πόρνος and πόρνη in 1 Corinthians

Why is πόρνη translated as ‘prostitute’, but πόρνος is not?

This question arose on the sinking-ship of Twitter, and since I was tagged, I started to think about it. I don’t have a very in-depth answer, in that I’m not a lexicographer, nor I have really done a very very deep dive on the question, but here are some initial thoughts. I am very happy to receive feedback, pushback, or any -back on this post.

Just setting aside the 1 Cor 5; 6 question, we are dealing with the relation of at least 5 words (certainly more, but at least 5 in tight focus): πόρνος, πόρνη, πορνεύω, πορνεία, πέρνημι

Working backwards a little, πέρνημι is a verb that tends to mean things like “sell as a slave”, and so perhaps more generally to turn things into marketable goods. This seems to be the verbal origin of πόρνος and πόρνη, and you can see how this applies to sex-slavery in particular – we are primarily dealing with women trafficked for sex.

So when you come to πόρνη, generally speaking you are looking at a noun that denotes someone trafficked for sex. No real distinction is made about who is doing the trafficking, but I would be pretty hesitant to suggest that a πόρνη was generally considered to be in control and agency of their own prostitution – that doesn’t fit ancient moral codes, views of women, or social and economic practices of prostitution. There were independent sex workers in antiquity, but for the most part these seem to have been women who were already sex workers who managed to obtain freedom, and continued on in the same trade. A woman who did have the freedom and economic means to not sell sexual services, and who then chose to do so, would fall under general Graeco-Roman society’s opprobium, because it’s seen as self-degredation, whereas enslaved women in sex-work are seen as degraded (by others), the social status being degredation in either case.

So when we come along to the masculine counterpart term, πόρνος we have a much more complex set of questions to deal with. The lexica tend to supply three main senses: (i) a [male] prostitute, (ii) an active or passive participant in male homosexual activity, (iii) a ‘fornicator’, and then metaphorically (iv) an idolator.

Sense (iv) really applies to biblical literature where adultery and fornication is set up as a metaphors for spiritual unfaithfulness. (i) is the male version of πόρνη. Generally male prostitutes were young males, with male clients. (ii) is used primarily in a pejorative sense, by extension of the fact that male sex-workers were young and generally serviced male clients. That leaves sense (iii).

Which is where we probably need to talk about πορνεύω and πορνεία. The verb πορνεύω seems to be used in the middle to refer to selling one’s sex services, and in the active its usage is a little less clear; the active seems like a later usage, and requires a bit more investigation than I’ve had time for so far.

πορνεία though, clearly is related to all these words, but I do agree with the general idea that it comes to be used as a catch-all term for “all forms of sexual immorality”, which is a pretty large set of practices, and it depends upon what speakers/communities consider to be immoral. If you’re in a community whose normative view of sexual behaviour is with a sexually faithful marriage, then any departure from that, whether it involves the transfer of money or not, could be considered πορνεία. We would also need to consider a bit more broadly the question of whether sex with enslaved persons “counts”, or is considered indifferently, and then how much this broader idea of πορνεία weighs back in to usages of πόρνη and πόρνος.

Alright, so this is me thinking aloud basically, and now I’m going to loop back to the original question – why do translators treat πόρνη in 1 Cor 6(:15) as a profession, but in 5:11 as a descriptor of sexual immorality? Let me suggest briefly then why this is a plausible reading and translation strategy:

1. πόρνη is established as a term to refer to female sex-workers, very often trafficked women. The noun stands with this meaning, it’s not transferring over a more general meaning from πορνεία to a women who is engaged in sexual immorality more generally.

2. πόρνος is a more difficult to pin down term, its more precise meaning differs more in contexts. Here, in the context of a vice list of descriptors of behaviour rather than occupations, I think it would strain our understanding of the text to suppose that in the midst of behavioural terms, πόρνος should be understood as an occupation.

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