Ritual Prostitution, a problem for early Church Essay

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Ritual Prostitution, a problem for early Church

The act of ritual prostitution was commonly identified with the church at Corinth. Corinth during the lifetime of Paul was one of the most important cities in the Roman Empire. It served as a commercial bridge between the East and West, attracting immigrants, merchants, traders and visitors from all areas around the Mediterranean Sea. The inhabitants, coming from diverse cultural backgrounds, retained many social customs and religious beliefs and practices peculiar to their places of origin. Corinthians were also notorious for their love of pleasures and lax morals. Consequently, the church at Corinth was exposed to a bewildering variety of customs and beliefs and to a corrosive atmosphere of public immorality, all of which encouraged a lack of moral discipline and divisiveness in the predominantly Gentile Christian community.

The Christians at Corinth produced highly divergent interpretations of what the Gospel demanded in the way of sexual ethics, ranging from libertinism to a complete rejection of both marriage and sexual intercourse. It is probable that the libertine party at Corinth had adopted slogans such as “All things are permitted” and “Food is for the belly and the belly for food” (implying that sexual intercourse is as uncomplicated an expression of natural desire as eating is). Paul argues that the body of a Christian belongs to Christ. Therefore, all sexual expression, then, must take Christ’s ownership into account

The act of Ritual Prostitution was one of many of the immoralities found at the Church of Corinth, including the abuse of the Lord’s supper, various forms of sexual immorality and food offered to idols, to name but a few. In general terms, ‘prostitution’ is the performance of sexual acts solely for the purpose of material gain. Persons prostitute themselves when they grant favours to others in exchange for money, gifts or other payments and in so doing, use their bodies as commodities. In legal terms, the word prostitute refers only to those who engage overtly in such sexual-economic transactions, usually for a specific sum of money.

Though, the question is specifically related to ritual prostitution (1 Corinthians 5), in order to answer the question on the Church’s doctrine on the issue, it is necessary to generalise and include ‘prostitution’ as a whole. In other words, we shall have to regard ‘ritual prostitution’ in terms of ‘prostitution as a whole’ to evaluate as to whether the Church’s doctrine is adequate.

In terms of Jewish opposition to the problem, the Torah (Law) had little to say on the subject of secular prostitution. It prohibited parents from dedicating their children as sacred prostitutes, but there is nothing to tell us whether its authors would have objected equally to the ideas of a master making his slave-woman a secular prostitute or even a father doing so with his daughter. There are two references to secular prostitution in the Old Testament, which offer any details as to how it was regarded. In both cases, an unmarried women is understood to have chosen this course of action on her own and thereby brought disgrace on her father. In one passage, a priests daughter “who plays the harlot” is condemned to be burned for having “profaned” her father (Leviticus 21:9). One may think that she is part of her father’s household, either as not yet married or as a divorced or widowed woman. Her activity threatens the state of purity vital to the household, since its food comes largely from the altar of the temple.

The second incident is taken from Deuteronomy (22:13-21) where a man charges that his wife was not found to be a virgin on her wedding night. If this were true, she would be stoned for having “played the harlot in her father’s house.” In other words, she has engaged in sexual intercourse when she ought to have been guarding her virginity carefully in order to be a suitable bride. In the process, she has exposed her father to shame for having misrepresented her state in negotiating her marriage.

It is not clear from the passage that she actually receives payment for her services; the point seems to be, rather, that she has deprived her father and her prospective husband of their rights in her. What was wrong with prostitution, from the perspective of ancient Israel, was not so much the giving or receiving of payment for sexual intercourse as it was the removal of sexual intercourse from the framework of property and hierarchy which normally contained it and ensured that it was placed at the service of the family.

Such an interpretation is made explicit in a more extensive critique of prostitution found in Proverbs. After warning the reader against the wiles of the loose woman, the author contrasts the positive ideal of possessing a wife with a negative prospect of wasting one’s resources on a courtesan (Proverbs 5:15-23).

Having said that, one cannot treat wisdom literature as if it were the same genre as legislation. It is clear that Proverbs agrees with the Torah in understanding prostitution, as violation to Gods will, not merely as something to be avoided for prudential reasons. Still, the justification offered for the prohibition is intrusive as to the ethical framework in which the prohibition itself belonged. Prostitution was wrong because it stood outside the normal patriarchal system in which the male head of the household owned one or more women as sexual partners. As such, it threatened the interests of the family. The man might feel that he had received full value for his expense, but the family gained nothing at all from his patronising of the prostitute. His action, therefore was a betrayal of his responsibilities, since he existed not to gratify his own desires but to maintain and enhance the fortunes of his “father’s house.”

What the Torah and Proverbs agree upon then is the condemnation of those who place personal gratification ahead of family duty. The Torah condemns the unmarried woman who prefers sexual pleasure above her obligations as a good daughter of the household who must preserve her marriage-ability, which is, indeed the family’s investment in her. Proverbs condemns the man who spends family resources on private pleasure. He should marry a woman and be content with the sexual pleasure he receives from her. Proverbs was concerned to make the prostitute sound as unscrupulous and unattractive as possible. The Torah was speaking to the woman who was trying to behave as an unattached individual in pursuit of pleasure while still remaining under the protection of her father. According to the Torah, prostitution, though a slightly less serious crime than adultery, was wrong insofar as it represented the triumph of individual gratification over against the principle of subordination to the family.

Having identified the vast literature that could have been used by the early Church to combat the problem, it must be stated that the matter of prostitution receives very little attention from the Gospel writers, but it appears in a significant pronouncement of Jesus. The tax collectors and the prostitutes, he said, were entering the Kingdom of God ahead of respectable religious leaders (chief priests and elders) because they believed the preaching of John the Baptist (Matt 21:23-32). Since John preached repentance (Matt 3:2) one may suspect that prostitutes ceased to be such when they came to believe the message. It proves difficult, however, to be certain.

The tax collectors presumably did not cease to be tax collectors (In Luke 19:1-10, the tax collector Zacchaeus, upon his conversion, gave half of his property to the poor and made amends to those he has defrauded). However, a prostitute would have found it singularly difficult to emerge from her low place in the community. We know little about them in Jewish times. In the contemporary Gentile world, however, most of them were slaves, who could not legally abandon their status. Even free prostitutes, if poor, would have had only the most limited of options, since they would not have been acceptable as wives. Our own presuppositions, then, may perhaps dictate whether we think of these women as giving up prostitution or not.

Luke 7:36-50 sees Jesus anointed by a public sinner. While she is not labelled as a prostitute, it is one conclusion that could be possibly said about her. Jesus accepts her intentions, contrasts them favourably with those of her host, the Pharisee, and finally says, “Her sins, many as they are, are forgiven because she has loved much” (7:47). This does not tell us what Jesus preferred prostitutes to do, but it does suggest that he did not make grace conditional on prostitutes escaping her place in society. What is most significant is that Jesus held them up to the religious leadership as a model of repentance for them to follow, thus implying that the respectable are not unlike the prostitutes in respect to sin. Since Jesus held them up as a religious example, we may guess that although he took prostitution to be wrong, he followed the example of Proverbs in appointing blame to the man who visited the prostitute more than to the prostitute herself.

Paul has little to say about sexual ethics in his main doctrinal statement, the Epistle to the Romans, except the forceful identification of sexual immorality with humanities alienation from God (Romans 1:24-27). However, in his letters to the other churches he is forced to address the topic because of the behaviour of certain individuals in those churches, particularly at Corinth.

According to Paul, sex with a prostitute might seem to establish no relationship at all beyond the brief one required for the sanctification of desire. He claims that every sexual act between man and woman established a union of flesh, like that of marriage. In other words, the prostitute and the man, who has used her, actually belong to each other for the duration of their sexual intercourse, though not beyond. In Paul’s own terminology, the relationship thus established is “one body;” but in the terminology of Genesis, it is a relationship of “one flesh.” Paul insisted that the man who had intercourse with the prostitute was not unchanged by that act. However, it was destructive of one’s spirit; the relation to Christ and to God:

“Every sin that a person commits is outside the body, but the man who uses harlots is sinning against his own body.”1

It is evident that where Proverbs discourages a man from using prostitutes because he belonged to his family, Paul discouraged it because he belonged to God. The body, the person as a whole, is the spirit’s temple, into which other forms of worship must not be introduced. “One might well ask, then, whether the implication of this line of reasoning is not, finally, to forbid sexual intercourse altogether.”2

The very fact that much attention is given to the issue of prostitution suggests that it was a significant problem for the early Church. One main point, evident in the doctrine, is that those who use a prostitute are equally to blame as the prostitutes themselves. If we take the view point of Paul, we can recognise the wrongness of prostitution, in that it is a sin against God, for it undervalues the gift of love, through intercourse, given to us by God. One could argue that the doctrine at the Church’s disposal was successful in that people recognised that prostitution of any kind is immoral. However, the very fact that it remains in the contemporary world implies that the use of such evidence was not used effectively.


Cave, S ‘The Christian Way,’ Nisbet and Company Limited, 1963

Countryman, L.W ‘Dirt, Greed and Sex,’ Fortress Press, 1988

Hays, R.B ‘The Moral Vision of the New Testament,’ Harper Collins Publishers, 1996

Manson, T.W ‘Ethics and the Gospel,’ SCM Press Limited, 1960

McManners, J ‘The Oxford History of Christianity,’ Oxford University Press, 1990

1 1 Corinthians 18-20

2 Countryman, L ‘Dirt, Greed and Sex’ p205

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