In the Hellenistic and Roman worlds in which Jews lived following Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Near and Middle East in the late fourth century B.C.E., prostitution was a common practice. Whereas full Greek and Roman citizens were legally prohibited from prostituting themselves, their wives, and their freeborn children (Fernandes 2006; McGinn 1998, 21–23), no prohibitions restricted male citizens’ use of mostly servile female and male prostitutes or householders forcing their slaves and servile offspring to work as prostitutes for business purposes. In the major Hellenistic cities, and even in smaller Roman towns such as Pompeii, various types of public brothels existed, and prostitution also took place in other spaces such as taverns and bathhouses (on the methodological problems of identifying brothels archaeologically see Glazebrook and Tsakirgis 2016; on brothels in Pompeii see McGinn 2006, 162). Public prostitution was supplemented by various forms of sexual exploitation in the private realm of the household, where householders had authority over their dependents. The boundaries between forced sex in private and public were blurred, suggesting a variety of forms of sexual exploitation in ancient societies.

Ancient Jewish literary sources suggest that freeborn Jews would generally have abstained from prostituting themselves or their relatives (see also Ilan 1995, 218; Loader 2013, 115). During the Roman conquest and the Jewish revolts against Rome, however, the Romans captured and enslaved large numbers of Jewish men, women, and children, some of whom would have ended up in brothels. Furthermore, poor Jews could encounter situations in which they had to endure sexual exploitation by those who obtained power over them. Both biblical and later rabbinic texts mention the phenomenon of debt slavery (Chirichigno 1993, 145–185; Hezser 2005, 233–241), which could lead to self-sale or the sale of one’s children into slavery, a practice common in the ancient Near East but prohibited in Roman law.

The so-called Concubine Law of Exodus 21:7–11 already envisions the possibility that a householder and/or his son might have sex with a woman sold by her father. If the men lose interest in her, they should not simply sell her on to someone else but either continue to maintain her or set her free. This suggestion must be considered an ideal rather than reality. Despite religious writers’ moral concerns, householders could do whatever they wanted with their slaves and were under no formal obligation to treat particular categories of slaves differently.

Debt slavery continued in Second Temple and rabbinic times. According to Mishnah Sotah 3:8, a man may sell his daughter. In the text’s parallel in the Mekhilta (Neziqin/Mishpatim 3) this right is limited to the time before her puberty, perhaps in order to avoid a direct sale into sexual abuse and prostitution (cf. Lev 19:29; in the Babylonian Talmud, b. Sanh. 76a, the sale of one’s daughter into prostitution, that is, “for sex purposes without marriage intention,” is explicitly prohibited). The Mekhilta also specifies (ibid.) that an adult woman may not sell herself (cf. Mishnah Ketuvot 3:8) and that a father may not sell his son. The idea that a married woman or a boy might be subjected to sexual abuse would have been abhorrent to rabbis: the former for matters of family honor and the latter perhaps because of biblical views on male homosexuality (on this issue, see Gagnon 2001). A story in the Tosefta mentions an encounter between a rabbi and a Jerusalemite boy with beautiful features, destined to be “put to disgrace” in Rome (Tosefta Horayot 2:5–6). Interestingly, the rabbi is willing to redeem him only after having assured himself of the boy’s Torah knowledge. The reason for this is explicitly stated: in order to set the boy free he had to pay “a lot of money” (ibid.). Obviously, prostitution was a big business in antiquity.

Archaeological evidence of brothels has been found in Beth Shean/Scythopolis, where a set of six small rooms located near the shops and Byzantine baths resembles respective establishments in Pompeii (for a description see Dauphin 1996). The Talmud Yerushalmi offers some indirect evidence of prostitutes offering their services in bathhouses: Yerushalmi Taanit 1:4, 64b mentions a pimp by the name Pentekaka (“Five Sins”) who allegedly hired out prostitutes and brought their clothes to the bathhouse (Jacobs 1998, 256–257). Due to taverns’ and hostels’ notoriety as places of indecent sexual behavior, some rabbis created rules to prevent overly close encounters between men and women in those locations, especially if the man’s wife was not traveling with him (cf. Mishnah Qiddushin 4:12).

Like Greco-Roman literature, rabbinic texts suggest a certain fluidity and exchangeability between the notions of “whore” and “wife” (for Roman society, see Strong 2016, 1): wives could be presented as whores and whores could fulfill wives’ functions (Gen. R. 23:2 mentions two wives, one for procreation and one for sexual gratification). The rabbis assumed that family honor could be violated by the way in which one’s wife and daughters behaved in public or through mere rumors about them. As far as males were concerned, rabbis urged their disciples to behave in a way that befitted Torah scholars. They therefore created rules and regulations meant to serve as barriers between the sexes, especially if the respective man and woman were unrelated. The terms “harlotry” and “indecency” are used in such contexts to warn against trespassing these boundaries. For example, some rabbis suggested that “he who gazes at her vagina is as if he had sexual relations with her” (y. Hallah 2:1, 58c), and “Shmuel said: [Hearing] the voice of a woman [is forbidden] on the grounds of indecency” (ibid.). In the text that follows, this “indecency” is associated with the “harlotry” mentioned in the proof text of Jeremiah 3:9. Through the combination of Shmuel’s statement with Jeremiah 3:9, all women are associated with harlots who may lure men to sin through the very use of their voice. Such statements were probably meant to discourage overly close contacts between male (rabbinic) Jews and women.

The Babylonian Talmud transmits stories about rabbis’ remorse after visits to (women whom they considered to be) prostitutes. In b. Qiddushin 81b, a rabbi’s wife disguises herself as a prostitute to kindle his desire (compare the discussion of Leah in Gen. R. 80:1), and in b. Avodah Zarah 17a, a rabbi keen on visiting prostitutes eventually seeks repentance (on this text, see Bar-Asher Siegal 2013, 170–188, who points to analogies in monastic literature; Balberg 2008). At the same time rabbinic literature gives the impression that slave women were expected to carry out tasks required of wives, including the sexual satisfaction of their masters (Hezser 2013).

Rabbinic texts’ attempts to create boundaries between men and women, wives and whores, honor and shame seem to have been crafted within the context of a perceived fluidity between the categories in male Jewish consciousness. Whether wives or harlots, slaves or free, all women are represented as legal dependents of their husbands, fathers, and masters and are seen as potentially licentious.


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Catherine Hezser