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What the Bible says about masturbation

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Overview of Bible passages about masturbation:

In the past, Christian leaders have mainly used two Bible passages to condemn masturbation:

bullet One passage, in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament), describes the death of Onan. It was a widespread belief that Onan was killed by God because he masturbated. This event was the source of the term "Onanism" -- once used as a synonym for masturbation. But further analysis indicates that he was murdered for the "crime" of using a primitive method of birth control to avoid conceiving a child. The Christian churches have now generally accepted the latter interpretation of this passage. The term Onanism is now rarely used.
bullet The second passage is from the Christian Scriptures. It refers to a unknown form of behavior. The meaning of the original Greek phrase has been lost. Bible interpreters have assigned various meanings to the term in the past two millennia. Originally it was believed to indicate a lack of a strong moral sense. Later it was believed to refer to masturbation. Among many conservative Protestants today, it refers to homosexuality. To our knowledge, no Christian group today interprets the passage as referring to masturbation.

Christian groups currently differ in their interpretation of the Greek words "pornea" and "akatharsia," found throughout the Christian Scriptures. These are often translated "fornication" and "uncleanness." Some conservative Christian groups include masturbation as one of many acts that fall within the definitions of fornication and uncleanness. Many liberal Christian churches have a much more restrictive view of the two terms.

A third passage which may deal with masturbation is part of the Mosaic Code, and is contained in Leviticus 15. Verse 16 may be interpreted as referring to masturbation in a matter-of-fact manner. The passage does not condemn the practice. We have only seen one reference to this verse on Christian web sites.

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Genesis 38:6-9 -- The sin of Onan:

This passage describes how Tamar's first husband Er was killed by God because he was wicked. Under ancient Jewish tradition, Er's brother Onan was required to marry and engage in sexual intercourse with Tamar. Widows were not asked whether they wanted to remarry. In many cases, the woman would have experienced the sexual activity as a form of rape -- something required by tribal tradition which they had to endure. Similarly, nobody consulted the widow's brother-in-law about his wishes in the matter.

Their first son would be attributed to Er. Because any offspring would not be considered his child, Onan decided to use a common and relatively ineffective contraceptive technique to prevent conception. He employed "coitus interruptus". That is, he disengaged from Tamar just before he ejaculated, and "spilled his semen on the ground." (NIV) God was displeased at this action and killed Onan also -- presumably because he refused to follow Jewish tradition.

This passage was used until recent decades by some Christian groups who maintained that Onan's sin was actually masturbation. The term "Onanism" was coined as a synonym of masturbation. This interpretation is no longer in common use.

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I Corinthians 6:9 -- Sins that Paul believes will send you to Hell:

The author, Paul, listed a group of sinful activities. He believed that practicing any one of them would prevent a person from inheriting the Kingdom of God. They would be sent to Hell when they died. This verse has been translated in many ways among the 25 English versions of the Bible that we have analyzed.

One of the condemned behaviors is "malakoi arsenokoitai" in the original Greek. Malakoi means soft. It was translated in both Matthew 11:8 and Luke 7:25 as "soft" (KJV) or as "fine" (NIV) in references to clothing. The actual meaning of arsenokoitai has been lost. Some sources in the early Church interpreted the phrase as referring to people of soft morals; i.e. exhibiting unethical behavior. That may well be the correct meaning, because presumably people from that era would probably have still known the meaning of the word "arsenokoitai." Others in the early Church thought that it meant "temple prostitutes" - people who engaged in ritual sex in Pagan temples. Still others thought that it meant "masturbators." At the time of Martin Luther, the latter meaning was in universal use. But by the 20th century, masturbation had become a more generally accepted behavior, whereas many Christians were concentrating on homosexuality as a despised activity. New Biblical translations abandoned references to masturbators and switched the attack to homosexuals. The last religious writing in English that interpreted 1 Corinthians 6:9 as referring to masturbation is believed to be the [Roman] Catholic Encyclopedia of 1967. 1

Each Bible translating team seems to take whatever activity that their group particularly disapproves of and inserts it into this verse. To compound their error, they usually do not have the decency to indicate by a footnote that the actual meaning of the word is unknown, and that they are merely guessing its meaning.

Conservative Christians tend to be very concerned about their own salvation and that of their family and friends. It is a pity that one of the behaviors that many Christians feel will cause them to lose their salvation is currently unknown. Many probably fear that they might inadvertently engage in the activity and thus having to spend eternity in Hell.

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Leviticus 15:16-18: Go and wash:

Such items as blood, skin blemishes, semen, and menstrual discharge are considered to have negative magical properties by the Hebrew Scriptures (a.k.a. Old Testament). Touching a dead body was also considered to be very polluting. Many injunctions concerning these items were among the 613 commands which comprise the Mosaic Code. A man automatically became ritually unclean any time that he had an ejaculation of semen. Even after washing his body, he and his clothing remained unclean for a period of time. Some acts that caused ritual uncleanliness even required a temple ritual to reverse.

The following three verses are three injunctions from the Mosaic Code. The language of the King James Version sounds rather quaint today, almost four centuries after it was originally translated.

bullet Verses 16 and 17 refer to a man's ejaculation but does not contain a reference to a sexual partner. This is interpreted by some as referring to ejaculation resulting from masturbation while the man is alone. The verses read: "And if any man's seed of copulation go out from him, then he shall wash all his flesh in water, and be unclean until the even. And every garment, and every skin, whereon is the seed of copulation, shall be washed with water, and be unclean until the even[ing]."
bullet Verse 18 appears to refer to a man and woman having engaged in sexual intercourse. It declares that both parties are ritually unclean because of the man's ejaculation of semen. They are both required to bathe. They remain ritual unclean for the rest of the day: The verse reads: "The woman also with whom man shall lie with seed of copulation, they shall both bathe themselves in water, and be unclean until the even[ing]."

These three injunctions are generally ignored by Christians today.

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The meaning of the Greek word "pornea" in the Christian Scriptures (New Testament):

There are 32 verses in the Christian Scriptures that contain the word "pornea" in the original Greek. It is normally translated in the King James Version of the Bible as "fornication." 

bulletIn modern American usage, the English word "fornication" has a relatively precise, strict, narrow, meaning. It refers to sexual intercourse by:
bullet two unmarried persons, or
bullet one unmarried person with a married person. 2
bullet According to the Strong's Concordance "pornea," when used in the Bible literally, includes the activities of prostitution, adultery and incest. Figuratively it means idolatry or sexual intercourse between unmarried persons. 3
bullet However, most conservative Christian churches have greatly expanded the English term "fornication." It is to them a catchall term. Many churches and ministries extend the definition of "pornea" to include masturbation. More details about pornea.

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The meaning of the Greek words "akatharsia" and "akathartos" in the Christian Scriptures (New Testament):

This word akatharsia, a noun, and akathartos, an adjective, appears in Romans 1:24, 2 Corinthians 12:21, and Galatians 5:19. It is often translated "uncleanness" in some Bible versions.

In the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) a person or a couple might become ritually unclean:

bullet when a woman is menstruating,
bullet when a man and a woman have engaged in sexual intercourse, or
bullet when someone was too close to a dead body.

Jesus and his disciples regularly violated the Hebrew Scriptures' laws regarding ritual uncleanness. For example, they did not wash their hands before eating -- a shocking behavior to their fellow Jews. Jesus "enunciated the great principle that there is no ceremonial, but only moral and spiritual, uncleanness." One is defiled by "the things that come out of his heart, evil thoughts, hatred, adultery, murder, etc." One does not become unclean by the actions of his hands.

Again, some conservative Christian churches and ministries have expanded the term to include masturbation. Examples are RBC Ministries and the Mormon church. More details about akatharsia.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Editorial staff at the Catholic University of America, "New Catholic Encyclopedia," McGraw-Hill, [1967 edition]
  2. Bryan A. Garner, "A Dictionary of Modern American Usage," Oxford University Press, (1998), Page 20.
  3. "Fornication: What It's Not," at:
  4. "Uncleanness," The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, at:

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Copyright ©1997 to 2005, by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2005-DEC-10
Author: B.A. Robinson

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