish god was "a jealous god" implied that Pagan images possessed some power but that it would be of rival demonic gods as distinct from the monotheism of Moses.

The belief in the power of images is also related to the designation of special sacred placesparticularly striking natural locations or buildings such as tabernacles, synagogues, and churches where the presence of God might be enhanced. The very structure of churches and cathedrals utilized architecture to reinforce this belief, while rituals created a mental and emotional structure to invoke divine presence. Allied to the use of rituals are the geometrical shapes of mandalas, used as an aid in meditation.

In the history of Christianity, the Judaic commandment prohibiting images, in the face of their almost universal appeal, caused great controversies in relation to the use of icons (flat stylized picture of the saints), as opposed to statues of Christ and/or the Virgin Mary in churches, one major element in the division of Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians. The sixteenth-century Protestant reformers banned images in their churches, and only in recent decades have they returned, but only as decorative art.

The Catholic view is that such representations are not actually worshiped, but are simply an aid for intercession with divine power, that it is a more intangible god that is worshiped. However, the concept of God as a father figure, and the tangible representations of Jesus Christ merely remove imagery to a mental and spiritual level, for which an image is a support.

Moreover, in some countries, the "veneration" of images closely approaches actual "worship," as for example, the famous "Child of Prague" image of the Carmelites Church of Our Lady of Victories in the former Czechoslovakia (a statue actually brought from Spain in the sixteenth century). This statue has become known in many countries and venerated by thousands of people, in the belief that it can render favors on those who pray to it. Interestingly enough, the robes of this image are changed regularly in accordance with the ecclesiastical calendar. This custom of dressing images is also widely practiced at the present day temples through India, indicating that customs and beliefs relating to images are common to many traditions.

Worship associated with ancient pagan Mother Goddesses has much in common with Christian adoration of the Virgin Mary. Some comparative religionists would go so far as to claim that these are but different forms of one primal maternal force in nature. Similarly the concept of a divine savior, born of a virgin and crucified for the atonement of human sin, is also found in some Pagan religions.

The belief that images might become actual centers of divine power is still common in different religions. In Hindu temples, images are installed with special ceremonies to invoke divinity, and subsequently treated as living entities. The installation ceremonies mark an important point in the opening of a temple for public worship. In Swaminarayan temples, for example, the installation of an image requires a ritual in which, at the high point, a mirror is held in front of the deity's eyes, so that the power may not blind observers; the mirror is said to be cracked by this force.

In Roman Catholicism, miracles continue to be associated with statues of Christ and the Virgin Mary. Such miracles involve statues that move, weep, or shed blood. In the phenomenon of stigmata, an intensely devout individual or a saint may become, in effect, a living statue upon which the wounds of Christ are physically reproducedthe marks of scourging, wounds on the shoulder and side, the bruising of wrist, and bleeding hands. Apparitions of the Virgin Mary are a related phenomenon in which a holy figure does not require the material support of an image for manifestation but appears with independent life.

Even in modern times, there are claims of moving statues of the Virgin Mary, notably at the village of Ballinspittle, in Ireland.


Abbott, John. The Keys of Power: A Study of Indian Ritual and Belief. London: Methuen, 1932. Reprint, New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1974.

Bevan, Edwyn Robert. Holy Images; An Inquiry Into Idolatry and ImageWorship in Ancient Paganism and in Christianity. London: George Allen, 1940.

Breasted, J. H. Religion and Thought in Ancient Egypt. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1912.

Graves, Kersey. The World's Sixteen Crucified Saviors. Boston, Mass., 1875. Reprint, New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1971.

Hastings, James, ed. Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics. 12 vols. Edinburgh: James Clark, 1908.

Tylor, E. B. Primitive Culture. 2 vols. London: John Murray, 1871.

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The worship or paying of divine honors to a false god as represented by some image or idol in which he is believed to be present. Idolatry is an offense against the virtue of religion and a direct violation of the First Commandment. It is also opposed to charity and faith: to charity, because it would deprive God of the supreme sovereignty that is His; to faith, because it is a denial of the truth that faith professes. This opposition to faith is manifestly evident when the external act of idolatrous worship proceeds from an inner conviction, or opinion, or suspicion, that the idol is adorable, because such a state of mind is radically incompatible with faith in the one true God. But there is opposition to faith even if the act is only externally simulated in conformity to custom or law but without internal belief in the false divinity or desire to honor it, for it is a transgression of the precept of divine law obliging men to confess their faith externally and under no circumstances to deny it (Mt 10.3233). How abhorrent even a pretense of idolatry is to the Christian conscience is apparent from the reaction of 3d-century Christians to the behavior of the so-called libellatici, i.e., those who purchased or secured in some other manner libelli, or certificates attesting that they had conformed to idolatrous religious tests required by an edict of Decius, even though they had not in fact done so.

Idolatry is not formally sinful on the part of those who are in inculpable ignorance of the true God and of the sham and falsity of the idol. It is, however, a misfortune and an evil, because the worshiper puts his trust in a lifeless idol from which no good can come [Ps 113B (115)] and accepts in some degree at least the perversion or distortion of values that it represents.

In modern times idolatry in any strict sense of the word is not a sin of frequent occurrence in the Western world, although it appears to have a place in the practices of devil worship and satanism. For the most part, however, modern man's closest acquaintance with it is likely to be in its metaphorical form, i.e., the idolatry into which one falls when he attributes supreme value to something less than God and pursues it as his ultimate goal in life. Avarice in its grosser forms seems to invite this metaphor. It is the worshiping of a golden calf; thus Our Lord personified Mammon and represented it as a false god (Mt 6.24), and St. Paul spoke of covetousness as a serving of idols (Eph 5.5; Col 3.5).

Bibliography: thomas aquinas, ST 2a2ae, 94, 14. a. michel, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al. (Paris 190350) 7:602669.

[p. k. meagher]

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348. Idolatry

  1. Aaron responsible for the golden calf. [O.T.: Exodus 32]
  2. Ashtaroth Canaanite deities worshiped profanely by Israelites. [O.T.: Judges 2:12]
  3. Baalim Canaanite deities worshiped profanely by Israelites. [O.T.: Judges 2:11]
  4. Baphomet fabled image; allegedly a Templar fetish. [Medieval Legend: Walsh Classical, 46]
  5. golden calf idol made by Aaron in Mosess absence. [O.T.: Exodus 32:24]
  6. David King of Israel who was held in reverence after he slew Goliath. [O.T.: Samuel 17:451]
  7. Jehu obliterates the profane worship of Baal. [O.T.: II Kings 10:29]
  8. Jeroboam forsook worship of God; made golden calves. [O.T.: I Kings 12:2833]
  9. Moloch deity to whom parents sacrificed their children. [O.T.: II Kings 23:10]
  10. Parsis religious community of India; worship fire along with other aspects of nature. [Hindu. Rel.: NCE, 2075]
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Idolatry (Gk., eidolon, ‘image’, + latreia, ‘worship’). The attributing of absolute value to that which is not absolute, and acting towards that object, person, or concept as though it is worthy of worship or complete commitment. In a religious context, this most usually means treating as God that which is not God; and in particular acting towards a representation of God as though it is God. Thus idolatry is associated with the worship of idols, as though these are the actuality of God. In that sense, idolatry is extremely rare, since most religious worshippers are well-aware that the signpost is not to be confused with that which is signified. Judaism is unequivocally opposed to idol worship as is evidenced by the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20). Rabbinic law deals with prohibitions concerning contact with an idolator (Avodah Zarah, passim).

Islam is comparably opposed to idols (Arab., wathan, pl., wuthun; sanam, asnam), which must necessarily detract from the absolute supremacy and oneness of God.

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i·dol·a·try / īˈdälətrē/ • n. worship of idols. ∎  extreme admiration, love, or reverence for something or someone: we must not allow our idolatry of art to obscure issues of political significance.

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idols and other similar things and objects collectively.

Example: idolatries of the heathen, 1671.