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.

Read the whole piece, which lists 15 reasons to reject the common critical arguments, from the fellow who literally wrote the book on the subject.

Related, elsewhere:
Making Sense of the Scripture’s “Inconsistency” (Keller on why Christians appear to “pick and choose” which laws to obey)

Print Friendly
View Comments


16 thoughts on “Are the New Testament Condemnations of Homosexuality Simply References to Temple Prostitution?”

  1. Thanks, Jared; this is very relevant and instructive. For those interested, here’s a helpful paper from Tom Schreiner on the NT’s view of homosexuality:

  2. Carol says:

    This brings up another question in my mind. I had also heard it taught that the prohibition against women having short hair was related to temple prostitution. Can you refer me to any good pieces on that subject?

  3. Michael says:

    Those who claim to be Christian and justify “monogamous homosexual relationships” re-interpret some six Biblical passages. However, if these were not in the Scriptures, they would still have to reassess their views in the light of the considerable amount of material on marriage. Not only are there various passages dealing with marriage but frequent references to and marriage illustrations throughout the Bible.

    Take Paul’s astonishing treatment of marriage in Ephesians 5. It is clear that marriage is a life-long covenant between a man and woman. It is to be marked by a caring, faithful and loyal love. This is the revealed mind of God. Anything that undermines this is an assault on what God intended when he created man and woman. It is an assault on what he intends for those who through faith in Jesus have become new creatures. It is for this reason that homosexual relationships are sinful and have no place in the Christian Church.

    The Church is the home for new relationships – between a repentant, forgiven sinner and a holy God, between husbands and wives, between parents and children, between rich and poor, between Jew and Gentile, male and female, employee and employer. However, there is no place here for homosexual relationships.

    1. Michael says:

      I left out a crucial qualification in my last paragraph:

      The Church is the home for new relationships – between a repentant, forgiven sinner and a holy God, between husbands and wives, between parents and children, between rich and poor, between Jew and Gentile, male and female, employee and employer – for all who have put their faith in Christ and who belong to him. However, there is no place here for homosexual relationships.

  4. EricP says:

    Overall, it’s a very good argument. I had 2 nitpicks.

    Point 3: Romans 1:26 has alternate interpretations besides a lesbian relationship. Augustine said “But if one has relations even with one’s wife in a part of the body which was not made for begetting children, such relations are against nature and indecent.” I’m sure the author has an explanation of why he choose his interpretation. It would be nice to know what it was.

    Point 12: He mentions both Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 and then goes into how the text of Chapter 20 separates Molech worship from sexual purity. The problem is Leviticus 18:21 is a prohibition of child sacrifice to Molech. It would have been nice to see him discuss that point rather than ignore it.

  5. Regardless of what you call it, all sexual activity outside of opposite-sex marriage is sin. There are two words used in 1 Corinthians 6 that are often the subject of significant debate between pro-homosexual and anti-homosexual “scholars”: arsenokoites and malakos. The former (arsenokoites) could (and should) more literally be translated “men who sexually cohabit” (arsen = male; koite = couch as a euphemism for sexual cohabitation). The latter (malakos) means “soft” and can mean a couple of things – effeminate men (not all effeminate men are homosexuals) or people who live opulent, luxurious lifestyles (remember Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous).

    There is nothing either in Romans 1 or 1 Corinthians 6 that refers to temple prostitution, rape, or pedophilia (which is actually sexual/romantic attraction to prepubescent children and has nothing whatsoever to do with either heterosexuality or homosexuality). Further, pederasty (men having sex with pubescent/teen boys) was a somewhat common practice in the first century Roman Empire, but there is no evidence either passage is referring even to this practice or that it would be distinct from a general reference to homosexual activity. Regardless, all sexual activity outside of opposite-sex marriage is sin – whether as fornication or as adultery or as promiscuity – the gender of those participating in the activity is really irrelevant.

    As for using Old Testament passages like those in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, if you’re going to apply those passages today, you then MUST also apply all of the other “moral” passages in the Old Testament – including the one that commands rebellious children to be stoned to death (children rebelling against their parents is clearly part of the “moral” law and not the “ceremonial” law); rapists must marry their victims (Exodus 22:16-17 and Deuteronomy 22:28-29). You don’t get to pick and choose here! Either the entire “moral law of Moses” applies today or none of it does (it doesn’t; Christ brought the entire Law of Moses to completion on the cross and we are now under the Law of Grace; but let’s just say the Law of Moses does apply today for the sake of argument). Talk to me when those of you who insist on using Leviticus and Deuteronomy against homosexuals start stoning to death your rebellious children or start forcing your daughters into marriage with their rapists.

    One thing I’ve noticed from those promoting gay theology is that when they refer to Bible scholars who supposedly have proven the Bible supports “loving, monogamous homosexual relationships,” they almost never actually name any of these so-called “scholars” or what qualifies them to be scholars. Just because these people went to cemetery or teach there doesn’t make them “scholars” (unless you accept, as I do, that a scholar is just someone who studies – like referring to elementary school students as young scholars – and that there is really nothing special about these people). They provide no evidence to support their claims that the Bible supports their theology (e.g. they haven’t proven that Ruth and Naomi were lesbian lovers or that David and Jonathan, Daniel and Ashphenaz or Jesus and John were homosexual lovers – and before someone comes along and says that “the anti-gay bigots in the Church” haven’t proven that they weren’t, the burden of proof is on those making the positive claim, the claim that these people were homosexual lovers and that the Bible affirms “loving, monogamous homosexual relationships”).

    1. T_L says:

      You talk about the “entire Moral law of Moses” as if it has nothing to do with current times. You don’t think there are reasons to say that rebellious children are sinful, but there is not a need to stone them? Homosexual relations are sinful, but you don’t have to kill them either. You can separate out the sins from the punishments commanded for them and learn from the passages the kinds of things God hated.
      At least that’s how I look at it and tell my kids. Yeah, being rebellious is wrong, disobeying their mom is wrong, but they aren’t going to be stoned to death of have their eyes plucked out.

      1. T_L, what I’m saying is that either we must apply the “entire moral Law of Moses” today or none of it. We don’t get to pick and choose.

        We need not look to the Law of Moses (which was fulfilled, brought to completion, on the cross) to know that homosexual activity or children rebelling against their parents are sinful. We have the New Testament to teach us these things.

  6. JMJ says:

    Even if you dismiss Romans & Leviticus completely–“romans was mistranslated” (so I’ve heard), and you can’t pick and choose which of the Levitical Laws to follow (which i happen to agree with), you still have an iron clad NT prohibition to lean against:

    People often proclaim that the Lord Jesus never commented on homosexuality. Well, actually he did–implicitly.

    In Matthew 19, the Lord Jesus reaffirms the Genesis definition of marriage: a man shall leave his father and mother and be united to his wife. I believe Paul reaffirms that again in Ephesians. So the Lord is explicitly saying that marriage is between a man and a woman.

    He further comments on fornication in Matt 19, which defines the marriage union as the only lawful place for sexual relations.

    Therefore, since marriage is between man and woman, and since sexual relations are confined to the marriage union, it can be logically inferred that homosexual relations are against God’s holy order.

    1. Michael says:

      You have clearly pointed to the centrality of marriage between a man and woman in Jesus’ teaching, to this being reaffirmed by Paul. What Jesus taught and Paul reaffirmed about marriage is inextricably woven through all the Scriptures.

      Anyone who seeks to follow Christ cannot avoid the implications of all this teaching or refuse to examine his/her beliefs and behaviour in the light of the revealed mind of God.

      The Scriptures have been given to us so that we may both become aware of our sin and need for forgiveness, and also how we ought to live as those who have experienced forgiveness. For this reason I believe that the refusal to acknowledge that all homosexual relations are sinful is an assault on the Gospel and the power of God to make sinners new creatures though faith in Jesus Christ.

  7. Steve Bezner says:

    Jared, thanks for clearly stating what I’ve heard several peddle in the last year.

    One quibble: The term “malakoi” may indeed mean what you indicate here, but I was initially introduced to the term in Plato’s dialogue, “The Symposium,” in which Socrates discusses the root of love with several dinner counterparts and their malakoi joining them. The way “malakoi” is used in this text and the way in which my Plato prof (Anne-Marie Bowery) explained it, the malakoi was typically a young boy taken in by an adult professional in hopes of being apprenticed in the trade. In exchange for learning a particular profession (law, medicine, art), he provided homosexual sex acts to his master. Thus I always read Paul’s admonition against malakoi as a rejection of buying into the homosexual apprentice system. Granted, that is Greek, not Roman culture, so it certainly could have changed in the many centuries between Plato and Paul. Nevertheless, it seems to make a broader condemnation: no “arsenokoitai” (homosexual acts between consenting males) and no “malakoi” (sex with young boys). Both are out of bounds.

    Just a thought.

  8. John Weskey had a different take on malakoi. He said the word describes people “who live in an easy, indolent way; taking up no cross, enduring no hardship. But how is this? These good-natured, harmless people are ranked with idolaters and sodomites! We may learn hence, that we are never secure from the greatest sins, till we guard against those which are thought the least; nor, indeed, till we think no sin is little, since every one is a step toward hell.”

    As for evidence of ancient prostitution in Corinth, there is plenty of extra-biblical evidence for it. And Gagnon is not exactly a reputable source given his defense of pseudoscientific claims about homosexual causes and therapy that most evangelicals have since distanced themselves from.

  9. Robert McCullough says:

    An apriori presumption that all persons are “given by nature” the same (heterosexual) identity will lead to the above conclusions. an openness to an apriori assumption that homosexual persons are a “given by nature” a different identity will lead to other conclusions. such an assumption was not prevalent in biblical times.

Comments are closed.

Jared C. Wilson photo

Jared C. Wilson

Jared C. Wilson is the pastor of Middletown Springs Community Church in Middletown Springs, Vermont. You can follow him on Twitter.

Jared C. Wilson's Books