English Bibles typically translate the Hebrew words qadesh (m.) and qedesha (f.) as “temple prostitute.” These words appear frequently in the context of forbidden religious activity, as in Hos 4:14: “the men themselves go aside with whores and sacrifice with temple prostitutes” (NRSV) or 1Kgs 15:12 “[King Asa] expelled the male prostitutes from the land, and he removed all the idols that his ancestors had made” (JPS). Arguments in favor of this translation have typically relied on comparison with a Mesopotamian cognate term qadishtu. There is, however, one significant problem: among the hundreds of thousands of texts from ancient Iraq, scholars have not found any linking qadishtu to prostitution, temple or otherwise! How, then, should we translate the Hebrew term?
The etymology of the Hebrew word is “consecrated one.” Of course, etymologies do not always determine meaning—English “awful” does not mean “full of awe.” Thus, we must also consider a word’s usage. The masculine form, qadesh, can easily be understood as a priest given its frequent association with temple practices (1Kgs 14:24; 1Kgs 15:12; 2Kgs 23:7). The feminine qedesha presents a thornier problem. The passage from Hosea, quoted above, is the only instance in which the term occurs alongside references to sexual activity. Since the book of Hosea frequently equates religious practices with metaphorical adultery, this is not a strong argument. Here, too, the qedesha likely refers to a consecrated person—in this instance, a woman priest whose ritual actions the prophet deems inappropriate.
There is one potential complication with the definition of qadesh/qedesha as priest. The word is applied to Tamar in Gen 38:21 with no connection to temples. After failing to recognize Tamar, Judah asks after the whereabouts of “the qedesha.” From context, it is clear that Judah seeks a single, sexually available woman—not a priest. Strange as it may seem, it is quite common for words relating to women’s professions to develop sexualized connotations over time. The English word “spinster” originally referred to the occupation of spinning wool but now designates older unmarried women. It is likely that the Hebrew word qedesha underwent a similar transformation from female priest (Hos 4:14) to single woman (Gen 38:21). The correct translation of the word, then, depends on context—but it certainly does not mean temple prostitute.
Why, then, does this translation persist? First, many of the standard translations (NRSV, NKJV, JPS) were produced in the 1980s, before scholars began to question the existence of temple prostitution. Even then, however, the only evidence for the practices came from the notoriously unreliable Greek historian Herodotus (Hist.1.196). The ease with which scholars accepted Herodotus’s claims over primary evidence from the region itself fits into a broader pattern, in which white Europeans and Americans hypersexualize women of color, as Edward Said (among others) has argued. In addition, Jewish and Christian scholars have been happy to accept translations that uphold the morality of the Bible over and against other religions. When approaching the Bible, readers must be prepared to confront how racial, gendered, and religious prejudices have influenced its translation.