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Jesus on adultery

| Monday, November 15, 2021

In Matthew 5:27-30, Jesus pronounces Himself on the question of adultery. This passage is found in the Sermon on the Mount — within the Gospel of Matthew — which is Jesus’ ethical teaching on a righteous life. Most scholars agree that the overarching theme of this passage is the identification of impediments to ultimate salvation and their removal. Jesus invites His followers to cast off sin by whatever means necessary in order to be ready themselves for the kingdom of God. He offers a new, revolutionary interpretation of the pre-existing law on adultery. It is revolutionary in as far as it transcended conventional understanding at the time. Jesus also circumscribes a penalty for adultery: eternal suffering in hell.

In verse 27, Jesus invites His audience to call to mind ancient laws on adultery, the object of His speech. In the first phrase of the verse, “You’ve heard it was said…,” Jesus implicitly acknowledges the knowledge of and faithful adherence to the law on adultery by the members of His audience. According to Jesus, not all those who have ears do hear. He expresses this sentiment in Jeremiah 5:21, where He says that “Hear this, you foolish and senseless people, who have eyes but do not see, who have ears but do not hear.” Therefore, by inviting members of His audience to call to mind what they have heard, Jesus acknowledges that they are able to hear. And in the second phrase of the verse, when Jesus re-echoes the ancient law on adultery, “You shall not commit adultery,” He implicitly acknowledges that the members of His audience are aware of and understand the law of Moses on adultery as well as Jewish laws and customs pertaining to the same. This is view is supported by a general consensus amongst scholars that the prohibition of adultery was not a novel idea amongst the Jews. It was part and parcel of Jewish law and custom. For instance, both Douglas R. Hare and Leon Morris, observe that according to ancient Jewish law, a married woman was not allowed to lay with another man or a married man to lay with a married woman. 

Aside their culture and customary law, the Jews were also aware of the ancient law of Moses on adultery. Indeed, most scholars agree that in verse 27, Jesus is speaking in reference to the ten commandments. Craig S. Keener asserts that Jesus invokes the seventh commandment as presented in Exodus 20:14, which the Matthean writer here quotes directly thus “You shall not commit adultery.” Keener further states that Jesus also alludes to the tenth commandment which, as presented in Exodus 20:17, states that “You shall not covet your neighbor’s property.” Given that in Jewish custom women were considered to be the first property of a man’s household, coveting another man’s wife was tantamount to a violation of his right to his property. It is this knowledge of customary and ancient law on adultery which Jesus appeals to in His opening statement. And in doing so, Jesus sets His audience up for a clarification of interpretation of these laws in the subsequent verse.

Yet, Jesus uses very careful language in order so as to avoid ambiguity around what is considered adultery and what is not. The use of the verb to look implies that adultery begins with the eyes. When we see, we perceive and then we generate impulses that become intentions which translate into action. Jesus is concerned with the initial stage of the sin which is to look. This view is shared by most scholars who agree that Jesus’ interpretation of the law implies that adultery commences with the act of looking. Yet, Jesus is not speaking of mere looking but looking with lustful eyes. The literature indicates that the word used for lust in the original text is the Hebrew verb epithymia. According to Hare, epithymia does not mean idle envy; it means intentional planning to obtain something for oneself. Perhaps a more accurate translation can be found in the Good News translation in which verse 28 is translated as “… anyone who looks at a woman and wants to possess her …” Whereas Jesus implies that adultery begins with the eyes, His emphasis is on looking with lustful eyes, not merely looking. John Nolland argues that Jesus’ emphasis was not on physical attraction. Rather, emphasis is on the desire and implicit planning for sexual relations. I agree with Nolland that Jesus is not concerned with sexual attraction between man and woman but the implicit planning to engage in illicit sexual activity. Condemning sexual attraction would be against God’s pronouncement in Genesis 9:7 “Be fertile then, and multiply, abound the earth and subdue it.”  

Trevor Lwere is a senior from Kampala, Uganda studying Economics and Global Affairs with a minor in PPE. He is currently studying abroad at SOAS University of London. He is a dee-jay in his free time and can be reached at [email protected] or @LwereTrevor on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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