Were Christian sex rules were created by mistake?

‘Porneia’ means what?


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

And that . . . nobody knows what it means.

You have to figure it out for yourself.

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 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?

When it comes to porneia, the less you question, the better. A Christian glances at the haze, the vagueness, and accepts it.

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 clearly articulated, line by line, 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 porneia problems. “The N.T. evidence is not at all clear,” sighs Bruce Malina, back in 1972.

Scholars can be critical of the traditional definition when outside of 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.”

“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.

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? That soup story, back in Genesis 25:34, 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 here.

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, many Israelites inter-marry with pagans, and worship the pagan 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 very 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 for adultery 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. But I think not?

A document about early Christianity, the Muratorian Fragment, describes what biblical texts were read in the early church meetings. No Old Testament books are included, but the Wisdom of Solomon was included.

This book, from the Greek Bible (or Septuagint), is an overview of Old Testament narrative. It goes over the Exodus, the idolatry narrative, and defines porneia. “For the invention of idols was the beginning of porneia, and the discovery of them the corruption of life.” (14:12)

An early Christian, Jew or Gentile, would pick up that porneia belongs to the Old Testament narrative of idolatry.

For Jews, it’s much clearer, for the scriptures tell that narrative in great detail.

Let’s look again to 1 Corinthians 10:8, where the 23,000 Israelites died by a plague—which Paul identifies, to his Jewish readers, as porneia.

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 married, now, into another divine family. They’re ‘having sex’ . . . with a rival deity.

As in Numbers 25:5, the men must be executed “who were joined to Baal-peor.”

Notice later references to the same 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, or includes, ‘having sex’ with a rival deity, a process done by sacred gestures, most notably, eating a sacred meal.


Plug a concept roughly equivalent to ‘idolatry’ into New Testament usages of porneia, and the vagueness and strangeness dissolves?

Like Acts 15:19–20. The Gentile converts, say the Christian leaders, are to “abstain from things defiled by idols and from porneia and from what has been strangled and from blood.”

Christians have believed that Gentile Christian converts are being told to change their sex lives in potentially drastic ways—all via a single Greek word, porneia, that Gentiles barely even used?

In a study of the meat references, Ben Witherington III thinks: Where would this list of illicit activities be happening?

“The answer is probably in an act of pagan worship.”

Esau’s soup is lentils, a sacred meal of mourning. Likely, Abraham, their grandfather, has just died, but Esau seems not to care?

“Esau’s sexual immorality can be understood metaphorically in this passage,” notes Jason A. Whitlark.

If we connect Esau’s immorality with the idol polemic of the prophets, then Esau’s sexual immorality points to the danger of compromise with the audience’s pagan context. Such an interpretation of Esau’s sexual immorality is further suggested by the presence of idol polemic in the preceding verse.

The future head of the family, Jacob realizes, has gone over to other gods.

Their father is blind to it. He and his mother must act.


“The use of sexual imagery to depict religious experience is well attested in the history of religions,” notes Elliot R. Wolfson. “It should come as no surprise, therefore, to find that the seeing of God, or a Godlike presence, is described in religious texts especially by means of language derived from human sexuality.”

That is an uncontroversial observation by a Jewish scholar. When applied to Christianity, it changes everything?

The whole New Testament would have to be re-read.

I think of Colossians 3:5, usually translated: “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.”

The original Greek text has no punctuation, and could also be read like this: “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature (porneia, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed), which is idolatry.”

In Greed as Idolatry, Brian S. Rosner discusses the possibility that ‘idolatry’ refers not just to greed, but to “the preceding four sexual sins” as well.

He takes a different position, but his warning is apt: “As is often the case in exegesis, grammatical considerations throw up alternatives rather than deciding the case.”

If one’s ‘earthly nature’ is formed from idolatry, I thought about what Paul’s view of the human person would be. We are substantially formed from the influence of . . . evil spirits?

Oddly enough, the Bible takes spirit beings very seriously.

It was like peering into the window of a religion I’d never encountered.


In John 8:41–44, the Jewish leaders protest to Jesus: “We are not illegitimate children!” The literal translation is: ‘We of porneia have not been born!’

They assert their ‘divine parentage’ is from Yahweh. They’re not saying he sired them physically. This is a discussion of spiritual allegiance.

Verse after verse dramatically changed, as I plug-and-played something like ‘idolatry’ where there’d been ‘sexual immorality’.

Like 1 Corinthians 5:1. An agitated Paul writes: “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.”

We’d remember: for Paul a Christian is ‘married’ to Jesus (cf. Eph 5:22, 2 Cor 11:2, etc.), as before, the Israelites had been ‘married’ to Yahweh.

Seen as a spiritual discussion, 1 Corinthians 5:1 is about these bodies. The father in question is Yahweh, and the wife . . . is Israel.

To sleep with ‘the father’s wife’ would be . . . a Christian engaging in Jewish spiritual practice.

Rather than getting very excited about a subject Paul never otherwise speaks of—incest?—and the assumption, packed with theological problems, that he’s re-activating Levitical codes, we’d realize he’s dealing with a problem he deals with often. Jewish converts slipping back into the old ways.

In this case, he’s using language—to Jewish converts to Christianity—that packs a punch for them. And that Gentile readers, hundreds of years later, would misunderstand completely.

It has all been a terrible mistake.


The most important point in favor of a non-sexual porneia, I’d say, is its absence in 1 John. An introduction to Christianity, this is the only epistle written with a Gentile readership in view.

There is no porneia. There are no ‘sex rules’ at all.

Welcome to Christianity, whose rule is: ‘Love one another.’