Were the sex rules a mistake?

A rare Greek word created Christianity’s sex rules. It might’ve been misread.

When reading Bible scholarship, should you laugh or cry? A major religion, Christianity, tried to define spirituality as obeying sexual rules. It found them in a handful of New Testament passages that used a rare Greek word, πορνεία, or porneia.

Christianity translated it as ‘fornication’ or ‘immorality’.

Is that what it meant?

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Scholars have known for years there was a porneia problem. “The N.T. evidence is not at all clear,” sighs Bruce Malina, back in 1972.

In 1980, John Boswell writes: “many English translators content themselves with the vague word ‘immorality.’ This is safe enough, since whatever else ‘πορνεία’ may be, it is certainly ‘immoral,’ but the term is misleadingly general.”

This is the word that fuels all traditional Christian practice. And it’s not absolutely clear what it means? All the Bible scholars would say, for decades, is that it was a ‘problem’.

“I prefer to leave the term untranslated in most cases,” notes John Kampen in a 1994 paper, “The Matthean Divorce Texts Reexamined.”

“The Greek word porneia, whose meaning constitutes a separate important problem, will be left untranslated for the present,” says David C. Parker in The Living Text of the Gospels (1997).

Ann Nyland’s Source translation, in 2004, leaves it untranslated. “No equivalent English term,” a footnote explains.

That’s what mattered. The faith was ruled by ‘men of God’, and they knew what God was thinking. The sectarian scholars tended to agree with them.

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.”

This ‘broad’, ‘ambiguous’ reference to ‘any number’ of ‘sexual offenses’ starts to look like it means whatever they say it means.

A secular scholar, Kyle Harper, made some waves with a 2011 paper, “Porneia: The Making of a Christian Sexual Norm,” which noted “its meaning has remained elusive for modern interpreters.”

He supplies some information. Porneia is often said to refer to prostitution, but in ordinary Greek, “πορνεία does not mean ‘prostitution’ in the abstract sense of ‘the institution of venal sex,” he notes. “Πορνεία means ‘the practice of selling access to one’s body.’”

The practice of selling access to one’s body.

But this is not describing prostitutes in the ancient world, as they tended to be slaves. They weren’t ‘selling’ — they were sold.

Finally, in a 2018 paper, “Can a Man Commit πορνεία with His Wife?,” three Bible scholars from secular universities, David Wheeler-Reed, Jennifer W. Knust and Dale B. Martin, tracked down all surviving usages of porneia in ancient Greek sources. There are four.

The most specific ones include a Greek orator, Demosthenes, insulting another man who “has allowed himself to be ‘screwed’ by many other men” — not in a sexual sense, but in terms of being bested or outmaneuvered.

Then a Greek historian, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, “mentions slaves selling themselves sexually to raise money with which to buy their own freedom.”

The verb form is found a few times.

Herodotus claims that the daughters of a certain region prostituted themselves to raise money for their own dowries (Hist. 1.93). Aeschines accuses his opponent Timarchus of prostituting himself to many men (Tim. 52). As in the above example from Demosthenes, this accusation is more an insult than a claim that Timarchus was literally a prostitute.

It seems that porneia was understood to be selling oneself when one didn’t have a right to do so. It functioned as an insult when such a sale would be humiliating to a free person with social power.

Scholars debate at length, and the debates are often not reflected in the translations most often read.

Readers not be able to make it through the text with the “problems” on display. Here, for example, would be 1 Corinthians 6:13.

Now the body is not for porneia, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.

It’s not exactly clear, without the supplied translation — ‘fornication’ — that the problem here is people having sex. Without the imposed context of sex, one might recall that all Christians are seen as ‘one body’, as in 1 Corinthians 12:13, or Romans 12:5: “we, though many, form one body.”

Some porneia references, clearly, point to scenes where sex isn’t happening. In Hebrews 12:16, Esau is a pornos since hesold his birthright for a single meal.” There’s no sex in his story back in Genesis 25:34.

In Revelation 2:20–22, Jezebel gets God’s people to commit porneia. There’s no sex in her story back in 1 Kings 18:19, when Israel’s queen supports the prophets of rival gods.

In the usages of porneia in Paul’s letters, as well, there is often a referral back to an Old Testament narrative. 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 Numbers 25, an episode during the Jewish Exodus, where instead of going into the Promised Land, many Israelites stop at a pagan city and decide to stay there, inter-marrying with pagan women, and worshipping their gods instead of Yahweh.

There is no unmarried sex in the scene. The men marry the pagan women. There is unauthorized sex, however. It’s with the rival deity. In Numbers 25:5, the men must be executed “who were joined to Baal-peor.”

And it begins to seem like porneia is a spiritual problem related to the worship of other deities. A book in the Septuagint called the Wisdom of Solomon, widely read by early Christians, actually says this outright.

For the invention of idols was the beginning of porneia, and the discovery of them the corruption of life. (14:12)

And Christian Bible scholars, of course, know all of this. On occasion you’ll find the surprise tucked into their enormous commentaries.

“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 The First Letter to the Corinthians . . . on page 249.

In another book, Rosner adds that, the further you get into Jewish literature, the more infernal it becomes: “Several texts in Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, Damascus Document (CD), and Rule of the Community (1QS) associate πορνεία with demons.”

So are demons making you have sex, or what?

In 2 Corinthians 11:2, Paul says: “I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him.”

This isn’t a call for Christians to be physical virgins. You’re a “virgin” here if you’ve never been part of another religious system.

In the Bible, communities become ‘married’ to deities. The community is a wife, and the deity is a husband. (Baal, the Old Testament address for gods, is a regular term for a husband.) To worship a deity other than your own is seen as adultery, or ‘prostitution’ if receiving goods or protection.

So yes, the references seem sexual, as also in 1 Corinthians 6:16:

Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute (pornē) is one with her in body? For it is said, ‘The two will become one flesh.’

But is Paul really referring to a physical sexual act with a slave? Physical prostitution — and sex with slaves — is always legal in Jewish law. Remember Abraham and Hagar? That’s sex with a slave.

But as a theological term used by prophets, ‘prostitution’, or rather, porneia, was an affront. In Ezekiel 16:17, God accuses Israel: “you made male idols with which to prostitute yourself.”

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

All the porneia references might make sense as spiritual violations of improper worship. Esau, for example, in selling the soup, is rejecting a special meal. Lentils are an ancient food of mourning. Abraham has probably died, and Esau doesn’t care. Having been flirting with idolatry, he’s on the way to leaving YHWH worship.

Christians had forgotten this word was (via the Greek translation called the Septuagint) not a word for ‘prostitution’, but a translation of a Hebrew word, ZNH, zonah or zanah. It expressed a serious religious problem that, in book after book of the Bible, horrifies God.

In a 2009 study, The Vanishing Hebrew Harlot: the Adventures of the Hebrew Stem ZNH, Irene Reigner defines ‘ZNH’ — which becomes porneia — as to “participate in non-Yahwist religious praxis.”

It’s not fully going over to another deity. In sexual terms it would be “cheating” — but it’s a spiritual offense.

Surely 1 Corinthians 5:1 is about sex, isn’t it? 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.”

Except we might remember that Israel was seen as Yahweh’s wife throughout the Old Testament, as the ‘Bride of Christ’ becomes the ‘wife’ of Jesus (cf. Eph 5:22, 2 Cor 11:2, etc.).

For Christian people to be ‘sleeping with his father’s wife’ might be . . . the Jewish converts going back to Jewish practices, i.e. the usual problem of Judaizing.

In Matthew 5:32 (and 19:9), Jesus himself speaks of porneia, and Christians often take this to regulate human marriage.

Whoever divorces his wife, except for the cause of porneia, makes her an adulteress.

To see this as a sexual regulation is actually rather tricky. If a human male divorces his wife (which is legal in Jewish law), Jesus says his wife is an adulteress?

But adultery is a capital crime (cf. Lev 20:10; Deut 22:22). It just seems unlike Jesus to say a woman whose husband divorced her had, then, to be killed. Maybe the context has been misread.

In Acts 15:19–20, some Jewish leaders, led by James, think over what the Gentile Christians are supposed to do. They say: “abstain from things defiled by idols and from porneia and from what has been strangled and from blood.”

In a study of the meat references, Ben Witherington III thinks: Where do we find these succession of offenses happening? “The answer is probably in an act of pagan worship.”

It would be rather odd to imagine early Christianity is a religion of sexual control. Many early converts were slaves! They had to do whatever their master said, and legally were unable to marry.

We forget this wasn’t a system devised by Christian clerics for the control of populations, and empires. It was a means of connecting to God.

The one New Testament text that was easy to understand, being written for Gentiles in simple Greek, was 1 John . . . a text little read or regarded by traditional Christianity.

Here, there’s no porneia, no sex talk at all, just an insistent refrain: “Love one another” (3:11, 3:23, 4:7, 4:11, 4:12; cf. 2 Jn 6). As Jesus is seen to inhabit the Christian person, to ‘love’ is to worship with the deity in them.

Maybe that was always the teaching.

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