The cults of Caesar and Christ

The original name for what would eventually became known as Christianity was “the Way.” You won’t find “Christianity” in the Bible, but you will find “the Way” seven times in the book of Acts.

If you had asked a baptized follower of Jesus during the first century, “What is your religion?,” she most likely would have replied, “I belong to the Way.” This is what the Apostle Paul said in his hearing before the Roman governor Felix: “I admit that I follow the Way, which they call a cult.” (Acts 24:14)

The common life of following Jesus together was called the Way, not because it was the way to heaven (the afterlife was never the emphasis), but because they had come to believe that in his death and resurrection Jesus had inaugurated a new way of life.

Because the lifestyle of the Way was such a radical departure from the way of the Roman Empire, it is no surprise that people viewed the Way with great suspicion and often maligned it as a dangerous cult.

And there is a sense in which the Way was a cult — not in the abusive or heretical way we often use the word, but in its more technical sense. Literally, a cult is a system of religious devotion directed toward a particular figure. It’s worth noting that “culture” comes from the word “cult.” Culture is derived from how and what people worship. Anthropologically speaking, religion and culture are nearly synonymous.

Much of the drama we find in the book of Acts is the result of the inevitable clash between competing cult(ure)s. At the same time that the cult(ure) of Caesar was emerging in the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire, the cult(ure) of Christ was taking root in many of the same places. The book of Revelation is the attempt of John of Patmos to inspire fidelity to Christ among believers who are facing the powerful seductions of the emperor cult.

Many citizens of the Roman Empire directed their devotion to Rome through the veneration of the emperor. The cult of emperor worship was a personification of empire worship. The veneration of Caesar was mostly viewed as a patriotic gesture. To place a dash of incense in a censor before a bust of Caesar in the marketplace was roughly analogous to saluting the flag at a football game. It was an apparently innocuous gesture that was actually fraught with symbolic meaning.

The most radical thing about the early Christians wasn’t that they worshiped Jesus as God. The Greco-Roman world was awash in gods. The radical and dangerous thing about the early Christians was that as they worshiped God in Christ they proclaimed Jesus as emperor! This is what they meant when they confessed, “Jesus is Lord.”

Titles like “Son of God,” “King of Kings,” “Savior of the World,” “Prince of Peace, “Lord of All” were already in circulation as imperial titles on Roman coins. When Christians began re-appropriating these titles in their worship of a crucified Galilean Jew it was a dangerous and provocative move.

This is why from time to time Christian bishops were hauled before Roman magistrates and some believers ended up facing gladiators and wild beasts in the arena. It wasn’t the religion of the Christians that got them in trouble per se, but the political implications of their religion.

Because the Christians belonged to a different cult than the Roman Empire, they developed a different culture and became a counterculture movement — a counterculture that the authorities sometimes deemed subversive and periodically sought to violently suppress.

The Christian refusal to venerate Rome and the emperor in even benign and symbolic ways was viewed as unpatriotic. This was the impetus for periodic persecutions of Christians. So it’s understandable that there would be a temptation to accommodate Christian faith to the patriotic practices of the empire. During the relatively tolerant reign of Caesar Domitian, some of the churches in Asia Minor began to view the symbolic veneration of the emperor as relatively harmless.

But John of Patmos will have none of it. In his fantastic and prophetic epic he warns about the peril of those who have the mark of the beast upon their head or hand. The Revelator is determined to remind the seven churches in Asia Minor that even when Caesar is a “good emperor,” the empire at its heart remains a beast as typified by the monstrous Caesar Nero — the number of whose name is 666.

The original Jesus movement was not a pietistic religion of private belief about how to go to heaven when we die. The original Jesus movement was a countercultural way of public life. It was the kingdom of Christ, and as such it was a rival to the kingdom of Caesar. This is what made the principalities and powers of Rome so nervous about the Way.

Though it’s well-known, it still needs to be emphasized that Jesus and his two most important apostles, Peter and Paul, were all executed by the Roman Empire. And why? Not for their religious beliefs about an afterlife, but because the kingdom of heaven they announced and enacted posed a challenge to the dominant myth that Rome had a manifest destiny to rule the nations and a divine right to shape history. Either it was Jesus who was the last best hope of the earth or it was Rome. But it couldn’t be both.

If Christianity is not seen as countercultural and even subversive within a military-economic superpower, you can be sure it is a deeply compromised Christianity. A Christianity at home in an empire is the kind of compromised Christianity that the book of Revelation so passionately and creatively warns us against. A church in bed with a superpower is what the emperor Constantine inaugurated when he believed that Christ and Roma could be wed.

But Christ cannot wed Roma. Christ is forever wed to his faithful bride. The truth is that Roma — whom John rudely calls, “Babylon the great, mother of whores” — is never wed to Christ, but rides the back of the Beast to her inevitable demise.

For all its promises of peace and security, there is no salvation in the Beast. So the baptized have placed all of their faith in the Lamb. And even if those who are true to Jesus are vilified for their faith and some end up as fodder for lethal entertainment in the Coliseum, the truth remains, “the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever.”

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About the author

Brian Zahnd is the founder and lead pastor of Word of Life Church, a non-denominational Christian congregation in Saint Joseph, Missouri. Brian and his wife, Peri, founded the church in 1981. Brian is also the author of several books, including, A Farewell To Mars, Beauty Will Save the World, Unconditional?: The Call of Jesus to Radical Forgiveness and his latest, Water to Wine. He also blogs at brianzahnd.com

  • Mark Benkovic

    Excellent historical perspective of secular god worship (e.g. political leaders, sports or entertainment celebreties, etc.) as opposed to The Way of Christ. Some things never change!

  • Paul Merriam

    This is fascinating, and I’d like to read more. My background is pretty academic (prehistoric anthropology and history), so I don’t mind reading articles with footnotes. Can you suggest anything for people who’d like to learn more?