A.Because of different meanings that are being given to the word "adultery" it is important that the correct meaning of the word as it appears in the Bible be found.

1.Some are saying that the word means "covenant breaking" in such verses as Matt. 5:32; 19:9; etc.

B.In this paper we seek the correct definition of the word in the O.T. and N.T. We will seek its meaning both through studying its Bible usage and by how it is defined in lexicons, and other Bible reference books.


A.The Primary Meaning of the Word "Adultery" in the Old Testament

1.The basic meaning of the word can be determined by studying the earliest incidents of its usage in the Bible.

a.It first appears in both the Hebrew and English at Ex. 20:14: "Thou shalt not commit adultery."

b.It next appears in Lev. 20:10, "And the man that committeth adultery with another man's wife, even he that committeth adultery with his neighbour's wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death."

1)"Adultery" in this text clearly has reference to sexual intercourse between a man and the wife of another man. That this is so can be seen by noting that the context (vs. 10-21) is speaking of various sexual sins.

c.We now trace the history of the word's usage in scripture through several hundred years by citing in order the verses where it next appears: Dt. 5:18, "Neither shalt thou commit adultery." Job. 24:15, "The eye also of the adulterer waiteth for the twilight..." Ps. 50:18, "When thou sawest a thief, then thou consentedst with him, and hast been partaker with adulterers."

Concl.A. The original meaning of the word adultery through the first several hundred years of its usage in scripture is plain. It had reference to sexual intercourse between a man and the wife of another man. There is no text which implies any other meaning.

B.The Secondary and Figurative Use of the Word "Adultery"

1.Although adultery continued to be used of sexual intercourse between a man and the wife of another man (cf. Ezek. 16:32), it took on a figurative meaning when it was used to describe Israel's sin of worshipping idols: Jer. 3:9, "And it came to pass through the lightness of her whoredom, that she defiled the land, and committed adultery with stones and with stocks." Ezek. 23:37, "That they have committed adultery, and blood is in their hands, and with their idols have they committed adultery..."

2.In what sense was idol worship adultery?

a.God looked upon Israel as a wife to whom He was married (Jer. 3:14). In offering the worship due Him to false gods Israel was said to commit adultery (Jer. 3:8). God, after much longsuffering, eventually put Israel away (cp. Isa. 50:1 and Jer. 3:6-8).

b.Though the term is obviously used figuratively in the above cited verses we note that even in these instances it never lost its basic meaning of a man having sexual intercourse with the wife of another man: Jer. 3:1,2,6, "They say, If a man put away his wife, and she go from him, and become another man's shall he return into her again? shall not that land be greatly polluted? but thou hast played the harlot with many lovers; yet return again to me saith the Lord. Lift up thine eyes unto the high places (places of idolatrous worship,sw), and see where thou had not been lien with....upon every high mountain and under every green tree, and there hath played the harlot." Ezek. 16:25, "Thou hast built thy high place at every head of the way, and hast made thy beauty to be abhorred, and hast opened thy feet to every one that passed by, and multiplied thy whoredoms." (emph. mine, sw) Hos. 2:1, "Plead with your mother (Israel, sw), plead: for she is not my wife, neither am I her husband: let her therefore put away her whoredoms out of her sight, and her adulteries from between her breasts."

Concl.B. The word "adultery's" figurative usage in scripture still carried with it the meaning of sexual infidelity of a wife to a husband. It was only when describing man's relationship with God that the word was used figuratively.

C.The Word's Usage and Meaning in the New Testament

1.The basic meaning of a man having sexual intercourse with the wife of another man is seen in the following verses: Matt. 5:27, "Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery." Jno. 8:4, "They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act." Rom. 7:3, "So then if, while her husband liveth, she be married to another man, she shall be called an adulteress: but if her husband be dead, she is free from that law; so that she is no adulteress though she be married to another man."

2.The figurative meaning of unfaithfulness to God was also preserved: Matt. 12:39, "But he answered and said unto them, An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign..." Jas. 4:4, "Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God."

a.That the figurative meaning of adultery is preserved in the New Testament is consistent with the figurative meaning of the word in the Old Testament. There is once again a "marriage relationship" between God and His people in the New Testament (Rom. 7:4; Eph. 5:23-32). One can be guilty of idolatry in the New Testament by coveting things of this world (Col. 3:5; cp. Jas. 4:1-4).

3.The word takes on the additional meaning of a woman having sexual intercourse with the husband of another woman: Matt. 19:9, "And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery." Lk. 16:18, "Whosoever putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery."

4."Adultery" clearly has reference to sexual intercourse between a married person and someone other than their mate in Matt.5:27. It is highly unlikely that it means anything different in Matt. 5:32 since it is the same word following closely in the same context. This, in turn, reflects on the meaning of the word in 19:9; Mk. 10:11-12; etc.

Concl.C. In the New Testament, the meaning of the word "adultery" is consistent with the Old Testament meaning of the word with the exception that the case of a woman having sexual relations with the husband of another woman is added to the basic definition of the word.


1.The usage of the word "adultery" in scripture when applied to the actions of one human being with another human being of the opposite sex shows that the word always meant sexual relations between a married person and someone other than that person's mate. This is always the meaning of the word in such cases. This is also true in Matt. 5:28 where the word, describing the act committed in the heart of a lusting man, is directly related to the physical act which it is describing (v. 27).

2.The word takes on the figurative meaning of unfaithfulness to God by those who are "married" to Him. It is only in the describing of this unfaithfulness to God that the word takes on this figurative meaning.

3.We never read of the word meaning "covenant breaking" in scripture.


A."Committeth adultery" is in the present tense in Matt. 19:9

1.The Analytical Greek Lexicon Revised, "3rd pers. sing. pres._ind." (by Howard K. Moulton, p. 272, Zondervan publ.)

2.A Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament, "pres. mid." (by Fritz Rienecker, p, 57, Zondervan publ.)

B.Significance of the present tense:

1."It signifies action in progress, or state in persistence, and may be represented by the graph (_________)." (Dana and Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek N.T., p. 182, Macmillan)

2."The Present Indicative is sometimes used of an action or event coincident in time with the act of speaking, and conceived of as a simple event. Most frequently the action denoted by the verb is identical with the act of speaking itself, or takes place in that act. "Rem. This usage is a distinct departure from the prevailing use of the Present tense to denote action in progress..." (my emph, sw) (Syntax of the Moods and Tenses in New Testament Greek, Ernest De Witt Burton, p. 9)


1.The tense of "committeth adultery" will not allow for the asserted one time act of "covenant breaking" which is said to take place when a person divorces his wife and marries another.

2.The ongoing action implied by the tense of "committeth adultery" makes the assertion that a one time act of "coventant breaking" is spoken of ridiculous. (concluded in next post)

by Steve Wallace, 29 Nov. 1990

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