Vol. 6, No. 9
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The phrase "in the very act" appears only once in both our English translation and in the original language: "first used of thieves, then of other evildoers, especially adulterers; found only in John 8:4: (caught) in the act" (Strong). The phrase is a two-word idiom,1 the second word of which is a compound word. Vincent explains: "An old adjective (autofooros, autos, self, and foor, thief) caught in the act of theft, then extended to any crime in which one is caught. An old idiom, but not elsewhere in the Greek Bible." We understand the sense and might substitute our own idiom respecting someone apprehended during the commission of a crime: "caught red-handed!" (Merriam).
The Pharisees charged the woman in the context of John 8:2-11 with adultery, and then they accentuated the charge by adding that she was caught in the very act of adultery.2 Their point of reference regarding adultery was the Law of Moses, namely:
And the man that committeth adultery with another man's wife, even he that committeth adultery with his neighbour's wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death. (Leviticus 20:10)
If a man be found lying with a woman married to an husband, then they shall both of them die, both the man that lay with the woman, and the woman: so shalt thou put away evil from Israel. (Deut 22:22)
The "lying" and "lay" in Deuteronomy 22:22 pertain to 'lie down for any purpose,' with the context identifying the purpose for which one lies down (Strong). The John 8 and Old Testament contexts respecting adultery intimate that charges of adultery could be based legitimately on circumstantial evidence, besides adulterers being caught "in the very act." We know that circumstantial evidence is sufficient reason to correctly charge one with adultery, though the adulterers were not apprehended in the very act; the episode of Judah and Tamar is a case in point (Genesis 38:1-26). Having a baby, the effect, demonstrates but one cause, though the adulterers, in the case of Judah and Tamar, were not discovered in the very act of adultery.
Lying with another man's wife is not merely a euphemism for sexual intercourse, but it relegates the lover's tryst to adultery irrespective of whether the very act of adultery were consummated. Hence, the double charge of adultery was leveled against the adulteress in John 8 with the second being that she was caught "in the very act." Circumstantial evidence to some degree of sexual infidelity must always be the case whenever adulterers are not interrupted. Though unfounded suspicion is inadequate to charge one with adultery (Numbers 5:11-31), evidence of adultery is no less evidence of the crime of adultery because adulterers are not immediately discovered. "The law has pronounced all acts of adultery, if detected in the fact, or if proved by undeniable evidence, liable to the punishment of death..." (Philo).
Under the Law of Moses, a man compromised with another man's wife in which they were discovered together minus their clothes would have been recognized immediately as an adulterer, irrespective of whether the two had accomplished the intent of their rendezvous. Sexual activity with someone other than one's spouse is adultery! Two opposing schools of thought prevailed among the first century Jews, the former of which below, corresponding to the Law of Moses and the teaching of Jesus.
Jewish lawyers interpreted this phrase [Deuteronomy 24:1] in different ways. In the time of Jesus the followers of Shammai believed it referred to adultery or sexual misconduct. The followers of Hill'el believed that the phrase could include even the spoiling of a dinner. (Gowers)
Note also: "Shortly before the time of Christ the school of Shammai interpreted it of unfaithfulness only, while the school of Hillel extended it to anything unpleasing to the husband" (New Bible Dictionary).
While the applicable Greek words respecting adultery focus on illicit sexual intercourse, they include the progression toward the consummation of the sin of adultery. The liaison or relationship during which intercourse occurs is sinful and part and parcel of the adultery.
Use of the Group. moicheuo in the active means "to commit adultery" or "to seduce," and in the passive or middle "to be seduced" or (in the case of a woman) "to commit adultery" (cf. Mt. 5:27-28, 32). moichao means "to commit adultery" or "to adulterate." moicheia is "adultery," "illicit intercourse," while moichos means "adulterer" or "lover," and moichalis "adulterous" and as a noun "adulteress," "mistress," "harlot." (Kittel)
Further, Jesus himself proclaimed in Matthew 5:28 that it does not take the completion of a sexual act to commit adultery.3 It is evident that one who intends to commit adultery or he who gazes upon a woman for the purpose of lusting after her commits adultery with her in his heart. Adultery is adultery without the persons involved being caught "in the very act."
Sexual infidelity by a spouse, especially as long as that impenitent sinful activity persists, "...makes the continued relations between husband and wife a moral impossibility" (International). Certainly, these following examples, using the thinking minds God gave us, properly constitute adultery and make it impossible for one's marriage to be honorable and the marriage bed undefiled (Hebrews 13:4). When a married woman invites another man into her bed for the week her husband is away, that is adultery irrespective if the wife says, "nothing happened." When a man's wife runs off with another man to a distant state and lives with him for weeks, that is adultery irrespective if the wife says, "nothing happened." When one's spouse admits to adultery such as in the forgoing examples, that is adultery irrespective if she later says, "nothing happened." When a wife makes a date with another man, represents herself as single, uses her maiden name, keeps the date and stays out all night until returning about sunrise, that is adultery even if she says, "nothing happened." Of course, adultery applies equally to either the wife or the husband who may be guilty of that sin (Mark 10:11-12).
1 Some Greek manuscripts represent "in the act" as one word (epautophoro) whereas others show it as two words (ep' autophoro) (Vine).
2 That the Pharisees broke the Law of Moses by taking the adulteress to Jesus instead of to the courts (elders, Sanhedrin, etc.) and by not apprehending the adulterer as well is beyond the scope of this writing.
3 However, supernatural knowledge of adultery in one's heart is not afforded mere humans apart from discernible evidence. Therefore, by itself, adultery in one's heart may not prove a satisfactory ground for divorce in keeping with Matthew 19:9. Yet, it is apparent that adultery occurs before and irrespective of whether consummation of the act transpires.
Gowers, Ralph. The New Manners and Customs of Bible Times. CD-ROM. Chicago: Moody, 1987.
International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia. CD-ROM. Seattle: Biblesoft, 1996.
Kittel, Gerhard, and Friedrich, Gerhard, eds. The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Abridged in One Volume. CD-ROM. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1985.
Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. Springfield: Merriam-Webster, 1993.
The New Bible Dictionary. CD-ROM. Wheaton: Tyndale, 1962.
Philo Judaeus. The Works of Philo. CD-ROM. Oak Harbor: Logos, 1997.
Robertson, Archibald. Robertson's Word Pictures in the New Testament. CD-ROM. Seattle: Biblesoft, 1997.
Strong, John. Biblesoft's New Exhaustive Strong's Numbers and Concordance with Expanded Greek-Hebrew Dictionary. CD-ROM. Seattle: Biblesoft and International Bible Translators, 1994.
Vine, W.E. Vine's Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words. CD-ROM. Nashville: Nelson, 1985.