Divorce And Remarriage – “Adultery Defined”

This article is part 3 of 9 in the series Divorce and Remarriage

(We are grateful for this material by Olan Hicks, provided here with permission.)

   Origin of the word: The English language did not have this word until the 16th century. Its Latin root was first put into the Bible text in the 4th century. When Jerome translated the Bible into Latin, called the Vulgate version, he used the Latin word “adulterium” to translate the Greek word “moichatai” in the divorce passages. There is no etymology connecting these two words. They do not mean the same.

   Our English dictionary, in defiing the word “adultery,” says first that it is derived from the Latin word “adulterium,” which, it says, means “to adulterate.” It then defines “adulterate” as meaning “to corrupt, falsify, or add  extraneous ingredients.” Then, without explaining why, it gives as the number one definition, “To have unlawful sexual intercourse with the spouse of another.” If the word “adultery” comes from a word that means “to falsify or corrupt,” from whence comes the sexual definition? No explanation is given and no etymology is cited. The Greek lexicons do the same. They take the sexual definition and feed it back into a definition of the Greek word “moichatai,” while giving no etymology.

   The word enters the English language. No form of this word was in English translations of scripture until the Geneva Bible in 1570. Two English translations before the Geneva Bible were made by Wycliffe (1384) and Tyndale in 1535. Both ignored Jerome’s rendering and translated “moichatai” as “breaketh wedlock.” Although Wycliffe translated  from the Vulgate version he did not accept “adulterium” nor its cognates as a rendering of “moichatai.” Tyndale worked directly from the Greek text. He also saw “moichatai,” as it applies to marriage, as meaning to break wedlock.

   Apparent bias. Jerome was a Catholic theologian. Putting this word in the text accommodated Catholic theology. It placed into the Bible an element of support for their “sacrament” theory of marriage. Catholic theology and the Vulgate version strongly influenced developments that occurred in following centuries. The vulgate version became the standard Bible used in the Catholic Church. In the middle of the 16th century the Council of Trent pronounced it “authentic,” the official Bible to be used in all liturgical activities of the church. The English Church was an outgrowth of Catholicism and it retained many of the doctrines of the Catholic Church. Considering the word “adultery” as meaning a sex act gives support to the Catholic idea that the church is the determiner of who is eligible to marry and who is not.

   The Geneva Bible translators were from England. They made their translation in 1560 and presented it to the queen in 1570. They brought the word “adulterium” over from the Vulgate version and coined the word “adultery” for their translation. This created a new word and for the first time the sexual idea was put into an English Bible as a translation of “moichatai” in the divorce passages. 41 years later (1611) the King James version, also made in England, placed the word “adultery” in these passages. Virtually all translations since that time have continued to follow that course.

   To find out the real meaning of the Greek word in the text one has to check out its usage in the Bible. Doing that reveals a lot. We find that this word is applied to a number of different kinds of action. In the divorce passages (Mat. 19:9, luke 16:18 etc.) it refers to two acts of unfaithfulness, neither of which is a sex act, putting away a faithful wife and marrying another. In several passages it refers to idolatry. (Jeremiah 3:8, Vs. 9 “with stones and trees”). Thayer cites Revelation 2:22 as a case in which a form of this word refers to those who “at a woman’s solicitation are drawn away to idolatry.” He also recognizes one of its meanings as “to falsify, to corrupt,” which agrees with the dictionary definition of “adulterate.” He even says one of its meanings is “to usurp unlawful control over the sea.” (Lexicon, pg.417) In James 4:4 it is applied to “friendship with the world.” In Mat. 12:39 it is applied to seeking after a sign.

   One thing is consistently there. These are a variety of different acts but one ingredient is common to them all, unfaithfulness or betrayal. In Malachi 2:14 God said that He had been a “witness between you and the wife of your youth, with whom you have dealt treacherously.” At verse 16 He said that what the Lord hates is “putting away.” Jesus applied the same idea in Mark 10:11, “Whoever puts away his wife and marries another commits adultery (moichatai) against her.” So betrayal or unfaithfulness is its basic meaning. It can be committed in different ways but the definition of the word is unfaithulness, whether against God or against a mate, or anyone to whom we owe commitment. To restrict its meaning to one kind of action, such as a sex act, or idolatry, is wrong and gives support to some of man’s worst errors.

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