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I'm interested in this question because some liberal theologians insist that the Bible does not say anything about premarital sex*. To get a reasonable scope for the question, I limit this to just the 5 instances in 1 Corinthians, out of in total 26 instances of πορνεία in the New Testament.

These four verses seem like they could indeed mean premarital sex; however, I don't have any proof that would withstand scrutiny.

1 Corinthians 5:1 (KJV)
It is reported commonly that there is fornication among you, and such fornication as is not so much as named among the Gentiles, that one should have his father's wife.

1 Corinthians 6:13 (KJV)
Meats for the belly, and the belly for meats: but God shall destroy both it and them. Now the body is not for fornication, but for the Lord; and the Lord for the body.

1 Corinthians 6:18 (KJV)
Flee fornication. Every sin that a man doeth is without the body; but he that committeth fornication sinneth against his own body.

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

The King James Bible translates these as fornication (as it also does πορνεύω in 6:18, which is a different word). Don't get tangled up with the meaning of fornication; the question is about the original Greek word.

So, what does Paul mean with his use of πορνεία in these passages? Quite obviously it's some sort of sexual immorality, but does the intended meaning include premarital sex? Or is it reasonable to claim that it only means other kinds of sexual immorality?

*Which I think it does, let that be known. I'm not the one trying to justify premarital sex. I want to find a well-grounded argument against these claims.

The question is a refocused version of my earlier question on Christianity.SE: Is premarital sex πορνεία (porneia)? That question also includes links to two academic papers (1, 2) that might be relevant if someone can get hold of them and understand the arguments they make.

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Are you asking if premarital sex is included in the range of intended meanings? Or if the range is limited to premarital sex? It sounds like your asking the latter, but I would guess that you mean to ask the former. – Ray Oct 14 '11 at 18:21
@Ray yes, I do mean if premarital sex is included in the intended meaning. I'll try to clarify but others are free to edit if it's still ambiguous. – dancek Oct 14 '11 at 18:52
Thanks for the clarification. – Ray Oct 14 '11 at 19:11

The word πορνεία is a difficult one to translate because it covers a wide range of sexual immorality. It has to be interpreted in context. Of the examples that you provide, 1 Corinthians 7:2 yields the strongest argument that pre-marital sex is included in Paul's use of the word πορνεία.

1 Corinthians 5:1 gives us a good example of the importance of context. There Paul says there is πορνεία among them of a kind reprehensible to even the pagans. In other words, since there are kinds of πορνεία, we have to look at the word in context. In this case, a man has his father's wife, which doesn't quite fit the definition of pre-marital sex but seems rather to deal with incest.

In 1 Corinthians 6:13, the context provides two possible meanings for πορνεία: either 1) it could be referring to visiting prostitutes or 2) it could mean sexual immorality in general. The key verse to consider in terms of context is verse 15: "Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never!" (NIV) Clearly Paul links prostitution back to πορνεία in verse 13, which you mention. It could be that Paul is addressing specifically the visits to shrine prostitutes (as would have been common in Corinth), or it could be that Paul is using that as an example of the way πορνεία in general is offensive. Either way, though, it doesn't invoke the idea of pre-marital sex.

6:18 is a continuation of the context above. Either Paul is telling the Corinthians to flee this particular form of πορνεία (visiting prostitutes) or he is telling them to flee all kinds of πορνεία.

The last verse to consider, though, is 7:2. On the one hand, the use of πορνεία there could be referring back to chapter 6. In other words, Paul might be encouraging his readers to marry so that they won't be as enticed to visit these prostitutes. However, another verse to consider would be 7:36. There Paul is concerned for the people who are engaged to a young woman. There is some difficulty with the translation, but one possible interpretation is that the passions of some of the men are becoming too strong, so Paul counsels that they should marry if they feel so compelled. If this is the case (and also compare 7:9), then it could be that in 7:2 Paul is counseling the believers to marry before they lose control of their passions, in which case πορνεία would explicitly include pre-marital sex.

While the use of πορνεία in 1 Corinthians 7:2 may or may not be explicitly connected to pre-marital sex, the verse does imply that it is immoral. As Ciampa and Rosner explain in their commentary (PNTC):

Fundamentally, in the Bible there are only two types of sex: sex within marriage and sexual immorality, porneia. 1 Corinthians 7:2 makes it inescapably clear that while there may be a number of types of the latter, the only valid alternative to them is the former.

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The translation of porneia, et al. as fornication in the KJV and sexual immorality in the NIV, is confusing. On the one hand, porneia seems to mean "harlotry" while in the New Testament it is rendered "sexual immorality." The second case i find to be very vague. It seems to be an example of "painting the target around the arrow": where "sexual immorality" as an accepted doctrine includes pre-marital sex based upon that doctrine (as in the case of the doctrine of baptism by sprinkling being the accepted doctrine although it's original meaning is immersion), it is clearly circular reasoning. It is also interesting to note that in the KJV, the definition for fornication is, "harlotry (including adultery and incest); figuratively, idolatry:--fornication" (Strong's), while in the updated version of Strong's, it means, "illicit sexual intercourse adultery, fornication, homosexuality, lesbianism, intercourse with animals etc.; sexual intercourse with close relatives; sexual intercourse with a divorced man or woman; metaph. the worship of idols of the defilement of idolatry, as incurred by eating the sacrifices offered to idols". This is just a reiteration of Church doctrine, not the original meaning of the word.

Finally, Leviticus 18:7-23 is the law of sexual sin, and it does not include either masturbation or pre-marital sex. Did Jesus, in the case of Matthew 5:28, intend to establish a new law, or did He mean to indict the Jewish men for breaking their marriage covenants, explaining the seventh commandment by way of the tenth?

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I disagree with the part of your answer about premarital sex because if you look at Deuteronomy 22:13-21, if a man married a woman and found her to not be a virgin (i.e. she had sex with someone else before getting married), that was a crime guilty of capital punishment. The part I don't disagree with is I think the case for masturbation not being prohibited (as long as it's not done with lusting after someone or to avoid some sort of God-given obligation as in the case of Onan), is strong. – g491 Aug 6 '15 at 15:38

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