Why Christians will not worship the emperor
180 CE to 185 CE
Apologetic and Rhetorical treatise
Title of work:
Keywords in the original language:
Thematic keywords in English:
Theophilus of Antioch is one of the less well known among the early Christian apologists. Our only sources of biographical information relating to his career are Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History and Chronicle, and Jerome’s Illustrious Men. Both writers confirm that he was the sixth bishop of Antioch, with Jerome adding that this was during the reign of Marcus Antoninus Verus and that he composed several works, including the three-volume To Autolycus. Eusebius’s Chronicle dates Theophilus’s episcopate between 169 and 177 CE, although Marcus Aurelius’s death, which was in 180 CE, is mentioned in To Autolycus III.28, meaning that this part of the work at least must post-date this event. To Autolycus, according to Rick Rogers is best described as a protreptic tractate. This rhetorical genre was popular with Aristotle and the Sophists, and was used to recruit potential students to a school of thought (“Theophilus of Antioch,” p. 218). Theophilus addresses his work to a pagan named Autolycus (who may have been real or simply an imagined dialogue partner). In the opening section of the second book (II.1), Theophilus addresses Autolycus as a “very good friend,” and appears to view him throughout as a respectable, curious non-Christian. In the present passage, Theophilus explains to Autolycus why he as a Christian cannot participate in worship of the Roman emperor. Along with many other early Christians (see, for example, 1 Clement 60.4-61.3), Theophilus affirms that the emperor was placed in his position of power by God, with the task of governing “justly,” and as such requires due respect and the prayers of his subjects. However, he is still a human being created by God in the same manner as all other people, and therefore should not be worshipped as a divine being.
Having established that the emperor’s “government is committed to him by God,” Theophilus presents a slightly strange logic – Theophilus argues that those appointed to rule under God should not be called “kings” because this title is reserved solely for God himself. The same term (βασιλεύς, basileius) is used throughout the passage, with most uses clearly being in reference to the emperor; this term is also used on occasion to refer to the Roman emperor in the New Testament (e.g. 1 Peter 2:13, which is one of the texts Theophilus seems to draw upon). What Theophilus seems to be implying, without making it particularly clear, is that when the same name is used by people to describe both an earthly ruler and God, it is important to remember the distinction between the two – only God has the right to be worshipped.
Rogers argues that νόμος (nomos, “law”) is the topic on which Theophilus “shows his greatest intensity of thought.” In the entire first book of To Autolycus, the present passage is the only place where the term νόμος is used, and so it is interesting that it is in the context of his polemic against emperor worship (Theophilus of Antioch, p. 120). Theophilus draws on various notions in this passage that are also found in the New Testament – that the emperor should be honoured (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:17), that one should pray for him (1 Timothy 2:2), that the Roman authorities are in power at God’s behest (Romans 13:1-7), and that respecting the emperor is ultimately doing God’s will (1 Peter 2:15). Indeed, Theophilus makes clear that the Romans are in power purely under God’s sanction. Theophilus claims that the law is the way into the divine mind, and contrary to what might be expected in a text condemning the imperial cult, the bishop does not appeal to Exodus 20:3 (“you shall have no other gods before me,” NRSV), but rather paraphrases Proverbs 24:21-22. He is thus mixing Old and New Testament support in the course of the passage for his argument that the Roman emperor is to be respected or else God’s law be disobeyed (Rogers, Theophilus of Antioch, p. 120).
The abovementioned passage from Romans 13 teaches that because God has given the Roman authorities the right to rule, and to work for the good of their subjects, anyone disobeying them is in direct contradiction of God’s plan. This passage is actually quoted later on in book III.14 of To Autolycus, and it is even admitted in III.27 that during the reign of the last Tarquin “the Romans were already becoming powerful because God was making them strong”(see Robert Grant, Greek Apologists, p. 145). Theophilus firmly buys into this notion of the legitimacy and divine sanction of Roman rule, and for Robert Grant, the distinction between worship of the emperor and paying him his due honour is the bishop’s most critical political point. The emperor is a “creature of God” who deserves honour as just this, but nothing more (Grant, Greek Apologists, p. 144).