Early Christian attitudes toward prostitution are best understood within their Roman context. In the Roman Empire prostitution was part of a vast system of slavery that figured enslaved people as objects, bodies to be used for the pleasure of their masters. Sex work was the burden of the slave because a slave was seen as the natural object (and a morally neutral one) for the sexual gratification of male householders. Male and female slaves alike could be readily utilized as sexual outlets by their masters. Banquets, for instance, featured young boys as cupbearers (delicati) and female slaves as dancers and musicians whose semi-clad bodies provided visual titillation for reclining guests. Female slaves might be exploited additionally for their reproductive labor and used as wet-nurses. Slaves could not be legally married, and thus, male owners were freed from legal and financial obligations to any progeny resulting from unions with their female slaves in particular.

The logic that defined slaves as usable bodies extended to prostituting them in brothels, taverns, inns, and other civic areas. These brothel prostitutes (almost entirely female) endured a gruesome existence in squalid and dangerous living conditions. A slave prostitute faced limited mobility, spending her days in her cell with clients or stationed only outside, rarely allowed to leave the sight of the pimp (who could also be a slave) who ran the establishment. Pimps regularly employed violence and intimidation to control their prostitute slaves. Tattoos or iron collars could also be used to prohibit prostitute slaves from fleeing or to ensure their return if they did run. As a result of an association with slavery and abject material conditions, prostitutes, especially female prostitutes, were viewed as counter-examples to the male Roman citizen. As objects of others’ bodily pleasure, Roman writers imagined that these women were violable by all, utterly degraded. Roman-period moral rhetoric carved up the world into two categories of women, debased whores and chaste wives. This mapping obscures, however, and reflects anxieties about, sexual and social dynamics where some women enjoyed sexual liaisons outside of familial structures.

Ancient Christian writers commonly repeated the stereotype of the female prostitute as debased. The apostle Paul’s writings shaped the figurative use of the prostitute in early Christian circles. Paul emphasized sexual virtue to articulate how gentiles, by virtue of their baptism in Christ, could be counted among God’s chosen people, Israel. For Paul, sexual purity differentiates life “in Christ” from the corrupt existence of the gentile idolatry that precedes it. Warning men against the solicitation of prostitutes in 1 Corinthians 6:16–19, he invokes contemporaneous Roman understandings of the common brothel prostitute (pornē) as despised. For Paul, the prostitute is a source of contagion that poisons the sanctity of the body of Christ itself. Paul draws a sharp divide between the body of Christ, which he defines as a “temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 6:19), and the body of the prostitute, which stands as its total opposite. Throughout 1 Corinthians, Paul does not inquire into the moral position of the brothel prostitute, or for that matter, enslaved persons in Christ assemblies who by virtue of their social position could not ensure their own sexual inviolability. 1 Corinthians 6 is premised on the idea that the prostitute is necessarily an outsider, exemplified by his claim that “prostitutes/fornicators” have no place in God’s kingdom (1 Cor 6:9).

Subsequent early Christian writers echoed Paul’s valuation of sexual modesty when articulating and promoting their visions of communal Christian life. Church orders and councils implied that prostitutes, pimps, and others associated with idolatry, were unwelcome as catechumens. Early Christian writers mainly used female prostitutes as symbolic characters, potent rhetorical weapons in their often internal invectives and polemics. Claiming that a rival was influenced by sexually depraved women, heresiologists could undermine the authenticity of other Christians’ teachings and social practices. Patristic writers evoked prostitutes to cajole women and men in their own communities to wear modest clothing, avoid the theater as well as particular kinds of marital and sexual arrangements. In general, early Christians’ rhetoric continued to associate prostitutes with destruction and chaos. This link animates the horrific vision of Rome as the great whore in Revelation. Dripping in jewels, clad in purples and scarlet, she revels in fornication, and her appearance is at once fascinating and revolting (Rev 17:7). Her appetite spells death for kings of the earth who associate with her and it leads to her own violent end (Rev 18:21).

While much early Christian literature defined prostitutes and sexually promiscuous women as quintessential outsiders, material in the canonical gospels reflects a different memory, in which women accused of sexual promiscuity were Jesus’ followers (e.g., Matt 1:1-17; Matt 21:31; Luke 7:36–50; John 4:1–42, and in some manuscripts, John 8:1–1). Feminist scholars have read such passages with caution, as the evangelists’ attempts to marginalize women in the Jesus movement. In fact, patristic authors engaged in fanciful exegesis to turn Jesus’ disciple, Mary of Magdala, from a witness to the resurrection to a repentant harlot in order to discredit traditions associated with her. Yet statements such as we find in the Gospel of Matthew: “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you” (Matt 21:31) warrant serious consideration. This saying does not overturn the idea that prostitutes are debased (rather it plays on it to shame Judean cultic leaders), but it stands in sharp contrast to Paul’s statement that “prostitutes/fornicators” will be excluded from the kingdom. In light of the social realities that linked slavery and prostitution, and the abundant evidence for slaves in Christ assemblies, it seems probable that slave prostitutes were members of this movement and Christ assemblies as well. Despite attempts to locate slave prostitutes outside these contexts, sources like the saying in Matthew’s gospel indicate their presence. Perhaps feminist historians need not resist the idea that Jesus’s female followers were slave prostitutes, or women who did not fit the idealized type of chaste matrons, but they might instead challenge ancient rhetoric that treated female sexuality as dangerous and in need of control.

Bibliography

  • Burrus, Virginia. “The Heretical Woman as Symbol in Alexander, Athanasius, Epiphanius, and Jerome.” Harvard Theological Review 84, no.3 (1991): 229–248.
  • Flemming, Rebecca. “Quae Corpore Quaestum Facit: The Sexual Economy of Female Prostitution in the Roman Empire.” Journal of Roman Studies 89 (1999): 38–61.
  • Glancy, Jennifer A. Slavery in Early Christianity. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006.
  • Ipsen, Avaren. Sex Working and the Bible. Oakville, Conn.: Equinox Publishing, 2009.
  • McGinn, Thomas. The Economy of Prostitution in the Ancient World: A Study of Social History and the Brothel. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998.
  • Schaberg, Jane. The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene: Legends, Apocrypha, and the Christian Testament. New York: Continuum, 2004.

Carly Daniel-Hughes