Recently, a close friend and fellow writer asked about my latest writing projects. This person knew I had been writing an article on what the Bible has to say about unmarried people having sex. They also knew it was taking a long time.
I started to tell them it was almost done, but I stopped. I have started and restarted this article four times in the past 12 months. With each reboot, I do new research and approach it from a different angle. I joked to my friend that I now have enough research to write a book.
Even the primary question of the article is difficult: Does the Bible allow people who are not married to have sex? Do you think you know the answer? So did I. But four reboots have shown me how complicated the answer is.
First, the bible doesn’t have a definitive position on non-marital sexuality, no matter how many preachers and theologians say it does. Second, the sexual ethics of the cultures that produced the answers within the pages of the Bible are just as important as the question itself. Third, most of the discussion about the bible’s position on non-marital sexuality concerns the meaning of one particular word–Greek: Porneia–a word that is both ambiguous and culturally adaptable.
Finally, I aim to make this article relevant for those who profess faith and believe the Bible is without error, as well as those who do not believe the Bible is inerrant. Doing both is what makes it really difficult.
With all of those distinctions in mind, this article follows these parameters:
- I will refer to the so-called “Old Testament” as the Hebrew Scriptures. The “New Testament” I will call the Christian Scriptures. I do this to distinguish them for the purposes of the cultures represented.
- Though I am following some of the conventions of an academic research paper, I am keeping those conventions to a minimum. For instance, though I will cite every source I use, they will not be in footnotes, but rather in a separate document. The link to that document is here!
- I use the word “non-marital sex” instead of “pre-marital sex” because not every unmarried person who has sex will get married, or even desires to.
- I will not list all the scriptures where the word Porneia is mentioned. Rather, I will summarize the findings about those verses according to the three scholars I rely on for the meaning of this word.
- I will not be addressing the issues surrounding the Jewish, Greek, and Christian views and practices regarding male-male homosexuality. I hope to address that in a later article.
So let’s begin our discussion with understanding how Jewish, Greek, and Christian cultural biases radically affect how we view sexuality from a biblical vantage point.
Patriarchy and Female Agency
As I said, I have enough background material on this subject to write an entire book. More than half of that research focuses on how sexuality was viewed in the Ancient Near East (ANE) during the centuries that people wrote the documents in the Christian and Hebrew scriptures. I don’t want to belabor the point, so allow me to condense it down to one proposition:
Women had no official social standing or agency to consent regarding their own sexuality.
The only thing a woman was expected to contribute to sexuality was a vulva which had never been penetrated sexually. Today, we refer to that as Virginity. The Hebrew language only had one word for “virgin” and that word only referred to women. There was no such thing as a male virgin. The issue of whether men had to abstain from sexual intercourse before marriage is not addressed in the bible.
Women could not choose their mate. That was done by a woman’s father or nearest male relative. Female slaves could be sexually violated by any man who owned them. (Glancy, “The Sexual Use of Slaves: A Response to Kyle Harper on Jewish and Christian Porneia”, page 216). Foreign women were not allowed to be married to Jewish men, but they could be made sex slaves (also known as concubines).
If a woman was raped in the city and did not scream, she would be held liable as an Adulteress. The Law allowed for her to be stoned to death (Deuteronomy 22:23-29). There is a story in the Hebrew scriptures of a man whose concubine was raped by many men. The slave’s owner retaliated by cutting her into parts and sending those parts to the various tribal leaders in Israel.
The point of that story was to show the slave owner’s outrage, not the ignominy of the crime against the woman.
Men had sex regularly outside of marriage in the bible. Women did not. Men took concubines. Women did not. Men could have multiple wives. Women could not have multiple husbands. So even though it is said that the Jews practiced polygamy, it was actually polygyny (multiple wives, not multiple husbands).
On these points, I am summarizing. No Jewish or Christian theologian would disagree with those conclusions.
In short, a woman had no say over her own sexuality. She had to sexually perform whenever her husband or owner wished it. This is a feature of the cultures who wrote the Christian and Hebrew scriptures.
After the Babylonian captivity, when the Jewish people returned to Jerusalem and rebuilt the temple, the ideas about what was sexually allowed began to change. We will cover the most significant of those changes later in this article.
But no change was made to the sexual fortunes of a woman. She still had to be a virgin before marriage. She still had to meet the sexual needs of her husband, or he would be allowed to divorce her. She gained no sexual freedom. It was a world in which patriarchy prevailed among the Jews. And the Romans. And the Greeks. And eventually, the Christians.
These are all the cultures that wrote the Christian scriptures and the Hebrew scriptures.
These cultures showed contempt for women, afforded women no sexual agency, and practiced total male domination over women.
Therefore, everything written in the bible about sexuality is patriarchal, covertly and overtly misogynistic, viewing any female agency negatively.
The Shift of Sexual Ethics in Judaism
The first five books of the Hebrew scriptures are called the Torah. These books tell the story of the Jewish tradition and explain the development of the nation from its roots in Abraham. This is also where the roots of their sexual ethics began.
The Patriarch Abraham and his grandson Jacob had both wives and concubines. Concubines were slaves whose work roles included providing sex for the slave-owner. It would have been unlikely a later Jewish teacher would teach against sex with slaves or polygyny. If they had taught against either of these, they would have been criticizing their patriarchs. At no point were either polygyny or sex with slaves condemned in sexual ethics.
Many Hebrew scriptural sources give ample proof that though women were forbidden from having sex with anyone other than their marriage partner, the same was not true of men. We read about the lives of King David and King Solomon, and their sexual practices include multiple wives and sex slaves. The so-called harems of the Ancient Near East were just as prevalent in Jewish leadership as they are with Sumerian and Babylonian leaders.
Judaism did differ from other nations around them in a few areas. During the 1000 years of formation, the Jewish religion developed distinctive sexual ethics that clashed with the nations around them. This was part of the unique identity that their god Yahweh demanded of them.
In the Torah, the book of Leviticus, chapter 18 lays out the distinctive elements of this formational sexual ethic (Omanson, “How Does It Fit Together” page 419):
- No incest of any kind
- No marrying sisters
- No sex during a woman’s menses
- No adultery
- No male homosexuality
- No bestiality
At the beginning and the end of chapter 18, the writer of Leviticus emphasizes that these rules are given to distinguish the Jewish men from the men of other tribes and cultures surrounding them. The land of Palestine has always been a small but strategic land bridge. Cultures constantly clashed and intermingled. It was clear from Leviticus that Yahweh did not want any intermingling with the practices of those cultures.
The sexual ethics of Leviticus were given to further distinguish Jewish men from men of other cultures. For example, in Leviticus 19, Yahweh instructs the men that they should not have sex with the sex slaves of other men. Nowhere in the Hebrew scriptures is sex with one’s own sex slaves disallowed. This was the purpose of a sex slave, and even Yahweh did not disallow this sexual act. (Glancy, page 217).
These sexual ethics remained in place for many centuries. But something changed when the nation of Israel began to be scattered by various conquerors. First the Northern Kingdom of Israel was taken into captivity for many hundreds of years. Then, the Southern Kingdom was conquered by Babylonian forces. Finally, during the reign of King Darius of the Persian Empire, the Jews were slowly allowed to return en masse to Jerusalem. Eventually, the temple which had been destroyed by the Babylonians was rebuilt.
During this era, Jewish sexual ethics began to shift. (Loader, “Not as the Gentiles”: Sexual Issues at the Interface between Judaism and Its Greco-Roman World” page 3). At this time, the priests and scribes, under the direction of Ezra, began compiling the books that make up the current Hebrew scriptures. As Loader remarks, the compilation of the documents of the Tanakh showed a shift to more restrictive sexual ethics.
First, the writings of the prophets compared the nation of Israel to a man who committed adultery with foreign gods. Therefore, the priests began teaching against marrying foreigners. This included having sex with foreigners. The purge against marrying foreigners associated with Nehemiah had this focus. The practice of having sex with a foreigner (also known as Exogamy), though tolerated for centuries, was now forbidden.
The prophets also wrote about Israel chasing after other gods as if one were going to a prostitute. In other words, Israel toyed with worshiping other gods much like men might have casual sex with sex workers. As a result, the teaching of the second temple era discouraged Jewish men from having sex with prostitutes. Up until then, sex with prostitutes was tacitly allowed, though sometimes ridiculed (see Proverbs, chapters 2-9 for examples).
Again, sex with household slaves and sex with multiple wives is allowed. There is some indication that unmarried men were not forbidden from having sex with sex workers, though this is disputed by some researchers. There is no written prohibition against it. The prophet Hosea is told to marry a prostitute. Later, he is told to buy her out of slavery and remarry her. We can assume then that these were not completely forbidden practices.
The longer the Jewish people followed Yahweh, the more restrictive the sexual practices gradually became. But then, suddenly, this change accelerated. This occurred because the Jewish culture came into contact with the Greek culture which had emerged as the world power.
The Greek Influence and the Late Second Temple Sexual Practices
I had several theology professors while working on my theology degree. Occasionally, they would address the period of time between the last book written in the Hebrew scriptures in the Protestant Christian Bible (Malachi) and the first book written in the Christian scriptures (either James or Galatians). This period of time is known as the Inter-testamental Period by Christian scholars.
The rest of the world knows it as history. The Jewish people know it as their history.
My mentor in those days was a professor who had doctorates in both history and church history. He scoffed at this demarcation of the testaments. He told me that there were many important documents written by the Jewish people after Malachi. He introduced me to the Maccabees, Jubilees, and 1 and 2 Enoch among others. Through those documents, I learned that Israel continued to adapt and change their code of ethics regarding sexuality among other practices.
I also realized that as a nation, the Jews went through a difficult, but significant transformation during those 400 years.
My mentor also encouraged me to read some of the Jewish historians of that period, specifically Philo and Josephus. They shed light on so many of the subjects discussed in the scriptures of the Christian church. And these documents certainly show us the progression of thought about sexuality both within and outside of marriage.
A considerable volume of scholarship has recently been devoted to tracing the understanding of the Jewish teachings on sexuality from the ancient patriarchal period, through the early days of the second temple, to the late Second Temple practice of Judaism.
Two of the most prominent christian names in this research on Jewish sexual ethics are Kyle Harper and William Loader. Since I am trying to simplify this paper for the non-academic readers, please refer to this appendix for more information on both men. Between the two of them, they have published the most significant papers and books we have regarding Jewish and Christian sexual ethics around the time of Jesus.
Both men are convinced that the Apostle Paul, Jesus, and the leaders of the early church were in general alignment with late Second Temple sexual ethics. So, to put the New Testament teaching on non-marital sex into perspective, allow me to trace the development of that particular ethic and show how it related to what we read in the Christian Scriptures.
As the Greeks conquered the Ancient Near East, they brought their distinct practices with them. These included their ethics involving sexuality. In some ways, they practiced the same sexual ethics as the Jewish people. The practice of incest was forbidden. This is evidenced in the Christian scriptures in 1 Corinthians 5 where Paul admonishes the man who was sleeping with his step-mother as doing “what even the heathens do not permit.” Adultery was similarly discouraged and frowned upon by many. But sex with slaves was very much in vogue with both cultures.
However, the Greeks were much more open to sexuality outside of marriage. Sex work was common, especially sex work connected to various temples devoted to goddesses. The Greeks also permitted young boys to be used sexually as catamites, and this brought the Jewish culture in sharp contrast with the Greeks. The practices of the Symposiums and Gymnasiums were heinous to the Late Second Temple Jews, who created rules outlawing good Jewish men from attending either.
Loader summarizes the Jewish attitude toward Greek culture this way:
Maintaining one’s Jewish identity in foreign cities was paramount for most and included closely knit settlement patterns, careful observance of rituals and laws that reinforced Jewish identity, such as the sabbath observance and food laws, and the rejection of what were perceived as the dangers to which they were exposed, including idolatry and what they saw as sexual immorality.William Loader , “Not as the Gentiles”: Sexual Issues at the Interface between Judaism and Its Greco-Roman World” page 8
The crucial breaking point between the Jewish and Greek cultures happened when Antiochus IV of Greece conquered Jerusalem. He looted the temple, forbade Jews from possessing their own scriptures, and sacrificed a pig on the altar of the temple. Jewish men were ridiculed by the Greeks for being circumcised. These sacrileges caused many within Israel to rise up against him. The rebellion of the Jews against the Greeks is written about in the Maccabees.
The result was that the Jewish people sought to distance themselves from Greek culture completely. Sects within Judaism rose up devoted to complete separation from Greek culture. Many of their restrictions focused on dietary laws, laws concerning the Sabbath, and Exogamy. But among these growing restrictions were some focused on sexual practices.
In the Book of Jubilees, we see an entire leitmotiv of prohibitions on sexuality. Sex outside of marriage was seen as a “Greek” thing, and the Jewish man of good standing sought to stay pure.
Kyle Harper, remarking on the teachings in the Jubilees and The Damascus Document notes,
Fornication, here, is sex that falls outside of marriage according to the Jewish law, but the requirements of legitimate marriage are interpreted very restrictively. Fornication is said to include polygamy and remarriage after divorce (CD 4.12b–5.14a) Fornication also includes incest, specifically uncle–niece marriage. Fornication is thus deployed polemically to describe any sexual contact violating the law, even this rigorist sectarian interpretation of the law.”Kyle Harper in “Porneia: The Making of a Christian Sexual Norm”, page 373
This is the critical part for our discussion on how the Christian scriptures deal with sexual ethics. By the time of the second century BCE, the Jewish religious leaders were reacting strongly against any sexuality outside of marriage, since they defined most sexual practices as reflections on debauched Greek culture.
Philo, writing from Alexandria, a place where the Jewish and Greek cultures both found strong representation, spent many pages calling on his Jewish brothers to be sexually set apart. He focuses on incest, homosexuality, intermarriage with foreigners, and adultery for special condemnation. But as Loader points out, the more he writes about sex, the more acts he wants to prohibit. His earlier writings condone prostitution for young men, but in later writings, he condemns it. Loader notes that in these later writings he encourages married men to only have sex with their wives for procreation and to “not treat them as harlots” (Loader, page 12). The implication is that he considered recreational sex to be a Greek focus and thus to be avoided.
The overall impression we find during the five centuries from the re-establishment of the Temple to the emergence of the Christian sect is that of increasing prohibition against sexual practices the Jews used to find acceptable. The only exception to this was that men were allowed to have sex with slaves living in their household.
Recent research by both Catherine Hezser and Jennifer Glancy have shown that sex with slaves was common in all the cultures of the Ancient Near East. Hezser says,
“Slaves were sexually exploited in both Jewish and Graeco-Roman society. The phenomenon that masters would sleep with and produce children with their slaves is taken for granted by both Jewish and Roman writers.”Catherine Hezser “Jewish Slavery in Antiquity”, page 175.
As noted above, Glancy shows in her research that no Jewish writer in antiquity ever claims that having sex with one’s own slave is immoral. To our modern sensibility and ethics, this screams as a huge oversight and mistake. Yet, it was part of their ethical system of sexuality.
With all of these things as background, let’s now turn to the Christian scriptures specifically to see how the Jewish christians introduced sexual ethics to the fledgling church.
The Word Porneia as the Basis for Christian Sexual Ethics.
Now we come to the heart of the matter for discerning what the Christian scriptures have to say about non-marital sexuality. The only word used to describe non-marital sex is the Greek word Porneia, which is often translated immorality or sexual immorality. In the history of preaching on this word, the primary meaning given is that of non-marital intercourse.
Therefore, if we can understand what is meant by this word in light of the historical setting of the Jewish and Greek peoples, we can build a coherent understanding of what was meant by the word.
Bruce Malina, whose significant paper on Porneia is foundational to all the other studies on this word, has this critical observation about non-marital sex from a Jewish context:
Pre-betrothal, pre-marital, non-commercial sexual intercourse between man and woman is nowhere considered a moral crime in the Torah. Aside from the instance of Rabbi Eliezer, there is no evidence in traditional or contemporary usage of the word Pomeia that takes it to mean pre-betrothal, pre-marital, heterosexual intercourse of a non-cultic or non-commercial nature, i.e. what we call “fornication” today.Bruce Malina, “Does Porneia Mean Fornication?, page 11”
This flies up against most modern understandings of the word. But as we will see from further investigation by other scholars, Malina’s statement holds to be true in all but one instance.
We start our investigation into the meaning of Porneia by looking at its most unusual occurrence. In Acts 15, the leaders of the early Jewish Church were meeting to decide how to deal with a rapid influx of Greek/Gentile christians into church meetings, primarily in Syrian Antioch. Many people felt these new converts should be circumcised. Contrary to modern beliefs about Christianity, they saw themselves as a Jewish sect. They did not perceive themselves as a different religion from Judaism.
It confused and infuriated many of them that these gentile believers did not consider themselves to be Jewish. Thus, they argued about whether these new converts should have their foreskins removed. If the same people had sought to become Jews, the men would have been required to be circumcised. It stood to reason to these Jewish followers of Christ that these new converts were asking to become Jews.
Paul, Barnabas and others in the church did not agree. A huge church fight ensued and it was all brought to the council of leaders in Jerusalem. In the end, we read this in Acts 15:19-21:
“It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. 20 Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. 21 For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.”Acts 15:19-21 (NIV)
Here are the four requirements they laid upon them:
- They needed to avoid food offered to other gods
- They needed to abstain from sexual immorality (Greek: Porneia)
- They needed to abstain from strangled animals
- They needed to abstain from meat that still had the blood in it.
Three of these were dietary restrictions, and one was a moral imperative. Because of this strange combination, some scholars doubt the accuracy of this list. Westcott and Hort, compilers of one of the Greek manuscripts we use for translation, attributes it to one of the two major traditions of copyists, but not the other.
That means they do not think this list is what the original author of Acts actually wrote.
But for the sake of this discussion, we’ll assume this was the correct list.
A few things to note. First, this list is probably a summary of chapters 17 and 18 of Leviticus. One can assume from this that “immorality” is referring to all the sexual ethics of chapter 18 we discussed earlier and not non-marital sex. If that is the case, and both Loader and Harper believe it is, then this was a list of bottom line issues the Jews of that days had with the Greeks. Remember that Late Second Temple Judaism was being taught everywhere in synagogues and that sexual ethics and food restrictions were at the top of the list of things that made Jews angry about Greeks.
Therefore, this was a list of appeasement.
Apparently, Paul and his fellows were okay with this list. As long as it didn’t have any requirement for circumcision on the list, Paul was satisfied his work was done.
But what is this word Porneia referring to? How are we to understand it.
For this, I am indebted to two renowned scholars and their exhaustive work regarding this word. Bruce Malina (see the appendix for more information on this paper) traces all uses of this word throughout the literature of the Ancient Near East. Kyle Harper’s “Porneia: The Making of a Christian Sexual Norm” took the research of Malina and expanded on it with more recent discoveries from the Dead Sea Scrolls. And though these two wrote many years apart, they come to most of the same conclusions. In addition, I will note one very important contribution brought by German scholar Christiane Nord on how this word should be translated for modern languages.
Seeking to avoid turning this paper into a 200 page book, let me summarize the primary points of each of these scholars:
Malina on what Porneia means:
- The word is used often to refer to spiritual idolatry. This is its most common use in Revelation
- The Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures (The LXX) uses this word to translate the Hebrew word Zanah. This word often means adultery (this is how Jesus uses it),
- Sex with a prostitute
- Sex between men
- Sex with another man’s slave
- Incest. Malina believes this is the primary meaning. Paul uses it this way in 1 Corinthians 5 and probably several of the times he uses it in 1 Corinthians 6 and 7
- It also refers to cultic sexual practices.
- The Essene community (the community that preserved the Dead Sea Scrolls) believed it referred to all sexuality outside of marriage and used the word in that respect.
- Marriage with a foreigner, ie. non-Jew.
Harper on what Porneia means:
- Incest. Harper believes that most uses of Porneia in the LXX, the writings of the Late Second Temple Jewish writers and the writers of the Christian scripture books are referring to incestuous relationships
- Sex with prostitutes, especially cultic prostitution.
- Sex that is forbidden. He believed that many groups used the words to describe sex that their group did not agree with. He quotes Carolyn Osiek: ““To say that Porneia means “fornication” is circular, and the concept of illicit sex only begs the question of what is considered illicit.” (Harper, page 364). One of the most thoughtful contemporary interpreters of Christian sexuality has warned that “the precise meaning of porneia is simply uncertain given the lack of evidence we have” (page 365).
- Any sex with a woman who is not an “honorable” woman. Harper indicates that women were categorized in two groups by Jews and Christians. The first group were the Eleutherai. This meant “women of integrity”. These included Jewish single women who had not had sex with a man and lived in their father’s household. The other group were women who were married to Jewish men, had been virgins when they married, and had never committed adultery. To have premarital or adulterous sex with an Eleurtherai was called Moicheia. And it was a violation of the covenant that the woman had with her father or her husband. It was NOT considered Porneia.
The second group of women were not Eleutherai. These are the foreigners, the prostitutes, and women who were household slaves. To have sex with the prostitutes and foreigners was what was considered Porneia. It all depended on a woman’s status.
Reiterating a point I have made a number of times, sex with a household slave was not considered wrong by any group.
Christiane Nord on translating Porneia:
- Sexual intercourse or marriage with non-Jews
- Now here is where Nord adds one more intriguing observation. She writes,
The Dictionary of Contemporary English (DCE 1978) defines fornicationNord in “Function plus Loyalty: Ethics in Professional Translation”, page 8
as “sexual relations outside marriage”, whereas Unzucht, the german word for Porneia, is a juridicial term referring to sexual practices sanctioned by the law (e.g. sodomy). While English readers may find St. Paul’s attitude rather old-fashioned, German readers would not see why they should take the appeal seriously: “Unzucht” is something we do not practice, we think it is immoral, and St. Paul is right to tell the Corinthians they should refrain from doing these dirty things. So contrary to St. Paul’s intention to make people change their ways of life, the translation may even cause the opposite reaction: readers feel they are fine as they are and need not worry because they actually avoid “Unzucht”
Nord is telling us that Porneia is simply the word used to denote sexual practices that are illegal by the definition of whatever culture or group is defining the term.
We seem to have taken a long time to get to the point, but it is substantial. All of the researchers into this word Porneia come to the same conclusion. It refers to incest, to sex with prostitutes, to spiritual adultery, and sex with outsiders.
Additionally, Harper summarizes that Porneia is sex with non-sanctioned women.
In my opinion, Nord summarizes it even more adequately. Porneia is the sum total of all the sexual expressions a particular group doesn’t permit. For all the cultures of that day, it meant incest. For the Jews, it included prostitution, but that only applied to the later Second Temple Jews. To the Essenes, it referred to all sex outside of marriage. For Philo, it was sex within marriage for any other reason beside procreation. (Harper, “Porneia” 373-374).
None of the cultures had a problem with men having sex with their household slaves. We have no evidence that was a problem for early christians either.
I worked for a number of years in bible translation work. It is never the goal of a translator to take a word in one language and find a single equivalent word in the other language. Many times, that is not possible. Every word is a picture, and one must be part of the culture that created the word and lived in that culture to fully understand what the picture means. Therefore, when we translate, we look for suitable pictures in the other culture even if it uses more words to translate it over.
The hardest cultures to do this with are cultures that are dead and have no living members of the culture to help us understand the meaning. When this happens, we rely on guesswork by reading what has been written by the people of those cultures. This is what we are doing in this paper. We are looking at what little is written on the sexual ethics of people we will never talk to.
In this discussion, we are hampered by some other things that are missing. They lived in realities and with segments of society we do not have today. For instance, slavery plays a major role in the sexual ethics of their day. We do not own any slaves today, let alone concubines. There is no way to draw parallels, and we would be foolish to try.
Even more significant is a group of women that exists now that didn’t exist back then. I am speaking of the single woman who has had sex but is not a prostitute. This is a category that the Jews and Christians at the turn of the first Millennium CE did not understand. Either a woman was married, single under her father’s control, or she was a prostitute. The Greek world had single women who had sex, but the Christian and Jewish world did not understand them and certainly would not have an ethical system prepared for them.
So, taking these differences into account, here are the implications I draw from this short study into the sexual ethics of the Scriptures.
1. Immorality means “sex that is illegal”
In the ancient world, many expressions of sexuality were illegal. Incest, adultery, and sex with another man’s slave were considered illegal by all cultures. The Jewish people also considered homosexuality, rape, sex with a foreigner, and sex with a sex worker illegal. The early church didn’t have much to add to that.
Can we live out that biblical concept today? In America, incest is illegal. So is sex with anyone under 18. Rape is illegal, regardless of the low percentage of men who are convicted of it. Sex with a sex worker is illegal, though there are some cases where this is not true. A sex worker can have sex in an erotic video and not be charged. Polygamy of any kind is also illegal.
Therefore, if a person wants to be biblical in their practice of sexuality, they will uphold the nation’s laws regarding sexual ethics.
In addition, certain religious groups also have sexual ethics they expect their members to live by. For some groups this includes all of the above laws plus abstaining from homosexuality, premarital sex, adultery, polyamory (sex with other partners while one is married, with full approval of one’s partner). Some groups even disapprove of sex outside of procreation. Regardless of what each group believes and teaches, if a person is a member of a religious group, to be biblical means to practice the way that group wants you to practice.
However, if one is not a member of a particular religious sect, the only restrictions laid upon them would be the ones that are laid on all citizens of the country.
2. Virginity is a meaningless concept today
By American law, we do not live in a society which gives different rights to men and women. Though men are treated much differently than women in practice, by law this should not be allowed. We live in a culture which recognizes that men and women are equal and all privileges and responsibilities of one should apply to the other.
In this, I apologize to people of other genders, since your rights have not been recognized by law as of this writing. But the principles I’m writing here apply to you as well.
There is no doubt that men and women in the Ancient Near East were seen differently in terms of sexual ethics. Men were not required to abstain from sex before marriage. Granted, the only women they could have sex with were sex workers and slaves, but this double standard did not apply in any way to women. We abhor the idea of categorizing women into clean and unclean categories. We abhor allowing men to do things we do not allow women to do. I conclude from this that as we move into a more expansive view of the application of scripture, that the idea a woman needs to be a virgin before marriage is meaningless.
Virginity in the ancient world was not primarily about sex anyway. It related to whether a husband could be sure his wife was the mother of those sons who would inherit his lands and property.
The biblical ethic of a woman having to be “more pure” than a man is not something we can ascribe to. And the opposite directive–requiring that men be virgins–is not something the scriptures support either. If a person wants to be biblical in their sexual ethic, then men and women have no reason to be virgins.
3. Slavery and Nonconsensual Sex are equivalent
Just as we eventually opposed slavery as a culture, even though the bible gives approval to it, so too we must stand against all nonconsensual sex. Our opposition to this kind of sex is built on the same reasons as we opposed slavery. Both slavery and nonconsensual sex are centered on taking away the right of a person to have agency over their own life.
Nonconsensual sex is not just rape. It is coercing someone to have sex who does not enthusiastically agree to it. “I’m not sure” is not consent when it comes to sex. In addition, a wife who does not want to have sex with her husband should not be guilted or shamed into doing so. This is unbiblical to the extent that we believe all humans have agency over their own body. If we reject slavery, we must reject marital rape.
All consensual sex that is legal is therefore allowed, unless someone is prohibited by their religious membership from taking part in it. This does not imply people must have sex or should want to have sex. Asexuality is a legitimate sexual orientation. But that is not in the scope of this article.
If a person wants to live as someone who follows the bible ethics regarding sexuality, I believe there is ample evidence that consensual sexuality that is legal is a proper ethic to practice.
4. Lack of Matching Sexual Categories Makes Strict Adherence Impossible and Unnecessary
Today’s follower of the bible and Christ will struggle to maintain the same sexual ethic as those of a first century CE person. We have much different sexual categories now. We do not have sex slaves: at least we don’t have them in modernized, western society. We do not practice polygyny. Our sex workers are usually not connected to cultic organizations. We have laws against using boys as catamites.
Much of western society has come to grips with the validity of marrying and having sex with members of other racial and ethnic groups. That was not true for them and represented a major category of what they called Porneia. In addition, today’s woman is legally allowed to withdraw consent for sex, even with a spouse. Though this is not enforced universally, it is still the law. And even if churches do not teach consent for all, they must adhere to the law like everyone else.
But the biggest category related to sexual ethics currently, is the large number of single people who are not looking to get married but are having sex with others. This was not a category the ancient near east conceived of. Either you were a virgin woman living with your family or you were married off to a man and expected to remain sexually faithful to him. If a woman had sex outside of those boundaries, she was labeled a sex worker and marginalized as such. So the category of single woman who has sex but is not a sex worker did not exist.
And as much as some modern church leaders don’t want to admit it, we have this category now; and we have had this category for a long time. Does the concept of Porneia cover this category? If we adhere to a strict reading of the scriptures, it does not. It also doesn’t cover polygyny or sex with one’s own slaves. It would only prohibit single men having sex with other men’s slaves, sex with other men’s wives, and sex with foreigners.
Glancy is very pointed in her paper on the matter of sex with slaves. She notes from many sources that Jews, Greeks, and subsequently, Christians, were supportive of the sexual dynamics between a slaveowner and female slaves. She remarks
More disturbingly, in a passage condemning the seduction of wellborn, unmarried females, Philo rails against treating free women as though they are (unfree) servants (ταῖς ἐλευθέραις ὡς θεραπαίναις), a tirade reflecting a double standard between treatment of respectable women, whose honor should be protected, and women of lower social status, who have no honor to protect (Spec. Laws 3.69.4).Jennifer Glancy, “The Sexual Use of Slaves”.
This category allowing sex with slaves puts all modern christians on the horns of a dilemma. There is no reasonable way to match up their ethics with ours, except in a few areas: Adultery, rape, incest, and homosexuality. And since adultery and homosexuality are not currently illegal, only rape and incest are the universally shunned and illegal sexual practices in both cultures.
Any ethics added to that are sectarian in origin. They are not necessarily biblical in origin.