Pondering Porneia and Proclaiming a Pet Peeve

A reader recently sent the following question to the “Ask a Question” page of this blog:

Msgr. Pope: Why did the Catholic Church recently alter the language of the New American Catholic Bible in the Gospel of Matthew chapter 19 by replacing the word “fornication” with the word “illegal” in regard to marriages impacted by adultery?

I want to answer this question. But I would also like to lead by expressing a pet peeve when it comes to the New American Bible and it’s handling of the Greek word πορνείᾳ (porneia). For it is the meaning of  this Greek word that underlies the question of the change from “fornication” to “illegal” in the New American Bible.

The Greek word πορνείᾳ (porneia) generally includes any notion of illicit sexual union or activity. Depending on the context of the passage it can include any of the following: fornication (premarital sex), incest, homosexual activity, bestiality, prostitution, indulgence of sexual passion, and in some cases adultery. Adultery however has another word more proper to it (and this will factor in with the answer later) which is μοιχάω (moichaó).

Now although the Greek word πορνείᾳ (porneia) has a wide meaning, it is clearly related to sexual immorality, to some form of illicit sexual union. This Greek word is the likely root of the English words “porn” and “pornography.” It was traditionally translated “fornication” but many modern English translations now render it “sexual immorality” or “illicit sexual union”. So far, fine.

But here comes my pet peeve. The New American Bible consistently obscures the meaning of this word rendering it in very vague ways. It almost seems to go out of its way to avoid any sexual reference to the term. This is especially true in the Pauline corpus where the word is rendered vaguely as “immorality.” Now immorality can mean just about any form of sin. Hence for those who read the New American Bible (NAB) the true impact and meaning of the text as a warning against sexual immorality is obscure, even opaque. In an era of widespread sexual confusion and sin, texts like these  cannot afford to be obscure.

Lectionary loss – Even more sadly in terms of this matter, the NAB is the translation used at Mass here in the United States. Thus, the faithful are thus hindered from hearing what the text is actually saying in a very important matter. The obscurity of the text may also underlie the fact that many Catholic Priests do not speak often on sexual immorality since that meaning of the text does not stand out as clearly as it should and inspire their thought and proclamation.

The New Jerusalem Bible does not have this problem,  rendering πορνείᾳ (porneia) quite consistently as “sexual immorality”  or “sexual sin” or “sexual vice” Likewise, the most popular Protestant translations (e.g. the NIV, RSV and the KJV) are reliably consistent on accurately and clearly translating as either fornication or sexual immorality.

So what is wrong with the NAB and why has this problem gone unaddressed? It seems a rather serious omission to me, especially in the translation of Paul’s letters. One would hope that at least future editions of the lectionary would correct the deficiency and render πορνείᾳ (porneia) properly and more clearly as “sexual immorality.” Which of the following texts do think it more clear:

  1. Eph 5:3 from NAB Immorality or any impurity or greed must not even be mentioned among you ….. OR
  2. Eph 5:3 from New Jerusalem Bible (NJB) Among you there must not be even a mention of sexual vice or impurity in any of its forms….
  3. Gal 5:19 from NAB: Now the works of the flesh are obvious: immorality, impurity, licentiousness…..  OR
  4. Gal 5:19 from NJB: When the flesh is at work the results are obvious: sexual vice, impurity, and sensuality…..

We can only hope the deficiency will be cleared up. Until such time, when I teach on matters of sexual immorality the NAB is practically useless. I use the New Jerusalem Bible or the New International Version.

Now as to the question raised above. Why does the NAB and in this case also the New Jerusalem Bible render the Greek word πορνείᾳ (porneia) as “unlawful marriage” (NAB) and “illicit marriage” (NJB)? The translation in this case is defensible. Remember πορνείᾳ (porneia) has a wide variety of meanings as listed above. One of those forms of illicit sexual unions can be incest. Likewise it can refer to homosexual activity as well. In the Greek world there were many forms or marriage that the Jewish and Christian communities would never recognize. Among these were incestuous relationships (where close relatives married each other). There we also various forms of Homosexual liaisons that some thought of as marriages. Thus what Jesus is likely saying here is, (to paraphrase): “If you divorce and marry another you are committing adultery. However I do not mean to include in this the so-called marriages among the Gentiles that enshrine illegitimate sexual unions.” I have written more on this here: http://blog.adw.org/2009/12/what-would-jesus-say-about-redefining-marriage/

Now the Protestants largely interpret πορνείᾳ (porneia) here to mean “adultery” and hold that the Lord permits divorce in the case of adultery. The Catholic position is that this is unlikely since Jesus could have easily used the Greek word  μοιχάω (moichaó) – Adultery – had he meant that. In fact he uses that very word later in the same sentence.

So interestingly enough, in this case I will defend the NAB as offering a reasonable translation of Matt 5 & 19. As I said the main problem in the NAB occurs in the Pauline literature where the individual or committee involved in that part of the translation did a poor job,  IMHO,   in rendering clearly the Greek word πορνείᾳ (porneia). Lets hope that future editions will correct this. The NAB is generally a readable and familiar, as well as accurate translation. In this matter however I cannot praise it.

33 Replies to “Pondering Porneia and Proclaiming a Pet Peeve”

  1. Please continue to speak out on these important issues Msgr. Pope. Please make the Bishops become more vocal also. Continue to protect the hearts and minds and souls of our youngsters and foolish oldsters. God Bless your apostolate in every way.

  2. Great post, Msgr.

    I had a religion professor in college (it was a state school) who claimed that porneia only meant “temple prostitution.” He basically claimed that all instances of it in the NT only condemned temple prostitution and nothing else. This allowed him to justify any sexual activity as being acceptable in the eyes of the NT. Ever since then, I’ve been very wary of how Bibles translate this word. Thanks for your great overview.

    1. Thank you as well for confirming how troubling the NAB translation issue is. I am afraid that large numbers of Catholics have been underexposed to the true biblical teaching on fornication and sexuality in general. Sounds like the professor you mentioned had his own reasons for wanting to restrict the meaning of porneia. I also wonder if the translator(s) of the Pauline text in the NAB had an agenda as well. I can only speculate of course.

  3. “There we also various forms of homosexual liaisons that some thought of as marriages.”

    Can you source this? I teach on marriage and sexuality in history, and I can’t think of anything, even in ancient Greece.

    1. I am not sure. I am only repeating here what I was taught years ago. I remember years ago wondering why Catholic Bibles didn’t just translate porneia in Matt 19 as incest since that seemed to be the Catholic position of what it meant in this particular case. I was told that in fact more than mere incest was likely meant here and that there were a host of strange Greek practices in terms of sex and their understanding of marriage. I rather suspect this must have been the case for there were great distortions about sexuality in the Greek and ROman world. Nevertheless I was never shown a citation or anything. So perhaps other reader could help us? I too would like to have such a citation. Of course, since you are already an expert in the field it may be unlikely that one will be found and who I was taught may be deficient. But that then leads me back to the question, why didn’t NAB and NJB just translate it “incest” if that is the case?

      1. OK. Thanks. My understanding is that never in history (Boswell’s revisionism notwithstanding) has a society recognized same-sex unions with rites or benefits or sanction that look like heterosexual marriage. I simply can’t find one. There are bizarre, unnatural sexual practices all over the place, but they’re not codified as marriage.

        As far as porneia goes, I think the best options in the context of the passage and the entire Gospel of Matthew are either of these:

        (1) Porneia means sexual activity before marriage, so that if one is found a non-virgin on one’s wedding night, the groom acts rightly in breaking off the engagement. This fits with Joseph’s thoughts and actions in ch. 1.

        (2) Porneia means illicit unions within the forbidden degrees of consanguinity. This may have been a problem in Matthew’s community, which seems to have had many Gentile members, and Gentiles weren’t opposed to marrying blood relatives — even brother and sister (depends on the race and tribe and time). Thus, those sorts of unions within the forbidden degrees of consanguinity made prior to one or both members of a Gentile couple’s conversion to Christianity could and must be be dissolved. (This is probably what Luke has in mind in Acts 15.20 and 15.29).

        So I like incest, but given # (1), it might be too narrow.

      2. Thanks for your correction and I understand your concern. Thanks too for giving two possible meanings for porneia in this context as it might explain why the word incest wasn’t simply used, since it could also mean deception as to virginity, an invalidating thing to be sure in Jewish times. ****

      3. There are rare accounts of same-sex “marriages” taking place in the ancient world, but they tended to be criticized (perhaps even invented by the authors) as a sign of decadence. Juvenal’s Second Satire derides one such union. Suetonius claims that the emperor Nero married a man as well.

        Msgr. Pope, thank you for this blog entry.

        There is an Italian saying, “traduttore, traditore,” the translator is a traitor. The betrayal of meaning here has had significant consequences.

        Who was responsible for this section of the NAB? Was there ever any explanation of its ambiguity? How can the affected passages be clarified for future editions?

        1. THanks for this information! It does appear that there may in fact be some evidence for this distorted vision of marriage though it is good to know that it was rare and most rejected it.

  4. I recommend the Douay version. I don’t know if other bibles do, but the the version I have has many footnotes that explain much of the language that can seem confusing because of the past ways of writing. I also find it to be a challenge to read and that forces me to focus. There is an online version http://www.drbo.org/. Due to my skepticism of the web, I cross reference with a hard copy, but so far it has been spot on. I do have a question. (Ecclesiasticus 26:12) The fornication of a woman shall be known by the haughtiness of her eyes, and by her eyelids. It seems to me that “fornication” is being used to mean something else since the passage seems to be about wicked women. Could you clarify Msgr.? Does it simply mean promiscuity or unfaithfulness? There are other places that fornication seems out of place. Perhaps the term is used simply as a reference to the flesh and not the actual act since it is the flesh that is in constant battle with the spirit?

    1. It seems to me in the context here that “fornication” would be understood as a generalized promiscuity that would include either pre-marital sex, adultery or prostitution depending on the situation. The text about the eyes may refer to make-up, the excessive use of which was sometimes equated with prostitutes or it may refer to her flirtatious eyes and “come hither” looks of seduction.

      I think many modern translations have moved away from “fornication” for several reasons: 1. Many simply do not know what the word means any more. I this true among younger people especially. 2. Those who are familiar with the term tend to understand it as meaning “pre-marital sex” which it often does but there can be wider meanings intended as well. Hence “sexual immorality is often a better usage in modern English. 3. As stated Porneia can have different meanings based on context and hence translators may supply that by using other words than fornication, eg incest.

      Finally most of the very oldest English translations used the word “whoremongering” to translate porneia but as that usage dropped out of English and became equated only with prostitution, there came the change to fornication. Now as that word is become less used and understood other terms are being used, most commonly “sexual Immorality”

    2. I wonder if I might make a comment regarding the website for drbo.org. When I looked at it there was a prominent advert for the Poem of the Man-God which is a descriptive account of the life of Christ derived from dreams. It seems to me that as a novel it would be acceptable but they claim more than that and therein lies the danger.
      The cautionary words of the Holy Father spring to mind in the Chapter “The Temptations of Jesus” in his book Jesus of Nazareth where he points out that the devil quoted scripture to Jesus to lure him into a trap.
      The Douay Bible is also found on the New Advent web site.

  5. Thank you for addressing this, Msgr. Pope. From an “original Greek” reading of the Scripture, you are no doubt right. However, I thought it might be worth looking at the Catena Aurea to see how the Church Fathers understood Matthew 19:9. The references cited by St. Thomas *seem* to read “porneia” as synonymous with “adultery”. Do you know of any patristic sources that explain the verse the same way you have? After all, the early Fathers were much closer to the Greek culture that produced the problematic “marriages”.

  6. Iraneaus: There is a reference to a sort of male homosexual union in Plato’s Phaedo, where Socrates is explaining why death is such is a great good for the philosopher, but we are still forbidden from committing suicide. It talks about the male “partner” killing himself after the death of his beloved. I don’t have the book with me, so I can’t give the Stephanos number. I remember that there’s an endnote about this in the Penguine Classics edition of Plato’s Last Days of Socrates.

    It is interesting, though, that as widespread as homosexuality seemed to be in the ancient Western world, I don’t recall ever hearing of a solid case where homosexual “marriages” or “unions” or whatever were codified into law.

    As far as the NAB is concerned, what a tragedy it was to choose that translation as the basis of the lectionary! It’s often hard to read it without becoming infuriated. The pope uses the RSV-CE in his English-language books & so does the Catechism. It’s also a Rome-approved translation for lectionaries in other parts of the English-speaking world. While no translation is perfect, I pick the RSV or even the Douay-Rheims over the NAB any day.

  7. My treasured original Jerusalem Bible, a little worse for wear after having weathered a tornado, renders Galatians 5:19 as: When self-indulgence is at work, the results are obvious: fornication, gross indecency, and sexual irresponsibility.

    And Ephesians 5:3 is: Among you there must be not even a mention of fornication or impurity in any of its forms …

    Msgr Pope: just wondering why you use the NJB instead of the JB?

    1. I don’t have easy access to the original JB and am not aware that it is still in print. So its more a case of access. I normally use the NAB in that it is what is on the website, but as I said, I consider it useless for teaching in matters of sexuality. At any rate, I too have fond memories of the JB, it was my mother’s devotional bible when I was growing up. My only thing about the JB I didn’t like was the use of Yahweh instead of the LORD since I always thought it felt strange and irrevernt to use the NAME out loud.

      1. Msgr,

        You should check out the CTS New Catholic Bible from Catholic Truth Society (in England). It uses the Jerusalem Bible translation with two exceptions:

        1) It changes the use of “Yahweh” to “LORD”.

        2) It uses the Grail Psalter for the Psalms instead of the JB translation. The Grail Psalter is the one used in the Liturgy of the Hours.

        I have a copy and it is the Bible I use for personal study; I recommend it highly. I think the only place you can get it is from the CTS website:


  8. “The obscurity of the text may also underlie the fact that many Catholic Priests do not speak often on sexual immorality since that meaning of the text does not stand out as clearly as it should and inspire their thought and proclamation. ”

    Do not often speak? More like never speak, at least in the Catholic churches I have attended. It is odd that with marriage being under attack for the last several decades, it can at times be difficult to hear a good sermon on marriage even when the Gospal of the day is the wedding feast at Cana. I do think that Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body writings are starting to trickle into the churches, but it is indeed a trickle.

  9. I’m with bt. Priest’s don’t speak on sexuality because they don’t want their congregation walking out the doors. The NAB may just be a good excuse to hide behind. I’ve never heard a priest mention contraception, pre-marital sex, co-habitation or any thing else related (not counting the FSSP Latin Masses). If that’s the fault of the NAB, then the translation committee is in trouble on the last day.

    1. It’s certainly not the fault of the NAB only, but my only point here is that when the translation completely hides the sexual connotation a priest may not be moved to consider that topic. THis is not an excuse for total silence but the fact is that most priests use the readings to form their topic and when the reading translation is flawed it has the effect of not bringing the issue on the radar for addressal.

      1. …which makes me wonder if parishioners are not confessing anything regarding sex. And thus, the priest, between confession topics and the NAB, thinks that there is no reason to address anything sexual anymore, since we are all clearly Pollyannas in his pews!

  10. Not being one who is knowledgeable about the process of publishing updated versions of the Bible, I would not claim this to be a conspiracy theory but there has been to my understanding liberal verses conservative elements within the Church hierachy and laity doing what they can to expedite a more progressive social political agenda in Christian docterine. It usually starts at the scholastic level where they have the authority and access to revise social, moral and docterinal concepts and teachings. “Who, dost thou think, is the faithful and prudent steward whom the master will set over his household to give them their ration of grain in due time? Blessed is that servant whom his master, when he comes, shall find doing so. Truly I say to you, he will set him over all his goods.” “But if that servant says to himself, ‘My master delays his coming,’ and begins to beat the menservants and the maids, and to eat and drink and get drunk, the master of that servant will come on a day he does not expect, and in an hour he does not know, and will cut him assunder and make him share the lot of the unfaithful. But that servant who knew his master’s will, and did not make ready for him and did not act according to his will, will be beaten with many stripes. Whereas he who did not know it, but did the things deserving of stripes,will be beaten with few. But of everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and of him to whom they have entrusted much, they will demand the more.” Jesus said that to his disciples. “Endeavor to persevere.” That’s what the indian in The Outlaw Josey Wells said when telling Clint Eatswood what the president had told the chiefs at the signing of the peace treaty and look where progressivism got them. We have faith in your convictions as our ever vigilant shepherd.

  11. Dr. William May and others argue, and I believe rightly so, that the word “pornea” in this context refers to incest. Such renders any such attempted marriage as an “illicit” union. Neither fornication nor adultery is regarded as evils that can dissolve a marriage and/or immediately give approbation to divorce. A true marriage lasts until the death of one of the parties. Incestuous bonds violate nature and are not true marriages. Similarly, today we hesitantly tolerate divorce in cases where there will be an annulment of a marriage deemed invalid. Jesus is not giving an escape clause for adultery or lewd conduct. If I recall correctly, knowing that the words would be proclaimed in the lectionary, the bishops themselves asked for a less specific word in the text so as not to create indelicacies with innocent children in the congregation.

    1. It seems to me that it would be ultimately better for the children to let indelicate words be said, if it meant frankly addressing behaviors of the adults/parents in the pews, and thus helping those adults not only live more gracefully here on earth, but also be found worthy of heaven.

      I like Father Jenkin’s analysis but have terrible doubts about the wisdom of the bishops he mentioned. I think obfuscation never rewards.

  12. I understand that the idea of illicit marriage is a defensible interpretation of porneia. The problem is that it neglects a particularly interesting aspect of porneia as it appears in the Septuagint, and that is closely related to Jesus’ own family. Joseph considered divorcing his pregnant wife precisely because of the suspicion of “ekporneia” –
    This is not an illicit marriage but the situation where a man marries a woman believing her to be a virgin and she is not – she has committed sexual impurity possibly before their betrothal.

    The advantage of this interpretation is that Matthew has already refered to this case at the beginning of his Gospel, and so he feels no need to further elaborate. It seems unlikely that illicit marriages would be mentioned: in these cases a divorce was not issued, rather the Jewish courts declared these marriages void. However, in the case porneia described in Deut 22 a divorce was necessary.

  13. Dear Msgr Pope,

    What teachings / doctrine the church uses to grant an annulment? Is a catholic anulment a ‘carry over’ from the Jewish divorce? Just trying to understand and reconcile that if God join a married couple forever why the Church can anul it? I know the last question is not fair and poorly formulated.


    1. I wouldn’t say “grant an annulment”. An annulment is simply a declaration that a marriage never existed (even though the couple may have thought it did). In the case of an annulment, the couple was never really joined sacramentally to begin with, and so the Church isn’t granting anything…it is making a statment of fact: said man and said woman weren’t really married.

      Even in civil law, there are people who cannot be married to each other…thus any union they enter into isn’t really a marriage…the same with an annulment.

  14. As the father of two daughters, I was struck by the video and the implication that the girl is the person who is “responsible” for “getting pregnant.” I understand that the video is likely focused on persuading girls to stand firm against seeking or giving in to demands for sex before or outside of marriage and not intended to suggest that “Matt” does not share responsibility for a pregnancy that results from the illicit act. However, the quote in which the girl admits to “giving Matt what he wanted to make him happy” really hit a chord in me.

    My wife and I have talked to our daughters about the horrible mistake of having sex outside marriage. We have told them to resist, we have explained the health consequences, we have taught them about the sinful nature of the act.

    But we understand the overwhelming weight of the culture we live in and the contrary messages they receive.

    And so, as a father I have also tried to demonstrate what the true love of a man for a woman looks like. When the lectures and sermons are over, I treat my wife with gentleness. I show them that a real man doesn’t whine and complain and storm off when when the woman he loves says no…about anything. I try not to play the “this for that” game on even mundane matters. How many fathers say one thing to their daughters and then treat their own wives in a way that encourages the culture of submissiveness and low self-respect that LEADS to (rather than follows) teen sex?

    If we want girls who can say no, we need fathers who show their daughters what it means to truly love a woman. When my daughters are pressured by “boys” for sex, I pray they remember that a “man” doesn’t treat a woman he loves that way. I am certain that the power of that life experience will always be stronger than video sermons and hermenutical quibblings.

    Let’s remember that the disagreements we have about translation and meaning and history all amount to mindless prattle if they do not inform what we DO as parents.

  15. Well here’s one, “Jonathan made a covenant with David because he loved him as himself, Jonathan took off the robe he was wearing, and his tunic and even his sword, his bow and his belt”. Remember they didn’t wear underpants in those days, so you have Jonathan naked here. Not to mention the same sex covenants celebrated by monks from the 7th to 17th century. That these were de facto gay marriages is proven by the fact that the partners were burnt when these were outlawed in early modern times.

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