The term adultery is used in the Scriptures to designate sexual intercourse, with mutual consent, between a man, 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 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 forbids it (
From the earliest times (
The Old Testament finds adultery a ready figure for apostasy from the Lord and attachment to false gods, as can be seen in
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 Christ and his apostles.
The New Testament treatment of adultery, following the implications of the Old Testament concept, supports marriage as a lifelong 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.
It is categorically prohibited in the Decalogue (seventh commandment,
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,"
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" (
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 (
The prophet Nathan confronted David after his sin with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, with his stern rebuke ("Thou art the man,"
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" (
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 (
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" (