What was the sexual climate of the first century Mediterranean, and how does that help us to understand what the New Testament is talking about?
That’s a question that runs right through the middle of many conversations about sexuality in the church, and about homosexuality in the church in particular.
One line of argument is represented in Ken Wilson’s book, A Letter to My Congregation, which I’m reading alongside other people at church. His summary represents an important cluster of arguments that we find across both academic and popular discussions.
His version of it is this: the kind of sexual activity that Paul was concerned about when he talked about male same-sex coupling was activity that was exploitative, and that any of us would oppose as well. Specifically, he lists pederasty, temple prostitution, and sex with slaves.
A week or two ago I raised a question about pederasty. Romans were disdainful of this practice which was celebrated by Greeks. So that might not have been as large a looming issue in the first century Roman world (though some of my readers raised some good points on the other side).
But what about temple prostitution? It is widely assumed that in Corinth, at least, the loose sexual mores of the port city were fueled by the Aphrodite cult and a number of sacred prostitutes numbering over one thousand.
It’s worth a closer look at what some of the sources say.
First, take a look at this quote from The Biblical World in Pictures that I found on the web:
A famous temple to Aphrodite had stood on the summit of Acrocorinth in the Classical Age… It had fallen into ruins by Paul’s time, but successors to its 1,000 cult prostitutes continued to ply their profession in the city below.
To begin with, there is the reiteration of the widespread belief that there were abundant sacred prostitutes for this temple.
Then, the citation indicates that the temple was in ruins by the time Paul would have been writing Romans from Corinth.
Finally, despite this recognition that the temple had long been destroyed, the paragraph nonetheless links on-going prostitution in Corinth with the sacral prostitution that was presumed to have occurred previously. Even though the author knows better than to say that sacred prostitution per se was continuing in this place, he nonetheless creates the impression on the reader that sacral prostitution might still be rampant in Paul’s day.
The principal piece of data for the idea that the temple was associated (at least, once upon a time) with sacral prostitution appears to be this from Strabo:
The temple of Aphrodite was so rich that it employed more than a thousand hetairas,whom both men and women had given to the goddess. Many people visited the town on account of them, and thus these hetairas contributed to the riches of the town: for the ship captains frivolously spent their money there, hence the saying: ‘The voyage to Corinth is not for every man’. (As cited on Wikipedia).
Before moving on, I want to underscore something: this is the site which has probably the singularly most well-attested claim for being a location of sacral prostitution, and it had been in ruins since the Romans razed Corinth in 146 B.C.–some 200 years before Paul is writing his letters.
I should note as well that the evidence I have seen (and, admittedly, I probably haven’t seen the bulk of it) points in the direction of female attendants, not male.
There have been a few voices crying out in the scholarly wilderness that there never was such a thing as sacral prostitution in Corinth or elsewhere in the Ancient Mediterranean.
In “L’Aphrodite grecque,” Vinciane Pirenne-Delforge argued that sacred prostitution in Corinth was a “historiographic myth.” With attention, especially, to the Old Testament, Robert Oden explored the contrast between a paucity of evidence for actual sacred prostitution and the abundance of accusations that “the bad guys” engage in such practices. Maybe talk of sacred prostitution is more a way of denigrating the other than a faithful representation of actual practice.
More recently, Stephanie Lynn Budin has offered a wide-ranging study entitled, The Myth of Sacred Prostitution in Antiquity. Her book begins:
Sacred prostitution never existed in the Ancient Near East or Mediterranean.
(If you want a short, incisive, supportive review of the book, there’s this from the Bryn Mawr Classical Review.)
Where does all this leave us?
- We need to be extremely careful about any arguments we build on the idea that the ancients practiced temple prostitution.
- It is unlikely that temple prostitution was a known reality across the Mediterranean
- The evidence we do have for any such activity appears to point more in the direction of women providing such services, if ever they were provided, than men (although the latter is not impossible).
Notwithstanding all of the above, there is another possibility: it may be that in the first century people were still slandering the “bad guys” as engaging in temple prostitution then it might well be the case that such allegations might be implicit in critiques of certain kinds of sexual conduct.
That is to say, if people thought of temples as place where people had certain kinds of sexual experiences, then contrasting what happens in the worship of our God can be an important part of ethical exhortation.
The weakness with this latter idea, however, is that Paul was writing to gentiles who formerly would have participated in typical Greco-Roman religious practices.
When we’re wrestling with what Paul had to say about sexuality, we want to know both what he might have meant and what first-century Romans or Corinthians might have heard.
It seems unlikely to me that in either city the congregations would have heard condemnation of the exploitative practices of either pederasty (unless that was a condemnation of the “them” who were still stuck in Greek ways) or temple prostitution.
Slave-sex, however, was rampant. We’ll look at that soon.
“NAMA Aphrodite Syracuse” by English: Copy after Praxiteles – Marsyas (2006). Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:NAMA_Aphrodite_Syracuse.jpg#/media/File:NAMA_Aphrodite_Syracuse.jpg