Cult Prostitution In New Testament Ephesus: A Reappraisal -- By: S. M. Baugh

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 42:3 (Sep 1999)
Article: Cult Prostitution In New Testament Ephesus: A Reappraisal
Author: S. M. Baugh


Cult Prostitution In New Testament Ephesus:
A Reappraisal

S. M. Baugh*

I. Introduction

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

* S. M. Baugh is associate professor of New Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary at 1725 Bear Valley Parkway, Escondido, CA 92027.

“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

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