Biblical Studies Idol/Idolatry (New Testament)
Sonja Anderson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0311


The New Testament mentions idols, idolatry, and related terms a handful of times. These occurrences are limited to Acts, the Epistles, and Revelation. In the Gospels, the topic is only hinted at, if at all. The most extensive discussion of idolatry is found in 1 Corinthians, where Paul offers guidance on the eating of food offered to idols, and in Acts, where speeches echo contemporary philosophical critiques of cultic images. New Testament references to idolatry should be understood not as the application of settled Old Testament norms but as parts of a larger Hellenistic conversation on the nature and legitimacy of religious images. Noncanonical and so-called Apocryphal sources, such as Philo, Josephus, and the Wisdom of Solomon, as well as pagan Greco-Roman literature, provide essential context. As Christianity changed from a marginal apocalyptic Jewish movement into an imperially backed religion, distinctly Christian art flourished even as debate about the legitimacy of religious images continued.

General Overviews

Büchsel 1964 and Pitkin 1964 cover the lexical evidence for words related to idol and idolatry. Blue 1993, Curtis 1992, Fredouille 1981, Leclercq 1926, and Rainbow 1997 offer brief overviews of idolatry in the New Testament and its ancient context. Achtemeier 1999 and Marcus 2006 are essay-length overviews of idolatry in the New Testament.

  • Achtemeier, Paul J. “Gods Made with Hands: The New Testament and the Problem of Idolatry.” In Special Issue: Idolatry and the Understanding of God. Edited by Klyne Snodgrass. Ex Auditu 15 (1999): 43–61.

    Discusses the theological problem of idolatry and the social problem of how to live among idols, with a focus on Romans and 1 Corinthians.

  • Blue, Bradley B. “Food Offered to Idols and Jewish Food Laws.” In Dictionary of Paul and His Letters. Edited by Gerald F. Hawthorne and Ralph P. Martin, 424–426. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1993.

    Concise overview of Jewish food laws, the setting of early Christian gatherings, and idol food in Acts and Paul.

  • Büchsel, Friedrich. “εἴδωλον, εἰδωλόθυτον, εἰδωλεῖον, κατείδωλος, εἰδωλολάτρης, εἰδωλολατρία.” In Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Vol. 2. Edited by Gerhard Kittel and translated by Geoffrey W. Bromiley, 375–380. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964.

    The standard discussion of words related to “idol” in the New Testament, with ample citations of other ancient texts.

  • Curtis, Edward M. “Idol, Idolatry.” In The Anchor Bible Dictionary. Edited by David Noel Freedman, 376–381. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

    Concise discussion of images in the Ancient Near East, Israel, and the New Testament.

  • Fredouille, Jean-Claude. “Götzendienst.” In Girlande–Gottesnamen. Vol. 11 of Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum. Edited by Theodor Klauser and translated by Michael Durst and Heinzgerd Brakmann, 828–895. Stuttgart: Anton Hiersemann, 1981.

    Extensive overview of idolatry in Greco-Roman, Jewish, and early Christian texts, up to the end of the patristic era. Provides many primary and secondary textual references.

  • Leclercq, Henri. “Idolatrie.” In Dictionnaire d’Archéologie Chrétienne et de Liturgie. Volume 7:1. Edited by Fernand Cabrol and Henri Leclercq, 51–62. Paris: Librairie Letouzey et Ané, 1926.

    Excellent introduction to idolatry in the New Testament, the Apostolic Fathers, the Apologists, and other patristic sources. Also discusses early Christian penitential legislation on the sin of idolatry.

  • Marcus, Joel M. “Idolatry in the New Testament.” Interpretation 60.2 (2006): 152–164.

    DOI: 10.1177/002096430606000203

    A clear and elegant overview of idolatry in various New Testament texts.

  • Pitkin, Ronald, comp. “εἰκών.” In ∆–H. Vol. 2 of Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Edited by Gerhard Kittel and translated by Geoffrey W. Bromiley, 381–397. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964.

    Covers the prohibition of images in the Old Testament, images of gods and men in Judaism and Christianity, pagan Greek terminology, the divine likeness, and image in the New Testament. Useful in conjunction with Büchsel 1964.

  • Rainbow, Paul A. “Idolatry.” In Dictionary of the Later New Testament. Edited by Ralph P. Martin and Peter H. Davids, 528–530. Grand Rapids, MI: InterVarsity, 1997.

    Covers Greco-Roman images, Jewish and Christian attitudes, food sacrificed to idols, Gnosticism, and the imperial cult. Lists several key passages, biblical and non-biblical.

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