Are the New Testament Condemnations of Homosexuality Simply References to Temple Prostitution?
You have likely heard the arguments, becoming more and more common among progressive Christians and others seeking to make same-sex romantic relationships compatible with the orthodox faith. It goes something like this: “Paul and the other NT writers were not condemning committed, consensual, monogamous” — to limit the typical qualifiers to just three — “homosexual relationships. The way the church has read these texts for 2,000 years is eisogesis. They are references to temple prostitution, pedophilia, or rape.”
Are they on to something? Have we had it wrong for so long?
Well, no. Scholar Robert Gagnon writes in response:
I know of no serious biblical scholar, even prohomosex biblical scholar, who argues that Paul had in mind only or primarily temple prostitution—not Nissinen, not Brooten, not Fredrickson, not Schoedel, not Bird, not Martin, etc. There are many reasons why this view has not found a welcome in serious biblical scholarship . . .
Paul’s views on homosexual behavior were profoundly influenced by the alleged existence of “seven thousand prostitutes, male and female” at the temple of Aphrodite in Corinth in Paul’s day. As it happens, the only ancient account that refers to cult prostitutes at the temple of Aphrodite in Corinth is a brief mention by Strabo in Geography 8.6.20c
And the temple of Aphrodite was so rich that it owned more than a thousand temple-slaves, prostitutes, whom both men and women had dedicated to the goddess. And therefore it was on account of these women that the city was crowded with people and grew rich. (Text and commentary in: Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, St. Paul’s Corinth: Texts and Archaeology [GNS 6; Wilmington: M. Glazier, 1983], 55-57)
Any critical New Testament scholar knows that Strabo’s comments (1) applied only to Greek Corinth in existence several centuries before the time of Paul, not the Roman Corinth of Paul’s day; (2) referred to “more than a thousand prostitutes,” not seven thousand; and (3) mentioned only female (heterosexual) prostitutes, not male (homosexual) prostitutes. Scholars agree that there was no massive business of female cult prostitutes—to say nothing of male homosexual cult prostitutes—operating out of the temple of Aphrodite in Paul’s day; and that there may not have been such a business even in earlier times (i.e., Strabo was confused). This is not particularly new information, which makes it all the more surprising that [pro-homosexuality scholar Jack] Rogers was taken in, apparently, by an ill-informed tour guide. For example, Hans Conzelmann made the following remarks in his major commentary on 1 Corinthians written some thirty years ago:
Incidentally, the often-peddled statement that Corinth was a seat of sacred prostitution (in the service of Aphrodite) is a fable. This realization also disposes of the inference that behind the Aphrodite of Corinth lurks the Phoenician Astarte. [Note 97:] The fable is based on Strabo, Geog. 8.378. . . . Strabo, however, is not speaking of the present, but of the city’s ancient golden period. . . . Incidentally, Strabo’s assertion is not even true of the ancient Corinth. (1 Corinthians [Hermeneia; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1975 [German original, 1969], 12)
This continues to be the view held by scholars. As Bruce Winter notes in a recent significant work on 1 Corinthians,
Strabo’s comments about 1,000 religious prostitutes of Aphrodite . . . are unmistakably about Greek and not Roman Corinth. As temple prostitution was not a Greek phenomenon, the veracity of his comments on this point have been rightly questioned. The size of the Roman temple of Aphrodite on the Acrocorinth ruled out such temple prostitution; and by that time she had become Venus—the venerated mother of the imperial family and the highly respected patroness of Corinth—and was no longer a sex symbol (After Paul Left Corinth: The Influence of Secular Ethics and Social Change [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001], 87-88; similarly, Murphy-O’Connor, St. Paul’s Corinth, 55-56)
The scholarly consensus that there was no homosexual prostitution at the Corinthian temple of Aphrodite in Paul’s day is enough, all by itself, to dispense with Rogers’s theory and show Rogers’s unreliability as an exegete of the biblical text . . .
In all the critiques of same-sex intercourse as “contrary to nature” that can be found in the ancient world, not a single one ever refers to the idolatrous or commercial dimension of same-sex intercourse. For example, the physician Soranus described the desire on the part of “soft men” to be penetrated (cf. 1 Cor 6:9) as “not from nature,” insofar as it “subjugated to obscene uses parts not so intended” and disregarded “the places of our body which divine providence destined for definite functions”(Chronic Diseases 4.9.131). Moreover, numerous cases of same-sex erotic relationships involving neither prostitution nor cultic activity can be documented for the Hellenistic and Roman Imperial periods . . .
The Old Testament—particularly Deuteronomy and the “Deuteronomistic History” (Joshua through 2 Kings)—does condemn “homosexual cult prostitutes” (the so-called qedeshim, “consecrated ones”). But even here, parallel figures in the ancient Near East—the assinnu, kurgarru, and kulu’u—were held in low regard not so much for their prostitution as for their compromise of masculine gender in allowing themselves to be penetrated as though women (The Bible and Homosexual Practice, 48-49). Even Phyllis Bird, a prohomosex Old Testament scholar who has done as much work as anyone on the qedeshim, acknowledges that the writers of Scripture emphasized not the cultic prostitution of these figures but rather their “repugnant associations with male homosexual activity . . .”
The term malakoi in 1 Cor 6:9—literally, “soft men”—was often used in the Greco-Roman world as a description of adult males who feminized their appearances in the hopes of attracting a male partner. Jewish and even some pagan moralists condemned them, not for their role in temple prostitution—most were not temple prostitutes—but for their attempted erasure of the masculine stamp given them in nature.
Making Sense of the Scripture’s “Inconsistency” (Keller on why Christians appear to “pick and choose” which laws to obey)