Lexical Lies and Dictionary Deceptions

July 12, 2013 in Theology · 6 comments

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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.

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