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:
- Eph 5:3 from NAB Immorality or any impurity or greed must not even be mentioned among you ….. OR
- 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….
- Gal 5:19 from NAB: Now the works of the flesh are obvious: immorality, impurity, licentiousness….. OR
- 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.