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Back to the Future…Adultery in the First Century

January 25, 2012

 

So when Jesus uses the word “adultery,” what would this word bring to mind for his Jewish audience?  Certainly he is pointing back to Exodus 20, but what would constitute adultery in 1st century Judaism?

By the first century, society still viewed adultery as serious.  Jews had entire sections of their law, devoted to the explanation of adultery down to the finest point.  But we should never underestimate mankind’s ability to take a law or precept from God and begin to twist it and conform it to make excuses for the very sin it was meant to warn against.  Such was the case with the Jews.

Many in Jesus’ era “assumed that unconditional fidelity was demanded only of the woman in a marriage.”  There is some biblical example for this assumption. “The incident with Tamar and Judah in Genesis 38:24-26 vividly illustrates this attitude.  Judah considered himself above reproach when he dallied with someone he thought to be a prostitute (Tamar in disguise) at his shepherds convention, but he was ready to stone Tamar when she turned up pregnant.  This chauvinistic attitude was prevalent in the Roman world.”[1]   Laws concerning adultery were very much lopsided and favored men far more than women. This was not God’s design by any means, as the Seventh Commandment reflects.  But man had twisted God’s law and bent it to excuse bad behavior.  The man is exhorted in proverbs to be faithful to his wife (Pr 5:15-19) but according to Jewish law his infidelity is only punished if he violates the rights of another man by taking a married woman as his partner.[2]  Jews would have viewed adultery “as sexual intercourse with the wife or betrothed of another Jew,”[3] and sought to punish the woman first, before the man.  Consider the story of woman brought to Jesus “caught in the act of adultery” (John 8:1-11).  The woman is present for punishment but the man is absent.

Moreover, the Rabbis made a distinction between the thoughts of a man and those thoughts acted out.  They held that a man’s good intentions were reckoned to him as good deeds, while his evil intentions are counted ONLY if he succumbs to them.  In other words, you were not guilt per se if you had lustful thoughts; but only if those thoughts were turned into action.[4]


[1] Dockery, David and David E Garland Seeking the Kingdom: the Sermon on the Mount made Practical for today. Wheaton: Harold Shaw Pub. 1992. 53.

[2] de Vaux, Roland. Ancient Israel: social institutions. Vol. 1 New York: McGraw Hill. 1965. 37.

[3] Johnson, Sherman The Gospel According to St. Matthew. The Interpreters Bible Vol. 7 Nashville: Abingdon. 1951. 297.

[4] Ibid. 297.

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