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What is “Porneia” (Fornication)?

by Dr. Eitan Bar
3 minutes read

I say unto you, that every one that putteth away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication (porneia)…

Notice that the cause cited in Matthew 5:32 is not ‘adultery’ but rather ‘fornication,’ sometimes translated as “sexual immorality.” Both ‘adultery’ and ‘fornication’ are used in the verse, but they are distinct terms with different meanings. The Greek word for ‘fornication’ is ‘porneia,’ while the word for ‘adultery’ is ‘moicheia.’ These are not interchangeable terms. Fornication does not equal to adultery.1

What is Fornication?

The word “fornication” is used in the Scriptures to mean several different things…A figurative use of the word “fornication” appears in both the OT and NT. Originating in descriptions of Israel and the church as the Lord’s wife or the bride, apostasy from God and idolatry are called fornication (see, e.g., Jer 2. Rv 14:8; 17:2, 4; 18:3; 19:2).

Baker Encyclopedia

This word is more frequently used in a symbolical than in its ordinary sense. It frequently means a forsaking of God or a following after idols (Isa. 1:2; Jer. 2:20; Ezek. 16; Hos. 1:2; 2:1–5; Jer. 3:8, 9).

Illustrated Bible Dictionary

The most frequent uses of the word “fornication” in the Bible refer to idolatry and prostitution, but the term is not limited to these contexts. Paul uses “fornication” to describe another forbidden sexual union, incest, first described in Leviticus 18:6-8. In 1 Corinthians, Paul writes:

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 Cor. 5:1 KJV)

In Hebrews 12:16, Esau is described as a “fornicator” because, in Genesis 26:34, Esau took Hittite women. In Jeremiah 3 and Ezekiel 16, we find examples of Israel committing fornication by worshiping other gods—idolatry.

While some interpret fornication concerning adultery, it might be more accurate to understand the term as referring to ‘forbidden unions.’ A father sleeping with his daughter like Lot did (Genesis 19:30-38) or a bother sleeping with his sister, these forbidden unions are considered fornication (Leviticus 18:9).

In other words, whether sexual or not, fornication is an illegitimate/unrecognized/forbidden union in the eyes of God. In the context of divorce, illegitimate marriages require no bill of divorce since these unions are not recognized or considered lawful in the first place.

Suppose Elizabeth Hoad, the woman who married her Golden Retriever in 2019, decides to divorce it. In that case, no court of law will issue her a certificate of divorce, as a union between a human and a dog isn’t recognized as legitimate in the first place. Likewise, if one marries his own daughter, it is also considered fornication, and there is no need for a bill of divorce to be given as their marriage isn’t recognized to begin with. This was often true in cases of Israelite men marrying gentile women. Therefore, one can put away one’s spouse without a legal divorce certificate in cases of fornication—unions that the Law does not recognize.

In other words, Jesus was simply refining and clarifying the commands of the Law: that it is permitted to ‘put away’ without providing a formal writ only in the case of fornication—unrecognized unions! Requiring a legal divorce would be akin to acknowledging that the illegitimate/unrecognized/forbidden union was legitimate, which is something considered unlawful according to the Law.

This article was a summary/excerpt from my new micro-book. To continue reading:
Christian and Divorce: What the Bible REALLY Says About Divorce & Remarriage

  1. In Galatians 5:19 and Mark 7:21, both the words “adultery” and “fornication” are used in the same verse as well, also as distinct terms. ↩︎

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Dr. Eitan Bar
Author, Theologian, Activist