In traditional Islam you could legally sleep with a man’s wife…so long as he agreed.

It might be hard to believe, but simply by saying ‘I divorce you’ three times, a husband could divorce his wife and leave another man free to enact a mut’ah or ‘temporary’ marriage with her. Afterwards, the couple were able to remarry and return to being husband and wife. Today, most adherents of Islam deprecate this practice, though there is a form of mut’ah that is still allowed by Shia Muslims.

We’ve reason to believe that something like this was also practised in ancient Israel, because the Bible has a law to forbid it happening. It says: “her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again” (Deuteronomy 24:4). We can’t be certain this was the purpose of this law, but it’s highly likely that it was because it explains the strange fact that remarriage was allowed to anyone except a previous husband. This was one of the pagan practices that God wanted to purify Israel from.

Adultery was an extremely serious offence in Israel: the punishment for it was death for both partners (unless one of them was forced, of course – Deuteronomy 22:22-27). In practice, the death penalty was rarely carried out because capital offences required two witnesses and adultery is not usually observed by others. Otherwise, the main way for a man to deal with an adulterous wife was to divorce her.

The men got off lightly on a technicality. Although adultery was morally wrong, a husband didn’t promise sexual exclusivity to his wife when he made his marriage vows because polygamy was still allowed. So although he might be in the wrong, his wife couldn’t get a divorce for his adultery because he hadn’t actually broken a marriage vow.

An adulterous generation

Jesus changed things by outlawing polygamy. At the time, many Jews were already campaigning for monogamy, though they didn’t succeed until the tenth century. But Christians followed Jesus’ teaching that “the two will become one flesh” (Matthew 19:5). The word two was missing from the original text in Genesis 2:24 (“they become one flesh”), and in adding it Jesus emphasised that only two could marry. This meant that women could divorce a husband who committed adultery. When Jesus referred to “this adulterous generation” (Mark 8:38), he wasn’t exaggerating. Roman soldiers weren’t allowed to marry and they had too much money, so suddenly there were a lot more prostitutes. With the prostitutes all-too available, Jewish men were tempted as much as anyone else, and Jesus’ criticism implied that many failed to resist. Judaism had no legal means to inhibit the increase in adulterous husbands, but Christianity did: Christian wives could divorce their husbands for being unfaithful.

Adultery in our society is commonplace

In one area, however, Judaism succeeded where the Church failed. It managed to prevent men divorcing their wives in order to marry their lovers. This had become a big problem for the same reason that it’s a huge problem today – the lowering of moral standards. Jews were increasingly living among pagans who had very different cultural norms. In Roman society, it was usual and acceptable for men to visit brothels or have mistresses. Ignatius (writing about AD 150) assumed that even Christians were likely to fall into this sin: “If anyone is able to abide in chastity to the honour of the flesh of the Lord, let him so abide without boasting” (To Polycarp 5:2). And he was writing to church leaders!

The rule

Jews regarded this so seriously that they enacted a law which isn’t found in any Old Testament text (as far as I can find). They ruled that no one was allowed to marry someone with whom they’d committed adultery. So if an affair resulted in divorce, the adulterous pair could not marry. Remarkably, it seems that every synagogue agreed to abide by this rule because there’s no record of dissension. Rabbinic traditions are filled with disagreements on almost everything – but not this.

The law meant that no one could ever persuade someone to sleep with them by saying: “I love you and I’m going to get a divorce and marry  you.” If they really did want to marry the person, the last thing they’d do is commit adultery with them because, if they were discovered, they’d be forbidden from marrying. The weight of evidence didn’t need to be high; if the rabbi thought it might be true, he could simply refuse to marry them.

True love

We don’t have any stats, but I bet this law worked. And I wish that we could do something like it in the Church today. Adultery in our society is commonplace. When the BBC responded to a complaint that there was too much adultery in their soaps, they pointed out that the prevalence of adultery reported voluntarily in public surveys was even higher than represented on TV! It isn’t surprising that Christians fall into this temptation. But if we knew that no church would marry an adulterous couple it would make us think twice. At the least, it would remove the excuse that the sin is “because we love each other so much”. If a couple were really in love and wanted to keep open the option to marry in the future, they wouldn’t risk making this impossible by their adultery.

People say of politicians that if we can’t trust them to keep their marriage promises, we can’t trust them to keep their election promises. The same, of course, is true for us as Christians. Breaking our marriage vows calls into question all the other promises we make, including those we might make to a future partner. When our fickle hearts tempt us to ignore those vows, perhaps we should consider what those wise Jews implied: If this new love really is so precious and beautiful, would we want to tarnish it by committing adultery?


David Instone-Brewer is senior research fellow in Rabbinics and New Testament at Tyndale House, Cambridge