Peter Carrell of Anglican Down Under (and Hermeneutics and Human Dignity) and I engaged in what for me was a fruitful discussion a while back. I hope it was for him as well. It grew out of his response to my book Reasonable and Holy and my efforts to answer some of his concerns and questions about my method and conclusions. One of these involved my reliance on rabbinic sources to try to come to an understanding of the meaning of the porneia word group, in response to the assertion by some, such as Robert Gagnon, that Jesus’ use of the word must necessarily include condemnation of same-sex relationships. This derives in part from the paired assertions that the word and its relatives refer both to any sexual behavior forbidden by Scripture (with particular reference to Leviticus 18) and that it had a broad and imprecise range of meaning, covering any kind of sexual immorality, as a few lexicons claim and a few versions of ancient texts translate. All of this stands in contrast to the understanding that relates the word to harlotry ("whore" being the meaning of the root), and the evidence that the overwhelming use of the word-group in the Hebrew texts refers either to (1) prostitution or (2) figuratively to idolatry.
My goal was to assess the accuracy of the assertions and translations, and discover what the word and its relatives actually would mean to hearers in those contexts, and if it is was as broad and inclusive as some lexicons suggest, or rather designed as a more limited category, and if so, what. Peter further wondered why, in my search for answers, I turned to the rabbinic texts rather than looking more to early Christian texts. In addition to offering an explanation, I will take the opportunity to do just as Peter suggests at the end of this exposition.
First, though, I wish to establish one basic principle, which I hope goes almost without saying. However, I had better say it just to be clear. And that is the evident truth that words change their meanings — both the meaning intended and the meaning conveyed. A word may have an explicit meaning in the mind of the speaker, but if it is capable of conveying a range of meanings, a listener may well misunderstand the speaker's intent. In normal conversation one can correct such misapprehensions, but when the "speaker" is a "writer" and the text some centuries old, other tools for understanding need to be employed. This is a particular challenge to translators of ancient texts, if they are to convey to modern readers a sense of what the ancient author intended.
So an accurate translation of a text or definition of a word requires the translator or the lexicographer to be immersed in the world and culture of the time in which the texts were written. Those familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures or classical Greek or Roman literature should not be surprised to know that there are human activities, some of them sexual, that were considered moral or morally neutral, or perhaps even virtuous, in those cultures that we now consider definitely immoral; and vice versa: there are actions considered serious breaches in Leviticus and the Pauline Epistles that scarcely raise an eyebrow in these latter days. Thus, to translate porneia (or its Hebrew equivalents) as vaguely as “sexual immorality” fails to take due notice of distinctions that careful study reveals would have been made by the speakers or writers, and easily allows a modern reader to think the ancient author may have been condemning something that we find offensive but which the author may have found neutral or even acceptable. (It may well be that this broadening has come about second hand through a broadening given to the word fornication — a standard translation for porneia. Originally a fairly narrow category, this word came, in popular speech, to be used as a synonym or euphemism for any sexual act, including between married couples!)
A case in point is some lexicons’ suggestion that porneia means “adultery.” The fact is it can be used to mean adultery as we understand it today, but this blurs an important distinction from the times of the writing. Our modern equality-of-the-sexes understanding of adultery does not match the double standard of the cultures of the biblical period. Under Jewish law a man was free to have intercourse with unmarried women (prostitutes), or to take another wife. Under Roman law, though monogamy was the rule, a man could have a mistress or concubine, or freely resort to prostitutes. Given the inequality of the sexes, married women did not have these options. Male adultery meant violating another man’s marriage, female adultery meant violating her own. In Hebrew Scripture the word for adultery (na’af) covers “sexual intercourse with the wife or betrothed of another man,” in contrast with zana, “illicit heterosexual relations but not necessarily in violation of the marriage vow,” the latter being the equivalent of porneia and so translated in Greek. (TWOT, na’af) The Greek word for adultery, moixeia, is used in the Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures and in the New Testament.
I would venture an even more precise distinction, however. There is a clear overlap with porneia and moixeia when it comes to women: a woman who strays from her husband is "playing the harlot." But a man who visits a prostitute or has a mistress is not legally guilty of moixeia — though we would consider him an adulterer, the ancients would not have done so. If they wished to cast opprobrium on such a man — and they often did, particularly under the influence of growing moralist movements in rabbinic Judaism, Christianity and Greek and Roman culture under Stoic influence — he would be tagged precisely with porneia. This is why the two words often appear together in lists of immoral behaviors, to condemn both men and women who are guilty of sexual relations in violation of marriage — but specifically to bring men under the same moral standard that applied to women, which moixeia alone did not accomplish.
See, for example the passage in Hebrews 13:4, “Let all honor marriage, and the marriage bed [be] undefiled, for God will judge the pornous and the moixous” — that is, those who are violators of their own or others’ marriages. This same pairing occurs in 1 Cor 6:9 where the employment of the pair to cover both categories is even clearer, as the words are separated by a disjunctive ou construction: neither porneia nor moixeia are acceptable. Similar pairings of the term occur in other Biblical texts, and in the early Christian writings, about which more in a moment)
But first I want to explain my primary reason for expounding the rabbinic evidence on this subject, rather than the early Christian usage. That is: the nature of the rabbinic discussion. While early Christian writers make use of the words porne and porneia, the rabbis actually engage in detailed discussion as to what the words (the Hebrew equivalents zonah and z’nut) mean, and what is included under the various shades of meaning. In short, while the meaning of the word has to be gleaned from verbal and cultural context in the early Christian sources, the rabbinic texts go to great pains precisely to define exactly what they meant — as fine points of law (halakhah).
Which brings me to the Apostolic Fathers and my other reason for not bringing them up: they add little to the discussion. The use of the porn- word group in the Apostolic Fathers is consistent with that in the canonical scriptures, though the words of this group do not appear very often. The most frequent use is paired with moixeia, in order to include men who have sex outside of marriage with an unmarried woman (whether a prostitute or a concubine). Again,this conflicts with our modern understanding of adultery as including extramarital sex by men or women, a notion foreign to the biblical and imperial Roman double-standard culture; hence the pairing in order to provide the equivalent of the modern inclusive concept of "adultery." This is, no doubt, what the lexicons mean when they say that the range of meaning for porneia includes adultery; it is adultery in the modern sense of the word, rather than in the sense that moixeia is used in those cultures. The point is that we no longer have a word that corresponds directly to what the ancients meant by moixeia, because we no longer maintain that double standard. I am reminded of the telling phrase my Hebrew professor, Dr. Richard Corney, used to cite: Traduttore traditore — to translate is to betray [apparently even this phrase!].
Some details from the Apostolic Fathers:
The root word porne occurs once, in 1 Clement 12.1, with reference to Rahab the harlot. This is the normative use of the equivalent word in the Hebrew scripture, referring to real or virtual (i.e., idolatry) harlots or harlotry.
The derivative words of this group occur a handful of times, always in conjunction with or paired with adultery. Hermas Mandate 4 1:1 gives a good example of the thinking behind this usage (note the use of fornication in these translations):
“I charge you,” said he, "to guard your chastity, and let no thought enter your heart of another man's wife, or of fornication, or of similar iniquities; for by doing this you commit a great sin. But if you always remember your own wife, you will never sin.”
This is clearly designed to rule out both adultery (as understood in the period) and resort to prostitutes or concubines.
Other examples include “vice lists” (Didache 5:1, Hermas Mandate 8 1:30) in which porneia and moixeia are paired. A twist on this in Hermas Mandate 4 1:5 deals with the case of a man with a straying wife and refers to her persistent “porneia” — which if a man tolerates makes him a “sharer in her adultery.” A similar note is struck in Didache 3:3, which is reminiscent of the proverbs concerning youth staying clear of loose women: “My child, be not a lustful one; for lust leads the way to fornication; neither a filthy talker, nor of lofty eye; for out of all these adulteries are engendered.”
Polycarp’s Letter to the Philippians 5:3 similarly quotes 1 Corinthians 6:9 as a particular counsel to youth to avoid being pornoi, as well as malakoi or arsenokoitai. This mention of the porn- root in conjunction with, though distinguished from, words commonly held to refer to male same-sex behavior (most likely prostitution or pederasty, as these were tolerated under Roman law), is echoed in the remaining uses of the word group. Barnabas 19:4 includes this trio: “You shall not commit fornication: you shalt not commit adultery: you shalt not be a corrupter of youth (paidophthoreseis).” This is echoed in Didache 2:2, which includes a long list of forbidden behaviors, including theft and murder. As I have noted before, these lists appear to indicate a distinction (even when not separated by “ou = nor” as in Didache 2:2 or 1 Corinthians 6:9) between the various items in order to include all possibilities. Ultimately, if the word porenia already included these possibilities as a kind of catch-all for any sexual indiscretion the lists would be superfluous.
It is thus clear that the early Christian use of the term and its relatives was closely related with prostitution and concubinage, equated with adultery by women, who were also classed as guilty of porneia by virtue of their straying: which for men we would call "adultery" but which the ancients distinguished from adultery on the basis of their legal codes.
To apply it to any form of sexual immorality (so judged either by the ancients or by us) is a translational step too far.
Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG