All Christian sex rules were created by a mistake?

‘Porneia’ means what?


When you grow up Christian, nobody sits you down and tells you that the rules about sex are created by a single Greek word used a few times, mostly by a single writer.

And that . . . nobody knows what it means.

Let’s talk about porneia?

(Oxana Shachko)

“Now the body is not for fornication, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.”

In 1 Corinthians 6:13, Paul says to avoid πορνείᾳ, ‘porneia’ — and every Christian knows what that means?

Fornication. Sexual immorality.

What does that mean? Unmarried sex? Or any . . . ‘bad sex’?

Penetrative sex? Oral? Anal? Flirty glances? Playing footsie? Does this prohibit polygamy? Does this make marriage ceremonies — performed in church? — the dividing line of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sex?

If that was true, you might start thinking, why are marriage ceremonies not discussed in scripture? Why are no clergy empowered to ‘perform’ them?

But when it comes to porneia, the less you question, the better.

For John MacArthur, porneiarefers to any illicit sexual intercourse, whether or not either of the parties is married. It was a broad term . . .”

For James Thompson: “While porneia means ‘unlawful sexual intercourse,’ in the New Testament it is often ambiguous…”

For David Instone-Brewer: “While it is true that porneia can refer to illegitimate marriage and to premarital unfaithfulness, it can also refer to any number of other sexual offenses.”

That seems odd? Jewish law, in which all prohibitions and punishments are articulated clearly, has no ban on premarital sex, married men can have girlfriends, harems, concubines, etc. Did God change His mind?

Every now and then, a Christian scholar tries to broach the situation. “The N.T. evidence is not at all clear,” sighs Bruce Malina, back in 1972.

Scholars can be critical of the traditional definition when they’re outside religious establishments? Dale B. Martin notes the meaning is “simply uncertain given the lack of evidence we have.”

Porneia is a term referring to acts condemned in the Law of Moses, acts encompassing idolatry and/or vice, certain sexual acts,” Ann Nyland offers. “There is no equivalent English term.”

What’s at stake is clear. If porneia doesn’t refer to ‘bad sex’, then the traditional sexual morality has no scriptural support.

Even the idea of God not policing human touch, to a Christian, might seem overwhelmingly strange.

So porneia continues to be . . . ‘bad sex’.


Follow the trails of porneia and you’ll drop into an array of Old Testament references . . . to people not having sex.

“See that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son.”

In Hebrews 12:16, Esau is accused of porneia? His story, back in Genesis, has no sex in it.

In Revelation 2:20–22, Jezebel gets God’s people to commit porneia. This re-tells the story of 1 Kings 18:19, where she supports the prophets of rival gods. No sex.

In 2 Kings 9:22, her rebellion is described, in the Greek translation of the Bible, as porneia.

In 1 Corinthians 10:8, Paul says: “We should not commit porneia, as some of them did — and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died.”

That refers to a scene in Numbers 25, during the Jewish Exodus, where instead of going into the Promised Land, 23,000 Israelites inter-marry with pagans and worship another god.

That scene illustrates the evil of . . . .unmarried sex?


In “Porneia: The Making of a Christian Sexual Norm,” Kyle Harper looks at the word which creates Christian sexual morality.

“Yet, remarkably,” as he says, “its meaning has remained elusive for modern interpreters.”

In regular Greek, he notes, “πορνεία was the act of selling oneself, not a whole class of actions categorized as immoral.”

The act of selling oneself. It was a rare word, not a regular reference to prostitution as a career choice. In the ancient world, prostitutes were generally slaves, not selling themselves. They were sold.

Many early Christians were slaves, and the scriptures instruct them to do as they’re told (cf. Eph. 6:5; 1 Tim. 6:1; 1 Peter 2:18). If told to have sex, they would. Do the scriptures then condemn them?

In Slavery in Early Christianity, Jennifer A. Glancy comes to that apparent paradox. “Would slaves who submitted sexually to their owners number among the pornoi?”

If you define porneia as unmarried sex, the answer is: yes.


Jesus uses porneia a few times. Only in Matthew 5:32 (and 19:9) is there enough to define it — from ‘context’, as Bible scholars say.

But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for (porneia), makes her the victim of adultery . . .

Clearly, porneia here is an offense by a married woman.

His discussion is related to Jewish law? — but he lays out a set of rules far more severe than Jewish law, which allows for divorce and remarriage.

If this is taken as a ‘new law’ for humans, then the implications are startling. Jesus is calling for the sentence of adultery to be brought on a man who marries, for example, a divorced woman.

Under Jewish law, the punishment is death (cf. Lev 20:10; Deut 22:22).

Jesus wants the man to die — for doing what the Torah allows?

It seemed wildly at odds with his character. I kept in search.


The meaning of porneia, Sarah Ruden thinks, would be something like “treating another human being as a thing.”

“If I had been one of Paul’s typical early readers, whatever else I understood from his use of the word, I would have picked up that treating another human being as a thing was no longer okay.”

That surely is Christian wisdom, and a possible way that early Gentiles would’ve read Paul’s letters. There’s more to porneia, though to see it, we’d have to begin to . . . think like Jews?

I look back to 1 Corinthians 10:8: “We should not commit porneia, as some of them did — and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died.”

In “The Baal Peor Episode Revisited (Num 25,1–18),” Joseph Blenkinsopp goes over the scene:

What is happening can be restated as follows: These Israelites are engaged in accepting an offer extended by the host society of incorporation into their lineages or — and I will suggest this is the more likely option — reinforcing a bond already in existence, the kind of bond referred to elsewhere as “a covenant of kinship” (bərîṯ ’aḥîm, Amos 1:9). An exchange of women or, in other words, intermarriage, is the most prominent feature of this type of contractual social bonding, and tradition requires that it be sealed by sharing in sacrifice and a sacrificial meal of the kind referred to in vv. 1–5.

A ‘covenant of kinship’ has been made? They’re family now.

Instead of being ‘married’ to Yahweh, they married a foreign god. They’re ‘having sex’ . . . with a rival deity. As in 25:5, the men must be executed “who were joined to Baal-peor.”

If worshipped, God must be worshipped alone (cf. 1 Ki 18:21; Lk 16:13, etc.).

Notice later references to the Numbers 25 storyline.

Like Hosea 9:10: “they consecrated themselves to that shameful idol and became as vile as the thing they loved.” Or Psalms 106:28–31: “They worshiped Baal of Peor, and ate sacrifices offered to the dead.”

Or Jeremiah 2:1–8: “They followed worthless idols and became worthless themselves.” Or Revelation 2:14, where the Israelites “ate food sacrificed to idols and committed porneia.”

Porneia means to ‘have sex’ with a rival deity, and accept favors — when your husband, God, is standing there fuming.

This human-divine interaction is done, in the Old Testament, through sacred gestures, the most notable of which is eating a sacred meal.

It has nothing to do with ‘bad sex’.


There’s underlying spiritual logic to porneia, I realized. It’s like another language, using words we know. ‘Husband’ is a deity. ‘Woman’ is a human community. It’s envisioned like a human drama.

“But you trusted in your beauty and capitalized on your fame by becoming a prostitute,” says Ezekiel 16:15.

When Israel lapses into idolatry, the prophets accuse her of ‘cheating’ — with other gods.

“The prophets accused Israel of being a ‘spiritual slut’,” as Dr. Harper puts it.

In The Vanishing Hebrew Harlot, Irene E. Riegner studies the figure of the זנה — znh, or zanah — often translated ‘prostitute’, whose activity is translated into Greek using the porneia word group.

The problem with a zanah is not sex, or money, so ‘prostitution’ seems an inapt description. The problem is worshipping, and receiving favors from, other gods.

Dr. Reigner defines it as: to “participate in non-Yahwist religious praxis.”

Better known as: idolatry.

I stepped back, into the mindset of a Greek-speaking Jewish person of the biblical era? When they hear porneia, they think of Numbers 14:33, where God says that Israel, circling the desert, suffer “for your porneia . . .”

They think of the Wisdom of Solomon 14:12. “For the invention of idols was the beginning of porneia, and the discovery of them the corruption of life.”

It belongs entirely to the narrative of idolatry.

Christian scholars, of course, know all this.

“As it turns out, most of the references to prostitution in Paul’s Bible are figurative, referring to Israel’s unfaithfulness to the Lord and worship of other gods, which also help explain Paul’s treatment of porneia in terms of unfaithfulness to God,” note Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner in a recent commentary on 1 Corinthians.

But I wouldn’t expect them to say it openly.

I will. The Bible doesn’t impose sexual ‘rules’.

It simply says: “Love one another.” (John 13:34)

But they couldn’t have that.


Plug ‘idolatry’ into every New Testament usage of porneia, and they clarify immediately.

Like Acts 15:19–20. The Gentile converts are to “abstain from things defiled by idols and from sexual immorality [porneia] and from what has been strangled and from blood.”

Ben Witherington III thinks over the context. Where is this happening? “The answer is probably in an act of pagan worship.”

Porneia is being in the wrong temple. It’s worshipping the wrong god.

Esau’s soup — lentils — is a sacred meal of mourning. Abraham likely has just died, but Esau seems not to care. In the indifference to the sacredness of the food, Jacob sees his brother, the presumed future head of the family, is no longer identifying with the Abrahamic covenant. He must act.

In John 8:41–44, Jesus and the Jewish leaders are discussing spiritual parentage. Their protest is translated, “We are not illegitimate children” — but the literal translation is: ‘we of porneia have not been born’.

This is a discussion of a spiritual family.

“It is actually reported that there is porneia among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate: A man is sleeping with his father’s wife.”

In 1 Corinthians 5:1, Paul is likewise talking about ‘spiritual’ family?

We’d remember: a Christian is ‘married’ to Jesus (cf. Mk 2:19; Mt 9:15; Lk 5:34; Jn 3:29; Eph 5:22, 2 Cor 11:2, etc.).

The church is Jesus’ ‘bride’ — as before, Yahweh was married to . . . Israel.

To sleep with ‘the father’s wife’ — would be . . . Jewish religious practice.

The Father is Yahweh, and the wife . . . is Israel.


The 1 John letter is an introduction to Christianity, and the only epistle written, it appears, after the Jewish Temple is destroyed.

There is no porneia talk at all.

Porneia is a Jewish thing? A word rooted in Jewish prophesy, that Gentiles wouldn’t, and didn’t, understand.

For Paul, a Jewish Christian going to the Temple must’ve registered as porneia. Yahweh was the wrong deity! That’s the Father! All focus shifts now to the son.

“Now the body is not for fornication, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.”

In 1 Corinthians 6:13, he says: Christians are for Jesus. No other gods!