There is an idea floating around in Christian circles that the people of Roman Empire were unconscionably libertine in their sexual ethics. The idea is that ordinary people engaged regularly in debauched and sexually promiscuous behaviour. It is concluded that this is the reason that there is a focus on sexual ethics in the New Testament. The idea runs that the gentile believers had to be warned not to engage in the sexual free for all that characterised their former lives. I would like to put an end to this idea and start a fresh because it is historically inaccurate. This is not to say that people of the Roman Empire didn’t engage in activities that were considered sexually immoral, but the point is that all people, whether Jewish, or pagan, or Christian convert, were pretty much agreed that certain behaviours were sexually immoral. Just recently, I heard the claim that James, leader of the church in Jerusalem, in delivering his ruling on gentiles, who were entering into the church uncircumcised, to abstain from “fornication” meant “not to visit a temple prostitute.” Let’s look at the letter that James wrote after the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) came to the decision that God was calling gentiles into the church, without being circumcised first (that is becoming Jews):

“Then the apostles and the elders, with the consent of the whole church, decided to choose men from among their members and to send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leaders among the brothers, 23 with the following letter: “The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the believers of Gentile origin in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings. 24 Since we have heard that certain persons who have gone out from us, though with no instructions from us, have said things to disturb you and have unsettled your minds, 25 we have decided unanimously to choose representatives and send them to you, along with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, 26 who have risked their lives for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth. 28 For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials: 29 that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.’” (Acts 15:22–29).[1]

James lists 4 essentials that the council is asking the gentile believers to observe. Three of these relate to food laws and the last one relates to sexual probity. Now the argument runs that the first three laws relate to pagan worship therefore the last item on the list must do as well. The conclusion is then reached that the request to abstain from fornication must relate to pagan worship. Now it is true that Jewish writers do make a connection between paganism and sexual immorality, but the truth of the matter is that Roman men and women were very concerned about sexual ethics.[2] We’ll return to this shortly. Let’s work our way through the list. The first item on the list does quite obviously relate to pagan worship because a part of the cultic practices in temples was the sacrifice of animals to a god. But we must not image that the new gentiles were continuing to visit the temples and participate in the cultic activity. It is clear that new converts would have understood that in becoming Christians they were signing up to be strictly loyal to the LORD and Jesus Christ. The problem with eating meat sacrificed to animals comes when the gentile believers engage in social activities with their still pagan family members, friends, and business partners. If one’s family or friends were devotees of a god of goddess they may have offered a sacrifice at the temple before hosting a meal and offering part of the sacrifice to their guests. Jewish people had a ban on eating with gentiles for this every reason (see Acts 10). The other two commands not to eat blood or the meat of strangled animals relate to the food laws in Genesis (Genesis 9:4). These are the most fundamental food laws in the Old Testament and relate to being clean (Lev 1:5). It was a sacrilege according to the Old Testament laws to eat blood or meat with blood still in it because blood was used to make things holy. It seems because it had the “life in it” it belonged to God (Deut 12:23). This brings us to the last command to abstain from “fornication.” At this end of the list we are some distance from temple cultic practice. So let’s clear up the idea that women involved in the pagan cult were engaged in sacred prostitution in the first century CE. The best way to do this is to look at cultic activities in temples, and who performed them.[3] Wealthy people in cities in the Roman Empire (specifically in the East) didn’t pay taxes. They were expected to fund public works. In return for funding public works such as paving city streets, erecting fountains, maintaining the city’s water supply, and things of this nature they would be given titles and publicly lauded for their civic benevolence.[4] Further, at the beginning of his reign as Princeps, Octavian (Augustus) set the agenda for the type of citizen he wished to see in the Empire. To this end he reformed and introduced new laws about marriage and adultery.[5] Adultery became a crime that could be tried in the criminal court and if found guilty, the adulterers would be exiled.[6] The new Roman citizen, man or woman, was not to engage in adulterous sex; that is, a man was not to have sex with another man’s wife and no wife was to have sex with a man other than her husband.[7] The new citizen was to be upright, virtuous, generous, honourable and honour seeking. This tied in with the Greek ideals of citizenship epitomized by the four great virtues of righteousness, courage, wisdom, and self-restraint.[8] However, in the Roman period courage tended to be replaced by piety.[9] Now many of the elite wealthy people in cities served as priests and priestesses in their city’s temples as a part of their civic duties. They were lauded for their benefaction and their virtuousness. The women acting as priestesses were held up as role models for young girls. Nothing could be further from the truth, than to think that prostitution was going on in temples or that these women would expose themselves to public shame and criminal charges. Furthermore, in most Greek cities it was illegal to prostitute a citizen or even oneself. The best way to get insight into the practices in temples is look at the civic inscriptions that lauded the priests and priestesses. The first one is for Metrodora from Piraeus in Greek in about 175/174 BCE. She was the priestess for the Mother of the Gods (IG II2 1328 [includes the trans. details]).

“In the year that Sonikos was civic leader (archōn), in the month of Mounichion, at the regular assembly, the sacrificing associates approved the motion that Kleippos of Aixoneus proposed: Whereas Metrodora, having been deemed worthy by the priestess Archedike – who became priestess during the civic leadership (archonship) of Hippakos — to serve as an attendant and to co-administer with her for a year, devoted herself to this role and co-administered the matters pertaining to the goddess in an honorable, appropriate, and pious manner, and she fulfilled her obligations both to the priestesses and to the sacrificing associates without reproach… For this reason, the priestesses also are eager to appoint [Metrodora] as attendant to the goddess for life. Therefore in order that they might be seen to be taking the best care of the goddess and that they might act in an honorable and pious manner in relation to the matters of the goddess – for good fortune – it has been resolved by the sacrificing associates to act in all matters that pertain to the decree that was proposed by Simon of Poros and to appoint Metrodora as an attendant to the goddess for life, that she serve indefinitely those who happen to be priestesses and that she meets their needs in an honorable and appropriate manner. It was also resolved that they take care that all things pertaining to the goddess take place in a pious manner, just as her mother, Euaxis, continued to do these things.”

In this inscription we can see that early on (at the beginning of the Roman period) priestesses were to exhibit behaviour that was honourable, appropriate, and pious. Metrodora emulated her mother in these virtues and no doubt that the city and those associated with the cult hoped that future priestesses would in turn emulate the upright and matronly behaviour of these women if they were to become priestesses in the cult of Mother of the Gods. Let’s look at the honours for Apollonis, a woman benefactor, who had recently died, by the people of Kyzikos (a city too far from Pergamum). This inscription was set up in about 25–50 CE (the 1st century). (IMT 1435 [includes the translation details])

“(column 1)  The People (dēmos) and the Romans engaged in business in the city honoured Apollonis daughter of Prokles because of her parents’ and her husband’s virtue, and her own moderation

Now those who preside over the Council who are presiding in the month of Anthesterion are to crown her statue each year with a gold crown during the Anthesteria festival on the twelfth and thirteenth days, as the sacred herald proclaims following those honoured earlier: “The People (dēmos) crowns Apollonis daughter of Prokles because of her parents’ virtue, her husband’s virtue, and her own moderation with this perpetual crown.”  And a place for her statue is to be prepared in the sanctuary of the Graces (Charitesion) on the right side for those entering from the sacred market, in which her statue is to be set up.

Since she held the priesthood of Artemis (60) of the Pythaistridists (i.e. devotees of Artemis Pythia) and as a testimony to her piety concerning sacred things, the priestesses, the Pythaistridists, and the temple overseers (hieropoioi) are to crown her statue when they annually gather together in the sanctuary of the Graces on the seventh day of the month of Artemision.  In order that a memorial of her moderation may be visible to the entire city, a statue of her is to be set up in one of the buildings in the square marketplace in the roofed colonnade at the east end, between the office of the property assessors and the office of the market–overseer.”

This woman was a model citizen. So impressive was her benefaction and character she is to have a statue set up in the market place and a memorial each year to remind the citizens of Kyzikos of her moderation (a virtue involving sexual restraint), piety, and service to Artemis. I think we should have the idea now. Women involved in the temples in the Roman Empire (or even in the Hellenistic period, 4th C CE onwards) did not engage in prostitution as a part of their cultic service. They were model citizens lauded and held up as paragons of virtue to be emulated by both men and women. What we should see in these inscriptions is a correspondence to the types of virtues that Christians are urged to cultivate as model citizens.[10] So what about the command to abstain from fornication in James’ letter to the gentiles? It is a reality that while people may hold to certain ideals they don’t necessarily pursue them. And there was a grey area. While free-born women of a certain status were expected to be women of moderation; that is sexual fidelity, their husbands had more leeway. While it wasn’t the ideal, men were allowed mistresses.[11] Also a blind eye was turned to sexual use of slaves. The Roman philosopher Musonius Rufus urged his male listeners to be self-controlled and give up the use sexual use of slaves.[12] Slaves were in a grey area because their bodies actually belonged to their masters and mistresses. [13] A man who had his female slave was not immoral.[14] This was the case in the Old Testament. We are all familiar with the stories of Abraham and Jacob and their slave wives, Hagar and Billhah and Zilpah (Genesis 16, 30). The law accommodated second wives (Exodus 21:7–11) and captive wives (effectively women enslaved during war; Deut 21:10–14). I have a discussion about this in my article on “Marriage, the Bible, and Social Change.” However, the Jewish attitude to second wives or slave wives changes in the time when the Israelites return to Jerusalem from exile (5th century BCE). Ezra bans mixed marriages between Jewish men and women of other ethnic origins (Ezra 9). In 1 Kings Solomon is criticised for the number of foreign wives and concubines that he had in his harem because they were seen as turning “his heart after other gods” (1 Kings 11: 4). In a round-about way, the exile is attributed to King Solomon’s unfaithfulness. Thus there was a connection made between sexual desire and pagan religion.[15] It is clear that both the editor of 1 Kings and Ezra see foreign wives as a danger to an Israelite man’s continued observance of the law and faithfulness to Yahweh. And since slaves and concubines tend to be foreign, it became improper for a Jewish man to take one, even though Abraham and Jacob had this marriage practice.[16] It would appear over the course of time from the return of the exiles to the Roman period that second wives, concubines, slave wives, and mistresses (that is, prostitutes) became associated with sexual immorality, called “fornication” in our sources.[17] Thus “fornication” isn’t any kind of sexual immorality as it must be distinct from “adultery,” but a special kind of immorality.[18] Thus abstaining from “fornication” became distinctively Jewish like observing the food laws.[19] Now we would agree that using women as mistresses (also called prostitutes), slave wives, and prostitutes (enslaved women and children) is wrong and immoral, but so did a lot of pagan gentiles.[20] This was the attractiveness of Judaism and the Christian faith. Both Jewish folks and Christians pointed out the inconsistency in upholding civic virtues such as loyalty to one’s family and moderation while at the same time keeping a mistress. But here we still must be careful not to characterise the whole of the population of the Roman Empire as “fornicators” because most of them were not this. Many simply could not afford to keep a second wife/mistress; they struggled to keep just one wife housed, clothed and fed (see the requirements of a husband in on “Marriage, the Bible, and Social Change”). So why do I think this matters? One of the big barriers we are facing in today’s church is the conflict over sex, sexuality, and gender. These things are culturally constructed; we just can’t assume we know what people in the Roman Empire thought or did without first checking. Romans in particular were very concerned about sexual probity. It’s one of the reasons that it gets so much air time in the New Testament. It’s not because people in the Roman Empire were sexually libertarian. It’s actually the opposite. That’s one of the reasons that the Christian faith was attractive. But if we don’t understand this then we miss out on seeing how the early Christians; eg. James and Paul, adopted and adapted the cultural ideals to promote the Christian faith. Also having eyes to see how the command in Acts 15 not to fornicate speaks to both the Jewish and gentile audience would help us to understand what is at stake in James’s letter. And to understand what is at stake would in turn help us to navigate the uncharted waters of 21st century in terms of sex and gender. It simply doesn’t help if we think that James is prohibiting visiting temple prostitutes that don’t exist. If you’ve found this article helpful you can support my ministry and research by making a contribution (suggested US $5) through paypal @BI4IS © Lyn M. Kidson Image from this excellent article “Fragment of a relief of a double Suovetaurilia sacrifice, Julio Claudian period. 25-50 A.D.? Joe Geranio” on the blog A great image of a priestess, who was honoured by a society is found on the Associations of the Greco-Roman world site here. Further Reading Budin, Stephanie Lynn. The Myth of Sacred Prostitution in Antiquity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Faraone, Christopher A., and Laura McClure, editors. Prostitutes and Courtesans in the Ancient World. Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006. Lee, Max J. Moral Transformation in Greco-Roman Philosophy of Mind: Mapping the Moral Milieu of the Apostle Paul and His Diaspora Jewish Contemporaries. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2020.

Other Resources by Lyn M. Kidson

Join Lyn’s daily notes on the background of the Gospel of Mark on her Historias blog Historical Notes on the Gospel of Mark (1:1–5) Notes [1] All Bible references from NRSV copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. [2] Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 6–32. [3] For a discussion on cultic service, especially in the imperial cult, see “Public Roles for Women in the Cities of the Latin West,” in  Sharon L. James, Sheila Dillon editors,  A Companion to Women in the Ancient World, (John Wiley & Sons, 2012), 480. [4] Bruce Winter, Seek the Welfare of the City: Christians as Benefactors and Citizens (Grand Rapids, MI;  Carlisle, Cumbria: Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 1994), 26–33. [5] Werner Eck, The Age of Augustus, 2nd edition (Blackwell Publishing, 2011), 100–103. [6] Ibid., 102. [7] In the past these kinds of affairs were considered family matters to be dealt with in the family not in the civic sphere, ibid., 102. [8] Helen North, Sophrosyne: Self-Knowledge and Self-Restraint in Greek Literature (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1966), 25, 41: the “four cardinal virtues”. [9] Ibid., 41. [10] A point made by numerous scholars in the New Testament field. See Bruce Winter, Seek the Welfare of the City: Christians as Benefactors and Citizens (Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle, Cumbria: Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 1994) as a starting point. Also the website, Associations in the Greco-Roman World has an enormous number of resources for understanding the ideals that ordinary people in the Roman empire aspired to: [11] In the Pythagorean letters purportedly written by Theano, Pythagoras’ wife, she advises the wife to cheerful put up with her husband’s mistresses (letters 3 and 5) [12] “Should Daughters Receive the Same Education as Sons,” [13] The relationship of the master to the female slave in Jewish Ben Sira (2nd century) is somewhat grey Claudia V. Camp, “Understanding Patriarchy: Women in Second Century Jerusalem through the Eyes of Ben Sira,” in Amy-Jill Levine editor, “Women Like This”: New Perspectives on Jewish Women in the Greco-Roman World. Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1991), 33. [14] Kyle Harper, “Porneia: The Making of a Christian Sexual Norm.” Journal of Biblical Literature 131, no. 2 (2012): 366. [15] David Wheeler-Reed, Regulating Sex in the Roman Empire: Ideology, the Bible and Early Christians (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2017), 40: Jews of the Second Temple era harness their sexual desire in strict devotion to their God which prevents them from committing idolatry.” Philo in particular thought that sexual pleasure for its own sake was a sin. [16] For Jewish men’s prejudice toward foreign women see Lyn M. Kidson, “The Woman At The Well, Jesus, And Prejudice In Samaria (John 4:3–43)” in Peter Bolt ed. Jesus of Nazareth, vol 1 (North Ryde: Sydney College of Divinity). [17] Kathy Gaca, The Making of Fornication: Eros, Ethics, and Political Reform in Greek Philosophy and Early Christianity (University of California Press, 2003), 16–18; Camp, “Understanding Patriachy,” 33; Harper, “Porneia”, 374–375: “But for Hellenistic Jews, in a culture where sex with dishonored women, especially prostitutes and slaves, was legal and expected, the term condensed the cultural differences between the observers of the Torah and Gentile depravity. The Greek root πορν- already suggested the public sexual avail ability of the prostitute, and it made the association between the term πορνεία and the types of sexual license permitted in Gentile culture practically inevitable.” [18] Harper, “Porneia”, 374: “The violation of a wife or otherwise honorable girl was μοιχεία [adultery] or φθορά; sexual use of other women was πορνεία.” [19] David Wheeler-Reed, Regulating Sex in the Roman Empire: Ideology, the Bible and Early Christians (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2017), 39; However, note that Wheeler-Reed comments on Jewish attitudes “most of the sexual ethics of Second Temple Judaism look surprisingly like the ideological sexual ethics of the Roman Empire”, 39. [20] There is no more moving response from a writer in the ancient world to women and children held in sex slavery than Dio Chrysostom’s Euboean Discourse. In this discourse he warns the male householder against “friends” who are using him to seduce his wife and sons.