1 Corinthians 7: When Jesus Speaks of “Adultery,” Is He Being Figurative?

1corinthiansReader Mojohn’s extensive and thoughtful comment questions my view that “adultery” in Jesus’ teaching on divorce in Matthew 5 is used metaphorically

[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.[3]

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.

[3] 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.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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12 Responses to 1 Corinthians 7: When Jesus Speaks of “Adultery,” Is He Being Figurative?

  1. George Guild says:

    “Actually, it make the entire generation adulterous.” Interesting observation for a “literal” reading as that would make these Jews worse than the pagan nations that surrounded them.

  2. Jay, I’m surprised you were unfamiliar with Dungan. His book was THE text book when I studied hermeneutics at Alabama Christian (now Faulkner U) back in the 1950’s

  3. Dwight says:

    I just perused through Hermeneutics by Dungan as I had never heard of it before either, but then again I come from a “conservative” background and all I was really taught was CENI as being the hermeneutic system of interpretation.
    In regards to adultery, I would assume that it means the same in either literal or figurative sense, as in going physically to another when you are bound to one in marriage or covenant, which is really the same thing. Adultery might lead to the breaking of a covenant, but not neccessarily, as seen in Israel comitting adultery with other nations and yet God who could have divorced them, chose not to so the covenant was intact. In the OT Law fornication or sexual uncleanliness was reason for divorce (not neccessarily adultery), but if one divorced for any reason other than fornication (as noted by Jesus), this would lead to adultery.

  4. R.J. says:

    I believe adultery is to be unfaithful to one’s spouse in exchanging vows-weather sexualy or asexualy.

    “leading both spouses into covenant violations”.

    How can a woman violate a covenant that’s been broken by her former adulterous husband(and thus incur guilt)? Since Matthew is written for the Christian Jews, I believe it should be interpreted as “the victim of adultery” rather than “commit adultery”(same goes for the second husband who picks up the scars if we include the second half of the verse).

    However, the verb is passive or middle deponent(at least according to the Majority Text). Which can(But Not Always) have an active meaning(though passive or middle voice in form). Scholars disagree on how to interpret Greek deponent verbs.

  5. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:


    The reference to Dungan caught me totally by surprise. I’m pretty well read on RM literature, and I was well taught in the conservative school of thought in my youth. But somehow or other my upbringing missed this one.

    I don’t know. Somehow I just thought it was surely self-evident that in the last 150 years some progress might have been made in hermeneutics. So I guess “new hermeneutics” is anything post-Dungan?

  6. Jay, I’ve decided the three most important “rules” of hermeneutic are: context, context, and context.

    The context of God’s love and heart.

    The context of God’s covenant with Abraham.

    The context of Jesus’ incarnation of God’s love and demonstration of what love is all about as he died, arose, and promised to return.

    May I “plug” a presentation concerning an opportunity Eastern European Mission has received to put Bibles into the public schools of 3 entire provinces of Ukraine? These will join 6 other Ukrainian and 5 Russian provinces with a total of more than 3,000,000 students in almost 15,000 schools in those 14 provinces beginning in 1998. You can see the presentation at http://www.milliondollarsunday.org/EEM-presentation. It is c. 14 minutes long, and will help you understand some of what God is doing in that war-torn, troubled nation.

  7. George Guild says:

    “…I’ve decided the three most important “rules” of hermeneutic are: context, context, and context. ”


  8. Dwight says:

    Jerry, very profound. Sometimes we make hermeneutics very scientific towards a techincal user’s guide, instead of reading the bible as if it were simply a message to us from God. Jesus was the word and the word came into the world. Now having said that there are rules, but the rules were not meant to bind us for rules sake, but for His sake and were dependent largely upon our heart toward God. Even following the rules of divorce for adultery might not mean that love and God ruled in the home before it and it probably didn’t if it led to that. And the converse is true…following God in the best way we can even if we don’t do it perfectly, as if we can, shouldn’t doom us if we seek after God.

  9. Alabama John says:

    Amen, we can get way to technical and remember we are not Jews. We are those afar off since our ancestors were for the most of us, not from the middle east.

    Bottom line is we need to think more on what Jesus said than how we interpret Paul.

    Sometimes I wonder which one we will want to see first in heaven, Jesus or Paul? Love or laws?

  10. mojohn says:

    Jay and all, I’m working on a response to Jay’s reply, and hope to post it later today.

  11. Dwight says:

    But let’s not forget that Paul trained with Jesus in the wilderness before he went on his ministry so whatever Paul said was at the behest of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. We shouldn’t see a dichotomy between Jesus and Paul, rather Paul is Jesus in application. Jesus was the why and Paul was the do and no one understood grace more than Paul. I’m not sure Paul was about rules and regulations for rules and regulations sake after all he fought against those who pushing for abstinence in drinking wine and marriage and eating of meats as a rule and law, and Paul had earlier gave as his opinion that people should avoid getting married if they could for the present time. Paul argued against those who preached, “taste not, touch not” and said “all things are lawful, but not all things are expedient”. We on the other hand sometimes, esp. in the conservative coC, try to turn the argument into that which isn’t expedient isn’t lawful or that which is expedient is lawful, which is not what the scripture says. Paul was about liberty within the context of doing good and being good.

  12. Alabama John says:

    we also do not know who all else trained with Jesus all those many unrecorded years. The wilderness could cover the rest of the world and include some or all of its religious leaders. For Jesus to travel anywhere in this world in an instant would be no big deal for him.

    its not only how Paul taught since he studied under Gamaliel and saw things as a lawyer, it is also how we have interpreted and taught Paul ourselves for the last 300 years or so. We have certainly picked and chosen what to emphasize and what to disregard haven’t we.

    In Pauls mind he was the least of the apostles, but in our teachings who would we as a group of Christians vote the most important writer we emphasize to study, quote, preach, and follow his instruction in order to be obedient and gain our home in heaven?

    Jesus or Paul?

    I would bet Paul.

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