Jesus' explanation of Adultery

July 11, 2020

by Barry Fike

Matthew 5:27, 28  

"Ye have heard that it was said, Thou shalt not commit adultery."  

          Notice that adultery here is listed between discussions on murder and theft.  There was a Jewish opinion that the word “to commit adultery” in Hebrew had four letters in order to warn us that adultery could be committed by hand, foot, eye, and heart.  Jesus began his exegesis of the scriptures by stressing the importance of the lesser commandments.  In this spirit he was then able to equate anger with murder and lust with adultery.[1]

          Immediately we have a problem here from the point of interpretation.  What was in the mind of Jesus when he said the word “adultery”?  When we think of this term today we think of someone who is married, because the term fornication would refer to the unmarried or having a sexual relationship with someone before you are married.  The question we must ask ourselves is, “Was this same idea in the mind of Moses and Jesus when this commandment was originally given and now when Jesus is teaching this solely Jewish audience.”  The answer is, “NO!” 

          What was adultery?  Why is it termed the “Great sin” in Gen. 20:9?  “Voluntary sexual intercourse between a married woman, or one engaged by payment of the bride-price, and a man other than her husband.”[2] 

          As we read that definition a number of things come to mind.  Notice that it is voluntary sexual intercourse between a MARRIED WOMAN and a man other than her husband.  Prov. 1-9 often puts young men on their guard against the seductions of a woman who is unfaithful to her husband. She is called the ‘strange woman’, meaning simply the wife of another man.  (Prov. 2:16-19; 5:2-14; 6:23-7:27)    Punishment was death by stoning (Deut. 22:23f; Ezek. 16:40; Jn. 8:5), but it was possible that in ancient times it was death by burning.   Judah condemned his daughter-in-law Tamar to be burned alive (Gen. 38:24), because he suspected she had given herself to a man at a time when she was the widow of his son Er, and, by the law of Levirate, promised to his other son Shelah.   Other references in the Bible imply that in reality there were times where the consequences were less grave.  It appears that often the consequence of adultery (or accusation of adultery) was divorce: the husband deserted his wife or sent her away.[3]

          In Biblical, or later Jewish Law, the extramarital intercourse of a married man was not per se a crime.  The man who goes after prostitution dissipates his wealth and loses his strength (Prov. 29:3; 31:3), but he commits no crime in the eyes of the law.  The husband is exhorted to be faithful to his wife (Prov. 5:15-19), but his infidelity is punished only if he violates the rights of another man by taking a married woman as his accomplice.  Why the distinction?  Was this just another chauvinistic attitude toward women in the time of Moses and Jesus? 

          If one notices biblical law closely he will find that nowhere in the text do you find the wife referred to as the owner or possessor of the husband.  It is always the husband who is the owner of the wife!  Notice, in Ex. 20, in the Ten Commandments, that the wife is listed with other physical property as property owned by the husband.  “Don’t covet...wife...or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”  (Ex. 20:17)  The word ‘belongs’ means his possession or his ownership.  This idea of ownership is in the same context with the man’s house, donkey, etc.

          In the ancient world of the Hebrews the woman was comparable to property. But she had rights that distinguished her from the rights of a slave and she could not be treated like any other piece of property.  It is because of this principle that, in a sense, the husband owns the wife.   Adultery constituted a violation of the husband’s exclusive right to her.  When the Law of Moses talks about divorce it always refers to the husband putting the wife away

          The most common way that one procured a wife was to enter into a marriage contract called a ketubah!  This contract was drawn up between the father of the girl and the groom to be.  The groom then would pay a price known as the “bridal price” which would replace some economic potential that he was losing by letting a hand go from the tribal unit. It was then, at this point, that the engaged woman was treated exactly like a woman already married (Deut. 22:23f), for she belongs to her fiancé' is exactly the same way as a married woman belongs to her husband.  

          So why is it that a woman, in this situation, is forbidden from having sexual relationships with anyone else while her fiancé' is not?   The greater freedom that the man enjoys is a result of his ability to marry more than one woman.   Since biblical law allows him concubines as well as wives, there are not punitive measures in effect against a married man who engages in extramarital sex, as there are for a married woman.   Although the Halakhah certainly frowned upon any such extramarital sex, and attempted to curtail it by prohibiting a man to spend time in privacy with women outside his family, such relations remained outside the purview of sexual transgressions  (Kiddushin 80b-81b).[4]  (Biale, Women and Jewish Law, p. 183)

          A married man who has sexual relations with an unmarried woman is not guilty of any offense since he could theoretically marry the woman.   A man who had extramarital sex, if he did not try to marry the woman, had not committed a sexual transgression.  He was certainly condemned, and perhaps even flogged in some communities but his offense remained of much lesser magnitude than a sexual transgression.[5]

          What about the unmarried woman who has sexual relations?  As long as she is not betrothed or married, a woman may have sexual relations with one or more men without violating any explicit sexual prohibition. Sexual relations outside the framework of marriage are not adultery for a single woman, just as they are not for a single or married man. If a single woman has an exclusive sexual relationship with a man whom she could legally marry, that relationship is construed as “common-law marriage,” and should she switch her alliance without a divorce, she would be considered an adulteress.  The halakhah does not accept such non marital sexuality, but rather condemns it and label's it “promiscuity”.[6]

          Is this a Biblical double standard in favor of the man?  In Deut. 22:13-21 we see a section involving a man who has contracted with a father for his daughter, to become his wife.   After the marriage the man came to the elders of the city and said, “This man sold me damaged merchandise.”  The husband claims that he was sold a woman he thought was a virgin but found out later that she was not.  The elders of the city are charged with examining the evidence.  If they come to the conclusion that the charge is true then the woman is to be stoned.  If the charge turns out not to be true then the man who brought the false charge is to be fined 100 shekels, twice the normal bride price, and paid to the girl’s father because he’s the one accused of wrongfully representing his merchandise.  The husband can never put her away for any reason!  But, if she was not a virgin when she married, she is stoned. 

          In Deut. 22:22 we find a woman who was married and had come into the marriage a virgin.  But apparently she was guilty of a sexual relationship during the days of betrothal.  We don’t know who the man is so only the woman is put to death.  In v. 22 we find a man and a woman in a relationship.  She is already married, and he is involved with her.  They are both to be put to death.  In v. 23 we read of a virgin engaged and lies with a man in the city. Both are stoned because she obviously did not cry out for help and thus consented.  In vs. 28, 29 we hear of something that sounds terribly unfair to the girl, as do many of these codes.


“If a man find a girl who is a virgin, who is not betrothed, and he seizes

her and lies with her, and they are found, then the man who lay

with her shall give to the girl’s father fifty shekels of silver, and she

shall be his wife, because he has violated her, he may not divorce her

all his days.” 


          In order to properly understand what is going on again we need to put ourselves back into the mind set of that day and time.  It’s very important to see that in that period of time there is not a social security program for these women.  This is why it was such a horrible thing to be a widow and childless.  There is no one to provide and take care of you in your old age.  If this girl has been raped there is no man in that city who will have her as his wife.  They would view her as “damaged goods”.  She has now become unmarriable.  The story of Amnon and Tamar comes into play here.  Amnon, the son of David, rapes his niece, Tamar, the daughter of Absalom (2 Samuel 13).  After this act he wants nothing to do with her and she cries out, “No, because this wrong in sending me away is greater than the other that you have done to me!”  Upon being thrown out into the street Tamar puts ashes on her head, tears her long sleeved garment which she is wearing (which, according to v. 18, was a sign of the virgin daughters of the king) and went away crying aloud.  Both David and Absalom are very angry but according to law there is no way that he can be punished unless this law about paying the fifty shekels is enacted, and it is not!  Some time later Absalom murders Amnon because of this detestable act which now not only shames his daughter but isolates her for the rest of her life. 

          A woman in this situation is denied the ability to have children who would take care of her later in life.  Amnon put Tamar in this terrible predicament where she cannot marry or have children.  The requirement found in Deut. 22 thus, makes it a requirement that the man marry her, give her due as his wife, and will give her children.  In a sense, this is the lesser of two evils. 

          Having now viewed this lesson in the law and how it worked in certain situations we now have enough background information to understand what is running through the mind of those who listened to Jesus. 


You shall not commit adultery!  You shall not take a woman that is pledged to another man for such would be robbing him of his personal property.  To do such is sinning against that man and will procure the death of both the wife and the man that lies with her (Jn. 8:1-11: adulterous woman).


Verse 28

"But I say everyone that looks on a woman to lust for her has committed adultery with her already in his heart."


          The Rabbinic parallel to this verse is found in Berachoth 24a, “Whosoever looketh on the little finger of a woman with a lustful eye is considered as having committed adultery.”


          We need to remember that what Jesus is dealing with here is PERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS.  Individual to Individual!  The law said that to commit adultery was to attack the husband.  Two people could die because of that action, but that is not the emphasis here.  The emphasis is: Why would one do that to another and how serious an offense is it?  Any action is begun in the mind so when you even start thinking and dwelling on the prospect of taking this action, stop it.

          The word used for look her is blepo which means, “to turn the thoughts or direct the mind to a thing, to consider, contemplate, look at.”[7]  The strictest sense of sexual morality is demanded by the Talmud.  That the adulterer is a practical atheist (naval) is identified by the verse, “The eye also of the adulterer waiteth for the twilight, saying, No eye shall see me.”  (Job 24:15)   Even to lust with the eye was considered an unchaste act.  ‘Not merely one who sins with his body is called an adulterer, but he who sins with his eye is also so named.’  (Lev. R. 23:12)

          As a safeguard to morality a man was strictly enjoined to avoid doing anything which might excite his passions.  It gives rise to the recommendation, “Engage not in much gossip with women”.  This applies even to one’s own wife; how much more so one’s own neighbor.  Hence the Sages say, whoso engages in much gossip with women brings evil upon himself, neglects the study of the Torah, and will in the end inherit Gehinnom’ (Aboth 1:5).

          “A man should never walk behind a woman along the road, even his own wife.  Should a woman meet him on a bridge, he should let her pass by on the side; and whoever crosses a stream behind a woman will have no portion in the World to Come.  He who pays money to a woman, counting it from his hand into hers for the sake of gazing at her, even if he possess Torah and good deeds like Moses our teacher, he will not escape the punishment of Gehinnom.  A man should walk behind a lion rather than behind a woman” (Ber. 61a).[8] 

          What does it mean to lust?  Over the years many people have tried to deal with what they perceive as a personal problem with lust, than with any other.  The problem is that we don’t know the difference between a normal human response and lust.  The fact is we are all sexual beings.  We all have sexual thoughts and fantasies.  There are only two categories of people who don’t have sexual thoughts. The first are dead and the second are liars.  Everyone else is a sexual being and they have sexual thoughts and fantasies and that’s OK.  It’s the way that God made us.  So what is this lust (hamad)?  Hamad - het, mem, dalet.  In Brown-Driver-Briggs, #2350 (p. 326)  a. In bad sense or inordinate, ungoverned, selfish desire...or idolatrous tendency.”  Therefore it’s ungoverned, it’s out of control and it’s of such a tendency that it has become an object of worship of idolatry.  It’s so out of control that they have to possess it at any cost.  Remember, run after or pursue righteousness to lay hold on it or to possess it.  It’s just the opposite.  We can lust after things other than women or men.  You can lust after things to possess it or to lay hold on it and you’re going to have to at any cost.  You have such an example in David the king.  He wasn’t a peeping tom.  He wasn’t out there with a pair of binoculars looking through the windows of the apartment complexes.  He was just outside and looked in a certain direction and by accident saw Bathsheba.  He probably thought that she was a good looking woman and wondered what it would be like to possess her.  All that was normal and natural.  When he put Uriah on the front lines, because he had no legitimate claim on Bathsheba, he put himself in a completely different category.  It’s like someone walking down the street and they see a television in a window and thinks to himself, “I’d like that.”  We can fantasize and see that set in our living room at home.  All of that is a normal, natural human response.  But if I pick up a brick and throw it through this window and run off with the set that means that I’ve moved from a natural human response into sin.

          Jesus says, that to just contemplate this action is wrong because if acted upon it may allow this to actually take place.

              [1] Flusser, Jesus. 91, 92.

              [2] Encyclopedia Judaica, vol. 2, 313. 

              [3] Rachel Biale. Women and Jewish Law: The Essential Texts, Their History, and Their Relevance for Today. New York: Schocken, 1995. 184. 

              [4] Biale, 183.

              [5] Biale, 190.

              [6] Biale, 190. 

              [7] Thayer, 103.

              [8] Cohen, 97, 98.