The granting of sexual access for payment is disparaged in the Bible and is associated linguistically with a variety of forms of sexual immorality. A metaphorical use of language related to prostitution dominates much of the Hebrew Bible, following Hosea, who characterizes Israel's relations with foreign gods and nations as the actions of a promiscuous bride or a prostitute seeking lovers (Hos. 1.2; 2.2–13; cf. Lev. 20.5; Judg. 2.17; Jer. 3.1). This polemical usage often makes it impossible to determine the exact nature of the practices designated as “harlotry.”

In its primary form, prostitution is an institution of patriarchal society that permits males to enjoy sexual relations outside of marriage while preserving exclusive right of access to their spouses. Hence the prostitute is normally female, and male (homosexual) prostitution is weakly, and differently, attested. While the prostitute was tolerated, she always bore a degree of opprobrium (Gen. 34.31; 1 Kings 22.38), even when praised for noble character or action (Rahab, Josh. 2.1–21; cf. 1 Kings 3.16–26). Men are warned against the wiles and waste of prostitutes (Prov. 29.3; 7.10; 23.27; cf. Luke 15.30), and wages from prostitution are prohibited as payment of vows (Deut. 23.18). Priests were forbidden to marry a prostitute (Lev. 21.7) or to force a daughter into prostitution (Lev. 19.29).

The Hebrew term for prostitute, zônâ (a feminine participle with no masculine counterpart), is derived from the verb zānâ, which describes promiscuous sexual activity in general and more specifically fornication by an unmarried female, a crime punishable by death (Gen. 38.24; Deut. 22.20–21; Lev. 21.9). What is tolerated for prostitutes, as a class set apart, is strictly proscribed for other women.

It is widely assumed that some form of “sacred” or “cultic prostitution” characterized Canaanite religion; however, the language of prostitution is never used to describe cultic offices or activity in ancient Near Eastern texts outside the Bible's polemical usage. The Hebrew term sometimes rendered “sacred prostitute,” qĕdēšâ (f.)/qādēš (m.), simply means “consecrated (person)” (cf. qādôš, “holy”). Association with prostitution, or sexual activity of any sort, is inferred from biblical contexts and has no parallel in extrabiblical texts.

New Testament texts group prostitutes (pornē, f.) with tax collectors as representing the lowest class in moral terms (Matt. 21.31–32; cf. Luke 15.30). The masculine form of the noun (pornos, meaning male prostitute in classical Greek) is used in the New Testament only in the general sense of “fornicator” or “one who practices sexual immorality” (Eph. 5.5; 1 Tim. 1.10; Rev. 21.8) and may be extended to describe immorality in general (Heb. 12.16). A similar sense is conveyed by the verb porneuō and the abstract noun porneia (“fornication”), which is frequent in ethical lists (Mark 7.21; Gal. 5.19; cf. 1 Cor. 5.9, 11) and is often associated with gentile cults and culture. The book of Revelation continues the figurative usage of the Hebrew Bible in characterizing Babylon as the “great whore” and its offenses as “fornication” (Rev. 17.1; 18.3; cf. Isa. 1.21).

See also Sex


Phyllis A. Bird