This post is a continuation of the argument begun in this post. If you haven’t had the chance to read it yet, please do, as it laid the foundation for today’s post.
On top of the reality that women were thought of as property in biblical times is another reality: most of the time, the Bible is not addressing consensual sex where the people involved are socially equal. Take, for example, the argument that James Brownson lays out in Bible, Gender, Sexuality: in the times when the Bible seems to be addressing male-on-male sex, it’s not talking about two men who are social equals in a “loving, committed relationship,” as Matthew Vines likes to say.
A famous example is Sodom. I grew up believing that God destroyed Sodom with fire and brimstone because a lot of the men who lived in the city were gay. Except … that’s not what happened. Ezekiel says that the “sin of Sodom” was greed, and the whole passage in Genesis is about men who wanted to commit rape. In ancient times as well as today, male-on-male rape is an act of domination, aggression, and violence. It is physical harm as well as psychological warfare because the act itself says you are no better than a weak woman.
Other examples in the Bible are stories like David and Bathsheba– I believe that David was punished for rape, not for adultery. Bathsheba could not refuse someone so much more powerful than her, and therefore could not give meaningful consent. When the prophet Nathan confronts David about raping Bathsheba, he tells the story of a beloved sheep: one man loved his sheep; the other man used his power to steal her away and then ate her. He wasn’t interested in keeping and cherishing her, but in consuming and destroying her.
I think what the New Testament is addressing when it talks about porneia is similar.
At its most basic, porneia is a bit of a loose term. It basically means “illicit sex,” with “illicit” here meaning “forms of sex that society frowns upon.” In the larger cultural context, “illicit” sex was limited to bestiality, incest, adultery, heterosexual pre-marital sex, etc. Pederasty was, depending on the time and the author, viewed with varying degrees of approval. However, I don’t think these actions were what the biblical writers meant when they chose porneia.
However, many times when porneia appears, it’s being strictly limited to a single form of sex: prostitution.
Temple prostitution has a bit of a mythos surrounding it in Christian culture. Occasionally you’ll hear allusions to the “temple at Corinth” in order bolster claims like these, or used as illustrations in sermons or historical lessons. The archeological evidence seems to indicate that temple prostitution wasn’t widely practiced the way many Christians think it was at the time the NT was being recorded; but what my research seems to show is that while there might not have been temple prostitution, there was a definite linguistic link between temple prostitution and prostitution more generally.
For example, Aphrodite’s temple in Corinth had been destroyed and had not been restored while Paul was there, but prostitution continued to be practiced, and it was still associated with the worship of the love goddess, however tangentially. We can see this cultural and linguistic connection in the Bible:
- Acts 15: “That ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication … Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.”
- Acts 21: “We have written and concluded that they observe no such thing, save only that they keep themselves from things offered to idols, and from blood, and from strangled, and from fornication.”
- I Corinthians 10: “Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.” We should not commit sexual immorality (not porneia here, this is porneuo, which simply means “to prostitute”), as some of them did—and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died.”
- Colossians 3: “Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry …”
- Revelations 2: “But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication.”
In each of these instances, fornication is intrinsically linked to idol-worship, and thus, to prostitution. Except ancient prostitution and modern prostitution don’t bear any resemblance to each other. Today, a sex worker can freely choose to employ themself that way without any form of violence or coercion forcing them into it. That didn’t really happen in biblical times (if there were consensual sex workers, I couldn’t find a record of their existence). At the time that Paul was writing, the only way “prostitution” was practiced was as sex trafficking. The women (and perhaps men) who were prostitutes were in no way consenting. They were slaves.
Is it any wonder that Paul condemns those who “join themselves to a prostitute”? I don’t think Paul was condemning people for having consensual sex, but for paying a sex trafficker for the opportunity to rape people.
Other appearances of porneia don’t refer to idolatry specifically, but it does usually appear in the context of abuse and exploitation. We have Paul condemning incest in I Corinthians (incest being an abusive act), associating it with murder in Romans, and Jude links it to the attempted rape in Sodom.
I think the consistent message of the NT regarding sex is don’t harm, abuse, exploit, and rape people, not “don’t have pre-marital sex.”