Cult Prostitution in New Testament Ephesus: A Reappraisal

Article excerpt


It is widely held that cult prostitution in connection with fertility rites was commonly practiced throughout the NT world. This idea seems so clearly established in the minds of many people as to need little proof. The current of NT scholarly opinion seems to flow inexorably in this direction, which lends the idea of Greco-Roman cult prostitution weighty authority. For instance, Everett Ferguson, whose scholarly work deserves high regard, writes:

All kinds of immoralities were associated with the [Greco-Roman] gods. Not only was prostitution a recognized institution, but through the influence of the fertility cults of Asia Minor, Syria, and Phoenicia it became a part of the religious rites at certain temples. Thus there were one thousand "sacred prostitutes" at the temple of Aphrodite at Corinth.1

Notice that Ferguson interprets the origin of cult prostitution "at certain temples" to have been inspired by fertility practices in the East. Such cult prostitution is familiar to students of the Ancient Near East (ANE) as part of the OT world, so it would seem logical that such practices could move around the Mediterranean down through the centuries into the Hellenistic and Roman cities.

On closer inspection, however, this explanation starts to unravel. To begin with, scholars are now wondering if the phenomenon in the ANE and OT was really cult prostitution as part of fertility rites. Karel van der Toorn in the Anchor Bible Dictionary, for instance, reports: "In recent years, however, the widely accepted hypothesis of cultic prostitution has been seriously challenged. Various scholars have argued that the current view rests on unwarranted assumptions, doubtful anthropological premises, and very little evidence."2 After a brief survey of the evidence, van der Toorn concludes, "In short, both the evidence from the OT and the Akkadian and Ugaritic data do not support the hypothesis of `cultic prostitution."'3 Van der Toorn does find "prostitution that was profitable to, and at times organized by, the temple and its administration," but "there is no need to postulate the existence of sacred prostitution in the service of a fertility cult."4

In this light, we are justified in asking for a re-examination of the issue of cult prostitution in the NT world as well. If the supposed ANE and OT ancestry of fertility cult prostitution has been called into question, might not the Greco-Roman derivative have "unwarranted assumptions, doubtful anthropological premises, and very little evidence" as well? It is worth noting that the Anchor Bible Dictionary where van der Toorn wrote has no discussion of either cultic or secular prostitution in the NT world. Perhaps the editors could not find enough material for an article?

But to take on the question of cult prostitution in the whole Greco-Roman world might appear to be far too broad of a question for a single essay. With this in mind I will aim here for a more humble goal: to survey and to briefly consider the only ancient evidence commonly cited for the existence of cult prostitution in the Greek world. No one posits cult prostitution in Rome or Italy, so we will not discuss it directly.5 Then we will look more deeply into the religious practices of Pauline Ephesus, where cult prostitution has particularly been thought to have flourished. Our conclusion will be that cult prostitution did not exist in Ephesus, and hopefully the implication that it did not correspondingly exist in other Greek cities will also at least be suggested if not definitively proven.

To prove the existence of something requires only that one invoke credible ancient sources properly interpreted. This is a relatively easy task which does not always require detailed knowledge of the sources. However, to prove the non-existence of something in antiquity requires direct and intimate familiarity with ancient people and societies and with ancient sources. …