The Problem with Adultery

Matt. 5:27-32

     I’ve retranslated (in rough drafts) the Gospels of Mark and Luke and now I’m working on Matthew. So far, unfortunately, chapter five of Matthew has to be one of the chapters that I’m most disappointed in how it’s been translated into English. And it’s in the Sermon on the Mount, for God’s sake. Yet I work very hard not to be critical of the sixteenth century men who gave it their best shot.

     I have no problem with the validity, truth, or wisdom of the original authors of the New Testament and what they shared in their writings in ancient Greek. But I’m surprised at how long the King James translators have influenced (mesmerized?) the minds of biblical scholars, theologians, and religious professionals who have studied the Scriptures in good faith. Even the newest translations of the Bible are careful not to move very far from the King James Version. The God said it (in English through the KJV)—I believe it—That settles it mentality has persisted too long. Injustice to women has persisted too long.

     I avoided giving you my version for last week’s text. I believe it says something different than what we’ve received from tradition. But there’s a piece in this week’s that I can’t avoid. In fact, I have a very short book being edited as we speak on the topic of divorce, adultery, and remarriage. I hope to be able to make it available in a month or so. Chapter five of Matthew has one topic in the New Testament that I just have to say the KJV translators got it wrong. The Greek is good and makes perfect sense when translated properly. The English translation is flat out wrong.

     I’m still alive. No lightning or thunderbolts. There I said it, and now I’ll explain my variance with Matthew 5:27-32. My forthcoming book (Divorce & Remarriage: The Blunder of the Church) expands on this text and the other three places where Jesus makes comments on divorce and adultery.

     The first thing I think needs to be said is that the term “adultery” is too limited in its meaning. Why would God give ten all-encompassing commandments that cover almost every facet of sin, and you can’t explain one of them to a pre-pubescent child without fear that it will reveal too much or cause him or her to start researching birth control so they can break it as soon as possible?

     In short, I suggest the term adultery be broadened in its scope or changed so as to expose the root that gave it its sexual implications.  I will remind you of the patriarchal system that was prevalent. When Moses handed down the Ten Commandments, they were aimed at taming the behavior of men. The commandments helped to establish a more orderly and civil way of life. “You shall not commit adultery” was a restriction placed on men, instructing them to stay away from the wives of other men because they were considered another’s valued property.

     The word “adulterate” is an English verb that comes from the same root word as adultery. It means “to contaminate, taint, pollute, poison, or ruin.” To adulterate someone is rarely thought of in sexual terms. It means to contaminate, taint, poison, or ruin. One might also use verbs that refer to domination, unfair control, or devaluation of the worth of another.

     Based on my analysis of the Greek text, especially noting the verb voices (active/passive and other declension rules) that were not followed in the KJV, here’s my translation of verses 27-32:

27 “You have heard it was said, ‘You shall not have unlawful intercourse with another’s wife.’ 28 Yet I am telling you that anyone looks at a woman to lust for her has already devalued her worthh in his heart. 29 Therefore, if your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you because it is better for you that one of your members might be destroyed and not your whole body cast into Gehenna. 30 Likewise, if your dominant hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you; for it is better for you that one of your members might be destroyed and not your whole body cast into Gehenna.

31 “Now it was said, ‘Whoever might discard his wife, let him give a certificate of divorce to her.’ 32 But I am telling you that anyone who discards his wife without an admission of illicit sexual intercourse on her part causes her to be unjustly ruined.i Likewise, whoever, if he has divorced a wife, if he marries, she (the divorced wife) is being unjustly diminished in worth (or brought to ruin).j

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adulterated.  To adulterate someone is to unjustly ruin, contaminate, abuse, or devalue them.

this was originally translated into English improperly. The verb voice is passive. She is not the one committing the sin of adultery. The discarded wife is the one being adulterated, i.e., unjustly ruined, abused, diminished in value. Jesus was standing up for women who were wrongfully treated.

this has been shamefully translated and perpetuated, but there’s a possible explanation for why it was done.

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     It’s remarkable that almost every translation since the KJV has ignored one Greek word in verse 32—logos. The traditional translations leave a loophole for the man to claim his wife of unfaithfulness. The loophole is not a bad thing. However, Jesus said she has to admit to unfaithfulness for it to be an exception that allows the man to divorce his wife. First century women had little power. A woman had few options to support herself. In the first century, Jewish law permitted a man to divorce his wife for any reason that displeased him. The Greek text, translated correctly, shows that Jesus was opposing the devaluation of women — that he was clearly and openly challenging and opposing Jewish law (a law that persists today). Jesus was saying women cannot be treated or abused as if they are property.

     The saddest part of this teaching is that the very last sentence has been allowed to persist since the fourth century. I’m going to give translators for King James a break and suggest that it’s possible Jerome (when he translated the Greek into Latin) set the tone for the next twelve hundred years of mistaken interpretation. Translators in the sixteenth century were conditioned to think Jerome must have been right.

     How can a wife who’s been unjustly divorced be declared off limits to any other Jewish man? That has never made any sense. But patriarchy is what it is. It’s a system that perpetuates injustice. (I don’t have room in this post but I explain what I believe happened in my book.) If a translator follows the correct Greek grammar, it ought to sound closer to my rendering, keeping the pressure on men to honor their vows.

     So there. I’m setting the record straight. Adultery goes beyond sex. It’s devaluing the worth of any human being. You could probably do a better job of explaining this to a seven year old child or grandchild. Ultimately, we need some translators with the nerve to disagree with the King James translators when errors are found…and the errors of translation need to be changed in the Bible so they don’t allow injustice to persist.

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