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?
I wonder if the toll collectors and prostitutes were not toll collectors per se and prostitutes per se, but rather disparaging terms for Jews who sold themselves to the pagan Roman occupation.
What would indicate to you that it was merely raised rhetoric? Would Jesus’ words have had the same impact if it meant “(those who slander as) toll collector and prostitutes (who are not those things in actuality) enter the kingdom…”?
I think the pairing of the two might be the important clue. I’d naturally think a murderer would be committing a graver crime than a tax collector or a prostitute. But tax collectors and prostitutes, as images, show a betrayal to/leading astray of society… which may be worse. Tax collectors, more likely the tax farmers, by squeezing more money out of the populace than demanded by Roman law in the name of Roman law, all for the support of the pagan Roman system. They were hated. And prostitutes, by selling services that God had blessed as part of marriage. If you want to contemplate more on the prostitute as image, then remember the Tanakh’s imagery of idolatry as adultery and divorce — both betrayals of marriage — with Proverbs and Micah coming to mind first. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch in my mind to also use the example of a prostitute as, again, the betrayer of [one of] God’s blessings. Matt 18.7: “Woe to the world because of its stumbling blocks! For it is inevitable that stumbling blocks come; but woe to that man through whom the stumbling block comes!”
I agree with your understanding of why these professions were taboo. I’ve yet to understand why you propose that Jesus isn’t speaking of real tax collectors and prostitutes.
Commenting on “Prostitution was certainly frowned upon (Tob. 4:12; Prov. 7:9-23), but there was no specific law forbidding it.”
Logic like this is disappointing .. It’s only mildly less disappointing than “It’s in the bible so the bible approves of it”.
That there is no such specific prohibition against prostitution in the bible does not mean it was not prohibited (ala the fallacy absence of evidence is evidence of absence). More over (to boot) such an argument is is not only fallacious, it’s legalistic (my mother never specifically told me I couldn’t paint her car orange with oil based latex paint, so that did not constitute permission).
Notwithstanding the baseless textual debate about the Pericope de Adulterae, the principle behind the spirit of the law is ‘go and sin no more’. (There is some evidence that the Pericope was in the earliest text, but removed in Greek texts, while preserved in Alexandria, rather than being a later addition). Accordingly, prostitutes, like all sinners were expected to ‘bear fruit’ where ‘bearing fruit’ was not continuing on in sin.
The ‘political’ issue being skirted around here is “Is prostitutuion sinful?” and it absolutely is – but another principle is true here too, which is where sin is compelled (meaning if the woman is given no choice but to sin), it is not charged to woman, but to they who are doing the compelling. However, as long as the woman has some choice, she will, like all of us, be held accountable for sin as a result of her choice. (This is the same principle behind husbands not provoking their wives to sin)
I think you are missing Taylor’s point here. She is not asking this question to reach a prescriptive answer, but a descriptive one. How did Jews in the first century address these matters? Do we have any data that shows us as historians how this matter was handled. You’ve confused Taylor’s words as advocating some ethical position while a thorough reading of the excerpts and my comments make it quite evident that that is not what Taylor addressed nor do the questions it inspired me to ask relate at all to the “ought” of the matter.
On a side note, if one wants to accuse Taylor of being sly in her suggestions (which I think is bad form since historians should be allowed to ask questions about the past without being accused of having a present agenda) one would have to account for the fact that she concludes, personally, that John would not have seen prostitution as anything but sinful.
Because Jesus wasn’t talking to tax collectors and prostitutes, He was talking to the “chief priests and elders of the people” (NASB) in Matt 21.23-45 with the proof to me being Matt 21.45 “When the chief priests and the Pharisees (cf. 23 elders) heard His parables, they understood that He was speaking about them.”
Brian, I wasn’t specifically addressing Taylor, who I’ve not read, and take according to your characterization (which I assume to be faithful). I was addressing the implication that prostitutuion was not prohibited in the bible (which is true incidentally) so therefore it must be prohibited.
You argue Taylor as being descriptive rather than prescriptive, and while I believe that is mostly true (given your portrayal), it is not entirely true, or why bring up the true but irevellant fact there is no direct prohibition against this behaviour in the bible? That attitudes towards it are clearly evident is sufficient for a description of how early Jews/Israelites treated the subject. To introduce it unessessarily suggests baggage which is prescriptive.
I don’t think Taylor was being sly .. I just don’t see the relevance of saying the bible doesn’t prohibit prostition. The bible doesn’t prohibit lots of things …
When someone is trying to write a comprehensive presentation of John the Baptist each and every available texts that relates to him must be considered as well as the possible implications. We lack data on the man. Stating the obvious that there is no direct statement in the Hebrew Bible and proposing that first century Jews would have had to wrestle with what to do about prostitution is a completely fair questions. The entire rabbinic tradition is Jewish thinkers wrestling with the implications of their sacred text. Showing that there is no direct command is a way of opening the discussion about how this topic may have been discussed and considered in the ancient world. Simple as that.
This is all very interesting, and I appreciate the discussion/suggestions that have been popping up on this blog over the last week or so. Finding a good thesis topic suggestion online is a rare occurrence.
I’m currently considering the possibility of researching the use of questions in Luke/Acts, as I noticed the other day that in the story of Philip and the eunuch, the eunuch only speaks in interrogatives throughout the entire dialogue. Given that the eunuch’s questions ultimately lead to his baptism into Christian Judaism, it makes me wonder if there’s a larger soteriological literary theme in Luke/Acts that values questions as a means toward salvation?
I think questions in Luke-Acts would make for a fascinating study. Even as I browse over the early part of Acts I see “is it time to restore the Kingdom to Israel?” in 1:6, which prepares the readers for Jesus’s answer; “why do you look at the sky” from the angels in 1:11; questions about the disciples speaking in tongues in 2:6-8, 12. These questions all seem importantly strategic for Luke’s storytelling. They move things along: no answer regarding the Kingdom, no reason to stare at the sky, no these disciples aren’t drunk but this is what Joel predicted…I think you may be onto something.
HOORAY! THANK YOU, JEEBUS!
Brian, I agree with your comment, but would like to comment on this “The entire rabbinic tradition is Jewish thinkers wrestling with the implications of their sacred text.”.
I would argue that what we consider rabbinic tradition is most reflective of modern Jewish prejudices, and therefore historical Phariseeism (which lives on somewhat in post-Christian Jewish tradition and prejudice).
I would also argue that rabbinic tradition doesn’t necessarily reflect the tradition and thoughts of Israelite and Judean prophets, given Jesus criticism of his contemporaries. I would accordingly argue rabbinic tradition is the problem. The Essenes in their work, also show sufficient independence from the other Jewish sects to suggest that our perspective of ancient Israelite/Judean thought should not be corrupted by the lense of rabbinic tradition.
If Jesus taught us anything, is that the Pharisees were wrong on so many levels. Mew should not now, therefore, embrace what remains of Pharisaical thought as the lens by which we look at the ancient world, when the ancient world was far more complex.
Modern Judaism is the result of the rabbinic tradition. I agree. I do not deny that modern Christians and Jews differ on important matters. Similarly, yes, it seems it was the Pharisees who are most responsible to the type of discourse and exegesis from which the rabbinic tradition emerged, but that said, I think that the Pharisees approached the study of Scripture from an angle that would have been quite familiar to Jesus, Paul, and other early Christians. Paul’s own exegesis, and Jesus’ dialogue with his opponents, doesn’t show us a Jesus who is completely disconnected from the discourse of his day, but a Jesus who was part of it. Even if we factor in his unique authority and identity that doesn’t make him alien to first century Jewish discourse. Jesus can be found right in the middle of it.
That Jesus disagreed with the conclusions of many of his contemporaries does not equate to an outright dismissal of their study of Scripture. Rather, Jesus doesn’t approach Scripture from a completely different angle, but he informs his opponents that their major mistake is not understanding his authority and identity, and this causes them to miss the main point.
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