[Mojohn: According to CWDNT, the Greek word moichao (Strong’s # 3429) is translated “adultery” and “committing sexual acts with someone other than his or her own spouse.” The same Greek word can also mean covenant-breaker, as in James 4:4. Because moichao can have both literal and figurative meaning, how do we know which to ascribe to “adultery” as used by Jesus in Matthew, Mark, and Luke?
[Presumably we all agree that as we read or hear communication, our default “programming” is to understand the communication literally, unless the context mandates that we should take it figuratively. Dr. D.R. Dungan incorporates this teaching as Rule 1 in Section 51 (page 195) of his book Hermeneutics. Thus, outside some of the prophetic writings and the verse in James, when one encounters the word “adultery,” one should assume it has its normal, literal meaning.]
JFG: I entirely disagree. In fact, Dungan reveals an extraordinary ignorance of ordinary language in making such an assertion. I was so surprised that I had to look him up, knowing that surely no major publishing house would publish such a claim. And, indeed, I discovered that Dungan is a Restoration Movement preacher from the mid-19th Century. He was no doctor of any kind, having not graduated from college, although he was well self-taught on some subjects (but evidently not hermeneutics).
Here is why I find the claim appalling. Metaphor is not nearly so mechanical as Dungan would suggest. Language, both Greek and English, is filled with idioms that are so well understood that no context is required to make them understood. For example, if I were to refer to my wife as “a fox,” the thought of her being a literal fox would not cross your mind. You’d think I referred to her as an attractive woman.
There is no “default” literal setting, nor are there concrete, systematized rules for when we shift from default mode to figurative mode. Human language is not computer code.
Moreover, “context” is not always textual. When I say my wife is “fine,” the meaning may depend on my intonation — whether she is healthy or fine like a fox. It may even depend on your knowing me and my personality. Or knowing my wife.
Try going a day using only literal language. You’ll find it nearly impossible to express yourself without figurative idioms. “Cool” doesn’t mean cool. The fact that your work is “hard” merely means it’s like an unbendable substance. Your wife weighs the same when she is light on her feet. When the air is heavy, the density is actually lower.
Just so, in reading the Bible, the critically important context is rarely just the surrounding text. As I try to demonstrate in my writings, the context for Jesus and Paul is often the entire Old Testament. When they use words commonly used in the Law and the Prophets, they expect their vocabulary to be understood because we should recognize the words as God-breathed of old, not because they’ve given us additional clues pointing us to what they assume to be obvious.
For example, when Paul refers to “one flesh” (1 Cor 6:16), the metaphor is taken from Genesis 2 regardless of context. The notion that I should assume a non-metaphorical meaning absent some additional clues is badly mistaken. It’s not how real people speak and write, hear and read.
[Mojohn: Accordingly, when we encounter Jesus’ teaching that a divorced woman and the man she marries commit adultery following a subsequent marriage, we should assume he means plain old garden variety sexual activity between at least two persons, at least one of whom is married to someone not involved in the liaison. The only exception to this general rule of which I’m aware is Jesus’ teaching that if a man imagines engaging in sexual activity with a woman he commits adultery in his heart, Matthew 5:28.]
JFG: Now, don’t you realize that you just violated your own rule? Matthew 5:28 happens to shortly precede the passage to which you allude. It’s part of the context!
(Mat 5:27-32 NET) 27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to desire her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away! It is better to lose one of your members than to have your whole body thrown into hell. 30 If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away! It is better to lose one of your members than to have your whole body go into hell.
31 “It was said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her a legal document.’ 32 But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
The context demands that we consider the metaphoric meaning of adultery given the word by Jesus in verses 27-28 as a possible meaning in v. 31. And indeed, that’s exactly the argument that I made in my earlier post. As many early church fathers and I agree, Jesus’ concern is with divorces made in order to marry someone else — that is, with the problems that arise when a spouse lusts after someone other than his or her spouse. The divorce does not cleanse the sin. Rather, it’s a sinful product of the sin — leading both spouses into covenant violations.
I would add that Dungan also teaches,
Rule 3. The language of Scripture may be regarded as figurative, if the literal interpretation will cause one passage to contradict another.
Well, Matt 5:32 contradicts 1 Corinthians 7 unless we think metaphorically in Matthew 5 — which certainly suits the context, whereas Paul seems to be largely literal in 1 Cor 7.
And as I and many others have argued, “adultery” often refers to covenant violations in the Old Testament, especially in the context of God’s marriage to Israel. Any student of the prophets would know this.
(Mat 12:39 ESV) But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.”
You don’t mention that this verse uses “adulterous” metaphorically, but why should you? What in the context says so? Why couldn’t Jesus be accusing his listeners of literal adultery? Maybe he knew that those scribes and Pharisees were cheating on their wives? Dungan’s Rule 1 makes the Pharisees and scribes into adulterers against their wives per the word of Jesus Christ. Actually, it make the entire generation adulterous.
We take the notion that Jesus is speaking of literal adultery as absurd, not because of the immediate literary context but because Jesus is obviously speaking in the language of the prophets — with no hint of that fact other than the word “adulterous.” After all, “evil” appears to be quite literal.
And Matthew surely expected us to be just as familiar with the word back in chapter 5.
There are lots of good books out on hermeneutics. And as I’ve been saying in the 1 Corinthians series, the best hermeneutics are to read the Bible the way Jesus and Paul read the Bible. And a system such as Dungan’s does not find the heart of its hermeneutic in Christ and the scriptures. Rather, he seeks to import his own wisdom into the text — and that is always a dangerous road to travel.
 I disagree with this rule, but if you’re right that Dungan knows his stuff, then I show some conclusions that follow. I disagree because it’s cheating to find the scriptures consistent by treating all apparent inconsistencies as figurative. How much faith does it show to impose consistency on the text by making such a rule regardless of grammar and logic? I mean, for the consistency of the Bible to mean something, that consistency must come from the text.