Monday, January 2, 2012

Reasonable and Holy: Engaging Same-Sexuality (4)

[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.


  1. Thank you, Peter, again. You raise possibilities here, but I don't find that the details match the conclusion, which is to give a broad meaning to porneia. I’ll be as specific as space allows, in two related concerns.

    First: Paul refers to "a kind of porneia unknown among the gentiles" not as a case among a vague class of sexual sins, but as "a type of prostitution unknown among the Gentiles." Because prostitution was legal (though regulated) under Rome, Paul is referring not to a “class of sexual sins" but to "prostitution." As I note in addressing this text, the issue appears to be prostitution combined with incest by affinity: a man and his son having the same prostitute. Romans were rather easy concerning prostitution, but incest was a taboo. Hence, "a kind of prostitution unknown among the Gentiles." My reading has the virtue of simplicity and stays within the demonstrable lexical range of "porneia = prostitution"; while yours has to assume the thing you wish to prove, that "porneia" covers any sexual sin. (I will say more on this below, on the exclusion of some sex acts from porneia, which you don't address here.)

    Roman toleration of prostitution also relates to the Acts prohibition: as I noted in my text, the Apostolic Council's list of forbidden activities was intended to restrict Gentile converts from things permitted under Gentile law. Thus there was no need to forbid adultery or murder, but only what Gentiles were allowed to do -- principally idolatry and prostitution: both legal under Rome, but repugnant to Jews. (The same is true of the blood ordinance; Romans loved blood sausages).

    The thesis that porneia refers broadly to anything in Leviticus 18 fails to note the detailed research I offer in rebuttal to that claim, including the Rabbinic exclusion of some of the forbidden acts in Lev 18 from the category porneia. Although a later development, it shows that there is a conceptual unity in porneia that is not applicable to "anything to do with sex." That porneia may relate to incest laws in Lev 18 is a possibility (I offered a note on a Qumran ref along those lines), but as the incest regulations in Lev are separated from the rest of the crimes by the use of the technical language "uncovering nakedness."

    On the list of vices in 1 Cor 6.9, IMHO you fail to take note of the use of the negative "oute" separating the terms. Thus, that pornoi is a general including the later terms as specific cases is untenable. Here pornoi must mean its common use, "men who frequent whores"; neither they, nor the malakoi nor the arsenokoitai... etc. The latter cannot be a subset of pornoi.

    In applying all of this to the teaching of Jesus, I think it safer to take a conservative reading in keeping with the prevailing use of the word, rather than a broad reading that is conceptually foreign to the Jewish milieu reflected in Jesus' teaching, especially as recorded in Matthew. It is true, as you note, that Jesus extends the scope of law -- but as I hoped to make clear in the section on Inside and Outside, Jesus does not so much expand a list of behaviors as plumb the moral depths of how one treats other human beings. As you noted above, the Golden Rule is the heart of Jesus’ ethical and moral thinking; not an expanded or expansive list of specific actions. That is where I am pitching my argument on the morality of same-sex relationships.

    Thanks again, and I look forward to your further thoughts. Once you've reached the end, I hope to create a link at the R&H blog to your thoughtful reflections. I have found them very helpful, and I hope others do as well.

  2. Hi Tobias,
    I am not at all convinced by what you write above (which is an excellent summary of what you say in the book). 1 Corinthians 5 says nothing about a son, and does not refer to the 'woman' as a prostitute. Your case that porneia is always a reference in these situations to prostitution necessarily means that other references in the Pauline corpus are simply concerns about involvement with prostitutes rather than sexual activities outside of marriage ... but that would leave us with Paul being concerned about badly behaving Christians (drinking, carousing, consorting with prostitutes, etc) yet never concerned about adultery. I suggest, in line with various lexicons, that porneia has a wider application than you allow. That Rabbinic usage/discussion heads in your direction is interesting, but somewhat irrelevant as we are talking about how New Testament writers writing in Greek used porneia. (And, intriguingly, you yourself uncover evidence that even among the rabbis there could be some specificity which was not to do with prostitution!)

    Re 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, you do not deal with the argument I adduce (i.e. the significance of 'And such were some of you'), and I am not convinced that consideration of 'oute' would undermine my argument.

    Then, when we head back to Jesus' teaching, and the use of porneia in Matthew reporting his (Aramaic) saying to us, we need to reckon with why Jesus, speaking about what defiles a person to a Jewish audience (for whom, contrast with a Roman audience, prostitution was illegal), singles out porneia = prostitution alongside adultery. If he was doing so then it was in a quite different context to Acts 15:20 and 1 Corinthians 5-6 (on your understanding of porneia).

    I acknowledge that Acts 15:20 could have a specific 'prostitution' concern, given the difference between the Gentile and Jewish world on the legality of prostitution, but (again) I suggest a general meaning for porneia is appropriate: the Gentile world tolerated more than prostitution in respect of its differences with the Jewish world over sexual activity. Bringing Gentile Christians into line with Jewish Christians re sexual behaviour needed more than one issue to be mentioned.

    Now, in mentioning these things I am not asking you to continue to participate in a 'ping pong' debate via comments on a blog. But I offer these responses by way of signalling that I do not think you have settled these matters.

  3. Thanks again, Peter. I agree that Ping Pong is less than edifying, but I would like to respond to a few points, just to clarify and inform.

    Looking at the use of porneia (and related words) in 1 Cor, from 5 through 7, is helpful in this regard. In 5 we are dealing with a “man who has his father’s woman.” (That’s the implicit “son” I referenced.) What they were up to is “such porneia as not [found] even among Gentiles.” It seems this is either a reference to a form of prostitution (the most common meaning of porneia, one consistent with the usage in the rest of the letter) or it is one of the few citable uses in support of the contested notion that porneia is a reference (as well) to the Leviticus incest regulations. Even the term is the same language as Lev 18:8, in the LXX = “father’s woman.” (A man’s own birth mother is dealt with in Lev 18:7).

    I am coming to think the latter explanation is the better choice, though in the book I laid out a case for the former. Both of these have the virtue of consistency with the other usages in 1 Cor, and neither requires the stretch to any kind of “sexual immorality” one might like to apply.

    Your point about adultery is well taken, but Paul does use the standard term for adultery, e.g. in the vice list in 6:9. There are two important reasons for distinguishing porneia from adultery, which appear to be lost on those lexicographers who see an overlap. First, as I noted above, porneia (= prostitution) was legal to Romans and Greeks. Thus there is a need, as in the Acts Council, to spell out that it is forbidden to Gentile converts. This is also the reason it cannot be a vague term for “sexual immorality” in the letter to the Gentiles, since the Gentiles under Roman law would not think of legal prostitution as “sexual immorality” — if they already thought it a vice, they would not need to be told not to do it. It was important to spell it out.)

    The second and related issue is that adultery, in the dominant cultures was only a crime against men. Married women were expected to be faithful and harshly punished for adultery, but married male Romans (except during part of the Republic) and Greeks were free to visit prostitutes or have concubines. This was a norm in much Gentile, esp. Roman, society. This would not be called “adultery” — but porneia. This is also why Jesus mentions both. Porneia is not a catch-all term, but pairs with moixeia — covering between them a man who sleeps with another’s wife and a man unfaithful to his own wife by resorting to prostitutes.

    Which brings me back to 1 Cor 7: where it seems very clear Paul is talking about (legal) prostitution and men resorting to them, to the offense of the body of the church.

    As to the vice list in 1 Cor 6, I do not follow your argument about “such were some of you.” It seems to work just as well with the standard reading that respects the “oute” construction, which renders all of the “neither/nor’d” items not as of the class “porneia” but of the class “adikaoi.” This is one of many cases where the KJV has the more accurate translation.

    My primary concern in R&H was not a word study on porneia – but to address a specific argument (made in a few of the lexicons) that it necessarily includes same-sex acts. I examined every instance of its use in the relevant literatures, (including the lexicon citations where provided) and find no evidence that supports their view. At most male prostitutes are referred to – and this cannot be held as definitive in addressing the concern of same-sex marriage, any more than the condemnation of female prostitutes is an argument against marriage.

    Thanks again for your patience. I hope you find the foregoing helpful in better seeing the reasoning behind some of my arguments, particularly those that would have benefited from more dialogue with a person as perceptive and thoughtful as yourself.

  4. Hi Tobias,
    In the interests of clarity and not of ping-pong:

    (1) I was about hasty talking about lack of mention of a son ... the accurate thing to have said was that there was no mention, directly, of two separate men, let alone of a prostitute. But I am glad to see now,

    (2) Your shifting thinking from 'it was about prostitution' to 'incest' (the natural reading, really, given that gunaika and not porne is used to describe the woman.

    (3) One trusts you are not now on a slippery slope :)

    (4) My own thinking [which I may yet formulate into a separate post on 'porneia'] is that porneia functions in two ways, both as a word re prostitution and as a more general word for 'sexual immorality' / 'illicit sexual behaviour' (with the question of licitness sometimes relating to Roman law, sometimes to Torah.

    (5) I note, having followed up some interchange on your blog re your/Radner's views, that Malina's 1972 article makes quite a bit of the 'illicit sexual behaviour' definition of porneia; and intriguingly finds a supportive parallelism in Qumran documents. I shall investigate further.

    (6) In my thinking I am pondering the analogy with the English word 'whore': sometimes very specific in meaning, 'prostitute'; sometimes more generally applicable re casual or promiscuous sex, whether before or outside of marriage. The analogy being less about precise similarity between 'porneia' and 'whor(ing)' and more about words which according to context have both precise and general meaning.

    (7) I remain unconvinced by what you say overall, even as I concede points here and there: your conclusion re porneia seems unreasonable in the sense that it deprives the New Testament of a general word for concerns writers had about sexual immorality and/or illicit sexual behaviour and suggests the main concern when porneia occurs in statements about wrongful living was only prostitution.

  5. Thanks, Peter. Your point (7) seems to me at the heart of the hermeneutical problem: the urge for the Scripture to have a word for a concept that is foreign to the biblical world(s) in question.

    This happens even with relatively clear notions such as "adultery." We moderns naturally think of men cheating on their wives as "adulterers." But that is not the way a Roman or Jew of that time would have thought of it, since under both Jewish and Roman law a man can only violate another man's marriage, not his own. The word that would leap to mind for both is "porneia."

    The same goes for other terms. The frequent slip in many circles into saying "Scripture condemns homosexuality" -- homosexuality being a modern inclusive concept -- fails to respect the text, which is not about such a broad concept, but about particular acts by particular people, most importantly not including women. (Romans 1 was not understood as being about female homosexuality in the earliest period, as attested in the Fathers.)

    I do commend the Malina article to you, though its findings are widely contested. While I think he makes an over-broad and unsupported final conclusion, and misapplies the same Rabbinic sources to which I refer, I do think he comes close to a correct interpretation of "porneia" in terms of its broadest (and rarest) use when it comes to Leviticus. His primary point is that it does not mean "sex before marriage" -- which is the current meaning given to "fornication." In a handful of cases Malina's usage seems to fit (including perhaps 1 Cor 5). I would say, as I did in my response to Radner, and repeat here only for the benefit of readers of your blog who may not have seen it, that the best "broad" definition of porneia, apart from (though including) explicit prostitution, and the figurative use for idolatry, would be: "sex between a man and a woman where marriage is illegal or not intended."

    Thanks again, and I do hope you find this discussion as helpful as I do. Perhaps others may as well, and I am grateful for the opportunity to engage with you in what I regard as among the most crucial efforts at Scriptural engagement in our day.

  6. Hi Tobias,
    Accepting the figurative usage about idolarty in some cases remains unchanged as a possible definition/usage of porneia, I note that in successive comments, building out from your published book's discussion of porneia, that you keep enlarging or being open to what porneia might include re sex (from prostitution to incest to sex between a man and a woman where marriage is illegal or not intended).

    It is only a further step to acknowledge that porneia includes other sexual acts which do not lead to marriage (in biblical terms): with animals, with a person of the same sex. That is, Leviticus 18 is readily included as background when porneia is used in general prohibitions/warnings/judgements re behavioural actions Christians should not be indulging in (e.g. Galatians 5:19, Ephesians 5:3, 1 Thessalonians 4:3).

  7. Thanks Peter. I think you'll find I did address those other meanings of porneia, z'nut, in my book as published; though your comments here have caused me to revisit some of the material and make a case here I did not make in the book concerning the issue of the need for a term to cover for males what we would now class under "adultery." (I think that's what the lexicons mean when they expand the range of "porneia" to include adultery; that is, it is what _we_ would consider adultery; it would not have fallen under "moixeia." Clearly it is no stretch to call an adulterous woman "a whore" even if no money changed hands!

    But I address the "sex without intent to marriage" meaning on page 128, in relation to the Rabbinic text that Malina brings up; and explore the pssible incest meanings, including in the Qumran material, on pages 128-131. I touch on this all again briefly at 178-9.

    Your "further step" is interesting, but it is one not taken in the Scripture, or in the Rabbinic (or early Christian) tradition. As I noted, same-sexuality (except for the single instance of the LXX reference to the "male temple prostitutes" -- if these serviced men -- is the only instance of "porneia" attached to same-sex acts, and is clearly related to the prostitution, not the gender. I also point out that extra-biblical sources included under "porneia" things we would exclude, such as second marriages in widowhood (CD 4:20-21) or marriage with an infertile woman (mYebamoth 6.5). In the Christian literature the earliest unambiguous reference to porneia in relation to same-sexuality I have found is in Clement of Alexandria, in reference to Antinoous and Hadrian -- and Clement is reflecting the view shared by Roman moralists that Antinoous was little better than a doted-on call-boy. (The text is difficult as it involves the accusative of "dia" which would mean "because of" or "by means of" -- the passage relates to the erection of the cult of Antinoous, and may be a reference to idolatry.)

    As to the verses you cite, I don't think they provide any evidence in support of a broader meaning to include "anything in Leviticus 18."
    For Galatians, again, if porneia is inclusive, why go on to mention akatharsia and asalgeia? No, it seems there is some distinction being made by the biblical authors between these categories -- the precision of which may be lost to us. Akatharsia seems to have a very broad and imprecise range, as does asalgeia -- broader probably then porneia.

    1 Thess 4:3 is, I think, best understood in keeping with the similar recommendation in 1 Cor 7, and 1 Peter 3:7. It is about how a man should treat his "vessel." This is lost in most modern translations, which refer to his own body, but that seems a stretch; rather the note seems to be about self-control and chaste relationships in marriage. A man should treat his wife not as the object of lust, but with due respect. That seems to me to be the message here.

    Thanks again for the opportunity to discuss these issues. If you can find a text where there is a clear link between Leviticus 18's other prohibitions, your case would be stronger. It isn't really enough to say, it's just one more step. As I say, I've looked, examining every use of the word and all its roots in all of the relevant literature and beyond. It is possible I've missed something in the broader literature; but I am certain of one thing: in terms of the Biblical text itself, no such broad and inclusive reading is either necessary or self-evident for any instances of the word.