Question: "What is the meaning of porneia in the Bible?"
Answer: Porneia is a Greek word that essentially means “illicit sexual activity.” It is a general, inclusive word for any kind of sexual immorality and occurs about 25 times in the New Testament. The NASB consistently translates it “fornication.” The NIV translates it “sexual immorality” or on a few occasions simply “immorality.” It is often included in lists with other sinful activities without any further definition or explanation (Matthew 15:19; Mark 7:21; Acts 15:20, 29; 21:25; Romans 1:29; 2 Corinthians 12:21; Galatians 5:19; Colossians 3:5; Revelation 9:21). The word does not specify which kinds of sexual activity are immoral; however, since the rest of Scripture defines any sexual activity outside of marriage as off-limits, it would all be considered porneia. The English word pornography is from the word porneia. Even though pornography is not mentioned in the New Testament, it seems reasonable to include it in the category of porneia, as it is essentially sexual in nature and focuses sexual energy and desire on someone other than one’s spouse. Jesus did call lust adultery (Matthew 5:28), and adultery is a type of porneia.
The New Testament consistently warns against porneia:
“The body is not meant for porneia but for the Lord” (1 Corinthians 6:13).
“Flee from porneia. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body” (1 Corinthians 6:18).
“But among you there must not be even a hint of porneia, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people” (Ephesians 5:3).
“It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid porneia” (1 Thessalonians 4:3).
Porneia on the part of a spouse is noted by Jesus as a legitimate reason for divorce (Matthew 19:9).
Figuratively, porneia can refer to spiritual unfaithfulness or “spiritual adultery.” In Revelation, “Babylon the Great” is pictured as a prostitute committing spiritual adultery. “A second angel followed and said, ‘Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great,’ which made all the nations drink the maddening wine of her porneia’” (Revelation 14:8). “With her the kings of the earth committed porneia, and the inhabitants of the earth were intoxicated with the wine of her porneia” (Revelation 17:2). “The woman was dressed in purple and scarlet, and was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls. She held a golden cup in her hand, filled with abominable things and the filth of her porneia. The name written on her forehead was a mystery: Babylon the great the mother of prostitutes and of the abominations of the earth” (Revelation 17:4–5). “For all the nations have drunk the maddening wine of her porneia. The kings of the earth committed porneia with her, and the merchants of the earth grew rich from her excessive luxuries” (Revelation 18:3). “He has condemned the great prostitute who corrupted the earth by her porneia” (Revelation 19:2).
This condemnation of Babylon is reminiscent of the Old Testament condemnation of Israel as a prostitute and an unfaithful wife: “How languishing is your heart . . . while you do all these things, the actions of a bold-faced harlot. When you built your shrine at the beginning of every street and made your high place in every square, in disdaining money, you were not like a harlot. You adulteress wife, who takes strangers instead of her husband! Men give gifts to all harlots, but you give your gifts to all your lovers to bribe them to come to you from every direction for your harlotries. Thus you are different from those women in your harlotries, in that no one plays the harlot as you do, because you give money and no money is given you; thus you are different” (Ezekiel 16:30–43). When sexual lust is gratified, porneia is the sin that results.
Note – In New Testament Greek, there are multiple different person and case combinations, resulting in various word forms with different endings and/or spellings. In this article, we have transliterated all forms of porneia as porneia for simplicity’s sake.