A few months ago I pointed out that not only can lust be a good thing according to the Bible, but that even Jesus lusted. I also claimed that the Bible actually says a lot less about premarital sex than we’ve been told it does. Here’s a quick explanation of why I said that.
If you grew up human, you probably know that those in the Christian religion normally condemn premarital sex (along with various other sexual practices that seem to make them squirm). They’ll usually tell you that this is because God also condemns it in the Bible. Of course, like nearly everything else, they generally haven’t actually studied whether or not Scripture really says what they think it says.
The primary reason that most Christians are so against premarital sex is one little word: fornication. Depending on your English translation, in the New Testament you’ll find fornication criticized as a very bad thing that one should flee, and if you look fornication up in an English dictionary you will indeed find that it means sexual intercourse between unmarried partners. The problem is, the Bible wasn’t originally written in English.
The word translated as “fornication” in the Bible is the Greek word porneia (πορνεία). The thing is, this word does not literally translate as “premarital sex” the way the religious would like you to believe it does. In fact, it’s generally agreed that the most accurate translation of porneia is “illicit sexual activity” (or “immoral sexual activity”). Some of the more modern versions of Scripture actually do translate porneia as “sexual immorality” rather than “fornication,” which I think is a far superiour way of rendering it because it raises questions for us instead of spelling out a definite answer.
The most obvious question, of course, is what exactly constitutes “sexual immorality” (or “illicit sexual activity”). Of course, if one has been brought up with the presupposition that premarital sex is wrong then one will naturally assume that it falls into this category (hence the “fornication” translation in many Bibles). But one should never make assumptions when it comes to theology, even if it is the easiest route to take.
If we take the term “illicit sexual activity” literally, it means sexual activity that breaks the law. Generally, here in the western world, premarital sex doesn’t break the law, and it certainly wasn’t against the law among the gentiles Paul wrote to when he told Christians to avoid porneia. In fact, it wasn’t even technically against the Mosaic law among the Jews, at least not for men. For women, it depended on how much of a bride price their fathers wanted in exchange for selling them to their future husbands. Remember, women were considered property back then among many cultures including the Jews, and virgins went for a higher price (this is also why adultery was considered wrong, because it was a violation of a man’s property rights. It’s also why adultery also doesn’t mean what we assume it means when we read the word in the Bible, but that’s probably best left for another post).
The truth is, the word porneia actually had multiple meanings, depending on the context it was being used in. It is believed that it spoke of sexual idolatry in some cases, referring to using temple prostitutes for fertility goddess worship. It was also used in reference to any sexual practice that was considered obscene, such as incest or bestiality. There was also a spiritual meaning to the word in some cases (the idea of worshipping other gods). The thing to take away from all this is that we can’t simply take the word and force the meaning of premarital sex onto it, despite the fact that your pastor would probably prefer you did.
Now, I could go over each occurrence of the word porneia in the New Testament with you, but it would be better for you go over them for yourself. Here’s every occurrence of the word in the KJV where it’s translated “fornication.” What I want you to do is read each passage and replace the word “fornication” with the word porneia in your mind, and then think about whether premarital sex is what the passage is definitely talking about. I think you’ll find that, at least in most (if not all) cases, there’s little to no justification for making that assumption.