AskDefine | Define idolatry

Dictionary Definition



1 religious zeal; willingness to serve God [syn: devotion, veneration, cultism]
2 the worship of idols; the worship of images that are not God [syn: idol worship]

User Contributed Dictionary



From εἰδωλολατρία from εἴδωλον + λατρεία.



  1. The worship of idols.
  2. The admiration of somebody or something.


excessive admiration


Extensive Definition

Idolatry is usually defined as worship of any cult image, idea, or object, as opposed to the worship of a monothestic God. It is considered a major sin in the Abrahamic religions whereas 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 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 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 idolatry include avodah zarah (foreign worship) and avodat kochavim umazalot (worship of planets and constellations).
In today's context, idolatry is not limited to religious concepts, however, and considered more of a social phenomena where false perceptions are created and worshipped, or even used as a term in the entertainment industry.

Idolatry in the Bible

According to the Bible, idolatry originated in the age of Eber, though some interpret the text to mean in the time of Serug; traditional 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. According to the midrash Genesis Rabba, 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.
The commandments in the Hebrew Bible against idolatry forbade the adoption of the beliefs and practices of the 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 God]. 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.

Idolatry as a negative stereotyping process

Yehezkel Kaufman has suggested that when Yahweh gave commandments regarding idolatry he meant it to be understood in its most literal form: according to the Bible, most idolaters really believed that their idols were gods, and Kaufman holds that this is an error in assuming that all idolatry was of this type, when 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." Modern Pagans find this understanding of their religious practices as a stereotyping of their cultural and religious practices by semitic religions.
However, Kaufman holds that in some places 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 asserts that the pagans in the Hebrew Bible did not literally worship the objects themselves, so that the issue of idolatry is really concerned with whether one is pursuing a false god or the true God. Brownson may have been correct, but Brownson's theory contradicts the understanding of the Ancient Hebrews, whose culture was contemporary with others that practiced "idol worship." The Book of Daniel, Chapter 14, illustrates the Hebrew understanding. In Daniel 14, Cyrus, king of the Persians, worships two deities, a deity named Bel and a dragon. Daniel 14 characterizes the king and some of the Babylonians as believing, literally, that Bel and the dragon are living gods:
''Now the Babylonians had an idol called Bel: and there were spent upon him every day twelve great measures of fine flour, and forty sheep, and sixty vessels of wine. The king also worshipped him, and went every day to adore him: but Daniel adored his god. And the king said to him: Why dost thou not adore Bel? And he answered, and said to him: Because I do not worship idols made with hands, but the living God, that created heaven and earth, and hath power over all flesh. And the king said to him: Doth not Bel seem to thee to be a living god? Seest thou not how much he eateth and drinketh every day? . . . There was a great dragon which the Babylonians worshiped. 'Look!' said the king to Daniel, 'you cannot deny that this is a living god, so adore it'....''

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 scholars as Rabbi Saadia Gaon, Rabbi Bahya ibn Paquda, and Rabbi Yehuda Halevi elaborated on proper monotheism and the issues of idolatry, without a doubt Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (Maimonides) was the most thorough in his elucidation of monotheism and the problems of idolatry. This is seen in his work known as the Mishnah Torah, in the Guide for the Perplexed, and in the various shorter writings he composed. In the Mishnah 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 Forbidden 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 one adds Anglicans and Methodists into the equation) and the Fundamentalist view. The Puritan Protestant groups adopted a similar view to Judaism, 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 began 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, and the prohibition of idolatry 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 idolatry, iconolatry, and even paganism for failing to "cleanse their faith" of the use of images.
Catholic and Orthodox Christians use religious objects such as Crosses, Icons, incense, the Gospel, Bible, candles and religious vestments. Icons are mainly in two- but 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" or cult images). Evidence for the use of these, they claim, is found in the Old Testament and in Early Christian worship.
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. Some outside observers find it difficult to distinguish these two levels of veneration in practice, but 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 Latin-rite Catholics today do not usually prostrate and kiss icons, and the Second Vatican Council enjoined moderation in the use of images. Eastern-rite Catholics 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.

Idolatry in Islam

According to the Quran, idolatry or assigning partners to the One God (lang-ar shirk) is an egregious sin. It is seen as different in type from all other sins and is categorized as the one and only categorically unforgivable sin. However, this is not meant to be understood in narrow terms referring specifically to graven images. There are numerous forms of "shirk", including subtle aspects such as arrogance and unbridled egoism. Depicting religious themes, and specifically God, is seen as inappropriate and unbecoming. Muslims believe, like Christians and Jews, that the human intellect is incapable of conceiving God and are encouraged by the Prophet Muhammad to contemplate the creation of God, not (the essence of) God. Some Shiites are more apt to use representation of religious figures in art, but these are never worshiped per se. see also Iconoclasm see also Calligraphy

Sikh views

Sikhism discourages idol worship. Icons of the gurus are common at homes but not used at the place of worship and in a similar use to Protestant Christianity.

Hindu views of idolatry - Linguistic Symbols as Idols of Divine

The practice of Deity worship in India will be seen by a non-initiate as idol worship, since the true form of God is replaced by man-made objects. The Hindu scriptures talk about an incarnation of the Lord known as the arca-vigraha or Deity form of the Lord. There are several self-manifest Deities in India; other have been carved or shaped by the directions and descriptions of the devotees who have seen Him and then the Lord is invited to accept the Form.
Once a person or religion says "This is what God looks like," and creates an image or statue, others can say, "No. That is not what God looks like." Hindus believe that they can create gods through their own imaginations. Statues are held in the highest esteem. Hindus think that God has conquered old age. They believe that unlike the Western monotheistic religions which forbid the portrayal of God, they can do so because they control God. If you know, then say. If you do not know, then you might say He is formless -- this is another debate (personalism v. impersonalism) that has raged for millennia in India.
One must also understand the role and hierarchy of the demigods or "lesser" gods. Many religions do not explain in great detail how God manages this world nor the differences between higher and lower worlds. The Vedas describe many planets and the controllers of fire, wind, oceans, wealth, etc. Just as our government has millions of employees and everyone recognizes the President as the Head of State, similarly, the Lord has many millions of servants, yet He is the Supreme Godhead.
In Bhagavad-gita, Krishna explains that people who are less intelligent worship the demigods for some benefit which is actually provided by Him. This is Krishna or God's opinion of "idol worship." If one worships Laxmi, the goddess of fortune, for wealth, the wealth will come and go, and the benefit is nothing. In this way, you will be cheated of your valuable human life which is meant for reconnecting with God. Krishna and the Shrimad-Bhagavatam (Bhagavat Purana) recommend worship of Krishna alone: reestablishing your connection with the Supreme Lord in service has eternal benefits. The illusion of the material world disappears, you escape the cycle of birth and death, and you enter the greater reality of Heaven, God's kingdom, and you step into that "perfect relationship" you've been looking for. Hindus believe that humans themselves are the true masters, and that gods exist to obey them. In the immortal words of A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Shrila Prabhupada: let's go "back home, back to Godhead."
Hindus therefore encourage idol worship as being beautiful.
Hindus do not consider it a 'sin' in any manner to use icons, images, or linguistic symbols such as the sacred "Aum" to represent the divinity. For a Hindu the human language itself is a symbolic representation of the divine, and so the use of words to represent the divine in itself is an act of 'idolatry' but not sin in any manner. Also, these images (Skt. murti), icons, and symbols are understood by Hindus themselves as being symbolic representations of various divine attributes of the Supreme Being (Brahman), which is ultimately beyond all material names and forms. Hindu iconography employs a rich language of symbols, and images are constructed to exacting proportions in an effort to convey particular religious truths.
The multiple heads or limbs often seen in Hindu art, for example, would be intended to represent divine omniscience and omnipotence, whereas the use of an animal icon would seek to represent particular abstract qualities associated with that animal such as wisdom, agility or power. Gestures (mudra) of the hand or the holding of a certain object are also heavily weighted with meaning. Each individual icon thus becomes to the Hindu worshiper a complex statement of faith and every detail may be a focus of meditation and spiritual insight. To fully equate the divine with its icons or murtis would be an Asuri (demonic) mis-construal of the Hindu concept of divine reality.
From a historical perspective, image worship (Murti-PujA) is an ancient tradition within the Hindu tradition, with the oldest extant images of the classical Pauranik deities allegedly dating from the Gupta period (c. 3rd to 7th centuries CE). Modern academic view is that in the Vedic era that preceded this, worship was primarily centred around the open-air fire altar (yajna-kunda) and no physical representations of the divine were used. A text in the Shukla Yajur-veda (32.3) reads, “Of Him there is no likeness (pratima), whose glory is infinite”. The Upanishads, which form the philosophical ‘conclusions’ (vedAnta) of the Vedas, repeatedly stress the formlessness (nirākāra, no material form) and unimaginable nature of God, and advise the aspirant to realise the divine presence inwardly. Bhagavata Purana recommends meditation on and worship of pratima (murti) with the understanding that it is not an ordinary material object.
The advent of Islamic rule in India saw dhimmification of the Hindu religious expressions and the persecution of Hindus. Hindu reformist movements in the 18th - 19th centuries such as the Brahmo Samaj and Arya Samaj were highly critical of image worship like the Semitic religions and called for a return to the ancient Vedic and Upanishadic teachings.
The use of icons in worship continues to be an issue of contention between Hindus and members of Abrahamic religions, whose scriptural texts often fulminate against idolatry. However, Hindus view the entire anti-idolatry plank of Semitic religions as an ideological justification for genocide of pantheistic Pagan cultures and the destruction of their symbols of belief in order to establish their cultural and religious supremacy. An understanding of the meaning inherent in these practises and the philosophical monotheism that underlies the apparent 'pantheon' of gods would do much in the way of promoting interreligious tolerance and dialogue.

False idol

False idol, interpreted literally, is a phrase meaning a cult image or object considered idolatrous from the perspective of the speaker. For example, Moses considered the golden calf a false idol upon his return with the tablets of stone, as described in Exodus chapter 32.
The sometimes negative connotations of "idol" can make "false idol" sound like a tautological figure of speech.


idolatry in Arabic: وثنية
idolatry in Catalan: Idolatria
idolatry in Czech: Idolatrie
idolatry in Spanish: Idolatría
idolatry in French: Idolâtrie
idolatry in Interlingua (International Auxiliary Language Association): Idolatria
idolatry in Italian: Idolatria
idolatry in Malayalam: വിഗ്രഹാരാധന
idolatry in Dutch: Idool (afgodsbeeld)
idolatry in Japanese: 偶像崇拝
idolatry in Polish: Bałwochwalstwo
idolatry in Portuguese: Idolatria
idolatry in Slovenian: Idolatrija
idolatry in Finnish: Epäjumala
idolatry in Swedish: Avgud
idolatry in Yiddish: געצנדינעריי

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

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