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Prostitution in the Bible

Both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament assume that prostitution is an institution that’s taking place, right? So there’s knowledge of prostitution in the context of the Hebrew Bible and there’s knowledge of prostitution in the context of the New Testament. And in both cases I would suggest that neither the Hebrew Bible nor the New Testament actually call the institution as a whole into question. Certain women are told that they should not become prostitutes, that they should not be prostitutes; I’m thinking particularly here of laws in Deuteronomy in the Sinai covenant material suggesting that free daughters of Israel should not become prostitutes or should not prostitute themselves; but that doesn’t mean that other people can’t be prostitutes, people who are not in the Israelite community. The wonderful story of Rahab assumes that a Canaanite woman is a prostitute and, in fact, the whole story of the entrance into Jericho and Joshua’s spies scoping out the land depends on this friendly prostitute Rahab allowing them access into her home and helping them.

Similarly in the New Testament where we would have had a different set of customs and legal provisions around issues of prostitution, there’s also a recognition that prostitution is part of the culture within which the followers of Jesus are living. And there are instructions to the followers of Jesus, for example, not to visit prostitutes—which suggests there are prostitutes around, right? Another thing about prostitutes in the New Testament is, particularly in the example of the Pauline letters, there’s not really provisions for the prostitutes themselves. Prostitution in the Roman period was legal and taxed in cities throughout the Roman Empire and many of the prostitutes that we know of from tax receipts, for example, were slaves and so clearly weren’t making decisions about whether or not they should be prostitutes and yet, there’s a strong condemnation of visiting prostitutes and of prostitutes themselves within the context of the Pauline corpus.

One thing, to me, that’s interesting about Paul’s response to prostitution is that his concern is not with the prostitutes themselves but, in fact, with members of the community visiting prostitutes, right? So, the strong warning that comes from Paul is don’t visit the prostitutes; if you mingle your body with the body of a prostitute you have mingled the body of Christ with the body of the prostitute, given Paul’s idea that the followers of Jesus form the body of Christ. But there’s nothing in that warning that says, “And by the way, help prostitutes get out of slavery and bring them into the community so that their bodies are no longer used for the purposes of prostitution.” No, I mean, I guess they’re just not interesting to Paul, the actual prostitutes.

  • Jennifer Knust

    Jennifer Knust is Professor of Religious Studies at Duke University. She specializes in the literature and history of ancient Christianity and is author of To Cast the First Stone: The Transmission of a Gospel Story (with Tommy Wasserman, Princeton University Press, 2019), as well as several other books and articles.