Fornication (in the Bible)

views updated


Israel's legal tradition did not specifically prohibit sexual intercourse between an unmarried man and an unmarried woman. Unmarried women living in the paternal home were expected to be chaste since their chastity was a matter of respecting their fathers' authority and his economic interests. Thus, Deuteronomic legislation stipulates that a man who seduces an unmarried woman is to pay 50 shekels, as a form of bride price, to her father (Dt 22.2829; see Ex 22.1416). Subsequently he was not allowed to divorce her. If a man discovers that a woman was not a virgin at the time of their marriage and wished therefore to divorce her, substantiation of the charge meant that she was to be put to death because she had committed a serious sexual offense that affected the entire community (Dt 22.2021). Legislation in Leviticus stipulated the death penalty for the daughters of priests who served as sacred prostitutes themselves because their sacrilegious behavior dishonored and tainted their fathers (Lv 21.9).

In English translations of the New Testament the Greek word porneia is often translated as "fornication." In fact, porneia is a general term meaning "sexual immorality" or "immoral sexual behavior." Specific connotations of the term can sometimes be construed from the contexts in which the term appears. Thus, Acts 15.20, 29 uses the term porneia as a summary of the kinds of sexual immorality cited in Leviticus 18. Influenced by the biblical image of the marital covenant to describe the covenantal relationship between Yahweh and Israel, the Book of Revelation uses "fornication" as a metaphor for idolatry and idolatrous practices (Rv 2.21; 14.8; 17.2, 4; 18.3;19.2).

Most of the New Testament texts that employ the term porneia use it in a general sense. Thus, "fornication" is a common item on the lists of vices scattered here and there throughout the New Testament (Mk 7.21, etc.). Paul exhorts the Corinthians and the Thessalonians to "shun fornication" (1 Cor 6.18; 1 Thes 4.3). Like most of the moralists of his day, Paul gives sexual intercourse with a prostitute as an example of porneia, but he says nothing about the marital status of either the man or the woman involved in the activity. No New Testament text specifically mentions sexual intercourse between an unmarried man and an unmarried woman.

The meaning of the "exception clause" (Mt 5.32;19.19) often translated as "except for the case of fornication (porneia )" in Matthew's version of Jesus' sayings on divorce is widely debated. The most plausible interpretation is that the clause refers to adultery. Roman law in force at the time that Matthew's gospel was written considered a husband's failure to divorce an adulterous wife to be a capital offense.

Bibliography: r. f. collins, Divorce in the New Testament, GNS 38 (Collegeville, Minn. 1992); Sexual Ethics and the New Testament: Behavior and Belief (Companions to the New Testament; New York 2000).

[r. f. collins]