Victims of Adultery
Jul 07, 2011 by Craig Blomberg | 11 Comments
“But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Matthew 5:32, updated NIV).
Unfortunately, many Bible readers today form opinions about the merits of various translations based on hearsay rather than firsthand examination of the text of Scripture, even if that hearsay is quite mistaken or slanted in what it claims. Sometimes people just accept the opinion of a trusted authority in their lives. Maybe they base their decision solely on the rendering of a single verse, or collection of verses on the same topic or involving the same issue. Some people stress very literal renderings at the expense of clarity of meaning, or freshness of style at the expense of faithfulness to the original languages.
Having read large swaths of many of the major English translations of the Bible and having been involved in the production of four of the major recent translations (ESV, HCSB, NLT and updated NIV), I am convinced that the updated NIV achieves the best combination of accuracy and clarity of meaning most frequently. Each translation has its appropriate niche, but the NIV seems to serve best the broadest cross-section of purposes and audiences. This is the second in a series of blogs, appearing more frequently than in the past, which looks at a diverse collection of texts and topics that I believe support my conviction.
Matthew 5:32 has had an unfortunate history of interpretation. Most attention has surrounded “except for sexual immorality” (porneia in the Greek—the broadest word in ancient Greek for sexual relations outside of monogamous, heterosexual marriage). But a century of readers of the old American Standard Version or the Revised Standard Version saw in the next clause the translation “makes her an adulteress,” as if the divorced and remarried person were living in a perpetual state of adultery.
The Greek here, however, is not the noun “adulteress” but the verb moicheuō—“to commit adultery.” Thus, most recent translations have “corrected” the translation to something like “makes/causes [the person] to commit adultery.” This includes the New American Standard Bible, an updating of the old ASV, and both the New Revised Standard Version and the English Standard Version, revisions of the RSV. After all, Deuteronomy 24:1 makes it clear that one is not to break a second marriage in order to remarry a first spouse, which would be the only ethical option if a person in a second marriage were in a permanent state of adultery. But if it is only the first sexual act with the new spouse that is adulterous, then God’s point is that this time marriage partners are to make last what one or both did not previously preserve.
Have we then arrived at the best translation? R. T. France, author of the volumes on Matthew in both the Tyndale and New International Commentary series, argues persuasively that we have not. The form of the verb used here is the aorist passive infinitive moicheuthēnai. In moods outside the indicative, tense basically refers to kind of action not time of action, so we should not try to render this aorist as a past tense in English. The point is that it is simple rather than linear action. A passive infinitive is normally translated in English with “to be + past perfect”—e.g., to be loosed, to be eaten, to be freed, etc. But in English we don’t say “to be adulterated,” at least not if we mean that someone else has committed adultery against us. France has searched in vain for any examples of a deponent passive with this verb, inside or outside of the New Testament, in ancient Greek, i.e., in a context in which the passive form could be translated actively. Modern grammatically tagged databases with all known ancient Greek texts digitized make such searches possible for the first time in history. So that rules out the common “makes her commit adultery.”
The updated NIV nicely captures the passive sense with its “makes her the victim of adultery.” It is also the first major English translation to do so.
One confirming historical argument is as follows: While many women whose husbands divorced them in the ancient Roman world sought to remarry, not all did. So in what sense did those who remained single commit adultery on the common rendering of this verse? But men who initiated divorce in the ancient Roman world did so for one reason only—to legally remarry another woman. It makes sense, therefore, to say that the wife left behind has been made the victim of adultery. It also makes sense of the shift in the next clause to the demonstrably deponent-like middle form moichatai—“and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery,” which should be treated as equivalent to an active voice.
Never let anyone convince you there can’t continue to be advances in our understanding of the meaning of words and expressions in the original languages of the biblical text!