When English interpretations of the New Testament talk about ‘sexual immorality’ they are really translating the Greek word porneia (πορνεία), it’s used almost every time the topic of sex comes up and often when talking about the worst sins in general. If you can really grok what Paul was talking about as he uses the root for the word over and over again (it appears 32 times in the New Testament) then the rest falls into place. Now porneia has always been translated into Latin as fornication, while being understood by many conservatives to just be a 1:1 stand in for ‘any sexual expression not between husband and wife’. However, Porneia in post-classical Corinthian Greek did not mean generic sexual sin, or even sex outside of marriage, at all exactly and neither did fornication in actual Latin. The truth, like in many things, is a little bit more complicated and a lot more interesting
Courtesan receiving a client
TRIGGER WARNINGS AHEAD FOR DEPICTIONS OF SEXUAL EXPLOITATION IN CLASSICAL GREECE, ALSO AN NSFW VASE. (SFW version)
The word family of porneia (πορνεία) as the Classical Greeks actually used it was related to the verb to sell, and was only ever used in one context. A porneon was a house of forced prostitution, pornos (πόρνος) described those who sexually assaulted those forced into prostitution, pornoi (πόρνοι) were more than one, the pornēs (πόρνης) described specifically those prostitutes who were sold for a pathetic sum to any taker, and itinerant sex traffickers were called pornoboskoi, a singularly unpleasant combination with the verb that described the herding of livestock such as cattle. The word porneia itself is a pretty weird form and only has four attested uses before Christianity, each time referring to the general concept of one’s body being sold as a sexual object. Paul used the word root repeatedly in his Epistles while making two primary assertions, that the ubiquitous system of porneia fed by war, poverty, and callousness was fundamentally not OK, and that a laundry list of examples were pretty much the same thing as porneia. This fundamental position on heterosexual sex, that it is something that must be divorced from exploitation was profoundly radical and novel for the time – even if it is hard to see today being the water we swim in. Paul was clearly very concerned about sex, so much so that he comes from an almost totally ascetic perspective, and indeed with the modern eyes that he was such a large part of giving us, sex was one of the most terrible aspects of the world he lived in. Where the scale of destruction, theft, oppression and callous exploitation is truly unimaginable to us modern readers of the historical records we have.
Lest you think there is significant doubt about what the concept meant to the Classical and post-Classical Greeks, the porneia word family communicates one of the more thoroughly defined ideas that we have from their lexicon, as the ancient greeks were so legally concerned, as well as facetiously fascinated, with it. To really understand it requires a little bit of older context. Under the laws of Draco in ancient Greece (621BCE), where we get the term draconian today, any man who caught another man sexually violating (adultering, moicheía, μοιχεία) his wife could legally kill that man with the same legal immunity as an athlete who accidentally killed someone in competition23.53. Consent, or even any action or feelings on the part of the woman in question, were perfectly immaterial to moicheía, a crime that one man committed against another. Indeed, in addition to being able to just get some friends together and safely jump him while he was indisposed on the can Pulp Fiction style, Draco also allowed the cuckold to capture the adulterer and inflict whatever tortures he imagined so long as he didn’t use a knife59.67. While we know that in practice this extraordinary immunity usually resulted in the aggrieved man privately extorting exorbitant amounts of money from the adulterer in exchange for publicly forfeiting that immunity, it also formed the basis for some really fascinating trials. Under the laws of Solon (594BCE), as well as later codes, this legal vengeance only applied to wives (as well as concubines kept for the purpose of producing free children) and explicitly not to women available for sale59.67. This meant pornēs or those like them such as flute players, two-obol women, bridge women, alley walkers, or ground beaters, as well as wives being intentionally used as ‘bait’ to entrap rich potential adulterers were not included. Thus we have solid court records of those accused of adultering wives aggressively defending themselves by declaring the objects of their attentions to be pornēs – while very precisely and luridly defining the term as describing women available for sale to any john, particularly if at a fixed price.
Young flute player at a Symposium
Its important to keep in mind what sexual immorality, the porn- word family, really meant for the society that Paul was advising his churches on how to live in. Before Paul, the logical consequences of porneia were seen as a totally uncontroversial part of life, a public good – tradition even held that Solon the lawgiver opened a brothel in Athens himself as an act of public service. (Philemon, Frag. 3; Athenaeus, Deipn. 569d) The systematic rape of the vulnerable that the institution represented was regulated by cities in the same way that roads were, as a lucrative and essential public utility. Indeed the task of overseeing it was given to the Astynomoi, a board of citizens who were entrusted with tasks associated with maintaining thoroughfares, such as ensuring the reputable disposal of feces and abandoned corpses from the streets. For example, they established a price cap of two drachmas to protect ‘consumers,’ while the same officials who enforced that cap would also adjudicate disputes over women (by the drawing of lots to avoid price competition, the women themselves were not to be consulted). Sex traffickers were also given licenses to ensure quality ‘product’, as well as districts to operate in (generally near docks or city gates) to manage the noise, filth, and brawls over women that were inherent to the whole business. The ‘trade’ was also clearly not small, much less a small part of life in the world early Christianity was addressing. While it is very unclear what the exact percentage of women could be described as pornēs would be in any western society before the advent of the modern census, it is clear that at the time it was at least astonishingly large – particularly after victorious military campaigns when cities were flooded with more unfortunate pornēs than they could rape at any price. It is also important to consider that every woman in that era had the threat of being sold into porneia hanging over her head, as women who lost the social status granted to them by a man for whatever reason could always be sold or abducted for a sort of ‘scrap value.’ This would have been true to varying degrees whether that status was by virtue of being somewhere on the sexual-partner-to-a-man spectrum from ‘wedded wife according to the laws,’ kept as part of a relationship with her father’s family and/or for the purpose of producing heirs, to otherwise disposable girlfriend to sexual chattel – or by virtue of being maintained as a daughter or sister or cousin. Losing that connection through shifting political winds, sexual disinterest, familial indifference or military defeat could mean losing everything in a sense few with the internet access to read this would be able to begin to understand. Demeas in Menander’s play Samia describes, in detail that would make the vilest MRA blush, what will happen to his girlfriend (companion, hetaera, ἑταίρα) when he kicks her out of the house for supposed unfaithfulness:
“You think you’re so fine. Go to the city and you will see what kind of woman you really are. They live in a different world those other women, paid a paltry ten drachmas for running to dinner parties and drinking undiluted wine until they die, and if they hesitate or demure, they starve. You will learn the hard way like everyone else, and recognize the mistake you have made.”
Indeed a comic character later expounds on this idea:
“Apart from that its easier, isn’t it, to get along with a ‘married’ hetaera than with a wedded wife. Of course it is. A wife stays indoors, her haughtiness licensed by law, a heteaera, on the other hand, knows that if she wants to keep her man she must pay for him with good behavior, or go and find another one.”
Even extraordinarily vulnerable women had reason to fear the life of a pornēs in a kinētērion (literally fuckery or fuck factory), according to Eupolis 99.27,
“They stand virtually naked, lest you be deceived; take a look at everything. Perhaps you are not feeling up to the mark; maybe you have something on your mind. The door’s wide open; one obol’s the fee. Pop in! No coyness here, no nonsense, no running away, but without delay the one you want, whichever way you want her. You come out; you tell her where to go; to you she is nothing.”
He isn’t being entirely serious in his salesmanship as he makes clear soon afterwards when he describes the girls as being “the ones Eridanos (then an open sewer that the waste of Athens flowed into) refreshes with its pure waters.” I should also note that while I am taking into account Appolodorus’ famous distinction between mistresses, concubines and wives – I am ignoring, as Paul did, the megalomisthoi (great hetaeras) who often wielded considerable influence in society and politics as women explicitly exercising their own agency, specifically performing sexual favors only when they pleased for those who gave them exorbitant gifts. Their lives, and how they relate to their own societies as well as ours, are incredibly complicated and interesting on all sorts of levels but unfortunately also a distraction from the real nature of the porn- word family and the exploitation it represented.
A prostitute and her client (Source: http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prostitution_en_Gr%C3%A8ce_antique)
This is all pretty disturbing but, you might ask, doesn’t the way Paul uses the word pretty clearly have a jargon meaning specific to the communities he was addressing? Indeed he practically invents the form, being such a weirdly female centric construction from a Classical Greek perspective. Paul does also clearly both put on his judging face and use the word porneia when describing examples of things like adultery or sex outside of marriage, even when there are no pornoboskoi or porneon in sight and no one is exchanging money, much less anything as pathetic as the two obols commonly exchanged for pornēs. It is also important to keep in mind that Paul was not himself Greek, and neither was much of his audience that he was writing to, even if he was writing in Greek; thus we have to consider that Paul and the communities that wrote the gospels might have really been meaning the underlying Hebrew root זנה (znh) when they discussed porneia.
However, Paul’s reactionary asceticism cannot be meaningfully judged outside of the context of the society he was reacting against. In the world that Paul was trying to change, the magnitude of male privilege was such that women were fundamentally unable to exist economically independent of men. Examples of independent women who did not rely on sex work in the Greco-Roman or Hebrew world were very few and far between, and almost exclusively either widows or only daughters who were simply attached to dead men rather than live ones. Sex outside of the commitment of marriage really was functionally very much like porneia, and was a clear path to the bare naked thing. If we take Paul at his word that he, unlike his contemporaries, felt that women were no less than men in Christ then his position on porneia becomes just a logical extension of the inherent dignity of women through Christ.
The Pauline model for marriage is about avoiding porneia and the laundry list of examples of things he gives as being just like it. Without it there were only situational rather than moral protections from being used by a partner until old and discarded to the elements; Paul stipulated headship but also repeatedly, inescapably, and radically mandates that men place their wives before themselves, that apostasy and misconduct are the only appropriate reasons for divorce, and that women are no less than men before God. The early church was flooded with women attracted by this radically feminist message that women were actually people with dignity that was inherent to them and needed to be respected by men. Even today porneia is by no means gone, in absolute numbers there are more women in sexual slavery today than there have ever been at any point in human history. However, most of the women who aren’t will be able to avoid it into a Pauline model marriage, some variety of post-Pauline marriage, a functionally equivalent model, or into a world made safer by them.
The Old Drunkard Woman, Glyptothek Munich (Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Old_drunkard_Glyptothek_Munich_437_n1.jpg)
Christianity developed in a world where for women, and many vulnerable men, who you slept with determined who served as your source of protection from omnipresent sexual slavery. Mandating that men pick a wife and stick with her, among other things, stabilized life for women, served to combat sexual exploitation in general, and was indeed a pretty decent way for not-shitty people to interact with the laws of Draco. I am no theologian, I am not your theologian, and this is not theological advice, but I’m not sure that this strategy is so invalid in our age of disposable partners, excuses for exploitative men, shame for exploited women, and ubiquitous sexual assault. I won’t pretend to personally have some moral authority to tell anyone how they should think about sex, but I find Paul’s orientation if not his case deeply convincing.
This post is indebted to improvements from thoughtful criticism by some of reddit’s local AskHistorians after it got a bunch of attention, and has been edited to fix a troublesome declension issue found by mefites.