a-dul'-ter-i: In Scripture designates sexual intercourse of a man, whether married or unmarried, with a married woman.
1. Its Punishment:
It is categorically prohibited in the Decalogue (seventh commandment, Ex 20:14; De 5:18): "Thou shalt not commit adultery." In more specific language we read: "And thou shalt not he carnally with thy neighbor's wife, to defile thyself with her" (Le 18:20). The penalty is death for both guilty parties: "And the man that committeth adultery with another man's wife, even he that committeth adultery with his neighbor's wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death" (Le 20:10). The manner of death is not particularized; according to the rabbis (Siphra' at the place; Sanhedhrin 52b) it is strangulation. It would seem that in the days of Jesus the manner of death was interpreted to mean stoning ("Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such," Joh 8:5, said of the woman taken in adultery). Nevertheless, it may be said that in the case in question the woman may have been a virgin betrothed unto a husband, the law (in De 22:23 f) providing that such a person together with her paramour be stoned to death (contrast De 22:22, where a woman married to a husband is spoken of and the manner of death is again left general). Eze 16:40 (compare Eze 23:47) equally mentions stoning as the penalty of the adulteress; but it couples to her sin also that of shedding blood; hence, the rabbinic interpretation is not necessarily disputed by the prophet. Of course it may also be assumed that a difference of custom may have obtained at different times and that the progress was in the line of leniency, strangulation being regarded as a more humane form of execution than stoning.
2. Trial by Ordeal:
The guilty persons become amenable to the death penalty only when taken "in the very act" (Joh 8:4). The difficulty of obtaining direct legal evidence is adverted to by the rabbis (see Makkoth 7a). In the case of a mere suspicion on the part of the husband, not substantiated by legal evidence, the woman is compelled by the law (Nu 5:11-30) to submit to an ordeal, or God's judgment, which consists in her drinking the water of bitterness, that is, water from the holy basin mingled with dust from the floor of the sanctuary and with the washed-off ink of a writing containing the oath which the woman has been made to repeat. The water is named bitter with reference to its effects in the case of the woman's guilt; on the other hand, when no ill effects follow, the woman is proved innocent and the husband's jealousy unsubstantiated. According to the Mishna (SoTah 9) this ordeal of the woman suspected of adultery was abolished by Johanan ben Zaccai (after 70 AD), on the ground that the men of his generation were not above the suspicion of impurity.
3. A Heinous Crime:
Adultery was regarded as a heinous crime (Job 31:11). The prophets and teachers in Israel repeatedly upbraid the men and women of their generations for their looseness in morals which did not shrink from adulterous connections. Naturally where luxurious habits of life were indulged in, particularly in the large cities, a tone of levity set in: in the dark of the evening, men, with their features masked, waited at their neighbors' doors (Job 24:15; 31:9; compare Pr 7:1-27), and women forgetful of their God's covenant broke faith with the husbands of their youth (Pr 2:17). The prophet Nathan confronted David after his sin with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, with his stern rebuke ("Thou art the man," 2Sa 12:7); the penitential psalm (Ps 51:1-19)--"Miserere"--was sung by the royal bard as a prayer for divine pardon. Promiscuous intercourse with their neighbors' wives is laid by Jeremiah at the door of the false prophets of his day (Jer 23:10,14; 29:23).
4. Penal and Moral Distinctions:
While penal law takes only cognizance of adulterous relations, it is needless to say that the moral law discountenances all manner of illicit intercourse and all manner of unchastity in man and woman. While the phrases "harlotry," "commit harlotry," in Scripture denote the breach of wedlock (on the part of a woman), in the rabbinical writings a clear distinction is made on the legal side between adultery and fornication. The latter is condemned morally in no uncertain terms; the seventh commandment is made to include all manner of fornication. The eye and the heart are the two intermediaries of sin (Palestinian Talmud, Berakhoth 6b). A sinful thought is as wicked as a sinful act (Niddah 13b and elsewhere). Job makes a covenant with his eyes lest he look upon a virgin (31:1). And so Jesus who came "not to destroy, but to fulfill" (Mt 5:17), in full agreement with the ethical and religious teaching of Judaism, makes the intent of the seventh commandment explicit when he declares that "every one that looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already In his heart" (Mt 5:28). And in the spirit of Hosea (Mt 4:15) and Johanan ben Zaccai (see above) Jesus has but scorn for those that are ready judicially to condemn though they be themselves not free from sin! "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her" (Joh 8:7). Whereas society is in need of the death penalty to secure the inviolability of the home life, Jesus bids the erring woman go her way and sin no more. How readily His word might be taken by the unspiritual to imply the condoning of woman's peccability is evidenced by the fact that the whole section (Joh 7:53 through Joh 8:11) is omitted by "most ancient authorities" (see Augustine's remark).
5. A Ground of Divorce:
Adultery as a ground of divorce. --The meaning of the expression "some unseemly thing" (De 24:1) being unclear, there was great variety of opinion among the rabbis as to the grounds upon which a husband may divorce his wife. While the school of Hillel legally at least allowed any trivial reason as a ground for divorce, the stricter interpretation which limited it to adultery alone obtained in the school of Shammai. Jesus coincided with the stricter view (see Mt 5:32; 19:9, and commentaries). From a moral point of view, divorce was discountenanced by the rabbis likewise, save of course for that one ground which indeed makes the continued relations between husband and wife a moral impossibility.
Max L. Margolis