The term adultery is used in the Scriptures to designate sexual intercourse, with mutual consent, between a man, Marriage|married or unmarried, and the wife of another man. Likewise, the term is used to describe sexual intercourse, with mutual consent, by a married woman with any man other than her husband.

In ancient Israel the primary meaning of the term adultery was the physical act of adultery. However, gradually the term was used to designate Idolatry|idolatrous worship and unfaithfulness to God. The significance of the act and the connotations of the term seemed to deepen and widen over time.

In the Old Testament

In the Old Testament the term referred to sexual intercourse, usually of a man, married or unmarried, with the wife of another. One of the Ten Commandments forbids it (Exod.20.14; Deut.5.18). The punishment for both man and woman was death, probably by stoning (Deut.22.22-Deut.22.24; John.8.3-John.8.7). “Adultery” and related words translate derivatives of the Hebrew root n’ph (nā ’aph), conveying the one plain meaning.

From the earliest times (Gen.39.9), even outside the people of God (Gen.26.10), adultery was regarded as a serious sin. Along with other sexual offenses (e.g., Gen.34.7; Deut.22.21; Judg.19.23; 2Sam.13.12) it is a wicked outrage (Jer.29.23), the word being nĕvālāh, behavior lacking moral principle or any recognition of proper obligation. Marriage is a covenant relationship (e.g., Mal.2.14), and for this reason it not only imposes obligations on the partners, but also on the community within which they have entered into their solemn, mutual Vow|vows.

The Old Testament finds adultery a ready figure for apostasy from the Lord and attachment to false gods, as can be seen in Isa.57.3; Jer.3.8-Jer.3.9; Jer.13.27; Ezek.23.27, Ezek.23.43; Hos.2.4; and similar passages.

While fornication is frequently and severely condemned in the Old Testament, special solemnity attaches to the reproof of adultery, both in the relations of individual men and women and, figuratively, in the relations of the covenant people Israel, conceived of as a wife with God, their spiritual husband. Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel use the figure (see references above). Hosea develops from personal experience with an adulterous wife an allegory of God’s love for his unfaithful people. Adultery in the marriage relation is reprehensible; how much more infidelity in the behavior of human beings toward a God who loves them with a love that can well be expressed as that of a husband for his wife! Thus the figurative use enhances the literal sense, emphasizing the divine institution and nature of marriage.

In the New Testament

In the New Testament “adultery” translates Greek moicheuō and related words, which the LXX had already used for Hebrew nā’aph. The meaning throughout the Bible widens and deepens, first with the prophets, then with Jesus Christ|Christ and his Apostle|apostles.

The New Testament treatment of adultery, following the implications of the Old Testament concept, supports marriage as a lifelong Monogamy|monogamous union. Adultery is a special and aggravated case of fornication. In the teaching of Jesus and the apostles in the New Testament, all sexual impurity is sin against God, against self, and against others. Spiritual adultery (unfaithfulness to God) violates the union between Christ and his own.

Its Punishment

It is categorically prohibited in the Decalogue (seventh commandment, Ex 20:14; De 5:18): "Thou shalt not commit adultery." In more specific language we read: "And thou shalt not he carnally with thy neighbor’s wife, to defile thyself with her" (Le 18:20). The penalty is death for both guilty parties: "And the man that committeth adultery with another man’s wife, even he that committeth adultery with his neighbor’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death" (Le 20:10).

The manner of death is not particularized; according to the rabbisSiphra’ at the place; Sanhedhrin 52b it is strangulation. It would seem that in the days of Jesus the manner of death was interpreted to mean stoning"Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such," Joh 8:5, said of the woman taken in adultery. Nevertheless, it may be said that in the case in question the woman may have been a virgin betrothed unto a husband, the law (in De 22:23 f) providing that such a person together with her paramour be stoned to death (contrast De 22:22, where a woman married to a husband is spoken of and the manner of death is again left general). Eze 16:40 (compare 23:47) equally mentions stoning as the penalty of the adulteress; but it couples to her sin also that of shedding blood; hence, the rabbinic interpretation is not necessarily disputed by the prophet.

Of course it may also be assumed that a difference of custom may have obtained at different times and that the progress was in the line of leniency, strangulation being regarded as a more humane form of execution than stoning.

Trial by Ordeal

The guilty persons become amenable to the death penalty only when taken "in the very act" (Joh 8:4). The difficulty of obtaining direct legal evidence is adverted to by the rabbis (see Makkoth 7a). In the case of a mere suspicion on the part of the husband, not substantiated by legal evidence, the woman is compelled by the law (Nu 5:11-30) to submit to an ordeal, or God’s judgment, which consists in her drinking the water of bitterness, that is, water from the holy basin mingled with dust from the floor of the sanctuary and with the washed-off ink of a writing containing the oath which the woman has been made to repeat. The water is named bitter with reference to its effects in the case of the woman’s guilt; on the other hand, when no ill effects follow, the woman is proved innocent and the husband’s jealousy unsubstantiated. This ordeal was not endured by all accused adulteresses in Israel, but only by pure Israelites (and some pure Israelites apparently were exempt from the trial).

This trial was conducted before the SanhedrinSotah I, 4 and two witnesses of the alleged adulterous act were required before the woman was brought to trial. If the woman was found guilty on circumstantial grounds, the husband was compelled to divorce her and the accused adulteress lost all her rights accruing from the marriage settlement. In addition, an adulteress was not allowed to marry her paramourSotah V, 1.

According to the MishnaSoTah 9 this ordeal of the woman suspected of adultery was abolished by Johanan ben Zaccai (after 70 AD), on the ground that the men of his generation were not above the suspicion of impurity.

A Heinous Crime

Adultery was regarded as a heinous crime (Job 31:11). The prophets and teachers in Israel repeatedly upbraid the men and women of their generations for their looseness in morals which did not shrink from adulterous connections. Naturally where luxurious habits of life were indulged in, particularly in the large cities, a tone of levity set in: in the dark of the evening, men, with their features masked, waited at their neighbors’ doors (Job 24:15; 31:9; compare Pr 7), and women forgetful of their God’s covenant broke faith with the husbands of their youth (Pr 2:17).

The prophet Nathan confronted David after his sin with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, with his stern rebuke ("Thou art the man," 2Sa 12:7); the penitential psalm (Ps 51)—"Miserere"—was sung by the royal bard as a prayer for divine pardon. Promiscuous intercourse with their neighbors’ wives is laid by Jeremiah at the door of the false prophets of his day (Jer 23:10,14; 29:23).

Penal and Moral Distinctions

While penal law takes only cognizance of adulterous relations, it is needless to say that the moral law discountenances all manner of illicit intercourse and all manner of unchastity in man and woman. While the phrases "harlotry," "commit harlotry," in Scripture denote the breach of wedlock (on the part of a woman), in the rabbinical writings a clear distinction is made on the legal side between adultery and fornication. The latter is condemned morally in no uncertain terms; the seventh commandment is made to include all manner of fornication.

The eye and the heart are the two intermediaries of sinPalestinian Talmud, Berakhoth 6b. A sinful thought is as wicked as a sinful act Niddah 13b and elsewhere. Job makes a covenant with his eyes lest he look upon a virgin (31:1). And so Jesus who came "not to destroy, but to fulfill" (Mt 5:17), in full agreement with the ethical and religious teaching of Judaism, makes the intent of the seventh commandment explicit when he declares that "every one that looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already In his heart" (Mt 5:28). And in the spirit of Hosea (Hos 4:15) and Johanan ben Zaccai, Jesus has but scorn for those that are ready judicially to condemn though they be themselves not free from sin! "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her" (Joh 8:7).

Whereas society is in need of the death penalty to secure the inviolability of the home life, Jesus bids the erring woman go her way and sin no more. How readily His word might be taken by the unspiritual to imply the condoning of woman’s peccability is evidenced by the fact that the whole section (Joh 7:53-8:11) is omitted by "most ancient authorities"see Augustine’s remark.

In a few nations, such as France, penal codes as late as the 20th century allowed for the punishment of adultery as a crime. In 1955, the American Law Institute voted not to include adultery in its model penal code.

A Ground of Divorce

Adultery as a ground of divorce. The meaning of the expression "some unseemly thing" (De 24:1) being unclear, there was great variety of opinion among the rabbis as to the grounds upon which a husband may divorce his wife. While the school of Hillel legally at least allowed any trivial reason as a ground for divorce, the stricter interpretation which limited it to adultery alone obtained in the school of Shammai. Jesus coincided with the stricter view (see Mt 5:32; 19:9, and commentaries). From a moral point of view, divorce was discountenanced by the rabbis likewise, save of course for that one ground which indeed makes the continued relations between husband and wife a moral impossibility.


  • J. Murray, Divorce, 1953.

  • D. Atkinson, To Have and to Hold, 1979.

  • G. Bromiley, God and Marriage, 1980.
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