2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Religious disputes

Idolatry is a major sin in the Abrahamic religions regarding image. In Judaism and Christianity it is defined as worship of an image, idea or object, as opposed to the worship of a supreme being. In Islam, the creation of imagery itself as well as its worship would amount to idolatry. In religions where such activity is not considered as sin, the term "idolatry" itself is absent. Which images, ideas, and objects, constitute idolatry, and which constitute reasonable worship, is a matter of contention with some religious authorities and groups using the term to describe certain other religions apart from their own.


"The Adoration of the Golden Calf" by Nicolas Poussin
"The Adoration of the Golden Calf" by Nicolas Poussin

The word idolatry comes (by haplology) from the Greek word eidololatria, a compound of eidolon, "image" or "figure", and latreia, "worship". Although the Greek appears to be a loan translation of the Hebrew phrase avodat elilim, which is attested in rabbinic literature (e.g., bChul., 13b, Bar.), the Greek term itself is not found in the Septuagint, Philo, Josephus, or in other Hellenistic Jewish writings. It is also not found in Greek pagan literature. In the New Testament, the Greek word is found only in the letters of Paul, 1 Peter, 1 John, and Revelation, where it has a derogatory meaning. Hebrew terms for idolatory include avodah zarah (foreign worship) and avodat kochavim umazalot (worship of planets and constellations).

Idolatry in many forms

If the purpose of worship is to bring one into connection with divinity, then any set of beliefs or practices which significantly interferes with this may, at some point, be termed idolatry. Examples might include:

  • Postrating before or Worshipping any creature (sun, moon, water, cow, sheep, king, teacher, celebrity) instead of the One Being who transcends them.
  • Directing the aim of one's devotion to a holy book itself, or to a religious practice or item, instead of directing one's devotion to the Being for whose sake that religious practice is to be done and those things exist.
  • A very strong attachment to one's country that a religion considers inappropriate. In this case nationalism could be considered a form of idolatry.
  • A very strong desire to gain sex and wealth that a religion considers inappropriate. In this case greed could be considered a form of idolatry.
  • A very strong desire to gain fame or recognition that a religion considers inappropriate. In this case egocentrism could be considered a form of idolatry.
  • An obsessive desire to earn money could be classified as idolatry.
  • Pilgrimage to shrines of ancestors or saints e.g. dargahs

Idolatry in the Hebrew Bible

According to the Hebrew Bible, idolatry originated in the age of Eber, though some interpret the text to mean in the time of Serug; traditionnal Jewish lore traces it back to Enos, the second generation after Adam. Image worship existed in the time of Jacob, from the account of Rachel taking images along with her on leaving her father's house, which is given in the book of Genesis. Abraham's father, Terah, was both an idol manufacturer and worshipper. It is recounted in both traditional Jewish texts and in the Quran that when Abraham discovered the true God, he destroyed his father's idols (See Terah for story).

The commandments in the Hebrew Bible against idolatry forbade the beliefs and practices of pagans who lived amongst the Israelites at the time, especially the religions of ancient Akkad, Mesopotamia, and Egypt.

Some of these religions, it is claimed in the Bible, had a set of practices which were prohibited under Jewish law, such as sex rites, cultic male and female prostitution, passing a child through a fire to Molech, and child sacrifice.

There is no one section that clearly defines idolatry; rather there are a number of commandments on this subject spread through the books of the Hebrew Bible, some of which were written in different historical eras, in response to different issues. Taking these verses together, idolatry in the Hebrew Bible is defined as either:

  • the worship of idols (or images)
  • the worship of polytheistic gods by use of idols (or images)
  • the worship of animals or people
  • the use of idols in the worship of God.

In a number of places the Hebrew Bible makes clear that God has no shape or form, and is utterly incomparable; thus no idol, image, idea, or anything comparable to creation could ever capture God's essence. For example, when the Israelites are visited by God in Deut. 4:15, they see no shape or form. Many verses in the Bible use anthropomorphisms to describe God, (e.g. God's mighty hand, God's finger, etc.) but these verses have always been understood as poetic images rather than literal descriptions. This is reflected in Hosea 12:10 which says, “And I have spoken unto the prophets, and I have multiplied visions, and by the hand of the prophets I use similes.”

The Bible records a struggle between the prophet's attempt to spread pure monotheism, and the tendency of some people, especially rulers such as Ahab to accept or to encourage others into polytheistic or idolatrous beliefs. The patriarch Abraham was called to spread the true knowledge of God, but the prophetic books still reflect a continuing struggle against idolatry. For example, the Biblical prophet Jeremiah complains: "According to the number of thy cities are thy gods, O Judah" (2:28).

The Bible has many terms for idolatry, and their usage represents the horror with which they filled the writers of the Bible [Adherents of Jewish faith maintain that the Torah is the literal and eternally binding word of G-d]. Thus idols are stigmatized "non-God" (Deut. 32:17, 21 ; Jer. 2:11 ), "things of naught" (Lev. 19:4 et passim ), "vanity" (Deut. 32), "iniquity" (1 Sam. 15:23 ), "wind and confusion" (Isa. 41:29 ), "the dead" (Ps. 106:28 ), "carcasses" (Lev. 26:30; Jer. 16:18), "a lie" (Isa. 44:20 et passim ), and similar epithets.

Pagan idols are described as being made of gold, silver, wood, and stone. They are described as being only the work of men's hands, unable to speak, see, hear, smell, eat, grasp, or feel, and powerless either to injure or to benefit. (Ps. 135:15-18)

Idols were either designated in Hebrew by a term of general significance, or were named according to their material or the manner in which they were made. They said to have been were placed upon pedestals, and fastened with chains of silver or nails of iron lest they should fall over or be carried off (Isa. 40:19, 41:7; Jer. 10:14; Wisdom 13:15), and they were also clothed and colored (Jer. 10:9; Ezek. 16:18; Wisdom 15:4).

At first the gods and their images were conceived of as identical; but in later times a distinction was drawn between the god and the image. Nevertheless it was customary to take away the gods of the vanquished (Isa. 10:10-11, 36:19, 46:1; Jer. 48:7, 49:3; Hosea 10:5; Dan. 11:8), and a similar custom is frequently mentioned in the cuneiform texts.

Did idolaters really worship idols?

Did the idolaters of Biblical times believe that the idols they worshipped were actually gods or spirits, or did they believe that their idols only were representations of said gods or spirits? The Bible does not make this clear, and thus apparently outlaws such practices and beliefs in either form (according to some interpretations).

Yehezkel Kaufman has suggested that the Biblical authors interpreted idolatry in its most literal form: according to the Bible, most idolaters really believed that their idols were gods, and holds that the Biblical authors made an error in assuming that all idolatry was of this type, when in fact in some cases, idols may have only been representations of gods. Kaufman writes that "We may perhaps say that the Bible sees in paganism only its lowest level, the level of mana-beliefs...the prophets ignore what we know to be authentic paganism (i.e., its elaborate mythology about the origin and exploits of the gods and their ultimate subjection to a meta-divine reservoir of impersonal power representing Fate or Necessity.) Their [the Biblical author's] whole condemnation revolves around the taunt of fetishism."

However, Kaufman holds that in some places, some Biblical authors did understand that idolaters worshipped gods and spirits that existed independently of idols, and not the forms of the idols themselves. For instance, in a passage in 1 Kings 18:27 , the Hebrew prophet Elijah challenges the priests of Baal atop of Mount Carmel to persuade their god to perform a miracle, after they had begun to try to persuade the Jews to take up idolatry. The pagan priests beseeched their god without the use of an idol, which in Kaufman's view, indicates that Baal was not an idol, but rather one of the polytheistic gods that merely could be worshipped through the use of an idol.

Orestes Brownson affirms that the pagans in the Hebrew Bible did not literally worship the objects themselves, so that the issue of idolatry is really whether one is pursuing a false god or the true God.

Idolatry in Jewish thought

Judaism strongly prohibits any form of idolatry, and holds that idolatry is not limited to the worship of a statue or picture itself, but also includes worship of the Almighty Himself with the use of mediators and/or any artistic representations of God. According to this understanding, even if one directs his worship to the Almighty Himself and not to a statue, picture, or some other created thing, but yet he uses a created thing as a representation of the Almighty in order to assist in his worship of the Almighty, this is also considered a form of idolatry. In fact, Maimonides explains in chapter 1 of Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim (Avoda Zarah) in the Mishneh Torah that this is one of the ways that idolatry began.

While such greats of Jewish history as Rabbi Saadia Gaon, Rabbi Bahya ibn Paquda, and Rabbi Yehuda Halevi all elaborated on proper monotheism and the issues of idolatry, without a doubt Rabbi Mosha ben Maimon ( Maimonides) was the most thorough of them all in his elucidation of monotheism and the problems of idolatry. This is seen in his work known as the Mishneh Torah, in the Guide for the Perplexed, as well as in the various shorter writings he composed. In the Mishneh Torah, intended to be a complete compilation of Talmudic law, the theme of proclaiming the Unity of the Creator and eradication of idolatry is not limited to the sections specified for these topics. Rather, it permeates every section of the this work as the purpose and foundation of the entire Torah. In the Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides so clarifies his understanding of monotheism and idolatry that in its light even certain Jewish communities of his time, and today, become suspect of idolatry. This was the core reason for his controversy, even more so than the issue of philosophy.

In short, the proper Jewish definition of idolatry is to do an act of worship toward any created thing, to believe that a particular created thing is an independent power, or to make something a mediator between ourselves and the Almighty. These laws are codified in the Mishneh Torah, mainly in the section called Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim (Avodah Zarah) - The Laws of Strange Worship (Idolatry). It is considered a great insult to God to worship one of His creations instead of Him or together with Him. According to the Noahide Laws, the 7 laws which Jews believe to be binding on the non-Jewish world, the non-Israelite nations are also forbiddon to worship anything other than the Absolute Creator. One can find this in Hilkhot Melakhim u'Milhhamotehem (Laws of Kings and their Wars) chapter 9 in the Mishneh Torah. Judaism holds that any beliefs or practices which significantly interferes with a Jew's relationship with God may, at some point, be deemed idolatry.

Christian views of idolatry

The Christian view of idolatry may be divided into two general categories. The Catholic and Orthodox view (not necessary limited to the Eastern Orthodox or Oriental Orthodox communion, and sometimes further complicated when you add Anglicans and Methodists into the equation) and the Fundamentalist view. The Puritan Protestant groups adopted a similar view to Islam, denouncing all forms of religious objects whether in three dimensional or two dimensional form. The problem springs from differences in interpretation of the Decalogue commonly known as the Ten Commandments. "You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments." (RSV Exodus 20:3-6).

It would appear that both Orthodox and Protestant views of idolatry condemn idolatry as it is practiced in non-Christian religions. The Catholic missionary Saint Francis Xavier referred to Hinduism as idolatry, and Protestant Christian apologetics makes similar claims about various non-Christian religions.

The Roman Catholic and particularly the Orthodox Churches cite St. John of Damascus' work "On the Divine Image" to defend the use of icons. He wrote in direct response to the iconoclastic controversy that begun in the eighth century by the Byzantine emperor Leo III and continued by his successor Constantine V. St. John maintains that depicting the invisible God is indeed wrong, but he argues that the incarnation, where "the Word became flesh" (John 1:14), indicates that the invisible God became visible, and as a result it is permissible to depict Jesus Christ. He argues, "When He who is bodiless and without form... existing in the form of God, empties Himself and takes the form of a servant in substance and in stature and is found in a body of flesh, then you draw His image..." He also observes that in the Old Testament, images and statues were not absolutely condemned in themselves: examples include the graven images of cherubim over the Ark of the Covenant or the bronze serpent mentioned in the book of Numbers. He also defends external acts of honour towards icons, arguing that there are "different kinds of worship" and that the honour shown to icons differs entirely from the adoration of God. He continues by citing Old Testament examples of forms of "honour": "Jacob bowed to the ground before Esau, his brother, and also before the tip of his son Joseph's staff (Genesis 33:3). He bowed down, but did not adore. Joshua, the Son of Nun, and Daniel bowed in veneration before an angel of God (Joshua 5:14) but they did not adore him. For adoration is one thing, and that which is offered in order to honour something of great excellence is another". He cites St. Basil who asserts, "the honour given to the image is transferred to its prototype". St. John argues therefore that venerating an image of Christ does not terminate at the image itself - the material of the image is not the object of worship - rather it goes beyond the image, to the prototype.

Christian theology requires proselytizing, the spreading of the faith by gaining converts by use of trained missionaries. This often caused hostile relationships with pagan religions and other Christian groups who used images in some manner as part of religious practice.

Fundamentalist Protestants often accuse Catholic and Orthodox Christians of Traditionalism, Idolatry, Paganism and Iconolatry since they do not "cleanse their faith" of the use of images.

Catholic and Orthodox Christians use religious objects such as Icons, incense, the Gospel, Bible, candles and religious vestments. Icons are mainly in two and rarely in three dimensional form. These are in dogmatic theory venerated as objects filled with God's grace and power -- (therefore Eastern Orthodoxy declares they are not "hollow forms" {see idol} and hence, not idols). Evidence for the use of these, they claim, is found in the Old Testament and in Early Christian worship (see Wikipedia article under heading "Icons").

The offering of veneration in the form of latreía (the veneration due God) is doctrinally forbidden by the Orthodox Church; however veneration of religious pictures or Icons in the form of douleía is not only allowed but obligatory. The distinction in levels of veneration, which is doctrinally technical and not distinguishable in the form of actual practice, was and is often lost on the ordinary observer. The distinction is maintained and taught by believers in many of the hymns and prayers that are sung and prayed throughout the liturgical year.

In Orthodox apologetics for icons, a similarity is asserted between icons and the manufacture by Moses (under God's commandment) of The Bronze Snake, which was, Orthodoxy says, given the grace and power of God to heal those bitten by real snakes. "And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any person, when he beheld the serpent of brass, they lived"(Numbers 21:9). Another similarity is declared with the Ark of the Covenant described as the ritual object above which Yahweh was present (Numbers 10:33-36); or the burning bush which, according to Exodus, allowed God to speak to Moses; or the Ten Commandments which were the Word of God " Dabar Elohim" in tablet form. These inanimate objects became a medium by which God worked to teach, speak to, encourage and heal the Hebrew faithful.

Veneration of icons through latreía was codified in the Seventh Ecumenical Council during the Byzantine Iconoclast controversy, in which St. John of Damascus was pivotal. Icon veneration is also practiced in the Catholic Church, which accepts the declarations of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, but it is practiced to a lesser extent, since Catholics today do not usually prostrate and kiss icons, and the Second Vatican Council enjoined moderation in the use of images. Eastern Rite Catholic Churches still use icons in their Divine Liturgy however.

Most Protestant groups avoid the use of images in any context suggestive of veneration. Protestantism from its beginnings treated images as objects of inspiration and education rather than of veneration and worship. Occasionally icons may be seen among some "high" church communities such as Anglicans, but they are not viewed or used in the same manner described in Orthodox doctrine, and their presence sometimes causes controversy.

Very conservative Protestant groups avoid any use of religious images, even for inspiration or instruction, as incitement to what they view as idolatry.

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