Lexical Lies and Dictionary Deceptions

July 12, 2013 in Theology · 6 comments

Red light

In a recent online discussion regarding the Bible and homosexuality, one participant brought up the fact that Jesus never directly addressed the issue of homosexuality. To my surprise, another participant claimed that Jesus most certainly did condemn homosexuality in Matthew 15.19: “For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.” (NRSV)

This person claimed that “fornication,” or πορνεία in Greek, specifically includes homosexuality and cited Thayer’s Greek Lexicon as defining πορνεία as: “adultery, fornication, homosexuality, lesbianism, intercourse with animals etc.”

Never one to take someone’s word as fact on the internet, I fired up my trusty copy of Bibleworks and queried Thayer’s entry for πορνεία. To my surprise, I discovered that the actual entry for πορνεία in Thayer doesn’t contain anything even resembling that definition. Now more than a bit suspicious, I pressed for a more specific citation from the person making the claim, and was directed to e-Sword’s Thayer module. After downloading and installing it, I arrived at this entry within e-Sword:

G4202
πορνεία
porneia
Thayer Definition:
1) illicit sexual intercourse
1a) adultery, fornication, homosexuality, lesbianism, intercourse with animals etc.
1b) sexual intercourse with close relatives; Lev. 18
1c) sexual intercourse with a divorced man or woman; Mar_10:11,Mar_10:12
2) metaphorically the worship of idols
2a) of the defilement of idolatry, as incurred by eating the sacrifices offered to idols
Part of Speech: noun feminine
A Related Word by Thayer’s/Strong’s Number: from G4203
Citing in TDNT: 6:579, 918

You can find nearly identical entries all over the internet on seemingly reliable sites such as BibleStudyTools.com, Bible.org, BlueLetterBible.org and StudyLight.org.

But that citation definitely isn’t from Thayer. Here’s Thayer’s actual definition in its entirety:

πορνεία, πορνείας, ἡ (πορνεύω), the Septuagint for תַּזְנוּת, זְנוּת, זְנוּנִים, fornication (Vulgate fornicatio (and (Rev. 19:2) prostitutio)); used a. properly, of illicit sexual intercourse in general (Demosthenes, 403, 27; 433, 25): Acts 15:20,29; 21:25 (that this meaning must be adopted in these passages will surprise no one who has learned from 1 Cor. 6:12ff how leniently converts from among the heathen regarded this vice and how lightly they indulged in it; accordingly, all other interpretations of the term, such as of marriages within the prohibited degrees and the like, are to be rejected); Rom. 1:29 Rec.; 1 Cor. 5:1; 6:13,18; 7:2; 2 Cor. 12:21; Eph. 5:3; Col. 3:5; 1 Thess. 4:3; Rev. 9:21; it is distinguished from μοιχεία in Matt. 15:19; Mark 7:21; and Gal. 5:19 Rec.; used of adultery ((cf. Hos. 2:2 (4), etc.)), Matt. 5:32; 19:9. b. In accordance with a form of speech common in the O. T. and among the Jews which represents the close relationship existing between Jehovah and his people under the figure of a marriage (cf. Gesenius, Thesaurus, i., p. 422{a} following), πορνεία is used metaphorically of the worship of idols: Rev. 14:8; 17:2,4; 18:3; 19:2; ἡμεῖς ἐκ πορνείας οὐ γεγεννήμεθα (we are not of a people given to idolatry), ἕνα πατέρα ἔχομεν τόν Θεόν, John 8:41 (ἄθεος μέν ὁ ἄγονος, πολύθεος δέ ὁ ἐκ πόρνης, τυφλωττων περί τόν ἀληθῆ πατέρα καί διά τοῦτο πολλούς ἀνθ᾽ ἑνός γονεῖς αἰνιττόμενος, Philo de mig. Abr. sec. 12; τέκνα πορνείας, of idolaters, Hos. 1:2; (but in John, the passage cited others understand physical descent to be spoken of (cf. Meyer))); of the defilement of idolatry, as incurred by eating the sacrifices offered to idols, Rev. 2:21.*

You can see it for yourself here, starting at the bottom of page 531 and continuing on to page 532.

Thayer’s entry contains absolutely no mention of homosexuality, lesbianism or bestiality! So where does the pseudo-Thayer definition for πορνεία actually come from? I have no idea…but it’s certainly not to be found in any of the standard lexicons.

A brief side-note on Thayer: using Thayer as a source for Greek definitions is an exegetically dangerous proposition. It’s a bit like using a 19th century medical textbook to diagnose a physical ailment. It might be correct, but we have far better resources available to us today than did the scholars of generations past. The only reason references like Thayer continue to find widespread use is that they’re so old that they’ve fallen out of copyright and are now available for free. But when you’re trying to get to the root of difficult linguistic matters, do you really want to go with cheapest option? Doesn’t it make sense to avail yourself of the best scholarship currently available?

And with that in mind, I did a quick survey of a few of the major Greek lexicons. BDAG define πορνεία as:

1. unlawful sexual intercourse, prostitution, unchastity, fornication
2. participation in prohibited degrees of marriage, fornication
3. immorality of a transcendent nature, fornication

Likwise, Louw-Nida, Friberg, Liddell-Scott and Moulton-Milligan all provide similar definitions, centered around the idea of prostitution, fornication, prohibited sexual activity and idolatry. In short, πορνεία generally means fornication and sexual immorality, which is how virtually all English Bibles translate it.

So why does any of this matter? It matters because it’s important to be accurate when discussing difficult issues. There’s enough confusion and ambiguity about homosexuality and the Bible without adding false and misleading information into the mix. Of course, simply appealing to lexical entries won’t resolve contentious issues. But deliberately deferring to dubious dictionary definitions as decisive defeaters at best muddies the rhetorical waters and at worst is nothing more than lying in order to win an argument.

As I said earlier, I don’t know where the pseudo-Thayer entry actually came from, but it seems clear to me that it’s pushing a specific theological agenda at the expense of linguistic accuracy. The pseudo-Thayer definition directly equates homosexuality with adultery, fornication and bestiality, as if this is a synonymous list of sexual deviations. After buying into that extraordinarily misleading defintion, it’s but a short step to accuse present day LGBT individuals of predilections for such sexual immorality, a connection that is not only completely unwarranted by the Biblical text, but also not borne out by the best psychological and sociological data available to us. Do I really have to say this? Being gay doesn’t mean you’re an adulterer, pedophile or like to have sex with animals — despite what pseudo-Thayer says.

So where does this leave us? In the end, it’s absolutely false to say that Jesus condemns homosexuality in Matthew 15.19. Though he does condemn sexual immorality, any attempt to directly equate πορνεία with our modern understanding of committed homosexual relationships is to stray far beyond the plain meaning of the text. Whether or not homosexuality is inherently immoral is another discussion entirely, one that Jesus chose not to engage in. Perhaps his silence on the matter should serve as an example for more Christians.

6 comments… read them below or add one

Ford1968 July 13, 2013 at 6:38 am

Holy alliteration, Batman…
This comment is a little off the point of your post. I intentionally dialog with conservative Christians all the time about homosexuality and faith. They regularly equate homosexuality with adultery, pedophilia, and other sexual immorality. They also equate it to alcoholism, eating disorders, and physical disabilities. Sometimes, these comments are mean-spirited and intended to insult. But frequently, they are honest representations of the writer’s perspective. Popular blogger Emily Wierenga recently wrote an open letter to gay Boy Scouts where she compared being gay to her struggle with bulimia (fan-freakin’-tastick, just what the world needs, another hurtful “open letter”).

All that to say the substance of your online discussion was not at all unusual; so, yes, we really need to be explicit that homosexuality is not like beastiality.

I always enjoy your wicked-smart take on things. Thanks for sharing.

Reply

Dan July 13, 2013 at 11:34 am

How Christians identify and deal with sin is extraordinarily important. Sadly, a huge segment of the church seems hell-bent (!) on ferreting out any and all behavior that doesn’t fit their particular definition of morality and is more than willing to go to great lengths to defend their inquisition using “biblical” authority. Even if you think that homosexuality is inherently immoral, the way to address it is definitely not by promoting false stereotypes, drawing dubious analogies and running roughshod over the biblical text.
And, a little alliteration always adds amusement…

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Mike McCandless July 13, 2013 at 8:46 am

Really appreciate your thorough treatment of this subject matter in the spirit of II Tim 2:20-21. Reminds me of my own investigation into what Jesus had to say about women in leadership, or women as distinct from men. With two young daughters, I needed to get to the bottom of these questions. I can’t say my study was as exhaustive as yours, but I did conclude that Jesus said exactly nothing to support those who cite Paul (I Cor 14:34-35, etc.) about women and their role in the church. Gotta love that Jesus.

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Dan July 13, 2013 at 11:35 am

“Gotta love that Jesus”
Amen!

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Don M. Burrows (@DonMBurrows) July 13, 2013 at 12:05 pm

It should be added that in this discussion, the person who made this claim about Thayer said he had “done a ton of research in preparation for speaking on the subject at my church,” before backing out of any and all debate in the forum in question. One wonders if this problem, which Dan brought to his attention there, will make him think twice about presenting that information at his church, or if he’ll proceed as originally planned, pretending it was never brought to his attention.

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Dan July 14, 2013 at 9:24 am

For some people a quick Google search is a lot of research!

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