The Greek word porneia refers to prostitution, with the related terms porne and pornos referring to female and male prostitutes, respectively. In ancient Athens prostitution was legal and was taxed, although it was considered both illegal and shameful for freeborn citizens. Thus, in seeking to discredit a rival, the Athenian orator and politician Apollodorus charged his enemy's partner Neaira with being a porne (c. 340s bce; Demosthenes, Against Neaira). In another famous case Aeschines prosecuted his opponent Timarchus for prostitution, arguing that a man who sold his body for profit could never be trusted with the affairs of the city (c. 346–345 bce; Aeschines, Against Timarchus).
Porneia thus had a decidedly negative connotation, and expressions such as pornes huios ("son of a whore") were used as pointed slurs. In the moralizing literature of the first and second centuries ce, men were warned not to squander their inheritance on pornai and were condemned as licentious (akolasia) if they overindulged in trips to the brothel. Tax receipts, legal documents, and historical writings from the Roman period show that prostitution continued to be regulated and taxed despite the fact that porneia—with an expanded sense indicating any illicit sex—was condemned by Greco-Roman moralists. A double meaning of porneia prevailed: porneia as a recognized profession forced upon slaves or taken up by impoverished persons of low status and porne or pornos as a sharp insult that could be directed at "honorable" men or women.
The rhetorical potential of the category porneia was used effectively by early Christian authors to target outsiders accused of visiting prostitutes, engaging in incest at brothels, and confusing former prostitutes with inspired prophetesses (1 Corinthians 5-6; Revelation 2:20-22; Hermas, Similitudes, 9.13.9; Justin, 1 Apology, 36; Irenaeus, Against the Heresies, 1.6.3, 1.23.3, 1.25.3). Those authors built upon a tradition they had inherited from the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible), in which idolatry—worshiping gods other than the god of Israel—was associated with improper sexual acts, including incest, male homoerotic sexual intercourse, and bestiality. Thus, Israelites were warned not to "play the whore" (porne) by going after other gods (Hosea 4:15-19, Septuagint) and Canaanites were said to "prostitute themselves" (ekporneuo) to their gods (Exodus 34:15-16, Septuagint). Equating false religiosity with sexual acts, authors such as John of Patmos called their enemies "whores" (pornai; Revelation 2:21-22, 17-18).
A tendency to confuse highly charged Christian rhetoric with historical fact has contributed to the stereotype of the "pagan" or "heretical" commitment to sexual excess, especially in the context of religious rituals. For example, Paul's anxiety about porneia in Corinth (1 Corinthians 5-7), combined with comments in other first-century literature about the hetairai ("companions" or "courtesans") associated with the temple of Aphrodite (Strabo, Geography, 8.6.20), has been taken as evidence of sacred prostitution despite a lack of archaeological evidence. This interpretation fails to recognize the metonymic equivalence of porneia and impiety in Christian sources. Porneia was and continues to be a widely applied loaded term that is as useful for slandering various targets as for describing a social and economic practice.
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Jennifer Wright Knust