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Human sexuality

What did Jesus' say about sex?

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This essay has been translated into Swedish at:

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Many faith groups discuss what the Bible has to say about sexual behavior. But there are few biblical passages that reveal Jesus' beliefs on these matters. In fact, a case can be made that he did not directly discuss sexual activity at all.

One source claims that the Christian Scriptures (New Testament) records 298 suggestions, recommendations and instructions by Jesus on how we should behave and believe. (We have not been able to verify this number.) Since he is recorded as mentioning sexual behavior only between 0 to 4 times, he obviously did not give it great emphasis. The record is totally silent about his attitudes towards the main sexually-related religious controversies of the present day: abortion, equal rights for homosexuals, same-sex marriage, masturbation, pre-marital sex, etc.

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Jesus' statements on sexuality

Jesus is recorded as having made only four direct comments that might be interpreted as relating to sexual behavior.

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1. Divorce:

Matthew 5:31-32 states:

"It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement: But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery." (KJV)

Matthew 19:9 states similarly:

"And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery."  (KJV)

Here, Jesus prohibits divorce, except in a case of sexual misconduct -- "porneia" in the original Greek. Various versions of the Bible have translated "porneia" as as adultery, fornication, unchastity, unfaithfulness or marital unfaithfulness. Jesus here deviated from Jewish law, which said that a man could freely divorce his wife.

Mark 10:11-12 states:

"...Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her. And if a woman shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery.

Luke 16:18 states:

"Whosoever putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery: and whosoever marrieth her that is put away from her husband committeth adultery."

These gospel writers record Jesus as having taken a different stance on divorce. He said that it is unacceptable for any reason at all.

Resolving the conflict:

bulletMark was written circa 70 CE. It was one of the earliest of the approximately 40 gospels written by Christian movement. It is the earliest gospel to be accepted into the Christian Scriptures. Many liberal theologians suggest that his passages more closely reflects Jesus actual teaching -- that divorce was forbidden for any reason. The gospels of Luke and Matthew were largely copied from Mark. Most liberal theologians believe that they were written 10 to 30 years after Mark. The author of Matthew may have inserted a Christian tradition that developed in the final quarter of the 1st century CE -- that adultery was an acceptable grounds for divorce. Luke may have copied Mark more precisely.
bulletSome conservative theologians suggest that "porneia" relates to an improper marriage, such as one between two persons who are too closely related. That is, Jesus might have been considering illicit marriages which should never have been entered into. Perhaps the passage implies that it is permissible to terminate such a marriage through divorce, in a similar manner to an modern-day annulment by the Roman Catholic Church.
bulletPerhaps the phrase translated as "except for 'porneia' " is a forgery -- a phrase that did not appear in the original autograph copy of Matthew, but was added later by a copyist. This does not conflict with biblical inerrancy, because that principle only refers to the original autograph copy.

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2. Handling feelings of lust:

Matthew 5:27-28 condemns feelings of lust experienced by a man towards a woman. In the King James version, Jesus is recorded as saying:

"Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart."

This passage has generated a great deal of anxiety among Christians -- particularly youth with raging hormones -- who believe that they are committing a sin whenever they find another person to be attractive.

Various interpretations:

bulletPerhaps the most common interpretation of this passage is that it condemns any feelings of sexual attraction by a one person to another with the possible exception of one's spouse. Any feelings of lust towards a non-spouse is a major sin, equivalent in seriousness to actually committing adultery. Pastor Edgar Mayer of Living Grace Community Lutheran Church writes:

Just looking at a man or a woman with impure thoughts -- lusting after that person -- is as serious as having committed the act. And who among us is not guilty of that? 2

This understanding is often heard on The Way of the Master program on Sirius Radio. Their interviewer will ask an unsaved person whether they have ever looked on a person of the opposite sex with lust. (They always seem to assume that their interviewee is a heterosexual.) If the subject admits to having experienced lust, then they are described as having violated the Seventh of the Ten Commandments: "Thou shalt not commit adultery." They are told that unless they become saved, they are destined to spend eternity in the torture chambers of Hell.

bulletThe other extreme is to interpret the phrase "looketh on a woman to lust after her" to mean exactly what it implies: a man is making a premeditated effort to stare at a woman with the intention of generating feelings of lust. For example:

bulletTrolling the Internet looking for pictures of naked people in order to generate sexual excitement would be considered a sin.

bulletA man going to the mall for the specific purpose of intense girl watching in order to generate lustful feelings would also be committing a serious sin.

However, if a man merely notices a woman whom he finds attractive without any prior intent of generating lust, then he would not be sinning because he no premeditation was involved.

bulletAnother take on this passage is that it is irrational and unreasonable if interpreted literally. Engaged couples with a normal sex drive are bound to have feelings of love and lust towards each other. This is one of the factors that motivates couples to marry and to eventually have or adopt children and raise the next generation. Such feelings of attraction are normal, natural, and victimize no one. In fact, they are quite pleasant to all concerned and contribute to the development of the relationship. If the passage makes no sense when interpreted literally, then it must have a non-obvious hidden meaning.

bullet Still another interpretation is that the injunction as unreasonable. The sudden surfacing of feelings of sexual attraction are beyond a person's conscious control, as are all feelings like fear or anger. After they arise, they can be supressed by distracting oneself. But they cannot be entirely prevented from starting up. Perhaps the passage is intended to refer only to obvious and sustained leering. It might be considered a sin because it would probably make the other person feel uncomfortable.

bulletStill another interpretation is found on the Christian Marriage web site. 3 Pastor Don Milton notes that the word "adultery" means sexual intercourse by a man with a woman who is either engaged or married to another man. Milton notes that:

"Every reference to adultery in the entire Bible concerns sexual intercourse between a married or betrothed woman and a man other than the one to whom she is married or betrothed."

If adultery is limited by definition to activity between a man and another man's wife or near wife, then "adultery in ones heart" could also be assumed to refer only to lust directed at another man's wife or betrothed woman. This passage is actually describing a man coveting one of his neighbor's possessions -- a wife. He is violating the Tenth commandment of Exodus 20:17:

"Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour's.

Thus, feelings of lust towards a single women would fall outside the scope of Matthew 5:27-28. This interpretation become much clearer when one realizes that the Greek word "gune" translated here as "woman" can also be translated as "wife." It has been translated as "wife" or "wives" in 92 other passages in the Christian Scriptures. A clearer translation into English might be:

"Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, that whosoever looketh on [another man's] wife to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart."

bulletFinally, the webmaster of notes that

"...the Greek word translated as "lust" here, epithumeo does not merely mean 'to have a desire.' It is a word which actually indicated a strong, even consuming, desire, most often for something which, for whatever reason, is not lawful for one to possess. This is the way in which the word is used at many points in the New Testament ... it seems quite obvious that the Lord Jesus is describing, per the connotation of the word being used, looking upon a woman with an intense desire. Not a mere glance, not a general sort of attraction that may be normal to any heterosexual man, but an intense desire, with an idea towards POSSESSING the desired object (remember Paul's application of "lust" to the tenth commandment, against covetousness, in Romans 7:7?) What the Lord Jesus is talking about here is looking upon a woman in such a way as to desire to take her for yourself, even if it is not lawful for you to have her, in this specific example because she is another man's wife. Clearly Jesus is attaching the particular "sin" connotation to epithumeo, and applying it to the sort of ogling that a man might do which would lead him to then think about and develop a strong desire for the woman who it would be unlawful for him to pursue. ... From all this, it is apparent that the Lord's exposition in Matthew 5:28 is not talking about normal male heterosexuality. It is not talking about never being attracted to a woman who you might like to marry one day. It is talking about abstaining from a strong and persistent desire to possess or take, even in the temporariness of adultery, a woman who is not your wife, and who in fact is probably the wife of another man. " 4

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3. Conversation with a Samaritan woman:

John 4:16-18 records a conversation that he had with a Samaritan woman:

"Jesus saith unto her, Go, call thy husband, and come hither. The woman answered and said, I have no husband. Jesus said unto her, Thou hast well said, I have no husband: For thou hast had five husbands; and he whom thou now hast is not thy husband: in that saidst thou truly." (KJV)

Some theologians interpret this passage as a rebuke of her unorthodox past and present marital status. Jesus is seen as criticizing her for having had so many husbands in the past, and condemning her for living with a man without having been married first.

Others suggest that Christ simply wanted to demonstrated his knowledge of her personal life so that she would recognize that he was no ordinary individual. It seems to have worked, because she immediately identified Jesus as a prophet and asked him a theological question about prayer.

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4. The woman caught in adultery:

John 8:1-11 records a meeting between Jesus, some scholars, Pharisees, and a woman who has been caught in adultery. The Mosaic law (Leviticus 20:10, and Deuteronomy 22:22) required that she must be executed by stoning. The passage in Deuteronomy is quite definite: "both the man...and the woman must die. You must purge the evil from Israel." They asked Jesus what should be done with the woman. He recommended that the thrower of the first stone be required to be without sin. Since no individual is without sin, his suggestion is equivalent to pardoning the woman. He thus recommended that the woman be allowed to live. This was a quadruple violation of Mosaic Law:

bulletDeuteronomy 22:22: Each incidence of adultery was considered an evil blot on the land itself; it had to be purged from Israel. The only method of doing that was to kill the adulterers.
bulletDeuteronomy 17:7: When a person is to be executed under Jewish law, the first stones were to be thrown by the witnesses to the crime. (An trial leading to an execution had to have at least two witnesses. Only then were the remainder of the people allowed to take part in the murder of the criminal.)
bulletThere is no passage in the Mosaic law which states that executioners have to be sinless.
bulletThere is no passage in the Mosaic law which allows an adulterer to be pardoned.

Later, Jesus said to the woman: "Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more." Through these words, he recognized her adultery as a sin.

This passage is apparently a forgery that was not written by the author(s) of the gospel of John. It was written by an anonymous individual and later inserted after chapter 7 by an anonymous editor. The New International Version of the Bible has a footnote at this point stating: "The earliest and most reliable manuscripts and other ancient witnesses do not have John 7:53 - 8:11." Other manuscripts place it at the end of the Gospel of John. Still others insert it after Luke 21:38. The Jesus Seminar calls it a "floating" or "orphan" story. 1 The Fellows of the Jesus Seminar -- a group of liberal theologians -- agreed that while "the words did not originate in their present form with Jesus, they nevertheless assigned the words and story to a special category of things they wish Jesus had said and done." The passage is apparently a traditional Christian story that found its way into various later manuscripts but was not part of the original writings by the author(s) of the Gospel of John.

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Summarizing Jesus' statements involving human sexuality:
bulletDivorce: He may or many not have believed that sexual misconduct was a sufficiently serious ground to justify a divorce.

Lust: If Matthew 5:27-28 does refer to lust directed at another man's wife, then a clearer translation into English of Matthew 5:27-28 might be:

"Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, that whosoever looketh on [another man's] wife with an obsessive consuming lust hath committed adultery with her already in his heart."

That is, normal feelings of attraction are not sinful.

bulletThe Samaritan woman: The quotation from John 4 may or may not criticize the woman's sexual behavior and marital history.
bulletThe adulteress: The quotation from John 8 appears to be a forgery by an unknown author, which is not part of the original gospel of John. Its authority is questionable.

So, a case can be made that Jesus was totally silent on matters relating to sexual behavior except for the special case involving obsessive feelings of lust towards a married person other than one's spouse. 

If an individual wants to match Jesus' expectations in inter-personal relationships, then he/she might wish to fall back on his general ethical teachings:
bulletTo treat and value one's neighbor as one would wish to be treated.

bulletTo not be exploitive, dominating, manipulative, controlling, violent, or abusive towards others.

bulletTo, above all, not abuse children.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. R.W. Funk, R.W. Hoover & the Jesus Seminar, "The Five Gospels," Macmillan Publishing, New York NY (1993), Page 425-426. Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store
  2. Edgar Mayer, "Adultery In Your Heart," Living Grace Community Lutheran Church, 2004-AUG-22, at:
  3. Don Milton, "Theology Questions: Adultery In Your Heart - It's Not What You Think," Christian Marriage, 2005-MAR-08, at:
  4. "The Meaning of Lust. Reaching the Nadir of Muslim Biblical Exegesis,"

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Copyright © 1998 to 2013 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2013-JUL-09
Author: B.A. Robinson

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