Matthew 15:19, "(all) sexual immorality", "fornication(s)" or "unchastity"?


So I’ve been reading the Gospels a bit and comparing some translations… and Matthew 15:19 sort of stood out to me. Here is Matthew 15:19 according to four Catholic translations:

[quote=“Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition”]For from the heart come forth evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false testimonies, blasphemies.

[quote=“New American Bible (Revised Edition)”]For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, unchastity, theft, false witness, blasphemy.

[quote=“Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition”]For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.

[quote=“Jerusalem Bible (1966 Reader’s Edition)”]For from the heart come evil intentions: murder, adultery, fornication, theft, perjury, slander.

As if this wasn’t confusing enough, other non-Catholic Bibles offer even more diverse translation of the bolded out word. :rolleyes:

[quote=“International Standard Version”]It is out of the heart that evil thoughts come, as well as murder, adultery, sexual immorality, stealing, false testimony, and slander.

[quote=“New Living Translation”]For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander.

So, to settle this debate, I figured I’d look at the original Greek manuscript to see what they said:

[quote=“Greek Bible”]ἐκ γὰρ τῆς καρδίας ἐξέρχονται διαλογισμοὶ πονηροί, φόνοι, μοιχεῖαι, πορνεῖαι, κλοπαί, ψευδομαρτυρίαι, βλασφημίαι.

So πορνεῖαι is the word we should focus on; The Online Greek Bible had this to say about that word:

πορνεία,n {por-ni’-ah}

  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; Mk. 10:11,12 2) metaph. the worship of idols 2a) of the defilement of idolatry, as incurred by eating the sacrifices offered to idols

So this is no help, as it just gives a general meaning and doesn’t seem to favor one translation over another (one could apply “1)” and favor the “fornication(s)” translation, or “1a)” and judge the “sexual immorality” translation to be more accurate).

Now, at Wiktionary, it gives the meaning of the word as either “prostitution” or “fornication”.

To further confuse issues, the NABRE translation, unchastity, means the quality of being unchaste; now, chastity is defined, in this context, as “abstention from unlawful sexual intercourse”, from the Merriam-Webster dictionary. But what kind of “unlawful sexual intercourse”? All of it, including homosexual acts, fornication and bestiality? Or just specifically fornication? :confused:

Now, some of you may think fornication refers to unlawful sexual intercourse in general – not quite so, as the CCC says:

2353 Fornication is carnal union between an unmarried man and an unmarried woman. It is gravely contrary to the dignity of persons and of human sexuality which is naturally ordered to the good of spouses and the generation and education of children. Moreover, it is a grave scandal when there is corruption of the young.

It only refers to sexual intimacy between unmarried man and woman, not a homosexual union, or a union of a human and a non-human animal.

I am so confused. Can anyone make sense of any of this? What is really implied in Matthew 15:19? :hmmm:


I’d have to say that Jesus was referring here to simply unchastity in general: i.e., the entire list of sexual immoralities listed as translation from the Greek word you found. That makes the most sense to me.

May God bless you as you continue your journey into the Holy Catholic Faith! :slight_smile:


As I understand porneia it encompasses all illicit sins of the flesh. I believe Stong’s translates porneia as fornication, likely from the Vulgate that uses fornicationes. That being said Strong’s also has sub definitions including adultery, incest, and other sexual sins. It also makes reference to porneia is terms of idolatry. In this case something that stands in mockery or pale imitation of the union of man and wife.

To be honest I think fornication (as defined in the Catechism) is too narrow a definition for what Christ is talking about. In essence He is talking about those things that separate us from God. All sexual immorality separates us from God not just adultery and sexual congress outside of marriage.


Hm, in that case the NABRE translation comes across as rather clever and precise.

Thank you! :smiley:

I see, that’s an interesting take on it.

That’s a curious observation, because English dictionaries do indeed have a more general definition than just “carnal union between an unmarried man and an unmarried woman”.

[quote=“Merriam-Webster dictionary”]consensual sexual intercourse between two persons not married to each other

[quote=“Oxford dictionary”]Sexual intercourse between people not married to each other

Here, the only requirement is that they be not married to each other.


It seems that the Church has understood ‘porneia’ as unlawful sexual relations or union. It is distinct from adultery, because adultery happens within a lawful marriage.

Its important in understanding Matthew’s use of the term in Matt. 19:9

And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery; and he who marries a divorced woman, commits adultery.”

Much can be discussed about it and context is important.

This is my thread on the term:


So, then, the question remains, why do Catholic Bibles other than the NABRE render the term as “fornication(s)”? :confused: I think that is confusing, especially in light of the CCC’s definition of “fornication”.

In that thread you posted, it is said that

However, according to the Greek Bible I pasted in the OP, it could also refer to sexual immorality in general, so I don’t know. :confused:


The traditional understanding of “fornication” was that of unmarried people having sex with each other. This explicitly included prostitution, and in fact prostitution was the classic case… because Latin “fornicatio” literally means “sex under the arches” (supporting a large Roman apartment building" or “sex at a brothel built under the arches,” from Latin “fornix” which first meant “arch” and then a very low class “brothel.”

Adultery, OTOH, means that somebody is taking something away from somebody else’s marriage rights, or adding something to a marriage that makes it less of a marriage.

Once you’re married, you can never commit fornication again (unless your spouse dies). You can only commit adultery.

Now, that said – dictionaries today are usually “descriptive” rather than “prescriptive.” Many English speakers do use “fornication” as a general term that just means “sex,” or as a general term for “sex that is naughty.” They aren’t concerned with the technical definition of one sin versus another. The dictionaries are describing this change of usage. However, the Catholic Church continues to use the more narrow definition.

So yeah, “porneia” is a much more generalized term for doing sexual stuff that is wrong.


I see, I guess that sort of makes sense. :thumbsup:


The Greek “porneia” gets its meaning from context.

So when you look it up in a Greek lexicon, a Bible dictionary and the like, you will get a list of all the ways porneia gets used in Scripture. This list, however, as you mentioned, can be little help if you are trying to learn the actual meaning of the word itself and how it works.

The word means “illicit” sexual activity, but the word “illicit” depends on your subject matter. In the Greek and Roman world the term was used to describe what was illicit according to their standards of morality.

The Bible writers borrowed this word and most often used it in the context of two things: to discuss what was illicit sexual conduct for Christians and to translate expressions used by Jesus which were originally spoken in Hebrew-Aramaic.

The way some Bible translators have handled this is to render the word in all its occurrences by the same term, often by the English word “fornication.” This can be even more confusing when you read that it gets rendered differently in the NABRE as “immorality” in some places, “unchastity” in the text you mention, but then also as ‘unlawful marriage’ in Matthew 5.32 and Acts 15.29.

The reason for the differences is the context. In most of the New Testament it used to describe all types of sexual misconduct (immorality) often those which go against common mores accepted by Christian, Jew, and Gentile, but as unchastity when speaking more precisely of conduct in the light of Bible principles and laws, and in the case of Matthew and Acts it describes sexual unions which are illicit from the standpoint of the Mosaic Law (which in common English is an unlawful marriage, “unlawful” taking its meaning from what is and is not allowed accord to the Torah).

While I know for most of us here the RSV-CE and the Douay are the Bibles of choice, this is one of those places where the NAB comes in handy. The translators were very precise in how they rendered porneia each time and did not just leave an unambiguous expression for readers to guess at. Unfortunately I don’t think it is explained very well in the NAB exactly how these choices were made or upon what contextual evidence. I myself had to learn that independently from outside sources, but the end result is that you can use the NAB alongside your favorite translation of choice to see how this word applies in a given situation.


:thumbsup: Excellent explanation. I heard myself that the St. Joseph edition of the NABRE is the one that was approved by the Holy See… I wonder if I can get that specific edition somewhere.


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