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.

  • 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
  • @dancek - A.) I am really very interested in this question, and have quite a bit of research in this direction; B.) So if it is okay - I would like to suggest an edit that might solicit a more thorough answer... C.) Proposing a revision: "... What is the Basis in Scripture or Literary Greek to Associate πορνεία (porneia) with Pre-Marital Sex?" – elika kohen Aug 8 '16 at 20:29
  • @elikakohen I don't think changing the main question at this point makes sense, as the question is specific enough and quite old, with multiple existing answers and a lot of views. Perhaps you can either adapt an answer to the question as it is, or ask the different version of the question separately and answer it yourself? – dancek Aug 9 '16 at 9:51
  • I decided not to take any action on the suggested edit, however. Certainly there are possible structural enhancements to my question text. I wouldn't accept the edit as-is, and I don't have the time to improve on it. Perhaps someone else does? – dancek Aug 9 '16 at 9:54

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.

  • This answer does not tackle other acts despised by the Gentiles, and therefore invalid. Specifically, pedophilia, bestiality, etc. One would have to do a very thorough search of Greek classical literature to suggest that readers, at that time, would have made the inference that this was a reference to premarital sex. – elika kohen Apr 11 '19 at 21:57

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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    @g491 Indeed, Deuteronomy 22 makes the point pretty clearly. Looking further at verses 22-29, there is only one case out of 4 cases of extramarital sex that is not punishable by death. v22: Sex between a man & someone else's wife = Death for both; v23-24: Consensual sex between a man & someone else's fiance = Death for both; 25-27: Rape of engaged woman = Death for man; v28-29 Sex with single (unattached) woman = MAN MUST MARRY HER. So the only allowance for premarital sex of any kind is a mandatory shotgun wedding afterwards, with no possibility of divorce. – Solocutor Aug 5 '16 at 15:20
  • @Solocutor I created an account on this site just to upvote your comment – forresthopkinsa Feb 11 '18 at 1:21

While it is always critical to examine primary sources, references such as BDAG (cited in this post) can make short work of identifying the semantic domain of words. Glosses in this lexicon are backed up by examples from the time, identify the way prepositions are used, etc. Ooooh that it were available to consult online. I have an online version that works in conjunction with Logos software but it is, of course also available as a codex.

Now, this word is an example where it is frequently misunderstood because of people using etymology rather than pondering extant usages. Often it gets you to the same place but just as often sends one into the weeds.

Etymology and cognates do often tell us things about the words when used in conjunction with a lexicon. I personally find etymology is often useful to me as a memory aid. Because there are closely related cognates I'm providing not only the entry for the word in question but several of the cognates that I find relevant and/or easily confused with the word we're considering in this question:

πορνεία, ας, ἡ (of various kinds of ‘unsanctioned sexual intercourse’: Demosth. et al.; LXX, En, Test12Patr; GrBar [in vice lists]; AscIs, Philo, apolog. exc. Ar. W. φθορά Iren. 1, 28, 1 [Harv. I 220, 14]) ① unlawful sexual intercourse, prostitution, unchastity, fornication, 1 Cor 5:1ab (CdeVos, NTS 44, ’98, 104–14); 6:13 (on 1 Cor 5–6 s. PTomson, Paul and the Jewish Law: CRINT III/1, ’90, 97–102); Hm 4, 1,
1. In a vice list (cp. AscIs 2:5) Ro 1:29 v.l. W. ἀκαθαρσία 2 Cor 12:21; Gal 5:19; Eph 5:3; Col 3:5. Differentiated fr. μοιχεία (Philo, Mos. 1, 300; s. also πορνεύω 1) Mt 15:19; Mk 7:21 (WGabriel, Was ist ‘porneia’ im Sprachgebr. Jesu?: Ethik 7, ’31, 106–9; 363–69); Hm 8:3; D 5:1 (the pl. denotes individual acts). On the other hand μοιχεία appears as πορνεία (cp. Sir 23:23) Hm 4, 1, 5. Of the sexual unfaithfulness of a married woman Mt 5:32; 19:9 (for the view that ref. is made in these pass. to forbidden degrees of marriage, s. 2 below.—JSickenberger, TQ 123, ’42, 189–206, ZNW 42, ’49, 202ff; KStaab [παρεκτός 2]; AAllgeier, Angelicum 20, ’43, 128–42. Cp. AFridrichsen, SEÅ 9, ’44, 54–58; AIsaksson, Marriage and Ministry in the New Temple, ’65, 127–42 [lit.]; s. also JFitzmyer, TS 37, 76, 197–226). Caused by lust D 3:3. διὰ τὰς πορνείας 1 Cor 7:2 (the pl. points out the various factors that may bring about sexual immorality; PTomson [s. above] 103–8). BMalina, Does Porneia Mean ‘Fornication’? NovT 14, ’72, 10–17. φεύγειν τὴν π. 6:18. Also ἀπέχεσθαι ἀπὸ τῆς π. 1 Th 4:3 (cp. Tobit 4:12). ἐκ π. γεννηθῆναι be an illegitimate child, a bastard (cp. Cephalion [II A.D.]: 93 Fgm. 5 p. 444, 5 Jac. ἐγέννησε ἐκ πορ.; Gen 38:24) J 8:41. On ἀπέχεσθαι τῆς πορνείας καὶ πνικτοῦ Ac 15:20 (cp. vs. 29; 21:25 and s. 2 below) s. the lit. s.v. πνικτός and in BBacon, The Apost. Decree against πορνεία: Exp. 8th ser., 7, 1914, 40–61. ② participation in prohibited degrees of marriage, fornication (s. Lev. 18:16–18; cp. Acts 15:20–29, s. Bruce, comm. Ac; 21:25) Mt 5:32; 19:9 (w. some favor RSmith, Matthew [Augsburg] ’89,100; RGundry, Matthew ’82, 91: “no need to adopt obscure definitions of πορνείας, such as marriage within the forbidden degrees. … The specific word for adultery does not appear in the exceptive phrase simply because a general expression occurs in Deuteronomy” [24:1], but s. BWitherington, NTS 31, ’85, 571–76: ‘except in the case of incest’. On these pass. s. 1.). ③ immorality of a transcendent nature, fornication, in imagery, of polytheistic cult in the mystic city Babylon, which appears in Rv as a prostitute with an international clientele. Fr. the time of Hosea the relationship betw. God and his people was regarded as a marriage bond. This usage was more easily understandable because some Semitic and Graeco-Roman cults were at times connected w. sexual debauchery (cp. Hos 6:10; Jer 3:2, 9; 4 Km 9:22; on the positive side, for concern about propriety on the part of some cults s. e.g. SIG 820 [83/84 A.D.], in which an Ephesian official assures Rome that the annual autumn fertility festival is conducted ‘with much chastity and due observance of established customs’. This level of conduct prob. stands up well against activities associated with celebration of a modern Mardi Gras.) Rv 19:2. μετανοῆσαι ἐκ τῆς π. αὐτῆς repent of her immorality 2:21; cp. 9:21. ὁ οἶνος τοῦ θυμοῦ τῆς π. the wine of her passionate immorality 14:8; 18:3 (on these passages s. θυμός 1 and 2). ὁ οἶνος τῆς π. 17:2. τὰ ἀκάθαρτα τῆς π. vs. 4 (ἀκάθαρτος 2).—V.l. for πονηρίας Hv 1, 1, 8 (Leutzsch, Hermas 447 n. 53). S. next entry 2.—DELG s.v. πέρνημι. M-M. EDNT.   πορνεύω fut. πορνεύσω; 1 aor. ἐπόρνευσα; pf. 3 pl. πεπορνεύκασιν Ezk 16:34 (Hdt. et al.; LXX, En; TestAbr A 10 p. 88, 8 [Stone p. 24]; Test12Patr; Ar. 15, 4; Just.; Tat. 34, 3) of a variety of ‘unsanctioned sexual intercourse’. ① to engage in sexual immorality, engage in illicit sex, to fornicate, to whore, in Gk. lit. freq. in ref. to prostitution (s. L-S-J-M s.v.). In a gener. sense 1 Cor 10:8ab. Distinguished fr. μοιχεύειν ‘commit adultery’ (Did., Job 133, 22ff [quote fr. Hos 4:14], 25ff); D 2:2; B 19:4; Mk 10:19 v.l. Regarded as a sin against one’s own body 1 Cor 6:18. W. φαγεῖν εἰδωλόθυτα ‘eat meat offered to idols’ Rv 2:14, 20. ② engagement in polytheistic cult, fornication, in imagery (Phalaris, Ep. 121, 1), of polytheistic cult in the sense ‘practice image-worship/idolatry’ (πορνεία 3 and cp. Hos 9:1; Jer 3:6; Ezk 23:19; 1 Ch 5:25; Ps 72:27; En 8:2) Rv 17:2; 18:3, 9.—DELG s.v. πέρνημι. M-M. TW.   πόρνη, ης, ἡ (cp. πέρνημι ‘export for sale’ [s. Schwyzer I 362] as of captive women exported for slavery Hom. et al.) (Alcaeus, Hipponax; Aristoph., and X., Mem. 1, 5, 4; PSI 352, 4 [254/253 B.C.]; POxy 528, 18 [II A.D.]; BGU 1024 VI, 4; LXX; PsSol 2:11; TestLevi 14:5, 6; Philo, Just.; Tat. 34, 2; loanw. in rabb.) ‘prostitute’. ① one engaged in sexual relations for hire, prostitute, whore lit. (since Alcaeus 109 + 110, 26 D.2 [115 Fgm. 3b 26 L-P.]) Lk 15:30 (cp. Pr 29:3; Test Levi 14:5 μετὰ πορνῶν); 1 Cor 6:15. Of Rahab (Josh 2:1; 6:17, 23, 25) Hb 11:31; Js 2:25; 1 Cl 12:1 (a πόρνη rewarded for a rescue also in Neanthes [200 B.C.]: 84 Fgm. 9 Jac.). W. tax-collectors as the lowest class of people, morally speaking Mt 21:31f. W. female flutists Ox 36. κολλᾶσθαι τῇ π. have to do with a prostitute (Sir 19:2) 1 Cor 6:16. ② a political entity hostile to God, prostitute, whore, fig. ext. of 1 (s. πορνεία and πορνεύω; Is 1:21; 23:15f; Jer 3:3; Ezk 16:30f, 35) as the designation of a government that is hostile to God and God’s people Rv 17:15f. ἡ πόρνη ἡ μεγάλη vs. 1; 19:2. Βαβυλὼν (q.v.) ἡ μεγάλη ἡ μήτηρ τῶν πορνῶν 17:5 (unless masc. πόρνων is to be read, s. next entry).—For the woman sitting on the beast cp. Cebes 5, 1, a beautifully adorned woman sitting on a throne. She is called Ἀπάτη, ἡ ἐν τῇ χειρὶ ἔχει ποτήριόν τι, from which she gives men to drink (ποτίζει Cebes 5, 2 as Rv 14:8), in order to lead them astray (πλανάω as Rv 18:23).—B. 1368. RAC III 1149–1212. DELG s.v. πέρνημι. M-M. EDNT. TW.   p 855    πόρνος, ου, ὁ (cp. πόρνη; Aristoph., X.+ in the sense ‘male whore/prostitute’ and related terms; Sir 23:17; Philo, Leg. All. 8; Just.; Tat. 34, 3) ① one who practices sexual immorality, fornicator 1 Cor 5:9, 11; Hb 12:16; Rv 17:5, if accented as masc. (in N.27 as fem.; s. app. in Tdf. and early edd. of Nestle incl. 25th ed), but s. also 2. οἱ π. τοῦ κόσμου τούτου the (sexually) immoral persons in this world 1 Cor 5:10. W. other sinners Eph 5:5; 1 Ti 1:10; Rv 21:8; 22:15. Differentiated fr. an adulterer 1 Cor 6:9; Hb 13:4. Excluded fr. the Reign of God, w. others guilty of grave sins 1 Cor 6:9 (=Pol 5:3). ② a political entity hostile to God, fornicator, fig. ext. of 1: ἡ μητὴρ τῶν πόρνων mother of fornicators Rv 17:5 v.l., s.
1.—RBorger TRu 52, ’87, 48–50.—DELG s.v. πέρνημι. M-M. EDNT. TW.

Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., & Bauer, W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed., pp. 854–855). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

As the lexicon glosses and examples show for the word in question and its cognates the word was not limited to any particular kind of sexual [mis]conduct.

Getting back to the OP, what isn't clear to me is whether casual sex among consenting adults where the woman does not belong to someone already is being forbidden. The Torah, in Exodus 20:14 says not to commit "adultery". In the LXX that word is μοιχεύω G3431 not πορνεία. The two words appear in a list of vices together:

Mat 15:19 For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies:

So this suggests that the Torah limited its prohibition to violating a husband's exclusive rights over a woman. She belongs to a man already and that man's rights must be respected.

Conversely, not much is made of prostitution in the Torah, though one is not to suffer their own daughter to be one:

Jdg 16:1 Then went Samson to Gaza, and saw there an harlot, and went in unto her.

Lev_19:29 Do not prostitute thy daughter, to cause her to be a whore; lest the land fall to whoredom, and the land become full of wickedness.

When it comes time to marry though they want a virgin:

Lev_21:14 A widow, or a divorced woman, or profane, or an harlot, these shall he not take: but he shall take a virgin of his own people to wife.

Deu 22:15 "Then the father of the young lady, along with her mother, is to bring evidence of the young lady's virginity to the elders at the gate. Deu 22:16 The father of the young lady is to then say to the elders: 'I have given my daughter to this man as a wife, but he despises her. Deu 22:17 Now look, he has invented charges against her by saying, "I haven't found your daughter to be a virgin." But here is the proof of my daughter's virginity.' Then they are to spread the cloth before the elders of the city. Deu 22:18 "The elders of that city will then take the man, punish him, Deu 22:19 fine him 100 shekels of silver, and then give them to the young lady's father, because he had defamed a virgin of Israel. She is to remain his wife and he can't divorce her as long as he lives. Deu 22:20 But if this charge is true, and the evidence of the young lady's virginity weren't found, Deu 22:21 they are to bring her to the door of her father's house. Then the men of the city shall stone her with boulders until she dies for doing a detestable thing in Israel—acting like a prostitute while in her father's house. By doing this, you will remove this evil from among you.

There is no such test for men.

Deuteronomy contains many acts considered deviant and forbidden but never simply says straight copulation is forbidden. In fact, King Solomon is the subject of an adoring paean celebrating his sexual prowess with an unmarried woman.

Polygamy is completely condoned by Moses and by Paul.

Paul upholds Torah but does he say that premarital sex is forbidden? It may be inferred that Paul believed that people became "one flesh" through the sex act:

1Co 6:15 You know that your bodies belong to the Messiah, don't you? Should I take what belongs to the Messiah and unite them with a prostitute? Certainly not! 1Co 6:16 You know that the person who unites himself with a prostitute becomes one body with her, don't you? For it is said, "The two will become one flesh."

So if that is the case then to copulate is to marry. In his view then it appears that "legitimate sex outside of marriage" is a bit of a non-thing.


I just found this which may suggest that Paul would not have considered copulation to effect marriage: https://judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/17039/does-casual-sex-establish-a-marriage

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    (Side note: Leviticus 21:14 refers specifically to the priesthood. Those requirements are much more stringent than the general public. A priest could marry a virgin or the widow of another priest [at least according to Ezekiel 44:22].) I agree with the point that sex and marriage are basically the same thing. Deuteronomy 22 (especially verses 28 and 29) strongly imply that the two aren't to be separated. – Solocutor Aug 5 '16 at 15:29
  • @Solocutor Lev 22:28 and 29 don't seem to be the verses you intended to refer to. – user10231 Aug 5 '16 at 15:31
  • Deuteronomy, sorry. I've edited the comment. – Solocutor Aug 5 '16 at 15:33
  • @Solocutor Hmm... I see your point but I think the specifics of that case don't necessarily translate into a more general precept. For example, she was a daughter of Israel and her father paid the bride price. – user10231 Aug 5 '16 at 15:36
  • "Polygamy is completely condoned by Moses and by Paul." References for the latter, please? – Dɑvïd Aug 5 '16 at 15:53

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