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The Greek words "pornea" (often translated "fornication") and akatharsia (often translated "uncleanness") are key terms used to refer to sexual sins in the Christian Scriptures (New Testament). They appear dozens of times, particularly in the writings attributed to Paul, who concentrated a great deal on sexual sins. Unfortunately, diverse Christian groups have very different definitions of these words.

bulletReligious liberals tend to define the terms narrowly and precisely.
bulletReligious conservatives often define the words to include a wide assortment of sexual activities, when practiced within a wide range of types of relationships.

By simply defining the words in a narrow or wide sense, religious liberals and conservatives can totally change the meaning of the Bible.

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Appearance of the Greek word "pornea" in the Christian Scriptures:

The word "pornea" is normally translated in the King James Version of the Bible as "fornication." There are 32 verses in the original Greek versions of the Christian Scriptures that contain the word. Examples are:

bulletMatthew 5:32: "But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery..."
bulletRomans 1:29-31: "Being filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers, backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, without understanding, covenant breakers, without natural affection, implacable, unmerciful:"
bullet1 Corinthians 5:1: "It is reported commonly that there is fornication among you, and such fornication as is not so much as named among the Gentiles, that one should have his father's wife."
bullet1 Corinthians 7:2: "Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband."
bulletGalatians 5:19-20: "Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies..."
bulletJude 1:7: "Even as Sodom and Gomorrha, and the cities about them in like manner, giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh, are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire."
bulletRevelation 18:3: "For all nations have drunk of the wine of the wrath of her fornication, and the kings of the earth have committed fornication with her, and the merchants of the earth are waxed rich through the abundance of her delicacies."

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Modern-day meanings of "fornication":

The definition of "fornication" in dictionaries, Strong's Concordance, and among religious liberals is restricted to actual sexual intercourse:

bulletThe American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition defines "fornication" simply as: "Sexual intercourse between partners who are not married to each other." 1
bulletThis dictionary also discusses the origin of the world. "Fornication" came from The Latin word "fornix," from which "fornicti," the ancestor of fornication, is derived. It meant a vault, an arch. The term also referred to a vaulted cellar or similar place where prostitutes plied their trade. 1
bulletA Dictionary of modern American Usage, defines "fornication" to refer to sexual intercourse by:
bullettwo unmarried persons, or by
bulletone unmarried person with a married person. 2
bullet Strong's Concordance gives 19th century meanings to Greek and Hebrew words found in the Bible. It describes "pornea," as having a somewhat broader usage in Biblical times, compared to today. When used literally, it includes three activities: prostitution, adultery and incest. Figuratively it means idolatry, or sexual intercourse between unmarried persons. 3

However, most conservative Christian churches have greatly expanded the English term "fornication." It is to them a catchall term:

bulletAccording to Christs Freedmen, it now includes "premarital sex, orgies, masturbation, oral sex, fetishes, anything to do with pornography, 'improper' thoughts about the opposite sex, homosexuality, and just about any other sexual sin you could think of." He comments: "While some of these things are sin...this is a gross misuse of the word fornication." 3
bulletSome conservative churches and ministries extend the definition of "pornea" to include masturbation.
bullet"Adultery is one type of fornication...In Biblical usage, 'fornication' can mean any sexual congress outside monogamous marriage. It thus includes not only premarital sex, but also adultery, homosexual acts, incest, remarriage after un-Biblical divorce, and sexual acts with animals, all of which are explicitly forbidden in the law as given through Moses (Leviticus 20:10-21). Christ expanded the prohibition against adultery to include even sexual lusting (Matthew 5:28)." 4
bullet Easton's Bible Dictionary says: "...much of the behavior  that is fairly acceptable in our culture is exactly what Paul would term 'pornea.' Sexual immorality. Like what? Like premarital sex. Like sex outside of marriage. Like pornography. Like prostitution." 5
bulletThe Jehovah's Witnesses teach that: "The Greek word translated 'fornication' is not restricted to sexual intercourse but includes a variety of lewd acts. So if two unmarried people engage in oral sex or in fondling each others’ reproductive organs, they are guilty of fornication." 6

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The meaning of the Greek words "akatharsia" and "akathartos" in the Christian Scriptures (New Testament):

This word akatharsia, as a noun, and akathartos, an adjective, appears in Romans 1:24, 2 Corinthians 12:21, and Galatians 5:19. It is typically translated "uncleanness." In the King James Version of the Bible, these are translated:

bulletRomans 1:24: "Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves:"
bullet2 Corinthians 12:21: "And lest, when I come again, my God will humble me among you, and that I shall bewail many which have sinned already, and have not repented of the uncleanness  and fornication and lasciviousness which they have committed."
bulletGalatians 5:19: "Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness , lasciviousness."

In the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) there were many laws regarding ritual uncleanness. A person or a couple might become ritually unclean for a period of time:

bulleta woman is unclean while menstruating, or after having given birth. Having a girl baby is more polluting than having a boy. A woman remained unclean for 80 days for a girl and 40 days for a boy.
bulletwhen a man and a woman have engaged in sexual intercourse, they are unclean until the evening.
bulletWhen someone touches or is close to a dead body, they are unclean for seven days.

Jesus and his disciples violated the Hebrew Scriptures' laws regarding ritual uncleanness. For example, they did not wash his hands before eating. In Mark 7:6-23 (copied by the author of Matthew in Matthew 15:3-20) Jesus enunciated the great principle that there is no ceremonial, but only moral and spiritual, uncleanness. He repudiated uncleanness, saying that one is defiled by "the things that come out of his heart, evil thoughts, hatred, adultery, murder, etc." That is, one does not become unclean by the actions of his hands. 7

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  1. "Fornication," The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, at: http://www.dictionary.com/
  2. Bryan A. Garner, "A Dictionary of Modern American Usage," Oxford University Press, (1998), Page 20.
  3. "Fornication," Strong's Concordance, at: http://freedom2201.tripod.com/
  4. "Fornication," in ChristianAnswers.net at: http://www.christiananswers.net/
  5. Fornication," Easton's Bible Dictionary, at: http://www.studylight.org/dic/ebd/view.cgi?number=T1376
  6. "Young people ask...'What's wrong with premarital sex?'," Awake! magazine, 2004-JUL-22. Online at: http://www.watchtower.org/ 
  7. "Uncleanness," The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, at: http://www.studylight.org/

Copyright © 2001 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2001-NOV-12
Latest update: 2001-DEC-15
Author: B.A. Robinson

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