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In recent times, there have been contesting ideas making their way around the internet about whether sex before marriage is considered sinful according to the Bible. Some argue that the Bible does not specifically state that sex before marriage is sinful, while others argue that there are numerous biblical passages that condemn such behavior.

Sex before marriage has been a controversial topic for centuries, and it is still debated among religious communities today. In this blog post, we will explore the historical and cultural context behind the biblical passages that address sex before marriage and how they have been interpreted throughout history.

In the New Testament, the word “pornia” is used to refer to illicit or inappropriate sexual behaviors, including sex work and adultery. While the focus is primarily on these behaviors, some argue that sex before marriage would have been included in this broader designation in first-century Judaism and Christianity. Therefore, many believe that those passages prohibit sex before marriage and consider it sinful.

However, it is important to note that the expectation of virginity before marriage was imposed primarily on women in ancient Southwest Asia and within the Hebrew Bible. Men were not expected to abstain from sex before marriage because the concern was the preservation of virginity for marriage, which was viewed as a relationship of the superiority of the husband and the subordination and subjugation of the wife.

In the Greco-Roman period of Judaism, there was a renegotiation of the law, and many laws that were originally directed only at men were now understood to be imposed upon women. This achieved more reciprocity and parity and brought the sexual ethic into alignment with contemporary standards. This new sexual ethic was borrowed from stoicism, and many Jewish authors in the Greco-Roman period talked about sex as something that is exclusively or primarily intended to facilitate procreation.

In the New Testament, the apostle Paul believed that sexual passion was wrong and that sex should be honorable and holy, without the passion of desire. However, he acknowledged that not everyone could remain celibate and suggested that if one could not, it was better to get married than to burn with desire. Therefore, many believe that Paul’s sexual ethic would have included sex before marriage as inappropriate.

However, it is important to note that the social circumstances that generated this perspective about passion and sex no longer exist, and Paul’s sexual ethic is irrelevant to us today. Therefore, some argue that picking and choosing which parts of Paul’s sexual ethic to remain authoritative and which to renegotiate away into obscurity is problematic.

Additionally, there is a picking and choosing of which parts of the Bible and which parts of Acts 15:20 to remain authoritative. Acts 15:20 says that Christians should not engage in fornication, which is generally translated from the word “porneia.” However, some argue that the other two commandments in the passage, no meat that is strangled and no blood, are no longer relevant and have been renegotiated away.

In conclusion, the interpretation of the biblical passages that address sex before marriage has evolved throughout history based on cultural and social contexts. While some argue that sex before marriage is sinful, others question the relevance of these passages in contemporary society and the selective picking and choosing of authoritative texts. Ultimately, the interpretation of these passages is a matter of personal belief and interpretation.

Transcription from Dan McClellan.

Full Transcription

Hey everybody, this creator is rattling off a number of passages from the New Testament that use some variation on the word “pornia”, which was a broad and general designation of what were considered illicit or inappropriate sexual behaviors. The focus was primarily on things like sex work and adultery, but it could also be used to refer more broadly to other illicit sexual behaviors. And I think there’s a very strong case to make that in first century Judaism and Christianity, sex before marriage would have been included in that broader designation. So I would agree with this creator that those passages prohibit sex before marriage and consider it sinful.

Now, there’s a reason for that. And I also want to point out that this creator is being selective about what passages from the Bible they’re willing to cite. They say they could find passages like this all over the Bible, but they can’t. They can only find those passages within the New Testament because within the Hebrew Bible, there was no such blanket prohibition on sex before marriage. That expectation was really only imposed upon women. Men were not expected to abstain from that because the concern was the preservation of virginity for marriage. Because in ancient Southwest Asia and within most of the perspectives of the Hebrew Bible, that relationship was one of the superiority of the husband and the subordination and subjugation of the wife. And so they were treated in many ways as property within that relationship. And so that property was expected to have zero miles on it, to be crude about it.

Now we have inconsistent perspectives among the different authors within the Hebrew Bible as well. There’s legislation that is imposed. Most of it has to do with protecting that virginity for the man’s property, but there are also guardrails and prohibitions put on sexual activity, particularly within the Holiness code. Primarily, they’re aimed at men. And this fits within most of the broader ancient Southwest Asian socio-cultural milieu.

But we have a renegotiation when we move into Greco-Roman period Judaism as a result of proximity to Greco-Roman thought and Greco-Roman worldviews. And one of the things that you start to see happening in Greco-Roman period Jewish literature is the rationalization of the law. Why do we have these commandments? Why no shellfish? Why this and not that? And we start to see kind of some parity achieved. A lot of the laws that were originally only directed at men are now understood to also be imposed upon women. And those few pieces of legislation that were only imposed on women, unless they have to do specifically with menstruation and things like that that are frequently also imposed upon men.

So as we rationalize the law, we achieve more reciprocity, more parity. And we also bring it into alignment with then contemporary standards regarding things like sexual ethics. And this is largely borrowing from stoicism, but we see a lot of Jewish authors in the Greco-Roman period talking about sex as something that is exclusively or primarily intended to facilitate procreation. And so if that is not possible during menstruation or pregnancy or in other instances, many authors say it is entirely inappropriate.

It is a sin to have sex with your wife who is menstruating or who is already pregnant or something like that. Now that’s not unilateral, there are other authors who say that’s an exception to the rule, at least maybe for pregnancy, not for menstruation. But because we have laws that explicitly prohibit that, and in addition to procreation, some authors suggest that sex is also appropriate as a means of prophylaxis. In other words, you could have sex so that it kept your passions down at a very low level. In other words, you had sex to stop you from wanting to have more sex. And this was based on the notion that an overabundance of passion was a bad thing and that passionate sex was a bad thing because it spills over into other problematic areas. And this is going to have more relevance when we get to Paul, but we already see this developing in first-second century BCE Greco-Roman Jewish literature and into the first century and later. So the sexual ethic that is inherited by first-century CE Judaism and that is found within the New Testament is not building on some fundamental notion of sin or Purity. It’s building on the adaptations that Greco-Roman period Judaism has made to the broader socio-cultural milieu within which they find themselves. And so that brings us to Paul, who believes that as with most other Greco-Roman thinkers at the time, uh, sexual passion was wrong. He refers to the passion of desire which he suggests is for the dirty dirty Gentiles, but for those Christians who get married, sex should be honorable and holy and not with the passion of desire. And what was the purpose of having that honorable and holy sex? According to the overwhelming majority of scholars who look at sexuality in the Bible and at Pauline literature, it was primarily to keep you from wanting to have sex more. It was that prophylactic approach to sex. Because Paul would have preferred everybody remains celibate, that was his goal. But he knew not everybody could hack it. And so if you could not hack it, go ahead and get married because it is better to marry than to burn. And that is a reference to those passions of desire, better to get married so you can have just enough sex that is without passion to keep you from wanting to have more sex. So that’s sexual ethic would definitely have included uh sex before marriage as inappropriate. But this Creator is rejecting the overwhelming majority of Paul’s sexual ethic because it’s totally irrelevant to us today. Those social circumstances that generated that perspective about passion about sex no longer exist, and Paul certainly couldn’t have cared less about procreation because as he said multiple times the time is short, we’ve got this present crisis everybody should stay in the life circumstances they were in when they were called by God. So kids are not a part of this equation. So already we have this Creator picking and choosing between which parts of the Bible are going to be authoritative and which are not.

They’re also picking and choosing between which parts of Paul’s sexual ethic they want to remain authoritative and which they are going to renegotiate away into obscurity or interpret as something that fits within their contemporary evangelical conceptualization of the nature and function of sex. But we’ve got another way they’re renegotiating the text away, and that’s in the very first passage that they quote, Acts 15:20, the end of the Jerusalem Council where the text says, “We’re going to do away with the law except for four commandments that all Christians are going to have to obey: no idolatry, no fornication,” which is how “porneia” is generally translated, “no meat that is strangled, no blood.” Now, those last two, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a TikTok video of any impassioned pleas to stop trying to defend the eating of blood or meat that has been strangled because neither of those two are relevant anymore, and they have been renegotiated away. They were renegotiated away a long time ago. Even Paul is already rejecting those things, and so even within the very first passage that this creator cites, they reject a full 50% of the things that passage says we have to obey.

So we’ve got picking and choosing regarding which biblical text or authoritative picking and choosing within Paul’s sexual ethic, what parts of it are going to remain authoritative, picking and choosing what parts of Acts 15:20 are going to remain authoritative. And why is this? Why are we centering abstinence and rejecting all this other stuff? It’s because abstinence became a central identity marker for Christianity long ago, and it functions as costly signaling. It functions to help people signal to the rest of the group they are faithful to the group standards, they can be trusted, they do belong. It signals to the leaders and the boundary maintainers, “This person can be trusted, they belong, they will be faithful.” It can also be deployed to enhance one’s credibility when they amplify the costs of that signaling by defending it, and it helps in the structuring of power and values in the service of one’s identity politics, which is precisely why this creator has engaged in this renegotiation and is a it publicly.

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