Emperor Worship In “Israel” in Jesus’ Day

When Christian tour/academic groups visit the area of Galilee it is natural to ask “what was Galilee like in Jesus’ time?”  This is actually a tricky question to answer for what is meant by “Galilee?”  I think it is best to let Josephus define it (War iii.3.1-2 [35–43]) and if this is the case then it was very limited in size and actually surrounded by Gentile populations! (see for example the map on p. 212 of The Zondervan Atlas of the Bible)

Foundation of the Temple to Augustus that Herod the Great built in the vicinity of Caesarea Philippi—at Omrit
The southwest corner
Note the delicately carved molding and the remnants of fresco on the wall

Archaeological excavations in Galilee — Galilee as defined by Josephus, and pre- 70 CE — show that it was  Jewish in nature and was not yet greatly influenced by Greco- Roman culture (except for some frescos at Yodfat and Herod Antipas’ new city of Tiberias).  Indeed, the archaeological remains (ritual baths, stone vessels, lack of pig bones, shaft graves) at most sites in Josephus’ Galilee seem to indicate that Jews were living in small villages that were rural in nature.  Most tour leaders/guides will rightfully expound on the Jewish context of Jesus’ upbringing and focus of ministry, and will also reference the close proximity of Greco- Roman culture via the caravan routes that ran around and through Lower Galilee.

In two previous posts I have commented on the archaeological finds at Omrit and the Imperial Cult (worshiping the Roman Emperor) in Asia Minor.  IMHO we also need to give emphasis to the fact that Herod the Great had built  three Imperial Cult Temples — all less than 40 miles from Nazareth/Capernaum.  By the time that Jesus began his public ministry these Imperial Cult Temples (namely those at Caesarea Maritima, Sebastia, and the one near Caesarea Philippi [= Omrit])  had been in existence for over 40 years!

When tour leaders/guides expound upon “Peter’s Great Confession” at/near Caesarea Philippi — “you are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (Matt 16:16; etc.) — usually the emphasis is upon “Christ” as the Greek word for Hebrew Messiah/Mashiach and Jesus as the fulfillment of the divine promise that had been made to David and his descendants (2 Samuel 7).  In addition, often reference is made to failed messiahs and rebel leaders that lived before, during, and/or after the days of Jesus — and that Jesus’ “kingdom” was of a different nature than the typical expectation of these folk.

But when Peter’s confession is made within 5 miles (or less) of  one of the three Imperial Cult Temples that had been dedicated to Roman Emperor Augustus — who was to be worshiped as a god, or at least the “son of god”  — the confession takes on all kinds of additional overtones!  And one of the first thoughts of many of the hearers of the Gospels (living in a Greco- Roman context in Asia Minor, Greece, North Africa, and Italy) had to have been, how could anyone ever think that  a crucified Galilean Jew named Jesus could be “the Son of the Living God?”   There already was a “son of god!”  Namely the reigning Roman Emperor who was worshiped as a “son of god” by (almost) all his subjects at Imperial Cult Temples scattered throughout his kingdom—not to mention previously deceased emperors (and some family members) who had ascended to heaven and were worshiped “as gods!”

The above just hints at some of the topics that could be thought through and expanded upon, and what better place to do this than at Omrit—where the foundations and some artifacts of the Herodian Imperial Cult Temple are still there in all their glory!

Directions to Omrit
Left is north in the image.
The road running from left (north) to right (south) in the bottom of the image is Hwy 918

It is easy to travel to Omrit by driving south on Hwy 918 (from the junction of Hwys 99 and 918) and turning east on the paved road just before (north) of the Bezek antenna.  To visit this unique site you need to budget about 90 minutes or so once you turn off  highway 918, but IMHO it is well worth the time!

2 responses to “Emperor Worship In “Israel” in Jesus’ Day

  1. Just now have I read your previous post and this one. You have left me completely unpersuaded. Is Joan Taylor the one who suggested this political scenario? I need to read her work yet but this is not what the text is saying at all. This is narrative shaping based on conjecture.
    Having reread the account of Peter’s confession in each of the synoptics, I cannot see any hint that the authors are making any contrast to the Imperial cult that the reader should be so alerted (despite your supposition in this post).
    Usually, what I have observed, is a strong bias with the clear statement of scripture in Mt. 16.17 that will not be accepted. What I mean to say: Jesus claimed that Peter’s insight was given by God the Father and that in this reality (divine election), was the foundation (Petra) of His church.

    There were many “sons of God.” Adam and Israel were God’s sons among others in scripture. Also, Christians are “sons of God.” The correct emphasis is on the anointing and not to “the son of God.” despite your construction. It refers to the High Priest’s ordination. Jesus is the priest on the throne (Zech. 6.12-13) who will reign politically one day and thus peace between both offices. Matthew 16.18 is the fulfillment of Zechariah 6.12-13.
    Judgment at the throne of Jesus will be on the basis of being under the atonement of Jesus. The Ascension of Christ is one of the conquering High Priest over the power of death not to a political throne (yet).

  2. In contrast to Squeaky2, I find the post rather convincing as it reflects the historical and cultural background of the first century world in which Jesus ministered. Yes, Peter’s confession was the result of divine revelation, but it doesn’t require him to say these words out of a historical vacuum. The cultural background provides insight on how the concept of “son of god” was understood by the ancients in contrast to what God had revealed to Peter.

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