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This question is pretty much a spinoff of What does the Bible say about sex before marriage / premarital sex? because its current answer depends on the assumption that premarital sex is πορνεία (commonly translated "fornication"). Not all agree, so I think this assumption is better explicitly questioned.

I've heard some liberal Christians dispute the definition of the Greek word πορνεία (porneia), claiming it doesn't mean premarital sex at all. (An example of such an argument)

What's the proof that premarital sex is an instance of πορνεία (porneia)?


One of the major difficulties here is that just a dictionary definition doesn't cut it, because it's difficult to really know what the Greek word really meant 2000 years ago. The answer probably needs to either be a broad look at the Bible passages using the word, or an academic study on the word's meaning.

Additional information 2011-09-21: The following articles seem interesting, but I can't access the fulltexts. It seems from the publicly-available bits that Dr. Malina might actually have been the first to dispute the meaning of porneia.

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Related question on BH.SE: Does πορνεία mean premarital sex in 1 Corinthians 5-7? –  dancek Oct 14 '11 at 16:10
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Porneia is not limited to premarital sex; it is more properly thought of as 'any sexual act outside of marriage'. –  RiverC Apr 17 '12 at 20:59
    
For the sake of discussion, I put the full text PDF re: Malina here: docdroid.net/i7s9 and docdroid.net/i7sb - password is fornication –  sunk818 Sep 25 at 17:24

8 Answers 8

The word porneia is often translated as "fornication".

1 Cor 7:2 (KJV)
Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband.

It's worth noting that more modern translations use "sexual immorality" here instead of "fornication" due to the confusion with that given word.

Looking at the English definition of "fornication", we see:

Dictionary.com Fornication

1. voluntary sexual intercourse between two unmarried persons or two persons not married to each other.

Premarital sex is fornication; adultery is fornication; any type of sex where the two people are not married or not married to each other is fornication.


Strong's Concordance gives us the original definition of porneia.

1) illicit sexual intercourse

a) adultery, fornication, homosexuality, lesbianism, intercourse with animals etc.

b) sexual intercourse with close relatives; Lev. 18

c) sexual intercourse with a divorced man or woman; Mk. 10:11,12

This root word includes all forms of sexual acts that are not within the confines of marriage (a heterosexual one at that). The study of the word itself shows that anything and everything outside the realm of marriage is a sin.


It's also worth noting that this word is one of the root words for pornography.

Regarding your link
In this answer, I point out the clear and obvious refutation to link that you provided above. They claim that adultery was a property rights violation against the husband. However, they ignore the fact that raping a virgin was a property rights violation against the father. Furthermore, if a woman became married and the husband found no proof of her virginity, he had a right to have her stoned for not being a virgin. Clearly, premarital sex was explicitly forbidden.

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The points you (and also CameronW) make about virginity in the Law of Moses are good, but that requires the Law of Moses still applies for that part. One could even argue that the points of virginity as a property right are not part of moral law, but civil/judicial. It might be fruitful to find out how Strong came up with his Concordance definition (i.e. what's the research). –  dancek Sep 21 '11 at 20:29
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How does anyone ever define a word? You have two choices: Go to a dictionary and look at it in context. If you don't trust the dictionary (ie Strong's Concordance), then your only choice is to look at it in context. Strong's Concordance (being a concordance) happens to have all the places the word is used. Feel free to dig, if you'd like. –  Richard Sep 21 '11 at 20:33
    
I agree that we must use a combination of Greek and Hebrew dictionaries, plus study the contexts and customs of the day. We have to be careful to avoid "reading into" the text from our own culture. The custom of the day was that a betrothed virgin was regarded as a man's wife. When the wedding day came, if she was not still the virgin he contracted and paid for, then she was guilty of adultery, a capital offense. Compare to Exodus 22:16-17 and see that premarital sex by an unbetrothed virgin brought no punishment upon the girl. –  Jasper Quadrango Jul 4 at 5:35
    
Very unclear. Premarital sex is prohibited. Extra marital sex is not. In fact, jewish get says, "You are available to all men". Here women are normally available to all men unless she marries someone. –  Jim Thio yesterday

There are really two parts to an answer. One is that the word "Fornication" is clearly defined in English:

"voluntary sexual intercourse between two unmarried persons or two persons not married to each other".

Clearly pre-marital sex comes under that definition.

The second part is the Greek word. The evidence I will cite here is that many generations of Bible translators have chosen to translate the Greek as "fornication", knowing full well what it means in English. This is true even of translators who have made non-orthodox word-choices in other areas. They obviously think that "fornication" is a good representation of the Greek word. You're going to need some pretty solid evidence if you want to claim they are wrong.

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You make many implicit assumptions here (e.g. that word definitions are immutable, or that a dictionary (which is either normative or referential) defines actual meaning, or that Bible translators have near-perfect words available). I'm getting uneasy playing Devil's advocate here, but I'll just note that Wikipedia states in the first paragraph of the article Fornication that "The definition is often disputed." –  dancek Aug 27 '11 at 18:10

When discussing pre-marital sex I think we can even throw out the debate over the translation porneia to fornication. We can look at what the Bible says about sex, which makes the definition of porneia irrelevant because I agree that it isn't a solid case in itself.

The Bible states that if a man sleeps with a virgin he is to take her as his wife (Exodus 22:16, Deuteronomy 22:28-29). This comes from the article you linked to. The problem with the article is it assumes rape even though there is nothing showing it to be rape at all. It is an assumption that ruins their argument.

Further, Deuteronomy 22:20-21 states that if a woman wasn't a virgin when married (if the husband brought the charges and she was found guilty by not having the sackcloth to prove it) she is to be stoned for doing a "disgraceful thing in Israel by being promiscuous while still in her father’s house. You must purge the evil from among you."

While the original definition of porneia can be debated for hours on end, I believe these verses show the severe consequences of sex outside of marriage.

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Thanks for the answer! However, I'm still hoping someone shed a little light on the proper meaning of porneia... –  dancek Sep 20 '11 at 19:30
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I believe Strong's Concordance definition Richard gave is the best researched meaning you will find. The definition does not explicitly list pre-maritial sex so to prove it is an instance of porneia one must prove it falls under the broader terms used in the Strong's Concordance definition. I believe it has already been proven it falls under fornication. The root of adultery is "voluntary violation of the marriage bed," (etymonline.com/index.php?search=adultery) which I think the verses I shared puts pre-maritial sex this category. –  CameronW Sep 21 '11 at 14:09
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@dancek Good luck finding that precise of documentation for a book published in 1890. The best I can give you is this statement from the preface. "The passages were collected directly from the sacred text, and they have been repeatedly compared with it, both in the manuscript and in type, in so careful and thorough a manner as to test satisfactorily their exhaustiveness and exactness." I know it isn't what you are looking for, but I don't think you'll be able to find that information, sorry. –  CameronW Sep 22 '11 at 13:23
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So having sex with non virgin is okay then, despite outside marriage? –  Jim Thio Mar 23 '13 at 0:04
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This actually an answer that makes the most sense. Still nowadays, women are independent. They do not live on their parents house and not their father property. Maybe not common in ancient Israel. –  Jim Thio Mar 25 '13 at 0:38

This document should shed some light on the usage of the word porneia and the Greek word family it belongs to.

Here is an excerpt from the conclusion:

In this study we have looked at the word family -porn- in extra-biblical Greek literature, in the OT, and in the NT. In all sources, porneia and the related terms refer to sexual acts only. Both OT and NT correspond largely when it comes to the word family. Though the OT favors the figurative sense and the NT the literal meaning, the different aspects of porneia are found in both testaments. They include prostitution, premarital sexual relations, adultery, incest, and homosexuality, in short, sexual relations outside of the marriage. Thus, OT and NT enlarge the understanding of fornication as found in the Greek world.

The bottom line is that the Septuagint and the NT have close agreement on the term. If you recall that the Septuagint dates back to the 3rd century BC, giving us an idea of how Greek was used and translated in relation to Hebrew. The agreement between the usage of this word in the NT and the Septuagint provides strong evidence to the colloquial use in those times.

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There's quite a bit of evidence in this link that porneia means prostitution.

(SEE "FORNICATION - ORIGINAL GREEK")

I'm not sure if the Strong's definition above is actually the original definition of porneia.

Even the word "fornication" comes from the Latin word fornix (arch) referring to brothels. So when you consider the roots of these words it's hard to believe the Bible isn't talking about prostitution when using the word fornication.

Especially in the context of the time - when people married so young - there is a lot of fear of sex at the ages we are talking about: twelve and thirteen. It is hard for us to imagine pre-marital sex being such a prevalent concern, but I can see fornication, meaning prostitution, being the real issue.

Words evolve in meaning. Fornication is probably one of the words that has evolved to be defined as meaning something significantly different than it started out to be. This happens all the time.

Another example from the Bible: there are many times when the phrase "to know", in a Biblical context, means "had sex". However, who uses this phrase to express the idea that two people had sex anymore? Nobody applies this meaning to those words anymore. This phrase, "to know", has changed in meaning since the 1611 translation of the Bible, just like the definition of fornication has apparently continued to get broader and broader, and has probably lost the accuracy of it's original meaning in modern societies' usages. Many words, Biblical, or not, have done this.

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Fornication has changed its meaning since 1611, so reading its definition in a modern English dictionary does little good. In 1611, fornication meant prostitution (as abundantly proven ad infinitum on the "goldenrule" website)and was a perfect translation of "porneia", which is the activity of porné, or prostitutes. Though the entry at dictionary.com - fornicate is misleading, it will tell you what the word meant about the time the KJV was written: which was to prostitute oneself. Young's Literal translation renders fornication "whoredom".

God wrote his list of rules for sex, telling us what types of sex were sinful, i.e. "sexual immorality". The most convenient list is in Leviticus 18. You will find no requirement of marriage before sex or condemnation of premarital sex by God in that passage or any other passage. Such teaching is from the tradition of the Church, not from Scripture.

The references to porneia in 1 Corinthians 6 are about temple prostitutes working in brothels that operated for the good of the city and which were fully accepted by the populace of Corinth. The reference to "fornications" (plural) in 1 Corinthians 7:2 is also to these same brothels. If you read 1 Corinth. 10:8, you will see that Paul uses porneia to refer to cult or "sacred" prostitution, or joining to an idol by means of sex with a devoted prostitute. This fits in perfectly with 1 Corinthians 6, especially when he talks about this being the only sin that a believer can commit "against his own body." It is unique among all sex sins. There is no sin as harmful as this. Obviously, Paul is not talking about pre-marital sex here. He's saying that when a man has sex with a temple prostitute, he joins himself to that idol. This union invites demonic entrance into his body thus driving out the indwelling Spirit from His temple. This "takes away a member of the body of Christ" and is indeed a uniquely destructive sin.

Another reason that people have misunderstood 1 Corinthains 7:2 is the failure to translate "have one's wife or husband" [citation needed]accurately. It means to have sex or be in a sexual relationship with someone. It doesn't mean "get a wife, so you won't have sex before marriage." Paul was saying "let every man have sex with his own woman, not with a temple prostitute." Several commentaries bring out these points:

http://enduringword.com/commentaries/4607.htm
The New International Commentary on the New Testament by Gordon D. Fee
John Gill's Exposition of the Bible (first Corinthians 7:2)

Only a couple of translations have made the meaning clear for us, the NetBible being an example. Here is their note on this:

"Grk “each man should have his own wife.” “Have” in this context means “have marital relations with” (see the following verse). The verb ἐχέτω (ecetw, “have”) occurs twice in the Greek text, but has not been repeated in the translation for stylistic reasons. This verb occurs 8 times in the LXX (Exod 2:1; Deut 28:30; 2 Chr 11:21; 1 Esd 9:12, 18; Tob 3:8; Isa 13:16; 54:1) with the meaning “have sexual relations with,” and 9 times elsewhere in the NT with the same meaning (Matt 20:23; 22:28; Mark 6:18; 12:33; Luke 20:28; John 4:18 [twice]; 1 Cor 5:1; 7:29)." [citation needed]

Richard suggests that Strong's dictionary defines porneia as "all forms of sexual acts that are not within the confines of marriage" when in fact it doesn't say that at all. As evidenced in Deuteronomy 22:14, when a man paid a bridal price for a girl, she was considered his wife from that day forward; it might be over a year later before they had the marriage feast and he took her as his bride. If this betrothed girl, his legal wife, had sex before her wedding day, she was guilty of a type of adultery and suffered the consequences. Comparing that situation to Exodus 22:16-17, sex with an unbetrothed virgin, the Bible clearly teaches that pre-marital sex is not a sin. There was no punishment upon either of them. The man was forced to pay her bridal price for otherwise her family could never recover the lost money. The marriage was obligatory upon the man if the parents approved it.

These passages only talk about virgin girls under their father's care and say nothing about premarital sex by adult single females or males. There is no passage that speaks against males, whether single or married, having sex with an unattached female. Adultery laws only applied to sex with married women, not unmarried.

I hope people will stop adding their own rules to the Bible; they're like the Pharisees who made the word of God of no effect by their traditions.


What's the proof that premarital sex is an instance of πορνεία (porneia)?

There is no evidence that pre-marital sex is an instance of porneia, nor is there any prohibition of responsible pre-marital sex stated in Scripture.

To discover the meaning of πορνεία, we consult the Greek words, dictionary, and usage.

Strong's Greek Dictionary contains the following entries: G4202: porneia ("harlotry") derived from G403: porneuo ("act the harlot"), which comes from G4204: porné ("harlot") which along with G4205 pornos ("male prostitute or whoremonger") comes from the Greek for "to sell" (akin to the base of G4097). Young's Literal Translation renders porneia as "whoredom". A study of the origin of the word fornicate shows that it originally meant "to prostitute," the word being derived from fornix (gate), the location of the brothels (see fornix.) Nevertheless, the word has changed its meaning since 1611 and is no longer an accurate translation of porneia.

However, when we look especially at the usage of this word in certain New Testament contexts, it seems to have a broader meaning than just "prostitution." It is used in Matthew 5:32 to describe grounds for divorcing one's wife (probably due to unfaithfulness while betrothed - as was thought of Jesus' mother. (Matt.1:19)). In 1 Corinthians 5:1 it is used to classify incest, and in Jude 7 it is used to refer to homosexuality. It seems that the Greek-speaking Jews (Hellenists) had adopted porneia as a universal term for any type of sexual sin prohibited by the Law of God. A handy list of these sexual taboos is found in Leviticus 18:6-23. Any of the sins listed could be considered fornication (sexual immorality.) But these specific examples of incest, homosexuality, and adultery are not the primary usages of the word. The primary usage of porneia is regarding prostitution; not just ordinary prostitution, but rather sacred or cult prostitution in idolatry. In my opinion this is the primary usage and meaning of the word porneia in the New Testament.

Again, we have to remember that the New Testament sexual prohibitions were based upon the Old Testament Law (2 Tim.3:16), and the Old Testament did not forbid a woman from being a prostitute unless she was a priest's daughter (Lev.21:9), nor was any man condemned for sex with a prostitute (Judges 16:1). Prostitution by a married woman was warned against repeatedly in Proverbs. The only type of prostitution that was forbidden was cult prostitution (Deut.23:17) When Paul warned against fornication in 1 Cor.10:8, he referred to the events of Numbers 25:1-5, cult prostitution, or idolatry through sex. Without taking more room here, I will say that this is what is in view in Acts 15, 1 Cor. 6:18, 7:2, and Rev.2:14. Thus, the word porneia has nothing to do with pre-marital sex.

Jewish scholars readily admit that God's Law, the Torah, did not prohibit premarital sex (see "Kosher Sex", from The Jewish Virtual Library.) The only passage that discusses it is in regard to an unbetrothed virgin living with her father (Exodus 22:16-17). There is no sacrifice demanded and no punishment given. Since her father had prospects of obtaining a bridal price for his daughter, he was still entitled to that money and the family would decide whether to permit the marriage. There is a passage in Deuteronomy 22:14 about a man complaining that his bride wasn't a virgin on her wedding day who could be put to death for her sin; but remember the Jews regarded a betrothed girl as married, so the sin in view there is a type of adultery against her husband who had paid a steep price for a virgin. There were no prohibitions against adult single women having sex with whomever they pleased, but these situations were probably a rarity in those days and in essence, prostitution.

Among the Jews, there were three ways of obtaining a wife: by contract, by money (e.g. a ring), or by sex. Any of these three were sufficient and lawful ("Acquiring a Spouse" by Tracey R. Rich, Judaism 101). When acquiring a virgin, all three would ordinarily be included. So, in Biblical times, beginning a consensual sexual relationship with a woman established a marriage. The traditions of a contract, vows, etc. were added over time and served to protect all parties involved. We have good marriage traditions, but the idea that there can be no sex outside of marriage isn't really in the Bible.

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This seems like a really good answer. Don't know who downvoted, but I +1d –  Affable Geek Jan 25 '13 at 14:03
    
What about when Jesus says: "But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart." Isn't He saying clearly that it's adultery when you look at a woman (not your wife) with lust, nevermind having sexual relations with her? Doesn't premarital sex clearly fall into this category ("look at a woman lustfully")? –  Cris Aug 21 '13 at 21:30
    
Jesus is simply not talking about marriage at all on those verses. How the hell the fact that she is your wife or not make any different? Literally it could mean all women including your wife. It could also mean all women you can't legally have sex with (such as your mom). –  Sharen Eayrs Nov 19 '13 at 13:43
    
Good answer. So therefore any relationship between an unmarried adult man and woman based on genuine love and mutual respect, and mutual physical attraction, and consent, is not considered fornication... I never felt like it should be. –  Ztucker Apr 26 at 7:48
    
Cris: Good question. First, Jesus was speaking to Jews about adultery, which in their world meant: sex with another man's wife. The word woman = wife in Greek and Hebrew. Context determines the English translation (most translators miss the fact that the woman being lusted for in this context must be married). If the man looking at a woman to desire sex with her carried out his desire, it would have been adultery. Jesus taught that adultery [sex with a married woman] was committed already in his heart. Not about sex with unmarried women, which both married and single men were permitted. Lev.18 –  Jasper Quadrango Jul 4 at 5:57

The word fornication was not even invented until 1300 AD. The original word porneia meant all of the sexual "nasties" as highlighted in Leviticus. The word porneia never specifically included sex outside of marriage. The nearest it came was (basically) with regard to girls/young women living at home being forbidden to have sex, unless married. That is just a basic outline. The word porneia was translated to fornication. Therefore the true meaning of fornication is the same as with porneia, that is with regard to those sexual things expressly condemned in Leviticus. Later the word fornication came to mean sex between singles. Thus this meaning has been incorrectly applied to the term fornication in recent years.

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Whether the word "fornication" was invented or not is rather irrelevant, since the scriptures weren't written in English. As to the rest of your answer, can you provide some sources for the various claims? –  Flimzy Nov 19 '13 at 2:35

I agree the definition has been changed.

When looked at the definition for fornication, instead of just believing the first definition that pops up, other definitions describe it has whoredom. Sex before marriage put side by side with whoredom gives it a clearer meaning besides just sex before marriage.

When I see sex before marriage I see two things. A person having sex with a person then going on to the next and having sex with another person not out of love or the intent of strengthening the relationship with marriage in the future. Then there is sex before marriage where there is a grown love between the two people that wants to be strengthened in every way towards marriage.

Now I can see why this was said that to avoid fornication that you should get married. It is said as something to avoid. Now what are you trying to avoid to where you should get married? Possibly having sex with the wrong people that will not lead to marriage, but only desires, wrongdoing, embarrassment, regret, sadness, and broken relationships.

Marriage only locks it in further to where you do not risk making those mistakes and committing sins. As for not looking at a woman with lust. Have you ever had a relationship where you can look at your partner in love, not lust, when you are about to perform sex? Lust is a bad desire of the heart. It burns your heart and sends your heart in the wrong direction and hurts God. Love is strength and is a good desire of the heart and sends your heart in the right direction and does not burn.

The only way to be safe that you are going to stay with your partner no matter what is to get married before having sex to less the chances of committing sin. Sex before marriage, extremely risky, may be alright if the two people feel deeply about each other on every level, will both do everything to make sure things keep moving forward for both of them in God and only move forward, love each other and can look at each other in love in sex, want to strengthen their love in every way, look towards only a future with them two which includes marriage, and are both strong in self control and have an understanding of their bodies and spirit.

It is still hard to explain because have you ever felt like you gave your all to someone or things were great and it just didn't work out? It is best to get married first or just leave it up to God.

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Welcome to C.SE. When you get the chance, please check out our tour and specifically How we are different than other sites. Please understand, while this is an answer I agree with, it isn't very theologically grounded. It is much more suited to a Bible Study or personal advice than it is to a theological Q&A site. –  Affable Geek Feb 12 at 15:47
    
This answer would be a lot better if you could add references showing that this is a common understanding, and who teaches/believes it. On this site, we're not looking for personal interpretation, but rather focusing on what various Christian groups teach. See the links posted by Affable geek and also What makes a good supported answer? –  David Stratton Feb 13 at 14:16

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