The Greek word which translates as fornication in Mathew 5:32 and Matthew 19:9 is a general word covering all types of sexual intercourse (A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, pp. 699-700).

When looking to the Greek Old Testament (known as the LXX), the word “porneia” (translated as fornication or harlotry) is used on multiple occasions to describe both literal and figurative persons who are married who commit unlawful, sexual activity with someone other than their spouse (e.g., Amos 7:17; Hosea 1:2-3; 2:2-5; Ezek. 16:8, 20, 22, 25, 28, 29; 23:4-5).

In Ezekiel 16 and 23, God used the word fornication/harlotry (porneia) some 40 times concerning Israel’s unfaithfulness to Him. The word for adultery is used some six times here to describe the same action(s) (for more study see:

The LXX translates moicheia for naaph (adultery) and porneia for zanah (fornication/harlotry). In these chapters, and in Jeremiah 3, both words are used to describe the same action, as is seen in Ezekiel 23:43 where both words occur. Using the word fornication to describe unlawful sex when at least one of the parties was married was not at all uncommon.

Furthermore, the Greek word porneia occurs approximately 25 times in the New Testament. The times we see this word defined and used literally in context, it is seen as any type of consensual, physical sexual intercourse (Jn. 8:41; 1 Cor. 5:1; 6:13; 15-18; 1 Cor. 7:1-2; etc.). As shown above, this word is a general word covering all unlawful sexual intercourse. The only way that the word could be limited to a specific type of intercourse is if the context(s) demands it.

Porneia is also employed to describe the actions of a married person by Tatian and Origen (Divorce & Remarriage in the Early Church, p. 193, Harrell). Furthermore, there are historical writings that are non-inspired known as the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha that use both the words fornication and adultery together to reference the same action (Sirach 23:17, 23; Joseph 3:8-9; Ecclus. 23:23 etc.).

It was not at all uncommon to use the word fornication/harlotry to describe someone who was married who was having unlawful sexual relations with someone else. If an argument is going to be made to try and limit the meaning of the word “fornication,” it must be done based upon context because it cannot be done by appealing to the word itself.

– Kevin Pendergrass

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