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I'm just curious to know what the New Testament says about adultery? How is the adulterer supposed to be sentenced?

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closed as too broad by Caleb Apr 19 at 17:01

There are either too many possible answers, or good answers would be too long for this format. Please add details to narrow the answer set or to isolate an issue that can be answered in a few paragraphs.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

Hebrews 13:4 says "Marriage is to be held in honor among all, and the marriage bed is to be undefiled; for fornicators and adulterers God will judge." Notice the judgment belongs to God and not man. Not sure if this is an answer to your question, so I'll leave it in comments. –  Jas 3.1 Jun 25 '13 at 18:49

7 Answers 7

Short Answer

There is no prescriptive punishment for adultery in the New Testament, unless you count Revelation 21:8.

What is interesting is the focus on grace, forgiveness and not judging in the New Testament compared to the Old Testament, which focused on justice, guilt, and God's judgement on man. The most notable reference to adultery in the New Testament is in John 8. A mob has captured a woman caught in adultery and says to Jesus that the Law of Moses says to stone her. Jesus replies that if any of them is without sin then he may cast the first stone. They all leave, none being without sin. Adultery is not the issue here, however, the lesson is forgiveness and mercy.

Long Answer

The long answer is to address the inevitable rebuttal that sin (of others around you, not your own) cannot go unchecked (although your own must be in check as well). Yes, this is true and the New Testament addresses that in quite a few places.

For adultery specifically Jesus says:

I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery. Matthew 19:9

This is not specifically on punishments, but most interpret it that a spouse may choose divorce if the other has committed adultery. That is a consequence of adultery.

The next prominent location concerning checking the sin of the others in the Church is Matthew 18.

15 “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. 16 But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ 17 If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector. Matthew 18

This is clear and prescriptive and applies to all sins. See my answer to this question for a fuller analysis.

Of the most importance is the fact that Jesus said:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. Matthew 5:17

The Law, that is the Ten Commandments, specifically forbids adultery. Leviticus prescribes death for both the man and the woman, however, most argue that it is still sin to fornicate, but death is not necessarily the punishment for today. If we were meant to just execute the adulterers then the Matthew 18 principle would serve no purpose; they would be executed without a chance for repentance. There would also be no chance for the remaining Christians to show Christ like love a give the sinners mercy.


The New Testament does not give any exact punishment for adultery. The New Testament is focused on grace from God and mercy by forgiveness. Adultery is still sin, according to the New Testament, and is frankly deserving of death as is all sin, and according to Matthew 18 it should be challenged if a fellow Christian is found to have engaged in it. The punishment for all unrepentant sinners is at least this: excommunication from the body of Christ, the Church.

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In the New Testament there is no longer a kind of civil punishment for any crime as it was to be governed under the Old Testament, because the Theocracy and associated penal mosaic laws under it was temporary under that dispensation. In the New Testament all punishment and laws over society are relinquished to the state, not the church. The question of the penalty for adultery in the New Testament is therefore really about 'church discipline' which reaches its most extreme case under excommunication. Some in the early church even believed in excommunication 'without a welcome of readmission upon repentance'. I am not sure such an extreme course of action can be found in the New Testament, but I am referring to early church history.

Looking up 'church disciple' from the HISTORY OF THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH, BY PHILIP SCHAFF, I can summarize what the early issues were.

The ancient church was distinguished for strict discipline. Previous to Constantine the Great, this discipline rested on purely moral sanctions, and had nothing to do with civil constraints and punishments. A person might be expelled from one congregation without the least social injury. But the more powerful the church became, the more serious were the consequences of her censures, and when she was united with the state, ecclesiastical offenses were punished as offenses against the state, in extreme cases even with death. .... The extreme penalty was excommunication, or exclusion from all the rights and privileges of the faithful. This was inflicted for heresy and schism, and all gross crimes, such as, theft, murder, adultery, blasphemy, and the denial of Christ in persecution.

However after Tertullian, these sins were classified as mortal sins, as opposed to venial sins. A classification still used by Roman Catholics today.

Persons thus excluded passed into the class of penitents, and could attend only the catechumen worship. Before they could be re-admitted to the fellowship of the church, they were required to pass through a process like that of the catechumens, only still more severe, and to prove the sincerity of their penitence by the absence from all pleasures, from ornament in dress, and from nuptial intercourse, by confession, frequent prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and other good works.

After the fulfilment of this probation came the act of reconciliation. How this all worked created a division in the early church.

But it was a question whether the church should restore even the grossest offender on his confession of sorrow, or should, under certain circumstances leave him to the judgment of God. The strict, puritanic party, to which the Montanists, the Novatians, and the Donatists belonged, and, for a time, the whole African and Spanish Church, took ground against the restoration of those who had forfeited the grace of baptism by a mortal sin, especially by denial of Christ; since, otherwise, the church would lose her characteristic holiness, and encourage loose morality. The moderate party, which prevailed in the East, in Egypt, and especially in Rome, and was so far the catholic party, held the principle that the church should refuse absolution and communion, at least on the death-bed, to no penitent sinner. Paul himself restored the Corinthian offender.

The strict [versus liberal division] fell into extra dilemma of conscience over those who denied Christ during persecution who then after the danger passes pleaded for readmission and many of the strict party relinquished their former views as it just seemed to cruel.

Nowadays, I think severe excommunication (no longer granting readmission) is rare among any Christian church, but one can appreciate the importance of the subject especially as pertaining to church leaders and restoration to positions of authority after committing some sin seen as below even pagan standards. The early church could not afford to be overrun by morals no different than the world and allow those who seemed not to experience salvation become its leaders. On the other hand not to allow true repentant sinners into the fellowship of the church seems contrary to the whole tenor of the gospel. As pertaining any punishment outside the question of excommunication, one would really have to refer to the civil and criminal jurisprudence of Rome at the time of Christ and the early church.

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The question was: "what the New Testament says about adultery? How is the adulterer supposed to be sentenced?"

Some Greek mss include the story in John about the woman brought before Jesus and accused of adultery (Pericope Adulterae.) Some Greek mss didn't include it. All modern printings of the NT include it, so we can assume for us that it was an actual event. Here is the KJV:

“And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst, They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou? This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not. So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground. And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee? She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.” John 8:3-11, KJV.

Now, none of the Church Fathers is certain about what Jesus wrote on the ground, so we can't conjecture anything about that. But we can look at the law in those days [ref: Heim Cohn attorney for Israel - The Death and Trial of Jesus.]

First: the Sanhedrin were not authorized under Roman Law to try people in the hall of stones and administer the death sentence (stoning.) So, these officials are asking Jesus whether or not this ruling should be changed, and they be allowed to administer justice, according to Judaism laws - this is like Moslems wanting to override State law and employ Sharia law.

In Judaism the charge of adultery could only be brought if at least two witnesses had warned the couple ahead of time not to do it (cf. the teaching of Jesus that two witnesses were required and if the person didn't listen, then the church got involved etc.) If the couple went ahead anyway there had to be two witnesses to the actual performance. Then the couple (both man and woman) were to be brought to trial and had to be accused of adultery by both witnesses separately (so there was no collusion).

Self incrimination was not accepted in Judaism [it was under Roman Law - a confession sealed the case - this is how Jesus got into trouble with Pilate, but not the Hebrews.]

So, let's look at what happened in this story: The man who was involved in the "adultery" was not brought to Jesus. Obviously the scribes and Pharisees (who were the interpreters of law, and who knew the law intimately) were not trying to bring a charge of adultery, because they had not met the legal requirements for a charge. What they wanted was Jesus a prophet who spoke for God to confirm that the laws of Moses were above those of the State.

Why did they do this? Did they want to get the law changed through the weight of public opinion? I doubt that the Romans would listen to them. Or did they want to get Jesus arrested by the Romans through his advising them to ignore the Roman law?

Now, Jesus's position on the Mosaic law was that not one jot or tittle of the law would change until all had been fulfilled ( which had not yet happened.) He also taught that there was a spiritual punishments for anyone who taught any man to disobey the law.

So, what could he do - he came up with a way to not answer their question, and disperse the crowd at the same time. Now, after they all left the scene, only the woman was with Jesus. There was no charge against her because there were no witnesses, and so under Judaism there was no proof of sin. So, Jesus would not condemn her. Clever solution, eh?

At the time of Jesus, The Romans would not allow the Sanhedrin to carry out the death sentence for anything. And the Pharisees would never bring anyone to a Roman court to be tried - they hated the Romans. Their hands were tied by Roman directive, and they could not administer Mosaic law in the case of adultery.

As I said, not every NT ms. includes this story. It may have been added later by the Church. It is not in the Biblical codices which are the basis of the RV, RSV, NIV, ESV etc. (the Sinaiticus and Vaticanus) and in none of the Gospel mss. of the 3rd. cent. But is does appear in a 3rd. cent. Syriac ms not in John's Gospel. The first time it appears in John's Gospel is in Codex Bezae 4th or 5th cent. which is why it also appeared in the Latin (Vulgate), and eventually the KJV.

Why was it included in Bibles after the 4th. cent. It was written to reinforce the idea that the Pharisees were out to get Jesus, and this stoked the fire against Hebrews in the Church. After Nicea AD 325 the Hebrews lost certain rights: no more conversions of gentiles to Judaism, and no more slaves - only Greek Christians were allowed to own slaves. By the 6th. cent there were no more Hebrews in the Church.

The other mention of adultery by Jesus is Mt 19:9 and there is no punishment mentioned.

Paul warns in 1 Co 6:9 that an adulterer shall not inherit the kingdom of God, so if someone desires to enter the KOG they must stop doing it.

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Note: apart from my guess at why they put this story in the later Bibles, all else if factual taken from Church Historical documents. It would be very tiresome to cite everything here, and I doubt seriously that anyone would want to buy the books that support this commentary. If anyone is interested they can go to my on-line library listings to see what books I have used. librarything.com/catalog/waeshael –  Waeshael Jun 25 '13 at 5:58
If you want to see which books I used to get these facts go to librarything.com/catalog/waeshael apart from my comment on why the pericope Adulterae was including in later Bibles, everything comes from Church archives. –  Waeshael Jun 25 '13 at 6:01

Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount that he has come to fulfill - not change - the prophecies, that the Law(s) (from the OT) are valid to the end of time, and that anyone who ignores or teaches others to ignore these laws, shall be known as the smallest in Heaven. Further more, we have the whole thing about ripping out your eye or chopping of your hand if they tempts you - and the stuff about "he who sins in his mind, have committed the sin" - which suggests Jesus rather tightened these restrictions than relaxed them.

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The following Verses are from the NIV Bible (old Testament)

  • Deuteronomy 22:22 "If a man is found sleeping with another man's wife, both the man who slept with her and the woman must die."
  • Leviticus 20:10 "If a man commits adultery with another man's wife--with the wife of his neighbor--both the adulterer and the adulteress must be put to death."
  • Leviticus 21:9 "And the daughter of any priest, if she profane herself by playing the whore, she profaneth her father: she shall be burnt with fire."
  • Deuteronomy 25:11-12 "If two men are fighting and the wife of one of them comes to rescue her husband from his assailant, and she reaches out and seizes him by his private parts, you shall cut off her hand. Show her no pity."

As for New Testament refer to Matthew 5:17-18

"Do not think that I [Jesus] have come to abolish the Law (the Old Testament) or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke or a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law (the Old Testament) until everything is accomplished."

And Matthew 23:1-3

"Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: 'The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.'

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To be clear, the only way to be saved is through Jesus.

Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me. - John 14:6

Sin among men may be treated differently in that some may see one sin as worse than another. e.g. Rape may be seen to be worse than stealing. But from God's perspective, both miss the mark. Similarly, keeping the law doesn't get you saved.

What saves you is believing on Jesus. God provided salvation by Grace - His part, and our part "faith" is our positive response to this provision.

For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: - Eph 2:8

Notice that salvation is a gift. It's not something you earn. So if you haven't believed on Jesus, your sentence and judgement outside of that salvation plan is the same - death.

That's why the Gospel is such good news. A salvation that doesn't depend on us doing anything but simply believing. Because if we had to earn it, we'd have no hope.

To summarise - the judgement for ALL sin is death. The only escape is believing on Jesus.

Note: this doesn't imply you should go out an sin. But if you read Romans, Paul has to deal with this assumption several times. Because you are saved independent of your actions does not give you license to go out and commit rape, robbery, kill etc. Paul answer is - God Forbid.

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up vote -7 down vote accepted

The Bible is actually very clear on this matter,

1 Corinthians 6:9 (KJV) 9 Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind,

What it is saying here is that not just will fornicators, adulterers, and trans-people go to hell, but those that say otherwise are deceivers who will join them there.

One important scholastic note is the statement "abusers of themselves with men." This statement is often taken to mean mere 'homosexuals' historically, but today a reading, which G*d would have foreseen our generation making, would clearly imply homosexual masochists.

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You quote "the unrighteous ...", yet fail to define it. With that willful neglect came the complete disregard for repentance, what it is, and how it can turn the sinner to righteous is God's eyes. The way you use it implies that once a sinner you are damned. If you have fornicated once, then you are a fornicator. If you have even looked at someone lustfully only once, then you are an adulterer. Christ delivered a message of mercy and grace and you have completely ignored it. –  fredsbend Jun 25 '13 at 18:29

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