The gods and religions of the Greco-Roman world were, in many instances, a result of syncretism – the evolving and blending of two or more concepts or mythologies into a newer forms. For the most part, the old pantheon of classical Greek gods with their temples and rituals were simply adopted and given new names by the Romans in the transition from Grecian world domination to the Roman. But by the time of the introduction of the gospel this old religion was falling into disfavor and other forms of religion replacing it. These replacement religions were more properly “pagan” in nature. Pagan means “country dweller”, “rustic”, “civilian”, “non-combatant” and is a broad term typically pertaining to indigenous and historical polytheistic religious traditions (Wikipedia/paganism).
The gods of the ancient Roman Empire, originating perhaps in remote parts of the world (some possibly as far away as Siberia), would be extended as their worship was accepted in new areas and in different cultures as people spread either through migration or conquest. These gods would undergo some transformation as they were accepted, blending the identity and myths of established gods with the new-comers. New followers, new names, new cultic rituals were “nothing new” among the religions of that day.
In that world, one did not have to be an exclusive follower of any one of the many religions – in fact, the Roman government encouraged peaceful co-existence of most of the many religions just so long as people gave homage to Caesar as a god. Since none of the gods offered a “full line” of benefits, it was to the supposed advantage of an individual to worship any number of gods. It would be expected that there would be pressures toward this same kind of thing when Christianity came on the scene. Here was a new religion with a new following, many of them coming from the religions already extant in the world of the first century. Naturally there would be the same pressures toward syncretism as had repeatedly modified and transformed the face of paganism.
However with the background of Jewish religion and the insistence of God that those who worship him must have “no other gods” before him and Jesus’ insistence that he is the exclusive way to God, the coming together of Christianity and paganism was bound to produce a colossal collision. Over and over we see rumblings of this very thing in the New Testament. However it wasn’t until after the close of the apostolic period that the train-wreck really happened.
Whenever there was any attempt at introducing pagan practices or when someone attempted to bring their customs and ideas and impose them on the church they would meet with certain, uncompromising resistance – at least as long as the apostles lived. There was always room for anyone who would come to Christ, but there was no place for their myths, beliefs or practices when those conflicted with the teaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ. People were welcome, their idols weren’t!
We have looked at the evidence of the possible conflict between Dionysian paganism and Christianity in Corinth and Ephesus. Dionysus was by no means the only pagan “god” to run afoul of Jesus’ followers. In Corinth, Athens and in many other places there had been for centuries the worship of Aphrodite, the goddess of love.
“A famous temple to Aphrodite had stood on the summit of Acrocorinth in the Classical Age… It had fallen into ruins by Paul’s time, but successors to its 1,000 cult prostitutes continued to ply their profession in the city below. Many of them were no doubt housed in the lofts above the 33 wine shops uncovered in the modern excavations. Corinth was a city catering to sailors and traveling salesmen. Even by the Classical Age it had earned an unsavory reputation for its libertine atmosphere; to call someone ‘a Corinthian lass’ was to impugn her morals. It may well be that one of Corinth’s attractions for Paul was precisely this reputation of immorality.” (The Biblical World In Pictures via David Padfield).
“Aphrodite is the Greek goddess of love, beauty, pleasure, and procreation. Her Roman equivalent is the goddess Venus.” (Wikipedia;
Her festival is the Aphrodisiac which was celebrated in various centers of Greece and especially in Athens and Corinth. Her priestesses were not prostitutes but women who represented the goddess and sexual intercourse with them was considered just one of the methods of worship. Aphrodite was originally an old-Asian goddess, similar to the Mesopotamian Ishtar and the Syro-Palestinian goddess Ashtart. (http://www.pantheon.org/articles/a/aphrodite.html).
“The temple of Aphrodite (in ruins before the apostolic age, mr) … was so rich that it owned more than a thousand temple slaves, courtesans, whom both men and women had dedicated to the goddess. And therefore it was also on account of these women that the city was crowded with people and grew rich; for instance, the ship captains freely squandered their money, and hence the proverb, `Not for every man is the voyage to Korinthos.’ … (http://www.theoi.com/Cult/AphroditeCult.html).
Aphrodite corresponds to the earlier Babylonian “Ishtar” and the Syro-Phoenician “Astart,” illustrating our earlier comments about the syncretism that took place in these ancient religions.
In all these religions it seems that man took some good gift God had given him and perverted it, even in the name of worship. Think of Paul’s evaluation of the “wisdom” of these Gentile people;
“Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (Romans 1:22-23).
It should come as no surprise that in Corinth where the worship of Aphrodite involving “sacred” prostitution had been so prominent for centuries that there should be evidence for the justification for such among some of the new converts. This is exactly what seems to have happened.
First, Paul reviews the former lives of some of these converts…
“Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (1 Cor. 6:9-11).
Then in the very next verses he rebukes them for attempting to justify the same kind of thing they had been cleansed from. In verses 12, 13, it seems he states their arguments, “All things are lawful for me,” and “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food.” Their argument then would be, “since I have been set free from idolatry by Christ and since ‘food’ (representative of sex since they are apparently arguing for engaging with a prostitute) they should be able to indulge their natural desires.
“Paul may be quoting sayings, probably common in Corinth, that were used to excuse immoral behavior. The apostle’s response suggests that, even if there is an element of truth in these slogans, the Corinthians have perverted it. Indeed, his qualifications have the effect of denying the very point of the sayings, and he ends by emphasizing the noble purpose for which God has given us a body” (BibleGateway.com/Reformation Study Bible).
“Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6:19-20).
A better label for what gave rise to Paul’s instructions may well be temple prostitution. The apostle’s warning is against porneia, and not idolatry per se; but the hypothesis that the environment in which the offense was occurring, a pagan temple, has influenced Paul’s response to the situation, makes good sense of much of the data. It is historically credible (prostitution did occur at festive occasions in pagan temples), exegetically congruent, giving due heed to the theocentric thrust of the passage and to the links with 1 Cor. 10, and can best be seen when Paul’s instructions are viewed against a biblical and Jewish background in which porneia and idolatry are closely associated. (351). Brian Rosner, ‘Temple Prostitution in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20′, Novum Testamentum 40 (1998): 336-51.
“Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.” We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day” (1 Corinthians 10:6-8).
This thought toward the justification of idolatrous prostitution was a real threat to the purity of not just the individuals who may have been desiring it, but to the church as well. It violated the exclusive relationship between the individual and Christ, joining the body which had been bought by the blood of the Savior and a representative of a pagan religion. In this, it would have represented a syncretization of Christianity with idolatry which could never be allowed to stand. That would have made Christianity no more than just another religion within the vast array of human, sensual religious choices available in the world of the first century.