I’ll admit up front that I never thought I’d post on this subject, but it was brought to mind recently by a request I had via email to comment on the meaning of “fornication” (Greek: porneia). The question was put in the context of how some Christians have gotten the notion that there is no New Testament teaching that forbids premarital sex. The word porneia, so the supposition goes, doesn’t mean sex before marriage–that there is no biblical proof of that prohibition.

I’ve heard this before and don’t really know where it comes from. On an academic level, there is a debate as to the precise meaning of porneia, but I don’t recall any credible scholar saying it cannot mean premarital sex in certain passages.  Usually the debate is over what *kind* of sexual activity might be in view.

At any rate, I thought I’d share part of my response. In a nutshell, the notion that porneia doesn’t refer to premarital sex is just wrong. It may not *always* mean that, but it certainly can mean that (context dictating if that’s the case).

I think John 8:41 is a pretty clear text in this regard:

They said to him, ?“We were not born of sexual immorality [Greek: porneia; KJV: “fornication”]. We have one Father—even God.”

If you read the context of this passage, verse 41is an accusation levied at Jesus by the Pharisees. What do they mean by tarnishing Jesus this way? They are charging that he was the out-of-wedlock child of Mary and Joseph. It isn’t hard to see why they’d do this. Matthew 1:18-25 clearly tells us that Jesus was not Joseph’s child, and that Joseph found Mary pregnant before he and Mary had been married (they were only betrothed, engaged). Joseph stayed with Mary for the duration of her pregnancy, even though people knew they were only betrothed. No doubt they were ridiculed and held in contempt. Matt 1:25 also clearly tells us that Joseph had no sexual relations with Mary until after the birth of Jesus — which would also be time enough for the traditional betrothal period to have elapsed. The charge that Jesus was the child of “fornication” (porneia) very clearly tells us that porneia refers to sexual intercourse before marriage. That was the whole point of the Pharisee’s jibe:  Jesus was illicit because Joseph and Mary had a sexual relationship before it was proper.

There’s a lot more that could be said on this (apparently new) Christian myth, but I’ll leave it here.