Last week I mentioned how Douglas Estes suggests in his book The Questions of Jesus in John: Logic, Rhetoric, and Persuasive Discourse that the the function of questions (non-declaratives) in Paul’s writings or the Synoptic Gospels may be ripe for further research (see Questions and question-asking as a potential thesis/dissertation focus). I have two more ideas for students needing guidance. Both come from Joan E. Taylor’s The Immerser: John the Baptist within Second Temple Judaism.
First, Taylor notes in a discussion on Matthew 21:31-32 that Jesus speaks of toll collectors and prostitutes entering the Kingdom ahead of the chief priests and elders. She investigates whether or not John the Baptist would have been known to tell prostitutes to reform certain behaviors like he told soldiers while not telling prostitutes that their profession was to be abandoned completely. She writes of prostitutes encountering John (p. 120),
“Prostitutes would have had to indicate in some way that they had borne good fruit worthy of repentance. Were they also to continue being prostitutes? This is an interesting question. The rabbis clearly considered prostitution sinful, but in ancient Israel prostitution was not unlawful under all circumstances. A father was not to prostitute his daughter (Lev. 19:29), though he was allowed to sell her as a concubine (Exod. 21:7). A priest was forbidden to marry a prostitute or a divorced woman, and a priest’s daughter who became a prostitute was to be burned (Lev. 21:7-9), but the rule for priests was not the rule for everyone. Prostitution was certainly frowned upon (Tob. 4:12; Prov. 7:9-23), but there was no specific law forbidding it. Certain noble prostitutes appear in Scripture–Rahab,for example (Josh. 2:1; 6:25). Samson visited one (Judg. 16:1). Prostitutes could appeal to the king for judgment (1 Kgs. 3:16-18), and they walked openly in the streets (Isa. 23:16). There were probably large numbers of prostitutes in Israel near to Roman military garrisons (Josephus, Ant. 20.356; cf. b. Sabb. 33b; b. Pesah. 113b). The idea that prostitutes could be righteous would nevertheless be shocking. The saying of Jesus in Matt. 21:31 is designed to play on the shock value of the statement. Yet would John, whose ethical standards were extremely high, have allowed that such women could be accepted by God upon immersion, if they, somehow, ‘bore good fruit’? Did he advise ethical conduct within their profession? What kind of advice would have have given to these women, if indeed we are to imagine that he objected only to abuses within their profession?”
Now, Taylor herself concludes, “It is highly unlikely that John thought professional prostitutes capable of living righteously while still keeping to prostitution.” She observes that the word זנה was used to described harlots and זונה is used of women who have committed a variety of sexual sins. The word πόρνη is used to translate these idea in the LXX and it appears in Matthew 21:31 (αἱ πόρναι). There is a connection between Jesus’ words and this OT concept of prostitutes, or women identified primarily by sexual sins committed outside the marriage covenant. This leads Taylor to ask (p. 121),
“Even if professional prostitutes are referred to in relation to John, it should be remembered that in a country of extreme poverty, in which women were a vulnerable group, prostitution proper might have been the only way of surviving for women who were divorced, widowed, or somehow on their own in need of money. The word could also refer to a woman who, though living with a man, was not married to him, that is, to a woman who was maintained by a man without a formal marriage contract. A woman could very easily earn the reputation of being a “prostitute,” even if she were not actually earning money for sex. In the story of Jesus’ meeting with the Samaritan women [sic], he refers to the man she is living with as her “husband,” to which she replies she has none. He then notes that indeed she has had seven “husbands,” though in fact the one she is living with now is not her real husband (John 4:16-18). In common appraisal, this unmarried and sexually active woman would have been considered a prostitute. Interestingly, in this story, Jesus does not advise her to go and “sin no more” (cf. the adulterous women [sic] of John 8:1-11). This subject is clearly one that requires more study…”
A few observations:
(1) One could study the role of women who had negative reputations based on their sexual activity among first century Jews. What differentiated prostitutes/harlots from unmarried, sexually active women who depended upon a man for their survival. In the patriarchal culture of the time there were few options for a woman who did not have a husband or another man to care for her.
(2) How did Jews handle the ethical problem of telling a woman to stop having sex for money if that was her only option?
(3) How does this impact our reading of early Christianity’s emphasis on caring for widows?
Second, Taylor observes (pp. 122-123),
“…Matt. 21:31-32 is the only specific mention of women among the disciples of John. This is important, because discipleship in later Judaism and in Graeco-Roman philosophy was typically a male preserve. Two key exceptions to this norm were found elsewhere in Judaic culture, in the community of Therapeutae living by the Mareotic Lake near Alexandria (Philo, On the Contemplative Life) and in the community of disciples of Jesus (see, e.g. Acts 8:3; 9:2, 36). Again, this subject requires greater study, but it should be noted here that women were probably among the disciples of John, and were, like the men, immersed after undergoing a period of instructions
I should clarify that Taylor establishes that people who came to be baptized by John were likely taught by John for some time as concerns fidelity to the Law prior to returning to their communities. If prostitutes came for baptism then these women received instruction making these women disciples.
A couple more observations:
(1) One could research Taylor’s claim that baptism is connected to discipleship in the community of the Baptist.
(2) Another area worth exploring would be the uniqueness of being a woman disciple in the ancient world. What did this do to the early Jesus movement? How would it have been perceived by the surrounding culture? What does it mean to be a woman disciples in juxtaposition with being a male disciple?