Question: What do biblical scholars and archaeologists mean when they use the word cult?
To contemporary ears, it might sound funny—or even offensive—to hear a biblical scholar talk about the “ancient Israelite cult.” The term cult conjures images of controlling personalities demanding total adherence to spurious beliefs by their brainwashed followers, sometimes with tragic results, as happened at Jonestown or with the Branch Davidians. A cult’s members are often seen as being led astray by a dishonest leader with ulterior motives.
But when scholars are studying religion, especially ancient religion, they use cult in a different sense. The term comes from the Latin word cultus, which means “care” or “adoration.” The same word gives us the terms culture and cultivate. In this sense, the term cult refers to a system of worship related to a specific deity. In ancient Israel, that means the system of practice, centered in a temple, that was part of the worship of the Israelite god Yahweh.
A biblical scholar might use biblical texts like those in Leviticus to describe aspects of the Israelite cult. Based on this evidence, the Israelite cult seems to have included making sacrifices on an altar, pouring out the blood of the sacrificed animal, and burning or consuming various parts of the animal. An archaeologist might excavate something that looks like an altar or an image of a deity and thereby determine that the artifacts and by extension the site are cultic in nature. Scholars might also compare this evidence to parallel cults, like the cult of Marduk in Babylon or the cult of Hathor in Egypt. In all of these cases, the term cult means something more like “a system of religious practice” and carries no negative meaning.