Is Evangelical Purity Culture Based on a Mistranslation?

I grew up in an evangelical homeschooling daily during the 1990s and early 2000s when the ideas in Josh Harris’ I Kissed Dating Goodbye were at the height of their popularity. There was to be no sex, but also no kissing and no dating. Evangelical purity culture, with its complicated modesty rules and it’s emphasis on “emotional” purity, was primarily based on two things—Matthew 5:28, which states that “anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart,” and a sort of one-upmanship that held that doing more to protect young people’s purity was always better.

It turns out that evangelicals’ understanding of Matthew 5:28 may be the result of a translation error.

The Bible was not written in English, but until this week I never thought to look into how this particular verse is translated. Within evangelical spaces, discussion over that verse tends to center on whether the first look counts. If a man glances at a woman and his mind goes to sex without any conscious effort, and he immediately turns his thoughts away, has he still committed adultery with her in his heart? Many would say no—that it is the second look, or dwelling on the thought rather than pushing it away, that is the problem. Of course, there is enough ambiguity that even prepubescent girls are loaded down with modesty rules, to prevent that first thought.

This confusion over whether the verse condemns any look or only the first look may in part be the result of some diversity in the way English translations handle this verse. Have a look:

New International VersionBut I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

King James BibleBut I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.

New American Standard Biblebut I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

It should be clear from the outset that these translations are only compatible with some work. The KJV states that a man commits adultery with a woman in his heart when he looks at a woman “to lust after her,” suggesting that the intent is central. The NIV condemns anyone “who looks at a woman lustfully,” raising a question—does that imply intent, or is any glance that leads to sexual thoughts, whether intentional or not, an act of adultery? The NASB seems to take a position in between the two.

Any time there is substantial difference between English translations, it is important to ask what is going on in the Greek. And lo and behold, there is something much bigger than just this going on here.

Let’s turn to a blog post by Jason Staples, Assistant Teaching Professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at North Carolina State University. Staples begins with the verse and what we already know—the common interpretation discussed above:

Matthew 5:27–28: Ἠκούσατε ὅτι ἐρρέθη· οὐ μοιχεύσεις. ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι πᾶς ὁ βλέπων γυναῖκα πρὸς τὸ ἐπιθυμῆσαι αὐτὴν ἤδη ἐμοίχευσεν αὐτὴν ἐν τῇ καρδίᾳ αὐτοῦ.

“You heard it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman/wife in order to covet her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

The ordinary interpretation of this passage is that lust is equivalent to adultery; that is, if a man sexually desires a woman, he has already committed adultery with her in God’s eyes.

But Staples goes further, opening a question:

…as it turns out, the Greek word usually translated “lust” in this passage (ἐπιθυμέω; epithumeô) is precisely the word for “covet” (Hebrew חמד) in the Tenth Command in the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament), which says:

οὐκ ἐπιθυμήσεις τὴν γυναῖκα τοῦ πλησίον σου. οὐκ ἐπιθυμήσεις τὴν οἰκίαν τοῦ πλησίον σου οὔτε τὸν ἀγρὸν αὐτοῦ οὔτε τὸν παῖδα αὐτοῦ οὔτε τὴν παιδίσκην αὐτοῦ οὔτε τοῦ βοὸς αὐτοῦ οὔτε τοῦ ὑποζυγίου αὐτοῦ οὔτε παντὸς κτήνους αὐτοῦ οὔτε ὅσα τῷ πλησίον σού ἐστιν. (Ex 20:17 LXX)

You will not covet your neighbor’s wife. You will not covet your neighbors house or his field or his male servant or his female servant or his ox or his donkey or any animal which is your neighbor’s.”

Looks pretty familiar, doesn’t it? In fact, it’s basically identical; the word translated “wife” here is the same that is translated “woman” in Matthew (there’s no distinction between the words “wife” and “woman” in Greek; both English words translate the same Greek word γύνη; gynē).

What. How did I not know this?

Staples goes on to add this:

Strikingly, the nominal (noun-form) concept of “lust” or “desire” (even the sexual variety) is nowhere forbidden in Scripture, nor is it equated with sin—only the potential to sin: “Each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then, when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin. And when sin is completed, it brings forth death” (James 1:14–15). Note that James clearly distinguishes between “lust” (that is, desire) at the stage of temptation and “sin,” which is the actual commission of an act.

In English today, lust is associated only with sexual desire. It’s not just the colloquial use of the word—it’s also the dictionary definition. That the Greek word translated “lust” in these English translations was not uniquely sexual—that it could refer to other desires and that it was the Greek word used in translations of the Hebrew term generally rendered “covet” in English today—should immediately raise questions about how modern Christians should interpret and understand any translation that contains the English word “lust.”

In keeping with this distinction [between desire and action], Tenth Command specifically forbids the action of coveting (hence the verbal form), perhaps best understood as forbidding fixing one’s desire upon obtaining something that is not rightfully one’s own. (A fuller way to understand “coveting” is analogous to the modern legal concept of “attempted” lawbreaking, but that’s a subject for another post.)

Staples asserts that coveting is “analogous to the modern legal concept of ‘attempted’ lawbreaking” but states that that is “subject for another post” and does not clarify.

Coveting is something I’ve long wondered about—why does the Tenth Commandment forbid wanting that which is someone else’s? It doesn’t seem to fit among commandments that forbid more concrete actions like lying, murder, or adultery. What if one is very poor, and does not wish to be poor? Is complete contentment even in the midst of poverty mandatory? I get that if my friend has a sailboat and I don’t, dwelling on how much I want their boat isn’t healthy or good for me—but is the mere act of wanting one too, however innocent, also wrong?

Addressing the Greek understanding of “lust” or “desire,” Staples engages in a long discussion with historical context on period understandings of desire and the body before noting this:

Jesus is even able to use the word of himself:

“And He said to them, ‘I have lusted [ἐπιθυμέω] to eat this Passover with you before I suffer!’” (Luke 22:15)

Say what?

Literally none of the English translations of this verse use the term lust, by the way, opting instead for phrases like “eagerly desired.” But remember what I said about the importance of interrogating the differences in how “lust” is understood today versus what the term meant in the first century Mediterranean world? That’s the issue we’re seeing here. If Jesus could say that hey “lusted” [ἐπιθυμέω] to eat Passover with the disciples, we need to have a talk about what ἐπιθυμέω meant; we can’t just assume that it meant what we mean by “lust” today.

Furthermore, Staples writes that any time Matthew uses the grammatical construct he does in Matthew 5:28, “it denotes the purpose of the action.”

…it is clear that the grammar is reflecting purpose: “anyone who looks at a woman in order to covet her.” (“Covet” is preferable here in part because “covet” better reflects the intentionality reflected in the passage.) This is a critically important point; Jesus is not suggesting that any sexual thought or inclination towards a woman is sinful. … The look is not the problem (nor is the presence of a beautiful woman, which some of that day tended to blame as the real problem); no, these are assumed. What is remarkable (given the popular misinterpretation) is that Jesus likewise assumes the presence of sexual desire in the man as a given, and that sexual desire isn’t seen as the problem. … The issue is not the appetite itself but how a man directs this natural appetite and inclination.

This is utterly and completely fascinating.

This fits well within the immediate context; throughout this section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is pointing out the root causes of the sins enumerated in the Law. Yes, adultery is a sin, but the sin has entered the heart the moment one determines to seek it out. The moment a man even looks at a woman for that purpose, adultery has already polluted the heart. This is the line between natural sexual attraction and the “coveting” prohibited by the Law: the Law forbids directing one’s desire towards that which is not lawful. Jesus does not condemn the desire but the action taken on the desire.

This brings up something I hadn’t thought about before—what did the word “adultery” mean in the Greek? Did it only mean situations where one parter was married? If so, does this verse apply to situations where both parties are single? One commentary I found suggested that the verse was written only to apply to a married man. I never blinked at the use of the term “adultery” because I was taught that if I had sex before marriage I would be cheating on my future spouse, but I don’t think we can let the word pass without some investigation.

Staples also argues that Jesus did not mean to say that “the thought and the action are equivalent” because of the added term “in the heart.” The passage does not state that one who looks at a woman in order to covet her has already committed adultery full stop, but rather that one who looks at a woman in order to covet her has already committed adultery in his heart—which Staples argues means “the will has already bent itself toward adultery.” Staples argues that Jesus is simply focusing on “the primary problem of intention,” without which adultery would never occur.

Staples ends his post in this way:

If this passage is to be correctly taught, the emphasis should not be upon “sexual thoughts” or “lust”; instead, the emphasis should be placed squarely on the will: that is, “What is the proper response to sexual desire?” …

… It is the covetous look that is forbidden, not lust or desire itself. That is, Jesus forbids fixing one’s desire upon a woman (or man) that is not rightfully one’s own.

Staples is just one scholar and I do not mean to pin all of this on him. Indeed, his writings in the comments section on his article suggest that he is himself fairly conservative—he argues that viewing pornography is wrong because it is looking at a woman “in order to gain some sexual gratification,” which he argues is coveting. That seems odd, but then perhaps the problem is that the word “covet” is being applied to a person rather than property.

Regardless of what one things of Staples’ arguments in this specific post, or his other views, the things he points out—that the Greek term rendered “lust” in English translations today was also used as a translation for the Hebrew word for “covet” in the Ten Commandments, and that the term is used elsewhere in the New Testament to mean things quite different from our current usage of the English word “lust”—raise questions that should not be avoided.

Words never translate directly, and even words within a given language change over time. But however one translates the term ἐπιθυμέω, it’s worth noting that the verse refers to “anyone who looks at a woman in order to ἐπιθυμέω her,” and not simply anyone who looks at a woman. That distinction may look small, but if ἐπιθυμέω is translated to mean “determining to have her and setting plans in motion to obtain her,” as Staples suggests it does, the difference becomes larger. Even simply translated “covet” it makes a difference—not every sexual thought, even those that are prolonged or dwelled on, of necessity involves coveting.

Let me wrap this up by noting just how much rests on a single Greek verse. This is the verse evangelicals go to for sexual thought crime. It is a single line written down after first circulating orally among Jesus earliest followers. In other words, it was part of a collection of sayings of Jesus told and retold by his followers—Jesus did not write his words down, and his disciples could not write either. Once it was written down it was copied haphazardly for nearly 1,000 years and then copied more systematically by trained monks for another 500 years before being put to type and printed. In fact, Jesus never said those words to begin with. They were first written down in Greek. He spoke Aramaic.

The next time someone points to Matthew 5:28 as proof of the existence of sexual thought crime, it might be simplest to simply tell them it’s complicated.

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