Sacred Prostitution in Antiquity

During the religious reforms that occurred in Judah in the sixth century B.C., Josiah, king of Judah, “broke down the houses of the male cult prostitutes which were in the house of the LORD, where the women wove hangings for the Asherah” (2 Kings 23:7). The Hebrew Bible says that sacred prostitution was practiced in the temple in Jerusalem.

The issue whether sacred prostitution was practiced in antiquity is an item of debate among scholars. A recent article dealing with sacred prostitution was published by Spiegel online. The following is an excerpt from the article:

“Holy harlots” in Jerusalem, temple sex in the service of Aphrodite? Many ancient authors describe sacred prostitution in drastic terms. Are the accounts nothing but legends? Historians are searching for the kernel of truth behind the reports.

The “ugliest custom” in Babylon, the historian Herodotus wrote (who is believed to have lived between circa 490 to 425 B.C.), was the widespread practice of prostitution in the Temple of Ishtar. Once in their lifetimes, all women in the country were required to sit in the temple and “expose themselves to a stranger” in return for money.

“Rich and haughty” women, the ancient Greek historian railed, arrived in “covered chariots.”

The Persians on the Black Sea were apparently involved in similarly nefarious activities. According to the Greek geographer Strabo, “virgin daughters,” hardly 12 years old, were dedicated to cult prostitution. “They treat their lovers with such friendliness that they even entertain them.”

There are many such reports from classical antiquity. Tribes from Sicily to Thebes are believed to have indulged in perverse religious customs.

The Jews were also involved in such practices. There are about a dozen passages in the Old Testament that revolve around “Qadeshes,” a word for female and male cult practitioners. The Bible calls them “lemans” and “catamites.” In the Fifth Book of Moses, male prostitutes are prohibited from donating their “dogs’ money” to the House of Yahweh.

Twentieth-century researchers eagerly seized on the references, which were often mysterious. Soon it was considered a fact that priests in the Eastern World performed forced defloration. It was said that there was “dowry prostitution” and “sexual copulation at the cult site.”

Temple sex, according to the “Encyclopedia of Theology and the Church,” was a “moral and hygienic plague spot on the body of the people.”

But is this true? More and more academics are now questioning the erotic fables of the ancients.

Read the article in its entirety by clicking here.

HT: Greg Carey

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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