Language is quirky; words can have multiple meanings and nuances of meaning within the meanings. It becomes incumbent upon those who study language to ensure that the meanings of words are represented correctly if we are going to understand other languages. And, in religious matters, there is more than a tendency to fixate upon one meaning of a word to the exclusion of others. This is because the natural tendency of learning is to seek to simplify. Language, however, is anything but simple and not handling it correctly can result in dangerous error.
The word “adultery” is a word that many have sought to understand. In the Bible, it is first found in Exodus 20:14, “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” The meaning of the word here is presumed and those hearing God’s commands are expected to understand what God meant when he prohibited adultery. In the LXX it is the Greek word MOIXEUW. This specific word is translated into English “commit adultery” thirteen times in the New Testament (AV) and “in adultery” once (in John 8). It is never defined, per se, in the New Testament; it is always assumed that the reader knows the definition. There are also several cognate words to MOXEUW found throughout the New Testament: MOIXALIS (adulteress), MOIXAW (commit adultery), MOIXEIA (adultery), and MOIXOS (adulterer).
The word is used both literally and figuratively in the Bible both in the Old and New Testaments. Vine’s expository dictionary says that the word’s “natural sense,” “denotes one ‘who has unlawful intercourse with the spouse of another,’ Luke 18:11; 1 Cor. 6:9; Heb. 13:4.” However, he also cites James 4:4 and says that the word is used here “in the spiritual sense.” It isn’t difficult to see that the terms “natural” and “spiritual” as used in Vine’s correspond to “literal” and “figurative.”
Such a distinction is defined more directly in other Lexicons. Bauer, Arndt, and Gingrich decline to give a literal definition of the word in their lexicon, simply choosing the word “adultery” in some form to be sufficient for the literal translation. However, they do comment on the figurative use of the word under the entry MOIXALIS. They say, “fig., in a usage found in Hosea (3:1), in which God’s relation to his people is depicted as a marriage, and any beclouding of it becomes adultery (cf. Jer 3:9; 9:1; Ezk 16:32ff, esp. vs. 38).” It is clear, however, that Bauer understands both a literal and a figurative usage of the word.
Kittel, in his Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, has the following to say about the literal use of the word in the New Testament:
D. The Word Group in the New Testament
1. In the Literal Sense. A mark of the NT is the sharp intensifying of the concept of adultery. The right of a man to sexual freedom is denied. Like the wife, the husband is under an obligation of fidelity. The wife is exalted to the same dignity as the husband. Marriage ( -> GAMEW, I, 648 ff.) is a life-long fellowship of the partners. Only thus does it actualise the ideal intended in creation (Mt.5:32; 19:8). On this ground Jesus rejects the provisions of the Law and the scribes concerning divorce of the wife under the legal form of a bill of divorcement (Dt.24:1 -> APOLUW, APOSTASION). This is in conflict with the will of God (Mt.19:6ff.). For this reason the remarriage of man after divorcing his wife, or the remarrying of the divorced woman, is tantamount to adultery (Mt.5:32; 19:9; Mk.10:11f.; Lk.16:18; cf. 1 C.7:10 f.).
Thayer says that the word means, “to have unlawful intercourse with another’s wife, to commit adultery with.” He cites Matthew 5:32 and Matthew 19:9 as examples of this definition. He also says, “Hebraistically and fig. faithless toward God, ungodly….” By this we learn that the word has both a literal and a figurative meaning. While Liddell and Scott is largely a classical reference, they do cite Biblical sources from time to time. In regard to the metaphorical definition of the word, they say, “metaph., to be unfaithful to God, LXX Je.3.8, Ez.23.37.”
Perhaps one of the most interesting Lexicons, however, that give us a definition of this word is Louw and Nida’s. Their Lexicon is different from others in that they classify words based upon their semantic domain. That means that it is organized based upon the meaning of the word. In section 88.276 under the entry MOIXEUW, they say:
“MOIXEUW; MOIXAOMAI; MOIXEIA, as f: sexual intercourse of a man with a married woman other than his own spouse – ‘to commit adultery, adultery.'” There is the straightforward literal meaning of the word. As to the figurative meaning, they cover that as well in section 31.101. They say, “MOIXALIS, I (adjectival form): (a figurative extension of meaning of the substantive MOIXALIS ‘adulteress,’ 88.278) pertaining to being unfaithful to one’s earlier and true beliefs – ‘unfaithful, adulterous.'”
So, what is the bottom line regarding the Greek word for adultery? In its literal sense, it means for a married person to have sexual intercourse with one who is not his or her spouse. Under the New Testament, as Kittel says, it is an equal standard for both husband and wife. In its figurative sense, the word can simply mean unfaithfulness (usually to God) of a severe nature. Several lexicons cite Matthew 5:32 and Matthew 19:9 as a literal use of the word. From that we conclude that Jesus wasn’t redefining the word adultery in these passages. Instead, he was saying that those who divorce and remarry “for any cause” are really doing nothing more than committing adultery; that is to say, that their sexual relationship in their new marriage is tantamount to adultery.
Clearly, understanding the definitions of this word will go a long way toward clearing up a lot of misunderstanding regarding the subject in the religious world today.