The imperial cult (Mark 12)

This is the remains of the Temple of Julius Caesar.

The Roman imperial cult was essentially a “religion” based upon the deification of Roman emperors. It had its origins in eastern and Greek practices, in which kings were often said to be gods. Roman emperors were regularly deified after their deaths by an act of the senate. The attribution of deity was seen as the highest possible manifestation of gratitude and honour, and participation in the imperial cult was a religious way of expressing gratitude for the benefits experienced during that emperor’s rule. There was no expectation that the deified emperor would continue to intervene in human affairs, and sacrifices were also made to the “genius”, or spirit, embodied in his current, living successor.

The imperial cult had both a religious and a political function, serving as a unifying factor in the empire and as a test of loyalty. Refusal to participate in the cult by offering sacrifices in honour of the emperor could result in execution. New Testament’s central confession that “Jesus is Lord”, as well as references to Christ as “Saviour” and the “Son of God”, while based upon Jewish and Christian theology, also served to undermine the lofty assertions of the imperial cult. The silver denarius mentioned in Mark 12:15 bore the image of the emperor Tiberius and the inscription “Augustus Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus”, reflecting both the deification of Augustus and Tiberius’ desire to highlight his filial relationship to his deified predecessor.

The imperial cult placed early Christians in the empire in a dilemma. On the one hand the cult was fundamentally a manifestation of the antichrist, while on the other, Christians were called upon to respect the institution and power of government (Romans 13). This quandary was anticipated in the Jews’ question about paying taxes, and Jesus’ answer pointed to a paradox of the Christian life: Believers, though in the world, are not to be of it.

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