Saturday, January 7, 2012

What does PORNEIA mean? (2)

How do we determine what a word means in the Bible? This simple question has a complicated answer!

(1) Many words have one meaning and no great controversy attaches to that meaning.

(2) Some words have more than one meaning so the question arises what meaning the word has in verse X (compared to verse Y). The answer will often be determined by the context (what the whole verse says, what the verse means in the context of a larger passage, etc). Sometimes the answer is indeterminate (i.e. scholars and translators disagree). Porneia is one such word.

(3) A few words are unique to the Bible so working out what they mean can involve much argument because usage of the word in other literature cannot be cited for comparative purposes.

(4) Some words appear to have a (slightly) different meaning in the Bible compared to usage outside of the Bible; some words in one part of the Bible are used in a standardized manner, but in another part of the Bible are used in a new way; in some instances this variation is within one book of the Bible. Arguably this last phenomenon occurs with porneia in 1 Corinthians.

Something tempting can happen within the complexities of seeking a word's meaning: we can (IMHO) become over enamoured with how words are used in literature outside of the Bible. On the premise that the Bible writers could develop their own meaning for a word, we need to be cautious about the weight we put on word usage in other literature. (One criticism I have of Haller's book is that he places a lot of weight on word usage (or non-usage) in rabbinical literature: there is value in considering this literature, but it is literature which (a) is not the Bible (so usage may be different, especially in respect of the New Testament), (b) difficult to date so that citing Rabbi X re word Y may, at best, give us the usage of a word in an era after the closure of the New Testament. What is surprising in this amount of weight being placed on rabbical literature is how little weight is placed on New Testament scholarship by Christians).

Enough for now.


  1. Dear Peter, you've done a good job up to this point articulating the problem. I just want to answer here your concern about why I quoted the rabbinic sources rather than early Christian sources. There are two reasons:

    1) The rabbis actually debated the issue under question: what does porneia mean (or, what is a porne?) None of the Christian sources actually take up the matter in this discursive way.

    2) I have examined all of the early Christian sources and they do not offer much difference from the scriptural text. The usages in the Apostolic Fathers, for example, all make the distinction between porneia and moixeia in order to include male philandering (given the double standard on adultery) and a few of the texts make the same distinction between porneia and pederasty. The research is a bit much to post in a comment, so I may put this up as a full post at my blog. I examine every usage in the Apostolic Fathers.

    Finally, the issue you seek to address: that there is a general term in biblical Greek meaning 'any form of sexual immorality.' Has it not struck you that there isn't really an English word for that -- a word that matches your schema of being highly precise at one point and wildly general at another?

  2. Hi Tobias,
    Your explanation is appreciated. Thank you.

    I have been reflecting on the role 'whore' plays or can play in the English language (at least the NZ version!). Its precision use = prostitute. Its general use is about profligate, promiscuous, casual sex. "What is Fred up to these days socially? Oh, he spends his weekends whoring about town" does not necessarily mean Fred is paying for his many sex acts. "That Mary? She is such a whore" does not necessarily mean she has a paid job as a prostitute but that (in the view of the speaker) she has had too many lovers. Well, its the best example I have thought of so far.

  3. Actually, Peter, I don't think we are all that far apart on this. I think I made the case in my book that porneia covers what we would call "casual sex" or promiscuity, as well as explicit prostitution, and the extended metaphorical use (actually the most common in the OT) to idolatry. This is why I think using a word like "whoring" or "harlotry" is to be preferred to "sexual immorality" -- not only is the latter too vague (and too easily capable of including things not intended by the authors that the readers bring with them to their reading) but it lacks the verbal sting of "whore" which I think is very much part of the intended feeling of the word.

    As you note in the next post, Malina and Jensen are at odds as to whether premarital sex should be included under this -- and I do tend to agree with Malina at least as far as Hebrew Scripture is concerned, since a man taking a woman with the intent to marry effectively made her his wife! There really isn't a concept of "premarital" sex if the marriage in intended, since the sex seals the marriage itself.

    My main objection has been to those who insist all of Lev 18 is necessarily included under porneia. There is, as far as I've found, no evidence to support that particular claim, and some evidence (admittedly later bur very clearly articulated as a pointed argument) against it. As I noted above, the Apostolic Fathers' use supports this in that they make those same lists that single out the differing categories of moixeia, porneia, and paidophthoreseia. There does not appear to be a general term covering all three, hence all three are used.

    Thanks again and all the best. Blessed Epiphanytide! (I baptized three delightful young children this morning -- a pair of tiny twins and a boy -- all five months old! A real joy.)