Numerous New Testament scholars encourage us to interpret the Apostle Paul’s letters in light of their historical and cultural context. The authors of the complementarian text entitled, “Women in the Church, 3rd Edition,” have a very straightforward response; according to them, this context simply did not exist. In their minds, Paul is not warning the early church about idol worship, mythology, false teaching, asceticism, prostitution, mandatory circumcision or other forms of ritual violence against men. He is mainly, if not exclusively, concerned with protecting the church from “female authority.”
To see if these complementarians are correct, I’d like to check some of their claims against available historical evidence:
Claim #1, No cult prostitution in the Greco-Roman World
S.M. Baugh: “…there was no sacred prostitution in the Greco-Roman world” (Women in the Church, 3rd edition, p. 46).
Pompeius Trogus, 1st century B.C. historian:“The Cypriots send their young women before marriage to the seashore to get money by prostitution.” This is a reference to the prostitution associated with sanctuary of Aphrodite at Paleopaphos. (as cited in Justin, Epitome of History 18.5)
Strabo, 1st century A.D. historian:“Now the sacred rites of the Persians, one and all, are held in honour by both the Medes and the Armenians; but those of Anaïtis are held in exceptional honour by the Armenians, who have built temples in her honour in different places, and especially in Acilisene. Here they dedicate to her service male and female slaves. This, indeed, is not a remarkable thing; but the most illustrious men of the tribe actually consecrate to her their daughters while maidens; and it is the custom for these first to be prostituted in the temple of the goddess for a long time and after this to be given in marriage; and no one disdains to live in wedlock with such a woman. Something of this kind is told also by Herodotus in his account of the Lydian women, who, one and all, he says, prostitute themselves.” (11.14.16)
At Corinth there were “more than 1000 sacred prostitutes whom both men and women dedicated to the goddess.” (8.6.20)
In Phrygia, where Rhea became identified with Cybele, she is said to have purified Dionysus, and to have taught him the mysteries (Apollod. iii. 5. § 1), and thus a Dionysiac element became amalgamated with the worship of Rhea. Demeter, moreover, the daughter of Rhea, is sometimes mentioned with all the attributes belonging to Rhea. (Eurip. Helen. 1304.) The confusion then became so great that the worship of the Cretan Rhea was confounded with that of the Phrygian mother of the gods, and that the orgies of Dionysus became interwoven with those of Cybele.” (Athen. xii. p. 553 ; Demosth. de Coron. p. 313)
“And again, ‘happy he who, blest man, initiated in the mystic rites, is pure in his life, ((lacuna)) who, preserving the righteous Orgia (Orgies) of the great mother Kybele (Cybele), and brandishing the thyrsos on high, and wreathed with ivy, doth worship Dionysos. Come, ye Bakkhai, come, ye Bakkhai, bringing down Bromios, god the child of god, out of the Phrygian mountains into the broad highways of Greece.’ And again . . . ‘the triple-crested Korybantes in their caverns invented this hide-stretched circlet [the tambourine], and blent its Bacchic revelry with the high-pitched, sweet-sounding breath of Phrygian flutes, and in Rhea’s hands placed its resounding noise, to accompany the shouts of the Bakkhai, and from Meter (Mother) Rhea frenzied Satyroi (Satyrs) obtained it and joined it to the choral dances of the Trieterides, in whom Dionysos takes delight.’” (Geography 10. 3. 13)
“But the Berecyntes, a tribe of Phrygians, the Phrygians in general, and the Trojans, who live about Mount Ida, themselves also worship Rhe, and perform orgies in her honour; they call her mother of gods, Agdistis, and Phrygia, the Great Goddess; from the places also where she is worshipped, Idaea, and Dindymene, sipylene, Pessinuntis, and Cybele. The Greeks call her ministers by the same name… These same ministers are also called by them Corybantes.” (B. X. C. III. S 12.)
Pausanias, 2nd century A.D. Historian: “The people of Dyme have a temple of Athena with an extremely ancient image; they have as well a sanctuary built for the Dindymenian mother and Attis. As to Attis, I could learn no secret about him, but Hermesianax, the elegiac poet, says in a poem that he was the son of Galaus the Phrygian, and that he was a eunuch from birth. The account of Hermesianax goes on to say that, on growing up, Attis migrated to Lydia and celebrated for the Lydians the orgies of the Mother.” (7.17.9-12)
“These are those whom nowadays at Rome they call galli—they serve the mother not of the gods but of demons—because the Romas freed som priests of this race who were deprived of their sex-drive in honor of Atys, whom the harlot goddess made a eunuch. On this account therefore men of the Gallic rae are made effeminate, that those who seized the city of Rome might be struck by this disgrace.” (St. Jerome, 4th century A.D.; as cited in N. Lane’s “Cybele, Attis and related cults,” p. 123)
Justin Martyr, in his 2nd century A.D. Apology refers to male and female prostitutes in the service of “the Mother of the Gods.” The male prostitutes had been “openly mutilated for the purpose of sodomy.” According to Justin this practice was subject to taxation by the Roman Senate. (http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0126.htm)
Apostle Paul’s 1st letter to Corinth: “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, “The two will become one flesh.” But whoever is united with the Lord is one with him in spirit.” (1 Corinthians 6:15-17)
Was their cult prostitution in the Greco-Roman world? Yes, prostitution and sexual orgies often accompanied the worship of fertility goddesses throughout the Roman Empire.
Claim #2, No Eunuch Priests in Ephesus
S.M. Baugh: “The whole notion of a Megabyzos eunuch priest is irrelevant for Pauline Ephesus and will accordingly draw no more notice” (Women in the Church, 3rd Edition, p. 41).
Citing Strabo and Pausanias, Florence Mary Bennet describes both the eunuch priests of Artemis Ephesos, and the eunuch priests of Cybele:
She [Artemis Ephesos] was served by eunuch priests, called Megabyzi, and by maidens. Presumably these priests are the same as the Essenes, whom Pausanias mentions as servitors for one year, who were bound by strict rules of chastity and required to submit to ascetic regulations of dietary and ablution. 160 The virgins associated with them passed through three stages: Postulant, Priestess, Past-Priestess. 161 There is nothing to indicate the length of their term of service. The Megabyzi were held in the highest possible honour, 162 as were the Galli at Pessinus. (http://www.sacred-texts.com/wmn/rca/rca04.htm) Though the castration of Artemis’ priests may have been replaced with strict rules of celibacy and fasting during the 1st or 2nd century A.D., the castration of Cybele’s Galli continued through to the 4th century A.D., when the Emperor Julian celebrated the ritual as a “holy and inexpressible harvest.” (Oratio V, 168 D)
Strabo: “The Galli, [priests of Cybele] who are eunuchs, enter the enclosure with impunity, approach even the opening or mouth, bend down over it, and descend into it to a certain depth, restraining their breath during the time, for we perceived by their countenance signs of some suffocating feeling. This exemption may be common to all eunuchs, or it may be confined to the eunuchs employed about the temple, or it may be the effect of divine care, as is probable in the case of persons inspired by the deity, or it may perhaps be procured by those who are in possession of certain antidotes.” (B. XIII. C. IV. S 15-17)
Encyclopedia Brittanica, concerning the eunuch priests of Cybele: “Galli, singular Gallus, priests, often temple attendants or wandering mendicants, of the ancient Asiatic deity, the Great Mother of the Gods, known as Cybele, or Agdistis, in Greek and Latin literature. The Galli were eunuchs attired in female garb, with long hair fragrant with ointment. Together with priestesses, they celebrated the Great Mother’s rites with wild music and dancing until their frenzied excitement found its culmination in self-scourging, self-laceration, or exhaustion. Self-emasculation by candidates for the priesthood sometimes accompanied this delirium of worship.” (http://www.britannica.com/topic/Galli-ancient-priests)
Though Cybele was indeed worshiped through the New Testament period, and though her mysteries were indeed associated with orgies and fertility offerings (male genitals), some complementarians question whether or not Cybele’s cult could properly be associated with 1st century Ephesus.
According to the notes attached to the following archaeological photograph of Cybele in Ephesus, the goddess was indeed worshiped here, “from Classical through Roman times.” Votive offerings to the goddess in Ephesus were dated to the New Testament period.
Further evidence of the persistence of Cybele worship in Ephesus can be found in the 4th century A.D., when the Emperor Julian was initiated into “the mysteries” in “the caverns of Ephesus.” He composed the now famous, “Hymn to the Mother of the Gods”; namely, Cybele.
The following quotation provides a summary of Cybele worship as it existed throughout the Roman Empire, and throughout the New Testament era. Note the references to “orgies,” “castration,” and the connection of the goddess with childbirth:
“Around 200 BC the holy black rock of the goddess [Cybele] was moved from the Phrygian city of Pessinos, which had been the previous centre of her worship. Rome became the new centre, and her cult grew. The Romans identified Cybele with the Greek Rhea, and called her Magna Mater, the Great Mother. The priests of the cult were men who had castrated themselves in front of her image, but most of the followers were women. The cult was a tumultuous, noisy and ecstatic affair which attracted many people. Only women (and castrated men) were allowed to attend the main celebrations of the goddess, which quickly got the reputation of being less religious ritual and more wild orgies. Much gossip went around about the indecencies and depravities of the cult, but due to the protection of influential people it avoided persecution. The cult was led by the female priestesses and the Archigalli, the high priest of the subordinate Galli; castrated male priests who were responsible for most of the dance, divination and healing of the cult. Many of the worshipers were organised into fraternities, most notably the Dendrophori (“Tree-bearers”) and Cannophori (“Reed-bearers”). Members of these fraternities enjoyed a bit of social status and influence, and many important people flocked to them. The liturgy of the cult was in Greek. Many of the ceremonies commemorated the deeds of Magna Mater and her love to Attis, who represented the fertility and plants of the land. By his castration and death the land was given new life. Many festivals were held, called ludi (“plays”) which were enthusiastic carnivals with banquets and comedic performances.
One of the major festivals was Megalesia the 4-10 April. At the height of the celebrations the taurobolium was performed, as a bull was castrated and sacrificed, and new initiates were baptised in its blood. Another major festival was celebrated the 25th March to commemorate the castration and death of Attis. The Cannophori carried reeds and stalks to the temple together with the idol of Attis. The taurobolium was performed, and the genitals of the bull was thrown into a cave or well consecrated to Magna Mater. After three days of sorrow and grief for Attis, the carnival returned with Hilaria, the Day of Joy as Attis was resurrected and fertility yet again reigned thanks to the power of Magna Mater. Mountains and caves were sacred to Magna Mater, and her temples were often built near them. By sleeping in a temple many women hoped to get help from the goddess, who was said to help mothers and children. Midwifes were tied to the cult, and many priests were healers. The priestesses were more involved with her ecstatic side, celebrating her secret mysteries behind locked doors. Practically nothing is known about them, except that they were exclusively women only.” (http://faculty.cua.edu/pennington/churchhistory220/lectureone/MagnaMater.htm)
Contrary to complementarian claims, was there cult prostitution in the “Greco-Roman world”? Yes, prostitution was well-known in throughout the Roman Empire from Corinth and Cyprus to Lydia and Phrygia, and it was commonly associated with various cults. “Orgia” (orgies) were also connected with the “mystery rites” of the Lydian/Phrygian goddess known as Cybele.
Were there “eunuch priests”? Yes, the priests of the goddess Cybele castrated themselves in her honor. This practice continued in the Roman Empire through the New Testament era, and into the reign of Emperor Julian, who became an initiate of Cybele’s mysteries, in the caverns of Ephesus.
Was Cybele worship connected to Ephesus? Yes, one of her most ancient sanctuaries was found there (http://www.sacred-texts.com/wmn/rca/rca03.htm#fn_65). Archaeologists report that she was worshiped there “from Classical through Roman times.” Julian was reported to have become an initiate in the caverns of Ephesus, as late as the 4th century A.D.. An excellent history of Cybele worship through the New Testament period can be found in Philip Borgeaud’s book entitled, “Mother of the Gods: From Cybele to the Virgin Mary” (https://jhupbooks.press.jhu.edu/content/mother-gods)
Why is this information significant for understanding Paul?
In 1 Timothy, he warns against an ascetic false teaching based on myths that threatened to corrupt the gospel. He addresses concerns about women being “saved in childbearing.” He prohibits “authentein andros.” In the Greek Septuagint, “authentas” were those who sacrificed their young to the fertility gods and goddesses of the Canaanites, in connection with sexual orgies.
The mythology of Cybele did in fact influence the emergence of numerous ascetic movements throughout Asia Minor:
The Essenes, whom Philo Judaeus compares to Cybele’s attendants, the “Corybantes.”
One sub-sect of the Essenes insisted upon the circumcision of Gentiles who wished to speak of the Jewish God or his law. If the Gentiles refused, they were “slaughtered.” (c.f. Hippolytus, Against All Heresies, Book 9)
The Naassenes, A Gnostic cult that based their denial of the body upon the castration of Cybele’s priests. (Hippolytus, Against All Heresies, Book 5)
The Valesians, An ascetic cult in the early church that literally imitated Cybele’s priests by castrating themselves. (https://www.jstor.org/stable/1583869?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents)
Neoplatonism, The Emperor Julian compares the ascetic philosophy of Neoplatonism to the mythology of Cybele and her eunuch consort Attis. (https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Hymn_to_the_mother_of_the_gods)
Christians Throughout Asia Minor, St. Basil of Ancyra petitioned the church to take action against the growing number of clergy and laity who were imitating the priests of the goddess Cybele and literally castrating themselves in pursuit of ascetic purity. (https://www.jstor.org/stable/1583869?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents)
Did the Apostle Paul really write to Timothy to protect the church from female authority, as complementarians suggest?
Did Paul write to Timothy to protect the gospel from a false teaching rooted in mythology that had already affected Judaism and would later form the basis of Gnosticism in the early church?
When the evidence is not denied, I believe the answer to this question becomes readily apparent. Perhaps that is why some complementarians work so hard to deny it.
S.M. Baugh claims there is no evidence of cult prostitution or eunuch priests in New Testament Ephesus.
Where does he look for this evidence?
“Civic institutions” of “Hellenic city States.” (Women in the Church, 3rd Edition, p. 32)
Cybele worship was a “mystery cult.” Information about its beliefs and practices would not be found through an examination of the civic institutions of Hellenic city States. As Lynn Roller states, ”Her cults most often were funded privately, rather than by the polis, and her ‘vivid and forceful character’ and association with the wild set her apart from the Olympian gods” (Roller, L., in Lane, E. (ed), 1996, p. 306).
Also, Cybele was not to be found in the state-sponsored “Temple of Artemis Ephesos.” Rather, she was found in the grottos and caverns under Ephesus. Actually, using that kind of language does the ancient mythology a disservice. Cybele was the grottos and caverns under Ephesus. The “mother of the gods,” according to this belief system was “the Earth.”
When complementarians deny evidence of Cybele in Ephesus during the New Testament era, they seem to look for evidence where it likely will not be found, and simultaneously ignore those places where it does in fact exist.