The Bible on Adultery

Every religion has its set of scriptures and divine commandments. More often than not, these serve as the basis for governing the larger social and moral norms in the group. Among the social institutions often at the site of continuous religious discourse is marriage, especially in modern times when economic forces and personal choice have emerged as challenges to traditional ways of living. Here is what the Bible, holy both to Christians and Jews, has to say about adultery in marriage.

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What the Bible says about adultery

Unlike the issues of divorce and remarriage, various biblical texts are quite unambiguous in condemnation of adultery. This is because adultery violates the bond of the marriage union which in Scripture is clearly a holy and divinely established covenant. Adultery or the act of sexual intercourse outside marriage is thus explicitly prohibited as one of the Ten Commandments that God gave to Moses for all believers to follow. This occurs in Exodus 20:14, when Moses receives the Seventh Commandment, “Thou shalt not commit adultery”.

In Deuteronomy the injunction against adultery is repeated in no uncertain terms. Deuteronomy is a retelling of the covenant between God and his people Israel, presented in three addresses or sermons by Moses and in 5:18 he exhorts his people, "You must not commit adultery”. The consequences of committing adultery are further outlined in Deuteronomy 22:22–24, "If a man is discovered committing adultery, both he and the woman must die…Suppose a man meets a young woman, a virgin who is engaged to be married, and he has sexual intercourse with her. If this happens within a town, you must take both of them to the gates of that town and stone them to death. The woman is guilty because she did not scream for help. The man must die because he violated another man's wife."

The injunction against adultery appears many times elsewhere in the Old Testament. Adultery is not just a social or a moral lapse – it is a sin against God Himself. One of the places where this is clearest is in Hebrews 13:4 which says, “Give honor to marriage, and remain faithful to one another in marriage. God will surely judge people who are immoral and those who commit adultery”.

Different interpretations of Adultery

While in contemporary usage, adultery is understood as any voluntary sexual act between partners who are not married to each other, the Biblical context is slightly different.  During the time of the ancient Hebrews, when the Bible would have been written, a rather selective understanding of the concept of adultery existed – it was limited to sexual intercourse only between a man and a woman who was either already married or at least betrothed. This is clearly stated in the outlining of the consequences of adultery in Deuteronomy 22:22–24, mentioned above. The marital status of the man was not as relevant as that of the woman. Thus, a married man was not guilty of “adultery” if he had with an unmarried woman, especially if she is not a virgin and has had sexual partners before.

This restricted understanding of adultery is a consequence of patriarchal roots of ancient Jewish society in which women were often treated as little more than property. Because women were considered as chattel, having sex with a married or betrothed woman was regarded as misuse of someone else’s property. A married man having sex with an unmarried woman who ‘belonged’ to no one was thus not considered guilty of the sin of adultery. However contemporary Christians define adultery much more broadly, and as a consequence almost all extramarital sex acts are treated as violations of the Seventh Commandment against adultery.

Even more problematic is the idea of which acts exactly constitute adultery. While most of the injunctions against adultery in the Old Testament imply sexual intercourse between a man and a woman married or betrothed to another, those in the New Testament extend it from the sexual act to thoughts and desires as well. Thus Matthew 5:27–28 says, "You have heard the commandment that says, 'You must not commit adultery.' But I say, anyone who even looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart." A few verses later, Matthew 15:19 explains that this is because”For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies ...”

Adultery and divorce

The concept of adultery is crucial in the biblical explanation of and justification for divorce. According to Matthew 19:9, “Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.” Thus adultery should not only be the sole justification for divorce, but a man who divorces his wife on other, invalid grounds and then marries another woman is in fact committing adultery. Likewise a man who marries a divorced woman will be committing the sin of adultery. This intricate relation between adultery and divorce is again explained in Matthew 5:31–32, "You have heard the law that says, 'A man can divorce his wife by merely giving her a written notice of divorce.' But I say that a man who divorces his wife, unless she has been unfaithful, causes her to commit adultery. And anyone who marries a divorced woman also commits adultery”.

Adultery and fornication

In many biblical passages, adultery is used interchangeably with or implied as one of the forms of fornication, which again has been understood in various ways in different times. While the modern usage of fornication refers  voluntary sexual intercourse between persons not married to each other and thus is very similar to the meaning of adultery, in biblical resources, fornication existed more as a general term usually referring to any kind of sexual misconduct or sexual impurity outside of the bounds of marriage. It is often used symbolically in Scripture to mean a following after idols or an abandoning of God. In Ezekiel 16:26, God expresses his wrath in the verses, “Thou hast also committed fornication with the Egyptians thy neighbours, great of flesh; and hast increased thy whoredoms, to provoke me to anger.” And again Galatians 5:19 notes the sins that the children of Israel have committed against their God, “Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness ... (KJV)