[Continued from previous posts below]
Mixed in here (i.e. in our reflection on what Jesus said about marriage, divorce, adultery, lust, the Law of Moses, eunuchs) is a sense that when Jesus spoke about sexual immorality he was speaking about all the possibilities addressed in the Law of Moses (i.e. those listed in Leviticus 18). Haller denies this. In particular he challenges invoking the word porneia as a coverall term for sexual immorality including same sex sexual relationships (pp. 126-132). This word, translated ‘sexual immorality’ in the Bible I have at hand (ESV), appears both in a saying of Jesus (‘For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality [porneia], theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person.’ Matthew 15:19-20), in the declaration of the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:20), and in Pauline sin/vice lists (1 Corinthians 5:10-11, 6:9; 1 Timothy 1:10). To quote Haller’s summary of Gagnon: “The argument goes that porneia is a relatively generic term that includes any form of sexual behaviour judged irregular, with specific reference to Leviticus 18.” (p. 126)
Haller goes on an immediate offensive against this understanding of porneia stating clearly,
‘In fact, in biblical usage, porneia (or its Hebrew equivalent z’nut) has two primary meaning for the great majority of instances, and it is usually clear from the context which is intended:
1) actual prostitution, in relation to the root word zonah / porne = whore, harlot, and
2) figuratively as a metaphor for idolatry ...’
He then develops quite a complicated argument which is focused on whether zonah / porne is ever associated directly with any form of same sex sexuality in either the Hebrew or Greek Old Testament or the Greek New Testament: with the exception of a possible reference in Deuteronomy 23:18 LXX no such reference is found. I suggest this, however, misses the key question about porneia and that is (whatever the ‘great majority of instances’ are about) whether there are even a few examples of porneia being used as a general term for ‘sexual immorality’ or, as stated above, ‘any form of sexual behaviour judged irregular, with specific reference to Leviticus 18.’
The answer is affirmative and this is the reason why. First, there were multiple concerns about sexual immorality in those days, especially as Christianity spread into the Gentile world: fornication, adultery, prostitution were all concerns. The apostles were concerned for correct and appropriate behaviour on the part of the believers whom they taught. Despite what some say, fornication was a concern (and marriage was the remedy, 1 Corinthians 7, see especially 7:36), as was adultery and consorting with prostitutes. When speaking generally about sexual immorality, porneia was the term ready at hand. We may understand it being used in this way in the Jerusalem statement (Acts 15:20, and note how 15:21 goes on to speak about Moses’ Law being read and proclaimed in the cities of the Gentile world), as well as in warnings about Christians not behaving badly (e.g. Galatians 5:19; Ephesians 5:3). There is no reason to think in these situations that either only prostitution was in view or that idolatry was the problem. Secondly, understanding porneia as sexual immorality fits one specific and important context well: 1 Corinthians 5:1.
‘It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality [porneia] among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife.’
The sense here is that (a) there is sexual immorality present within the Corinthian congregation, which (b) is of a particular kind that (c) is distinctive because it is a form of porneia which not even the pagans tolerate. The implication is that porneia means sexual immorality (general) and covers various (particular) forms, including some things tolerated by the pagans (which in Corinth appeared to be quite a lot!) and some things not. (Incidentally Haller, pp. 130-131, is quite unconvincing when he attempts to argue that it was not the father’s wife but the father’s prostitute which is being referred to. Paul refers to the woman concerned as gunaika and not as porne.) Consistent with this understanding that porneia covers (to coin a phrase) ‘a multitude of sexual sins’ and thus is used in the Greek New Testament as a general term for ‘sexual immorality’ we find Paul a few verses further on in 1 Corinthians 5 explaining an earlier letter in which he wrote about not associating with ‘sexually immoral people’ [pornoi] to not mean that they were not to associate with the ‘pornoi of this world’ (5:9-10). At these points in his writing Paul is speaking in general terms using porneia to speak for all sexual immorality / all sexually immoral people.
What relationship might porneia then bear towards a Jewish Old Testament description of sexual immorality, such as Leviticus 18? Three observations can be brought to bear. First, when Paul gets to 1 Corinthians 7, he effectively and comprehensively lays out a sexual ethic compatible with what Jesus has taught (as stated in the previous post) that sexual intercourse should take place within marriage between a man and a woman and not outside such marriage. If porneia is Paul’s general term for sexual immorality it is a term applying to all sex outside of marriage and thus is a useful summary term for the behaviours prohibited in Leviticus 18. It does not have to have a specific linguistic relationship to any one of those behaviours to touch on all of them (contrary to Haller’s detailed attempts to show the lack of (or at best, thinness of) relationship of porneia to Leviticus 18).
Secondly, if context is important (as Haller says, and it is so) then the context of 1 Corinthians 5 in relationship to porneia is fascinating: in 5:1 Paul says porneia covers a behaviour not tolerated by the pagans which by implication means that porneia covers sexual relationships tolerated by the pagans, that is, porneia covers a wide range of sexual relationships. For Paul, as a Jewish expert in the Jewish Scriptures, the obvious starting point for his understanding of what constituted ‘a wide range of sexual relationships’ outside of marriage is Leviticus 18 (with, as Haller acknowledges, pp. 130-131, the case in 1 Corinthians 5:1 being directly related to Leviticus 18:8).
Thirdly, with respect to Haller’s point (see previous post) that many instances of porn-root words relate to idolatry, in 1 Corinthians 5-6 Paul lists idolatry (or idolater) alongside porneia (or pornoi), thus distinguishing between concerns about idolatry and concerns about sexual immorality (5:10, 11; 6:9).
In sum: Porneia is properly understood as a term concerning irregular or immoral sexual activity and is rightly translated in general terms as ‘sexual immorality’ (e.g. ESV).
There is a little further to be said about porneia in 1 Corinthians because the above summary could be challenged. Paul writing in chapter 5 begins with a specific and quite outrageous instance of a porneia (5:1), he then moves on to speak generally about Christians’ association with sexually immoral people within and outside the congregation (5:9-13), but in chapter 6 porneia (or pornoi) is used in discussion of prohibited sexual behaviours which also include specific behaviours. Thus the list in 6:9 runs, ‘neither the sexually immoral [pornoi], nor idolaters, nor adulterers [moikoi], nor men who practice homosexuality [malakoi ...arsenokoitai]’, and in 6:12-20 when Paul speaks about the character of porneia, the specific instance of porneia cited is joining the members of one’s body with a prostitute [porne](6:15-16). Thus two questions arise.
First, does 6:9 imply that no matter how general porneia is understood to be, it excludes certain behaviours which need separate listing in a large list of prohibited behaviours?
Secondly, does 6:16-17 imply that the usual concern marked by porneia is consorting with prostitutes, and thus that the use of porneia to describe sexual immorality in general (as in chapter 5) is an unusual usage of the word?
Both questions can be reasonably answered in the negative.
The list in 6:9-10 compared with the lists in 5:10,11 adds in ‘thieves’ which means Paul is making 6:9-10 both more extensive and more precise than the earlier lists. Later Paul will congratulate his readers as being those who fitted this list but have now changed (6:11). The implication is that Paul added moikoi, malakai and arsenokoitai to the earlier lists because some in the Corinthian congregation once fitted those specific categories (also ‘thieves’) but now do so no longer, ‘such were some of you.’ That is, porneia would be sufficient on such a list to cover all kinds of sexually immoral behaviours, but Paul makes a point of noting the specific behaviours which once featured in the lives of some of the congregation.
6:16-17 occurs within a larger exposition on the theme of sexual immorality in connection with the physical body, 6:13b-20. The theme moves from the general, ‘sexual immorality’ (6:13b) to the particular, consorting with a ‘prostitute’ (6:15), then back to the general, ‘sexual immorality’ (6:18). There is a word play which occurs (porneia /porne/porneia) reflecting the etymology of porneia in relation to prostitution, but there is no reason to conclude that porneia has a narrow meaning here. In 6:18 Paul distinguishes between ‘Every other sin’ and ‘the sexually immoral person’, with the former being sins ‘outside the body’ and the latter sinning ‘against his own body.’ That is, sexual immorality here includes consorting with a prostitute, but is not confined to it. We understand, for instance, that the offender in 5:1 is also sinning ‘against his own body’ rather than committing a sin ‘outside the body.’ Consideration of the whole context, in which Paul is concerned that his readers understand the relationship of their bodies to the Lord, that their bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit and that they are to glorify God with their bodies, makes the singling out of prostitution very apt as the one example of porneia cited: the worst case (so to speak) of offending Christ as Lord and the Holy Spirit within their ‘temple’ bodies is to participate in prostitution associated with worship in idolatrous Corinthian temples.
Where has this excursion on porneia led to in respect of the greater discussion which Reasonable and Holy engages its readers in? It underlines, I suggest, the first sentence above in this post:
‘Mixed in here (i.e. in our reflection on what Jesus said about marriage, divorce, adultery, lust, the Law of Moses, eunuchs) is a sense that when Jesus spoke about sexual immorality he was speaking about all the possibilities addressed in the Law of Moses (i.e. those listed in Leviticus 18).’
I want to say again that there is much more to be said about Jesus’ teaching and current issues in human sexuality. For instance we have much to engage with in respect of Jesus’ attitude to the Samaritan woman who had many husbands and seemed to be living with a man who was not her husband (John 4), likewise the story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery (John 8), along with other episodes in the life of Jesus. That porneia in both the teaching of Jesus and the teaching of Paul may reasonably be construed as presuming Leviticus 18 is a modest point. But it is an important point: Jesus was not silent about sexual immorality in general, and thus we must not presume to deduce that Jesus would have said something contrary to Leviticus 18:22 if he were asked a direct question about it.
Markus Barth Conference at Princeton
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