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:

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.


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…


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.


Dan July 13, 2013 at 11:35 am

“Gotta love that Jesus”


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.


Dan July 14, 2013 at 9:24 am

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


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