Friday, January 6, 2012

What does PORNEIA mean? (1)

If you have read the preceding posts below you will have seen the beginnings of a discussion about the meaning of the Greek word porneia which is joined by the author of the book Reasonable and Holy, Tobias Haller, especially in comments to the fourth post in the series.

Engaging with the book and with Haller's comments has led me to read 'around the traps' including Thiselton's major commentary on 1 Corinthians as well as Gordon Fee's NICNT commentary on 1 and 2 Thessalonians, bits and pieces on the internet, and, of course, the Bible itself.

Among problems, or challenges with this word are the question of what is an accurate translation of it into English, whether it has a uniform meaning, and what its scope is if we accept that in some places at least it has some kind of general meaning (e.g. illicit sexual intercourse).

So, we might find that if we look up a number of translations it is translated as (say) 'fornication' (which seems quite particular, about sex before marriage) or as 'sexual immorality' which seems quite wide-ranging (any sex outside of (legal) marriage. But porneia has a strong root-link to porne or prostitute, so the question arises whether we read a word such as 'fornication' in our modern terms as (say) a boy friend and girl friend sleeping together, or two people hook up at a party and find a hidden place to have (casual) sex together, but should understand it as 'consorting with a prostitute', a not-frowned upon activity in the ancient Graeco-Roman world, and moreover something not considered adultery in that world if engaged in by a married man. (I want to acknowledge Haller for opening my eyes to the different contexts, at least in certain ways, in respect of how we might too readily read porneia one way today with insufficient regard for the ways of the days of the Bible).

As we read across the Bible (both Old Testament in Greek, and New Testament) we can also see situations in which porneia may have meant one thing in one place and another thing in another place. Some translations seem to show little understanding of this (e.g. using 'fornication' or 'sexual immorality' uniformly), others are more alive to this possibility (e.g. I happened to flick through the REB recently and noticed 'fornication' (used fairly uniformly by the NEB) and 'sexual immorality' (used fairly uniformly by the NRSV). Some interesting questions arise about how we determine a word's meaning when used in the Bible, especially a word which is controversial, relates both to a detailed Old Testament background as well as having a particular currency in the Gentile world outside the Bible.

Finally a third issue (one worked over quite a bit in my discussion-via-comments with Haller below) is the scope of the word: is it a 'fat' word (including quite a bit of illicit sex in its scope?) or a 'thin' word (narrow in scope such as prostitution or incest?)? That is, if it is not as general as the English translation 'sexual immorality' implies, what are its limits? The reading I have undertaken suggests some inadequacy with 'thin' meanings because such meanings imply that Jesus, Paul and others were quite concerned about (say) incest but felt no need to speak about other sexual failings. Conversely, we moderns who look down our noses at prostitution may need to reckon with prostitution (and temptations to consort with prostitutes) as a widespread difficulty as Christianity spread into the Gentile world (that is, what seems a 'thin' meaning for porneia to us may have been a broad issue for most Christian men (young men, older men, single men, married men)). As for a 'fat' meaning, is my interest in the possibility that porneia, when used by Jesus and Paul, invokes the full extent of the Law of Moses regarding illicit sexual behaviour, misplaced (as Haller argues)?

Well, that's enough for tonight!

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