In the 1st century AD, the vast majority of people throughout the Roman Empire and beyond practiced various forms of polytheistic religion. The Empire was officially polytheistic, and an Imperial Cult existed which promoted the worship of certain gods and practices, although other deities were often adopted into the religious system and given Latin names, including many gods and goddesses of Greece. In addition to the official temples and many shrines, people also worshipped household gods. Similar to other polytheistic religious systems, the Romans had many deities, but there were about 20 major gods and goddesses. Within these major deities are a few of particular note. Jupiter was the king of the gods and equated with Zeus. Neptune was the brother of Jupiter and the god of the sea. Juno was queen of the gods and the wife of Jupiter. She was also part of the Capitoline Triad which also included Jupiter and Minerva, the goddess of wisdom. Mars was the god of war, and equated with Ares of the Greek tradition. Venus was the goddess of love, consort of Mars, and an important deity for many of the Roman Emperors who saw her as an ancestor. A few of the major Roman gods are referred to directly or indirectly in the New Testament, such as Jupiter/Zeus, Mars/Ares, Diana/Artemis, Mercury/Hermes, and Castor and Pollux (Acts 14:12; Acts 17:19; Acts 19:28; Acts 14:12; Acts 28:11).
During the time of the Gospels, Roman and Hellenistic religion was inseparable from the culture and permeated all aspects of life, including politics and academics. While variant religious traditions were often tolerated, the Romans generally disliked certain Egyptian cults, the mystery religions, Judaism, and eventually Christianity. Since these systems had practices and beliefs that strongly conflicted with the state sponsored religion, they might be discouraged, suppressed, and even outlawed. Overall, Roman religion focused not on morality but on rituals and traditions, such as honoring the Emperor and other high ranking officials, doing what was best for the state, and maintaining order based on the values or laws of the Empire. The “Imperial Cult,” as it is often called, involved worship of and service to the person and office of the Emperor, who also could hold the role of high priest. Julius Caesar and then Augustus, the first Emperor, were even deified, and many temples were built for the worship of Augustus. Religious practices in the polytheistic cults of the Roman Empire included prayer, donations, vows and oaths, animal sacrifices, plant sacrifices, sacred prostitution, necromancy, divination, astrology, various magic, idolatry, and the worship and appeasement of gods, goddesses, and demons. In the area of Caesarea Philippi, where a shrine to the god Pan and a temple to the deceased deified Emperor Augustus were located, Jesus questioned and taught His disciples. It was in this context of a world set between Roman and Hellenistic polytheism, and the strict laws and monotheism of Judaism, that Jesus lived and Christianity emerged as a belief system and way of life markedly different from what was common in the Roman world.