Focus on Fornication

Posted By on April 21, 2010

I’ll admit up front that I never thought I’d post on this subject, but it was brought to mind recently by a request I had via email to comment on the meaning of “fornication” (Greek: porneia). The question was put in the context of how some Christians have gotten the notion that there is no New Testament teaching that forbids premarital sex. The word porneia, so the supposition goes, doesn’t mean sex before marriage–that there is no biblical proof of that prohibition.

I’ve heard this before and don’t really know where it comes from. On an academic level, there is a debate as to the precise meaning of porneia, but I don’t recall any credible scholar saying it cannot mean premarital sex in certain passages.  Usually the debate is over what *kind* of sexual activity might be in view.

At any rate, I thought I’d share part of my response. In a nutshell, the notion that porneia doesn’t refer to premarital sex is just wrong. It may not *always* mean that, but it certainly can mean that (context dictating if that’s the case).

I think John 8:41 is a pretty clear text in this regard:

They said to him, ?“We were not born of sexual immorality [Greek: porneia; KJV: “fornication”]. We have one Father—even God.”

If you read the context of this passage, verse 41is an accusation levied at Jesus by the Pharisees. What do they mean by tarnishing Jesus this way? They are charging that he was the out-of-wedlock child of Mary and Joseph. It isn’t hard to see why they’d do this. Matthew 1:18-25 clearly tells us that Jesus was not Joseph’s child, and that Joseph found Mary pregnant before he and Mary had been married (they were only betrothed, engaged). Joseph stayed with Mary for the duration of her pregnancy, even though people knew they were only betrothed. No doubt they were ridiculed and held in contempt. Matt 1:25 also clearly tells us that Joseph had no sexual relations with Mary until after the birth of Jesus — which would also be time enough for the traditional betrothal period to have elapsed. The charge that Jesus was the child of “fornication” (porneia) very clearly tells us that porneia refers to sexual intercourse before marriage. That was the whole point of the Pharisee’s jibe:  Jesus was illicit because Joseph and Mary had a sexual relationship before it was proper.

There’s a lot more that could be said on this (apparently new) Christian myth, but I’ll leave it here.

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35 Responses to “Focus on Fornication”

  1. Jay says:

    The Pharisees would probably not have made much of an issue over an engaged couple’s sexual activity since it was not such a big issue in their law. The issue would have been that Mary was pregnant by another man which according to the Old Testament law was a capital offence.

  2. Michael J. says:

    Furthermore, regardless of what you do with the original language of Matt. 1:25, for many centuries the church held that Joseph NEVER had sexual relations with Mary…this too, is a relatively new Christian myth. The reason I say “regardless of what you do with the language,” is because all one need do is seriously consider the ramifications of such an act. Joseph was a strictly religious Hebrew who would have well understood the reverence due a sanctified vessel of God…which is exactly what Mary is. If we shun the idea of Belshazzar drinking from the sacred vessels of the temple, how much more should we be horrified at the idea that someone as pious and reverent as Joseph would defile such a sacred vessel as the very womb through which God Himself became incarnate! many modern believers have a tendency to want to de-stigmatize certain carnal pleasures that they love, so they can feel that it’s bleesed by God, or whatever, by somehow relating them to biblical people and events. St. Paul stated that if one can not abstain from sexual pleasures then by all means they should find their outlet in a marital situation blessed by God, rather than burn with lust, however, it would be better if one remain celibate. If St. Paul could endorse such an idea, then certainly so could the very Mother Of God, and the man whom God himself chose to be betrothed to her. This doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with respectable marital sex, of course; I am merely speaking of the special case involving the Theotokos.

    • MSH says:

      yeah; it’s hard to believe how some in the early church could arrive at that conclusion (though it’s understandable why some would want it — Mary being an analogy to some of the tabernacle/temple).

  3. sam shamoun says:

    Just one correction. It wasn’t the pharisees who said this. It was people who thought they were disciples of Jesus who made this statement. Read John 8:30-32.

  4. rode says:

    so Michael J, are u saying that Joseph and Mary never had sex?

  5. Michael J. says:

    Yes Rode, that’s exactly what I am saying. For those of us who have the revelatory understanding that Yeshua Bar Joseph was actually God incarnate, and that Mary, His mother is Theotokos (Greek for “Mother of God”), it is unthinkable that the most sanctified vessel in the History of the Hebrew people, or of any people for that matter, would have done anything other than remain chaste and pure after giving birth to the very Creator of all things…this is why the Orthodox Church has always referred to her as “Theotokos and ever virgin Mary.” Think about it: the Hebrew people took their laws and the sacredness of the sanctified vessels of worship more seriously than any other race; We’re not just talking about some physical object that was blessed by a priest for worship…God chose Mary to be blessed among all women to birth the savior of our souls; Her sanctified womb became the ultimate of God’s Holy vessels by containing the very Uncontainable Himself, the Annointed Son of the Living God!

    • MSH says:

      I don’t buy this at all. A sexless marriage between Joseph and Mary has nothing to do with the incarnation (Jesus was already incarnate by the time Joseph and Mary came together). What’s the point? Joseph and Mary’s sexual relations somehow affected the embodied deity of Jesus? I know the eastern tradition here, but it’s just incoherent and unnecessary. Sex doesn’t make anyone unholy if it is within biblical bounds.

  6. rode says:

    So what about this? Matt 1:25 also clearly tells us that Joseph had no sexual relations with Mary until after the birth of Jesus — which would also be time enough for the traditional betrothal period to have elapsed.

  7. Michael J. says:

    Oh yeah, Rode, I forgot that Matthew wrote his gospel in English. Please forgive the sarcasm, but the fact is that whereas in English the word “until” necessarily indicates change after the fact, in the ancient languages of the Bible this is not the case. For example, when reading Deuteronomy 34:6, 2; Samuel 6:23; Psalm 72:7 and 110:1 (as interpreted by Jesus in Matt. 22:42-46); Matt. 11:23 and 28:20; Romans 8:22; and 1 Timothy 4:13, to reference just a few examples, we see that in NONE of these passages does the word “until” indicate a necessary change: because if it did, then apparently among other things we would be meant to understand that Jesus at some point will stop sitting at the right hand of the Father! And furthermore, at some unhappy date in the future, He intends to abandon the Church! The use of the original word used by Matthew that was translated into English as “until” in Matt. 1:25 is purely to indicate that Christ was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and Virgin Mary, not conceived by Joseph and Mary, since they did not “know” each other “until” the birth. In this context, “until” is really synonomous with “before.” If, as you seem to imply, the word “until” here were meant in its full contemporary English sense (i.e. that Joseph and Mary’s chaste relationship changed after the birth) then the stylistics present another big problem: the reader would have to assume that Matthew was actually inviting contemplation of the couple’s later sexual activity. It is unlikely, to say the least, that even Luther or Calvin would have considered such a possibility.

  8. Russell says:

    @Micheal J. – So were James, Joseph, Simon, Judas and ‘his sisters” half-siblings from Joseph’s previous marriage?

  9. Russell says:

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  10. Michael J. says:

    Dr. Heiser, are you suggesting that Matthew actually invited contemplation of Mary and Joseph’s supposed sexual activity? Also, what do you mean by “within biblical bounds?” Are you implying that the bible itself is a higher authority than the apostolic scribes who did the editing…like some sort of paper pope? I agree that it’s not sex that makes one unholy; rather, the views we have regarding sex (and whatever else our carnal nature leads us to think and do) are a result of the unholiness that we created ones have as a result of the Fall. I find it very interesting that so many “learned folk” are so quick to play the nachash’s advocate. Have you ever stopped for a moment and asked yourself why Adam and Eve fashioned an apron from figleafs to “cover their shame?” only AFTER they had partook of “the fruit” of the tree of knowledge. Why didn’t they cover their mouths instead? Why were they suddenly ashamed of the genital region? Why did Saint Paul make the statement that if one is capable, that “it would be better” if they abstain from marital relations? Sure, he conceded that heterosexual marital sex is acceptable if it will prevent people from burning with lust, etc., but he also followed that comment with the above comment that “it would be better” if they are able to refrain. I know that St. Paul didn’t have a bunch of titles and degrees behind his name, but I feel that he may have been onto something with that line of thought, and obviously so did the apostolic fathers who decided which pieces of scripture best reflected the ways and means of those who had “put on Christ.”

  11. blop2008 says:

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  12. Nobunaga says:

    Biblical theology, stripped bare of denominational confessions and theological systems.

    Seems this tag line is being missed by some folk.

  13. Michael J. says:

    I’m not sure if Nobunga’s comment is directed at me, but if it is: the term “denomination” does not apply to the Eastern Orthodox Church. The term is used to define the countless divisions of the protestant groups (the denominators) that were, and continue to be formed after the first of them broke away from the Roman Catholic Church (the Numerator). As for theological systems, this too is a product of the post-schism Western scholastic churches. The idea that anyone whose spiritual formation results from Western institutions of “higher learning” …especially seminaries, is capable of offering Biblical Theology that is untainted by the influence of denominations and Theological systems is laughable, not to mention just plain dishonest. One may be able to convince some intellectual types with such a seemingly open-minded and unbiased pretense…it sounds good on paper, but please don’t be a hypocrite. If you want to have some honest debate, then be prepared for some Christian views that – by definition – are outside of denominational confessions.

  14. Michael J. says:

    Gosh, It just dawned on me: if I keep these commentaries up much longer, Dr. Heiser will probably be tempted to re-direct his “Who is this lunatic” link to describe me rather than himself. What is it about people named Michael? Maybe because our name, like the answers on Jeopardy, are in the form of a question. Trebek…eat you heart out!

  15. Nobunaga says:

    I take the Bible as my final authority on matters of faith. Eastern Orthodox does have its own theology and confession so i would include it as not being taken into consideration when dealing with scripture on this site, as far as i’m aware Dr Heiser deals with the text free of ANY religious system just as the tag line says, but he can speak for himself. I dont get why your pushing for the Eastern orthodox view here in view of this ?

    We are interested in what the Biblical text says in context of the original audience the language and the time frame this was revealed, so later traditions and systems are not much help here theres nothing hypocritical about that, i find it very helpful.

    Nice to talk to you Michael J

  16. Michael J. says:

    I’m not pushing for anything, I’m merely providing details about the background and sources that help form and support my views. I too am interested in what the Bible text says IN THE LANGUAGE AND TIME FRAME IT WAS REVEALED…that was my point above, when I addressed how English translations have twisted the original meaning of the word “until” in Matt. 1:25, based on more contemporary interpretations. For one to say they use the criteria of “the original audience the language and timeframe” was addressed to, and yet rule out what I was pointing out using the very same criteria, is absolutely hypocritical…by definition!

    So, then, what is it that you find it “very helpful” with?

    While I, and nearly every true Christian I know also place the utmost value in the Bible when it comes to matters of Faith, I certainly do not consider it to be “the final authority.” For me, there is no higher authority than the living God!

    Nice to talk to you too.

  17. Nobunaga says:

    In the context of the verse the word “until” in its meaning is pretty plain, i have compared many translations and looked up the greek heos and dont see what the problem is here unless your trying to fit it into a preconception.

    I find it helpfull in understanding the Bible, The Bible is the ultimate authority for me in matters of faith not tradition this does not mean i love the Bible more than God Michael.

  18. Michael J. says:

    To Russell, hey…I’m sorry I skipped that question of yours (I kind of got side-tracked by the crossfire there, for a bit) about whether I believe that Jesus’ half-brothers and half-sisters were “half-siblings” from Joseph’s previous marriage?…the short answer is possibly. Another possibility is that they were Cleopas’ children, or some other cousins, uncles and aunts, etc., as an examination of the use of the word brother or sister can often be seen in the ancient languages, to mean cousin, uncle, etc.

    One could ask a similar question regarding the term “father” when it is used for Joseph, the step-father of Jesus, since we know (or at least we should) that he was not the real Father of Jesus.

    Another consideration is this: Why was it that when Mary and the Apostle John stood at the cross, Jesus said to John “behold your mother” referring to Mary, and indicating to John that He was turning over the responsibility that had been His by birth, to John. The other so-called half brothers of Jesus were still alive…so why did He not give this responsibility, which was a birth-right to one of them?

    Anyway, something to chew on. Peace!

  19. Michael J. says:

    Nabunaga, to quote St. Paul “Faith is the evidence of things NOT seen.” How then can the Bible (which can be seen) be the ULTIMATE authority on matters of that which can NOT be seen. I’m not saying you love the Bible more than God, I would NEVER say that to anyone; just as I hope you are not suggesting that I love “tradition” more than God. However, if it weren’t for ancient Tradition, spoken or otherwise, you would not have a Bible as you know it. That I DO know, as any cursory study of the origins of present day compilation of scriptures known to us as “the Bible,” should make very clear to anyone who is intellectually honest.

    The Bible is not necessary for Faith, it is an important tool. A tool which has been sanctified bu the Holy Spirit, but a tool none-the-less. A bible can help believers who are seeking the Truth, but “belief” can be built merely by increasing the intellect; Faith on the other hand can not…it must be “imparted” by the Holy Spirit…if it is not, it is not Faith: it is just belief…which is merely mental ascent to an idea (such as choosing to accept what the Bible says about Christ) rather than “knowing” it. The problem with belief is that it can be twisted by scholars, even if they are well-meaning. Nothing can twist Faith, if one possesses the genuine “evidence of things not seen.”

    Whether or not you do possess that, is something that only you can answer…it is between you and God.

  20. Michael J. says:

    Listen, I need to clear something up here, because I seem to have inadvertently gotten under some people’s skin like a bad subcutaneous injection:

    It was never my intention to challenge heterodox Christians. Like most of you, I found my way to this website because I have thoroughly enjoyed Dr. Heiser’s scholarly papers, many of which I have been in almost complete agreement, regarding the bulk of his interpretations.

    I also understand the intention of this blog, to promote scholarly investigation of ancient biblical texts and related writings outside of rigid systematic confines, etc. including open-minded dialogue; however, the COMMENTARY portion of any blog (including one which is purported to be free from the influence of denominational confessions or theological systems) is always going to be colored by personal bias and subjectivity: I’m just honest enough to admit it.

    My own personal bias and subjective reality just so happens to reflect (in a very obvious way) the ancient Traditions and background of the Eastern Church. Therefore, these biases and personal subjectivity are bound to reflect that I am an Orthodox Christian. I have never tried to prosyletize or “push for the Eastern Orthodox view,” as I was accused of by Nobunaga. Most Orthodox Christians do not do such things.

    When someone asks the question “can anything good come out of the Eastern Church?” we prefer to take the approach that the Apostle Phillip took with Nathaniel, when he asked “can anything good come out of Nazareth?” and reply with: “Come and see!”

  21. Nobunaga says:

    You haven’t got under my skin Michael we just have a difference of opinion. You admit your opinion on the issue of this blog was ” colored by personal bias and subjectivity” I wasn’t making a big “accusation” i just called it how i saw it.

    Its hard to express tone and such through writing but you haven’t irritated me Michael. I still don’t agree with your view on the word “until” regarding Matt 1:25 but I learned a bit about Eastern Orthodoxy so thanks.

  22. Russell says:

    @Michael J – Thank you for answering my earlier question. I understand what you’re saying about the Greek word for “till” in Matthew 1:25, but why would the word “till” be proceeded by “And knew her not” if it wasn’t referencing sexual union? I don’t read Greek so I’m relying on the translators, but in the context of earlier verses what else could that mean?

  23. Michael J says:

    Russell, it seems to me that the whole point of Matthew saying any of that in the first place was simply to let the reader know that it definitely was not Joseph that impregnated Mary (most likely due to people trying to say that it was not God Who impregnated Mary divinely; and thus in their minds Joseph, who she was betrothed to would have been a prime suspect)…this would explain why it would make sense that the English word “until” or “till” used in the translation is actually equivalent to the word “before.” In other words, in no time leading up to the birth of Christ had Mary “known” Joseph, or any man, for that matter. As I said above, it is highly doubtful that Matthew’s discussion was to invite contemplation of Mary and Joseph’s supposed sexual activity. Matthew’s only purpose for making such a statement as he did in Matt. 1:25 was to provide support for the claim that no mortal man, not even the one she was betrothed to, had impregnated her…so that we would understand that What was sewn in Mary’s womb was from the Holy Spirit only. What other reason would he even have to bring it up at all?

    Just an FYI – Though the Gospel of Matthew has come down to us in Greek, some of it may have originally had portions written in Aramaic…it definitely has a Jewish/Hebraic flavor, evident in its Aramaic expressions and forms, and its numerous use of quotations and arguments from the Old Testament. Papias, a 2nd century author, claimed that Matthew wrote the sayings of Christ in Aramaic (the common language of Jews at the time of Christ), and the work was later translated into Greek.

    I hope this is helpful Russell.

  24. Russell says:

    @Michael J.- I wonder why Matthew didn’t just come right out and say Joseph never had marital relations with Mary if that was what he meant. Seems to me even using a word meaning “before” leaves the question open to supposition. That’s somewhat like a 40-year-old virgin saying, “I was a virgin before I turned 21,” when she/he could have just said, “I’m a virgin.

    I definitely appreciate your insights. It’s always good to see things from someone else’s perspective. I learn something new from this website every day! :)

  25. Michael J says:

    I don’t think that is what he meant…that’s the whole point of what I was saying above: his whole reason for even mentioning it at all was to show that at no time leading up to the birth of Jesus had Joseph slept with Mary. I doubt if Matthew ever dreamed that anyone in future generations would use that piece of scripture to make a case that Mary and Joseph started sleeping together after Jesus was born, but obviously alot of people use the scripture to support such claims, rather than just getting out of it what Matthew intended…that the O.T. prophecy about the Messiah being born of a virgin had been fulfilled in the birth of Jesus.

    I’m glad you appreciate my insights. As you have no doubt noticed, there are others on this website that don’t seem to share your sentiments. The funny thing is, I usually never write anything in the commentary sections on blogs. The only other time I did was when Dr. Heiser was on Tom Horn’s radio show, and I had a question for him. I’ve read lots of blogs, of many types, both religious and secular, but this is the first time I’ve felt driven to participate in the dialogue. It’s good to chat with you.

  26. Anonymous says:

    @Michael J – I tend to lean toward the more traditional view, but you made some interesting points which are worthy of consideration. Your conclusions are intriguing.
    Thanks again, Michael. I’ll see you around the website!

    • MSH says:

      The first post is the tip of the iceberg. Eschatology has so many twists and turns — questions that need answers BEFORE you ever get to “prophetic timelines” and “meaning” that it’s, well, a waste of time in my view to commit too much time to it.

  27. Russell says:

    Forgot to include my name above.

  28. Michael J says:

    I appreciate your position, Dr. Heiser…thank you for replying.

  29. Michael Smith says:

    The presuppose that sex is unholy for humans is a form a speculatiion, and speculation brings about the need to argue. I don’t post many comments because I rarely feel the need to argue. However, this being the first time I’ve ever seen this website, not having a website of my own, I suddenly felt the urge sweeping me in as I read the words of schollarly men speaking as though they had already attained and not as mere mortals. I usually begin with the words of Jesus: “woman what have I to do with thee.” What did the created thing have to do with the eternal one? Can God enter the plane of our exisitence in any form by any means? I read that God can do anything, even talk to Himself and answer Himself and be in multiple places at the same time. Should I now have a problem with Jesus having brothers? This is a good time for me to say to any matrix that will observe my mind and read my thoughts that this is a strange universe, a very mystical place, a very long standing illusion. G’day mate, MIke

    • MSH says:

      The point about fornication is *not* that sex is unholy for humans. It is held in very high esteem and desire in the Bible, within marriage (THAT is the point). And yes, God does care where you put your penis. So does human law (ever heard of rape and child molestation?).

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