Christians and Divorce  

Peter Miles



What Does porneia Mean?


How do we understand the meaning of and correctly translate a word from another language? One of the main ways we can do this is through the word’s use in its context. So by examining the use of the word porneia (and its other forms) throughout scripture we can learn its meaning. What follows is fairly lengthy, but I believe it is necessary to gain a true understanding of this word.


Greek Lexicons.

Many Greek lexicons of recent times give porneia the meaning of sexual sin in general. But some give a specific meaning of unmarried sexual sin or prostitution. For this reason I believe it is best to learn the meaning from its context in scripture.

It’s Use in the New Testament.

1. Porneia is a noun based upon another Greek word porne meaning a harlot or prostitute who inevitably was an unmarried woman. Two other Greek words having the same root – porneuo, a verb, and pornos, a noun, are used in the New Testament.

2. It is distinct from adultery (Greek: moichiea) since porneia is listed with other sins including adultery:

For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications (Gk: porneia), thefts, false witness, slanders (Matthew 15:19 and the parallel passage in Mark 7:21).

And in two other passages we find the two words 'fornicators' (Gk: pornos) and 'adulterers' used together (and therefore cannot have the same meaning):

Do not be deceived; neither fornicators (Gk: pornos), nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals (1 Corinthians 6:9).

Marriage is to be held in honor among all, and the marriage bed is to be undefiled; for fornicators (Gk:pornos) and adulterers God will judge.(Hebrews 13:4).

3. Where the context is clear, it refers to sex with a prostitute or unmarried sex.

In 1 Corinthians 6:15-7:2, Paul uses three words all related to the same sexual sin – porne, porneia and porneuo. From the context, Paul is not referring to sexual sin from within marriage but outside:

Now concerning the things about which you wrote, it is good for a man not to touch a woman. But because of immoralities (Gk: porneia), each man is to have his own wife, and each woman is to have her own husband (1 Corinthians 7:1-2).

Marriage is seen as an answer to the temptation of premarital sexual sin, porneia. This has been the understanding of this verse through church history.
 
4. While adultery is sin against your spouse (Mark 10:11), porneia is said to be sin against your own body (1 Corinthians 6:18). This makes another distinction of the two words.

Does porneia have other meanings?

Does porneia include other sexual sins such as adultery, incest, and homosexuality and not be restricted to unmarried sex? The following scriptures are often presented to support a broader meaning of ‘porneia’.

1. As incest (1 Corinthians 5:1): A man has entered into a sexual relationship with his father's wife. While we don’t know the exact circumstances it is possible the father had died, making her an unmarried woman. However it was still sinful to have a sexual relationship with your father's wife even if he had died (Leviticus 18:8). Perhaps this is why Paul uses the expression "such fornication" as if there was a greater sin in this case of fornication. Without knowing the exact circumstance we cannot use this one example to say incest is a type of fornication. In the Old Testament incest (a sexual relationship with a close relative) is never described as fornication (Heb: zanah) but rather as perversion (Heb: tebel) i.e. a violation of natural or divine order and in the Greek Septuagint as asebeo, meaning ungodly or wicked ( Leviticus 20:12). Such ‘marriages’ were unlawful and therefore the legal formality of divorce did not apply. It is therefore unlikely porneia (and the Hebrew equivalent zanah) includes incest as Jesus used the word in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9.
 
2. As homosexuality (Jude 1:7): The inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah were said to have given themselves over to fornication and had gone after strange flesh. This refers to two sins, not one – fornication and the intention of the men of Sodom to have sex with angels. Homosexuality is not specifically mentioned (the Greek word for homosexuality is absent here). While it is true that some of the inhabitants of Sodom practised homosexuality we cannot be certain that they were exclusively so. Sodom was destroyed because of its many sins (Ezekiel 16:49,50). Homosexuality has always grown out of a heterosexually corrupt society, like Sodom and Gomorrah, which had first given itself over to fornication (unmarried heterosexual sin). Therefore this verse cannot be taken to mean homosexuality is a type of fornication. In two other passages of Scripture (1Corinthians 6:9 and 1Timothy 1:10) the Greek word for homosexuality (arsenokoites) is listed with the Greek word for fornicator (pornos) as separate sins.

3. As adultery (Proverbs 7:10). An adulterous woman is said to be dressed as a harlot or prostitute (Hebrew zanah). However the verse does not say she is a prostitute.

In the New Testament, in the context of a man-woman relationship, there is no clear example of porneia being used to denote adultery. Therefore adultery (moicheia) is distinct from and not a type of fornication (porneia).

Use of porneia by the Early Church Fathers

The Early Church Fathers (such as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Hermas and Theophilus) also understood porneia (fornication) and moicheia (adultery) as being different sins since they are frequently listed together with other sins.

In Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho, the Nativity of Mary and the Gospel of Nicodemus, Mary’s supposed sexual unfaithfulness is referred to as fornication (porneia), not adultery (moicheia).

The use of porneia by the Early Church Fathers shows they understood that: 1. it was the sexual sin of unmarried people and: 2. it was not synonymous with adultery, the sexual sin of married people. This is consistent with its use in the New Testament.

The Hebrew Equivalent of porneia

It should be noted, that while Matthew wrote his gospel in Greek, he recorded the words of Jesus spoken in Hebrew (or possibly Aramaic). So what would have been the equivalent Hebrew word translated as porneia in Greek? What we discover is significant: there is a Hebrew word which has a direct Greek equivalent to porneia – zanah. This can be seen from Old Testament quotations in the New Testament and from the Septuagint (a Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament from the 3rd century BC). Searching the Hebrew Old Testament (see next section) we find that zanah, in the context of a man-woman relationship, never means sexual sin generally and certainly not adultery. It either refers to an unmarried woman who engages in sexual intercourse or a woman (who inevitably would also have been unmarried) sells or prostitutes herself for a fee.

Old Testament Hebrew Use of the Equivalent Word To porneia – zanah.

In the Old Testament, while written in Hebrew, we can see the equivalent words used – zanah (a verb) meaning to commit harlotry or prostitution, zanuwn (a noun) meaning harlotry or prostitution and zanuwth (a noun) meaning a harlot or prostitute. They refer to sexual sin by or with an unmarried woman. For example:

Rahab, the prostitute. Compare Joshua 6 (in Hebrew: zanah) with Hebrews 11:31 and James 2:25 (in Greek: porne).
 
While Israel remained at Shittim, the people began to play the harlot (zanah) with the daughters of Moab (Numbers 25:1).

Compare this to Revelation 2:14 where
porneuo is used to describe the same sin (in this context Israel's unfaithfulness through idolatory).

Dinah, Jacob's unmarried daughter, was regarded as being treated like a harlot, in Hebrew zanah (Genesis 34:31).

Your daughters (unmarried) when they play the harlot (zanah) and your brides (married) when they commit adultery (Hosea 4:13-14). In the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament from the 3rd century BC), the Hebrew verb for harlotry zanah is translated into the Greek verb porneuo.

In Deuteronomy 22:13-21 a woman who is found not to be a virgin at the time of marriage was regarded as a prostitute or harlot, having committed fornication, and was to be stoned to death. In the Septuagint the Hebrew verb for harlotry zanah is also translated into the Greek verb porneuo.

There are a number of references in the prophetical books which speak of Israel's unfaithfulness through idolatry (Hosea 2:2, Jeremiah 3:6-9, Ezekiel 16:28-38 & 23:43-45). Israel is said to have committed both the sin of fornication, porneia (as God's betrothed virgin) and adultery (as God's bride) by their worship of idols. Yet the two words have distinct meanings.

Meaning of zanah in contemporary Hebrew

Zanah (התנז) in contemporary Hebrew is translated as ‘prostitution’.

Meaning of porneia in contemporary Greek.

Porneia in contemporary Greek is translated as ‘prostitution, whoredom, harlotry or fornication’.

Translation of porneia in Latin and English Bibles.

1. Latin Vulgate
The Bible was translated into Latin by Jerome (405AD). Where porneia occurs it is consistently translated as ‘fornication’, meaning unmarried sex or prostitution.

2. English Bibles
English bibles up to the early 20th century consistently translated porneia as fornication or whoredom (that is, harlotry or prostitution). Later Bible translations are not consistent (and also within the same translation), translating porneia as unchastity, unfaithfulness, sexual immorality, immorality, marital unfaithfulness and fornication.

Meaning of ‘fornication’ in English dictionaries.

Robert Cawdrey (1604): uncleanness between single persons.

Samuel Johnson (1768): concubinage or commerce with an unmarried woman.
 
Webster (1954) as first definition: illicit sexual intercourse by unmarried persons, male or female.
 
Oxford Pocket (1969) as first definition: the voluntary sexual intercourse between a man and an unmarried woman.

The English word fornication is derived from the Latin word fornix, meaning a brothel and in its various forms means sexual intercourse with an unmarried woman (whether for pleasure or profit). Its meaning is consistent with the Greek word porne and the Old Testament Hebrew word zanah- a harlot or prostitute.

Conclusion

In the context of a man-woman relationship,‘porneia in the New Testament and the equivalent word zanah or zanuwn in the Old Testament, refer to sexual intercourse with or by an unmarried woman or a prostitute. These words are consistently distinguished from adultery. The translation of these words in contemporary Greek and Hebrew also bear the same meaning. Their translation as ‘fornication’ in Latin and English Bibles (up to the early 20th century) is also consistent with this meaning.
 
In the New Testament porneia is distinguished from adultery (Gk: moicheia) - sexual intercourse with a married woman (other than your wife).
 
In other Greek literature porneia is sometimes used in the context of adultery, but this should not be the basis of deciding its meaning in the New Testament and in particular as Jesus used it in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9.

So in both the Old and New Testaments, in Hebrew and Greek, the consistent meaning is that these words refer to the act of sexual intercourse with or by an unmarried woman. Whether it was for profit or pleasure is not the issue. While these words are also used metaphorically for idolatry and the unfaithfulness of God’s people, it is their use in the context of a man-woman relationship that is relevant to understanding the exception in Matthew’s gospel: where a woman, who is betrothed, has had sexual intercourse with another man prior to marriage.

Yet even if one believes this exception refers to sexual sin in general we are still faced with the fact Jesus said marriage to a divorced woman was adulterous, irrespective of her guilt or innocence. Why? Because a man who marries a divorced woman becomes party to adultery (Matthew 5:32 and Luke 16:18). Separation may be justified but remarriage is not.

This was also the understanding of the early church of the first four centuries. Separation was permissible in certain circumstances, but marriage to another was not while the former partner was still alive.

Yet the debate about the exception for porneia does not depend solely on the meaning of one word for I believe there are other fundamental reasons why there is no right to divorce and remarry under the New Covenant. These are based on the basic principles of love and faithfulness that Jesus and Paul taught as I have described in Part 1 - The Best Way.

There are, however, two other commonly proposed grounds for divorce and subsequent remarriage - desertion and abuse.

Next: Divorce For Desertion or Abuse?