What the Bible Says about
Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage

John Coblentz

Why do modern translations render
the meaning of porneia as unchastity?

Pages 39 - 41

Modern translators tend to translate porneia in the exception according to the view of Erasmus. Thus the NASB reads "unchastity" in Matthew 5:32 and "immorality" in 19:9. The NIV reads "marital unfaithfulness" in both cases. These translations are despite the fact that lexicons commonly render the word porneia as "fornication" or "whoredom."

The fallacy of translating porneia as general "unchastity" in these verses is especially evident when we examine the context. Consider the following points:

  1. If Jesus meant adultery (as "unchastity," "immorality," and "marital unfaithfulness" all imply), He surely would have used the term for adultery -- moichao. He was not using terms carelessly, especially in disputing with legal experts.

  2. The "unchastity" translations cause Jesus to say what would have sided Him with one of the factions of the Pharisees. In Matthew 19, the Pharisees were trying to draw Jesus into a controversy they had among themselves. (They asked their question, "tempting him.") One side followed a liberal teacher named Hillel, who allowed divorce for virtually any reason. The other side followed stricter Shammai, who allowed divorce only for marital unfaithfulness. Jesus followed neither. He said, "What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder" (Matthew 19:6); that is, "No divorce" (equivalent to saying, "I don't agree with either of you").The Pharisees objected. If Jesus had then changed His statement to mean, "No divorce, except for marital unfaithfulness," He would have been backing down from His original statement (equivalent to saying, "I agree with Shammai").

  3. Such a position would have occasioned no surprise from Jesus' disciples. They exclaimed (after His exception), "If the case of the man be so with his wife, it is not good to marry" (Matthew 19:10). If Jesus had merely been confirming Shammai's position (no divorce except for marital unfaithfulness), why would they think His teaching was so radical? Jesus clearly was teaching a position with which even the disciples were unfamiliar.

  4. The "unchastity" translations do not agree with Luke and Mark, who both clearly understood Jesus' teaching to be: Marriage for life; no divorce, no remarriage, period.

We conclude that the modern translations present a mistranslation of porneia in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9. The meaning of porneia is required by the context to mean something more restrictive than general unchastity, something other than adultery, something which allows Jesus' teaching on lifelong marriage to cause surprise to Jesus' disciples.

Understandably, translators are not to be expositors. They should not insert clarifications into the text. The restrictive meaning of "fornication," however, as the KJV renders porneia, is more faithful to the context than the words used in modern translations. "Whoredom" would be a restrictive rendering in keeping with the understanding of the early church.

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