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7. The Teaching of Jesus on Divorce — (Matthew 19:3-12, Mark 10:2-12)

Second Confrontation with the Pharisees
on the Morality of Divorce

“Is It Lawful For A Man To Divorce His Wife For Any Reason?”
(Matthew 19:3-12/Mark 10:2-12)

Our Lord’s primary teaching on divorce was in His great Sermon preached on a mountain to his disciples (Matthew 5). The focus of that was that men who treacherously divorce their wives in order to marry other woman or who are a party to breaking up someone else’s marriage in order to claim the newly released woman are guilty of adultery in the eyes of His father. Subsequent to that He had an interchange with the Pharisees (Luke 16) in which He reaffirmed those teachings in an illustration showing to the religious leaders that they were poor stewards of God’s Law, especially as it related to its divorce teachings. We come now to an event, twice recorded (Matthew 19 and Mark 10) in which the Pharisees came to Jesus and queried Him about his beliefs regarding the subject. On most understandings of the chronology of the life of Christ, this confrontation is thought to come after the Sermon, and likely after the confrontation over stewardship. While Jesus says more in this dialogue than in the other incidents, many commentators focus upon it, reducing the prior teachings almost to a footnote. Heth/Wenham’s Jesus and Divorce is an example. It is a study of alternative views of the exception clause as found in Matthew 19:9. I believe the reverse, that this is a footnote on the Sermon, which Jesus would not have spoken, had the Pharisees not confronted Him on the matter.

A Conflate Reading as a Solution to a Synoptic Problem

An initial question is, Are these two “parallel passages” really different treatments of the same event? Though the wording is very similar at most points, the differences have led some to believe that they are really two different accounts or are at least an example of one tradition altering the other for theological purposes. I believe otherwise. A great many studies make much of the fact that the readers or even the writers of the Gospels would only have had this or that block of material of the teaching of Jesus on divorce. Some would say that since Mark was written first and sent to a particular destination, its readers would hardly have had available to them the exception clause preserved by Matthew. Others presume that Matthew was written first and those who read it would surely have been surprised later to hear of the absence of that clause in Mark or Luke. I consider all of this to be the sort of unanswerable speculation that profits little.

What seems fair to say is that the teachings of Jesus on divorce were first spread abroad orally and known by Christians. Paul, who probably wrote his first letter to the Corinthian church before any of the formal Gospel accounts, repeats teaching that he did not receive firsthand. And, although we will not at this point do a complete exegesis of that Pauline passage, we might find it helpful to note that when Paul does refer to Jesus’ teaching in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11, he specifies that the kind of marriage he is talking about at that point needs to consider reconciliation. Since no remarriage has necessarily taken place at that point, and since the one who needs to be reconciled is always the guilty party in biblical terminology, Paul is obviously speaking to a person who has divorced without the grounds of porneia.336

It would seem to me that this use of language by Paul implies a knowledge of the material preserved by Matthew, and not simply that preserved by Mark or Luke. And why, I ask, should anyone who has all the words of Jesus in the parallel readings of Mark 10 and Matthew (5 & 19) presume that those who listened to Jesus preserved only the Mark 10 approach until Matthew saw fit to resurrect it at some point after Mark had written? This sort of groundless assumption, it seems to me, is dangerous to exegesis. It picks what it wishes to support and then creates a scenario that it then offers as evidence. There is not the slightest reason for thinking that the New Testament church did not know all of Jesus’ words on divorce from the moment He spoke them because the disciples did what Jesus said (as recorded in Matthew), namely taught others whatsoever things He taught them. And if so, then the exception clause was taught from the beginning.

But did the accounts preserved by Matthew 19 and Mark 10 arise from a single event? The similarities heavily outweigh the differences, and the presumption of a confrontation which included all the teachings is stronger than the suggestion that it did not. We have the parts, and, if we respect the integrity of the parts and their order, and try and blend them, presuming the least amount of redaction (thereby employing a form of the principle of parsimony), we may arrive at a conflate reading that is the base common to the “traditions” and perhaps well known to everybody involved in the writing of the New Testament.

What follows here is such a reconstruction, with the material peculiar to Matthew in boldface and the material peculiar to Mark in italics. Normal font is common material. Where redaction has obviously taken place, I have chosen the Gospel reading that I believe is the likeliest original and put the redaction in brackets.

And some Pharisees came up to him, testing him, and began to question him whether it was lawful for a man to divorce a wife, saying, “Is it awful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause at all?

And he answered and said to them, “What did Moses command you?”

And they said. “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send Her away.”

And he answered and said, “Have you not read, that he who created them [but] from the beginning of creation made them male and female, and said, ‘for this cause a man shall leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? Consequently they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.”

They said to him, “Why then did Moses command to give her a certificate and send her away?” [But]

Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart, he wrote you this commandment Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery “

And in the house, the[y] disciples began to question him about this again And he said to them. “Whoever divorces his wife, and marries another woman commits adultery against her, and if she herself divorces her husband and marries another man, she is committing adultery.”

The disciples said to him, “If the relationship of the man with his wife is like this, it is better not to marry.”

But he said to them, “Not all men can accept this statement, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb, and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; and there are also eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to accept this, let him accept it”

Though the reading may seem a bit stultified at some points, it seems no more so than a great many other places where the text is unquestionably preserved in full. This running dialogue eliminates the question of whether Jesus brought up Moses or they did. The answer is that both did, though not at the same time. It also shows that Mark modified his received information more than Matthew, but only by shifting some material around, while following his usual technique of eliminating whole topics for catechetical purposes. We shall learn more from this conflate reading, but let us do all things in proper order. [Consult Appendix C for more information about the sources and order of the writing of the Gospels.]

We will first analyze these passages as a conflate reading, then consider the significance of their present condition in the separate Gospels.

The Occasion Of The Pharisees’ Test Question

And some Pharisees came up to him, testing him, and began to. question him whether it was lawful for a man to divorce a wife, saying, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause at all?”

It is a point of interest to some exactly what the background was for this test of Jesus. Generally one of three alternatives is discussed:

The Hillel-Shammai Debate?

      The Pharisees were trying to get Jesus to take sides with one or the
      other of the two Pharasaic schools: Hillel or Shammai

According to this idea, the dominant Hillel group was trying to get Jesus to side with the more conservative Shammai group, thus discrediting Him with the majority of the people, who were presumably favoring the more lenient position.337

This posture does not seem to me to be likely, for at least three reasons. First, the questioning Pharisees are not identified as being of one party or another. Josephus does not mention the distinction, merely stating the position of Hillel as if it were the only position in vogue. In fact, it is not clear that the distinction is significant to the New Testament. Jesus seems to lump them all together into a unit of misinformed moralists: Pharisees. Now if the Scripture doesn’t draw such a distinction, why should we? This is not to say that we may not speculate about which group dominated the questioners; however, to understand the question as arising from partisan-ship does not seem to be the focus of the text.

Second, and related to the first, what real profit would a group of Pharisees have obtained by showing that Jesus sided with another legitimate Pharasaic school? Would Jesus have lost face with the people by being identified with the distinguished conservative Shammai? Surely not. It is wholly out of character for the Pharisees to have tried to get Jesus to disagree with only one faction of their own religious community. Rather, it is their custom to show Jesus out of harmony with the Law of Moses. And this is precisely where the dialogue centers: upon the Law, not upon opinions about it.338

Third (and on the assumption that the questioners were Hillites), it is not at all clear that the people of Jesus’ day did prefer the Hillite view. Such an assumption seems warranted subsequent to the fall of the Temple (A.D. 70), but J. Jeremias has shown that the divorce rate around that time was probably close to only 4 percent, hardly an overwhelming problem!339 Assuming that the Pharisees were aware of the popular view as evidenced by the prevailing rate of divorce, and assuming that the Pharisees were aware of Jesus’ conservative position on divorce as evidenced by the Sermon and by Luke 16, it would have been counter-productive to their goal of discrediting Jesus with the populace to have shown Him to be conservative like Shammai. I cannot find much in favor of this opinion except that we have knowledge of the internecine squabbles of the Pharisees and believe that the New Testament must have recognized and spoken to them.340

The Herod-John the Baptist Affair?

      The Pharisees were trying to get Jesus to speak out against
      Herod Antipas’ marital affairs.

On this view, if the Pharisees could only show Jesus to be as outspoken as John, the word might get to Herod and Jesus might end up as John did—beheaded. To be said in its favor is that the New Testament is expressly concerned with this matter in a number of locations.341 Moreover, to have placed Jesus in jeopardy with Herod would have significantly endangered His ministry—exactly the goal of the Pharisees.

Nonetheless, there are good reasons for rejecting this theory as an explanation of the nature of the “test.” First, Jesus had already spoken of this issue in the event recorded in Luke 16:18, at a geographical location more risky than “Judea beyond the Jordan.” And there, He brought it up the subject, not the Pharisees. Also, Herod had already taken notice of Jesus in regard to preaching like John (cf. Matt. 14:1 ff.). It is unlikely that this new occasion would have contributed effectively to the desired effect, unless Herod’s name were explicitly mentioned in that context. That was improbable, since Jesus had twice spoken on the subject and not done so.

Second, it is highly doubtful that the Pharisees would be willing to talk about theHerod-John affair. Recall that when Jesus questioned them about the authority of the baptism of John, they were afraid to speak publicly against the prophet (Matt. 21:23 ff.). Would they be likely to risk asking a question that would challenge the teaching of that martyr? It is especially doubtful when they knew in their hearts that John (and presumably Jesus) was in accord with the Law. And, what about their own culpable silence in the whole affair (noted in Luke 16)? Had they not lost face with the people by their silence when that popular leader lost his head? I think it improbable that they would have dared to bring up the subject in any public place!

But there is a greater reason for doubting that the Herod affair was behind the test. The question asked is 180 degrees in the wrong direction from the one they would have asked. Had they been interested in Herod, they would have asked Jesus if there was any reason a man was required to put away his wife. That was the rebuke voiced by John (Luke 3). Instead, they asked Him if a man had the right to put away his wife, a question that did relate to the less-celebrated aspects of the Herod affair, but certainly not the sort of question that anybody would have construed as an unequivocal challenge to Herod. The question of the Pharisees concerns right to divorce, not responsibility to divorce. For these reasons I think it advisable to search for another explanation for the testing of Jesus.

A Supposed Opposition to Moses?

      The Pharisees were reflecting upon the prior teachings of Jesus and thought they had found a place where He disagreed with Moses. They thus sought to drive a wedge between Jesus and the Law, thus discrediting Him with the people by showing His earlier words did abrogate the Law.

Such a ploy is far more characteristic of the Pharisees. The very next time we find them challenging Jesus it is over the matter of the authority of His teaching (Matt. 21:23 ff.), an obvious chop at any contention that authority came from the Law. Later yet, when they made one of their final attempts to discredit him, they again questioned Him about the Law (Matt. 22:34 ff.). Jesus, in His subsequent condemnation of them, sarcastically derided them for their failure to be proper teachers of the Law, though they considered themselves such (Matt. 23:1 ff.). This latter text would seem to imply that they saw themselves as the exegetes and protectors of the Law. But most important, this interpretation agrees with Jesus’ reference to their rejecting Moses and the prophets regarding the divorce legislation in Luke 16. Granting that this is a correct analysis, it is easy to see that they would like to show Jesus’ teaching to be every bit a failure to uphold the Law as He claimed theirs was.

The conflate text gives two indications of what the Pharisees had in mind. The first clue comes from the Gospel writer Mark, who introduces the subject thematically: they were questioning Him as to whether it was lawful for a man to divorce a wife. Note that they do not ask about remarriage; they do not ask about the meaning of “uncleanness”; they do not ask if it is ever necessary to divorce a wife.

The fact that they are questioning Him may indicate that it was not clear to them what He really did teach on this matter. After all, early in His teaching (the Sermon) He had spoken of the grounds of porneia. But in the most recent exchange (that recorded in Luke 16), He had offered no grounds. In other words, there may have been the same confusion among them that exists among our own scholars about what the real teaching was! But more likely, the form of a question was mere Pharasaic debate technique.

In addition, we must credit the Pharisees with knowing the wording of Jesus’ prior teaching, In the Sermon, He had taken a slap at the Pharisees, prefacing his teaching by saying that if His disciples righteousness did not exceed that of the Pharisees, they would not enter into the kingdom. Doubtless someone, perhaps someone in the crowd, and they conveyed these remarks to the local Pharisees, and it is highly possible that they in turn shared them with their brethren. But at first there was little that could be done—at least with regard to the divorce doctrine. After all, His teaching seemed to be similar to that of Rabbi Shammai. To have questioned Him about grounds would, as noted earlier, have really gained them nothing by way of a crevice in which to drive a wedge between His teaching and the Law. I is also possible that by the time the statement of Jesus was repeated to the Judean Pharisees, the exception clause had been lost.

His more recent slap (Luke 16), spoken directly to members of the sect, was couched in the language of absolute prohibition of divorce (and remarriage). No rumor this. No second hand report. After they had regained their wits from His blast at their stewardship of the divorce legislation, they sought to put together a probe that would discredit him. It was an all-or-nothing question. “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause at all?” If He answers “Yes”, the very best they can hope for is a stalemate. Even they themselves could not agree upon exactly what the grounds were. But perhaps He had hardened his categories. Thus, they must be hoping that He would answer “No”. If such absolutistic, negative teaching were reaffirmed, they felt they could drive the wedge between Jesus and the Law, for the Law certainly did give the man the right to put his wife away, at least for adultery!

The Socratic Response of Jesus

And he answered and said to them,
“What did Moses command you?’

This “Socratic” response, though very rabbinic, was not what they wanted to hear. Jesus sidesteps the “No” and tosses it back to the “self-proclaimed” experts on the Law. They must be very careful here lest they say too much and find themselves fighting each other over the exact nature of the grounds, so they cautiously respond that there are some grounds without specifying exactly what they are.

The Cautious Response Of The Pharisees

And they said, “Moses permitted a man to write a
certificate of divorce and send her away.”

In their eyes, this was the only safe answer: Moses did allow divorce. But at this juncture they are close to having no further point to make. If they ask Him if that contradicts His own teaching (Luke 16:18), He may simply say “no,” and the dialogue winds down. But that is the only direction that they can go; they must get Him to say “no” to the original question. But in their cautious statement they speak better than they know!

Jesus discerns a “teachable” (or is that “rebukable”) moment, and takes the initiative. He knows that their understanding about the whole matter is wrong-headed. They start from the assumption that a man has a right by Law to end his marriage. They fight among themselves over exactly what this right of the husband is, whereas God desires permanence. To point out this crucial flaw in their thinking, He reminds them of another teaching of Moses:

The True Mosaic Context for the Divorce Discussion

And he answered and said, “Have you not read, that he who
created them from the beginning of creation made them male and
female, and said ‘For this cause a man shall leave his father and
mother, and the two shall become one flesh’? Consequently they
are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined
together, let no man separate.”

They had been concerned with “when the man may walk away from his wife.” Jesus points out that the design of marriage is not to see it end. The man and his wife were designed to complement each other. When that complement became a covenanted couple, a union was formed, and the choice to do so involved an intention never to go back to their former singleness—it was an intention to permanency. Having acted on that choice, they do not have the right simply to “walk away” but should see themselves as a continuing social unit. And it must be remembered that God himself is the guarantor of the covenant. No human being should think that he or she has the moral right, unilaterally to dissolve the covenant. The covenant cannot be dissolved without challenging the One who insures the covenant: God himself.

At this point we should pause in our flowing dialogue and note how inappropriate it would have been for Jesus to have interrupted His argument by making new or incidental points about the doctrine of marriage. This would not have been the time to adopt the Temple Scroll approach to polygyny, for example. By employing the Septuagints “the two,” He simply means to identify clearly that the two who once could turn and walk away from each other (i.e., before the marriage commitment) have by their choice eliminated the option of doing so.

Many modern teachers of the Bible find it easy here to interpret Jesus as implying that, since “God has joined” the partners, Jesus is saying that marriage was originally made a permanent institution. The verse teaches nothing of the kind. Jesus does not say, “Since what God joins together is permanent, don’t get a divorce.” To have said that would have been to say exactly what the Pharisees wanted Him to say. It would have shown Him to be teaching contrary to the Old Testament by adding to it (or would that have been a taking away?).342 Jesus affirmed as strongly as possible (without abrogating any teaching of the Law) the obligation of marriage partners to stay married. He said that it is immoral to sever the marriage bond, but not that it is impossible to do so. He does not say, “Since God insures marriage, you should never get a divorce.”343 Jesus does not use the normal and technical term for divorce here, but instead uses the word chorizo, which is well translated “sunder.” In all the uses of this word in the New Testament it never is used as an exact synonym for divorce. Jesus does not deny the right to divorce a spouse, He merely says it is wrong to sunder a marriage covenant.

What is not clear in this statement is exactly when such a sundering takes place. It could be at the point of divorce, or it could be at the point of porneia or even “uncleanness.” Jesus had affirmed the basics of /marriage divorce, without giving the Pharisees anything to “shoot at.”

But the Pharisees (like some of our modern exegetes) jumped to the hasty conclusion that by this saying Jesus implied that a man may not divorce his wife at all. And they are partially right, for from the context it is clear that some divorces might be categorized as sundering events! In any case, Jesus’ response seemed to be exactly the sort of absolute, negative teaching they had hoped He would voice. It seemed that Jesus had opened the door for them. They therefore leaped to the offense:

The False Coup de Grace

They said to him, “Why then did Moses command
to give her a certificate and send her away?”

This is truly a botched question, because nothing in what Jesus has said would logically deny that there might be a time to put away a person who, by unlawful actions in the marriage, has sundered the marriage bond already! But then, they doubtless thought they smelled the blood of victory. Haste makes waste!

Alas for their argument. Jesus now crushes it by showing how completely they have misunderstood the Mosaic legislation they cite.

The True Coup de Grace

But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he
wrote you this commandment—Moses permitted you to divorce
your wives—but from the beginning it has not been this way.”

This statement rings like a hammer upon their feeble words. And yet, it seems to me that most modern exegetes have enfeebled Jesus’ words by making two crucial misinterpretations of Jesus’ meaning at this point.

Two Crucial Mistakes in Interpretation

Is God Like the Unjust Steward?

The first is the incredible implication that God himself is guilty of what Jesus identified as the Pharisees’ unrighteous stewardship of eternal Law. The phrase “because of your hardness of heart” is interpreted as saying something like: “Well, God knows that divorce will take place, so He made a concession to you, allowing you to do what you wanted.” This would be to give the Master’s debtors a “cut rate” (cf. Luke 16:5-7) with regard to divorce law. Can God condemn in human beings what He himself allows? That certainly does not sound like the Father of whom Jesus said, “You are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Whatever Jesus meant this “concession,” it would be blasphemous to interpret concession as compromise.

What then? For whom is the concession? For the wives whom these hard-hearted men have been divorcing since before the days of Moses. It is “because” of male hard hearts, not “on behalf of them. God has provided against the fact of male impunity, not in favor of it. Knowing that they will be treacherous and turn their backs on their covenant partner, God has provided a law that will minimize the abuse. He will wink temporarily at hard hearted husbands putting away innocent wives so that these wives will be saved from their husbands, who would perhaps physically abuse them if forced to keep them. So the permission to divorce has nothing to do with condescending to wicked men, but everything to do with preserving innocent women.344

Is God Opposed to Moses?

The second mistake in interpretation is in seeing Jesus as abrogating this concession. This is done specifically in the exegesis of the next words of Jesus, but the interpretation of them is determined by His words “from the beginning it has not been this way.” Can these words be referring to the Mosaic concession? Most commentators say “Yes”. But, we may ask, have not husbands been hard of heart since the beginning? Was God unconcerned for the well-being of wives from the beginning? Since Jesus has come, have hardhearted men disappeared from the face of the earth? Have wives ceased to need such divine protection? How can we answer “yes” to any of these questions?

The grammar here is interesting; “from the beginning it has not been this way” (gegonen) does not mean from the beginning until a point in the past (i.e., the giving of the Mosaic “concession”). That translation would be clear had the text used the tense called “pluperfect.” But it uses the simple perfect instead, which should be rendered “from the beginning all the way up to the point of my speaking these words.” To be more specific, I take this verb to be an “intensive perfect.” That form is the “strong way of saying that a thing is.”345 In other words, Jesus is not trying to distinguish between a dispensation up to Moses, followed by an hiatus, in turn terminated by Jesus’ present teaching, but rather a continuing divine attitude that runs clear from the beginning of creation up to the point of the Lord’s speech—right through the time of Moses and the exercise of the Law!

Heth, in his contribution to Four Christian Perspectives dispensationalizes marriage into three periods: Paradise; Mosaic Covenant; and Jesus’ teaching.346 The first and last are similar, with Moses’ period being one of “compromise and concession.” Again, note how the times of Law, usually thought of by theologians (and by Paul) as times of strictness and limited grace—where the laws were principles too hard to bear—has become, in the teachings of Heth and others, a time of compromise, superseded in strictness by the teachings of our gracious Lord!

Laney, in the same work, goes in for this kind of reasoning, in the same book, when he says, “God chose to progressively reveal his displeasure with divorce and direct his people back to his standard.”347 To be sure, there is a progression of revelation in the Bible (e.g. regarding the identity of Messiah), but it is strange indeed to argue that the Law is more cryptic and less strict in judgment than the teachings of Jesus or in the Garden!

This raises an interesting consideration. Did God or did not God inspire Deuteronomy 24:1-4?348 Perhaps we should adopt an interpretation of Jesus’ words that drives a wedge between God and Moses. “From the beginning God had it one way, but then Moses gave another. And now I am going to restore the divine way.” If God’s character is changeless, then it must have been that Moses imposed his own ideas at that point on the Law. Perhaps Christ wishes to point this out by saying it was only Moses who compromised the true teaching to the desires of hard-hearted men!349 Certainly not! Jesus did not mean to divide Moses from God, and if He had, the Pharisees would have been the first to point it out—which they did not do.

What, then, is the “this way” that has not been from the beginning? Even though the this is a Greek word that directs attention to a close reference (the grammar book would make it the “concession”), I believe that it is only defensible to make its antecedent the implied right to get out of the marriage that is behind the questions of the Pharisees. For them, Moses was, in Deuteronomy, granting the man a unilateral right to end his own marriage.350 Remember their initial question: “Is it legal for a man to put away his wife for any cause at all?” Note as well their response to Jesus’ Socratic answer: “Moses permitted a man to write … and send away.” Jesus attacks their implication that marriage is an institution whose covenant is hedged in favor of spouses that wish to exit the relationship. Marriage is meant “for keeps,” not for temporary association. It is the Pharasaic implication that has not been Gods way from the beginning. Deuteronomy 24:1-4 had nothing to do with an alleged (moral) right to put away one’s wife. Deuteronomy 24:1-4 was God’s rule for minimizing the effects of treachery. Additionally note that in a sense the referent is the “concession”—not as Moses meant it, but as the Pharisees had interpreted it!

I believe that Murray and others are wrong-headed in suggesting that Jesus tries to correct a mistaken Pharasaic thought that when the woman commits adultery the husband must divorce her. I do not deny that some rabbis held to such obligation, nor even that there was such an implied obligation, but there is not sufficient indication that this point was important to these Pharisees or to Jesus in this confrontation. Certainly Deuteronomy 24:1-4, which seeks to protect the woman from the abuse of a hard-hearted husband, finds it proper for her to receive a certificate of divorce, and, just as certainly, that text does not require a woman to be divorced for the sin of adultery.351 As we noted earlier, there is no indication that “uncleanness” refers to any act of an immoral sort. As to the responsibility of a man to sooner or later divorce the spouse as a matter of discipline, I shall have more to say presently. But that idea is not only rabbinic, it is also the lesson we learn from God’s treatment of Israel.352

Christ’s Summary of His Teaching To The Pharisees

“And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality,
and marries another woman commits adultery.”

Jesus then summarized for the Pharisees His previous teaching on divorce and remarriage to make the awesome point clear. With regard to the pending question of grounds for divorce, this, of course, is not at all what the Pharisees wanted to hear. By the most likely interpretation of the grounds for divorce implied by this saying, Jesus could be considered no more conservative than Shammai—and that ended the debate, as far as the Pharisees were concerned. They could go no further on the subject of their choice without arguing among themselves. Thus, Jesus turns away from them. He had no more interest than they in continuing the dialogue.

Nonetheless, there was within Jesus’ words a rather shocking implication. Jesus was saying that the man who took advantage of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 and put away his wife was really guilty of the sin of adultery—though sexuality was not involved.353

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. For we must now take the time to dissect this statement to see exactly what Jesus is saying. We must carefully consider the exact grammatical structure of the sentence, lest we be charged with being ignorant of factors that others think prohibit such an interpretation as ours.

Jesus begins this saying with His customary words of authority. Rather than appeal to some Pharisee, He speaks forth from His own understanding of God’s word.

The most extensive study of the syntax of this saying as it is presented in Matthew 19:9 has been done by Heth/Wenham. The facts they set forth are summarized in the following list:

1. The saying (thus far) is a conditional statement. If a certain condition is met, then a certain result will follow.

2. The statement of condition (technically called the protasis) is compound. It states two conditions: divorce and marry.

3. The protasis contains a negated prepositional phrase placed before the coordinating “and.”

4. Prepositional phrases are adverbial and normally qualify the verb they follow. That verb is “divorces.”354

Additionally they note:

1. This construction may well be a hapax. It is rare indeed to find a compound conditional with a negating prepositional phrase that comes after the first verb.355

2. “Greek word order is far less significant to the meaning of a sentence than the order of words in an English sentence.”356

3. (Spoken with regard to simplistic appeals to the lexicon in determining the meaning of a word) “it is the context in which a word appears where it is used on the lips of a particular individual with a given meaning he intends to convey-all of this indicates to the reader how a word is being used.” (I would add that the same warning is even more appropriate where syntax is involved—since syntax often involves higher level interpretation than the mere meaning of a word.)357

The two conditionals are subjunctive, active aorists. The actions are not certain to occur, but if they do they will be definite actions done by the male agent: he puts away [his first wife] and he marries [another woman]. As I noted regarding the saying recorded in Luke 16:1 believe that the “Kai” clause, “and marries another” intends to identify, by means of an ongoing narrative, the direction of the male’s actions. By telling us that the divorcing man is a man who is remarrying another woman, the text means for us to understand that he put away his wife for the purpose of marrying a second woman. Unlike Luke 16, and like Matthew 5:32a, Matthew 19:9 specifies the treachery involved by employing the exception clause, namely, the divorcing male does not have Biblical justification (porneia), but only the desire to take another woman which motivates him to put his wife away.358 Such a man, Jesus says, is committing an act of adultery, if such a condition is all the man can muster. The verb identifying the offense of adultery, moikatai, is present middle or passive deponent indicative third person singular. Having lost its active form, this verb employs the middle/passive form to convey the action committed against the first wife. His adultery is an ongoing offense in the hypothetically present time (i.e., in such a present time as when the conditions set forth obtain).

The Placement of the “Exception Clause”

The major point of controversy, as far as Heth/Wenham are concerned, is the precise location of the negating prepositional phrase (i.e., the celebrated “exception clause”). They note that it could have been placed in any one of three locations in the protasis:

Whoever (1) divorces his wife (2) and marries another (3) …

1. Between whoever and divorces.

2. Between the wife of him and and marries another (which was Matthew’s choice).

3. At the end of the protasis (i.e., after marries another) and before the apodosis (i.e., the result, commits adultery).

The first option would, they feel, make divorce for fornication “mandatory.” The second would make the combination of groundless divorce and remarriage adultery. The third would permit remarriage after groundless divorce.359

Heth/Wenham are especially set on disproving any use of this verse to affirm the right to remarry after divorce, a right they believe to have been denied by early Church Fathers.360 The first major (modern) proponent of the view they reject was Erasmus, the sixteenth-century Christian humanist; hence they identify the position by his name: the Erasmian position. The modern spokesman for this view is John Murray, late theologian of Westminster Seminary, and it is largely Murray’s work that they criticize. At this point they object to his statement that the number 2 position can properly support what they fancy only the number 3 could. By using the principle that the prepositional phrase modifies the verb that precedes it, they object strenuously to any attempt to make it modify both parts of the protasis. They stop short of denying that it is possible for both parts to be modified, however.

As for their own explanation, they feel that the Greek structure present in the verse may only properly be interpreted in their way, which later they refine to say that “putting away for reasons other than unchastity is forbidden; and remarriage after every divorce is adulterous.” This latter statement arises from their opinion that “we are dealing with two conditional statements, one that is qualified and one that is unqualified or absolute.”361

Just how sound are their conclusions? I do not feel that they will bear the weight of analysis. First, their conclusion that the complex conditional is properly delineated as two conditional statements is highly strained. The verse does not contain two independent statements, only one. They artificially separate the first from the second condition. They have done this, it seems to me, simply to stress the alleged independent nature of the second condition. They wish to say that remarriage after every divorce is adulterous. But the verse does not say this. The negating clause does indeed modify the first condition, but it is logically suspect to separate the qualified idea from the second condition, which is syntactically tied to it. Or maybe we should put that the other way around: it is improper to interpret the second condition independently of the negated first condition.

Heth/Wenham start with humility when they admit that the construction is unique, but they end dogmatically when they deny that the second condition can in any way be qualified by the qualified first condition. They cite the frequency of such negating prepositional phrases modifying what comes before rather than what comes behind, but happily forget their own admission that there are perhaps no other instances quite like this one (a complex conditional with the negating phrase interrupting the conditions). Thus, I believe that they are hasty in their conclusions.

Moreover, it is doubtful that the except phrase would have been put at any other point in the sentence. As Heth/Wenham note, such phrases do not precede the verb they modify unless the phrase is intended to be the emphasis of the statement.362 By all accounts, the phrase is not intended to be emphatic, and that is the only reason I can see why it ever would have been put in the number 1 position. The exception clause is clearly not the point of the verse: it is an exception, pure and simple. Nor am I convinced that, had the exception been placed in the number 1 position, the saying would have required divorce if fornication had occurred in the marriage. It would far more likely have simply implied emphasis.363 The number 1 position would certainly have been a grammatically confusing location for a non emphatic, negating prepositional!364

The number 3 location is even more confusing grammatically and conceptually. Since, as these writers have noted, the negating prepositional phrase normally modifies the verb (singular) that precedes it, it would have given the impression that “he who marries another, except for fornication, commits adultery.” But, what is “marrying another except for fornication”? This option is certainly grammatically harsh. In fact, whatever could the placement of the phrase there mean? Would it not give the impression that divorce resulting in remarriage would be adulterous unless the reason for remarriage was fornication? What does this mean? To say that the divorce was grounded in “fornication” clearly implies that the first wife was divorced because she was a fornicator. But who is guilty of the fornication in position number 3? If the negating clause is tied only to the immediately preceding verb, (re)marries, and not to divorces, it is anybody’s guess who is guilty of fornication—perhaps the husband, perhaps the second wife. Who knows? In any case, whoever it is would seem, by committing it, to have freed the husband of the sin of adultery, and that, of course, would be grossly immoral. It would negate the condemnation of adultery where treacherous divorce and remarriage had taken place—and because somebody had committed fornication in some way relating to the remarriage!

It is possible, perhaps, that the prepositional phrase could have been put after the apodosis: “he who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery (except for fornication).” But this too is semantically confusing. The prepositional phrase should be closer to its verb than that. I see no reason to speculate further about this option, which is not mentioned by Heth/Wenham.

That leaves us only with number 2, exactly where the Gospel writer put it. But what are the logical implications of this location? I summarize as follows:

1. The negation is not emphatic. It is an aside from the major point: the husband does not have a right to end his marriage.365

2. The negating phrase modifies the previous verb: “is divorcing.” Unchastity is a concern regarding the divorce, not the (re)marriage. It is valid grounds for divorcing. Grammatically, the negating value of the phrase would still obtain even if there were no second condition.

3. The apodosis cannot be alleged to obtain unless all the conditions that precede it obtain also. Thus it is improper to say that all divorces that end in remarriage are adulterous. Rather, all divorces not grounded in fornication that end in remarriage are adulterous.366

In the end, it seems to me that something like the following is going on in the minds of these scholars: insofar as remarriage is always implies adultery and divorce is always a sin of at least some other sort, the syntax of the Gospels must be interpreted as saying this. In other words, Heth/Wenham have read their own conclusions into the syntax. Actually, the statements in Mark and Luke, when abstracted and considered out of their context, do seem to prohibit all divorce and remarriage, but, when seen in their contexts and in the context of Matthew’s exception clauses, they prohibit only divorces that are ill grounded, i.e., not grounded in porneia.367

One final thought on the matter: it is arguable that Heth/Wenham are essentially correct about the exception clause modifying the divorce and not the remarriage without granting them their cherished conclusion that remarriage is always adulterous. For, in a sense, the matter of remarriage is parenthetical. If a man divorces his wife, without the proper grounds of porneia, he is guilty of adultery. Whether or not a remarriage takes place is incidental. Heth and Wenham want to make the point of committing adultery the remarriage. But the real point of adultery is the divorce, as Matthew 5:32a makes clear to all who allow the first saying to be independent of the second.

They want to exclude the matter of remarriage from the freedom from onus, but then bring it back in as the cause of the onus. They simply assume this. But, I submit, it must be argued, and that is not really done.

Conclusions of the Teaching:

Re Remarriage and the “Innocent Party”

Several reflections on these points are in order. First, Heth/Wenham’s contention that the verse prohibits remarriage after every divorce cannot be conclusively proved by the grammar. The Erasmian view is still possible, as they admit. Second, since the verse wants to make a point of the fact that groundless divorce involving a remarriage is adulterous, it is most reasonable to conclude that properly grounded divorce involving remarriage is not adulterous. To be sure, it would be clear that it is permissible to remarry in such cases had the conditional read: “only if a divorce is improperly grounded and remarriage occurs is adultery present.” The absence of the only may be interpreted as casting some shadow of doubt over the remarriage of the righteous divorcer. But one who affirms that remarriage of the righteous divorcer is adultery bears the burden of proof, and the proof certainly cannot be obtained from this saying or an abbreviation of it (as is certainly the case in Mark’s rendition, since he is relating only part of the conflate reading). Third, the passage does not clearly speak at all to the matter of the treacherously divorced person remarrying. That issue is never brought up, and conclusions concerning this matter must be supported from other locations in the biblical text. I believe that the Scripture permits such remarriage in two ways:

1. The man could always marry another woman, as long as she was a valid marriage partner, for example, not a “woman of the land” or a “blood relative.” Thus, the moral permission of polygyny affirms the right of the innocent man to remarry.368

2. The woman who was treacherously divorced could remarry without moral stigma, according to Deuteronomy 24:1-4.369

Re Remarriage and the Guilty Party

What, however, should be said about the guilty party? Does this teaching completely eliminate the option to remarry for the divorcing husband who groundlessly puts his wife away? Our answer is in one sense yes and in another no. Were Jesus to completely eliminate a right to remarry, He would have to abrogate the Old Testament doctrine of morally permissible polygyny. And, we note, this would not at all be what we would expect from the nature of the dialogue at hand. It is not to His dialectical advantage; nor would it be consistent with His profession to not abrogate the least of the laws, including the permissions granted in the same; nor does it fit into the flow of the dialogue for Him to have implied that remarriage for an unjust man was adultery. We cannot jump to the hasty conclusion that Jesus is completely condemning the second marriage.

But what then does the presence of the second conditional mean in the overall condemnation of adultery? Perhaps at this point it is worthy of note that a textual problem exists with the second conditional. These important words are omitted in some significant manuscripts of Matthew.370 However, since they are present in Mark, and since we are examining the conflate reading, we need not busy ourselves with this matter until we come to a consideration of the particular omissions and inclusions of the Gospels considered separately. Beyond this, the textual support for the omission is not as strong as for its inclusion.371 Thus, we have no right to ignore the combination of conditions.

I prefer to see the presence of the second conditional as an identification of the reason for the unjust divorce. It is the person who is divorcing and remarrying as a united action who is committing adultery. We might even say that the divorce has not been properly grounded upon occurrence of fornication in the marriage; this man has put away his valid wife “for the purpose of marrying another woman.” This conjecture is supported by two considerations. First, this places it clearly in the category of the divorce situation that most recent, previous Scriptural teaching, Malachi 2, addressed, namely men divorcing their proper wives to marry others (“women of the land”). The only difference is that the specific objects of remarriage in Malachi’s day were illicit per se according to Exodus and Deuteronomy. As we noted in chapter 4, the reference to Abraham in the Malachi 2 passage affirms that these Hebrews could have taken these women as concubines (as Hagar had been), thus sort of half-wives, without moral stigma. The point of the Malachi passage is that the abiding sin is the rejection of the valid partner. This is to say, the problem is the divorce itself.372 So too here, it is not the remarriage itself that is the problem. The immorality only occurs because the first wife has been unjustly divorced (a point that Matthew notes and the other Gospel writers choose to omit).373

Second, it is not improper to find in the meaning of the connector “and” (kai) the idea of “for the purpose of.”374 And the idea of immediate connection (ignoring the parenthetical exception clause, which could not be put elsewhere) seems clear in the combining of the conditions in the protasis that precedes any moral condemnation in the apodosis. The condemned action is again like that of Herod. He divorced his valid partner to marry Herodias. And so it often happens, especially where men do the divorcing. They often wish to devote themselves to only one woman (or more commonly the woman wishes the man to so devote himself), and so they treacherously put away the rightful partner to achieve the desired monogamous relationship. It is the case that, since the man promised to continuously provide for his valid partner, this putting away is itself adulterous.375 This is doubtless Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians 7 when he instructs the treacherous partner to remain unmarried or be reconciled.376

Please note that it is not so much that the lexical meaning of kai denotes “for the purpose of as much as its presence in the flow of the discussion presents us with a narrative explanation of why the first, unjustified divorce occurred. It would be like my saying, “Any man who bears witness against his neighbor without cause and enjoys the effects of the perjury breaks the commandment” (Proverbs 24:28). Or, “Whoever steals his neighbor’s property and makes use of it is guilty of theft.” In both cases the enjoyment of the neighbor’s loss is only incidental information to the real moral point: the real sin is in the initial act, not the subsequent gratification the sin affords. Indeed, these illustrations do not really tell the whole story, for if it is/were morally permissible for the man in question to take a second wife anyway, then the sin only (illicitly) enhanced a moral option, whereas in the illustrations, the enjoyment was only possible via an act of sin. Be this as it may, we cautiously conclude that remarriages that are not the goal of the divorce, that is, a part of the combined action of divorcing and remarrying, may be permissible—all other things (e.g., the belief of the potential partner) being equal.

Against this one might argue that the presence of the exception clause between the conditions spreads the two apart. But I do not think this is a proper evaluation. As we have noted earlier, the present location of the negating prepositional phrase is the only one reasonable, and it is parenthetical. Therefore, I do contend that the divorcing and remarrying are “historically” united in the hypothetical wrongdoing.377

Finally, it is worth noting that the present indicative form of the offense term: is committing adultery, is not to be over-read to imply that the sin of adultery is endless. As with all sins, it continues until repentance occurs. Paul will later (1 Cor. 6:9-11) identify certain sins which the Corinthians had committed, but quickly add that such sinners they used to be, but now are not, insofar as they have been cleansed by Christ’s blood. The sin of adultery committed by a treacherous husband is not unpardonable nor indefinitely ongoing simply because the present indicative form is used. That form merely conveys the idea that the sin is ongoing. And it is ongoing until it stops. It stops with repentance. It is just as wrong to insist that the present indicative in this saying implies endless action regarding adultery as it would be to say that Jesus’ very speaking of the saying (the present active indicative, lego, which begins verse 19:9) is endless. Jesus didn’t keep on speaking the saying, He was saying it once.

But what is involved with the “repentance” of which I speak. It involves the guilty party confessing his sin to God and to the aggrieved party, namely the first wife. Repentance also implies that what can be done to rectify the situation will be attempted. Personally I do not feel that a dissolution of the second marriage in order to re-establish the first is implied. Sinning again against a covenant is not a proper way to be righteous. Rather, I believe the man will make sure that the first wife is cared for (especially in a time in which the pre-paid alimony of a bride price, held in trust by the guardian of the bride is not a custom). This means that the man will pay a reasonable amount of alimony and child support.

Even if the man does not remarry another woman, it is not essential that a remarriage to the first wife take place. For one thing, the cast-off wife may justly be skeptical of the man’s intentions and reliability and not wish to be committed to him again. She has to forgive a sincere penitent, but she need not remarry him. For another, she may have remarried herself.

Clarification to His Disciples

Their Questioning

“And in the house, the disciples began
to question Him about this again.”

With these sayings, Jesus has properly and completely answered the test question of the Pharisees. They wanted to know if a man had a right to put her away and, if so, for what causes. Jesus corrects their orientation, turning it from the idea of how they can get out of marriage to the eternal design of marriage: continuing union. Previously had He righteously affirmed the right of the offended party to discipline an erring spouse, i.e., divorce for porneia. But His own disciples were apparently either not clear on the divorce teaching or incredulous regarding it. For when He turns aside and goes into a house, they question Him further: What does it mean? His response is not as detailed as that already given. He simply summarizes the major point of the teaching for emphasis. The problem is male treachery.

Male Treachery

And he said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife,
and marries another woman
commits adultery against her.”

The saying is again a complex conditional statement, with the main verb in the first condition of the apodosis, apolusee—he who puts away, subjunctive aorist active, being in the third person singular. Again by way of reference, the subjunctive mood shows some hesitancy, as if the action might not happen. The aorist tense conveys the thought of punctiliar or definite action, though indefinite as to time. Being active the verb identifies the man (the sex represented by the previous masculine pronoun, “Os”— “he who”) who is the agent. He is doing the putting away. The sum of the meaning is that, it is possible that a man may intentionally put away his wife. This putting away is clearly a divorcement.

This verb is connected to another subjunctive active: gameesee, [and] “if he is marrying [another (woman) of the same kind].” These verbs, combined, set forth the condition of the next key verb: moikatai, “he is committing adultery [against her—his first wife].” This offense-identifying verb is an indicative, present, middle or passive deponent verb form. The present indicative speaks of ongoing action taking place in the [hypothetically] present time. The man who divorces is the causal source of the offense. The accompanying pronoun, her, identifies his first wife as the recipient of that offensive action. Thus, if and when a man puts away his wife and marries another woman, he is committing adultery against the first wife. I believe that this form of the saying spoken just earlier to the Pharisees is consistent with it. Jesus is identifying a man who has treacherously put away his marriage partner in all probability for the purpose of taking another woman to be his sole wife. The only point omitted is the exception clause which was just uttered in their hearing. He omits it because what He now says is what He wishes pedagogically to leave with them, that is, a general rule about what adultery is: the sundering of the vow to continuously provide for the valid marriage partner. Marriage was intended to be permanent. The marriage bond cannot be broken without the sin of adultery taking place. This explains how the saying, as I interpret it above, fits with the section that stresses the sacredness of that bond. When the covenant is broken by an action such as “fornication,” the divorce does not “sunder” the bond, the action itself has. If there is not such sundering prior to it, then the legal divorce is itself the sundering—is a treachery, is adultery.

Heth/Wenham make a serious mistake at this point when they hasten to imply that, since marriage is not sexual union, the Erasmians err in suggesting that fornication (while the covenant is operative) breaks the bond. These authors hold that illicit sexuality does not break the bond,378 and that is why the sexuality of the remarriage is adulterous. They hold that the couple whose marriage is legally and even properly ended379 still have a marriage bond with each other until one of them dies. Thus, a remarriage constitutes adulterous sexual activity, but apparently which does not end the first one-flesh relation. Yet, if this is a proper interpretation of their work, what does sunder the marriage covenant. If noting but death, then why does Jesus prohibit the sundering of marriage. Is He prohibiting death! Certainly not.

They have failed to comprehend the covenantal and contractual nature of marriage. It is not the simple fact of extramarital sex that constitutes the sundering of the bond, but the intentional engagement in acts that are counter to the canons of the covenant. The woman who intentionally has sex with another man sunders her marriage. The sundering does not take place because sex has occurred—the marriage is not sundered when she is raped—but when she is willing to engage in an act that she promised in the covenant not to do. For the man, his sundering of the relationship rests, not in his having sex with another woman—polygyny having been morally permissible—but in his forsaking of his covenant partner simply to devote himself to another bed partner. The bond is broken when the covenanted promises (to provide for the first wife) are not kept.

This does not mean that every breach of the covenant must lead to a legal divorce. If the covenant can be restored without such severe disciplinary action, that is desirable. God shows us the example to follow when He attempts for some time to get his “wife,” Israel, to see the error of her ways. Only after that attempt does He put her away. Nor does disciplinary action short of divorce mean that reconciliation is impossible without a formal divorce and remarriage to the same partner. It is enough for the erring partner to reaffirm the intention not to further break the covenant. So Israel did in their times of national revival.

The Reversal Clause

“and if she herself divorces her husband and marries
another man, she is committing adultery.”

This addition might seem especially applicable for disciples who would soon be “discipling” the nations, teaching them whatsoever I taught you.” However, the Herodias case, in which she divorced Philip using Roman law, certainly made this saying relevant to Jewish ears even at that point. Nonetheless, women divorcing men was rare in Israel, and for Jesus to have brought this point up in front of the Pharisees would only have put the subject off on a sidetrack. The point would have been clear to such teachers, but they would likely have been scrambling for “debater’s points” after being so thoroughly silenced by Jesus.

The question arises, however, as with the man, when exactly does her sin of adultery happen. Does it happen as a result of her remarriage? This is the common assumption. Again I must disagree. Adultery only exists if there is a covenant. If the woman divorces her husband in order to marry another man, she ends the covenant. For her, as for him, an unjust divorce is the sundering of the marriage covenant. God has been a witness to their marriage, and neither party has the right to unilaterally end it. If either party does, that party sunders the marriage by the divorce action. And that goes for the woman as well.

It is to be remembered that though Jesus does not discuss it, Exodus 21 teaches that there are valid reasons for a wife becoming free from her husband. Whether she divorced him or was he was forced to end the legalities (as in Exodus) in such instances, the covenant was ended in the eyes of God when he abused her. Thus, Jesus could have said, “If a woman divorces her husband, except on the grounds of abuse, and marries another, she commits adultery.” But the issue of a woman’s grounds never came up and the Old Testament position rules. This means that, as with the man who had no grounds, her adultery happens when she separates from her husband—at the divorce. It is not her remarriage which constitutes the adultery, because she is no longer bound by covenant to him.

The Disciples’ Evaluation

The disciples said to him, “If” the relationship of the man
to his wife is like this, it is better not to marry!

This is the only substantive response of the disciples to the saying of Jesus. It is a sober response, but there is in it no hint of the “astonishment” mentioned by some teachers.380 Laney voices the feelings of many commentators when he suggests that the disciples must have thought Jesus’ teaching more strict than the teachers they were accustomed to hear. The only explanation that Laney can see for such a comment is that the teaching of Jesus must not have allowed for any divorce.381 But this view simply cannot stand up under examination. For as we have seen, Jesus in fact did allow for divorce on the ground of porneia.

Yet Laney will not be disposed of so easily. His own idea is that porneia means “illicit marriages, incest,” and, therefore, the exception clause simply permits an illicit marriage to be legally ended. The parties involved in the marriage alluded to are unfit for each other. Thus, no legitimate marriage may be morally broken by divorce.

There is a certain consistency to this approach, but it will not wash. In the New Testament, the term porneia includes more than incest, and the incest itself might not be with the marriage partner but another family member—promiscuity. Indeed, any attempt to limit the crucial word to the perversion of incest will sooner or later end up showing the careful Bible student that incest was grouped with adultery, homosexuality, and bestiality as gross forms of porneia.382

In the end, we are justified in saying only that the disciples were sobered by Jesus’ teaching that divorce is not a right to be exercised by the man but an exceptional disciplinary action to be taken only if the spouse has already broken the covenant, and that any attempt to divorce a wife simply out of a desire to devote oneself to another woman is the sin of adultery. Such teaching was not held by any rabbi. Even Shammai, who permitted a man to divorce his wife if she had committed an act tantamount to adultery, does not go on to call a divorce without such a ground the sin of adultery. In effect, the Pharisees knew of nothing such as Matthew records Jesus as teaching: that adultery need not involve sex, that it may be constituted simply by a man breaking his vow of continuing provision for his spouse (even if the breaking is done with legal sanction).383

The Eunuch Saying

But he said to them, “Not all men can accept this
statement, but only those to whom it has been given.”

Two problems arise in the interpretation of Jesus’ response. First, to what “statement” does He refer, and, second, who are the men to whom that statement had been given?

Two Identifications of the “Statement”

D. A. Carson succinctly points out the options:

Either ton logon touton (lit, “this word”—regardless of whether touton is original, since ton can be a mild demonstrative) refers to Jesus’ teaching (vs. 4-9) or to the disciples’ misguided remark in v. 10. We will look at them in reverse order.384

“Statement” Refers to the Disciples’ Remark

Carson continues that the

NIV’s “this teaching” (v. 11) favors the former, but this is unlikely, for it makes Jesus contradict himself. After a strong prohibition, it is highly unlikely that Jesus’ moral teaching dwindles into a pathetic “But of course, not everyone can accept this.”385

Accordingly, Carson suggests that “it is better to take ‘this word’ to refer to the disciples’ conclusion in v. 10: ‘it is better not to marry.’ Jesus responds that not everyone can live by such a verdict, as abstinence from marriage.”

Heth/Wenham, in the unpublished manuscript of their Jesus and Divorce, stated reasons why this identification is unlikely. First, the term this statement “is a significant unit in Matthew’s Gospel … and elsewhere it always refers to the words of Jesus which He has just finished delivering.”386 Second, they observe, with Quesnell, that it is not customary in Gospel writings for the disciples’ responses to Jesus’ teaching to be positively received by Christ.387 In the published version of Jesus and Divorce they altered this section. Stressing that on the “traditional” view verse 11 would seem to speak of two classes of disciples (“not all” vs. “only those”), they strongly reject the idea that Jesus’ teachings on divorce and remarriage could be for only one group and not another.388

Statement Refers to Jesus Teaching

It seems preferable to identify the “statement” with Jesus’ previous teaching. However, to interpret the retort as sarcastic ultimately yields the same general result as that offered by Carson. The “ironic” approach has Jesus saying that of course there are some who do not need to pay attention to His teaching: eunuchs. The net effect is that, since few men desired celibacy, they would choose to get married and, by that choice, place themselves under obligation to follow the rule set forth by Christ for the married, that is, stay married until death or porneia.

What Is the Significance of the “Eunuch Saying”?

“For there are eunuchs…”

At present there are three major interpretations of the “eunuch saying” that follows Jesus’ dialogue with the Pharisees and comprises His response to the reaction of His disciples.

The Renunciation-of-Marriage View

      believes that these verses advocate the renunciation of marriage. Thus, Jesus is promoting celibacy for the sake of the kingdom

This view, called “traditional” by Heth and Wenham, is advocated by W. D. Davies and D. R. Catchpole.389 According to this view Jesus is agreeing with the disciples and issuing a “call to celibacy.” In other words, celibacy is elevated as a valid option for those who have not been given the gift of marriage (cf. Matt. 19:12). But Heth/Wenham object that such an interpretation is wrong for just that reason, as noted earlier: in the Gospels, Jesus seldom agrees with the disciples. To this, they add that Matthew omits all similar apparent depreciations of the marriage state included in other Gospels (Luke) and rather elevates marriage in the wedding feast parable.390 Finally, they submit Paul’s introductory comment to his own elevation of celibacy as proof that Jesus had not previously taught that celibacy is preferable. In 1 Corinthians 7:25, Paul says, “I have no commandment from the Lord,” just before he launches into a discussion of the virgin state.

Carson softens the interpretation by suggesting that Jesus “freely concedes that for those to whom it is given ‘it is better not to marry’; and ‘That one who can accept this should accept it.’” In other words, Jesus admits that marriage is not intended for those who have the gift of celibacy.391

This is not as bad as speaking of “elevating celibacy,” but I still feel uncomfortable with it. Does the text itself, aside from the questioned passage, suggest that celibacy is a “gift”? Hardly. Celibacy is seen as imposed by hereditary deficiency, by mutilation by others, and by one’s own choice.392 Without a clear teaching of the “gift of celibacy,” it seems preferable to suggest another interpretation altogether.

The Celibacy-of-the-Divorced View

      believes the verses refer to the husband whose wife has been put away, requiring him to consecrate himself to a celibate life (at least until his former wife dies).

Proponents of this view, in addition to Heth/Wenham, include Q. Quesnell, J. Dupont, Hermas of Rome, and J. D. M. Derrett.393 On this view, the referents of” not all receive this saying” are the Pharisees, who reject the words of Jesus, whereas “those to whom it has been given” are the disciples of the kingdom.394

Support for this position is drawn from the account of the rich man, which follows the divorce passage. It is pointed out that when the rich man turns away and Jesus tells them the “hard saying,” that it is difficult for rich men to get into heaven, the disciples voice astonishment (“Who then can be saved?”), which is met by Jesus’ comment, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” In this case, the “this” reaches back to the “hard teaching,” not to the words of the disciples. The argument then runs: just as the two groups of receivers in the rich man story are unbelieving men and disciples, so in the divorce legislation is the division the same.395

Though this all sounds tempting, this view’s major drawback is that it commits a logical fallacy. In effect, its proponents are saying:

In A there is a formal pattern Y with content Z.

In B there is a formal pattern Y with content ?.

Since Y is the same in A and B, the content “?” must be Z.

This is a form of the fallacy of the undistributed middle. Just because A and B are alike in the stated formal respect Y does not mean that they are alike in the material respect Z. Beyond this, it seems to me that the stories are not the same at crucial points. Although the second story does contain a saying, it is not the saying to which the “this” refers, but salvation itself. By the nature of human beings as fallen, salvation is beyond them, unless God acts. In the divorce legislation, the “this” refers to the rules of marriage, which any who marry are expected to observe; there is no indication anywhere in the Bible that the ability to keep essential marital vows is a “gift,” unless it is a gift with which even fallen humans are born.396

It seems to me that the proponents of this view have made a mistake that goes beyond bifurcating disciples; they have bifurcated humanity in such a way that God seems to demand behavior according to one set of rules for disciples and another for the lost. Though this distinction may work regarding “house rules” for the Church, it is destructive of ethics when it is done in the domain of basic morals. We have returned again to the idea that God is a Pharisee who does not demand full morality of His debtors (those created in the image of himself and for whom His Son died). If it is wrong to attempt to break the covenant of marriage (by remarriage), then it is wrong for both the saved and the lost.

This interpretation does commend itself for insisting upon a connection to the saying of Jesus rather than the response of the disciples, but there is no reason to assume that the connection drawn is correct. My own opinion is that these expositors have missed one of the more humorous texts in the New Testament. Jesus has laid down the rule of marriage in His saying. That rule is: marriage is designed for keeps. The husband cannot raise some alleged right to exit the institution aside from his wife’s previous breach. Since, we may suppose, adultery was uncommon in those days, this has the effect of saying that, if a man enters into the “bonds of matrimony,” it is for keeps. To this the sobered disciples reflect that if marriage is that binding one should exercise the option of celibacy.

The disciples’ response is, on its face, ludicrous. How incredibly shortsighted to forgo the pleasures and profits of marriage simply because it is nearly impossible to get out of it! How would you respond to such a foolish statement? Proverbs 26:5 tells us to “answer a fool as his folly deserves, lest he be wise in his own eyes.” This is, I think, exactly what Jesus does.

He tells them that His saying about marriage (which, note, is not limited merely to the discussion of remarriage) is intended only for those to whom it is given, or, put otherwise, it only applies to those to whom it applies. If a person wishes to be celibate, then, of course, he or she needn’t pay attention to Jesus’ words. They are not intended for the don’t-wannabes, but for those who are or wish to be married.

The disciples have spoken of a man who, fearing the intended permanency of marriage, cuts himself off from marriage; Jesus goes into detail denoting the groups of people who do not have to worry about His saying: congenital eunuchs, forcibly castrated men, and those who remain celibate by choice, for religious reasons, it is presumed. All these need not worry about marriage rules. But the others, those who are in possession of their genitals and wish to use them, must adhere to the saying. In short, Jesus is saying: “If you have the plumbing, and you intend to use it, you must follow the rules!”397

The alternative then presents itself:

The Rules-of-Using-the-Plumbing View

      believes that the saying informs the disciples that his teaching on marriage is only intended for those who get married

This interpretation of the eunuch saying does identify the referent of the “this statement” with His own teaching. Jesus does not agree with the silly reflection of the disciples. They were suggesting that celibacy should be standard behavior, and Jesus points out that celibates are exceptions. He does not attack celibacy—had he, Paul would have had a very different response in 1 Corinthians 7:25! This view does not reflect negatively upon the institution of marriage. It shares this with the celibacy-of-the-divorced view, but has the benefit of being simpler. The celibacy-of-the-divorced view presumes that Jesus reflects only upon the remarriage of the divorcing husband. That is, at best, only one aspect of the complex conditional saying of Jesus. This third alternative can be seen as commenting upon the entire pronouncement at its most general level. Jesus has been trying to affirm the sanctity of marriage per se. It is most appropriate that the eunuch saying address the same level of teaching. The third alternative does so, and thereby is the alternative that presumes the least. This adherence to the “principle of parsimony” gives it the edge as the preferable interpretation.398 Jesus simply informed His disciples that His straightforward teaching that marriage cannot be broken by the man without his committing the sin of adultery does not apply to those who are by birth, force, or choice not using the “plumbing.” Conversely, His saying is for those who choose to use it and care about the morality of that use!399

Why are there Significant Differences between Gospel Accounts?

So far, we have been considering the pronouncements of Jesus on divorce in the parallel texts of Matthew 19 and Mark 10 as a conflate reading, believing that Jesus did confront the religious leaders and spoke words from which the different Gospel writers selected their accounts. It is appropriate at this point to note the differences between the accounts. In doing so, we wish to understand the message of each Gospel account in its own right and thereby understand why each included or omitted material from the original, longer reading. In this section we need to put to rest the issue of why Matthew includes the exception clause and Mark omits it.

The major differences between the two Gospel accounts vis-a-vis the conflate reading seem to be four in number:

1. 1. Matthew alone contains the exception clause.

2. 2. Matthew alone contains the eunuch saying.

3. 3. Mark alone contains the reciprocal clause “and if she herself divorces … ”

4. 4. Matthew’s account has the Pharisees make Moses command divorce, whereas Mark has them note that Moses permitted divorce.

Why Matthew Alone Contains the Exception Clause

The first difference in this list is the most celebrated. As noted in Appendix C, some have sought to explain the distribution of this clause to Matthew on the basis of an “ethnic calculus,” whereby Matthew is supposed to have directed his Gospel to a more Jewish audience and therefore included for them an exception to the general rule against divorce and remarriage that fit their culture. This exception is variously defined as relating to Jewish betrothal customs or the Levitical “holiness code.” This explanation we found wanting.400

My own explanation for the inclusion of the clause in Matthew and the exclusion of it in Mark revolves around two major poles. The first, granted by all scholars, is that Mark is a fast paced Gospel, designed that way, in all likelihood, so that it may function as a sort of catechetical tool, perhaps a manual on evangelism.401 His Gospel being a sort of “primer” focusing upon gospel issues, Mark considered the larger body of materials that were available to him and the other Gospel writers and edited out whatever material he thought superfluous to his task.402 It is my belief that Mark eliminated the exception clause for the sake of logical economy.403

I anticipate that someone who is adept at mathematics will object that the exception clause contains far fewer words than the reversal clause. But this is to miss the point. It is not the mere number of words that is at issue. The exception clause in Matthew 19 must be seen in its relation to materials present elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel; I refer to that large section in the latter half of Matthew 18 that deals with discipline. Note carefully that the entire section Matthew 18:15-35 is missing in Mark. The prior material (Matt. 18:5-14) is paralleled by Mark 9:33-50. Careful consideration of these inclusions and exclusions reveals the following: Matthew and Mark include material concerning self-criticism, but only Matthew expands this to discussion of the criticism of others, that is, discipline of the brother. Mark ends the section that precedes the divorce legislation with the idea of putting your own self in order and living at peace with others. Thus the flow of his Gospel is self-criticism and keeping the peace.

Matthew, on the other hand, includes a large section on discipline. In that section he mentions confrontation of the other who has sinned (against you?). And after laying down a certain process by which charges are to be brought, he notes our Lord’s harsh teaching that the unrepentant sinner is to be excluded from the fellowship of the brethren. But that is not the end of it. He goes on to note that the purpose of discipline is restoration-forgiveness. Jesus does not demand that forgiveness be given, or that the offended wait forever to hear a confession in order to get about the activities of everyday life. Some sinners should be thrown in jail until (if ever) they come to their senses. Matthew precedes his divorce section with the words, “so shall my heavenly Father also do to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart” (Matthew 18:35).

In Matthew’s context, it is only natural that he might include similar material in the section he strings together with it. How appropriate that the call for forgiveness from the heart should move on to two cases of hard-heartedness: unjust divorce and the hindering of children. And in the first case, how appropriate that Jesus should utter the exception clause, since that clause succinctly captures the principle of the Old Testament doctrine of (righteous) divorce as the discipline of an adulterous and unrepentant spouse!

It is worthy of more than a footnote here to say that the fact of discipline, and its hope of success, does not forever determine the marital status of the righteous divorcer. Though it is true that God, in His infinite patience and acuity, waited for divorced Israel to return to him, and though Hosea shows us how successful the divorce and restoration process can be, it is faulty logic to go from the “is” to the “ought” by concluding that the righteous divorcer (the innocent party) should wait indefinitely for the repentance of the spouse. Human beings are not like God. God may choose whether or not to be alone, but it is not good for human beings to be alone. And though that aloneness may be assuaged by friendships, we must remember that Paul notes that it is better to marry than to burn. The innocent party is under no obligation to wait indefinitely for the return.404 Guilty parties have forfeited the right to expect consideration. Theirs is the task of repenting and being reconciled as quickly as possible. Remember, too, that some will never willfully repent. Those should not be forgiven and restored. To do so would be to make a mockery of divine justice. On the other hand, to fail to receive back a repentant spouse when the disciplinary divorce is effective is a dangerous misuse of the doctrine of grace and forgiveness, as Jesus makes clear in the unforgiving steward parable. To fail to forgive and restore certainly releases the guilty party from an obligation to “remain unmarried,” because it puts the guilty shoe onto the other foot. The guilty becomes the innocent, and the innocent becomes the guilty. All these points seem implicit in the disciplinary discussion found in Matthew.

To return to our subject, note that for Matthew to have included the exception clause is to be expected. For Mark to do so, when he has previously edited out a matter of discipline, should not be. It is more than a matter of word count; it is the tip of a large iceberg. Mark simply did not want to get into a discussion of the discipline of others. His context is judgment of oneself, not judgment of the other. His is a context of keeping the peace if possible. His is a concern with evangelism of the lost, not the discipling of the righteous. The inclusion of exceptions to the general rule of no divorce—don’t try and legally end your marital relationship—is most inappropriate.

The Matthean Eunuch Saying

The second Matthean passage omitted by Mark is the eunuch saying. Again, it is simply because Mark is a selective Gospel. The majority of this private teaching of Jesus to the disciples is more or less redundant to that spoken before the Pharisees. Perhaps for this reason Mark omits it. But one point is not: the reversal clause, he retains. And, being concerned with locations, he mentions the house. Matthew, focusing upon the teaching, does not mention where the discourse with the disciples took place. And the fact that the Lord has shifted His attention to them is clear.

The Marcan Reversal Clause

The third difference, the reversal clause, seems an oddity. Since Mark’s custom is to omit material found in Matthew and Luke, why is his Gospel expansive on this point? Believing in Matthean priority, as I do, part of my explanation is that Mark did not wish that bit of Q material to be lost—as it was not included in either of the other two finished Gospels. But there are other considerations as well. For one thing, Matthew emphasizes the chauvinism of the Israelite males. He includes the clause “you to divorce your wives.” Mark omits this clause. In the flow of the Matthean account comes across an emphasis on the guilt of the men, notwithstanding the inclusion of the exception clause. At no point is this more evident than in the eunuch saying, where the chauvinism of the disciples is quite pronounced. It is also evident in the harshness of the Pharisees’ summation of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 (“Moses commanded to give her a certificate and divorce her”). It may also be reflected in the inclusion of “cleave to his wife,” with which Jesus pricks the male conscience of the Pharisees. He is stressing that they were the ones who had committed themselves to the women. There may be more indications of this rebuke of the celebrated male superiority that pervaded the Israelite community in Matthew’s Gospel, but I believe that these are sufficient to make the point that Matthew was highlighting this aspect of the conflate reading by his selecting out of the reversal clause.405

Nonetheless the concept of the clause completes the idea found in Matthew 5:32b, where a woman herself divorces her husband. Mark’s gospel, with a supposed (more) Gentile audience, needed the condemnation of unjust divorce by the woman, more than did the initially more Jewish audience of Matthew, where divorce by women was seldom seen. The completion is seen in the fact that gender does not change the immorality of unjustly divorcing an innocent spouse. Another factor to consider is that such reciprocity in the moral teaching on divorce continues the flow of “be at peace with one another”, which likewise does not place an emphasis on one gender or another, but includes both.

Different Presentations of Moses?

Perhaps what I have said so far helps to explain the fourth of the points of significant difference: the different representations of Moses. The statement found in Matthew is harsher, and its inclusion there fits the flowing anti-chauvinism theme, whereas the milder statement fits better the more irenic tone of Mark’s Gospel.


Let us summarize this section by stating that although both Gospels contain the same general material, each has its own emphasis. Matthew is more specific and inclusive as a rule. Continuing a prior theme of disciplinary action, he includes the exception clause, and emphasizing the rebuke of Jewish male chauvinism, he omits the reciprocal clause, while including aspects of the original dialogue that entail that matter. Mark, on the other hand, is more general, omitting material extraneous to his less ethically discipling approach. The differences are not disharmonious in the final analysis. And it is to that matter, that is, the harmony of Jesus’ teaching on divorce, to the Old Testament.

Conclusions: The Harmonization of the Whole

What, then, is the full teaching of Jesus on divorce and remarriage? Simply put, it is the same as that of the Old Testament Law and the Prophets. It is true that Jesus tends to emphasize what the Old Testament did not, but then that is characteristic of Him. The Matthew 5:31-32a passage clearly teaches that divorce, when it is groundless, is the sin of adultery in the eyes of God. Since the issue here is substantially that taught in Exodus 21 (minus the explicit identification of refusal to provide as breach of covenant, i.e., adultery), we see nothing unique or new about this aspect. Matthew 5:32b and Luke 16:18b affirm that any man who is a party to a woman’s unjust divorce of her husband is guilty of the sin of adultery.406 The fact that treacherous divorce by the woman is for the purpose of taking another man obviously places it in the category of standard sexual adultery as set forth in the Law (e.g., Lev. 18 and 20; Deut. 22:23 ff.). In this case, the fact of a legal divorce does not displace the overall judgment that this woman and her new husband have been party in taking a man’s wife (i.e., herself) for sexual purposes.407

Luke 16:18a, Matthew 19:9, and Mark 10:11 all reflect the Malachite oracle against unjustly divorcing a wife in order simply to marry another woman. And Mark 10:12 admits of the reciprocity of the application of the principle at this point. Further, the celebrated exception clauses are merely an application of the principle stated in the Old Testament Prophets that divorce is a tragic means of discipline to make the offending spouse come to his or her senses and be reconciled. Finally, the Old Testament permission for the innocent party to be remarried (explicit in Deut. 24:1-4 and implicit in Exod. 21:11, 26 f.) is not blunted by anything said by our Lord. Even the guilty party who repents but is not forgiven is not to be identified with the divorce/remarriage prohibited by Christ. Old Testament permission for such a one is most evident in the nexus of polygyny passages.408

Jesus does not speak explicitly to the right of a woman to procure a divorce from her husband on the grounds of his mistreatment of her. Jesus passes over this Old Testament instruction (Exod. 21:10 f.) without a word.409 And this omission should not be construed as a rejection of that right, Neither should His words be seen as expanding the moral grounds for a woman to divorce her husband to include the husband’s sexual infidelity (porneia). The exception clause is only used in the context of the wife’s unchastity, not the husband’s. This does not exonerate the husband from the onus of sin, but only from the penalty of divorce. His porneia is to be dealt with like any other non-canonical410 marital offense, that is, confession and repentance or ultimate excommunication from the fellowship of the Church.

336   Since the Scripture does not place any moral onus upon one divorcing for such a ground.

337   Cf. tape series on divorce by J. MacArthur, Jr.

338   Nor would it have been in the best interest of any Pharasaic school to have Jesus agree with them. At this juncture in his ministry, the questioning Pharisees were indeed trying to discredit, not credit, the Nazarene!

339   Joachim Jeremias. Jerusalem in the Time cf Jesus (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1969), p. 371. This is only the figure for one city near Jerusalem, but in view of the lack of data, this must stand as typical unless amended by subsequent studies. I cannot see that the geographical area in which the question arose (“beyond the Jordan”) would differ markedly from the demography of the town cited.

340   It is true that divorce was far more prevalent among the Pharisees themselves (cf. Hill’s Matthew, as cited in Carson’s “Matthew,” p. 11), but this is not the point The argument is that the Pharisees were trying to discredit Jesus among the common people, not among themselves.

341   Luke 3; Matt 11; and probably Matt 5:32 f. and Luke 16:18.

342   See my discussion of the Old Testament teachings, especially chaps. 3 and 4.

343   So John MacArthur in his tape series on divorce.

344   In this light, we cannot but be astonished by the remarks of John MacArthur when he asserts that God, by the concession, is permitting righteous men to put away incorrigibly treacherous wives! (Hear his tapes on the subject of divorce/remarriage).

345   Dana and Manty, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament (New York. Macmillan, 1927), p. 202.

346   Heth, Four Christian Views (InterVarsity Press, p. 73-74).

347   Ibid. p. 25.

348   I actually have heard conservative evangelicals affirm this option. Some have spent days searching the context of Deut. 24:1-4 to find the places where the inspiration breaks! Marcion could have been an inerrantist is such an approach is allowed!

Murray adopts this view of Moses. Says he: “The Mosaic permission was, therefore, a departure from the creation ordinance and from the practice to which it obligated men.” I see this as making God a compromiser of moral principle.

D. A. Carson suggests the abrogation rests in the fact that “Jesus’ judgments on the matter are therefore both lighter (no capital punishment for adultery) and heavier (the sole exception being sexual sin)” (“Matthew,” p. 417). I cannot agree to either point. In the first place, as the introductory statements in the Sermon reveal, Jesus is not making law, only interpreting it. Second, Jesus is only accommodating the prevailing law with regard to divorce in the place of execution—as did the prophets Hosea and Jeremiah. Jesus does not want to fight the issue of whether it was proper for foreign overlords to suspend capital punishment. Divorce was clearly an acceptable substitute, under the circumstances, for capital punishment, but Jesus does not wish to make the substitute judicial or to give it legal status. He did not come as a judge. Moreover, I believe that Carson’s interpretation of Deuteronomy is incorrect and that it has misled him regarding the second point. That God permitted the protective divorce of innocent wives by husbands set on breaking their vows by divorce does not mean that God gave moral sanction to the men so divorcing their wives. God has always morally permitted divorce only on the grounds of infidelity to vows. Any other divorce implicates the divorcer in a treachery justifiably identified with adultery. See Appendix D.

349   This is especially true of the Hillite school.

350   Lev. 20 required her to be executed for that offense.

351   It is sad to note that Heth/Wenham, in their work on the divorce teaching of Jesus, take such a cavalier attitude toward the God/divorce/Israel language of the Old Testament They say that one should not take such language seriously, because if one does, one will also have to take the God/polygyny language seriously. Exactly! And properly! But the a priori reigns in their thinking. Jesus, p. 136.)

352   Cf. Appendix D.

353   Heth/Wenham mention word frequencies and stylistic tendencies in Matthew’s early chapter that confirm this rule; Jesus, pp. 99-100.

354   Heth & Wenham, Jesus, p. 114.

355   Ibid.

356   Ibid., p. 133.

357   Ibid., pp. 115-16.

358   See also argument infra regarding remarriage and the guilty party.

359 Jesus, p. 117.

360   See Appendix F.

361   Jesus, p. 117.

362   Ibid.

363   This is not to say that the idea of required divorce in such cases would be improper. See both Chapter Four above, on the divorce teachings of the Old Testament prophets, and Heth/Wenham’s own findings regarding the views of the early Church Fathers! (Jesus, chap. 2.)

364   I also believe that had it been there, it probably would have supported the “Erasmian” option: “Except where there has been fornication, divorce and remarriage is adultery.”

365   D. A. Carson makes almost precisely the same point about this alternative. Cf. “Matthew,” p. 416.

366   At no point is the weakness of Heth/Wenham’s “syntax argument” more evident than in their attempts to illustrate what they mean. In a footnote (Jesus, p. 234, n. 20) they offer the following example, introduced by the comment that cremation by a killer is “suspect: since murderers sometimes do that to destroy evidence”:

1. 1. To kill someone and cremate them is murder. (Cf. Luke 16:18; Mark 10:11, 12)

2. 2. To kill someone, if it was not by accident, is murder. (Cf. Matt 5:32)

3. 3. To kill someone, if it was not by accident, and to cremate them is murder. (Cf. Matt 19:9)

They forthwith conclude that “killing as such and cremation are always murderous. Only accidental killing not followed by cremation is not murderous. Only divorce for immorality not followed by remarriage is not adulterous.”

This is an illustration of questionable value. In the first place, “killing” and “cremation” are, as such ‘morally neutral’ as far as I am concerned. And though this fits my understanding of the parallel term in the Scripture (i. e., “divorce” and “[re]marriage”) I am sure that Heth/Wenham do not hold either biblical term to be morally neutral. “Divorce” is said to be absolutely prohibited (p. 198). The only way I can understand their point would be to say that divorce is always a moral wrong (See back cover of Jesus.) Thus, unless Heth/Wenham believe that “killing” is absolutely prohibited, they have chosen a poor analogy. And as for “remarriage,” they say it is always the sin of adultery (ibid.). It is possible that they think cremation always to be wrong, but they do not say that it is “as such” in their illustration. Thus they have chosen a very poor analogy indeed.

Next, notice that the statements themselves are ethically suspect Who would make such a statement as number 1? The state might well execute a murderer and cremate the body. Would that be murder? Hardly! Number 2 is also only a general way of talking. Execution is not “accidental,” but it is not murder. Therefore, number 3 is also not a true statement. The state may execute (not by accident) a murderer and cremate the body, but not be guilty of murder. It is true that the Bible says that divorce and remarriage are adultery in Luke 16:18, but it is open to question exactly what that means. Just as one could say that to kill and cremate is murder, reflection on other ethical truths reveals the statement about killing to be only a general rule. So, too, the statements in Luke and Mark may only be general rules. It is true that just as it is not proper to describe accidental homicide as murder, it is also true that it is not proper to describe divorce grounded in porneia as adulterous However, to argue that divorce is yet some other kind of sin would be as wrong as calling accidental homicide a moral offense. Moreover, to suggest that killing (though accidental) when followed by cremation is the whole of it murder is as clearly nonsense as suggesting that divorce (which is not adultery) when followed by remarriage is the sin of adultery. Just as it is improper to say that killing and cremation as such are always murderous, so too it is improper to conclude that divorce and remarriage are always adultery. And although it is true that accidental homicide not followed by cremation is not murderous, it is certainly wrong to say that accidental homicide followed by cremation is murderous. Can the form of disposal of a body as such make either the killing or the combination of killing and disposal murder? So too, it is improper to speak of divorce for porneia when not followed by remarriage as only “not adulterous.” Actually, the relation of this last pair is so confusing that it is hard to see what Heth/Wenham are driving at.

A better illustration would be:

1. To unilaterally, legally nullify a contract and make another is dishonest. (Luke 16:18)

2. To legally nullify a contract, unless it is because of improper actions on the part of the partner, is dishonest (Matt. 5:32)

3. To legally nullify a contract, unless it is because of improper actions on the part of one party, and to make another contract is dishonest (Matt 19:9)

In each, the issue is the improper nullification of a contract. Number one is the simple statement that it is wrong to break a valid contract for the purpose of making another. The second is an even simpler statement but the exception to the rule is stated as well. In the third, the two are put together, informing us that it is wrong to break a contract (unless there is justification) simply to make another. The making of the second contract is only mentioned as evidence that the nullifying party is capable of making and keeping contracts. Otherwise, it would not have been wrong for the party of the first part to go ahead and make a contract with the party of the third part. And if the ending of the contract was legitimate, then one should think nothing of drawing up a new contract.

367   Wenham persists in pressing the syntax argument (cf. “The Syntax of Matthew 19:9,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 28 (1986): 17-23). It doesn’t seem to me, however that Heth puts as much weight upon the syntactical argument in his contribution to Four Perspectives (pp. 104-05) For further treatment of the except clause’s meaning, see chap. 5.

368   Heth and Wenham, Jesus, p. 218, n. 17.

369   See appendix B.

It is my belief that Deut. 24:1-4 is the proper location to look for teaching relative to this subject rather than Luke 16:18, since in the latter verse Jesus is simply trying to identify the failure of Pharisees to teach and follow existing Old Testament morality.

370 Codex Vaticanus, especially.

371 Sinaiticus includes it.

372   I do not mean to minimize the sin of the women being invalid partners. I only wish to point out that had they been valid and the prior marriages left unbroken, there would have been no condemnation by God through the prophet.

373   Cf. chap. 5 and the comments of Heth and Wenham, Jesus, p. 120.

374 BAGD, s.v. “Kai.” Also Blass & DeBrunner’s premier Greek Grammar of the N.T. & Other Early Christian Literature (University of Chicago Press, revised in 1961), p. 227, “kai” may have the “connotation of purpose.” They cite only Revelation 14:15 as an example of this use. But I would add that 1) given the most probable historical context of Herod (who divorced his wife for the sole purpose of marrying Herodias), and 2) the O.T. context of Malachi’s prophecy (which condemned Jews who had divorced their Hebrew wives in order to marry women of the land—chapter 2), my translation/ interpretation of “kai” as having the sense of “for the purpose of marrying again” is the interpretation of preference, though it is a rather rare use of “and.”

It is my thought that the Greek conjunction here reflects a similar use of the Hebrew vav (“and”) See TWOT, Vol. 1, p. 229. I note this because we are trying to understand the words of Jesus who was Jewish-words recorded in Matthew, which is a very Jewish Gospel. The book of Revelation (which is included in that citation by Blass and DeBrunner) is itself quite Jewish—the Greek being a thin overlay on Hebraic thought and language structure.

375   In the sense of breaking the moral canons of covenant. Cf. chap. 2.

376   Cf. Chap. 8.

377   I shall have more to say about “all things being equal”—and the point at which guilty parties are released from their obligation to “not remarry” when we look at the emphasis of the individual Gospel records.

“And he who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” Though some early manuscripts support this clause, it seems to have been assimilated from Matt 5:32b. This clause was discussed in the previous chapter.

378   Heth and Wenham, Jesus, p. 104.

379   They do believe that there is a proper ground for divorce.

380   William Gothard (Supplement to the Supplementary Alumni Book, vol. 5, 1979, p. 2) alleges astonishment; D. A. Carson (“Matthew” p. 419) properly denies it.

381   Laney, Myth, p. 65.

382   Cf. Chap. 5 for a full discussion of the meaning of this term and a treatment of the different views that are held about its intended meaning.

383   It is not self-contradictory to say that the disciples were surprised at the conservatism and the novelty of Jesus’ teaching contrasted to what they had been taught all their lives and, at the same time, the conservative practice regarding divorce common among the Jews. The populace seldom divorced and yet seems to have accepted the liberal interpretation of Hillel. There is security in believing you have freedom even if you don’t take advantage of it. Jesus appears to take that freedom to divorce away and that is what sobered the disciples.

384   Carson, “Matthew,” p. 419.

385   Ibid.

386   Heth and Wenham, “Jesus and Divorce” (in manuscript), p. 40.

387   Ibid., p. 41.

388   Heth and Wenham, Jesus, p. 56.

389   Ibid., p. 54; W. D. Davies, The Setting of the Sermon on the Mount (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1964); D. R. Catchpole, “The Synoptic Divorce Material as a Traditio-Historical Problem,” Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library 57 (Autumn 1974): 95.

390   Heth and Wenham, Jesus, p. 63.

391   Carson, “Matthew” p. 419.

392   Of course, Carson, being a strong Calvinist, might well argue that human and natural causation are not at odds with divine sovereignty, but that conclusion is foreign to the statement of the text at this point All Jesus says is that celibacy can arise from different causes.

393   Quesnell, “Eunuchs,” pp. 341-42 (see chap. 5, n. 21); Dupont, Manage, pp. 161-220 (see chap. 5, n. 21); Hermas, Mandate, 4.4.1-4; J. D. M. Derrett, Law in the New Testament, and TDNT 6:592, lines 2-5. Derrett’s view, highlighted by Heth/Wenham in an appendix to Jesus (pp. 204 f.), arises from his undebatable commitment to the interpretation of Gen. 2:24 as teaching indissoluble monogamy (his = exclusively his). The exclusively I do not doubt, but I deny the monogamy. The woman was to be exclusive to him but not the reverse. Derrett has over-read the text. This false start causes him to make further mistakes in interpretation down the way. Seeing Deut 24:1-4 as a prohibition of all remarriage since remarriage defiles an existing relation creates a them-in-one monstrosity. Jesus is presented in the Gospels as permitting an offended spouse only to clean his house of the adulteress—but not to remarry, since his one-flesh relation, though defiled, still exists. Remarriage of the innocent is a breach of the Seventh Commandment, which is interpreted by Derrett as forbidding the marriage of any unmarried people who will not or cannot marry. Believing the Bible teaches that the one-flesh bond can be multiple (for the male) and broken (by willful breach of covenant), I reject Derrett’s theory. He makes man for marriage, not marriage for man.

394   Heth and Wenham, Jesus, p. 59.

395   Heth and Wenham, Jesus, pp. 58-61.

396   Although a good wife is a gift from God.

397   I agree with D. A. Carson, who rejects Dupont (Manage, op. 161-222) and Moloney (“Matthew 19, 3-12 and Celibacy: A Redactional and Form-Critical Study”). Journal of the Study of the New Testament 2 [1979]:42-60), when they argue that the eunuch statement means to exclude remarriage. As Carson notes, “‘eunuch’ is a strange figure for continence after marriage, especially since if the divorced spouse died, the survivor could remarry (Dupont’s view).” Carson, “Matthew, p. 418.

398   And, I might add, this interpretation is quite in accord with the “Erasmian” position. I hasten to note, however, that neither I nor Murray wish to be “modem proponents of Erasmus.” That identification, now made popular by Heth/Wenham in Jesus, creates unfortunate “guilt by association” for many who do not appreciate Erasmus’s non-Reformational Catholicism.

399   This interpretation reminds me of Proverbs 14:4 “Where no oxen are, the manger is clean, but much revenue comes by the strength of the ox.” Yes, having an ox implies that you need to follow the rules of animal husbandry, and that can be stressful at times. But think of all the good that comes from having the ox! So too, marriage has its rules, but, for the most part, isn’t marriage wonderful!

400   See chap. 3 for a more detailed consideration of these options.

401   See my Mark as an Evangelistic Manual.

402   He preserved the general rule, after the same manner Paul does on the subject of children obeying their parents. In Colossians 3:20 a general teaching is given, while the more complete (i.e., inclusive of exception) is taught in Ephesians 4:1.

403   This is related to my belief, mentioned in an earlier note, that Mark wrote last and abbreviated the material of Matthew/Luke/Q-Q being produced by the hand of Matthew, and comprising his discipular journal. I mean no depreciation to Mark’s work or that or the Holy Spirit in authoring the Gospel. I mean only that Mark, the writer, was at work selecting according to a purpose.

404   Cf chap. 8 on Paul’s teaching.

405   I add to this my previous comments about Mark’s Gospel seeming to be used more in geographical areas where women did divorce their husbands, so that it would be more appropriate for the clause to be found in this Gospel.

406   Interestingly, the effect of the John 8:2 ff. story is the same. Jesus refuses to hear the blemished testimony of men who have set the woman up for the charge of adultery.

407   This is not to say that some mystical bond still exists but that morality is not so blinded by legalities that it cannot see the nexus of covenant violation.

408   From the Old Testament we may well be in doubt as to the propriety of the guilty wife remarrying. I conclude that the guilty husband who remarries has not committed adultery in his remarriage per se, though this oversimplifies the situation. He has committed adultery in the treacherous divorce of his wife, and he has done so simply for the sake of marrying some other woman. And, although the Scriptures never state that the second wife is guilty of adultery, we may presume that, if she is a party to the treachery, she is guilty of the same sin. It seems difficult to suppose that only the husband is guilty of it when he conspires with the second woman.

409   I am not contradicting what I just said. The principle (i.e., do not break covenantal vows) is found in Exod. 21 as well as in Exod. 20:14 and is behind the explicit teachings of Jesus. It is the specific application of that principle to the failure to provide that passes unmentioned. Yet even here, note that Christ’s condemnation of groundless divorce as the sin of adultery comes very close to the point of Exod. 21:11. It falls short, however, of noting the freedom of the woman to divorce and remarry. I suspect that Jesus found this latter point too obvious to mention, since so clear in the O.T..

410   By “non-canonical” I do not mean extra-scriptural, but rather “not specified as a cannon of covenant—the revealed requirements for marriage partners to pledge to each other.

Related Topics: Christian Home, Marriage, Divorce