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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Harlot

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HARLOT.—This is the term usually employed in Authorized Version as translation of πόρνη, the only other translation being ‘whore.’

The practice of prostitution dates from the earliest times. While in Egypt, the Israelites must have been familiar with the fact that prostitution prevailed in connexion with Egyptian cults. No sooner were they settled in Canaan than the purity both of their morality and their religion was endangered by the contaminating influence of Semitic rites, in which the consecrated harlot (kĕdçshâh) played no small part. From glimpses of social life afforded us by the prophets (e.g. Jeremiah 5:7, Hosea 4:14), we can perceive the prevalence of ordinary prostitution in their day. One of the blessings of the Exile was the extinction among the Jews both of idolatry and of religious prostitution. The Apocrypha, however, witnesses to the continuance of the common harlot. She haunts the streets (Sirach 9:7), and employs singing as one of her seductive arts (Sirach 9:4). In the time of the Maccabees the Gentiles in Palestine ‘dallied with harlots,’ and had to do ‘with women within the circuit of the holy places (2 Maccabees 6:4). Cf. also Proverbs 7:10.

The Gospels supply us with little information as to the extent of prostitution in Palestine during the time of Christ. In Matthew 21:32 our Lord refers to harlots as a class. The woman of Luke 7, ‘who was a sinner in the city’ (Luke 7:37 v.l.), probably belonged to the class. In the parable of the Prodigal Son, the far country in which he devoured his living with harlots (Luke 15:30) might be supposed to be possibly within Palestine. Again, our Lord’s reference to the sin of fornication (Matthew 19:9) suggests the existence of immoral women. The popular idea of Mary Magdalene as a woman of evil life is rejected by many of the best exegetes.

In Christ’s day, Palestine was in many ways demoralized by Greek and Roman influences. Wherever the Greeks and Romans went, the ἐταίρα and the meretrix abounded. Religions prostitution reappeared in connexion with the Mysteries of Aphrodite, which culminated in vicious orgies, and these rites were not confined to Greece. Pagan gods and goddesses ‘had their due secret solemnities whithersoever Greek (and partly Roman) colonists took their Lares and Penates’ (Baring-Gould in Chambers’ Encyc. vii. 369). Nor would the immorality of women employed in shameless rites be confined to religious ceremonies, any more than is the case to-day amongst similar women attached to Indian temples. In cities upon the coast of Asia Minor immoral cults prevailed in NT times.

To the Christian mind the matter of chief interest is the attitude of Jesus towards this class of sinners, and the significance of His gospel in respect of them. Here we cannot fail to contrast the harsh temper of the Pharisees towards such women with the holy and redemptive sympathy of Jesus. Even the austere John the Baptist had evidently welcomed them as penitents and as candidates for baptism (Matthew 21:32),—a fact of which Jesus reminded His Pharisaic hearers. Our Lord plainly indicated that sins of fleshly frailty are less heinous and less likely to prove fatal than lovelessness, spiritual pride, and hypocrisy; for ‘the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you’ (Matthew 21:31). His compassionate tenderness in this connexion appears very beautifully in St. Luke’s story of the sinful woman, whose newness of heart was intensified by the love and gratitude consequent upon the pity and pardon experienced at the Saviour’s hands. It may be added in respect of guilt of this description, that the peace of conscience begotten of faith in the Redeemer’s atoning blood is oftentimes as deep as the sense of guilt was poignant. Nor should it be forgotten that the general effect of the way in which the Master admitted women to His intimate fellowship is to raise the status of woman in such a manner as to render her degradation through prostitution unthinkable.

Robert M. Adamson.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Harlot'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/h/harlot.html. 1906-1918.

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