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Sexual Immorality (Word Study)


In 1964 US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart noted that, while he could not define pornography, “I know it when I see it” (Jacobellis v. Ohio). Something similar seems to be at play in Jewish and Christian uses of the Greek word from which the English word pornography is derived. In these ancient sources the sin of porneia is basically “sex which you should not be having.” The exact sexual behavior that is covered by the term, however, is often left unspecified.

How Should Porneia Be Translated?

In non-Jewish and non-Christian ancient Greek sources, the translation of the word porneia is fairly straightforward. The term typically refers to sex purchased in a commercial transaction. Since it typically denotes sex work, translators often simply translate it as “prostitution.” The one who engages in the commercial act of porneia is either a pornē (female sex worker) or pornos (male sex worker).

However, when we move into Jewish and Christian textual traditions, the sematic meaning of porneia expands considerably. In Second Temple Judaism and nascent Christianity, the term comes to stand in for a whole range of sexual behaviors that the speaker/writer(s) views as objectionable. Such objectionable sex acts do include, of course, commercial sex work, but that particular profession does not exhaust the semantic range of the term. Any problematic sexual activity (and in many of our sources, that would be most sexual activity) can be rhetorically labelled as porneia in Jewish and Christian texts. Even the sexual sin of adultery, which has its own vocabulary (moicheia), can be described as porneia. Sir 23:17, for instance, uses both terms: a woman who leaves her husband is described as “having committed adultery through porneia.” The word seems, in places, to be purposely vague—perhaps the better to keep an intended audience on their toes.

The KJV translation often uses the word “fornication” to cover the widest possible range of sexual sins denoted by porneia. The NRSVue (like the NRSV before it) updates the archaic term to a descriptive phrase and usually renders porneia as “sexual immorality.” This seems like the best course of action in most cases. The phrase indicates sexual behavior that the speaker/writer(s) views negatively but leaves exactly what that sexual behavior is unstated.

Adding to the difficulties in translation is the fact that porneia can be used literally or metaphorically. In many instances, the term refers to actual (albeit often imagined) sex acts (e.g., Matt 5:32; 1Thess 4:3; 1Cor 6:13; Rev 9:21). But in other places it is used symbolically. For instance, drawing on imagery found in the Prophets (e.g., Ezek 16, Ezek 23), the author of Revelation uses porneia to describe religious infidelity with images of sexual unfaithfulness. The biggest questions of appropriate translation arise in these latter cases. However, since Revelation often critiques the economic structures of empire (see, e.g., Rev 18), the NRSVue correctly translates porneia in certain contexts as “prostitution” instead of “sexual immorality.” A final issue emerges in places like Rev 17:1 and Rev 19:2, where the NRSVue describes Babylon the Great as “the great whore.” Here, the translation replicates the older KJV translation. However, given how NRSVue generally translates porneia in this part of Revelation, this figure probably ought to be translated as “the great prostitute” (pornē). This is especially the case in Rev 19:2, which NRSVue renders, “for his judgment is true and just; he has judged the great whore [pornē] who corrupted the earth with her prostitution [porneia].” While a more restricted translation of the term pornē, the English word “prostitute” (with its attendant meaning rooted in commerce) seems to reflect the Greek better in this context than the ambiguous slur of “whore.”  

  • Robert von Thaden

    Robert H. von Thaden Jr. is associate professor of religious studies at Mercyhurst University. He is the author of Sex, Christ, and Embodied Cognition: Paul’s Wisdom for Corinth (Blandford Forum, UK: Deo, 2012; repr. Atlanta: SBL Press, 2017) and coeditor of Foundations for Sociorhetorical Exploration: A Rhetoric of Religious Antiquity Reader (Atlanta: SBL Press, 2016), with Vernon K. Robbins and Bart B. Bruehler.