Monday, August 7, 2017

Marriage and Divorce in the New Testament Part II: Matthew's Use of Porneia

Three Possible Interpretations of Porneia

As noted before, the crux of the exception clause is found in the word porneia. It is often assumed to refer to adultery, but all scholars agree that it has a broader meaning than this. Most acknowledge that the term refers to all sorts of sexual immorality, including adultery. The problem is determining what the Bible considers sexual immorality, and how it relates to this passage. In other words, not only do we have to discover to what the term refers, but we also then need to understand if the word is all-inclusive (i.e., whether it refers to any instance of what could possibly be considered porneia) or whether it specifically refers to one element of porneia (i.e., an instance of adultery as opposed to something more habitual like prostitution, etc.). Adding wood to the fire is the fact that we must also ask whether the exception is due to the illegitimacy of the marriage in God’s eyes in the first place (e.g., an incestuous marriage),, or whether the marriage itself is legitimate, but the exception clause allows to dissolve a legitimate marriage due to the breaking of the covenant by some sexually immoral act or practice.

But first, we should seek to answer the first question. What is porneia? What we should really ask is “What does a conservative Second Temple Jewish person mean when he uses the term porneia?”

The idea in our modern context, of course, is that the term refers to sex outside of marriage. Hence, one cannot commit sexual immorality within marriage. I think the modern definition is held out of convenience by evangelicals more than having  anything to do with exegesis; but it may be also due to the fact that the term often referred to prostitution that has brought the modern evangelical scholar to believe that it means "sex outside of marriage."

So what has complicated the matter is the fact that the term in secular culture (i.e., among the Gentiles) at the time of the New Testament referred to prostitution ( whether heterosexual or homosexual). Hence, most evangelicals will appeal to these secular uses to justify the modern understanding of the word as "sex outside of marriage." However, it will become clear that the NT uses the word to refer to the Second Temple Jewish view of sexual immorality founded upon Leviticus 18, which is an expanded meaning of the word. This doesn't mean that it does not retain the term's original use, but when it uses the particular term porneia, it most often refers to what Second Temple Judaism described as unproductive sexual acts, whether within or outside of marriage. In other words, whether one was married to the person with whom the sex act was being practiced had nothing to do with whether a sexual act was considered sexually immoral. The reason for this is found below.

The first thing we need to understand about Second Temple Judaism (STJ), from which the NT gains its idea of the concept, is how it viewed sexuality in its use of the term. STJ got its definition, of course, from two main texts within the Bible.

 The first text is Genesis 1:28. It believed that the sexual act was primarily (not solely) given by God to procreate human life within the context of a male-female relationship. Hence, the good use of sex was between a male and female who came together in order to bear the fruit of children (i.e., this is their role as the image of God: to be life-bearers). A purposeful engagement in a sexual act that was not in accordance with God's purpose with the reason His image bearers were to come together in sex was viewed as an immoral use of the sexual act (i.e., sexual immorality). Hence, what was sexually moral was that found in Genesis 1:28. What was sexually immoral was an act that was not of the nature of Genesis 1:28, but rather it's opposite (i.e., death/non-existence of human life rather than the producing of human life was the result of the sexually immoral act). Hence, the author gives examples of right (Adam and Eve having a son together with YHWH, the line of Seth described as "having other sons and daughters" as opposed to just one needed heir, God's reiteration of the creation mandate with Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, etc.) and wrong (Ham's incest, the homosexuality of the men of Sodom, Onan's sin, etc.) uses of the sexual act throughout the book.

The second text that was used to display this, and is mainly the descriptive text for the term porneia in many STJ texts, is Leviticus 18. The chapter is a closed pericope, a self-contained unit, that has a central theme throughout. And that theme has to do with the sexual act in terms of how it may negatively affect the lives of children. Engaging in a sexual act in disregard of the children who may have been produced by that act is viewed as an abomination to God for which the Israelites will be cut off from His people (i.e., as they have cut off their children in their sexual practices, they will not be considered His children either).

Hence, the first half of Leviticus 18 deals with incest, which is the engagement in sexual conduct that is threatening toward the life and well-being of the children who may have been produced through those acts. Incest can either create all sorts of deformations and miscarriages or it can create a hostile environment for the child (as was the case with Joseph and his brothers when two sisters were married). This emphasis becomes more explicit once the rest of the chapter is considered.

The second half of Leviticus describes what was considered sexual immorality in terms of children as well. Notice that the sin of adultery is mentioned here, but the prohibition is not about ownership issues, as it is in most texts dealing with adultery, but rather a command to refrain from giving semen that would produce offspring in one's neighbor's wife. Most English translations obscure this, but in Hebrew, it literally reads, "You are not to give your semen to plant seed/offspring into your neighbor's wife, becoming sexually corrupt/immoral with her" (v. 20). Whether the adulterous couple would often kill the child inside or outside the womb, or simply be put to death themselves if found out (and the child dies with the pregnant mother), such an act threatens the life of the child (and it certainly would threaten the covenant status of the child within a family if he survived).

Again, in vv. 22-23, we see two more acts that are incapable of producing the fruit of human life (i.e., they are incapable of fulfilling the role of the imago Dei to be fruitful and multiply and fill up the earth). They cannot obey the creation mandate in their sexual acts. Hence, they are viewed as abominations. These include homosexuality and bestiality.

But there are two instances here (aside from the incest laws where people are often married as well)  that tell us that this is something that has more to do with children than whether one is married. The reason for prohibiting homosexuality or bestiality should be obvious enough (i.e., they cannot fulfill the creation mandate, and yet, people purposely engage in them anyway); but the instances of not having sex with a woman in her menstrual period and sacrificing a child to a false god are prohibited for the same reason, yet one is often married in these instances. Hartley notes the close connection, and purposeful intention of the text to place this latter prohibition against sacrificing children in a group of sexual offenses, so it is not out of place (Leviticus 288). He wrongly thinks it had to do with all of the sexual offenses being connected to pagan rituals, but that is clearly not the context (what pagan ritual had you marry your mother or sister?). Instead, it is clear that the close tie the author seeks to make intersects at the aspect of procreation. Many pagans had children to sacrifice for a more prosperous life. Hence, they did not have them to raise in covenant with God, but to merely kill them in sacrifice when needed (think of Mesha who sacrifices his son on the city wall in order to stay the hand of Israel in war). Many did it for better crops, victory in war (think of Jephthah), etc. The point is that the act of coming together in marriage (note, this is most often a legitimate son or daughter) in order to have children to sacrifice rather than to raise in covenant with God is equally a sexually immoral act. In fact, the text says that such an act associates His Name with halal "a sexually corrupt act." Again, this sin has nothing to do with whether one is married. Hence, sexual immorality can be committed by married couples, and does not exclusively mean "sex outside of marriage.”

The other example, as mentioned before, is that of having sex with a woman in her menstrual cycle. Although one can have a child during this period, it was understood to be more difficult and less probable, and so threatened the potency of the act (not to be graphic, but the blood may have been viewed as getting in the way of the semen mixing with whatever fluids they believed it had to mix with inside the woman). For this reason, God prohibits it as one of many examples that the Israelites were to remain holy in their sexual conduct, and seek to fulfill the good use of sex in procreation rather than the immoral use that engaged in sexual acts that were less likely to fulfill that creation mandate. Again, this is something that can be practiced in marriage by a married couple, and so when the term porneia refers to sexual immorality of the Leviticus 18 type, it does not merely refer to sex outside of marriage. Hence, that is not its definition.

Instead, the term that once seemed to be used exclusively of prostitution was expanded, precisely, because prostitutes were often used by men in Greek culture as alternatives to having children with their spouses. Prostitutes in Hellenistic culture often used various methods of preventing or aborting a pregnancy, or disposing of a child born from one her clients (infanticide via exposure was very common, since the prostitute would merely give birth to a child and then abandon it to die). Hence, prostitution in Greek culture came to be understood by the Second Temple Jewish Person as an unproductive sexual act, as that which is found in Leviticus 18.

Hence, when the term porneia was now used in STJ, it referred to more than just prostitution, but to any sexual activity where the act was not in accord with God's creative purposes to make a child and fulfill the creation mandate in Genesis 1:28. The examples in Leviticus being only one part of many sins, both in and outside of marriage, that could qualify.

What this means is that the term does not necessarily, or even primarily, refer to having sex with someone outside the marriage bond, but rather any sexual activity that is viewed as anti-creational, even with one’s marriage partner.
Hence, when one often reads the texts in Matthew, he or she often thinks that a remarriage is permissible when one partner goes outside the marriage and commits porneia with another person (since he or she thinks that porneia means “sex outside of marriage”) ; but it is very possible, and I would argue is likely the case, that this refers to the nature of the particular marriage union itself as an illegitimate union, where the sexual activity of the two partners in the union have not been sanctioned by God according to the creation mandate (the question of John the Baptist telling Herod and Herodias that their union is illegitimate may have driven the need for such a clarification, as well as homosexual and other incestuous marriages warranting such within the pagan culture).

A couple of Second Temple texts may give some illustration in terms of how the word was often understood.

                                                             The Damascus Document

During all those years Belial shall be unleashed against Israel, as He spoke by the hand of Isaiah, son of Amoz, ' saying, Terror and the pit and the snare are upon you, inhabitant of the land (Isa. xxiv, 17). Interpreted, these are the three nets of Belial with which Levi son of Jacob said that he catches Israel by setting them up as three kinds of righteousness. The first is riches, the second is fornication [zenut, the word translated in the Greek as porneia], and the third is profanation of the Temple. Whoever escapes the first is caught in the second, and whoever saves himself from the second is caught in the third (Isa. xxiv, 18).
The builders of the wall (Ezek. 13:10) who have followed after ' Precept' - 'Precept' was a spouter of whom it is written, They shall surely spout (Mic. 2:6) - shall be caught in fornication [zenut] twice by taking a second wife while the first is alive, whereas the principle of creation is, Male and female created He them (Gen. 1:27). Also, those who entered the Ark went in two by two.
And concerning the prince it is written, He shall not multiply wives to himself (Deut. 17:17); but David had not read the sealed book of the Law which was in the ark (of the Covenant), for it was not opened in Israel from the death of Eleazar and Joshua, and the elders who worshiped Ashtoreth. It was hidden and (was not) revealed until the coming of Zadok. And the deeds of David rose up, except for the murder of Uriah, and God left them to him.
Moreover, they profane the Temple because they do not observe the distinction (between clean and unclean) in accordance with the Law, but lie with a woman who sees her bloody discharge.
And each man marries the daughter of his brother or sister, whereas Moses said, You shall not approach your mothers sister; she is your mother's near kin (Lev. 18:13). But although the laws against incest are written for men, they also apply to women. When, therefore, a brother's daughter uncovers the nakedness of her father's brother, she is (also his) near kin . . .

Notice first that the arguments made concerning sexual immorality appeal to two texts (Genesis 1, as it is also displayed in the Ark narrative and in the Deuteronomistic law code, and Leviticus 18). The New Testament use of porneia, in texts that give more referential information in their contexts also display an appeal to one or the other, if not both (cf. the decree of the Jerusalem Council that restricts Gentiles from practicing those thing prohibited in Leviticus 17 and 18, as well as Paul's coining of the word arsenokoites from the description of homosexuality in Leviticus 18, as well as his appeal to the creation narrative in Genesis 1-2 (1 Cor 5-6; 1 Tim 1:10). Hence, the NT is using this term in the same way that its STJ environment is using it.

Second to this, note that this refers to the marrying of a relative, not just sex with a relative outside of marriage. Lynn Cohick notes that the expansion of these laws to include uncle/niece pairs may present evidence of a direct critique of the Herodian family which had a large number of incestuous marriages among uncles and nieces (Women in the World of the Earliest Christians, 207). The concept presented by the Second Temple Jew’s use of porneia often refers to the immoral use of the sexual act with the very person to whom one is married that nullifies the legitimacy of that marriage with the very person to whom one is married, not the marriage that sanctions the legitimacy of a sexual act. That's an important point, since many evangelicals perceive their sex acts to be sanctioned by the act of marriage. This leads to all sorts of distorted practices within marriage, not to mention the question as to why marriage cannot purify other forms of sex that are unproductive as well. But the idea is that the marriage itself can be illegitimate because the it is an unlawful union based upon who enters it (e.g., Herod and Herodias who are committing adultery and incest and thus their marriage, which is both adulterous and incestuous is considered null and void by God. They should thus get a divorce and Herodias should go back to Herod’s brother, Philip.

                                                                   The Testament of Judah

And now, my children, in what things so ever I command you hearken to your father, and keep all my sayings to perform the ordinances of the Lord, and to obey the command of the Lord God.  And walk not after your lusts, nor in the thoughts of your imaginations in the haughtiness of your heart; and glory not in the works of the strength of youth, for this also is evil in the eyes of the Lord.  For since I also gloried that in wars the face of no woman of goodly form ever deceived me, and upbraided Reuben my brother concerning Bilhah, the wife of my father, the spirits of jealousy and of fornication [porneia] arrayed themselves within me, until I fell before Bathshua the Canaanite, and Tamar who was espoused to my sons.  And I said to my father-in-law, I will counsel with my father, and so will I take thy daughter.  And he showed me a boundless store of gold in his daughter’s behalf, for he was a king.  And he decked her with gold and pearls, and caused her to pour out wine for us at the feast in womanly beauty.  And the wine led my eyes astray, and pleasure blinded my heart; and I loved her, and I fell, and transgressed the commandment of the Lord and the commandment of my fathers, and I took her to wife.  And the Lord rewarded me according to the thought of my heart, insomuch that I had no joy in her children. 
And now, my children, be not drunk with wine; for wine turneth the mind away from the truth, and kindleth in it the passion of lust, and leadeth the eyes into error.  For the spirit of fornication [porneia] hath wine as a minister to give pleasures to the mind; for these two take away the power from a man.  For if a man drink wine to drunkenness, he disturbeth his mind with filthy thoughts to fornication, and exciteth his body to carnal union; and if the cause of the desire be present, he worketh the sin, and is not ashamed.  Such is wine, my children; for he who is drunken reverenceth no man.  For, lo, it made me also to err, so that I was not ashamed of the multitude in the city, because before the eyes of all I turned aside unto Tamar, and I worked a great sin, and I uncovered the covering of the shame of my sons.  After that I drank wine I reverenced not the commandment of God, and I took a woman of Canaan to wife. 

Here one sees the porneia specifically references incest. Judah is said to have been prideful toward his brothers when he supplanted them due to their incestuous relationship with their father’s wife, Bilhah. He too, then, was given over to the same sin when he lay with Tamar, uncovering his son’s nakedness/shame, which is terminology for sexual activity with the one who was one flesh with his sons.

The term is used in this text to display that porneia can be committed within a marriage to an unbeliever or to a relative. Although Judah is not married to Tamar in the first instance, his reason for describing his sexual act with her as porneia is because he "uncovered the nakedness of his sons" (i.e., committed incest with them, as she was their wife, past and present through his youngest son who still lived and needed to fulfill the levirite duty to her). The deciding factor, therefore, is not whether a male and female are married, but whether their union intends to faithfully and through a legitimate sexual act/union of the one flesh bring about a covenant child in marriage. In the mind of STJ, both of these incestuous unions threaten that goal. They are, therefore, classified as porneia, even though the individuals in the case of the unbelieving spouse, are male and female and are married.

Hence, the porn-root has a language family that has expanded from merely referring to prostitution to refer to any sexual activity, within or outside of marriage, that does not fulfill the goal of the creation mandate to fill up the earth with covenant children, which is the goal of God's creation in the display of His glorious victory over death and chaos.
As Quinn and Wacker conclude of the term:

"Thus the term [i.e., pornos] in the biblical tradition was understood generically of a man (the feminine porne designates the harlot) engaging in forbidden sexual conduct, alone or with others, whether married or unmarried" (Jerome D. Quinn and William C. Wacker, The First and Second Letters to Timothy, 87).

Since the term in STJ and the NT is based upon the logic of what is considered a good sexual act according to the creation mandate in Genesis 1:28, as it is displayed in the examples of sexual acts that would be prohibited by its observation, found in Leviticus 18, the term cannot merely refer to "sex outside of marriage," but instead, any sexual act, in which one purposely engages, that frustrates or hinders the goal of God's creational purposes in that union.
The key, of course, is understanding that the word porneia can refer to any sexual activity that is viewed as counter-creational in terms of the prohibitions in Leviticus 18. In that respect, any marriage that would  seek to bind two people in a marriage characterized by porneia would be seen as illegitimate. This is a very different way of understanding the text in Matthew than that of the modern reader who often thinks that the porneia is something done with a person outside the marriage. In these cases, however, the porneia describes the relationship between the married partners that makes the union eligible for dissolution among men, since it is illegitimate in God’s eyes in the first place.

Having established the fact that the term refers to illegitimate sexual acts and practices, such as homosexuality, incest, whoredom, etc., we must now ask the second question, “Does Matthew’s use of the term refer to a specific kind of porneia or is it all-encompassing, including every kind of porneia?” But this question cannot really be answered until one already decides what it is Matthew is talking about. Likewise, one cannot answer the question as to whether divorce is permissible because the marriage is illegitimate in the eyes of God, even if recognized by the state, or if the marriage itself is legitimate but can be dissolved by this act of porneia until he determines what the act is. In other words, how one takes the word dictates whether he or she sees Matthew’s porneia here as something committed by a married person with another person to whom he or she is not married, or something that defines the very relationship between the two partners who are married to one another.

Hence, the broader use of the word leaves us with three referential possibilities:

(1)   The term refers to adultery that is expressed in one or more types of sexual immorality committed by a married person with another person to whom he or she is not married. This is the most commonly held view within the church today.

(2)   The term refers to whoredom, and expresses the Mosaic law code that considers a woman, who has been found to have had sex with someone else before the marriage, an adulteress who is to be stoned in order to dissolve the marriage (here in Matthew, this only shows that the marriage can be dissolved in light of this act). This is something that is known only after the consummation of the marriage has taken place, and evidenced in the law by the “unbloodied” sheets. Hence, the marriage has been consummated and is legitimate but can be dissolved (Joseph putting away Mary so that this does not happen to her is a unique case of this, since Joseph finds out about Mary before they consummate the marriage, and thus, they are not yet married).

(3)   The term refers to acts that do not make for a legitimate marriage in the eyes of God, like an incestuous union, which was commonly viewed as a prime example of porneia by Second Temple Jews (e.g., Herod and Herodias, the man who has his father’s wife in 1 Corinthians 5, those condemned in the Damascus Document, Judah and his brothers in the Testament of Judah).

We will now pursue these possibilities by looking at how one might go about establishing these positions.

She Has Played the Harlot (Porneia as Whoredom)

It seems odd to us to consider a woman who has not yet been married as belonging to her future husband, but that is precisely the way the Hebrew Bible treats the subject. If she is to be married in the future, she is considered to belong to that future husband. For her to have sex with someone else, therefore, is considered an act of zĕnōt “whoredom,” which refers to her act as one of a type of prostitution where sex is given to one who is not her husband. She has already united in one flesh to another man, but her husband does not find out until after he has also united to her. The only way to break this union is death, and so she is stoned for her zĕnōt. This is the word that the LXX often translates as porneia, or as here, the verbal form ekporneuō. Deuteronomy 22:13-29 relates a series of laws concerning the matter.

Deut 22:13 (NASU) "If any man takes a wife and goes in to her and [then] turns against her,
14 and charges her with shameful deeds and publicly defames her, and says, `I took this woman, [but] when I came near her, I did not find her a virgin,'
15 then the girl's father and her mother shall take and bring out the [evidence] of the girl's virginity to the elders of the city at the gate.
16 "The girl's father shall say to the elders, `I gave my daughter to this man for a wife, but he turned against her;
17 and behold, he has charged her with shameful deeds, saying, "I did not find your daughter a virgin." But this is the evidence of my daughter's virginity.' And they shall spread the garment before the elders of the city.
18 "So the elders of that city shall take the man and chastise him,
19 and they shall fine him a hundred [shekels] of silver and give it to the girl's father, because he publicly defamed a virgin of Israel. And she shall remain his wife; he cannot divorce her all his days.
20 "But if this charge is true, that the girl was not found a virgin,
21 then they shall bring out the girl to the doorway of her father's house, and the men of her city shall stone her to death because she has committed an act of folly in Israel by playing the harlot in her father's house; thus you shall purge the evil from among you.
22 "If a man is found lying with a married woman, then both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman, and the woman; thus you shall purge the evil from Israel.
23 "If there is a girl who is a virgin engaged to a man, and [another] man finds her in the city and lies with her,
24 then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city and you shall stone them to death; the girl, because she did not cry out in the city, and the man, because he has violated his neighbor's wife. Thus you shall purge the evil from among you.
25 "But if in the field the man finds the girl who is engaged, and the man forces her and lies with her, then only the man who lies with her shall die.
26 "But you shall do nothing to the girl; there is no sin in the girl worthy of death, for just as a man rises against his neighbor and murders him, so is this case.
27 "When he found her in the field, the engaged girl cried out, but there was no one to save her.
28 "If a man finds a girl who is a virgin, who is not engaged, and seizes her and lies with her and they are discovered,
29 then the man who lay with her shall give to the girl's father fifty [shekels] of silver, and she shall become his wife because he has violated her; he cannot divorce her all his days.

Notice that there are two types of women here. The first belong to a group of women who are said to be virgins. They are then married and are accused by their new husbands of not being virgins. If that accusation is found to be true, the woman is to be stoned as one who committed an act of zĕnōt, or as the Second Temple Jew would read in the LXX, she has committed an act of porneia (i.e., ekporneuō the verbal idea of porneia). It should be said that the translation “played a prostitute” is trying to capture the idea that this refers to a young woman who is not a prostitute for money, but has had sex with someone to whom she is not presently married or to whom she is not going to be married in the future. In other words, it refers to a premarital sexual act that voids the covenant of the marriage when it is discovered, and brings upon the guilty parties the death sentence. The LXX proper (i.e., the Greek translation of the Pentateuch) attempts to make this distinction by adding the preposition ek to the verb porneuō. When it speaks of actual prostitutes, it uses the term porneuō (e.g., Deut 23:18), but the verbal action of ekporneuō means to commit an act of porneia.

Genesis 38:24 relates Judah’s reaction when he learns that Tamar has had sex with someone else beside his young son to whom she is betrothed. She has said to ekporneuō by committing an act of porneia. He wants her taken out and burned as a result in order to free his son from the union created by her consummated the marriage with his previous brothers (another very foreign concept to us).

As the laws in Deuteronomy 22 suggest, the act of porneia is a premarital act in the Old Testament that becomes punishable by death once the woman has consummated her marriage with her unsuspecting husband. Leviticus 21:9 tells us that the daughter of a priest is to be burned if she has sex with someone who is not her present or future spouse; and Hosea 4:14, Jeremiah 3:8, and Ezekiel 23:43-45 place whoredom in parallel with adultery. Indeed, the punishment is the same. It seems clear that the ancient Israelites considered the committing of zĕnōt as a premarital adulterous act. As one is meant to give herself only to her spouse and no one else after marriage, she is also meant to save herself for her spouse before marriage. To give herself to another before marriage is to rob and betray her future husband. She thus nullifies the covenant and she is stoned to free the innocent man from being bound to her and to remove the evil from God’s people.

Hence, the ideal, even within the Old Testament, is that a man should only marry a woman who is either a virgin or a widow. We see this in the texts that prohibit priests from marrying a woman of whoredom (zĕnōt/porneia), one who is defiled by whoredom before marriage, or a woman who has been divorced (Lev 21:7; Ezek 44:22), but allow them to marry Israelite virgins or widows of other priests. If a woman’s whoredom was not found out before the consummation took place, the law allowed him to accuse her, and upon proof that she was guilty, have her executed by the community.

It is very possible that, in Matthew’s Jewish context, the exception clause refers to the issue above. A person has married a supposed virgin who has turned out not to be a virgin, and thus, has committed porneia. Nothing is said of the death penalty here, precisely, because the Jews did not have the authority to carry out such a penalty. Hence, the Lord would only be saying that divorce is permissible in such a situation, regardless of whether the unfaithful woman was given the death penalty or allowed to live on. Thus, freeing the man even though the woman still lived, as if she was to be considered a prostitute to whom he was made one flesh and not a legitimate wife. Either way, however, Jesus frees him to divorce her (although nothing is said of remarriage and so Christ may still view him as in union with her, even though he may divorce her).

This is a little different, however, from the betrothal view, which usually expresses the idea that one is merely divorcing a woman in the betrothal period, rather than, in this view above, the fact that he is divorcing her after discovering her previous unfaithfulness once married. Hence, the couple is often truly married (with the exception in cases where the woman becomes pregnant during the betrothal period, e.g., Matthew 1:18-19), and this would truly, therefore, be a divorce.

The Word Refers to Adultery Committed after Marriage

The next view is that the word refers to adultery after marriage. This view includes anything between believing that a spirit of adultery of the mind in a single act to the perpetual committing of physical adultery gives justified grounds for divorce.

The word porneia, as is evidenced in the Old Testament, can, and often does, refer to the activity of adultery. It is usually adultery committed by an already married woman. In other words, the married woman is said to “whore” herself to her lovers. In the Old Testament, this is usually in the context of allegory, where YHWH is viewed as the defrauded husband and Israel/Judah as the adulterous wife (e.g., Jer 3:9; Ezek 16:23-38; Hos 4:12; 9:1) .

This meaning continues into the Second Temple Period, where Sirach 23:23 says of the adulterous wife:

For first of all, she has disobeyed the law of the Most High; second, she has committed an offense against her husband; and third, through her porneia she has committed adultery and brought forth children by another man.

It is important to note here, however, that porneia does not mean “adultery” in any of these texts. Instead, it describes, as discussed before, an act of whoredom. It is the act of whoring with which an adulterous is charged. In other words, she is likened to a prostitute who gives herself sexually to someone who is not her husband. Hence, the adulterous is said to commit an act of porneia, but this should not be used to confuse the two words. The word porneia only refers to adultery in certain instances. It does not mean “adultery,” which is what the Greek word moicheia describes.

One of the difficulties of this view, then, is that since the word does not mean “adultery,” and needs the context to supply that reference, which, in Matthew, it nowhere does, it is problematic to supply the referent from another context to Matthew. This same problem, however, exists for all of the views, but this simply means that one must realize that the word is open for interpretation to mean a host of things. This means that the interpretive rule, which dictates a biblical text should be interpreted consistently with other biblical texts by the one who believes in the divine inspiration of both, should be employed here. This automatically rules out the option of adultery within a legitimate marriage, since the other texts in the New Testament teach that only death severs the one flesh union of a legitimate marriage.

To get beyond these difficulties, some have suggested that the word is used to include a larger variety of sexual offenses committed within marriage that constitute a breaking of the one flesh union. In essence, then, what one means by “adultery” in this interpretation is “any sexual sin committed in giving oneself to another person to whom one is not married.” The word certainly can refer to this, although, it may also be a case of the illegitimate totality transference fallacy within lexicography, where all of the references of a word in various contexts are now applied to a single passage. However, due to the nature of the word as something that often encompasses all of the sexual sins of the Old Testament, this may be one of the few cases where such a totality transference is legitimate.

It should also be said that, whatever this act is, it does not have to be perpetual, as though only perpetual adultery or fornication qualifies one to get a divorce. That is a modern evangelical fiction created to lessen the amount of people seeking a divorce. In other words, it is simply a fabricated damage control. There is no indication in the text, nor in the Old Testament legal cases, where only a single act of porneia warrants the death penalty, that the act needs to be perpetual. Hence, if adultery breaks the one flesh union, it does it with a single act. And by this interpretation, therefore, Matthew contradicts the absolute statements in Mark, Luke, Romans, and 1 Corinthians.

Another difficulty can be found in Matthew’s use of the word itself. There seems to be a distinction that is made between the act of porneia and the act of moicheia. If Matthew merely meant “adultery,” why did he not just use the word moicheia? Some have suggested that he used the word porneia to include both couples, since moicheia usually only referred to women. But this is not convincing, since Matthew uses moicheia of both the man and woman in 5:32. Matthew, again, distinguishes them in a list given by Christ concerning evils that proceed from the mind (15:19). Unlike other lists in the New Testament, there does not seem to be any synonyms used in it. If porneia and moicheia are synonymous in Matthew, one must suppose that they are the only synonyms in the list, which is unlikely. Hence, in the only three places where the words are used in Matthew, they are distinguished (5:32; 15:19; 19:9).

However, since porneia can refer to a variety of sexual sins, then it may be that the two different words are used in order to distinguished between a specific (moicheia) versus a general (porneia)   sin. Again, however, this would be rather odd if porneia already includes moicheia in Matthew’s mind. There would seem to be no reason to mention moicheia once he mentioned porneia if, in fact, the one included the other.

Another problem arises when one realizes that moicheia does not break the one flesh union. If one divorces his wife and marries another, other than in the case of porneia, he has committed adultery; but if adultery and porneia are the same thing, this should free up the woman to remarry. Instead, the texts state that he makes her commit adultery, as though the one flesh union is still en tact. Paul indicates the same thing in his Romans 7 analogy. Furthermore, a man who marries a woman who is divorced, assuming that the husband is remarried, is said to commit adultery with her. Again, how is this possible if the one flesh union is broken by porneia, taken as “adultery”? This would seem impossible unless the one flesh union was not broken by adultery. Hence, it makes more sense that porneia is not adultery, but something that would lead Matthew to view such a marriage as purely contractual, as an illegitimate union would be, rather than a legitimate one flesh union that is binding.

But a far more pressing problem arises, which we have discussed earlier, and that is that if we are to interpret the exception clause as referring to adultery, we end up contradicting the rest of the New Testament. There are two far more likely options available that do not contradict it. Hence, it would seem the better choice would be to adopt those that have less problems and are in continuity, rather than in discontinuity, with the rest of the New Testament.

If readers have read Mark and Luke for the past thirty or forty years before Matthew is written, then one must realize that Matthew is meant to be read within that tradition. That means that it cannot contradict the tradition, but rather clarify an element that allows both the clarification and the original, absolute teaching to remain true. With the above options, only two allow for this to occur: (1) if porneia refers to an illegitimate union in the first place, where the marriage is not recognized by God, and thus, divorce is permissible, or (2) if the marriage is illegitimate due to a supposed virgin lying about her sexual purity, so as to nullify her marriage covenant before it was consummated, and allow the husband, who would normally only find out after the wedding night, to divorce her for marrying him on false pretenses of sexual purity. In other words, one might dissolve the contract as one has no obligations to a prostitute, which is what the bride has become. Either one of these would indicate that the marriage union, though legal in the eyes of the state, was illegitimate in the eyes of God, and could therefore be dissolved.

Only these two options are consistent with the rest of the New Testament. Matthew is then arguing that the only exception to Jesus’ teaching is in the case of illegitimate marriages. In the case of legitimate marriages, there is no allowance for divorce and remarriage, as the marriage has been legitimately established through the one flesh union and covenant made.


  1. Hi Bryan

    As you are well aware, there are two sections in Leviticus 18. First are the prohibitions on close relations. In a sense it is not about incest because non blood relatives are also listed. It is about relations that would cause family tensions-including children.
    Secondly,the last section is about prohibited sexual relations. The prohibition of not sacrificing children to idols forms the main memorable point of the whole message with very sharp teeth. There are two prohibitions before and after placing it right in the center.The confusing problem is child sacrifice is not a sexual act? Maybe not, but it makes the point crystal clear. The term for people or semen is seed (zera) The point is we are not to destroy our seed like the pagans.
    The other confusing prohibition is when a wife is menstruating or having a miscarriage. In the bible blood is life and the wife is experiencing death when life is exiting her body. The prohibition is we are not to have sex and mix seed when life is exiting the wifes body. This prohibition or the others like it in Leviticus 15 only applies to married couples-not singles. The message is not held hostage by strict science where a tiny tiny chance of a pregnancy could happen during a womens period deflects from the authenticity of the message of teaching couples the proper use of our sexuality.

  2. Hi Naama,

    Actually, Lev 18 is a single unit. Verses 1-5 and 24-30 create an inclusio that binds the whole thing together. This means it is all about the "seed" which is an idiomatic term for children. Incest threatens the life of the child either in its creation via possible mutation or in its preservation, as in the case of Leah and Rachel's children. Incest deals with both the one flesh union that makes, for instance, a father's wife one with the father, and therefore, makes sex with her incest with the father (hence Reuben's sin being incestuous, the man who has his father's wife in 1 cor 5 etc.).
    The prohibitions in other Leviticus texts are often about cleanliness/ ritual purity. Here, however, the author makes it clear that these practices are prohibited because they threaten the childrens' creation and preservation in some way, I.e., they are illegitimate sexual acts because they are anticreational.

  3. Hi Bryan,

    I hope you don't think I am arguing against your post, instead I am trying to enhance it.

    Yes, the words "I am the Lord your God" surround chapter 18 like "quotation marks" which makes it a unified whole. However, within this unified whole there are two sections.
    The first section which prohibits marriage with close family connections is often associated with incest in the sense of genetic birth defects. I just don't believe this is the main thrust of the message because it goes beyond blood relatives.I believe it is more relational in scope.Most of these situations would simply be adultery if the marriage was still intact. Men are obligated to provide and support women who are close family members, not to sexually exploit them. Think about the wealth and power a man would gain over his brothers by marrying his mother or step mother. It would be armed conflict right away.
    The next section has 5 prohibitions with idol worship being in the middle. The point is very clear: to destroy seed in an idol is like destroying seed in an illicit sexual act. In our day abortion serves as the picture of the giving seed to an idol because this is the result of what heterosexuals have accepted in their own sexual practices.
    Ritual impurity is not about cleanliness in the sense of personal hygiene. If this were the case then any society or individual with access to more advanced hygiene products and practices would be more pure than others. It would make Jezebel more pure than a believer living in poverty.
    The purity laws taught morality and in the case of family purity it taught a married couple the proper context of sexuality and this is why it is contained side by side with the four other restrictions in Lev. 18

  4. I think we're in agreement. The two reasons the incest laws are exist is for creational (i.e., mutations the ancients thought occurred due to inner-familial relations) and preservational (the threat that often occurs in familial rivalries, e.g., Rachel and Leah).

    The ritual laws definitely teach the morality of the law. I just wanted to make the clear distinction that the prohibition in Leviticus 18 is for the same moral reason as the rest of the prohibitions, and is for a moral reason, as opposed to the ritual reasons found in the rest of the book. Ritual purity displays a picture of moral purity, but the prohibition concerning the menstrual period in Chapter 18 is for a moral reason, not a ritual one. That was the only point there.