Science and Other Drugs

….maybe a little less wrong….

Porneia – Part 2: Providential Prurience

Earlier, I wrote about the hypocrisy of treating an unmarried couple differently in order to signify disapproval for premarital sex. Here’s the Facebook quote that spawned it all:

“Shacking up and having a baby is not ‘cute’. Speak plainly and biblically about the soul-damning seriousness of fornication.”

I pointed out before that stigmatizing a family or relationship based on its origins is a hypocritical justification of prejudice, not some elevated level of holiness and biblical virtue. But I’d also like to focus on the second sentence, referencing the “soul-damning seriousness” of “fornication”.

Let’s start with a definition. Why is this individual using the term “fornication”? Apparently what they have in mind is premarital cohabitation….so….are these the same things?

Common definition of “fornication”….with a special link for the KIDS definition! What fun!

This is what people generally mean when they talk about fornication. Most people don’t know that “fornication” originally described prostitution: the Latin fornix was a reference to the domed back-alley arches where Roman prostitutes typically plied their trade. A “fornicator” was someone who, in the vernacular, “did it under an arch”.

As it turns out, this usage is a surprisingly accurate translation of the original term, at least as it’s used in the Old Testament. The Old Testament doesn’t actually use any Hebrew word to reference premarital sex itself. It uses “laying with” and “knowing” as euphemisms for the actual act, but it only uses two words that actually denote inherently sinful actions: זָנָה, zanah, meaning “harlotry”, and נָאַף, na’aph, meaning “adultery”. The latter is used exclusively in reference to the breaking of the marriage covenant; the former is used either in reference to prostitution itself or as a slang reference to wanton promiscuity (e.g., “playing the harlot”).

Likewise, the New Testament has two terms. The first is μοιχεύω, moicheuō, paralleling the Old Testament’s na’aph to indicate adultery. But the other one, πορνεία, porneia, is a nonspecific reference to any form of sex-that-is-sinful; it can be used to discuss incest, prostitution, bestiality, and so on. Its nonspecificity means it doesn’t really tell us anything about which things are sinful, only the attitude we should have toward certain types of sin. For definitions, the Old Testament is far more useful.

So where does that leave us? Contrary to the belief exemplified by the quote at the beginning of this post, the Bible never describes the “soul-damning seriousness” of shacking up and having a kid. It’s pretty hard to “speak plainly and biblically” about something the Bible never mentions….unless, of course, you’re merely interested in reinforcing hypocritical stereotypes.

In fact, the entire Old Testament only once describes what can unequivocally be labeled premarital sex (what modern Christians inaccurately refer to as fornication).

“If a man seduces a virgin who is not betrothed and lies with her, he shall give the bride-price for her and make her his wife. If her father utterly refuses to give her to him, he shall pay money equal to the bride-price for virgins.” (Exodus 22:16-17)

If I’m being honest….this seems incredibly underwhelming. For something Catholicism terms a mortal sin and what conservatives decry as the worst things a dating couple can do, premarital sex doesn’t seem as censured in the Old Testament. Where are the stonings? I mean, seriously. If kids are being stoned for a rebellious attitude but “fornication” just means you need to get married….well, sheesh.

Plus, this passage needs to be viewed in its historical context. In this culture, marriageability was the most valuable thing a woman could have. This law provided that if a guy tried to hit-and-split, he could be required to make restitution for the very real disadvantage he had placed the girl in, either monetarily or by marrying the girl. Indeed, all the preceding verses are about restitution for damages done; this passage establishes protection for the woman’s rights in that culture. Obviously, our culture isn’t exactly a parallel here, so these provisions aren’t explicitly applicable.

What’s the conclusion? Waxing eloquent about how soul-damningly sinful a couple must be because they’ve slept together isn’t biblical and it doesn’t accomplish anything. It’s just another way to make an idol out of the Victorian ideal of “modest chastity” American conservatives so vigorously insist upon.

If anything, it shows not only pride, but prurience. This intense, self-aggrandizing, fascinated, scandalized, near-crazed interest in the sexual goings-on of other people has more in common with the Pharisee of Luke 18 (“God, I thank you that I am not like other men: extortioners, unjust, adulterers”) than the tax collector. It’s not their business. It almost seems as though the thought of ferreting out and denouncing sexual sin sates some base concupiscence toward uncovering scandal and lasciviousness.

One final caveat, though: this doesn’t mean premarital sex is a good idea. In fact, I’d argue there’s still a very good rationale for saying it’s quite wrong. But that’s a topic for another post.


16 responses to “Porneia – Part 2: Providential Prurience

  1. antimule 2013/03/27 at 07:04

    Frankly I think that, for fundamentalists, singling out any sin as soul damning is hypocritical since they believe that, from God’s POV, every sin is equally bad and will equally get you to Hell. Since jaywalking apparently is jut as loathsome to God as the Holocaust, attempt to make any hierarchy of values is futile. They also see Jesus as the ultimate get out of jail free card, completely ignoring anything else Jesus said about going to heaven including the dreadfully socialist sheep and the goats parable.

    • physicsandwhiskey 2013/03/27 at 07:09

      This approach misses the point that even if all sins were equally damnable, it wouldn’t mean all sins have identical immediate consequences.

      You’re right in a sense, though. For people who are supposed to be “eternally minded”, popular Christianity is WAY more obsessed with the here and now.

      • antimule 2013/03/27 at 07:12

        Yes but since blood of Jesus is supposed to cover it all anyway (and there is no other method of covering it), and Heaven is infinitely more important than here and now, who cares about “immediate consequences”?

      • physicsandwhiskey 2013/03/27 at 07:16

        That’s the point: they’re far more concerned about the present than they’re willing to admit. Blood of Jesus is nice for the afterlife, but it doesn’t do much when your teenage daughter gets knocked up.

  2. antimule 2013/03/27 at 07:27

    Sorry if am probing too hard but I would like to know where do you stand about some stuff. Do you believe Bible is literally true or not? Do you believe that only Christians will be in Heaven? Do you think that there can be any validity to other religions?

    Me? I am something of a Deist and I am searching for a version of Christianity that maybe makes sense.

    • physicsandwhiskey 2013/03/27 at 07:32

      No problem.

      I’m frankly not sure where I stand on all these issues….hence my quip about being a recovering apologist. But this new healthy dose of skepticism hasn’t tempered my enjoyment of dismantling strawmen or other bad arguments, which is what I’ll be doing here a lot. You’re welcome to come along for the ride!

  3. antimule 2013/03/27 at 07:47

    May I interest you in an alternate perspective from an interesting guy? There is a Catholic geology professor Steve Dutch. He is a scientist and a believer and he wrote at great length about science and Christian faith and why the later seems irrelevant to many people. He is very confrontational and blunt but he is also very knowledgeable.

    First of all his entire pseudoscience index page is worth reading – Why People Leave the Church (his opinion why people leave the church) – Why Intellectuals Don’t Take Religious Believers Seriously (about misconceptions believers have about non-believers) – This Time It’s Biblical (about the importance of stewardship) – (about problems with inteligent design) – Let’s Play the “Evolution = Nazism” Game (why you should not say that evolution caused Nazism)

  4. Pingback: Porneia – Part 1: Pedantic premarital prejudice | Science and Other Drugs

  5. violetwisp 2013/03/28 at 20:13

    I wasn’t sure whether to like that or not because you ruined it with your last paragraph. 🙂 The problem with your argument is that it’s so long and full of strange words that anyone who calls pre-marital sex “soul-damning fornication” probably won’t be able to follow it … apart from that, I’m continuing to enjoy your wealth of knowledge!

  6. Josh Woods 2013/04/10 at 19:13

    Fascinating post and fairly interesting, but I can’t help but be haunted by this one fact:
    Virtually every church, Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox, for the last 2000 years has affirmed that a proper interpretation of scripture stipulates that fornication = premarital sex and that it is a sin. Literally millions of people and probably hundreds of thousands of scholars have plied the texts for millennia and come to a conclusion distinctly opposite to yours. And yet, in one blog post (well, perhaps two) you claim to have upended 2000 years of church tradition and teaching?

    I’m not saying you’re wrong, but in thinking through the consequences of you’re being right, I find it difficult to conclude that someone without so much as a degree in ancient languages, has somehow stumbled upon insight that has been hitherto unattainable by all the Theologians and Greek and Hebrew Scholars who have shaped various official doctrines up to this point.

    Are you really prepared to say that all of them have gotten it wrong and you have gotten it right? I mean, I understand the fallacies of appeal to authority and ad populum, but really?

    • physicsandwhiskey 2013/04/11 at 00:08

      Hey, thanks for your comment. I appreciate it!

      You certainly have a point; anyone who wants to completely subvert the current consensus needs to be able to demonstrate his or her position to a high degree of certainty. Of course, I think I’ve done that here; at the very least, I hope I’ve cast doubt on the commonly-accepted belief that the Bible openly and unquestionably condemns premarital sex.

      I think you’d have a little MORE of a point if this had actually been the open teaching of the Church at large for the past 2000 years, as you assert. But….it hasn’t actually been. This extreme prurience and obsession with sexuality is largely a product of the last three or four centuries, particularly the last century. For the majority of church history, “marriage” was a social and financial arrangement between families as the ownership of a woman was legally transferred from father to husband. As owned property, the woman was subject to her father’s control; he was expected to protect her virginity in anticipation of her eventual wedding, because that was the social expectation. There never really WAS any significant controversy over whether an unattached woman was morally permitted to form a relationship with a man prior to marriage.

      And once a marriage HAD been arranged, there was very little in the way of restrictions. I’ve been unable to find any church proclamations decrying the horrors of engaged or betrothed couples sleeping together. “Behold, the immorality and debauchery: they didst lie together before the appointed time!” None of that.

      Obviously, prostitution has always been denounced, and unwed moms have been accordingly ostracized. But while the former provision is solidly biblical, the latter has been rooted in a sexist culture. Thankfully, that culture is beginning to wane.

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