Westside church of Christ - Irving, Texas

What Is Porneia?

by Mark Roberts

"And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery."( Matthew 19:9).

We live in a time when we are confronted with sin and justifications for sin that only a few years ago would have been beyond possibility. Sometimes that leads to awkward and even embarrassing situations. No one enjoys discussing, for example, the horror of Internet pornography but it is a real threat to Christians today.

So it is also for a frank discussion of porneia. For many years preachers had only to inform audiences that Jesus' Greek terms in Matthew 19:9, translated "fornication" or "sexual immorality," meant sexual relations with someone other than one's spouse. All understood what Jesus was condemning. Then, along comes a President who seeks to carefully redefine adultery so as to justify his immorality. At first only rumors swirled that any one would try such a ridiculous and outrageous way to get around the word of God. Yet graphic, embarrassing and detailed testimony made it clear that Bill Clinton had indeed decided that porneia applied only to actual intercourse. Sadly, now there are reports that many young people are duplicating this sin because they believe the Bible does not condemn it.

Thus we are forced to confront the question: just what is porneia? We do not wish to be indelicate here, but what is covered by the term porneia? Perhaps the best way to be clear about our question here is simply to ask: if Monica Lewinsky had been married could her husband have put her away scripturally according to Matthew 19:9 for what she and Bill Clinton did?

To answer that question we must find out what porneia meant in Jesus' day. What did the Jews think when Jesus said that if a man found his wife guilty of porneia he could divorce her? What did porneia mean in Jesus' culture?

Word studies find that porneia in Old Testament times had strong associations with harlotry. The term is rooted in a word meaning "to sell" and referred originally to prostitutes and prostitution. Over time it came to mean the one who visits a prostitute ("a whoremonger") and then began to be applied to adultery.

The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (often referred to as "Kittel" for its main editor, Gerhard Kittel) tells us that after the Old Testament the term came to mean all sorts of sexual perversion. In non-inspired, extra-biblical literature the term is used of "unnatural vice" and of sodomy. The Testament of Benjamin 9:1 says "Now I supposed, from the words of the righteous Enoch, that there will be also evil-doings among you: for ye will commit fornication with the fornication of Sodom." There is a porneia of Sodom. We trust that our readers can understand the implications of this condemnation of homosexuality and perverse sexual relations a condemnation that would include acts not defined as "normal" relations. This is in concert with the findings of the rabbis in their debates and discussion. So Kittel tells us that the rabbis believed "unnatural forms of intercourse" would also be porneia.

Thus by the time of Christ porneia clearly means more than just adultery. In the words of D.A. Carson "Porneia covers the entire range of such sins [sexual immorality]... and should not be restricted unless the context requires it." The Louw-Nida lexicon defines porneia as "to engage in sexual immorality of any kind." John Groves in A Greek and English Dictionary defines porneia "all kinds of lewdness. 3 Because of this the New International Version translates Matthew 19:9 as "I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery."

>Naturally some will try to make more of this than scripture allows. Porneia is used in a clearly metaphorical sense in Matthew 5:28. Jesus speaks here of "porneia in the heart" a physical impossibility. Yet some have tried to say that finding a mate with pornography then allows the use of Matthew 19:9 to divorce and subsequently remarry. This is simply wrong. One cannot lift a figurative use of porneia, whatever its meaning and however broad that meaning, and then plug it into a clearly literal context like Matthew 19:9.

That said, it is apparent that in Jesus' day sexual activity with a person one is not married to would meet the definition of porneia. A man and woman who are physically intimate with one another and are having or simulating sexual relations would easily fit the definition and standard use of porneia in Jesus' time. To be physically intimate with someone not your mate, making physical contact with another person in a sexual way, is sinful porneia and defiles marriage ( Hebrews 13:4). It destroys and betrays the trust so necessary for marriage to continue and thus would be a scriptural cause for the exercise of Matthew 19:9.

While the world continually minimizes sin and looks for ever new ways to re-define iniquity so as to make it less severe or important may the people of God exercise care to know exactly what Jesus is condemning in Matthew 19.

  1. "Porneia" Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, MI), Vol. 6, page 589.
  2. Expositor's Bible Commentary, Zondervan, page 414.
  3. Fornication: Grounds for Divorce, by David Padfield, via the Internet, www.padfield.com. This is an excellent article.