The older I get the more I discover that things I thought were fairly certain turn out to be based on less than satisfactory evidence. In a court of law the evidence would not be beyond a reasonable doubt or even enough to provide a preponderance of evidence. One such case is the nature of the sin of the woman cited in Luke 7:37. The text simply reads, “A woman in that town who lived a sinful life . . .” (NIV) Many commentators say she was a prostitute. For example, The MacArthur Study Bible says “i.e., a prostitute.” (note on Luke 7:37) No evidence is offered. In one of the newest entries in the Paidea Commentaries on the New Testament on Luke (Baker Academic) Mikeal Parsons offers some interesting thoughts on this passage. I offer an abridged account here. He first dismisses the suggestion that the phrase is the equivalent to a modern day “street walker” or “public woman.” He notes that the word order resists this interpretation and “no primary sources have yet been offered to corroborate this interpretation.” He also says there is no suggestion that she was brought in to offer entertainment for this all-male banquet. The text suggests that she is not there by Simon’s invitation and “whatever other elements this Pharisaic meal shares with the Greco-Roman symposium, it would not seem to include the provision of prostitutes for after-dinner entertainment.” The last matter he deals with is the issue of her loosened hair.
“The evidence for how prostitutes wore their hair in antiquity, however, is scant and mixed. Further, Luke knows the word for ‘prostitute’ (15:30) and could have used it here had he wanted to specify the nature of her sinfulness. Thus, we should be cautious in making this identification, especially since the nature of the woman’s sinfulness is left unstated in Luke 7 (as is the nature of Peter’s sinfulness in 5:8), and the gesture of unbound hair may evoke a variety of images for the authorial audience. . . . In a fascinating passage at the end of the Greek novel Chaereas and Callirhoe, the heroine Callirhoe visits the temple of Aphrodite to give thanks for her reunion with her husband: ‘Callirhoe went to Aphrodite’s temple before entering her house. She put her hands on the goddess’s feet, placed her face on them, let down her hair, and kissed them. ‘Thank you, Aphrodite!’ she said’. . . . The woman’s actions in Luke 7 parallel those of Callirhoe and other women who demonstrate veneration for a deity. Jesus is the object of her devotion and thanksgiving.” (Luke, pp. 128-30)
While some won’t be convinced by Parsons’ reasons I suggest he at least renders the interpretation of prostitute uncertain or tenuous at best. Perhaps Luke had a reason to leave the nature of the sin unclear. It is enough to know that this sinner could come to Jesus and offer her devotion and tears of repentance. As sinners (whatever our sins may be) we, too, can come to Jesus and show our repentance and devotion. It is an appropriate message for this season of Lent.