Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
June 16, 1949
NUMBER 7, PAGE 4-5,7b

Is The Term "Fornication" Generic Or Specific?

James W. Adams, Longview, Texas

The divorce menace as it now exists in the United States creates critical problems in the church. The pressure of these problems is being felt throughout the brotherhood in all congregations large and small. With these problems, interest has been quickened in the teaching of the New Testament on the subject of divorce and remarriage. Matthew 5 and 19 are coming under the close scrutiny of many. With the renewed interest in these passages, there has come the revival of a misconception concerning the meaning of the term "fornication" as used in them. It is urged by many, some of them very capable preachers, that the word "fornication" as used in these scriptures refers specifically and exclusively to illicit sex relationship by unmarried parties. This is not a new idea, but one that has sprung up here and there throughout the long and varied history of the New Testament church. Like all religious error, it has a way of recurring at intervals. Those who espouse it maintain that Jesus permits divorce and remarriage on the grounds of "fornication" which, according to their definition, is "sexual unchastity before marriage on the part of one of the parties to the marriage contract". They deny that adultery, which they define as "sexual infidelity on the part of the married", is allowed by Jesus as grounds for divorce and remarriage.

The Scope Of Our Study

It is evident, therefore, that our study must necessarily embrace two terms: Fornication and adultery. To be thorough, we must observe the use of these terms in both the Old and New Testaments. To be certain as to the correctness of our conclusions, we must determine the words from which they were translated in the original Hebrew and Greek of the Old and New Testaments, and carefully trace their translation and use in every passage in which they occur. Be it observed that it is not enough for the individual who would limit the meaning of the term "fornication" as used by Jesus in Matthew 5 and 19 to show that the term is sometimes used to apply specifically to "illicit sex relation by the unmarried". He must establish (1) that the term is always so used, or (2) he must propose and sustain a rule of interpretation by means of which it may be proved that Jesus, in Matthew 5 and 19, used the term "fornication" to comprehend "only the unmarried". It is my firm conviction that neither of these can be done. This article proposes to establish the fact that the term "fornication" is a generic term applicable to the sex sins of the married as well as the unmarried.

The Meaning Of The Word "Adultery"

Webster defines "adultery" as: "The violation of the marriage bed; sexual unfaithfulness which introduces or may introduce a spurious offspring. In the Scripture, all manner of lewdness or unchastity as forbidden by the seventh commandment; voluntary sexual intercourse by a married man with another than his wife or by a married woman with another than her husband".

In the Old Testament, the term "adultery" and its derivatives are translated from the Hebrew word "naaph". Naaph is used 31 times in the Old Testament and is translated: "Commit, committed, or committing adultery", 17 times; "adulterer", 8 times; "adulteress", 4 times; "adulterous", 1 time; "women that break wedlock", 1 time. The contexts clearly show in 17 cases that reference is to illicit sex relation by married persons. In the other 14 instances, the contexts indicate nothing to determine the use of the terms.

In the New Testament, "adultery" and its derivative are translated from the Greek word "moicheia" in one form or another. These terms are used 30 times and as translated: "Adulterer, 4 times; "adulteress", 2 time; "adulterous", 3 times; "adultery, adulteries", 5 times "commit, committed, committeth adultery", 10 times "taken in adultery", 1 time. From the contexts of the passages, it is clear that the terms are used 14 times to refer to married persons. In 16 instances, the context reveal nothing with reference to the precise application of the terms.

Bagster defines "moicheia" and its derivatives: "Adulterer, adulteress, to defile a married woman; adultery (Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament).

Thayer defines them: "To have unlawful intercourse with another's wife; to commit adultery; adulterer' (Greek-English Lexicon).

From these facts, it is safe to conclude that a word "adultery" both in the Old and New Testament signifies primarily: "Illicit sex relation on the part of the married". There is one probable exception to this rule but the limitations of space forbids a detailed discussion of it since it is not essential to the determination of the issue under consideration. In this article, we shall think of adultery as signifying: "Sex sin on the part of the married.

The Meaning Of The Term Fornication

We are now ready for a study of the word "fornication". In the Old Testament, it is a translation of thee Hebrew word "zanah". Zanah is used 83 times and is translated: "Fornication", 3 times; "go a whoring", 18 times; "whore, whoremonger, whorish, 14 times; "Whoredom", 10 times; "harlot", 38 times. In 48 instances, the word clearly suggests both in its literal and figurative uses, the illicit sex relation of married persons. Every passage in which any of the terms considered in this article appears either in the Old or New Testament has been read with care and systematically compiled wits related passages by the author. All such statements therefore, as the above can be abundantly sustained. Zanah' is used to refer to unmarried persons 18 times. In 17 instances, it cannot be determined from the context exactly how the term is to be understood. It is significant however, that it is the word "zanah" which is used the great majority of cases to describe the sin of Israel is going after idols both before and after she entered into covenant relationship with Jehovah at Mt. Sinai. This fact is significant because this relationship is set forth in the Old Testament under the figure of marriage.

In the New Testament, the word "fornication" is translation of the Greek word "porneia" in one form or another. Porneia is likewise the word by which the He. brew term "zanah" is translated in the Septuagint Version (Greek Translation of the Old Testament). Hence the term "fornication" in our English New Testament signifies what "zanah" signifies in the Hebrew Old Testament and "porneia" in the Greek New Testament. Having already shown that "zanah" was attributed to married persons numerous times in the Old Testament, it is now our purpose to show that "porneia" is likewise used in the New Testament to include in its meaning the sin of "adultery". The fact that the Greek word "porneia" is used to translate the Hebrew word "zanah" in the Septuagint Version, as has been shown," is proof within itself that porneia includes in its meaning the sin of adultery. Here is the argument: (1) The Hebrew word "zanah" in the Old Testament is used 48 times to describe the sin of adultery; (2) But the Greek word "porneia" is the term by which "zanah" is translated in the Septuagint Version; (3) Therefore, the Greek "porneia" includes in its meaning the sin of adultery. Now, see this conclusion: (1) The Greek word "porneia" includes in its meaning the sin of adultery; (2) But "porneia" is the Greek term from which our word "fornication" is translated in Mt. 5:32 and 19:9; (3) Therefore, our word "fornication" in Mt. 5:32 and 19:9 includes in its meaning the sin of adultery. The word "porneia" appears, in one form or another, 55 times in the New Testament. It is translated: "Harlot" 8 times; "whore", 4 times; "fornicator", 5 times; "whoremonger", 5 times; "fornication", 26 times; "to commit fornication", 7 times; "to give oneself over to fornication", 1 time. In 38 instances, it is impossible to determine from the contexts whether the married or the unmarried are meant. In 9 instances, it is possible but not absolutely certain that married persons are meant. In 8 cases, the passages might be construed as having reference to unmarried persons, but this also is by no means certain. The New Testament is not so definite as the Old Testament in indicating from the contexts the precise use of the terms. The only excuse, however, that those who contend for the specific meaning of the term "fornication" have for such a contention is the fact that in a number of passages in the New Testament both fornication and adultery are listed among other sins. From this fact, the conclusion is reached that fornication is specific in meaning, hence refers to unmarried persons only. Such a conclusion is wholly unwarranted either from the standpoint of logic or Scripture. It is not contended by this writer that the terms "fornication" and "adultery" are always identical in meaning. It is urged, however, that the term fornication is general in meaning, therefore, applicable to the sin of adultery, as well as all other sexual sins, and that it is so used in the word of God. The term "adultery", on the other hand, signifies primarily illicit sex relation by the married. This being true, the only admissible construction that a Bible student can place upon the language of Jesus in Mt. 5:32 and 19:9 is that in the use of the term "fornication", He refers both to the married and the unmarried. With this conclusion, the lexicographers are in complete agreement.

Webster defines "fornication": "The incontinence or lewdness of unmarried persons male or female. In the Scripture, it may mean (a) adultery (b) incest (c) idolatry". (Emphasis mine J.W.A.)

Bagster defines "porneia" and its derivatives: "Fornication, whoredom, concubinage, adultery, incest, lewdness, uncleanness, symbolically for idolatry. To commit fornication or whoredom. Commit spiritual fornication or practice idolatry. A prostitute, a whore, harlot, an unchaste female, an idolatress. A catamite. In the New Testament, a fornicator, impure person" (Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament).

Thayer defines "porneia" and its derivatives: "Illicit sexual intercourse in general. Prostitute one's body to the lust of another. In the Scripture, to give one's self to unlawful sexual intercourse. A woman who sells her body for sexual uses. In the New Testament, any woman indulging in unlawful sexual intercourse, whether for gain or lust. An idolatress. A man who prostitutes his body for hire. A man who indulges in unlawful sexual intercourse" (Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament).

In the course of our discussion, the statement has been made several times that the terms "zanah" and "porneia", rendered "fornication" by the translators, include in their meaning the sin of adultery or illicit sex relation by the married. This article would, therefore, be incomplete without giving some Bible examples of:

The Married Committing Fornication.

Ezekiel 16: In this passage, the prophet is rebuking Jerusalem for her unfaithfulness to Jehovah. He does so by picturing Jerusalem as married to Jehovah. In verse 8, Jerusalem enters into covenant relationship with God, and He says of her, "Thou wert mine". In verse 10, it is said that God clothed her. In verse 19, God fed her, and she bore Him sons and daughters. These statements establish the fact of the marriage relationship between Jehovah and Jerusalem. In verse 32 and 38, she is accused of committing adultery and breaking wedlock. Having noted these facts, note verse 26. Here, Jerusalem is accused of "committing fornication". She is called "a whorish woman, whore, harlot", and is charged with "whoredom". Each of these acts attributed to this married woman in verse 26 are derived from the Hebrew word "zanah", the very word translated by the Greek word "porneia" which in turn is the word used by Jesus in Mt. 5:32 and 19:9 and translated "fornication" in our English New Testaments. In this passage, the sin of a married woman is described by both adultery and fornication. The married do commit fornication. Fornication does include adultery in its meaning.

Ezekiel 23: This scripture furnishes another striking example of our contention in an allegory of two women, Aholah and Aholibah. Aholah represents Israel and Samaria. Aholibah represents Judah and Jerusalem. In verses 3 and 19, these women are accused of "whoredoms (zanah) and playing the harlot (zanah) in Egypt". This is before their marriage to Jehovah. They are unmarried women. In verse 4, they become Jehovah's and bear him sons and daughters. They are married to him. In verses 5, 30, and 44, they are accused of having committed "zanah", that is according to our English translations, "playing the harlot, going a whoring". It appears, then, that after marriage and while married, Aholah and Aholibah committed fornication. Their sin is also described as "naaph" or "adultery" in verses 37 and 45. Again, we are forced to the conclusion that God's Word uses the term fornication to include adultery.

Jeremiah 3 is another example worth noting. In verses 9, 12, 14, and 20, Jehovah is pictured as married to Israel and Judah. In verses 1, 3, 6, and 8, they are charged with "zanah" "playing the harlot", "committing fornication". In verses 8 and 9, their sin is also described as "naaph", "committing adultery". Yes, fornication is committed by married persons.

Amos 7:17 is an interesting example because it is literal rather than figurative. This verse says, "Therefore thus saith the Lord, Thy wife shall be an harlot in the city—". The word "harlot" is from the Hebrew word "zanah". From "zanah", we have "porneia" in the Septuagint Version. From "porneia", we have "fornication" in our English translations, Mt 5:23 and 19:9. Wives can and do commit fornication in the Bible. Who, therefore, can correctly limit the exception of Jesus in the use of the word 'fornication" to unmarried persons? Jesus allows divorce and remarriage on the grounds of fornication. Fornication as practically illustrated by inspiration includes adultery. Jesus, therefore, allows divorce and remarriage on the grounds of adultery.

Rev. 2:20-22 tells of a woman, Jezebel by name, who is guilty of committing adultery and causing God's people to commit adultery. In this same passage, she is likewise charged with committing and causing God's people to commit fornication. Both terms describe the same act by the same persons.

Many other examples might be given, but these will suffice to establish the fact that the word "fornication" includes in its meaning the sin of adultery. Therefore, to limit the exception of Jesus in Mt. 5:32 and 19:9 to unmarried persons is to force an unwarranted definition upon a Bible term which is clearly defined and illustrated by inspiration.

No better conclusion could be written to this article than is found in the words of the learned Dr. George Campbell appended as a note to his translation of Mt. 5:32, "Except it be for whoredom". He says, "The term fornication is here improper. The Greek is not as the English confined to the commerce of man and woman who are both unmarried. It is justly defined by Parkhurst, `Any commerce of the sexes out of lawful marriage'. To this meaning of the word `porneia' etymology points as well as scriptural use. It is the translation of the Hebrew words zenunim and zanah' which are employed with equal latitude as one may soon be convinced on consulting Trommius Concordance" (Campbell's Gospels; Vol. IV; Pg. 51).