Why is Cybele vital to understanding Romans? Part 3

by A.P.S.
(Los Angeles, CA)

A Cybele altar in the Milano museum

A Cybele altar in the Milano museum

Because our Christian faith is based on historical facts, we use those facts to accurately interpret scripture. Without an understanding of first century culture history and religion, the Bible will make little sense to us today. We must know and understand what was happening in the first century when the New Testament was written.

Because the human authors of the Bible assumed this knowledge on the part of their readers, they did not spend time explaining the biblical cultural doctrinal historical linguistic and religious context. Our task is to obey 2 Timothy 2:15 and learn the context. We learn the context by asking questions and exploring history to find the answers.

What did the text mean to the people who first heard or read it? What situation confronted the author and his audience? Cultural historical and religious circumstances not only explain what was written, they often explain why it was written. Ignoring these factors may cause us to miss the point of a passage. By paying attention to context, we can accurately carefully correctly honestly reverently truthfully interpret scripture.

In Part 1 and Part 2 we provided ten compelling reasons why the Phrygian goddess Cybele figures prominently in Romans 1 even though Paul did not mention her by name. Now we draw conclusions based on cultural historical and religious facts which were well-known in the first century AD to Paul's readers but which are not well-known to modern Bible readers.

Cybele the Phrygian goddess

The ancient city of Iconium in Phrygia was founded around 3000 BC. At approximately 1500 BC (the time when Moses led the children of Israel out of slavery in Egypt), the biblical Hittites invaded the area which was later called Phrygia when Paul preached there. Around 275 BC, Gauls who were driven out of what is now modern France settled in Iconium, Phrygia. That area of central Asia Minor also came to be known as Galatia, named after the Gauls. That is the area to which Paul addressed his Epistle to the Galatians.

Some of the people who got saved under Paul's ministry in this area, Acts 14-18, were saved out of goddess worship with all its evil practices. Archaeological excavations reveal that religious worship in ancient Iconium included worship of bull cults, Acts 14:6-20, and worship of the prehistoric mother goddess.

Cybele and Jupiter

"In goddess dedications discovered in modern Sizma, five hours north of Iconium, Minerva (Minerva Zizimene, the Latin version of Zizima, the local form of the great mother Cybele of the Iconium region), is linked to her consort, Jupiter Optimus Maximus and in the Greek with the Tyche (of Iconium); here evidently Jupiter and Minerva are Latin representatives of a pair of Phrygian deities, while in the Greek she is herself expressed in two forms as the (Mother) and Hellenized as the Iconian Good Fortune."

- W.M. Ramsey, The Classical Review, Vol. 19, No. 7, Oct., 1905, pp. 367-370, published by Cambridge University Press

Minerva Zizimene is the Anatolian mother-goddess, who was worshiped under different names in different parts of Asia Minor.

- W. M. Calder, The Classical Review, Vol. 27, No. 1, Feb., 1913, pp. 9-11, published by Cambridge University Press

"Among the deities that the Gentiles of Iconium worshiped, the most prominent was Cybele, the Phrygian mother goddess; Phrygian mystery cults were also common." - The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, Craig S. Keener, InterVarsity Press, 1993, p. 361

"Essentially it (the myth of Demeter and Persephone) was the same myth as that of Isis and Osiris in Egypt, Tammuz and Ishtar in Babylonia, Astarte and Adonis in Syria, Cybele and Attis in Phrygia. The cult of motherhood survived through classical times to take new life in the worship of Mary the Mother of God." Will Durant, History of Civilization, Vol. 2, 1939, p.178

Corpus cultus Cybelae attidisque (CCCA) 3, Maarten Jozef Vermaseren, p. 235ff. describes Cybele statues in the Archaeological Museum in Konya, which is modern Iconium.

"In 1886 I found the first of a series of inscriptions which show that the protecting goddess of Iconium was called Mother Zizamene or Zizimmeme. In publishing this (Ath. Mitt. 1889, p. 237) I suggested that the name was equivalent to Dindymene… A feature in this inscription is that the Mother goddess is mentioned first and Apollo after her. Generally Apollo or whatever name is applied to the god is mentioned first in the public inscriptions, though in the Mysteries which must have been celebrated at Zizyma the important position which belongs to the Mother goddess was undoubtedly emphasized.

It may now be regarded as practically certain that the Dindymos of Kybele and Didyma the seat of Apollo bore the same name as Zizyma the seat of the Mother goddess. At Didyma the goddess recedes into the background and is hardly ever mentioned while the god alone under the name Apollo appears publicly; but the analogy of all other Asia Minor religious ritual practiced at Didyma, we should find the goddess alongside of the god. At Zizyma the goddess is, even to public view, the more important figure, but the god under varying names, Apollo, Dionysos, Zeus, and so on, is frequently mentioned along with her, and the two constitute the divine pair. It is characteristic of Hellenic feeling to lay stress on the god, and to keep the goddess in the background."

The Journal of Hellenic Studies, 1918, Volume 38, pp. 138-139, W.M. Ramsey,

The Zizimene Mother was the local Iconium version of Cybele, mother of the gods, who had been kidnapped and taken to Rome in 204 BC.

"This was the epitaph engraved on the tomb of their son Zotikos by Kallinikos and Ammia, priest and priestess of a local cult closely connected with the fate of Iconium. The son Zotikos, being hereditarily connected with the cult, fulfilled certain duties subordinate to those of his parents in the ritual: the great Anatolian priesthoods were hereditary. (Note 89: Aeschines was minister to his mother the priestess of Cybele: the case is typical, as described by Demosthenes, de cor 29).

The generally recognized goddess of the Iconian municipal region was the Zizamene Mother, who had her seat at Zizyma or Zizima (modern Sizma), five hours north of Iconium, but it is clear that the cult mentioned in this inscription lay near the city: a sacred place in the immediate neighborhood of Iconium was the center of the ritual here described. The names and the religious ritual are of the Anatolian type. Galateia is a local nymph, really a local variety of the (Orondian) Mountain-Mother, whose chief home was at Zizima, but who was manifested in other places near Iconium.

- The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Volume 38, 1918, Greek Philology, p. 162

Conclusions about Cybele

Ignoring Cybele's influence and prominence in Phrygia, in Rome and throughout the Roman Empire and Paul's experience of growing up around the goddess worship of Tarsus and winning pagan worshipers of Cybele to saving faith in Jesus Christ in her Phrygian stronghold, guarantees a wrong understanding of Romans every time.

The idolatry Paul so carefully describes in Romans 1 is directly related to Paul's life experience and what he knew to be happening in Rome when he wrote his epistle. The pagan sexual worship of the fertility goddess which was rampant in ancient Tarsus and Paul's personal experience as a soul-winning street preaching missionary in ancient Phrygia ten years before he wrote Romans, impacted what he wrote in Romans 1. Historical context is important and knowing the ancient world in which the apostle Paul wrote Romans helps us interpret and exposit the text accurately. Cybele is inextricably linked to first century Rome and to Paul's ministry as he labored to win her worshipers to saving faith in Jesus Christ.

Why is Cybele vital to understanding Romans? Part 1

Why is Cybele vital to understanding Romans? Part 2

Romans 1 and the link to Cybele

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Photo of the Cibele altar at the Milano Archaeological Museum by CristianChirita, via Wikimedia.org used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

This page updated September 13, 2014

Comments for Why is Cybele vital to understanding Romans? Part 3

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May 12, 2014
I've never heard this before
by: Pastor Ralph

Just read all three articles in this series. I suppose I've got 8 or 10 Romans commentaries. Haven't read every word in every commentary but this is new information to me. I've never heard this angle before and I find it interesting. I'm not in your boat yet but you do have me thinking.

Based on the quotations in these articles, knowledge of Cybele was common knowledge a century ago. Why do we not hear of this from preachers today? If your thesis is true, that changes how we should exegete, exposit and apply Romans chapter 1.

If the apostle Paul wasn't indicting gays and lesbians but was indicting worship of Cybele or Minerva, we need to include that information in our preaching and teaching. Truth is truth even if it is truth we haven't acknowledged previously, even if it makes us uncomfortable.

Thanks for challenging me and giving me something to think about.

Jul 08, 2016
Idol worship and ungodly character
by: Brad

These idols that are worshipped may be the focus of Paul's condemnation.

But worship of idols and the practices involved in that worship are generally not following God's truth.

The actions/rituals are not in line with what God wants us to do and what he wants us to be like. The very purpose of idols is to remove God and get you to follow practices that are not godly.

If there was an idol that required people to lie and Paul had condemned the idolatry itself, we world not argue that lying was right just because he didn't explicitly say it.

Rick's comment: Hi Brad - According to Finnish Bible scholar Martti Nissinen, in his book, Homoeroticism in the Biblical World - A Historical Perspective, there is no historical proof that shrine prostitutes were homosexual. Most shrine prostitutes were heterosexuals engaging in same sex rituals to worship their pagan gods and goddesses.

What Paul condemned was not two gay guys or two gay gals falling in love and covenanting to spend their lives together as a couple. That is not the context of any of the clobber passages and is not the context of Romans 1.

Bible believing Christians approach scripture from a gramatico-historical perspective. That simply means we believe that words have meaning and inspired scripture is given in a biblical cultural doctrinal historical linguistic and religious context.

"When the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense; therefore, take every word at its primary, ordinary, usual, literal meaning unless the facts of the immediate context, studied in light of related passages and axiomatic and fundamental truths, indicate clearly otherwise."

Whenever we divorce a verse from its context (in this case, the idolatry of mid-first century AD Rome) and ignore its context, we guarantee we'll get the interpretation wrong. The job of a pastor in teaching the Bible verse by verse is to lead his flock across the historical bridge and immerse them in the context of the ancient world in which scripture was written.

Paul's argument in Romans 1 is about idolatry, not lesbians and gays. He condemns Gentiles as unrighteous in chapter 1 and Jews as unrighteous in chapter 2 and concludes that all are unrighteous in chapter 3. In 3:24ff, Paul tells us how God deals with our unrighteousness.

He took our sins upon Himself, dying as us for us, fully paying the penalty God's holiness demanded. God accepted the payment Jesus made, a fact we know for sure because God raised Jesus from the dead, Romans 8:11.

Now, if we want to be saved, we must accept the payment Jesus made for our sins.

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