Content note: this post discusses purity culture, divorce and marital rape.
The UK only formally recognised marital rape as a criminal offence in 2003. That is, within my adult lifetime.
It took that long partly because of something the Chief Justice said centuries earlier. It was published in 1736:
“But the husband cannot be guilty of a rape committed by himself upon his lawful wife, for by their mutual matrimonial consent and contract the wife hath given up herself in this kind unto her husband which she cannot retract.”Sir Matthew Hale
In 1991, the House of Lords deemed this statement as “based on a fiction.”
Their ruling was part of a landmark case where a husband appealed his guilty verdict of attempted rape. The couple had already separated when he came to where she was living, physically assaulted her and attempted to rape her. He said it was not possible in law for him to rape his wife. The lords disagreed and upheld the guilty verdict.
The details of the judgement are fascinating. The lords considered whether the wife moving away and/or indicating she would initiate a divorce should be considered retraction of consent. But they rejected this in favour of a more “radical” solution, one that undercut the assumption that consent comes with marital status.
Instead, they argued:
“it is repugnant and illogical in that it permits a husband to be punished for treating his wife with violence in the course of rape but not for the rape itself which is an aggravated and vicious form of violence.”R. v R  UKHL 12 (23 October 1991)
This then paved the way for the 2003 legislation.
The point that I want to draw form this mini history lesson is that, when it comes to marital rape, the key hurdle is not about what particular circumstances constitute rape. For sure, this is a significant issue and many rape myths abound. But the bigger issue is getting agreement that marital rape exists at all.
Of course, I believe it does. Marriage doesn’t confer a right to sex, but rather a right to ask for sex. And even then, spouses still need to exercise judgement about when it’s appropriate to ask. I wrote more about that here: On consent for sex in the middle of the night.
The question I want to address in this post is this: did the biblical authors acknowledge the existence of marital rape? It’s tough because there are many accounts of rape and forced marriage in the Bible where text doesn’t comment on the injustice to women.
But I think some of the biblical authors did make statements which are relevant to recognising marital rape. They just did so from a completely different worldview. And that makes it much, much harder for us to spot it and see the significance of what they—or rather Jesus—said.
Grab a cuppa, the whole of this post is about 3,000 words — though my main argument is in the first 1,800. And you’ve already read 500 of them.
So, where does the Bible speak against marital rape?
It’s in the teachings of Jesus, in Matthew 5:32 and Mark 10:11.
You might wonder if I’m being serious. Many Christians interpret these passages as about divorce and they are some of the most problematic verses at that. Over the centuries, Christians have taken Jesus’s words to mean (wrongly, in my opinion) that divorce is never an option and that, even if it is, remarriage isn’t. I’ll get to that later.
While the direct topic under discussion was not rape, I think Jesus said something so radical that his teaching serves as a blueprint argument for the existence of marital rape. Modern western readers miss it, because we read these verses as being primarily about divorce. Without meaning to, we transfer them directly onto our consent-oriented framework for marriage and sex and miss the cultural and legal context of Jesus’s time. There are two strands to this.
Firstly, the questions under debate were only secondarily about divorce. The central question was about adultery.
Secondly, Jesus was speaking into the worldview of his time, with language that his hearers recognised and understood. This was not the language of consent. In the ancient world, Jewish legal thought framed the ethics and morality of sexual relationships in terms of purity and pollution.
My argument is that, when we put these two lenses together, Jesus’s words were revolutionary. Why? Because he said it was possible for a husband to commit adultery against his own wife. I think that statement was just as radical for his culture’s purity-based framework, as the 1991 judgement in the House of Lords was for our consent-based framework.
But isn’t adultery against a wife the same as cheating on her? Everyone knew men could do that. What was so revolutionary?
Let me expand a bit more on this “purity and pollution” framework.
In short, any form of sex outside of heterosexual marriage was considered “polluting.” Readers of the Old and New Testaments alike will be familiar with the idea of ceremonial cleanliness laws, but what I’m getting at here is different. A person could be ceremonially unclean for perfectly normal everyday actions that weren’t a crime and that said nothing about a person’s moral character. These actions even included consensual, marital sex!
But with sex outside of marriage, there were moral and legal implications beyond mere ceremonial uncleanness. The polluting effect was on the woman, not the man. It had effect regardless of consent. And it was permanent.
I’m not endorsing this worldview, I’m saying that’s how it was.
All this has implications for what was understood by adultery; it was different to how we see “cheating” today.
We might refer to cheating as “adultery,” but usually the concept we’re talking about is consent-based. We’re talking about a spouse having sex with someone other than their marital partner, without their marital partner’s consent. In this framework, a husband can cheat on his wife and a wife can cheat on her husband. The person whose consent was violated is the victim of adultery. But that’s not how the legal definition of adultery worked in the ancient world.
Remember, their framework was purity-based. In Jewish law, adultery was the “pollution” of the wife (or betrothed bride), when a man who was not her husband had sex with her. The wronged party was her husband or, if you ask me, the whole household in which she was the matriarch. I say this because adultery didn’t apply to single women or even betrothed female slaves.
But, and this is important, the wronged party was not the adulterer’s wife.
As I said, I’m not endorsing this framework, I’m explaining it.
Broadly speaking, its underlying values were rooted in patriarchy and the notions of preserving the “purity” of the patrilineal line. It was oriented towards the actions of men and, when it came to men’s culpability, it completely ignored the consent of women.
When we understand all this, we realise something else. Under a purity-based framework, it was impossible for a man to pollute his own household with adultery. And, therefore, it was impossible for a husband to pollute his wife through an act of adultery. He could only ever pollute another man’s wife and household.
This takes us to what Jesus said.
Jesus’s teaching adultery in Matthew 5:32, and how this links with marital rape
In Matthew 5:27, Jesus starts talking about adultery. His statement in Matthew 5:32 continues this theme.
everyone who divorces his wife, except for immorality, makes her commit adultery (NET)
On the surface, this statement doesn’t seem to make sense. How can Jesus say that the wife committed adultery when the husband was the one divorcing her?
Remember, Jesus is speaking from and to a purity-based framework.
He doesn’t say that that the wife becomes an adulteress. Yes, I know the ASV and RSV translated it this way for over a century but that was poor translation. The arguments for why are complex, but they revolve around how the Greek verb is not a deponent verb and how the form of the verb used here is the aorist passive infinitive.
In English, Jesus was saying that something is done to her.
The NIV translates the verse like this:
anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery (NIV)
This rightly carries the overtones of the wife being the victim of the crime, and it’s easier for a modern reader to understand. However, it loses the framework of pollution.
Other translation options that preserve both would be: “he causes her to be adulterized” or “he causes her to suffer adultery.”
In other words, the impossible crime was possible.
This would have been a completely new concept to Jesus’s listeners.
Jesus was saying it was possible for a man to adulterously pollute his own wife, even though she’s his wife and not another man’s wife.
I think this statement about adultery is analogous to the consent-based statement that it is possible for a man to rape his wife.
In the UK, rape was seen as a crime that could only be committed (by men) outside the marital relationship; a wife’s consent inside the relationship was presumed to be permanently given. Similarly, in the ancient world, adultery was seen as a crime that could only be committed (by men with women) outside the marital relationship; sex inside the relationship was presumed to be non-polluting (or “pure”).
But Jesus was saying adultery could be perpetrated by husbands inside that relationship. By extension, I believe he taught that rape could also be committed inside the marital relationship.
That’s why I think these passages are relevant to marital rape.
What about the “except for sexual immorality” clause?
Does this mean that sexual immorality is the only legitimate reason for divorce?
anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery (NIV)
Divorce can happen for many reasons. The reason contemplated most frequently in the New Testament is to marry someone else, that is, to run off with someone else. But in the first half of Matthew 5:32, Jesus doesn’t discuss remarriage. And I think this was why Jesus gave the exception clause.
His statement needed context. Jesus had to recognise the possibility that a wife might have an affair with another man. In those circumstances, the wife’s act of adultery is what pollutes her, not the husband’s subsequent divorce. Jesus therefore included “except for sexual immorality” to make that clear.
This means we shouldn’t take the exception clause to mean, “only sexual immorality constitutes legitimate grounds for divorce.” No, the point was that if your spouse commits adultery against you, then it’s not adultery if you later divorce them. But I firmly believe other reasons, such as other forms of abuse, are legitimate grounds. The reason they’re not discussed is because Jesus wasn’t directly talking about abuse, he was talking about adultery.
OK, but what about the rest of this verse? Is it adultery for a man to marry a woman who was wrongly divorced?
*Rolls up sleeves.*
No. That’s not what this verse is about.
Jesus says in Matthew 5:31–32:
31 “It was said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her a legal document.’ 32 But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (NET)
There are two things I want to make very clear.
First, the second half of verse 32 is an independent clause to the first half. The person referred to as “a divorced woman” is not the wife (or a wife) who was wrongly divorced in the first half. She’s different. She’s a woman who’s unfairly managed to get a divorce from her husband. In the ancient world, this was harder for women to do compared to men, but it did happen.
We might wonder why Jesus doesn’t mention the wife’s culpability if she’s someone who unfairly obtained a divorce, but there are simple reasons her guilt isn’t mentioned. Firstly, this statement came in the context of adultery and lust; it doesn’t make sense to link a wrongly-divorced wife with lust. Secondly, Jesus’s instruction here was directed at men, not married couples.
In the first half of verse 32, Jesus told husbands that they shouldn’t divorce their wives for an arbitrary reason. In the second half, he told suitors that if they see someone else’s wife, and she unfairly gets a divorce from her husband, and the suitor swoops in and marries her, then the suitor is also guilty of adultery against the wife’s first husband.
There is no suggestion that if a man marries a wrongly-divorced woman, then he’s committing adultery.
The second thing I want to make very clear is that in both scenarios, in this purity-based framework, the unfair divorce is the initial polluting event. In the first scenario, the husband divorces unfairly and thereby commits adultery. In the second scenario, when the wife divorces unfairly (or unfairly obtains a divorce from her husband) she commits adultery. This was left unstated because, as I said before, Jesus wasn’t directly talking to wives here. Instead, he was telling suitors that they additionally commit adultery against the first husband and bear guilt if they marry a woman who’s divorced her husband unfairly.
We’ll see why this is important when we look at Mark’s gospel.
The question of re-marriage — and why it doesn’t change my conclusion about the relevance to marital rape
In Mark 10:11–12, Jesus says (emphasis mine):
“Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her. 12 And if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” (NET)
The normal form of the verb here is just “commit adultery.” But Mark doesn’t say that for the divorcing husband. Instead, he says the husband “commits adultery against her” — with the “her” referring to the man’s former wife.
The way Mark constructs this in the Greek was unprecedented. As John Nolland writes, Mark is trying to bring “specific linguistic expression” to a thought so unusual that it is “without parallel in hundreds of years of preserved Greek.”
That unusual thought was the idea that a man could commit adultery, and his own wife was the victim of his crime. It’s exactly what Jesus said in Matthew’s gospel. Matthew explained it using the framework of sexual pollution. Mark explained it using Greek grammar never seen before.
These verses have been interpreted to mean that Jesus taught against remarriage after divorce. That is, one has to commit two acts, both the divorce and the remarriage, before adultery has been perpetrated. But I don’t find this interpretation compelling. In both verses, the divorcing spouse commits adultery at the point of unfair divorce, not at the point of remarriage. Why do I say this? Several reasons.
Firstly, the implication is that remarriage is the reason for the divorce. The situation is a spouse “running off with” someone else. Jesus mentions the remarriage to show that the divorce is unfair and hence adulterous.
Secondly, unfair divorce is bad enough in its own right, regardless of whether the divorcing spouse marries someone else.
And thirdly, when Jesus taught about purity, he didn’t feel any need to link that to physical actions. He taught that it’s the words we speak, not the food we eat, that makes a person unclean. Similarly, he wasn’t going to say that a second marriage, i.e. an emission of semen, was necessary for adultery to take place.
Here’s why I think this matters: when we focus on the second marriage as adultery we tend to elevate marriage itself; the second marriage is an affront to the first. In contrast, when we focus on the unfair divorce as adultery, we’re more likely to elevate the wronged spouse; the abusive separation is an affront to their person.
In other words, I think the key principle of these verses is not that marriage can’t be dissolved, but that grievous spousal harm (on a par with adultery) exists.
It’s not enough to say, as some scholars do, that Mark’s statement is revolutionary because it argues that a woman, not just a man, can be the wronged party in adultery. Yes, that’s an important point; in modern terms, it’s like saying that rape is a crime against a woman in her own right—she doesn’t need to have a father, husband or brother for a rape to be a crime. True. The thing is though, the Old Testament had established that women can be the wronged party in sexual crimes. I think Jesus’s statement is revolutionary for a different reason.
I think the key point is how Jesus said a wife could be the wronged party, and her husband the adulterer, even whilst they are married. That’s what was revolutionary. It didn’t need to involve sex with anyone else. A person could commit an act spousal adultery, while still married, through an unfair divorce.
And recognition of spousal wrongdoing is the key principle here because without it, we will never recognise the existence of marital rape.
Have I made my point?
There’s a lot, lot more that could be said about this whole topic. We could dig into modern purity culture and how the church’s moral framework for sex and marriage is a messy and inconsistent hybrid of both consent-based and purity-based values. We could explore how purity-based values are a social construct, how they so often perpetuate shame, and ask what it would take to shift stigma from the victim to the polluter. But these take us away from the core point that I wanted to make in this post.
The point is this: when Jesus taught about adultery in a purity-based moral framework for sex and marriage, he said it was possible for a husband to commit adultery against his wife. This was revolutionary in his time.
If we transfer his teaching to a consent-based moral framework for sex and marriage, then the question we ask is no longer about the polluting effects of adultery, but the violating effects of sex without consent.
Jesus taught it is possible for a husband to pollute his wife, that there is such a thing as adultery against his wife. If he was talking into a consent framework he would say what the House of Lords said in 1991, that it is possible for a husband to rape his wife, that there is such a thing as marital rape.
So yes, I think the Bible does speak against marital rape. Because Jesus spoke against marital rape. And how it is very, very far from God’s heart.
If you liked this post, you might also be interested in the following:
On wives ‘depriving’ their husbands of sex because she ‘doesn’t feel like it’ – takes a look at 1 Corinthians 7.
Available to access for free:
Jones, Ron. “Support for the NIV Translation “Victim of Adultery” in Matthew 5:32.” Academia.edu. It’s free to access here.
Feinstein, Eve Levavi. “Sexual Pollution in the Hebrew Bible: A New Perspective.” Academia.edu. It’s free to access here.
Not available for free:
Nolland, John. The Gospel Prohibition of Divorce: Tradition History and Meaning. Journal for the Study of the New Testament 17:19 (1995).
Feinstein, Eve Levavi. Sexual Pollution in the Hebrew Bible. (New York: Oxford Scholarship Online 2014).
 In Deuteronomy 22:28–29 and Leviticus 19:20 the man’s crime is not a capital crime and therefore not considered adultery.
 Well OK, if we want to get into the details, then yes, some Bible passages suggest that there were certain acts of sex through which a man and/or a wife could pollute themselves. But while these acts were considered sexually immoral, they were not considered to constitute adultery. And they were not what Jesus was talking about in Matthew 5 or Mark 10. For further reading on the use of ana ענה, see Eve Levavi Feinstein, Sexual Pollution in the Hebrew Bible, (New York: Oxford Scholarship Online 2014), 170–192.
 Jones, “Support for the NIV Translation,” 4.
 Jones, “Support for the NIV Translation,” 6.
 John Nolland, The Gospel Prohibition of Divorce: Tradition History and Meaning, Journal for the Study of the New Testament 17:19 (1995), 30.