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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament [1]

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.

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible [2]

HARLOT (Heb. zônâh, ’ishshâh nokrîyyâh [lit. ‘strange woman’], qedçshâh , Gr. pornç ) in EV [Note: English Version.] denotes unchaste women, especially those devoted to immoral service in idol sanctuaries, or given to a dissolute life for gain. We find evidence of their existence in very early times (  Genesis 38:1-30 ). From the name ‘strange woman’ in   Proverbs 6:24;   Proverbs 23:27 etc. (cf.   1 Kings 11:1 ,   Ezra 10:2 etc.), we may perhaps infer that in later times they were chiefly foreigners. By songs (  Isaiah 23:16 ) and insinuating arts (  Proverbs 6:24 etc.) they captivated the unwary. They acted also as decoys to the dens of robbery and murder (  Proverbs 7:22;   Proverbs 7:27 etc.). Wealth was lavished upon them (  Ezekiel 16:33;   Ezekiel 16:39;   Ezekiel 23:26 etc.; cf.   Luke 15:30 ). Apart from breaches of the marriage vows, immoral relations between the sexes were deemed venial (  Deuteronomy 22:28 ff.). A man might not compel his daughter to sin (  Leviticus 19:29 ), but apparently she was free herself to take that way. Children of harlots were practical outlaws (  Deuteronomy 23:2 ,   Judges 11:1 ff.,   John 8:41 ), and in NT times the harlot lived under social ban (  Matthew 21:32 etc.).

The picture takes a darker hue when we remember that in ancient Syria the reproductive forces of nature were deified, and worshipped in grossly immoral rites. Both men and women prostituted themselves in the service of the gods. The Canaanite sanctuaries were practically gigantic brothels, legalized by the sanctions of religion. The appeal made to the baser passions of the Israelites was all too successful ( Amos 2:7 ,   Hosea 4:13 ff. etc.), and it is grimly significant that the prophets designate apostasy and declension by ‘whoredom.’ There were therefore special reasons for the exceptional law regarding the priest’s daughter (  Leviticus 21:9 ). Religious prostitution was prohibited in Israel (  Deuteronomy 23:17 ), and all gain from the unholy calling as Temple revenue was spurned (see Driver, Deut., in loc .). The pure religion of J″ [Note: Jahweh.] was delivered from this peril only by the stern discipline of the Exile. A similar danger beset the early Church, e.g. in Greece and Asia Minor: hence such passages as   Romans 1:24 ff.,   1 Corinthians 6:9 ff.,   Galatians 5:19 etc., and the decree of the Apostolic Council (  Acts 15:20;   Acts 15:29 ).

W. Ewing.

Fausset's Bible Dictionary [3]

(On the spiritual "harlot" (See Antichrist and  Isaiah 1:21; Revelation 17; contrast Revelation 12 and Beast Fornication was regarded by the unconverted Gentiles as a thing indifferent in itself, having no moral guilt intrinsically; hence in the Jerusalem decree (Acts 15) it is classed with things which Gentile usage allowed but Jewish law forbade. The moral abomination of it is elsewhere condemned as excluding from heaven ( 1 Corinthians 6:9-20). The general Hebrew term Zownah expresses any licentiousness in the married or unmarried; so the Greek Porneia in  Matthew 5:32. Ζarah and Nokriyah , "the strange woman," implies that foreign women were those often found among the harlot class. In  Proverbs 5:17-20 "strange" seemingly contrasts with one's own rightful wife; another term, Qudeeshaah , "consecrated woman" (in  Genesis 38:21-22;  Deuteronomy 23:17;  Hosea 4:14), refers to the abominable worship of the Syrian Astarte or Venus by prostitution.

By divine retribution in kind Israel's sin was made its punishment: "My people have gone a whoring (spiritually as well as literally) from under their God ... therefore your daughters shall commit whoredom, and your spouses shall commit adultery." What ye do of your own will, desert your divine Father and Husband, your daughters and wives shall do against your will, desert you and Him. The people's idolatry became the source of dishonour to those to whom their honour was dearest, their wives and daughters. "The men of Babylon made Saccoth Benoth" their idol in Samaria ( 2 Kings 17:30); the idol's name means "booths for their daughters," referring to their prostitution in this detestable worship. The masculine Qadesh , "Sodomites," implies male prostitution in the same vile worship ( Deuteronomy 23:17;  1 Kings 14:24;  1 Kings 15:12;  1 Kings 22:46;  2 Kings 23:7;  Job 36:14).

Tamar veiled herself and sat by the wayside as a consecrated harlot ( Qedeesh ) under a vow, and was so regarded by Judah. Herodotus (1:199) mentions the impure custom in the Babylonian worship of Mylitta, so that of the Dea Syra at Byblos very anciently. Singing and harping about a city was the badge of a harlot ( Isaiah 23:16). Male relatives exercised unlimited power in punishing unchaste women for the family dishonour ( Genesis 38:24). A priest's daughter playing the whore was burnt to death ( Leviticus 21:9). The children of a harlot could not inherit with legitimate children ( John 8:41;  Deuteronomy 23:2), but "bastard" means probably one born of incest or adultery; so the rabbis explain  Judges 11:1-2.

Hawker's Poor Man's Concordance And Dictionary [4]

We cannot be at a loss for the Scriptural meaning of this word, for the word of God, in this instance, corresponds with the general sentiments and customs of mankind in all ages. A harlot is the same name as a prostitute, a woman of fame, or as we say, a woman of the town. ( Proverbs 29:3) The Lord makes use of the name by way of shewing the spiritual fornication of Israel. "Thou hast played the harlot with many lovers, yet return again to me, said the Lord." ( Jeremiah 3:1) It hath supposed by some, that in the case of Rahab the harlot, it was not intended to imply the character of a woman of fame. But certainly there is no authority for supposing any other. The original Hebrew Zona, ( Joshua 2:1) means a harlot. And Septuagint, in the Greek Porne, can admit no translation. Both Paul and James use this and our translators have most faithfully rendered it, by the word harlot. ( Hebrews 11:31;  James 2:25) The objection respecting Salmon, a prince Israel, marrying her, is so far from an objection to her being a prostitute, that it should seem rather confirmation. We find the Lord commanding Hosea the prophet to marry an adulteress. (See  Hosea 3:1) And as a figurative representation, by type, of Jesus marrying our adulterous nature, nothing could be more striking. Strange, indeed, to our view, are all the ways and works of God! But it is not more marvellous that Christ, after the flesh, should spring from Rahab, than from Thamar by Judah. ( Genesis 38:12-30.) The former was by an harlot: in the instance of the latter it was incestuous. But certain it is, that both, after the flesh, were in the genealogy of the Lord of life and glory, how strange soever it appears to us.

Holman Bible Dictionary [5]

 Joshua 2:1 Joshua 6:23-25 Matthew 1:5 Hebrews 11:31 James 2:25

The Bible gives few details of the ways in which harlots like Rahab practiced their trade. Evidently, harlots might solicit along the roadside ( Genesis 38:14-15 ). Brothels, which often served as taverns and inns, were also known in the Ancient Near East. Rahab's house may have been one ( Joshua 2:1 ). It is possible that the prostitute had a distinctive mark on her forehead ( Jeremiah 3:3 ) and breasts ( Hosea 2:2 ). She might attract attention by her clothing, jewelry and make-up ( Jeremiah 4:30;  Ezekiel 23:40;  Revelation 17:4 ). Flattering with words ( Proverbs 2:16 ) and making sweet music ( Isaiah 23:16 ) might be used to lure or soothe a client. Her payment might be in money, or it could be in jewelry ( Ezekiel 23:42 ) or other items of value ( Genesis 38:15-18; compare  Luke 15:30 ).

Although harlots were considered socially inferior, they did have legal rights, as is evident from the incident recorded in  1 Kings 3:16-22 . See Fornication; Prostitution .

Wilda W. Morris

Easton's Bible Dictionary [6]

  • Heb. nokriyah, the "strange woman" ( 1 Kings 11:1;  Proverbs 5:20;  7:5;  23:27 ). Those so designated were Canaanites and other Gentiles ( Joshua 23:13 ). To the same class belonged the "foolish", i.e., the sinful, "woman."

    In the New Testament the Greek pornai, plural, "harlots," occurs in  Matthew 21:31,32 , where they are classed with publicans;  Luke 15:30;  1 Corinthians 6:15,16;  Hebrews 11:31;  James 2:25 . It is used symbolically in  Revelation 17:1,5,15,16;  19:2 .

    Copyright Statement These dictionary topics are from M.G. Easton M.A., DD Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Third Edition, published by Thomas Nelson, 1897. Public Domain.

    Bibliography Information Easton, Matthew George. Entry for 'Harlot'. Easton's Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/ebd/h/harlot.html. 1897.

  • Vine's Expository Dictionary of NT Words [7]

    1: Πόρνη (Strong'S #4204 — Noun Feminine — porne — por'-nay )

    "a prostitute, harlot" (from pernemi, "to sell"), is used (a) literally, in  Matthew 21:31,32 , of those who were the objects of the mercy shown by Christ; in  Luke 15:30 , of the life of the Prodigal; in  1—Corinthians 6:15,16 , in a warning to the Corinthian church against the prevailing licentiousness which had made Corinth a byword; in  Hebrews 11:31;  James 2:25 , of Rahab; (b) metaphorically, of mystic Babylon,  Revelation 17:1,5 (AV, "harlots"),15,16; 19:2, RV, for AV, "whore."

    Wilson's Dictionary of Bible Types [8]

     Isaiah 1:21 (a) This word is used to describe Jerusalem when she was living in idolatry and in corrupt relationship with the rich nations around her. The affections of her heart were taken away from the living and the true GOD, and she became enamored of the idols of other peoples. (See also  Jeremiah 2:20;  Ezekiel 16:15;  Hosea 2:5).

     Revelation 17:5 (a) Babylon is a type of the Roman Catholic Church. This is so stated by many historians and scholars who are authorized to explain the Scriptures. Many large denominations have hived off from this church, and have carried with them many of the traditions and practices of the mother church. Many of these follow the practice of the mother church in seeking the favor and the gifts of the world.

    American Tract Society Bible Dictionary [9]

    An abandoned woman,  Proverbs 29:3; a type of idolatrous nations and cities,  Isaiah 1:21   Ezekiel 16:1-63   Nahum 3:4 . Among the Jews, prostitutes were often foreigners; hence their name of "strange women." They were often devoted to heathen idols, and their abominations were a part of the worship,  Numbers 25:1-5   Hosea 4:14; a custom from the defilement of which the house of God was expressly defended,  Deuteronomy 23:18 .

    Smith's Bible Dictionary [10]

    Harlot. That this class of persons existed in the earliest states of society is clear from,  Genesis 38:15. Rahab,  Joshua 2:1, is said by the Chaldean Paraphrased to have been an innkeeper; but if there were such persons, considering what we know of Canaanitish morals,  Leviticus 18:27, we may conclude that they would, if women, have been of this class. The "harlots" are classed with "publicans," as those who lay under the ban of society, in the New Testament.  Matthew 21:32.

    Webster's Dictionary [11]

    (1): ( n.) A churl; a common man; a person, male or female, of low birth.

    (2): ( n.) A person given to low conduct; a rogue; a cheat; a rascal.

    (3): ( n.) A woman who prostitutes her body for hire; a prostitute; a common woman; a strumpet.

    (4): ( a.) Wanton; lewd; low; base.

    (5): ( v. i.) To play the harlot; to practice lewdness.

    Morrish Bible Dictionary [12]

    A woman given up to fornication: there were such as early as  Genesis 38:15 . The term is used metaphorically for unfaithfulness: "how is the faithful city become an harlot!"  Isaiah 1:21;  Ezekiel 16:31,35 . The mystic Babylon is designated "The mother of harlots,"  Revelation 17:5 : not only unfaithful herself, but the mother of such.

    King James Dictionary [13]

    H`ARLOT, n.

    1. A woman who prostitutes her body for hire a prostitute a common woman. 2. In Scripture, one who forsakes the true God and worships idols.  Isaiah 1 3. A servant a rogue a cheat.

    H`ARLOT, a. Wanton lewd low base.

    H`ARLOT, To practice lewdness.

    International Standard Bible Encyclopedia [14]

    har´lot  : This name replaces in the Revised Version (British and American) "whore" of the King James Version. It stands for several words and phrases used to designate or describe the unchaste woman, married or unmarried, e.g. זונה , zōnāh , אשּׁה נכריּה , 'ishshāh nokhrı̄yāh , קדשׁה , ḳedhēshāh  ; Septuagint and New Testament πόρνη , pórnē ̌ . πορνεία , porneı́a is used chiefly of prenuptial immorality, but the married woman guilty of sexual immorality is said to be guilty of porneia ( Matthew 5:32;  Matthew 19:9; compare  Amos 7:17 Septuagint). These and cognate words are applied especially in the Old Testament to those devoted to immoral service in idol sanctuaries, or given over to a dissolute life for gain. Such a class existed among all ancient peoples, and may be traced in the history of Israel. Evidence of its existence in very early times is found (Gen 38). It grew out of conditions, sexual and social, which were universal. After the corrupting foreign influxes and influences of Solomon's day, it developed to even fuller shamelessness, and its voluptuous songs (  Isaiah 23:16 ), seductive arts ( Proverbs 6:24 ), and blighting influence are vividly pictured and denounced by the prophets ( Proverbs 7:10;  Proverbs 29:3;  Isaiah 23:16;  Jeremiah 3:3;  Jeremiah 5:7;  Ezekiel 16:25; compare  Deuteronomy 23:17 ). Money was lavished upon women of this class, and the weak and unwary were taken captive by them, so that it became one of the chief concerns of the devout father in Israel to "keep (his son) from the evil woman," who "hunteth for the precious life" ( Proverbs 6:24 ,  Proverbs 6:26 ). From the title given her in Prov, a "foreign woman" ( Proverbs 23:27 ), and the warnings against "the flattery of the foreigner's tongue" ( Proverbs 6:24; compare  1 Kings 11:1;  Ezra 10:2 ), we may infer that in later times this class was chiefly made up of strangers from without. The whole subject must be viewed in the setting of the times. Even in Israel, then, apart from breaches of marriage vows, immoral relations between the sexes were deemed venial ( Deuteronomy 22:28 f). A man was forbidden to compel his daughter to sin (  Leviticus 19:29 ), to "profane (her) and make her a harlot," but she was apparently left free to take that way herself (compare Gen 38). The children of the harlot, though, were outlawed ( Deuteronomy 23:2 ), and later the harlot is found under the sternest social ban ( Matthew 21:31 ,  Matthew 21:32 ).

    The subject takes on even a darker hue when viewed in the light of the hideous conditions that prevailed in ancient Syria affecting this practice. The harlot represented more than a social peril and problem. She was a ḳedhēshāh , one of a consecrated class, and as such was the concrete expression and agent of the most insidious and powerful influence and system menacing the purity and permanence of the religion of Yahweh. This system deified the reproductive organs and forces of Nature and its devotees worshipped their idol symbols in grossly licentious rites and orgies. The temple prostitute was invested with sanctity as a member of the religious caste, as she is today in India. Men and women thus prostituted themselves in the service of their gods. The Canaanite sanctuaries were gigantic brothels, legalized under the sanctions of religion. For a time, therefore, the supreme religious question was whether such a cult should be established and allowed to naturalize itself in Israel, as it had done in Babylon (Herodotus i.199) and in Greece (Strabo viii.6). That the appeal thus made to the baser passions of the Israelites was all too successful is sadly clear (  Amos 2:7;  Hosea 4:13 ). The prophets give vivid pictures of the syncretizing of the worship of Baal and Astarte with that of Yahweh and the extent to which the local sanctuaries were given over to this form of corruption. They denounced it as the height of impiety and as sure to provoke Divine judgments. Asa and Jehoshaphat undertook to purge the land of such vile abominations ( 1 Kings 14:24;  1 Kings 15:12;  1 Kings 22:46 ). The Deuteronomic code required that all such "paramours" be banished, and forbade the use of their unholy gains as temple revenue ( Deuteronomy 23:17 ,  Deuteronomy 23:18 . Driver's note). The Levitical law forbade a priest to take a harlot to wife ( Leviticus 21:7 ). and commanded that the daughter of a priest who played the harlot should be burned ( Leviticus 21:9 ). See Ashtoreth; Images; Idolatry .

    It is grimly significant that the prophets denounce spiritual apostasy as "harlotry" (the King James Version "whoredom"). But it would seem that the true ethical attitude toward prostitution was unattainable so long as marriage was in the low, transitional stage mirrored in the Old Testament; though the religion of Yahweh was in a measure delivered from the threatened peril by the fiery discipline of the exile.

    In New Testament times, a kindred danger beset the followers of Christ, especially in Greece and Asia Minor ( Acts 15:20 ,  Acts 15:29;  Romans 1:24;  1 Corinthians 6:9;  Galatians 5:19 ). That lax views of sexual morality were widely prevalent in the generation in which Christ lived is evident both from His casual references to the subject and from His specific teaching in answer to questions concerning adultery and divorce (compare Josephus, Ant , IV, viii, 23; Vita , section 76; Sirach 7:26; 25:26; 42:9, and the Talm). The ideas of the times were debased by the prevalent polygamous customs, "it being of old permitted to the Jews to marry many wives" (Josephus, BJ , I, xxiv, 2; compare Ant , Xvii , i, 2). The teaching of Jesus was in sharp contrast with the low ideals and the rabbinical teaching of the times. The controversy on this question waxed hot between the two famous rival rabbinical schools. Hillel reduced adultery to the level of the minor faults. Shammai opposed his teaching as immoral in tendency. Κατὰ πᾶσαν αἰτίαν , katá pā́san aitı́an ( Matthew 19:3 ), gives incidental evidence of the nature of the controversy. It was characteristic of the teaching of Jesus that He went to the root of the matter, making this sin to consist in "looking on a woman to lust after her." Nor did He confine Himself to the case of the married. The general character of the terms in  Matthew 5:28 , πᾶς ὁ βλέπων , pás ho blépōn , forbids the idea that γυναῖκα , gunaı́ka , and ἐμοίχευσεν , emoı́cheusen , are to be limited to post-nuptial sin with a married woman. On the other hand it is a characteristic part of the work of Jesus to rescue the erring woman from the merciless clutches of the Pharisaic tribunal, and to bring her within the pale of mercy and redemption ( Matthew 21:31 ,  Matthew 21:32 ). He everywhere leaned to the side of mercy in dealing with such cases, as is indicated by the traditional and doubtless true narrative found in the accepted text of the Fourth Gospel (Jn 7:53 through 8:11).