From New World Encyclopedia
The Adoration of the Golden Calf by Nicolas Poussin. The worship of images is considered to be a form of idolatry by Judaism.

Idolatry (from the Greek: eidolon (idol) + latria (worship)) refers to one of the cardinal sins of the Abrahamic traditions: the worship of idols. In the Jewish and Islamic traditions, idolatry is specifically defined as the creation of any representation of the Divine, or the worship of any such image. The Hebrew terms for idolatry include avodah zarah ("foreign worship") and avodat kochavim umazalot ("worship of planets and constellations").

Biblical denunciations of idolatry were necessary in the struggle to preserve the Jews as a distinct people in a largely pagan world. The Hebrew Bible portrays the prophet Daniel standing firm in refusing to worship an image; he represented the stubborn courage of a faithful Jew in exile, at a time when many Jews were falling into unbelief, attracted by the pomp and sophistication of cosmopolitan Babylon with its glorious statue of the god Marduk. Likewise the New Testament condemns idolatry in the letters of Paul, Peter, and Revelation. It was a time of severe tension between Christianity and the pagan religions of Rome, when the state religion was used by emperors to authorize the persecution of Christians, while Christians demonstrated their faith unto death by refusing to worship an image of the emperor. A similar confrontation between a monotheistic faith and the pagan institution of idol worship occurred in pagan Arabia, when the prophet Muhammad confronted the religious establishment of Mecca.

Modern Christianity is more permissive, defining idolatry as the erroneous worship of an image, idea or object in place of the worshipping the Triune God (The Father, The Son and the Holy Spirit). In most cases, images of Jesus, the human personification of God, are explicitly not forbidden. Nevertheless, idolatry (as a concept) has had a tremendously negative impact on interreligious dialogue, as it is primarily used to demonize traditions with different worship practices.

Idolatry in Judaism

Hebrew Bible

The Hebrew Bible presents what is likely the first conceptualization of idolatry in human religious history. In its account, image worship was common in the time of Abraham, the patriarch called upon to spread the knowledge of God (Yahweh). Abraham's father, Terah, was both an idol manufacturer and worshipper of a multiplicity of gods (Joshua 24:2). It is said that when Abraham discovered the oneness of the true God, he destroyed his father's idols. A significant portion of the Torah records the struggle between Jewish attempts to spread pure monotheism, and the tendency of some people, especially rulers such as Ahab, to accept or encourage polytheistic ("idolatrous") beliefs. This struggle is significant, because those worshipping images are in direct violation of the Ten Commandments, the most concise summation of the Israelite covenant.

The Second Commandment declares idolatry to be a sin: "Thou shalt not make unto me any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them… " (Exodus 20.4-5). This follows the First Commandment, where God decrees that the Israelites must acknowledge no gods other than He. Thus, the conceptual link is clear: denial of idols is closely related to the monotheistic faith of the Semitic community. Indeed, many of the commandments in the Hebrew Bible repudiated the practices of pagans who lived amongst the Israelites at the time, including the polytheistic Canaanites, Mesopotamians and Egyptians. Each of these religions used icons in order to worship their various gods.

Apparently, these iconoclastic teachings were still being questioned into the prophetic period, as those books reflect a continuing struggle against idol worship. For example, the prophet Jeremiah complains: "According to the number of thy cities are thy gods, O Judah" (2:28). Many of the pre-exilic prophets argued that images were dangerous because they existed apart from god. After the first exile (in 587), the prophets rallied the Jewish people again, claiming that distancing themselves from idolatry was essential for retaining Jewish monotheism, and maintaining Jewish culture and religion. These teachings helped the early Jews to maintain a united front, even when Emperor Antiochus IV Epiphanes' attempted to syncretize the numerous gods that existed within his empire.

The Bible has many terms for idolatry, and their usage represents the horror with which they filled the writers of the Bible. Thus idols are stigmatized as "non-God" (Deut. 32:17, 21 [1]; Jer. 2:11 [2]), "things of naught" (Lev. 19:4 et passim [3]), "vanity" (Deut. 32), "iniquity" (1 Sam. 15:23 [4] ), "wind and confusion" (Isa. 41:29 [5]), "the dead" (Ps. 106:28 [6]), "carcasses" (Lev. 26:30; Jer. 16:18), "a lie" (Isa. 44:20 et passim [7]), and similar epithets. Taking these verses together, idolatry in the Hebrew Bible can be summarily defined as the worship of idols (or images), the worship of polytheistic gods by use of idols (or images), the general worship of animals or people, and even the use of idols in the worship of the one God. This final definition is the basis of Judaism' strict monotheism. In a number of places, the Hebrew Bible makes it clear that God has no shape or form, meaning that no idol or image could ever capture God's essence.

Rabbinic tradition

The battle against idolatry gradually faded into the background of Judaic thought during the period of the Second Temple. During this time, temples dedicated to Mesopotamian and Babylonian gods were no longer considered significant threats to the Judaic religion. However, passages in the Talmud still maintain the strong iconoclastic sentiments. For instance, the Talmudic Tractate Avodah Zarah (translating to "Idolatry") provides a thorough criticism of the pagan culture that spawned "idolatrous" beliefs, and stipulates the types of contact permissible between Jews and pagans. Another Talmudic commentary, Sifre Deuteronomy 28, states, "Whoever endorses idolatry, rejects the entire Torah; and whoever renounces idolatry, accepts the entire Torah." These passages overtly state that one's stance towards idolatrous behavior is the single determinant factor of one's status as a Jew.

A similar line of thought was propounded by Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides (1135–1204 C.E.), who revisited the Biblical injunctions against idolatry as a means of critiquing the increasingly anthropomorphic conceptions of God that were then popular in European Christianity. When these conceptions began to find favor among the Jewish community, Maimonides responded by outlining 13 principles to characterize orthodox Judaism. The third of these is an affirmation: "I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, blessed be His Name, is not a body, and that He is free from all the properties of matter, and that there can be no (physical) comparison to Him whatsoever." The near-universal acceptance of these principles by diverse Jewish groups into the present day shows that disdain for idolatry has remained an important element of Jewish practice.

Contemporary Judaism

In addition to the general prohibition of (religious) idolatry, contemporary Judaism also holds that any belief or practice that significantly interferes with a Jew's relationship with God may be deemed idolatry. This broad definition could include such diverse "sins" as extreme nationalism or greed (excessive pursuit of money).

In addition, many modern Jews believe that idolatry is not limited to the worship of an idol, but also involves worshiping any artistic representations of God. Jews do not produce paintings, sculptures or drawings of God. Orthodox Jews will even avoid writing out the full name of God, as the written word itself implies a kind of depiction which could be considered idolatrous. For example, the spelling "G-d" can be seen as a modern (English-language) version of the prohibition that the Tetragrammaton, the ineffable name of God, is not to be read aloud.

Idolatry in Christianity

Apostolic and Patristic periods

Early Christianity adopted the same negative sentiments toward idolatry as their Jewish predecessors. A major reason that these teachings flourished is that many of the non-Jewish converts came from pagan traditions, and they wanted to divorce themselves from their former polytheistic beliefs. Reflecting this, the New Testament provides opposition to the use of idols. For example, Paul's first letter to the Corinthians (10:19) notes that the veneration of idols is essentially the veneration of demons. Likewise, similar viewpoints are visible among both the Greek and Latin apologists. Justin Martyr forwarded his predecessor's diatribes against idol worship, but was even more critical of those who worshipped natural entities (such as earth, water and the sun). Tertullian argues that statues are only matter, comparing them to the banal, everyday objects of domestic life. Further, he denigrates the value of painting, sculpture and other artistic endeavors, claiming these are merely shrouds for idolatrous yearnings. Finally, Saint Augustine of Hippo, the most influential of the early Church Fathers, claimed that idolatry presented an opportunity for demons to invade the person of the idolator. Also, he stated that all pagan gods were merely extensions of mortal men who entered into the hearts of human beings and compelled them to confound parts of God's creation with parts of God Himself.

These denunciations of pagan idolatry made sense in light of the official pagan religion of Rome, which gave ideological support to the persecution of Christians. Christians were quick to identify the pagan gods of the Greco-Roman pantheon with demons, made plausible by Genesis 6:1-4, which spoke of a tyrannical race of violent men produced by the unnatural intercourse between fallen angels and human women. The Romans obliged this identification, since in the official cult, the Roman legions celebrated Jupiter as the god of victory. Julius Caesar claimed to be the descendant of a union between Roman culture-hero Aeneas and the goddess Venus.

Byzantine iconoclasm

In an edict in 730 C.E., Byzantine Emperor Leo III outlawed the worship of all religious images, save for religious symbols such as the cross. The ban on icons was maintained under Leo's son Constantine V, who summoned a council of bishops in Hieria in 754 that was later dubbed "the Iconoclast Council."

Monasteries argued vehemently in favor of icon veneration, producing such works as St. John of Damascus' "On the Divine Image," which puts forth the thesis that the incarnation of Christ indicates a shift in God's nature from invisible to visible. As a result, he deems it permissible to depict images of Jesus Christ. He also defends external acts of honor towards icons, since the acts go beyond the image and connect with the prototype of Christ within.

Instead of replying to such arguments, Constantine V ordered the destruction of all icons and halted the invocation of saints. Such iconoclasm continued until Leo IV's (775-780) wife Irene took power and initiated the Second Council of Nicaea (the Seventh Ecumenical Council), which codified terms for the proper veneration of icons and unanimously reversed the decrees of the previous iconoclast council. This lasted until Emperor Leo V instituted a second period of Iconoclasm in 813, again with fear that icon veneration was becoming idolatrous. Leo was succeeded by Michael II, who confirmed the decrees of the Iconoclast Council of 754. Michael was, in turn, succeeded by his son, Theophilus, whose wife Theodora took the throne after his death and restored the use of icons in 843.

The Protestant Reformation

Following the Iconoclast Controversy, idolatry was a non-issue for several centuries, as both the Catholic and Orthodox churches resumed using images and icons of angels and saints as objects of veneration. However, with the onset of the Protestant Reformation the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, dissidents began to openly criticize the Catholic Church. Foremost among the issues attacked by Protestant reformers (including Andreas Karlstadt, Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin) was the Church's practice of iconic veneration. For these thinkers, such actions resembled the idolatrous practices prohibited by the Bible. Among Protestant congregations, this led to calculated efforts to suppress images. Calvin, for instance, insisted that the interior of churches be unadorned, often demanding that church walls be white-washed to cover images of saints and other religious figures. In addition, each of these Reformers proclaimed separately that these images should be destroyed. As the Reformation grew in momentum throughout Europe, some icons and images were damaged by rioting groups, while others were removed in a more orderly fashion by civil authorities. Protestant Reformers, however, were not ubiquitously hostile to the use of religious images. In fact, Martin Luther, who spurred on the Reformation, actually supported the use of religious icons so long as they did not displace God in the act of worship.

Contemporary Christianity

Contemporary Christian views of idolatry may be divided into two general categories: the Catholic and Orthodox assemblies who use icons, and the (conservative) Protestant groups who consider such iconography to be idolatrous. The former group defends iconolatry by saying that these objects are filled with God's grace and power, a belief that denies their classification as "hollow forms" - meaning that they are not idols. Evidence for the use of such articles, they claim, is found in the Old Testament and in Early Christian worship.

Iconography is, of course, particularly important in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Though they acknowledge the doctrinal prohibition on the worship of idols, they contrast this with the veneration of highly stylized religious pictures, which is not only allowed but is considered an obligation. In the Byzantine tradition, these paintings are actually seen as windows into the transcendent truth of God. As such, Orthodox churches are adorned (both inside and outside) with frescoes and icons. The icons are often placed on an iconostasis, a wall of icons separating the nave and the congregation from the sanctuary in a church. This type of veneration is also practiced in the Catholic Church, though the emphasis is not as great as in the Orthodox tradition.

Fundamentalist Protestants often accuse Catholic and Orthodox Christians of traditionalism, idolatry, paganism and "iconolatry" for not excising the use of images from their worship. Most Protestant groups avoid the use of images in any context suggestive of veneration, though some Protestant sects do not object to their use for inspiration and education. Some icons may be present within some "high" Protestant denominations (such as Anglicanism), but they are not employed in the same manner or to the same degree as in the Orthodox tradition. Conversely, some of the more conservative Protestant groups have maintained the staunch iconoclasm of the Reformation period and avoid the use of any religious images, as they are seen as potential incitements to idolatry. Puritan Protestant groups, for example, adopted a view comparable to Islam, which denounces all forms of religious objects.

Christian attitudes towards other religions in the context of idolatry

Christian theology requires evangelism, using missionaries to spread the faith by gaining converts. This has brought Christianity into contact with a wide variety of other religions throughout its history. The predominant negative Christian view towards idolatry has often led to the demonization of other religions, and even the vilification of other Christian denominations. Up until modern times, it would appear that most Christian groups, Protestant or otherwise, generally condemned Eastern religions as forms of idolatry. The Catholic missionary Francis Xavier, for example, referred to Hinduism as idolatry, and Protestant Christian apologetics make similar claims. However, with the increase in ecumenical studies and interfaith dialogue, such intolerance is rapidly being overcome.

Idolatry in Islam

Qur'an and shirk

As could be expected from its Abrahamic roots, Islam inherited the Judeo-Christian attitudes toward idolatry. Throughout the Qur'an, anti-idolatrous sentiments are expressed even more vehemently than in the Hebrew Bible. This is likely because Islamic monotheism arose in contrast to the polytheistic worship that was common among the many Arab tribes and in the Kaaba before the rise of the prophet Mohammed. These tribes usually venerated their gods through the use of stones, which were either raised or smeared with sacrificial blood. The Qur'an, when describing these stones, speaks of them as idols and roundly condemns them. It states that idols are the enemy of God's true followers, and should be destroyed in much the same way as Abraham smashed the idols of his neighbors (21:52-70).

The Qur'an introduces the term shirk (loosely translated as "sharing as an equal partner"), which refers to the mortal sin of polytheism. For Mohammed, shirk refers to the association of one god or several gods with the one true God (51:51). This sin is seen as so blasphemous that shirk is considered to be the antithesis of the concept of muslim meaning "believer." In Surah 9:114, Mohammed implores Muslims to avoid such people at all costs, even if they are kinfolk.

This vocabulary of shirk was developed and refined by later Muslim theologians, some of whom considered shirk to be an offense that included the common pagan practice of giving God the attributes of His creation (See al-Asma was-Sifat, The Names and Attributes of Allah). In this light, idolatry can be described as shirk by humanization, which refers to Allah being given the form and qualities of either human beings or animals. In light of this sin, images of God are banned outright in most sects of Islam, as an attempt to reinforce absolute monotheism and to eliminate all traces of idolatry. Furthermore, most sects of Islam forbid any artistic depictions of human figures, particularly of Mohammed, as these are also considered akin to idolatry. Another form of shirk that relates to Islamic doctrines of idolatry is in the category of Shirk in al-'Ebadah (Worship), and is called Ash-Shirk al-Akbar (Major Shirk). Major Shirk occurs when any act of worship is directed at something other than Allah. It represents the most obvious form of idolatry and is the same sin that all Abrahamic prophets have cautioned against. Thus, through their proscriptions concerning shirk, later jurists and systematizers were able to build upon the Qur'anic injunctions against idolatry.

Idolatry and Eastern Religions


The Hindu tradition, with its understanding of multiple paths to salvation, is (largely) free of critiques of idolatry that characterize the Abrahamic traditions. Hinduism teaches that because humans are sensory beings we have a need to visualize God with form. Consequently, the vast majority of Hindus accept murti (icon worship) as an important part of religious observance.

While Christian missionaries and iconoclastic Hindu traditions have equated murti worship with idolatry, the bhakti devotionalists rebut by claiming that they are only worshiping the image or statue as a representative of (or a conduit to) a higher ideal or principle. The idol is merely a physical object until God is invoked in it, and then it serves as a means to focus the mind and meditate on God. This belief is congruent with the monistic emphasis of the tradition, which stresses the omnipresence of the Divine.

Some Hindu sects (like the Arya Samaj and Brahmo Samaj) do not believe in using murtis as a way to focus on God, since they choose to singularly worship the undifferentiated Brahman. Other sects argue that the human mind needs an Ishta Deva (chosen deity) to aid concentration upon the Divine principle during sadhana (spiritual exercise). In particular, some Hindu sects like ISKCON will only consent to the worship of icons that they consider to be representations of the supreme God (in the case of ISKCON, Vishnu or his avatar Krishna).


Although the Buddha is said to have asked that no statues be made in his honor, numerous images and icons have nonetheless been dedicated to him throughout history. At first, Buddhist art employed certain symbols to represent the Buddha without actually depicting him, such as a footprint or wheel of dharma. With the impact of Greek culture and sculpture on India, following in the wake of Alexander the Great's invasion, Buddhists soon began to construct statues representing Gautama Buddha as he was posed when he achieved Enlightenment under the bodhi tree. Though it would have been considered idolatrous (or at least futile) to attempt to portray the formless state of Nirvana, most Mahayana schools did not find any problems with the depiction of the Buddha's human form.

In terms of ritual and worship, Buddhists do not worship the physical images that they employ, rather they meditate upon the meaning and symbolism represented by them. Often Buddhists will bow before statues, but this is understood as an evocation of faith and respect rather than an act of worship. However, given the emphasis on detachment in the Buddhist tradition, there is still an understanding of "idolatry" as the identification with or attachment to the physicality of an object rather than understanding its fundamental impermanence. As a result, it is considered a transgression to worship one of these statues or, more seriously, to risk one's life (or the life of another) to preserve a statue's material form (See Trikaya doctrine).

Chinese religion

Early Daoism was partially aniconic, disallowing the anthropomorphic representation of its founder, Lao Zi. Yet, by the Tang dynasty or earlier, Daoism had incorporated the use of images (called shen xiang) for purposes of portraying its divinities, including the highest trinity, the San Qing. Lao Zi himself was eventually apotheosized (as Divine Lord Lao), and his images became objects of worship. In both Daoism and Chinese Folk Religion, statues, paintings, or name plaques of deities are given central place as the foci of worship in temples and homes.

During the Chinese Rites controversy of the early eighteenth century, Roman Catholic missionaries debated whether Confucianism worshipped Confucius as a god or merely venerated him as a saint. This was largely a dispute between the Dominicans and the Jesuits, missionary groups who were attempting to ascertain whether Confucians were viable subjects for conversion. The Dominicans claimed that Confucianism and Chinese folk religion were indeed the worship of other gods, and therefore were incompatible with Catholicism, while the Jesuits thought the opposite. Confucianism, of course, acknowledges the existence of a Supreme Heavenly Being (Tian or Tien), though it does not place significant emphasis on worship and prayer directed at that Heavenly being, as in the typical Catholic conception of God. The Pope eventually ruled in favor of the Dominicans, a decision which greatly reduced the role of Catholic missionaries in China.

Idolatry in Polytheistic and Animistic Religions

Religions that center on the veneration of objects are still found throughout the world. Polytheistic Neopagan religions, for example, perform elaborate worship ceremonies in honor of depictions of numerous gods. In addition, animistic beliefs, which are characteristic of a vast number indigenous peoples throughout the world, attribute souls and/or personalities to virtually all objects and venerate them because of these inner spirits. These types of beliefs have been labelled idolatrous for three reasons: 1) they use of certain objects or places that seem to have supernatural powers independent of a central God, 2) they employ prayers or rituals that are considered more likely to be effective when performed in the presence of certain objects or places, and 3) these prayers are often directed to pantheons of polytheistic religious figures.

Adherents of polytheism and animism reject the charges that their religious beliefs and practices are idolatrous. Polytheists generally do not believe that their statues (or other physical objects) are gods; rather, they are symbols of the immaterial spiritual force behind the gods. They maintain that physical idols are simply the representational form of a divine deity, and the act of "worship" is not directed at the object, but at the divinity that the object is believed to represent. Animists, on the other hand, typically do acknowledge supernatural power within everyday objects and natural phenomena. However, they still do not worship or propitiate mundane physical objects, they merely acknowledge the perceived divinity within them.

Significance of Idolatry

The importance of idolatry (as a concept) cannot be underestimated, not only because it has caused a great deal of religious controversy throughout the history of humankind, but also because it has been so central to the development of religion itself. The emphasis on monotheism that characterizes the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) was shaped in part by their common criticism of idolatry.

While not all religions are monotheistic, none encourages idolatrous behavior, which has become a near ubiquitous taboo. Religions which use iconography and imagery in worship defend their beliefs by claiming that they perform their worship (or veneration) with a sense of discernment. In many cases, they discriminate between the pious worship of the divinity represented in an icon and the idolatrous worship of the physical icon itself.

On an optimistic note, many modern adherents of the Abrahamic traditions have grown past their earlier demonization of other religions as idolatrous, as they recognize that the one God has been at work in advancing the spirituality of all the major world faiths. This development has done much for the growth of interreligious dialogue.

See also

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Brichto, Herbert Chanan. The Worship of the Golden Calf: A Literary Analysis of a Fable on Idolatry. Hebrew Union College Annual, 54, 1983.
  • Burggraeve, R., de Tavernier, J., Pollefeyt, D., & Hanssens, J. "True Faith in God and Forms of Religious Idolatry." In Desirable God?: Our Fascination with Images, Idols, and New Deities. eds. Roger Burggraeve, Johan de Tavernier, Didier Pollefeyt, and Jo Hanssens. Leuven-Dudley, MA: Peeters, 2003. 7-38. ISBN 9042913169
  • Dorff, Elliot N. "Judaism and Idolatry: In Defense of Images" in Proceedings of the Academy for Jewish Philosophy Ed. David Novak and Norbert M. Samuelson, University Press of America, 1992.
  • Halbertal, Moshe & Margalit Avishai. Idolatry. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 1992. ISBN 0674443128
  • "Idolatry." Encyclopedia of Religion, ed. Mercia Eliade. New York: MacMillan Publishing, 1987.
  • "Idolatry." The Encyclopedia Judaica. Jerusalem: Keter Publishing. 1994.
  • Kaufman, Yehezkel. The Religion of Israel: From its Beginnings to the Babylonian Exile. Moshe Greenberg, trans. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1960/ ISBN 0226427285
  • Kogan, Bary S. "Judaism and the Varieties of Idolatrous Experience" in Proceedings of the Academy for Jewish Philosophy Ed. David Novak and Norbert M. Samuelson, University Press of America, 1992.
  • Pelikan, Jaroslav J. Imago Dei: the Byzantine apologia for icons. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990. ISBN 0691099707
  • Roth, Norman. Maimonides: essays and texts : 850th anniversary. Madison, WI: Hispanic Seminary of Medieval Studies, 1985. ISBN 0942260597
  • Streza, Liviu. The Mystagogy of Sacred Space according to Orthodox Theology. Studia Liturgica 24 (1994): 84-90.


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