What sexual practices did Paul condemn in his letter to the Corinthians?
“Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, ‘The two will become one flesh.’”
In 1 Corinthians 6:15–17, Paul admonishes the Corinthian Christians for their casual attitude toward sexual sin, specifically calling out those who solicit prostitutes. Many scholars have taken this admonition a step further and claimed that Paul was specifically condemning sacred prostitution associated with Corinth’s famous temple to the goddess Aphrodite. Is there any merit to these claims? Was sacred prostitution commonly practiced in the temples of Aphrodite and Venus, her Roman equivalent?
In her article “Paul, Prostitutes, and the Cult of Aphrodite in Corinth,” Barbette Stanley Spaeth investigates temples to Aphrodite found within the city of Corinth to determine whether sacred prostitution was prevalent or even practiced. While archaeological excavations have revealed several of these temples, we also have textual evidence, such as the writings of the Greek traveler Pausanias, who informs us about religious life in Corinth. Even though Pausanias is writing roughly a century after the time of Paul, his writings offer a valuable glimpse into the daily life of the city.
Stanley Spaeth also critically examines the historical evidence for cultic prostitution in Corinth. The first-century Greek geographer Strabo mentions over a thousand female sacred servants that men and women used to “dedicate to the goddess” (Geography 8.6.20). However, the actual function of these women and what duties they performed is not given. They could have simply been temple servants who performed a wide variety of non-sexual services. Adding to the complexity of the passage, it is clear from the context that Strabo is referring to Corinth in the seventh century BCE, not the Roman city of Paul’s day.
To learn Stanley Spaeth’s conclusion about whether sacred prostitution was practiced in Corinth, read her article “Paul, Prostitutes, and the Cult of Aphrodite in Corinth” published in the Spring 2023 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
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