What Does porneia Mean?

What Does porneia Mean?

The prevailing view that divorce and remarriage is permissible largely depends on the idea that the Greek word porneia in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 means sexual sin in general including adultery. However when we examine its use in the New Testament and its Hebrew equivalent in the Old Testament we find it doesn’t refer to sexual sin in general but to a sexual relationship with or by an unmarried woman. The closest English translation of the word porneia is in fact fornication which was the word used in most English translations up until the early 20th century.

A correct understanding of the meaning of a word from another language is gained through examining the word’s use in its context. What follows is fairly lengthy, but I believe is necessary to gain a true understanding of the word porneia and the exception for divorce in Matthew.

Greek Lexicons

A number of Greek lexicons of recent times give porneia the meaning of sexual sin in general. But some give a specific meaning of unmarried sexual sin or prostitution. Therefore I believe it is best to learn the meaning from its context in scripture.

It’s Use in the New Testament

1. Porneia is a noun based upon another Greek word porne meaning a harlot or prostitute who inevitably was an unmarried woman. Two other Greek words having the same root –  porneuo a verb, and pornos a noun, are used in the New Testament.

2. It is distinct from adultery (Greek: moichiea ) since porneia is listed with other sins including adultery:

For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications (Gk: porneia), thefts, false witness, slanders (Matthew 15:19 and the parallel passage in Mark 7:21).

Matthew uses the word porneia only three times (5:32, 15:19 and 19:9) and each time it occurs with moicheia.  In 15:19 the two words are placed next to each other in a list of sins which proceed out of the heart. Here the two words cannot mean the same thing and meant to convey distinct types of sin (as also in Mark 7:21).

And in two other passages we find the two words ‘fornicators’ (Gk: pornos) and ‘adulterers’ used together (and therefore cannot have the same meaning):

Do not be deceived; neither fornicators (Gk: pornos), nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals … (1 Corinthians 6:9).

Marriage is to be held in honor among all, and the marriage bed is to be undefiled; for fornicators (Gk: pornosand adulterers God will judge.(Hebrews 13:4).

3. Where the context is clear, it refers to sex with a prostitute or an unmarried woman.

In 1 Corinthians 6:15-7:2, Paul uses three words all related to the same sexual sin – porneporneia and porneuo. From the context, Paul is not referring to sexual sin from within marriage but outside:

Now concerning the things about which you wrote, it is good for a man not to touch a woman. But because of immoralities (Gkporneia), each man is to have his own wife, and each woman is to have her own husband (1 Corinthians 7:1-2).

Here marriage is seen as an answer to the temptation of premarital sexual sin, porneia. This has been the understanding of this verse through church history.

In Acts fornication – porneia – is one of a number of sins the Gentile Christians were told to avoid:

But concerning the Gentiles who have believed, we wrote, having decided that they should abstain from meat sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication (Acts 21:25 ).

While here the meaning of porneia is not immediately clear it should be seen this is referring to sex with a prostitute or unmarried woman as this was acceptable in Roman and Greek culture. But adultery – sex with another man’s wife – has always been a moral offence (and in many societies throughout history punishable). This is also the standard in today’s society – where sex between unmarried people is acceptable, but not adultery.

Sexual purity for Christians meant abstaining from porneia – fornication, not just adultery.

4. While adultery is sin against your spouse (Mark 10:11), porneia is said to be sin against your own body (1 Corinthians 6:18). This makes another distinction of the two words. Both sins defile God’s one flesh principle between a man and a woman.

Does porneia have other meanings?

Does porneia include other sexual sins such as adultery, incest, and homosexuality and not be restricted to unmarried sex? The following scriptures are often quoted to support a broader meaning of porneia.

1. As incest (1 Corinthians 5:1): A man has entered into a sexual relationship with his father’s wife. While we don’t know the exact circumstances it is possible the father had died, making her an unmarried woman. However it was still sinful to have a sexual relationship with your father’s wife even if he had died (Leviticus 18:8). Perhaps this is why Paul uses the expression “such fornication” as if there was a greater sin in this case of fornication. Without knowing the exact circumstance we cannot use this one example to say incest is a type of fornication. In the Old Testament incest (a sexual relationship with a close relative) is never described as fornication (Heb: zanah) but rather as wickedness (Heb: zimmah) or confusion (Heb: tebel) i.e. a violation of natural or divine order and in the Greek Septuagint as ‘asebeo‘, meaning ungodly or wicked ( Leviticus 20:12) . Such ‘marriages’ were unlawful and therefore the legal formality of divorce did not apply. It is therefore unlikely porneia (and the Hebrew equivalent zanah) includes incest as Jesus used the word in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9.
2. As homosexuality (Jude 1:7): The inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah were said to have given themselves over to fornication and had gone after strange flesh. This refers to two sins, not one – fornication and the intention of the men of Sodom to have sex with angels. Homosexuality is not specifically mentioned (the Greek word for homosexuality is absent here). While it is true that some at least of the inhabitants of Sodom practised homosexuality we cannot be certain that they were exclusively so. Sodom was destroyed because of its many sins (Ezekiel 16:49,50). Homosexuality has always grown out of a heterosexually corrupt society, like Sodom and Gomorrah, which had first given itself over to fornication (unmarried heterosexual sin). In two other passages of Scripture (1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10) the Greek word for homosexuality (arsenokoites) is listed with the Greek word for fornicator (pornos) as separate sins. Therefore this verse in Jude cannot be taken to mean homosexuality is a type of fornication.

3. As adultery (Proverbs 7:10). An adulterous woman is said to be dressed as a harlot or prostitute (Hebrew zanah). However the verse does not say she is a prostitute.

Conclusion: In the New Testament, in the context of a man-woman relationship, there is no example of porneia being used to denote adultery. Therefore adultery (moicheia) is distinct from and not a type of fornication (porneia), especially where the two words occur together.

Use of porneia by the Early Church Fathers

The Early Church Fathers (such as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Hermas and Theophilus) also understood porneia (fornication) and moicheia (adultery) as being different sins since they are frequently listed together with other sins.

In Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho, the Nativity of Mary and the Gospel of Nicodemus, Mary’s supposed sexual unfaithfulness is referred to as fornication (porneia), not adultery (moicheia ).

The use of porneia by the Early Church Fathers shows they understood that: 1. it was the sexual sin of unmarried people and: 2. it was not synonymous with adultery, the sexual sin of married people. This is consistent with its use in the New Testament.

Heth and Wenham’s book, Jesus and Divorce, gives a detailed analysis of Jesus’ teaching and that of the early Church on divorce.

The Hebrew Equivalent of porneia

It should be noted, that while Matthew wrote his gospel in Greek, he recorded the words of Jesus spoken in Hebrew (or Aramaic). So what would have been the equivalent Hebrew word translated as porneia in Greek? What we discover is significant: there is a Hebrew word which has a direct Greek equivalent to porneia:- the word zanah. This can be seen from Old Testament quotations in the New Testament and from the Septuagint (a Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament from the 3 rd century BC). Searching the Hebrew Old Testament (see next section) we find that zanah, in the context of a man-woman relationship, never means sexual sin generally and certainly not adultery. It either refers to an unmarried woman who engages in sexual intercourse or a woman (who inevitably would also have been unmarried) sells or prostitutes herself for a fee.

Old Testament Hebrew Use of the Equivalent Word To porneia – zanah.

In the Hebrew Old Testament we can see the equivalent words used –zanah (a verb) meaning to commit harlotry or prostitution,zanuwn (a noun) meaning harlotry or prostitution and zanuwth (a noun) meaning a harlot or prostitute. They refer to sexual sin by or with an unmarried woman. For example:

Rahab, the prostitute. Compare Joshua 6 (in Hebrew: zanah) with Hebrews 11:31 and James 2:25 (in Greek: porne).

While Israel remained at Shittim, the people began to play the harlot (zanah) with the daughters of Moab (Numbers 25:1).

Compare this to Revelation 2:14 where porneuo is used to describe the same sin (in this context Israel’s unfaithfulness through idolatry).

Dinah, Jacob’s unmarried daughter, was regarded as being treated like a harlot, in Hebrew zanah (Genesis 34:31).

Your daughters (unmarried) when they play the harlot (zanah) and your brides (married) when they commit adultery (Hosea 4:13-14). In the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament from the 3rd century BC), the Hebrew verb for harlotry zanah is translated into the Greek verb porneuo .
In Deuteronomy 22:13-21 a woman who is found not to be a virgin at the time of marriage was regarded as a prostitute or harlot, having committed fornication, and was to be stoned to death. In the Septuagint the Hebrew verb for harlotry zanah is also translated into the Greek verb porneuo.

There are a number of references in the prophetical books which speak of Israel’s unfaithfulness through idolatry (Hosea 2:2, Jeremiah 3:6-9, Ezekiel 16:28-38 & 23:43-45). Israel is said to have committed both the sin of fornication, porneia (as God’s betrothed virgin) and adultery (as God’s bride) by their worship of idols. Yet the two words have distinct meanings.

Meaning of zanah in contemporary Hebrew

Zanah (התנז) in contemporary Hebrew is translated as ‘prostitution’.

Meaning of porneia in contemporary Greek.

Porneia in contemporary Greek is translated as ‘prostitution, whoredom, harlotry or fornication’.

Translation of porneia in Latin and English Bibles.

1. Latin Vulgate
The Bible was translated into Latin by Jerome (405AD). Where porneia occurs it is consistently translated as ‘fornication’, meaning sex with an unmarried woman or prostitution.

2. English Bibles
English bibles up to the early 20th century consistently translated porneia as fornication or whoredom (that is, harlotry or prostitution). Later Bible translations (especially those post World War 2) are not consistent (and even within the same translation), translating porneia as unchastity, unfaithfulness, sexual immorality, immorality, marital unfaithfulness and fornication.

Meaning of ‘fornication’ in English dictionaries.

Robert Cawdrey (1604): uncleanness between single persons.

Samuel Johnson (1768): concubinage or commerce with an unmarried woman.

Webster (1954) as first definition: illicit sexual intercourse by unmarried persons, male or female.

Oxford Pocket (1969) as first definition: the voluntary sexual intercourse between a man and an unmarried woman.

The English word fornication is derived from the Latin word fornix, meaning a brothel and in its various forms means sexual intercourse with an unmarried woman (whether for pleasure or profit). Its meaning is consistent with the Greek word porne and the Old Testament Hebrew word zanah – a harlot or prostitute.


In the context of a man-woman relationship, porneia in the New Testament and the equivalent word zanah or zanuwn in the Old Testament, refer to sexual intercourse with or by an unmarried woman or a prostitute. Whether it was for profit or pleasure is not the issue. While these words are also used metaphorically for idolatry and the unfaithfulness of God’s people, it is their use in the context of a man-woman relationship that is relevant to understanding the exception in Matthew’s gospel: where a woman, who is betrothed, has had sexual intercourse with another man prior to marriage. These words are consistently distinguished from adultery (Gk: moicheia) – sexual intercourse with a married woman (other than your wife).

We should note here that it is the marital status of the woman, not the man, which determines whether fornication or adultery has been committed. If a man, single or married has sex with an unmarried woman it is fornication, but with a married woman it is adultery.

The translation of porneia in contemporary Greek and zanah in Hebrew also bear the same meaning. Their translation as ‘fornication’ in Latin and English Bibles (up to the early 20th century) is also consistent with this meaning.

In other Greek literature porneia is sometimes used in the context of adultery, but this should not be the basis of deciding its meaning in the New Testament and in particular as Jesus used it (that is, zanah – the Hebrew equivalent of porneia).

There is no clear example of porneia in the Greek New Testament or its Hebrew equivalent, zanah, in the Old Testament meaning adultery or sexual sin in general. Therefore the prevalent teaching that adultery or other sexual sin after marriage justifies divorce and remarriage is an assumption, not a clear Biblical teaching.

Even if it is believed this exception refers to sexual sin in general we are still faced with the fact Jesus said whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery, irrespective of her guilt or innocence. Why? Because a man who marries a divorced woman becomes a participant (though not intentionally) in adultery (Matthew 5:32 and Luke 16:18).

This was also the understanding of the early church of the first four centuries which taught that separation was permissible in certain circumstances, but marriage to another was not while the former partner was still alive (William Heth and Gordon Wenham’s book, Jesus and Divorce, gives a detailed analysis of Jesus’ teaching and that of the early Church on divorce).

The debate about divorce and the exception for porneia should never depend solely on the meaning of one word. There are other fundamental reasons why there is no ‘right’ to divorce and remarry under the New Covenant. These are based on the basic principles of love and faithfulness that Jesus and Paul taught (as I have described in Part 1 – The Best Way There are, however, two other commonly proposed grounds for divorce and subsequent remarriage – desertion and abuse.

Next: Divorce For Desertion or Abuse?