Let No Man Put Asunder

Jesus’ Teaching on Divorce

Jesus’ teaching on divorce appears in the synoptic gospels and Paul.[1] It is because of multiple and abundant attestation that Jesus’ sayings on divorce are considered, even among the most liberal of scholars, to be authentic words of Jesus of Nazareth.[2]

This would usually be reason for a moderate evangelical like myself to celebrate. However, not even evangelicals who pride themselves—rightfully so—on believing in the inspiration of the biblical text, can agree on what Jesus meant by what he said.

The catholic scholar J. P. Meier observes that Jesus’ teaching on divorce, “leads us into a confusing morass of historical, exegetical, and theological problems.”[3] No doubt, a great deal of time and energy has been given to discovering what Jesus really said about divorce and remarriage; in spite of the honest trepidation that can accompany such a hermeneutical endeavor.

The purpose of this paper is to bring some contextual clarity to Jesus’ teaching on divorce through: (1) a brief examination of divorce in the Old Testament and in the literature of the intertestamental period, (2) an appraisal of the legalities of divorce that were seemingly in a state of flux during the Second Temple period leading up to Jesus, (3) an exegesis of the divorce passages found in the synoptic gospels—giving special attention to Matthew 5:27-32; 19:3-9 and the so-called “exception” clauses.


The Law 

Deut 24:1-4 is the only significant law on divorce in the Pentateuch—which accounts for the debate in early Judaism over the meaning of this passage. What constitutes a legal divorce? It was this one long sentence of casuistic law (“if… then”) that the Jewish leaders sought to extrapolate meaning and application. The center of their deliberations was the obscure Hebrew phrase “erwat dabar” (lit. “nakedness of a thing”) which appealed to the ancient honor/shame culture. This phrase was likely intended to be vague so that it would include a range of marital infractions, but not to include adultery.[4]

In the context, the passage is dealing with a specific case of remarriage. J. Carl Laney writes, “Grammatically the intent of the law is not to give legal sanction to divorce or to regulate the divorce procedure. The intent of the passage is to prohibit the remarriage of a man to his divorced wife in cases of an intervening marriage by the wife.”[5]

Christopher Wright says, “The practical effect of this rule is to protect the unfortunate woman from becoming a kind of marital football, passed back and forth between irresponsible men.”[6] It is clear that Moses was not giving a command or even encouraging divorce. He is merely protecting the people and land from defilement (v.4). The only other law mentioning divorce is Lev 21:7, 13-14, indicating a definite stigma that is attached to divorce in the Pentateuch—divorce is merely tolerated.

The Prophets

Deut 24:1-4 can be seen in the message of three prophets. Yahweh pleads through Jeremiah that Israel repent of her “whoring and wickedness” and return to him (3:1-5). “If a man divorces his wife and she goes from him and becomes another man’s wife, will he return to her? Would not such a land be greatly polluted? You have played the whore with many lovers; and would you return to me” (v.1)? What is impossible under the Law is made possible by God’s grace if they choose to repent (4:1-2).

In Isaiah 50:1, the people of Israel have been sent away for their unfaithfulness, but Yahweh is capable of restoring them to himself if they would only repent and believe that he can redeem them.

Yahweh bends over backwards in Hosea 3:1-3 as he suspends the law against remarriage: “Go, love a woman who has a lover and is an adulteress, just as the LORD loves the people of Israel, though they turn to other gods and love raisin cakes” (v.1). In a bizarre set of circumstances, Yahweh seeks to prove through Hosea’s marriage to  the loose woman Gomer that there are no lengths too great that he is not willing to go in order to honor the covenant relationship he made with Israel.

And it is in Malachi that Yahweh denounces the unfaithfulness of men to their young wives (2:14-15). Yahweh declares down through the ages, “I hate divorce” (2:16).

With these sentiments expressed by the Hebrew prophets, how then could there be a debate over divorce in early Judaism? Meier reminds his readers that, “one should remember that prophetic exhortation and condemnation, however fiery, did not possess the same binding force for later Judaism as did the laws of the Pentateuch.”[7] In the day of Jesus, the Law of Moses (i.e. Deut 24:1-4) is front and center in the divorce debate.


The Qumran Scrolls

The meticulous study of the Dead Sea Scrolls[8] continues to reveal a wealth of information to biblical scholars working to understand the Second Temple period. The sect that lived at Qumran separated from what they believed to be a corrupted Judaism and settled by the northwest shore of the Dead Sea.[9] They carried on a monastic life as they copied and preserved OT manuscripts, as well as some of the Pseudepigrapha.

The most fascinating find is proving to be the sectarian compositions that describe their communal lifestyle, rituals, theology, and beliefs about a coming eschatological kingdom. The Qumran scrolls give insight into one group that prohibited divorce to some degree.[10]

The Temple Scroll (11Q Temple 57:17-19) sets forth conduct for a future king of Israel that is drawn directly from Deut 17.[11] The text indicates that the sect interpreted the prohibition of polygamy (Deut 17:17) to also include divorce: “And he shall not take in addition to her another wife, for she alone shall be with him all the days of her life; and if she dies, he shall take for himself another (wife).” There is some disagreement among scholars on whether this “utopian” life of a future king would apply to the townsfolk.

11QTemple 66:8-11 repeats the command found in the law of Deut 22:28-29 that a man who seduces a virgin not yet betrothed must marry her and “cannot divorce her as long as he lives.” Is the sect confirming that the law against divorce is only binding under certain circumstances?

In light of 11QTemple 57:17-19, it is possible that “unchastity” mentioned in Damascus Document (CD 4:12b-5:11) includes adultery,[12] polygamy, incest, and divorce. Hans Dieter Betz writes, “There appears to be more agreement that the prohibitions do not merely apply to the king but to the common Jew as well.”[13]

Philo & Josephus

Philo of Alexandria (ca. 20 BC-ca. 50 AD), a Jewish contemporary with Jesus and Paul, is an important witness to Jewish thought and practice during the Second Temple period. As a writer influenced by Hellenism and the allegorical school in Alexandria, Egypt, Philo is often read with a critical eye. However, his commentary on Deut 24:1-4 should not be ignored for those seeking to understand Jewish halakhah (legal rulings).

What insight does Philo give as to the interpretation of the text and the Jewish attitude on divorce in the first century?

In his Special Laws (3:30-31),[14] he introduces the woman who was divorced “under any pretence.” Philo aligns himself with the House of Hillel and their view of an “any-cause” divorce. He gives a plain reading of the Law: a woman divorced from her first husband, having “married another,” must not return to her first husband. He indicates that husband who would take his wife back should “bear the reputation of effeminacy” and should be put to death with his wife.

The Jewish historian and Roman sympathizer, Flavius Josephus (37 AD-ca. 95 AD), also agrees with Philo and the House of Hillel that a husband could divorce his wife for any reason whatsoever.

In Ant 4.8.23 §253, Josephus writes:

He that desires to be divorced from his wife for any cause whatsoever (and many such causes happen among men), let him in writing give assurance that he will never use her as his wife any more; for by this means she may be at liberty to marry another husband, although before this bill of divorce be given, she is not to be permitted so to do; but if she be misused by him also, of if, when he is dead, her first husband would marry her again, it shall not be lawful for her to return to him.[15]

Josephus does appear to focus more on the husband and his actions, where Philo focuses on the wife. Also, Josephus is more concerned about the written certificate of divorce (as a second law) and departs from a plain reading of Deut 24:1-4. Josephus, himself having been married a couple of times (Life 75.415), clearly had embraced the liberal Hillelite interpretation of the OT[16] and had joined the cultural plague of divorce.

Hillel & Shammai 

The divorce practices of the first century have been made known to scholars today by surveying the vast collection of papyri from Egypt—that includes marriage contracts and divorce agreements.[17]

Scholars are recognizing that marriage and divorce underwent a “revolution” during this tumultuous era.[18] The Mishnah[19] has also proven to be most helpful in gaining insight into the background of Jesus’ teachings amid the first century debate.[20]

The Mishnah reveals two rabbinical schools that were in dispute over divorce: the schools of Hillel and Shammai. N. T. Wright says that by the time of Jesus, “It is likely that the two ‘houses’ of Hillel and Shammai already represented two alternative ways of being Pharisees.”[21]

As the reader might expect, their debate centered around the proper interpretation of Deut 24:1-4—what is the meaning of the Hebrew phrase “erwat dabar” and what are legal grounds for divorce?

The two Pharisaic schools are represented in m. Gittin 9.10. The House of Shammai teaches that a man can only divorce his wife for marital unfaithfulness. The House of Hillel say, “Even if she spoiled his (husband’s) dish.”[22] As for Shammai’s teaching, “adultery” is condemned in the OT and is deserving of death (Lev 20:10; Deut 22:22). The woman “caught in adultery” in John 8:1-11 affirms this rule of law.[23]

However, there is some question about how this was being applied in the Roman period of the first century. Early rabbinic sources reflect a “clear desire to circumscribe as far as possible the sphere in which such a severe penalty was to be enforced. A wife whose life was to be spared was certainly to be divorced.”[24] What is clear is that the Jewish world of Jesus was unclear as to how the Law was to be applied to divorce.


It has been said that the NT Epistles are one-dimensional in their historical and literary context; the gospels, on the other hand, come to the reader from a two or three-dimensional historical context.[25] For example, Paul speaks directly to his audience in his letters, but the gospel writers collected sayings and narratives about Jesus that were preserved by church tradition and then arranged according to their own purposes.

The gospel redactor weaves together each pericope to paint a unique grandiose picture of Jesus to meet the immediate needs of his own local community. There have been efforts to synthesize the gospels into one story, yet the church has continued to recognize each separate literary account as an “inspired and authoritative work of the Holy Spirit.”[26]

Therefore, it is important that the reader pay close attention to the careful construction of each author’s narrative and the intentional placement of Jesus’ discourse on divorce.

The Gospel of Mark (10:1-12)

The large majority of scholars believe that the Gospel of Mark was the first of the synoptic gospels (i.e. Marcan priority), and probably written in the mid- or late 60’s to a predominately gentile audience.[27] Jesus’ block of teaching on divorce is found within a narrative that has been purposely placed in a section on discipleship—with children and the kingdom of God on each side of the divorce pericope.

It would appear that accepting Jesus’ teaching on divorce is a matter of the kingdom. He says, “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it” (10:15).

Since many scholars believe that Matthew relies heavily upon Mark in this narrative, and since this paper thoroughly expounds upon Matthew’s pericope, it is only necessary to briefly point out some of the similarities and differences of Mark to Matthew’s gospel. Both gospels have Jesus entering “Judea beyond the Jordan” (Mk 10:1; Matt 19:1). This would indicate that the teaching happened in the same setting as both writers remember it.

The divorce teaching is prompted by the inquiry of the Pharisees to the question, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife” (Mk 10:2)? Matthew adds, “for any cause” (Matt 19:3).[28] Jesus practically avoids their trap of entering into a debate, and instead points them to God’s original intention for marriage (Mk 10:6; 19:4).

The next part of Jesus’ saying is given only to his disciples “in the house” as a result of their wanting clarification (v.10). Jesus said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (10:11-12).

The most obvious difference between Mark and Matthew is found here in the last two verses.[29] Of all the synoptic gospels, Mark shows the woman to have the same ability to divorce as her husband. Unlike Jewish women in first century Palestine, the women in Mark’s gentile audience have the power to divorce their husbands. Also, Mark does not include the so-called exception clause “except for sexual immorality” (Matt 5:32; 19:9).[30]

Meier captures the blunt force trauma of Jesus’ teaching on divorce:

By completely forbidding divorce, Jesus dares to forbid what the Law allows—and not in some minor, obscure halakic observance but in one of the most important legal institutions in society. He dares to say that a man who duly follows the Law in properly divorcing his wife and marring another woman is in effect committing adultery. When one stops to think what this involves, Jesus’ prohibition of divorce is nothing short of astounding. Jesus presumes to teach that what the Law permits and regulates is actually the sin of adultery.[31]

The Gospel of Luke (16:18)

The Gospel of Luke is the longest of all four gospels and is the first volume in his “orderly account” (Luke-Acts) of the life and teachings of Jesus. For those believing in the two-source theory with Marcan priority, both Matthew and Luke used Mark, as well as an unknown “Q” source.[32] It would at first appear that Luke has done a strange thing with the Marcan (and Q?) source of Jesus’ teaching on divorce.

The teaching may at first seem out of place. “The law and the prophets were in effect until John came; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is proclaimed, and everyone tries to enter it by force. But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away, than for one stroke of a letter in the law to be dropped” (16:16-17). Then Jesus says, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and whoever marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery” (v.18).

John Nolland comments on Luke’s thought:

In Luke’s understanding here, the preaching of the good news of the kingdom of God, quite the contrary to offering easy entry into the kingdom, involves an intensification of the demands of the law. The case of divorce is used illustratively… It is clear that in the Lukan understanding the “law and the prophets” are in no sense superseded, but rather added to in the sense of being made yet more rigorous.[33]

The Gospel of Matthew (5:27-32; 19:3-9)

The Gospel of Matthew was used more widely in the early church than any of the other gospels.[34] Reasons for its popularity stretch from the ordering of the gospel to its often poetic and memorable phrases.

The dating of Matthew is difficult to know because it depends on many disputed points. If Marcan priority is accepted and the Gospel of Mark was written as late as AD 65, some scholars believe it would have taken ten years for Matthew to produce his own gospel. D.A. Carson says a written source is circulated quickly and Matthew could have written as early as AD 66.[35] Still other scholars have argued for a date some time after the destruction of the Temple in AD 70.

Anthony Saldarini believes the gospel fits the later development of early church Christology, and also matters of Jewish debate.[36] The divorce passages may be an example of that debate.

Matthew was clearly written to a Jewish audience, yet his gospel is at the same time universal in its scope (13:38; 21:33-43; 28:18-20).[37] The “Jewishness” of the gospel can be seen in the extensive use of OT Scriptures and the substitution of “heaven” for God’s name. Matthew is intent on proving that Jesus is the new and greater Moses.[38]

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus sets his teaching alongside the Mosaic Law (5:21, 27, 31, 33, 38, 43).[39] There is a clear emphasis on Jesus’ teaching ministry (5-7)—as it is the largest block to be found in any of the four gospels.

There is no place in the gospel where Matthew plainly states his purpose for writing, but it becomes evident in his particular emphases. Matthew is interested in the church and the needs of the growing Christian-Jewish community. He abridges Mark’s material, likely borrowing from Q as well, and intends to fashion his gospel in a way that is more easily remembered by new believers amidst their Jewish critics.[40]

Saldarini sums up the purpose of Matthew’s gospel:

Matthew does not simply preserve Jewish-Christian traditions which were operative earlier in the century, nor does he effect a synthesis of earlier Jewish with current Christian traditions and customs. The outlook and practice which Matthew promotes in his gospel is thoroughly Jewish and based on the Bible as understood through the teachings of Jesus. Matthew seeks to carry on Jesus’ reform of Judaism and convince his fellow Jews that his understanding of Judaism is God-given (11:25-27) and necessary for Israel and for the gentiles, too.[41]

The Matthean texts will now be examined more critically, as the crux of the debate over Jesus’ teaching on divorce revolves around them.

The first passage for a careful exegesis and examination is found in Matt 5:27-30 NRSV:

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. 

27. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’.”[42] Note: Gk. font not available in blog format.

This verse begins the second antithesis in the Sermon on the Mount.[43] Matthew fashions the discourse to show that Jesus has the authoritative interpretation(s) of Torah.[44] “You have heard that it was said…” is abbreviated from the formula in 5:21. The hearing implies a “chain of verbal communication” that has been passed down in time.[45] It is most likely a reference to the OT itself, since 5:21-48 is dealing with the OT instead of oral law or rabbinic teachings.

The word errethe is the “divine” aorist passive form. In other words, Jesus is using a formula that introduces Torah, not tradition.[46] Jesus recalls for his audience the seventh commandment as found in the LXX Decalogue (Exod 20:14 and Deut 5:18). The use of the imperatival future (moicheuseis) makes the law “You shall not commit adultery” a timeless commandment.

28. “But I (myself) say to you that everyone who looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

Jesus emphatically declares that his words, not the oral traditions of previous rabbis, are the final arbiter of the Law of Moses. He says that adultery begins in the heart of a person who first looks at a woman lustfully.

Daniel Wallace is careful to note that the phrase (everyone who looks at a woman) is a gnomic present participle. It is not a progressive action (e.g. “continually looking”), but rather a general, timeless fact.[47] Therefore, the initial look could very well result in lustful desires of the heart. Regardless of how many looks, it is the sinful thought that Jesus calls “adultery”.

As Davies and Allison point out, “The infinitive after the preposition “pro” represents result and implies that the sin lies not in the entrance of thought but in letting it incite passion.”[48] The aorist infinitive epithumesai is also used in the tenth commandment against “coveting” the wife of your neighbor (Exod 20:17 LXX). Jesus is saying that a real concern for the tenth commandment means a person will root out the evil that first begins in the imagination.

29. “And if your right eye causes you to stumble, tear it out, and throw it from you; for it is better for you that one of your members perish than for your whole body to be cast into Gehenna.”

The use of overstatement is used by Jesus to express the serious nature of sexual sin that must not be handled lightly.[49] A person looks with the eye in lust and then touches with the hand in adultery (v.30). Grant Osborne points out that the “right” side of the body was seen as the more powerful side in antiquity.[50] Jesus says that if lust of the eyes is a problem, it is imperative that a person exele (cut it out!) and bale (throw it away!) in order that they not suffer the violent death of geennan (Gehenna).

The “fire of Gehenna” was mentioned previously (v.22). “Gehenna” refers to the valley south of Jerusalem (gê-hinnõm) that is believed to be the city garbage dump in the first century.[51] It is also known to be the place of child sacrifice to the god Molech (2 Chr 28:3; 33:6). The whole person will suffer the judgment of Gehenna (i.e. “hell”) if the body is given over to sinful desires and passions. Once again, the divine passive (blethe) indicates that it is God who will judge sinners righteously.

30. “And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off, and throw it from you; for it is better for you that one of your members perish than for your whole body to depart into Gehenna.”

Notice the first class conditional sentence (“If your right hand…”). Wallace makes the following comment about this verse and its implications for meaning:

Jesus often put forth a number of challenges to current Jewish orthodoxy, such as that appendages and external things are what defile a person. Reading the text in light of that motif yields the following force: “Ifand let us assume that this is true for argument’s sake-your right hand offends you, then cut it off and throw it from you!” The following line only enforces this interpretation (“For it is better for you that one of your members should perish than that your whole body should be cast into hell”). Jesus thus brings the Pharisees’ view to its logical conclusion. It is as if he said, “If you really believe that your anatomy is the root of sin, then start hacking off some body parts! After all, wouldn’t it be better to be called ‘Lefty’ in heaven than to fry in hell as a whole person?” The condition thus has a provocative power seen in this light.[52]

Matthew purposely places Jesus’ teaching on divorce immediately following this passage on adultery that begins within a person’s thoughts. Jesus moves from adultery beginning in the heart, to a person acting out their sinful desires, to the much-debated issue of divorce. It should be noted that adultery is still the concern in the next two verses.

It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (Matt 5:31-32 NRSV)

31. “And it was said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, give her a certificate of divorce’.”

Davies and Allison state that the verse above is a “legal prescription” that summarizes the procedure in Deut 24:1-4, where the issue of concern is remarriage, not divorce.[53] However, it is important to recall that the raging debate among the rabbis of Jesus’ day was that since Moses allows divorce in Deut 24:1-4, what then are legitimate grounds for divorce?

Once again, the first century rabbinic schools of Hillel and Shammai argued over the minimum requirements that established those grounds (m. Ketub 5:5-8) based on their interpretations of Deut. 24:1.[54]

Daniel Fanous writes, “First-century Judaic thought took a Mosaic prohibition and transformed it into a law allowing divorce. Jesus on the other hand, took the very same prohibition, highlighted and elevated it, and thus created a law prohibiting divorce.”[55]

32. “But I (myself) say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries the divorced woman commits adultery.”

Jesus now returns to his concern over the committing of adultery. Debate looms over the “exception” clause (parektos logou porneia). The phrase logou porneia is not standard Greek wording and it is likely not “natural” Greek.[56] Krister Stendahl writes that the phrase “renders the Hebrew” and shows Matthew’s “dependence upon Jewish terminology.”[57]

The Hebrew phrase erwat dabar (lit. “thing of nakedness”) is translated into the Greek phrase logou porneia in Matt 5:32.[58] Therefore, the phrase is clearly evoking the language of Deut 24:1.[59]

However, in the context of Deuteronomy, erwat dabar cannot refer to any form of sexual immorality. The Law demanded capital punishment for adultery instead of a written “certificate of divorce” (Lev. 18:6-19; 20:11-21). Instead, the near context indicates that the offense is indecent public exposure (Deut 23:13-14). According to the Mosaic Law, a husband was allowed to divorce his wife only if there was found in her some “indecency” that defiled her and made her unclean.[60]

What then does porneia mean? The semanctic range of porneia includes: unlawful sexual intercourse, prostitution, sexual immorality, unchastity, and acts of fornication.[61] The word encapsulates a number of sexual offences and is a “catch-all term” used throughout the NT.[62] In Matt 5:32 porneias is referring to any sexually immoral deed that counts toward an adulterous infraction of the marital covenant. In ancient Palestine only men were allowed to dissolve a marriage contract.[63] That is the reason that Jesus is addressing men in this passage.

Jesus says that those who divorce their wives poiei auten moicheutheai (cause their wives to commit adultery). Not only does the husband make his wife commit adultery, but he also causes the new husband that comes after to do the same and join in on the adulterous affair.

The clause parektos logou porneia (except for sexual immorality) means that of course the husband has not caused his wife to commit adultery if she has already done so on her own accord.[64]

In Matt 19:3-9, Jesus’ teaching is given in the Marcan narrative form (10:2-12). Jesus’ teaching on divorce comes in response to questions from the Pharisees.

Some Pharisees came to him, and to test him they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?’ He answered, ‘Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning “made them male and female”, and said, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh”? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’ They said to him, ‘Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?’ He said to them, ‘It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but at the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.’ (Matt 19:3-9 NRSV)

3-6. “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause” (v.3)? The Pharisees want Jesus to weigh in on the Hillel/Shammai debate. Also, it could be that they have heard that Jesus was opposed to divorce.

How does Jesus respond to the Pharisees desire to have a divine stamp of approval upon divorce? He evokes covenant language of “leave” and “cleave” (Deut 10:20; 11:22; 13:4; 30:20; Josh 22:5; 23:8; Ruth 1:14-16).[65]

Man and woman become a “one flesh” union.[66] This is not merely a sexual union, but a relational union that is created by God. Jesus responds with “what God has joined together, let no one separate” (v.6). According to Jesus, marriage is not a legal contract that can be cancelled by claiming “irreconcilable” differences.

7-9. This prompts another question by the Pharisees: “Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her” (v.7)? Jesus says to them, “It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (emphasis mine). Jesus shifts the focus from divorce itself (Deut 24:1) to the divine intention of marriage (Gen 1:27; 2:4).

N. T. Wright comments on Jesus’ maneuvering the biblical text:

Jesus responds with an assertion which reveals that he stands at a vitally different point in Israel’s story. Deuteronomy, he says, is part of a temporary phase in the purposes of YHWH. It was necessary because of the ambiguous situation, in which Israel was called to be the people of god, but was still a people with hard hearts. Israel cannot be affirmed as she stands. She is still in exile, still hardhearted; but the new day is dawning in which the ‘the Mosaic dispensation is not adequate’, since ‘Jesus expected there to be a better order’. By quoting Genesis 1:27 and 2:4 to undermine Deuteronomy 24:1-3, Jesus was in fact making it clear that the story to which he was obedient was that in which Israel was called by YHWH to restore humankind and the world to his original intention.[67]

“And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery” (v. 9). There is a notable difference in the Greek clause of 19:9. The phrase parektos logou porneia from Matt 5:32 and the verse’s connection to Deut 24:1 is lost.

Instead, the clause in Matt 19:9 is “me epi porneia.” As previously stated, 5:32 simply means that the husband “causes” the wife to commit adultery, parektos logou porneia (except for sexual immorality). If she has already done the deed herself then the husband has not caused it. What about the difference of language and syntax in 19:9—how does it harmonize with 5:32?[68] It is probably best to translate the preposition (epi) as a dative in the temporal: “not during sexual immorality.”

Many scholars prefer to read this Matthean clause as a true exception,[69] saying it is representative of rabbinic halakhah and that Jesus was showing his agreement with Shammai.[70] But if Jesus was agreeing with one known tradition of halakhah, it does not merit the culture shock response of the disciples. They reply, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry” (v.10).

Since Jesus paid no attention to the cultural norm that a husband could not commit adultery against his wife (Matt 19:9; Mk 10:11), it is unlikely that Jesus considered their halakhah demanding divorce for adultery.[71] Jesus instead calls for a higher ethic that is not matched by any known first century halakhah.

Doug Kennard cuts through the great hermeneutical haze that hovers around this oft-debated Matthean text, as he succinctly writes:

Jesus’ ethic on this point of the Law is more restrictive than the Law in its appeal. Therefore, Jesus’ exception clause cannot be softening and expanding the Law’s exception clause. If Jesus is saying that it is acceptable to divorce a wife for her sexual immorality, then He is denying several commands of the Law that required capital punishment (Lev 18:6-19; 20:11-21) and rendering Himself under His own declaration to be the least in the Kingdom and therefore self-contradictory.[72]


After examining the historical and cultural context of the synoptic gospels, it is clear that Jesus radically internalizes the Law of Moses and gives his audience the authoritative call to discipleship in the kingdom of heaven.

In an initial reading, and due to the various traditional readings and interpretations of this passage, it may have seemed like Jesus was siding with the conservative Rabbi Shammai—agreeing that adultery is a legitimate reason for divorce. But Jesus has given us a higher ethic that protects women from abuse, places them on equal footing with men,[73] and sets fidelity in the relational union of marriage well within the scope of what it truly means to be faithful to God—actively participating in the work of the kingdom to build up, not to tear down.[74]

The so-called “exception” clause in Matt 5:32 and 19:9 cannot be allowing for the dissolution of a marriage, regardless of the oft-debated meaning of porneia or the slight differences in the syntax of one verse.[75] Matthew does not stand in contradiction to Mark and Luke on Jesus’ teaching concerning marriage, divorce, and remarriage.

The synoptic gospels must certainly be allowed to speak their inspired message to their own respective audiences. And at the same time, the reader must know that suspected contradictions rest with the interpreter, not in the inspired written text. Matthew was very much aware of Mark, even relying upon his gospel in his own composition. Therefore, he would not have deliberately altered the clear teaching of Jesus or softened it to accommodate a culture grown numb from a rampant “easy” divorce.

The Pharisees wanted to talk about divorce, but Jesus wanted to talk about marriage. People that are preoccupied with seeking legitimate grounds for divorce prove themselves to be guilty of the very thing Jesus condemned.[76]

As Richard Hays writes, “Those who trust God as revealed through Jesus will not seek such an escape clause from their marriages.”[77]

Jesus’ teachings are not an “interim ethic” as described by the quester Albert Schweitzer.[78] They are the true “character of kingdom life”[79] to be lived out while praying, “Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:10).

Robert Stein echoes the very heart of Jesus:

The divine intention is a marriage “until death us do part.” A divorce, any divorce, reveals a failure of the divine purpose of marriage. Divorce, for whatever the cause, witnesses to a failure somewhere of what God originally ordained for his creation. The ideal is a lifelong, monogamous marriage that resembles the love affair of Christ and his Church (Eph 5:22-33). To contemplate divorce and in what instances a divorce may be legitimate is to think very differently from the way in which Jesus thought.[80] 

And what were the thoughts of Jesus on divorce? He said, “Therefore what God has joined together, let no man put asunder” (Matt 19:6). He concluded with, “Go… teaching them (all nations) to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt 28:19a,20a).

D.D. Flowers, 2011.

[1] Mark 10:2-12; Luke 16:18; Matthew 5:27-32; 19:3-9; 1 Corinthians 7:10-13.

[2] J. P. Meier begins his investigation of the historical Jesus’ sayings on divorce in his book: A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Vol. 4. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 74. Meier has a “sample” bibliography that covers a vast amount of scholarly books and articles which address marriage, divorce, and remarriage in the ancient Near East.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Meier, 79. The context (Deut 23-24) seems to indicate that erwat dabar refers to public exposure or indecency mentioned in 23:13. Whatever this “nakedness of a thing” is in 24:1, it does not include adultery. Marital unfaithfulness was a capital crime punishable by death (Deut 22:22; Lev 20:10).

[5] J. Carl Laney, “Deuteronomy 24:1-4 and the Issue of Divorce.” Bibliotheca Sacra 149, no. 593 (January 1, 1992): 4.

[6] Christopher Wright, Deuteronomy. New International Biblical Commentary. (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1996), 255.

[7] Meier, 83.

[8] The “Dead Sea Scrolls” describes a vast amount of ancient scrolls discovered from 1947 to 1956 in a variety of different places in Judea. The “Qumran” scrolls refer to those texts found in 11 Qumran caves on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea. See Wise, Abeg, and Cook, The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation. (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 2005), 5.

[9] N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, Vol. 1: Christian Origins and the Question of God. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 203.

[10] Hans Dieter Betz, The Sermon on the Mount: A Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, including the Sermon on the Plain (Matthew 5:3-7:27 and Luke 6:20-49). Hermeneia—A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 1995.), 252; Betz writes: “New documents from the Dead Sea Scrolls have provided additional evidence that prohibition of divorce was not as uncommon by the time of Jesus as scholars had once believed.” Meier writes that, “sweeping statements about divorce being prohibited at Qumran should be avoided” (Marginal Jew, 93). Fair enough.

[11] Wise, Abeg, and Cook, 623.

[12] The following scrolls condemn the practice of adultery: 1QS 1:1-6, CD 2:14-16; 4:12b-5:11.

[13] Betz, 252. Meier writes, “On the question of divorce, the historical Essenes may be more elusive than the historical Jesus. The Essenes did forbid polygyny; their position on divorce remains a question mark” (Marginal Jew, 93.)

[14] C.D. Younge, trans. The Works of Philo. New ed. (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1993), 597.

[15] William Whiston., trans. The Works of Josephus. New ed. (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1987), 120.

[16] David Daube, The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism. (London: University of London Press, 1956 and Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1998), 371.

[17] Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 3d ed. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2003), 134. Ferguson has a discussion of Jewish and Greco-Roman marriage on pgs 72-79.

[18] David Instone-Brewer, “Marriage and Divorce.” The Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism. ed. John J. Collins and Daniel C. Harlow, 916-917. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 916.

[19] The Mishnah is a major source of Jewish religious practice and rabbinic legal reflection. It is an official codification of the oral law. It was codified ca. AD 170. Two types of material appear: halakhah (law) and haggadah (stories).

[20] Meier is skeptical of any pre-70 debate within Judaism. He believes this may be anachronistic of NT scholars to read the Mishna back into Gospels. See his Marginal Jew, 94-95.

[21] Wright, N.T. The New Testament and the People of God, Vol. 1: Christian Origins and the Question of God. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 201. Wright says, “Disputes between the different Pharisaic schools are the stuff of which the Mishnah is made up.”

[22] Darrell L. Bock and Gregory J. Herrick, Jesus in Context: Background Readings for Gospel Study. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 85. After Hillel, Rabbi Aqiba said a man could divorce his wife if he found someone else more attractive! Divorce was out of control in first century Palestine.

[23] There is some question as to the place this passage has in the biblical text. Regardless, the story has all of the historical and biblical signs of a real event in the life of Jesus.

[24] John Nolland, Luke 9:21-18:34. Word Biblical Commentary. (Dallas: Word Books, 1993), 817.

[25] Gordon D. Fee, New Testament Exegesis: A Handbook for Students and Pastors, 3d ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 20.

[26] Mark L. Strauss, Four Portraits, One Jesus: An Introduction to Jesus and the Gospels. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 32.

[27] Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament. (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1997), 111; 163; also Stanton’s The Gospels and Jesus. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 34.

[28] This addition by Matthew is likely due to the “any cause” divorce teaching of the school of Hillel. The Gospel of Matthew has more of a Jewish concern than does the Gospel of Mark.

[29] Meier, 110.

[30] This will be addressed in detail within the section on the Gospel of Matthew.

[31] Meier, 113.

[32] Brown, 116-122. See R.E. Brown’s Introduction to the New Testament for an overview of “Q”.

[33] Nolland, Luke 9:21-18:34. Word Biblical Commentary. (Dallas: Word Books, 1993), 820.

[34] Stanton, 59.

[35] D.A. Carson, “Matthew.” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, Vol. 8. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 20. It may well be that Carson is reticent to accept that Matthew was written later in the 80’s or 90’s, despite convincing arguments from internal evidence, because some “anti-supernatural” critics presuppose that Jesus could not have foretold the events of AD 70. Regardless, the early Markan testimony of Jesus still remains (13:1-2). Therefore, the weight of Jesus’ words regarding the destruction of the temple is not diminished with Matthew writing of a fulfilled prophecy “after-the-fact”.

[36] Anthony J. Saldarini, Matthew’s Christian-Jewish Community. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 4. Saldarini locates the Matthean community in Syria toward the later end of the first century.

[37] Matthew does not hesitate to show Jesus’ appeal to Gentiles (2:1-12) and he is the only Gospel writer to use the word ekklesia “church” (16:18; 18:17). See Saldarini’s discussion (100-107).

[38] Jacob Neusner, Judaism When Christianity Began: A Survey of Belief and Practice. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 24.

[39] This can also be seen in Matthew’s borrowing of phrases from the story of Moses to describe events in Jesus’ life (cf. 2:13, 20-21; 17:2, 5; Exod 2:15; 4:19-20; 34:29; Deut 18:15).

[40] Robert H. Mounce, Matthew. New International Commentary (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1998), 4.

[41] Saldarini, 7.

[42] All of the English translations of the Greek are my own.

[43] John Nolland. The Gospel of Matthew: A Commentary on the Greek Text. The New International Greek Testament Commentary. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 228. The first of six antitheses begins with Jesus internalizing the Law on the matter of anger/murder (see Matt 5:21-26).

[44] Jesus said that did not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets with his teaching (5:19).

[45] Nolland, 229. The “men of old” in 5:21 are the Jewish ancestors of the wilderness generation.

[46] W.D. Davies and Dale Allison. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew, Vol. 1. (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1988), 511.

[47] Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 523, 616.

[48] Davies and Allison, 523.

[49] Robert H. Stein, The Method and Message of Jesus’ Teachings. Rev. ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), 9. Stein makes a distinction between overstatement and hyperbole.

[50] Grant R. Osborne, Matthew. Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 196.

[51] Davies and Allison, 514-515: “without ancient support, although it could be correct.”

[52] Wallace, 693.

[53] Davies and Allison, 527.

[54] Instone-Brewer, 917. As previously mentioned, the rabbinic school of Hillel taught that a man could divorce is wife for any cause (e.g. “Even if she spoiled his dish…” m. Gittin 9.10). The school of Shammai was more conservative and taught that a “cause of indecency” (i.e. adultery) was the only legitimate grounds for divorce.

[55] Daniel Fanous, Taught by God: Making Sense of the Difficult Sayings of Jesus. (Rollinsford, NH: Orthodox Research Institute, 2010), 21; also E. P. Sanders writes, “Moses did not command divorce, he permitted it; and to prohibit what he permitted is by no means the same as to permit what he prohibited” in his book, Jesus and Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), 256.

[56] Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew, 244.

[57] Krister Stendahl, The School of St. Matthew and Its Use of the Old Testament, 2d ed. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1968), 137. An older book that is still worth its salt.

[58] Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew, 245.

[59] Davies and Allison, 528. Matthew’s Jewish audience would immediately recognize this intentional Semitism. It is Matthew’s way of linguistically connecting Jesus’ interpretation to Deut 24:1.

[60] Douglas W. Kennard, Messiah Jesus: Christology in His Day and Ours. (New York: Peter Lang, 2008), 122. Kennard understands Deut 24:1 in light of covenant nomism and the holiness code.

[61] Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Christian Literature, 3d ed., ed. Fredrick W. Danker. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 854; also in Friedrich Hauck and Siegfried Schulz. “porneia” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 6. ed. by Gerhard Kittel, 579-595 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 579; Word meaning abounds! Robert Guelich believes “porneia” refers to an incestuous relationship. See his book, The Sermon on the Mount: A Foundation for Understanding. (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1982), 245. Craig Keener believes this view is much too narrow. See his commentary, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 467; A small number of scholars believe that “porneia” is unfaithfulness during the Jewish betrothal period. See David Jones, “The Betrothal View of Divorce and Remarriage.” Bibliotheca sacra 165, no. 657 (January 1, 2008): 68-85; also Abel Isaksson, Marriage and Ministry in the New Temple. (Lund: C. W. K. Gleerup, 1965). This is a plausible view. However, the exact meaning of “porneia” is not that critical to the claims of this paper, since 5:32 and 19:9 are not seen as escape clauses.

[62] Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament. (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1996), 355. Hays has a nice overview of the way “porneia” is used in the NT on pgs 354-356.

[63] Instone-Brewer, 917. See also, Meier, 74-75; and D. Daube, The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism. London: University of London Press, 1956 and Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1998), 362-372.

[64] This may be an interpretive clause inserted by Matthew for his Christian-Jewish audience. If that is the case, it is a simple clarification on what was already a hard teaching of Jesus to Law-abiding Jews. It may never be known what actually prompted Matthew to include this explanatory clause.

[65] William A. Heth, “Divorce and Remarriage : The Search for an Evangelical Hermeneutic.” Trinity Journal 16, no. 1 (March 1, 1995): 83. For Heth’s full perspective, Heth and G.J. Wenham. Jesus and Divorce: The Problem with the Evangelical Consensus. (Nashville: Nelson, 1985). Heth and Wenham believe adultery allows for divorce, but they do not believe Jesus permitted remarriage. If God has joined husband and wife in a relational (kinship) unity, then only death can destroy that relationship.

[66] Paul uses this language to depict the unity Christ has with the church (Eph 5:22-33).

[67] N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 285.

[68] Some MSS include the phrase “poiei auten moicheuthai” which appears to be an attempt to harmonize 19:9 with 5:32. See Bruce Metzger’s A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2d ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1994), 38.

[69] For a full discussion of views on Matt 5:32 & 19:9, see D.A. Carson’s Matthew, 413-418.

[70] Brad H. Young, Meet the Rabbis: Rabbinic Thought and the Teachings of Jesus. (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 2007), 40; also Markus Ν. A. Bockmuehl, “Matthew 5:32; 19:9 in Light of Pre-Rabbinic Halakhah,” NTS 35 (April 1989): 295. Jesus agrees with Shammai? What about Matt 5:20?

[71] James M. Weibling, “Reconciling Matthew and Mark on Divorce.” Trinity Journal 22, no. 2 (September 1, 2001): 229n.

[72] Kennard, 124. See Matt 5:18-19; Mk 10:11-12; Lk 16-18.

[73] Amy-Jill Levine offers her polemical case against the idea that Jesus was elevating women in his teaching on divorce, in her book, The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus. (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), 139-145.

[74] 2 Cor 5:16-21

[75] “In our judgment, the issue cannot, unfortunately, be resolved on exegetical grounds. Matthew’s words are too cryptic…” Davies and Allison, 529.

[76] John R. W. Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1978), 98.

[77] Hays, 350.

[78] Albert Schweitzer, The Quest for the Historical Jesus. (London: SCM, 1906, 2000 2d ed.), 352.

[79] D.G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered. Christianity in the Making, Vol. 1. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 610. Dunn emphasizes the eschatological “already/not yet” tension of kingdom living.

[80] Robert H. Stein, “Is it Lawful for a Man to Divorce His Wife.” JETS 22, no. 2 (June 1, 1979): 120-121. Also see Stein’s article, “Divorce.” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. ed. Joel B. Green and Scot McKnight, 192-199. (Downers Grove: IVP, 1992). He writes, “It is difficult to counsel a Christian that divorce is an option for them. Clearly the burden of proof weighs heavily on anyone considering divorce, for God hates divorce. Divorce is never good, for it witnesses to a failure of the divine purpose” (p 198).


About David D. Flowers

David received a B.A. in Religion from East Texas Baptist University and a M.T.S. in Biblical Studies from Houston Graduate School of Theology. David has over 20 years experience as a pastor and teacher in and outside the church. He currently pastors an Anabaptist congregation in Pennsylvania. View all posts by David D. Flowers

27 responses to “Let No Man Put Asunder

  • Stephen

    I would be interested to get your take on 1 Corinthians 7 concerning married life and concerning the unmarried. Where Paul indicates that if you can it is better to remain unmarried. I realize that he was addressing specific concerns of the Church in Corinth, but much of what he says seems pretty general. Outside of the Catholic church concerning priests and nuns, this passage does not seem to be widely promoted. However, even He who was our ultimate example, Jesus, never married.

    • David D. Flowers

      Hey Stephen, good question. I didn’t engage with Paul’s writing primarily because my concern was with the teachings of Jesus. And I believe that Paul isn’t saying anything contrary to what Jesus has made clear in the gospels. As for Paul’s encouraging folks to remain single for the sake of the kingdom, I believe it is consistent with what Jesus tells his disciples in Matt 19:11-12.

      Without going into a great deal of detail here… I will simply say that neither Jesus or Paul are speaking ill against the beauty of the sacred marital covenant. Jesus affirms marriage AND the decision to remain single for the kingdom’s sake. Remember, from what we know about first century Palestine, remaining single would have been out of the ordinary. I believe Paul, living in a world hostile to the gospel, is echoing what Jesus has taught. God may call most of us to marry… and then again… remaining single “because of the kingdom” is cool for those who can accept it (Matt 19:12b).

      Hope that helps, bro.

  • Rob Woolbright

    So your conclusion is, if I read correctly, there is no circumstance, exception, etc. for divorce?

    • David D. Flowers

      Yes, Rob. I do believe that is what Jesus said. I also believe in God’s grace for those who confess their sin, in order that they might “go and sin no more.” Real healing doesn’t happen apart from truth.

      If we were convinced that this is Jesus’ word to his followers (call divorce what it is i.e.”adultery”), and the church was willing to stop legislating other people’s sins, I think we would see the statistics change regarding the high divorce rate within the church. Accepting Jesus’ teachings should prompt us to enter marriage with fear and trembling along with the joy of it. We would do well to teach our young people about the sacredness and finality of marriage before they carelessly enter the “one flesh” union. We could very loving help others see the destructive nature of divorce by showing them and teaching them about God’s divine intent for marriage as expressed by Jesus. I think until we have fully embraced the seriousness of Jesus’ teaching, nothing will change.

      Here are a few of my observations and practical suggestions for the church:

      Embracing the teaching of Jesus on divorce would… (1) heighten our senses to this most sacred relationship before (premarital counseling) and during marriage, (2) cause us to see the urgency of working through our problems (e.g. personal, childhood, and adolescent) before and during marriage, (3) prompt us to spend time on marriage enrichment in order to know God’s full intention for the relationship, (4) encourage family planning that allows at least some time for marital maturity before having children, (5) prod us to lovingly profess to other believers God’s original intention for marriage “till death do us part” with no compromise, (6) work for the sanctity of marriage in the world by focusing on our own relationships, (7) and finally to fight like hell in order to avoid divorce–requiring unconditional forgiveness and an altruistic desire to be reconciled to God and spouse.

      I think there is mercy and grace at the cross for those that have been wrecked by divorce. That is my sincere belief behind the writing of this article. But before there can be true healing, I believe there needs to be an acknowledgment of the truth. O that the church would hold the truth of Jesus’ teachings, and the love of our brothers and sisters in the church, together in our efforts to be faithful to his commands and lead others in his way.

  • Mark McDade

    Thanks for a thought provoking, well thought out article.

    I would however like a little clarification on the ‘exception clause’. If as you argue that ‘except for unchastity’ is not adultery – are you suggesting it is line with other sexual sins found in the law – bestiality and the like perhaps? If their is no ‘out clause’ what does it pertain too specifically?

    One more question of a more philosophical and personal nature. There are many followers of Christ who have been betrayed by there spouses with no hope of reconciliation. One can see how it could be impossible to stay married if your spouse where to continually pursue other relationships. You could throw in other circumstances -mental and physical abuse – not to mention their abandonment of the faith (often common in such circumstances).

    The conclusion I reach from your research is such a follower of Christ should stay single for the rest of their lives. This seems more than a little unjust and quite a weight to place on someone.

    Please don’t think I’m being critical. Looking for a few answers with an issue that’s very close to home.

    • David D. Flowers

      Hey Mark,
      Thank you for reading! I appreciate your honest questions.

      The Gk. word “porneias” in Matt 5:32 is the word that is often translated as “unchastity” or “adultery”—even “marital unfaithfulness” (NIV). Here is what I said about the exception clause: “In Matt 5:32 porneias is referring to any sexually immoral deed that counts toward an adulterous infraction of the marital covenant.” I don’t think the word should be translated as “adultery” because it’s too narrow in meaning. Of course, any sexually immoral act of “porneia” within marriage is an act of adultery.

      As I said in the paper, I don’t believe it’s a true “exception” clause. Based on the clear teaching of Jesus in the first written gospel of Mark 10:11-2 and the also in Luke 16:18, I think it is likely an interpretive clause added by Matthew (not the words of Jesus) for clarification to his Christian-Jewish audience. Much like the parenthetical note that I just used. I mentioned this in footnote #64. Even if it’s not a Matthean addition, I still do not believe it’s an exception clause for all the reasons I stated in the last section and conclusion of the paper.

      Sorry this comment is a bit long. I may end up turning this into a blog post. I know this is very important to folks–especially those affected by divorce. I want to be sensitive to that because I truly care. So, thanks bro.

      Yes, I’m initially uncomfortable with the jolting words of Jesus to not remarry. However, I wonder if we just have a really low view of Christian discipleship. Jesus seems to be clear that marriage is more than a legal contract and divorce is more than a failed relationship from hard-hearted people (one or both spouses). He is also saying that to marry that divorced woman (or man) is to commit adultery for the obvious reason that marrying that divorced person is marrying someone who has been sexually and relationally united with another–whom “God has joined together.”

      I would not take that to mean Jesus would encourage folks who have been divorced and remarried, now convinced of his teaching, to leave their new wife and family. That’s absolutely absurd and even contrary to the very point of Deut 24:1-4 that a married woman was not to return to her first husband after having married another. Again, divorce was allowed by Moses (no prohibition), but Jesus now prohibits it. It’s antithetical to the kingdom of God and not something his followers should be doing.

      I think Paul also affirms Jesus’ teaching:

      “Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion. To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.” 1 Cor 7:8-11

      Notice a couple of things from Paul. First, he was either unmarried or a widow who personally chose (by no command of Jesus) to stay unmarried. OK, fine. But he doesn’t mention the divorced person. Then he affirms the commands of Christ. With no other further word on it, therefore, he is fully agreeing with the whole teaching of Jesus. I just don’t see anywhere in this text where, as some folks claim, that Paul is saying it’s OK to remarry if your spouse abandoned you.

      My best friend, and a brother who has manifested the love of Christ to me in ways I have never known, can speak to this truth. His wife, a fellow believer and lover of God, suddenly left the state before they had even been married a year. After an amazing effort on his part to be reconciled, she still to this day (almost 5 years) is non-responsive. It is real mystery as to why she believed that she was being faithful to God to abandon her husband simply because they had some arguments during their first years of marriage. There was no physical abuse or adultery. After all this time, even after my friend allowed his wife to legally divorce, he still sees himself married to her.

      I admit this was strange to me when I first saw it, but have since been convinced that he is showing the love of God in ways that dumbfounds people. The Lord has used this time to mold him into the image of Jesus. I have NEVER heard him speak a bad word against her as long as I have known him. But I can’t say that my own thoughts about the situation have always been pleasing to the Lord.

      Will he remarry? The only way he will remarry is if she passes away (God forbid!!!). I’m not sure his official position come to think of it, but I think we have talked about the possibility of remarriage if she marries another man and begins a new “one flesh” union–God recognizes our fallen state and accommodates in grace. However, it may just so happen that my friend is so satisfied with Christ, the Lord filling his heart in such a way, that he will stay unmarried and build the kingdom as a strong single brother in the Lord who testifies to the nonsensical love of almighty God.

      The teaching of Jesus is the divine intention. This should be taken seriously, and not in some, “Well, we will start off that way, but we’re not perfect like Jesus.” That would be an attitude that expresses that the teachings of Jesus don’t really mean all that much to us.

      I think our shock today about this teaching matches that of the disciples. They were basically thinking, “But what if (such and such) happens? There is no guarantee! Why then would anyone marry?” That’s the gist of how the disciples respond. Jesus says that not everyone can accept this and should remain single. But those that can… should do so with the divine intention in mind. This should no doubt prompt a serious effort at marriage enrichment on our part. We simply cannot afford, on many levels, to neglect the marital relationship.

      As I stated in a comment above, I think many things would change if we simply went into marriage with the right understanding and kept the marital relationship priority number one. It helps when you are in a network of Christians (family and friends) that support Jesus’ teaching as well. It’s very hard to make a marriage work where there is (1) no agreement on what Jesus said, (2) little to no support from family-friends-church for his teachings and your marriage, (3) and little effort made for reconciliation by both spouses.

      Would there still be wives abandoning their husbands and husbands cheating on their wives? I can’t say there wouldn’t be, but I do know that if our hearts were right about marriage in the first place and we were in a community that supported that relationship, I see very little room for the enemy to pry that couple apart to the point of divorce.

      Let’s be honest, most folks invest more in their careers and kids than they do their own marriages. I lament this. As I have witnessed my friend’s experience, as well as those who I have known personally affected by divorce, I stand by my convictions with great fervor. So much so… it has prompted me to draw even closer to my wife after 10 years of marriage, who has parents that have been happily married for 50.

      In summary: Jesus taught that divorce should never happen for his followers. If it does, the Christian is to remain single as long as the spouse lives (or possibly marries again)–not as a cruel rule, but because they are still relationally united to them (i.e. closer than kin). A legal document does not sever what God joined. Some believers will disobey Christ in divorce and remarriage. Hopefully somewhere down the road they will confess their sin and repent, so that they might receive the forgiveness and grace of God. Then they might move on in freedom with a new appreciation of Jesus’ teachings and his grace to all who are willing to repent.

      I hope that helps.

  • Mark McDade

    Thank you David for taking the time to give a full response seasoned with grace. I have more than a little thinking to do.

  • David D. Flowers

    It’s my pleasure, Mark. I pray you will find the Lord’s heart in your own situation. I’m confident that he will guide you in his great love and grace. Blessings, bro.

  • jr

    wow….very well done. thank you for having the courage to delve deeply into this ‘unpopular’ study. i love the quote about Jesus’ teachings being the true “character kingdom life”. i think He spoke loud and clearly through you here. one idea that i feel has been ticking on my brain and heart has been one similar that comes up in 1 timothy 3 in relation to the qualifications of an elder/overseer. in modern day american institutional christianity (and even organic/housechurch circles as well), we’ve seemed to promote whoever has the ‘ability to teach’ to a pastoral/teaching position, regardless of any of the other qualifications listed. however, i am beginning to wonder if the the other qualifications listed were really an indication of whether or not the individual had the ‘ability to teach’, including being, ‘the husband of one wife’. one brother said to me not long ago, ‘the reason God was so purposeful about those teaching and overseeing being a ‘husband of one wife’ is because they understood the meaning of Agape.’ …. this of course stuck with me because how else can one truly ‘know’ the love of Christ as described in ephisians 5 if you do not practice the love of ‘giving your life for your friends (or wife)’ ? how do you love the church, as Christ does, if you do not love your wife as Christ loves the church? thus, 1 timothy 3 is not a list of legalistic requirements for a pastor to fulfill , but an identification of a man (or woman) who has proven that they can die to their own will, over and over again, so that Christ may live and be manifest in them for the building of His body.
    praying that the truths you have posted here resonate with those who have an ear. again great job.

    • David D. Flowers

      Thanks, Julie. I think you make an excellent point. How can you love the church as a teacher/leader when you fail to agape your wife? I hope that those who have failed in a previous marriage will give serious thought to Christ’s example. We need to call it what it is in order to move on and heal, as well as lead others in the right way. Thanks.

  • billbenninghoffhoff

    Excellent article David. I appreciate so much the research you have done into the various rabbinical schools of thought at the time of Jesus and the beliefs of the Essene community that produced the dead sea scrolls. I agree with you that there is no exception clause.

  • Tim Chisolm

    awh, horse hockey! lol. great article and thanks for turning me onto the books.

  • brian

    Thank you for writing this. it really covered the full spectrum of the issue, and solidified some things in my thinking.
    One point of struggle remains. Could you please clarify your understanding of the so called “exception clause”? You say you take it as a ” dative in the temporal”. I have no clue what that means. If the clause was translated “not during sexual immorality” as you suggest, what would be the implications of that? I would love to better understand your interpretation, as I believe divorce truly attacks the very heart of the gospel- I just can’t get my head around explaining away that clause.

    Thanks again!

    • David D. Flowers

      Hey Brian, a “dative in the temporal” is describing Greek syntax. It just means that the preposition epi is in the dative case functioning in the temporal sense. Therefore, the clause “me (not) epi (at the time of, during) porneia (sexual immorality), is translated very literally as “not during sexual immorality” This is different than saying, “except for sexual immorality” you can’t divorce and remarry. That’s a huge leap! You could translate it as “except,” but in English it confuses Jesus’ meaning and contradicts 5:32. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that the idea Matthew has Jesus expressing here is this: “By my own authority I’m telling you, whoever divorces his wife, unless she herself committed sexual immorality (adultery), and marries another commits adultery.” The same thing from 5:32 is in view. The husband doesn’t “cause” her to commit adultery if she has already done it herself.

      Considering what I think is clear in 5:32, Matthew has simply removed the connection to Deut 24:1-4 in Matt 19:9 and is affirming what was said earlier. There is no way he is contradicting himself or Mark and Luke. I admit the wording is extremely funky here. So much so, there are actually some Greek manuscripts that inserted the same clause in 19:9 that is in 5:32. It’s clear they were attempting to harmonize what Jesus made clear earlier and in Mark and Luke as well.

      I hope that helps.

  • MikeK

    Hi David,

    Thanks for the thoroughness in this very, very applicable subject. It is so much appreciated!

    Have a couple of questions on your last comment. Is the “dative in the temporal” form of epi a prefered rendering on your part? I mean, how reasonable is it to make that inference? Are there other places where epi is used similarly? It’s just that much seems to hinge on that point, and I want to be sure that I’m coming at the text honestly and reasonably without trying to squeeze it into my own view. Don’t get me wrong – not accusing you of doing this, but don’t want others to accuse me should I debate the point.

    Secondly, if the rendering is made as suggested in Matt. 19:9, I’m trying to figure out how that makes it harmonize with Matt. 5:32. If the “exception” clause in19:9 means what you said in your comment (whoever divorces his wife, unless she herself committed sexual immorality, and marries another commits adultery.), doesn’t that simply mean that the husband is not committing adultery when he remarries if his first wife committed adultery?

    Thanks in advance for your help!


    • David D. Flowers

      Hey Mike, I sincerely appreciate your questions.

      Is it a “preferred” rendering? Yes, most definitely. Syntactically, it’s a valid option. And the one that I think is consistent with what has been stated plainly in 5:32, as well as in Mark and Luke’s gospel. It may seem that everything hinges on this point, but I’m of the strong opinion that Jesus’ teaching on marriage/divorce/remarriage should not be based off obscure Greek wording of one verse. Therefore, I have made an attempt to harmonize 19:9 with 5:32 and Mark/Luke. Regardless, I see that Jesus has made the divine intention very clear. As I stated in the article, to argue for remarriage on the basis of adultery has been ruled out in the more obvious passages. I can’t concede to a contradiction in the biblical text, certainly not in the same gospel. As I have presented in my paper, the overwhelming evidence demands a translation of 19:9 that is consistent with the rest of Jesus and the NT.

      In a nutshell… if folks on the street were to ask me about 19:9, I would simply tell them that there is some funky Greek syntax and wording in that verse that I believe has been poorly translated and preached by many evangelicals who have given in to the cultural plague of easy divorce. Jesus is quite clear in Matt 5:32 (which comes before 19:9) and in the rest of the gospels (as is the rest of the NT). Therefore, you must either concede that there is a contradiction in Matthew, or a poor English translation of 19:9 based off certain proclivities of evangelicals. I think it has not been translated and interpreted in keeping with with what is plain elsewhere in the NT about love, marriage, reconciliation, etc. Instead many believers have made some assumptions about the issue, isolated this one verse (reading it back into the NT elsewhere), and excused others and themselves to go and sever marriages with “biblical” license. And I have noticed that once folks begin down that path… anything goes! It is evidenced by the divorce rate in the church and the fear of preaching it from the pulpit.

      I believe once we have taken a fresh look at the words of Jesus in his own context, we can take a step back and find that what I have proposed is in keeping with the Spirit of Christ. All divorce, like murder, is antithetical to the kingdom of God. No if-and-buts about it. It happens, it will happen, but it shouldn’t happen. And Christians should do everything in Christ’s power to prevent it.

  • MikeK

    Nicely put. Couldn’t agree more.

    But one more clarifying question. I understand fully the harmonizing of the “exception clauses” in Matt. 5:32 & 19:9, My problem is that in 5:32, Jesus is putting the responsiblity for his wife’s adultery on the husband, whereas in 19:9 He never mentions the wife’s adultery. Despite harmonizing the two exception clauses, they don’t lead to the same conclusion. In 5:32, the husband is “excused” from causing the wife’s adultery when she had already previously committed adultery. In 19:9, the husband is “excused” from his own adultery (so it appears) if the wife had previously committed adultery. I am unclear as to how by harmonizing the two clauses it brings harmony to the verses. It would appear to me that in 5:32 there is no exception explicitly stated (it’s really not an exception at all, but more of a clarifying statement). But in 19:9, it does seem to come across as an exception despite the harmonizing of the clauses. Does this make sense?


    • David D. Flowers

      Hey Mike, I think I understand what you’re getting at. I will say that because I’m convinced (for reasons stated in the paper) that Jesus is not giving a true exception in 5:32, he can’t be giving one in 19:9, no matter how it’s translated. The wording in 5:32 was clearly intentional in making a connection to Deut 24:1-4. Therefore, there is no reason to allude to this passage again in 19:9. So, I see an abbreviated clause when we hear his teaching within the actual narrative.

      It may also be helpful to keep in mind that Matthew’s gospel was likely first written in Aramaic/Hebrew, translated into Greek, then passed down to us in the English. There are often nuances that make for a rough translation, like 19:9. That could be happening here. I simply seek the easiest way to harmonize 19:9 with 5:32, and with Mk 10:11-12/Lk 16:18 as well, with respect to the biblical text. I think that’s better than actually inserting the same clause from 5:32 into 19:9, which is what some ancient scribes did as they sought to harmonize it. No, we already heard Jesus’ teaching as it was presented in Matthew’s “Sermon on the Mount.” It’s in ch. 19 that we get the teaching within a narrative. We have already heard the plain teaching of Christ. I hope that helps.

      Once again, I appreciate your feedback. I intend on polishing up the paper a bit before reading it at a regional conference. So, questions are helpful in me being as clear as possible. Thanks!

  • MikeK

    Hi David,

    I see where you’re coming from. I would think someone is going to question the assumption that Matt. 5 and Matt. 19 are necessarily trying to communicate the same thought, but I understand your logic. Just can’t bring myself to assume the exception clause in Matt. 19 is the same thought as Matt. 5 despite the similarities. You had me all the way, but I need to ponder this further.

    Your writing and your flow of thougtht are exceptional. You’re going to do great at the regional conference! Thanks for your help.


    • David D. Flowers

      Mike, people already make the assumption that Matt 5:32 and 19:9 are communicating the same thought. I’m simply proposing that they are wrong on their assumption(s) of what both are teaching. 🙂 Thank you for your wonderful words of encouragement! And thanks again for reading and giving a thoughtful response.

  • MikeK

    I completely agree that people bring in their own assumptions. I am guilty myself and have had to really try to come at the text honestly and openly, which is never easy. I was reading a review for a book on four views of divorce and remarriage (I’m sure you are familiar with it), and this person gave it only one star. I was surprised until I read her review. She was a woman who was looking for a straight forward answer to getting on with her life after many years of being divorced. She couldn’t have picked a more difficult book to find help. Unfortunately, her story is not uncommon for those looking for real answers. I fear the water has become so muddy that people end up choosing whatever is most convenient and comfortable for their situation. I have a friend who actually left our church because we counseled him to be reconciled to his believing wife or else remain unmarried. His words: “I’ll just find a church that believes it’s okay for me to remarry.”

    It has become painfully obvious to me that if Matt. 19:9 is a true exception, it contradicts Matt. 5:32. Something can’t be correct with the exception interpretation in Matt. 19:9. I am feeling like the ambiguity of Matt. 19:9 has not been reasonably or satisfactorily explained after much research, and I am apt to let it go as that and lean more on the passages that are clear.

    • David D. Flowers

      Hey Mike, I hear what you’re saying. It hurts my heart that so many churches have not proclaimed the truth while loving folks through some difficult situations. Yeah, the four views book isn’t gonna really help a person who is emotionally compromised—being right in the middle of marital disfunction. They need personal face-to-face counseling from a loving elder with biblical convictions in a community of believers that will rally around them with a deep concern toward Christian discipleship.

      I think your conclusion is sound. I remember a very passionate undergrad professor of mine once saying that it’s never a good idea to build an entire belief/doctrine or make a “biblical decision” off an obscure/controversial verse, especially when the biblical text gives insight elsewhere. I agree with you. Matt 5:32, Mk 10:11-12, and Lk 16:18 are very clear. Enough said… end of discussion.

      Thanks, brother.

  • Robert

    Excellent dialogue David and Mike!

    Another Greek argument can be made regarding the oft-cited Greek phrase in Matthew 19:9, “epi may porneia.” Textual critics have revealed that among the major corpus of Greek manuscripts containing Matthew 19:9 suggest an altogether different explanation that has been offered. The most reliable and oldest manuscript evidence thus far discovered has the aforementioned phrase in Matthew 19:9. It means literally, “not for fornication.” However, in context it means, “not (even), disallowing… for the cause of fornication).” Remember, adultery was in the Jewish world for centuries, was a capital crime. But the Romans would not generally allow the Jews living in Roman-occupied areas to execute offenders. However, there were exceptions (no pun intended) such as the woman caught in the act of adultery (cf. John 8:1-11), and in the case of Jesus Himself being handed over by Pilate to the Jews to be executed by them (John 19: 12-16).

    Also, the church in the following centuries following the apostolic era had developed issues with the rendering and its obvious meaning. The earliest indication of this problem can be seen in the 5th century Codex Alexandrinus. In Matthew 19:9 of that text, one can see a scribal insertion written above the line to render the phrase as “ei may epi porneia.” Why is this change significant? Well, when the negation “may” is preceded by the particle “ei,” it makes the translation to be rendered as “except it (be) for fornication.” Also, check out Matthew 5:32’s use of the Greek word peraktos , meaning “except” versus 19:9’s “may” meaning “not.” Jerome’s Latin Vulgate (he translated the NT Greek into Latin in the 380s) is illuminating as well. He rendered peraktos in 5:32 into Latin as “excepta.” This is where English derived the word “except” from. In 19:9, he rendered the negation “may” into Latin as “nisi.” Even in Latin, one can see the distinction between Matthew 5:32 & 19:9. Interesting huh?

    Keep up the good work returning many to the already existing living water of life that has flowed since the fulfillment of the OT law and prophets during the Jerusalem Pentecost in the early 1st century!

    Blessings, Robert

  • Robert

    Oops! The first Greek phrase cited above was transposed. It should read “may epi porneia.” Sorry about that…

  • Robert

    One more major correction from previous posts: It was Erasmus’ translation of Jerome’s A.D. 380s Latin Vulgate NT into the Greek NT in 1516, centuries later, that added the particle “ei” to “may epi porneia.” Actually, the Codex Alexandrinus does not have major portions of Matthew, including chapter 19. However, the first known corruption of this phrase actually was in the text of Codex Vaticanus in the 4th century, when the Greek negation “may” was replaced with “parektos.” Refer to my previous post. The other major 4th century text, Codex Sinaiticus does have the following Greek phrase within their text of Matthew 19:9: “μη επι πορνια [i.e., literally, ‘not [even] for fornication’].” Note the following observation made by Leslie McFall (2009) regarding Erasmus’ error in his translation of the Latin Vulgate rendering:

    “In Codex Leicestrensis (14th century], some scribe, realising the blunder, attempted to put the correct Greek reading for Matthew 19:9 in the margin, opposite the place where the blunder occurred in the main text….Unfortunately, in making the correction, he slipped in an extra Greek word, namely, ei, which means ‘if’. Now this marginal correction may have been an attempt to convey the sense of “apart from the matter of fornication,” which is the original text of Matthew 5:32, but this is not the original text of Matthew 19:9. Not content with changing the Greek text, Erasmus also changed the Latin Vulgate, which was the Bible of the Roman Catholic Church from the time of Jerome (AD 420). The Latin Vulgate read: “And I say to you that: whosoever shall put away [Latin: dimiserit] his wife unless [nisi6] for fornication [Latin: fornicationem]: and shall marry another, committeth adultery. And whoever marries one put away: he commits adultery.” Erasmus altered this to read:
    “And I say to you that whosoever shall repudiate [Latin: repudiauerit] his wife, unless [nisi] it be for disgrace [Latin: stuprum], and shall marry another, committeth adultery.”

    So, one can see in all this confusion (see how it confused me in my posts!), the politics imposed on the text in Bible translations that has occurred over the centuries since the original writings were written and circulated in the 1st century. Up to the present day, “except it be for fornication” is almost fully accepted by scholars, but that view is changing. The only texts that allow a remarriage in the NT are clear, not obscure: Romans 7:1-3; 1 Corinthians 7:39, and 1 Tim. 5:14. Death of a spouse is the only allowed grounds for a remarriage to occur. In the cases of divorce or separations, the only options are clear, “remain unmarried or else be reconciled.”–1 Cor. 7:11-

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