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The Teachings of Jesus on Divorce — (Matthew 5:31-32a)

The Historical Context of Jesus’ Teaching

It is ironic that there should be so much controversy over the import of the teaching of Jesus on divorce/remarriage. In His great Sermon, Jesus explicitly sets about to rectify contemporary ethics, which He sees as debased by Pharasaical Scripture-twisting (Matt. 5:17 ff.). He saw His job as one of clarification, and a summary look at the state of divorce ethics in the days of Jesus shows that clarification was indeed needed! Unless Jesus was wrong in His profession of loyalty to the Scripture, we should expect to find that His teachings are entirely consonant with previous revelation. (And, I hope, with the conclusions set forth in the earlier chapters of this book.) As for the Pharisees, if Jesus was right, the teaching of the Old Testament had been eclipsed among them during the inter-testamental period, such that divorce was no longer understood as either an act of sinful treachery or a discipline painfully applied with the appeal for restoration always in view. To the Pharisees, the ending of a marriage was the husband’s right. The Deuteronomic provision for the wife of a hard-hearted husband (protecting her from his treacherous intentions, Deut. 24:1-4) was turned upside down to favor the husband, and the Pharasaical schools argued back and forth over what had to be wrong with the wife before the husband could exercise his right to put her away. The liberal school of Hillel thought that a man had the right to end his marriage if his wife did something he found distasteful. The conservative school of Shammai thought the man’s right to divorce was limited to the case of a wife who had committed something nearly equal to adultery. Both schools were concerned for the rights of the man and had little concern for the woman, thus reversing the concern of the Bible.

The Herods were egalitarian about divorce. During the days of Christ’s majority, the son of Herod the Great, Antipas, had an affair with his half-brother Philip’s wife, Herodias. Together, Herod and Herodias divorced their covenant partners in order to devote themselves to each other. They cared little for the rights of either men or women who got in the way of their lust. Members of the religious establishment were too satisfied with their economic and political position to raise much objection to this transgression of the Law. Only the prophet John (“the baptizer”) dared to rebuke the erring house of Herod with Holy Scripture.

Out in the deserts whence John had come, there were ascetic, religious people who were not personally interested in marriage, rejected polygyny, and certainly opposed divorce and remarriage—the Essenes. Their codified ethical teachings on the subject may be found in the so-called Temple Scroll. Their position included an interpretation of the difference between the Masoretic and Septuagintal (LXX) texts of Genesis 2:24. They argued that the inclusion of “two” in the Septuagint (or a text similar to it) properly conveyed the sense of the original. God had intended that only two should be married. This would prohibit both polygyny and remarriage, practices which made sense and were occasionally required by a full application of the Law and the Prophets in a fallen world.

Clearly, the ethics of divorce/remarriage were in a state of disarray in the days of Jesus. And into this morass of ethical confusion Jesus stepped, spoke a few words on the subject, and, we may presume, in the minds of His disciples eventually cleared up the issues. But we, His latter-day disciples, have taken those few words and produced from them our own Pharasaical controversies and traditions. We disagree as to which of His statements on the subject came first and as to whether all the statements attributed to Him in the texts of the Gospels are His, as opposed to interpretations by the evangelists or even the early Church.207

It is unlikely that this book will end those controversies, but the continuing confusion calls for new ways to resolve them. With that aim in mind, we look at the teachings of Jesus in the order in which He spoke them.

Teaching in the Sermon on the Sin of Groundless Divorce

(Matthew 5:31-32a)

Context of The Teaching:

“I Have Not Come to Abrogate the Law”

Any understanding of Jesus’ divorce teaching in the Sermon on the Mount must be grounded upon a more general understanding of what Jesus is about in the Sermon as a whole and of what He is about in the section that includes the divorce teaching. Regarding the first point there is a great deal of disagreement among scholars. Some hold that Jesus is altering the Old Testament Law. They see this in His quoting of certain commandments and in His immediate “correction”: “but I say unto you … ” Others respond that Jesus is merely trying to clarify certain popular misconceptions about Old Testament Law, pushing His listeners toward a fuller understanding of that Law than was being taught by the religious leaders of His day. There are a number of other views; it is not possible for us to go into this disagreement at any significant length, but I do need to make it clear where I stand on the issue.

Two things stand out in any cursory reading of the Sermon. First, Jesus stresses things that were not the surface emphasis of the Old Testament Law. The Law, being a standard to be used by the judges in settling communal disputes, emphasized the sorts of actions that the civil authorities could resolve by evidence and expedite with civil action. But the prophets make it clear that, though such externals were stressed in the Law, God was also concerned with the attitudes of the heart (“circumcision of the heart”). Jesus, in stressing internal attitudes and non legal interpersonal relations in the Sermon, is picking up a theme of the prophets and expanding upon it greatly. In the Sermon Jesus clearly states, “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20). He is concerned that His disciples not limit the holiness of God to fastidiously kept rules that relate only to the outer, legal life.

The second thing that stands out is that Jesus is loyal to the Old Testament Law. In verses 17-19 He tells His listeners that He has not come to abolish the least of the Old Testament rules, but that they shall stand until “heaven and earth pass away.” It seems clear, then, that Jesus means to recover the Law and bring out its fullness, not to make changes in it that would negate the least of its principles. This leads us to conclude that Jesus intends to clarify misunderstandings.

“You Have Heard…”

The structure of the Sermon is simple but subtle. Its introduction includes the Beatitudes, which inform the listening disciples of the inter- and intra-personal nature of the words that follow. It also includes the Salt and Light statements, which give structural direction to the body of the Sermon. The believer is to affect the world like salt and like light. But these are no mere empty illustrations to be filled by the imagination of Church preachers. Reversing the similes, Matthew 5:16-6:34, Jesus tells the disciples exactly how the light should and should not shine, and how a “salty” disciple will affect his world.208

The subsection 5:21-48 is a discernible unit identified by the celebrated phrase “You have heard …” (5:21, 27, 33, 38, 43). Within this section there are six distinct saying groups, some of which structurally seem to relate to the Ten Commandments. In fact, the section seems to be comments on the last six of the commandments: murder, 21-26; adultery, 27-30; theft, 31-32; false witness, 33-37; coveting and defrauding, 38-42; and then fold backward to the Fifth Commandment in re parents, 43-48.209 The weakest element in this interpretation of the structure of the subsection rests in the fact that the crucial thirty-first and thirty-second verses are missing their “you have heard,” giving rise to the suggestion that Jesus intended to include them with the teaching on adultery (vv. 27-30). I do not deny that there is a definite correlation to the adultery commandment, but I do feel that Deuteronomy 24:1-4 is best interpreted in its own section of that book as a comment on the Eighth Commandment,210 not the Seventh.211 Matthew 5:31-32, like Deuteronomy 24:1-4 (in its context), is not primarily trying to define adultery so much as trying to prohibit the treatment of the covenant partners as if they were chattel property.212 Seen in this light, the text is certainly not trying to teach a new doctrine about marital relation—that is, a doctrine that differs from that found in the Law.

But, some will protest, does not Jesus quote the Law and alter it with His own teaching?213 The answer is no. Jesus does on several occasions in the subsection quote Old Testament material, but He has served notice that He is correcting Pharasaical misinterpretations of the Law. It is as if He were saying, “You have heard the Old Testament quoted and explained in the following way, but let me explain to you its true and full meaning.” In other words, the very quoting of the Law evoked in His listeners’ minds the aberrant teaching that Jesus intended to correct. He does not intend to annul the commandment, only its Pharasaical interpretation.

A final structural point is that in each of the first three saying groups (unlike the second three)214 the addressed “you” is presented in the hypothetical situation as being guilty of some offense that Pharasaical teaching had missed: in the first instance, unjust anger; in the second, lust; in the third, breaking solemn covenant. It is a foreboding refrain:

You think you are innocent of ____, but you are guilty.

You think you are innocent of ____, but you are guilty.

You think you are innocent of ____, but you are guilty.

In each case the Pharisee’s audience had been led to believe that they were avoiding guilt by committing an act beyond the jurisdiction of the Commandment. But they were wrong. God’s concern goes way deeper than that.

Summarizing what we have learned to this point from structural analysis: Verses 31 and 32 are a clarification of an Old Testament Law, a correcting of a wrong, Pharasaical interpretation. The disciples, thinking that the action discussed is permissible, are served notice that God’s righteousness finds such action morally deficient in some way. In the case at hand, the disciples had been led to believe that the action of legal divorce, i.e., sending the wife away with a writ, as taught by the Pharisees, was morally permissible and satisfied God’s Law. Jesus informs them that divorce, unless it qualifies by being based on porneia, is an abuse of the wife, an abuse which is the sin of adultery. Let us now devote ourselves to a careful consideration of each of the clauses in this saying.

“And It Was Said…”

As noted earlier, the omission of the “you have heard” clause seems to draw attention to the preceding saying. The point is not that the previous saying corrects the Pharasaical teaching while this one corrects the Mosaic, but rather that the third saying borrows that clause from the preceding saying. Jesus is still correcting Pharasaical misinterpretation. The connection, doubtless, is the concept of a broadened understanding of the adultery offense, but the entrance of the structure into the domain of the eighth commandment (theft) is not meant to be blunted. The offender of the property command is guilty of the offense of adultery as well, and so the third saying group will state.

I do not mean to slight the possibility that the absence of “you have heard” could indicate a change in the direction of Christ’s teaching, such that, while before He was seeking to correct Pharasaical misinterpretation, He now turns to strengthening a previously given concession, i.e., by God through Moses to the hard-hearted people of his day. Such strengthening would have Jesus cutting off the recourse of hard-hearted husbands such as represented by the Pharisees of Christ’s day to divorce. Where Moses was lenient, Jesus will now be strict.

However, two points militate against the acceptance of such a theory. First, such a view makes for poor theology and ethics in the Old Testament. It would be unjust for God to have lowered His standard of righteousness in Moses’ day to accommodate sinful men. If that could be done, then surely He would have lowered His standard for the cost of salvation, rather than require the death of His Son on the Cross. In that instance, God tempers His treatment of men by His Son paying the penalty in full and making that payment available to sinful men.

Returning to our subject, God rather anticipates man’s sinfulness and provides for the innocent (treacherously divorced person) in the face of the guilty (the frivolous divorcer). Regarding Deuteronomy 24:1-4, the verse protects the woman by permitting a path of freedom, so that the treacherous abuser is not tempted to abuse the woman in the marriage. And, it also (and primarily) attempts to protect her from further abuse by prohibiting her from being tempted to return to such a treacherous husband if his callousness has taken him to the point that he would have allowed her to marry another man in the intervening time. Thus, rather than raising a standard of righteousness for the males, Jesus would actually be lowering the standard of protection for the females! This would be incredible. Further, it is hard to see how such a protective law could have been made stronger. Surely nothing said by Jesus makes it such.

Second, for Christ to have interrupted His rebuke of Pharasaical leniency regarding the Law to attempt to make the law more stringent than God through Moses made it, affirms Pharasaical poor stewardship and thereby undercuts His previous and subsequent rebuke of the religious leaders of His day. For while the Pharasaical teachings are more lenient than God in each of the instances for which Jesus provides an antithetical saying group, Jesus normally rebukes the Pharisees for adding to the Law of God … making it more stringent than God intended (e.g., Matt. 23:4). To add to God’s Law is just as bad as taking away from it. Both are personal manipulations of Biblical ethics. While Jesus Himself had the rights of God regarding ethics, it is highly unlikely that He would have given the appearance of altering previous revelation to make it more strict, in the context of rebuke of Pharisees who have altered previous revelation in the other direction. The Sermon affirms the Law in its fullness of meaning, and any addition to it would be at best confusing to His audience. For these reasons the idea that Jesus is directly altering God’s Law through Moses, must be rejected. Thus, in the divorce saying too, Jesus is rebuking the Scripture-twisting Pharisees.

But if Jesus is still correcting Pharasaical misinterpretation, exactly what interpretation is He correcting? There were, after all, significant disagreements among the Pharisees on the issue of divorce. Rabbi Shammai thought that a man was justified (perhaps morally obligated) in legally severing his marital relation if the woman was guilty of some impropriety tantamount to adultery.215 Hillel, on the other hand, thought a man justified in divorcing his wife on any grounds, that is, for any reason that came to him.

Though it is not necessary (and indeed is improper according to Matt. 23:2, 3) to prove that Jesus opposed every teaching of every Pharisee, there are still several points that the Pharisees had in common that are candidates for Jesus’ correction. We properly look for such points because Jesus was unlikely to make a general criticism where notorious differences were existent. His hearers might not be party to the teaching of only one Pharasaical school and might think that Jesus was being unfair to at least their rabbi. First, all the rabbis centered their discussion upon the very verses that Jesus quotes, Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Second, they all interpreted that passage as a provision on behalf of the husband. By so doing, they all presupposed that the Deuteronomic Law was setting forth a right of the husband and identifying a problem with the wife that justified the husband putting her away. Third, the Pharisees seem to have held that it was morally obligatory for the offended husband to put the offender away. I believe that the teaching of Jesus analyzed below disagrees with all Pharasaical views that accepted these points.

The Teaching Itself:

“Whoever Divorces His Wife, Let Him Give Her a Certificate of Divorce”

John Murray, in his classic treatment of divorce, is quite fair in pointing out that, although the wording employed by Jesus is not a precise quote of either the LXX or the Hebrew text, this may simply be a proper paraphrasing of Deuteronomy 24:1-4. He goes on to point out that the Deuteronomy passage itself does not imply:

1. 1. That the Israelites had a right to put away their wives.

2. 2. That in certain circumstances [they] were under obligation to do so.216

Later, Murray reaffirms his point that Jesus’ teaching in this passage does not oblige a person to divorce his wife, even on the grounds of adultery.217

Though Murray is quite right respecting the implications of Deuteronomy 24 regarding these points, it is most unfortunate that his book gives so little attention to the strong Old Testament teaching that divorce can be a discipline that, as a substitute for the previously mandatory execution, is morally obligatory. That Jesus agrees with this teaching is to be drawn, first, from the Sermon teaching that He does not wish to annul the least of the Old Testament commands, second, from the principle implicit in His general teaching on the treatment of unrepentant sinners, as recorded in Matthew 18, and, third, from the logical proximity of the Joseph and Mary case to the exception clause in Matthew 5 and 19. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Suffice it to say that Deuteronomy 24 is wrongly interpreted to imply a right or a responsibility to divorce. And, we may expect that Jesus, in correcting Pharasaical interpretation, will deal with such inferences.218

As we have noted before, the Pharasaical teaching is, that if a man follows the Law’s obligation to provide the cast off wife with a writ of divorce, the husband is guiltless of any further moral infraction. While it is true that Christ’s phrasing more readily agrees with the popular and majority view of Hillel (by stating no limitations to divorce in the rejected teaching), it is also true that once the writ had been given, all Pharisees agreed that the marriage was over and the husband considered guiltless.219

“But I Say to You…”

The first clause, “but I say to you,” as it has twice before in the Sermon, signals a correction of Pharasaical misinterpretation regarding the right of an Israelite man to divorce his wife and remain guiltless before God. This phrase signals Christ’s point of disagreement with the rabbinic traditions current in His day. It is also important to note that what follows are two sayings connected by “and” (kai). The reader should note that in two other major divorce passages, Mark 10:11-12 and Luke 16:18, similar dual sayings are connected in the say way. (In the only other teaching of Jesus, Matt. 19:9, there is only one saying.) The point to be made here is that in each case where there are dual sayings connected by “and,” the sayings are independent of each other. No one argues for interdependence for the sayings of Mark or Luke, neither should it be assumed that the sayings in Matthew 5 should be interpreted interdependently as is commonly done, i.e., the first clause is seen as making sense only when the second is a fact.220

It is instructive also to consider the use of “kai” as a connector in the surrounding saying groups, specifically 5:22 and 39-41. In neither case does the connector function as an introduction to a causing condition, as if translated best by “when.” Chamberlain cites Matt. 15:26 as having a context which shades the meaning of a “kai” toward “when,”221 but there, kai connects words rather than extended clauses as in our verse. Further, no causal connection is found in the latter passage, whereas the use of “kai” as “when” (traditional interpretation) in Matthew 5:32a/b would allege such.

There is one other significant function of “kai” which helps us understand these sayings in relationship to each other, but, since that understanding relates more properly to the second saying than to the first, we will wait to discuss it until the next chapter. For now, however, we will satisfy ourselves to state that no use of “kai” seems arguable from the grammar which supports the traditional understanding that the meaning of the first clause awaits the speaking of the second. Thus, we will look at the first clause as an independent saying, to be interpreted in its own right.

“Whoever Divorces His Wife …”

The second clause, “whoever divorces his wife,” should stir up memories of Malachi 2. For Jesus is now moving on to the biblical teaching of divorce, and the prophet Malachi had included that subject in his oracle, the most recent revelation prior to Jesus. For, though Deuteronomy 24 was a law that emphasized the provision for a woman who was the victim of her husband’s treachery, the Malachi passage centers upon the sin of that same kind of husband.

The Feinbergs, find fault with such references to Malachi.222 They suggest that to do so detracts from the antithetical response of Jesus. This is odd logic. Think of the proverbs in which the wicked man is pit against the righteous. Proverbs 15:32 is one such example: “He who neglects discipline despises himself, But he who listens to reproof acquires understanding.” On the Feinbergs’ logic, the NASB publishers would be guilty of substantive distraction by their marginal reference to Proverbs 15:5 (“He who regards reproof is prudent.”). While the immediate antithesis is most important, it is never wrong to bring into consideration other Scriptures which bear upon the same subject. It is not, therefore, in disregard for the antithesis between Jesus’ saying and the Pharasaical interpretation of Deut. 24, to note how Jesus’ teaching agrees with God’s response to unjust divorce in Malachi 2. However, rather than simply cite Malachi, Jesus repeats the gist of that prophetic oracle against purely legal treachery. What Jesus says hereafter will directly contradict the Pharasaical teaching that a legal writ satisfies God’s obligations regarding the termination of marriage.

The grammar of the key verb form (“he who is divorcing”) is a present active participle, masculine singular. The Greeks seem to have loved participles, and a good number of that verb form are found in key divorce passages. Summers describes a participle as a verbal adjective.223 Being present active, the idea of continuous action is underscored. But, as Summers is quick to add, ‘The time of action in participles is indicated in the relation of the action of the participle to the action of the main verb.”224 He goes on to say, ‘The present participle indicates action which is contemporaneous with the action of the main verb.” And again, “ … it is sufficient to know that the present participle indicates continuous action which takes place at the same time as the action of the main verb.”225 Thus, in our verse, the divorcing of the woman occurs at the time when he causes or makes his wife to experience adultery. This participle appears to be used in the attributive position and therefore should be given a relative translation: “The one who divorces … is the one who is causing … ” It is, therefore, not proper to imply, as many interpreters seem to do, that the divorcing subsequently leads to the causing of the woman to commit adultery, when she remarries. The divorcing occurs at the time of the causing, not previously to it.

A second point to make about this grammatical form is that present active does not mean to imply continuous action which never ends, indeed, the present is a moment. We shall have much more to say about this when we discuss the present active of “commits adultery” in regard to other sayings. Here, we need only mention that the “divorcing” and the “making” or “causing” are actions which occur together.

The verb itself simply means “loosing from” or “putting away from” oneself. To divorce means to put one’s wife away from oneself. The loosing is most naturally understood as to free from the bonds of the covenant vows. To divorce the wife, means that she is no longer required to be exclusive to the former husband, and that he no longer needs to provide for her welfare.226 In our verse, the man who is loosing the parties from their vows to each other is the man who causes something to happen to his wife, unless something else significant is also true.

“Except for the Cause of Unchastity …”

We arrive at the first instance of the celebrated exception clause, “except for the cause of unchastity.” Many an exegete would wish that it could simply be dismissed and thereby render null whole sets of problems it seems to raise. One thing is certain, and that is that it cannot be excused as a textual variant. J. Carl Laney, one of the most conservative scholars to have written on the subject, states:

While some would argue that these exceptive clauses are not part of the genuine teaching of Jesus but represent either an adaptation by Matthew or an interpolation by the early church, there are no sound textual arguments against the genuineness of the clauses 227

I agree with Laney that hypothetical alternative readings must be denied in favor of alternatives based in the manuscripts. Resting on Bruce Metzger’s A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament,228 Laney notes the simple fact that there are no Greek manuscripts that omit the exceptions.229

In dealing with our subject we shall find it helpful to break it down further into a study of the concept of exception, and then a study of the meaning of porneia, the Greek word for “unchastity” or “fornication.”

“Except for the cause … ”

There are five major views of this portion of the clause:

Inclusivist interpretation

The first is the “inclusive” interpretation. Heth/Wenham describe this view’s interpretative translation as “not even in the case of unchastity.”230 The idea here is that all divorce is rejected by Jesus, even divorce that is grounded upon unchastity. Heth/Wenham also report several journal articles that criticize this view.231 The criticism is that this translation is ill advised. Though it is possible in Matthew 5:32, D. A. Carson notes that such an interpretation plays havoc with the Greek in the Matthew 19:9 parallel, where the preposition (epi, “of” or “for”) is preceded by a negation (me, “not”). That structure, “not for fornication,” is the natural way of introducing an exception.232 If the two Matthean exception clauses are intended to teach the same point (and we know of none who disputes this point), then the latter text is sufficient to help us make a choice against the “inclusivist” interpretation of the clause in Matthew 5:32.

Preteritive View

A second interpretation is a part of a broader interpretation (of the whole clause) that is known as the preteritive view. This school of thought, associated with Augustine in ancient times and with Bruce Vawter in our own,233 is sometimes called the “no comment” view. It holds that Jesus skirted the Shammai-Hillel debate by refusing to comment on the offense-term in Deuteronomy 24:1. He simply used “unchastity” as a synonym for the argued “uncleanness” in the Old Testament passage. Thus, “except” has the effect of saying “and I do not get into the matter of porneia. Vawter, in effect, has Jesus being cryptic in an effort to avoid the paradoxical criticisms of the Pharisees.

After presenting the case for this view, Heth/Wenham reject it for grammatical reasons. Centering their discussion, as they consistently do, on the Matthew 19:9 teaching, they question whether the grammar and context will allow the clause to be interpreted parenthetically. To this they add that in Matthew 5 it is highly unlikely that Jesus is trying to be cryptic, insofar as He is here trying to clarify Pharasaical misinterpretation.234 That is an excellent point.

Separation View

The third view sees the exception as permitting separation of the couple, but not divorce. Q. Quesnell supports this view, as do G. J. Wenham and J. Dupont.235 D. A. Carson’s critique is telling: the key verb (apoleo) is used twice in the Matthew 19 parallel. In verse 3, it has the undoubted meaning “to divorce.” “It is unwarranted to understand the same verb a few verses later in some other way.”236

Offense-Clarification View

The fourth view argues that the purpose of the exception clause is to clarify when the sin of adultery has taken place. There are actually two species of this position. The first is offered by John Kilgallen. To him, the except clause informs us that some divorce, that is, divorce based upon porneia, is not adulterous, for the adultery was already present in the porneia. The divorced woman will not then be “made to be an adulteress”237 by subsequent remarriage, because the fornication has already rendered her an adulteress.

D. A. Carson rejects this conclusion for grammatical reasons. The passive infinitive, he replies, does not say the remarriage causes her to be an adulteress but to commit adultery. Carson adds that Kilgallen’s interpretation will not work in Matthew 19:9, the parallel construction, because there it is the man, not the woman, who will commit adultery.238

Carson’s first rejoinder is debatable; some would argue that Carson’s own rendering is unfaithful to the passive voice of the infinitive (his translation is active). Kilgallen might reply that in both verses the same point carries. In 5:32a the husband will not be guilty for making his wife be or commit adultery in remarriage, because she already is an adulteress by reason of her prior fornication. In 19:9 the husband will not be guilty of committing adultery in his own remarriage, because of his first wife’s prior fornication. In each case the issue is when divorce (and remarriage) will be accounted as adultery to the husband. In each the answer is only when the first wife has not committed fornication prior to their divorce. Recall that, even in 5:32a, the issue is not the guilt of the wife but of the divorcing husband. I consider this a possible interpretation, but still question Kilgallen’s assumption that remarriage of the wife may be assumed on the basis of 5:32b.

Heth/Wenham, present us the second species. They argue that the exception clause may only mean that the “divorce of an unchaste woman would not make her an adulteress, for she probably is already an adulteress.”239 But whereas Kilgallen removes the judgment of adultery from the divorce, Heth/Wenham do not necessarily do so. We later learn that, to them, porneia-based divorce is not to be considered adulterous, but it is still a moral offense unless the husband was forced by his culture to put his unchaste wife away.240 The problem with this view, however, is that it argues from silence. What is the offense of divorces-not-grounded-in-porneia? Why allege fault where none is stated by the text?

Permissible Divorce:

The fifth view is that Jesus hereby signifies an exception to the general rule: no divorce. This interpretation is by far the one preferred by scholars, but there agreement ends, for they differ widely over the meaning of the crucial offense-term: porneia. To that issue we now turn.

“ … of Porneia

Steele and Ryrie provide a rather nice table of the five interpretations of this word porneia.241 From it we draw this list:

1. 1. The Betrothal (engagement) View: Porneia means a preconsummational breach of chastity. (Isaksson)

2. 2. The Consanguinity (incest/illicit marriage) View: Porneia means incest, as in Leviticus 18. (Laney, Steele and Ryrie)

3. 3. The Preteritive (“no comment”) View: Porneia means “whatever uncleanness means in Deuteronomy 24:1-4.” (Vawter)

4. 4. The Patristic (early fathers’) View: Porneia means adultery. (Heth/Wenham)

5. 5. The Erasmian (Erasmus’) View: Porneia means adultery or some other sexual offense. (Murray, Duty)

The great question that must be asked in response to each of these views is, what is the support for this definition of the term? We must be especially careful to interrogate views that intentionally delimit or expand the term beyond the lexicon. We must consider both the lexicon and the prior biblical context in deciding the issue. We shall start with the more restrictive of the views and work toward the more expansive.

Betrothal View

The betrothal view is one that holds that Jesus employs porneia in a technical sense, restricting its use from its usual broad meaning to betrothal unfaithfulness. (For example, Mary’s alleged offense was thought by Joseph to be an instance of porneia in this sense.) The most able defender of this view is A. Isaksson, who did a noteworthy linguistic study of porneia.242 Though the study contains much valuable information, Isaksson does not make his case. He cannot show that porneia ever incontrovertibly means only betrothal unfaithfulness, much less that porneia must be so limited in the Matthew texts.243

He is nearer to showing the former than the latter, however. For though Heth/ Wenham controvert his use of the Joseph and Mary incident, their objection rings hollow. These authors press the fact that the Matthew 1 verses do not.244 But if these critics are correct, why did Joseph seek to put Mary away? If Jesus’ teaching agrees with the Old Testament, then whatever Joseph thought Mary had done to be pregnant must be a species of porneia. It is difficult to think of Joseph imagining anything other than that Mary had been unfaithful. Insofar as virgin births were unheard of, betrothal unfaithfulness must have been his best guess! Is it not most reasonable to believe that Joseph felt that unrepentant betrothal unfaithfulness should lead to divorce?’245

Another odd thing about Heth/Wenham’s criticism of Isaksson is that in several pages of “fair-play” support for that position they note the seriousness with which Eastern cultures view such unfaithfulness,246 but these two Westerners never seem to consider adequately that in the Old Testament both pre- and post-consummational unfaithfulness were considered the same offense (Deut. 22:22-27). The language is the same: the neighbor’s “wife” or “woman” has been “violated.” In short, betrothal unfaithfulness is, according to the Old Testament, a kind of adultery.247

Because adultery was to be dealt with by divorce (after execution was discontinued), Joseph, “being a righteous man,” sought to “divorce her.” Thus, the betrothal view seems to be correct in arguing that betrothal unfaithfulness is intended by porneia. But this view unfortunately continues to argue that such betrothal unfaithfulness is the only kind of unfaithfulness entailed in porneia. But if the proponents of this view were to include post-consummative unfaithfulness the view itself would be destroyed. The integrity of the view depends upon limiting the meaning of porneia to the betrothal period. Of course, they might argue that only betrothal adultery is in view in Matthew, but the reference in Matthew 1 is not strong enough to sustain that. The mind of the reader would have included more in the meaning of porneia than the betrothal view allows, given the common usage of the word, so the burden of proof rests upon the betrothal school. And they cannot bear it.

Illegal Marriages View

It may be helpful to divide the illegal marriages posture into two distinct schools: those holding that porneia primarily means incest,248 and those who think it primarily refers to interfaith marriages.249

We shall critique each species of this view in turn.

            Interfaith Marriages:

First, let us look at the idea that porneia means interfaith marriages. According to this opinion, Jesus wishes to exclude from moral condemnation divorces which ended marriages between believing Jews and (pagan) Gentiles. There are, of course, biblical precedents for this alternative. The Law forbade marriage between the people of the covenant and the people of the land (Deut. 7:3, et passim). The Ezra incident shows that legal severance of interfaith marriages was understood to be a proper corrective for such breaches of the Mosaic Law. I do not believe that Jesus would disagree with the prophet (and therefore, the Scriptures). Since the Ezra incident was relatively recent (in the whole history of the people), and insofar as Jesus often underscored the teachings of the prophets, it is not at all far-fetched that Jesus wished to include such righteous, disciplinary divorces in the category of those that were not offensive.

Heth and Wenham, however, controvert this use of Ezra by casting doubt over the validity of interfaith marriages. Their point is that the exception clause deals with real marriages, whereas interfaith marriages were possibly seen as only fornicating relationships. They highlight the fact that Ezra uses rather unusual terms for the “marriages” of the apostates and for their forced “divorces.”250 Ezra, they tell us, was a very exacting scribe, and his rejection of the standard terminology should not be passed over lightly. I agree, but the conclusions they draw are hasty.

It is to be expected that Ezra would disparage the marriages of the apostates. If these relationships were offensive enough to cause him to tear his clothing, it is probable that he would tear at the relationships verbally. After all, as pointed out in the earlier section concerning Ezra, the marriages were anomalies. They were marriages; that is, they had been contracted in the very way that acceptable unions were. But these “legal” marriages of the apostates were unacceptable to the Mosaic legislation. Thus, they were at once legal and illegal. They were legal according to prevailing law, but illegal according to God’s Law. Since they were legal according to prevailing laws, it would not do to simply ask the men to stop acting like husbands to the women of the land. Ezra’s corrective could not have been simply like that of Paul’s in 1 Corinthians 6:18: “flee immorality.” No, the quasi-legal bond must be dissolved. And that dissolution was, according to prevailing law, a valid divorce.251

But to say that the historical context reminds us of illicit intermarriage between Jews and Gentiles is one thing, to suggest that Jesus is, in the Sermon, trying to support ethnic purity is another. For although all His disciples were then Jews, it is presumptuous to suggest that our Lord did not, in His clarification of the standards of holiness, provide for disciples in all ages.252 In view of the important New Testament teaching that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, is it wise to suggest that Jesus continued the division?

Some would suggest “yes,” insofar as Jesus professed to have come only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. But I see such exclusive statements by Jesus as only a tactical move on His part, much the way Paul, the Apostle of the Gentiles, seems to have gone first to the Jews in each of the cities of the dispersion, regarding them as the most likely candidates to receive the gospel.

But just as Paul “turned to the Gentiles,” so too Jesus in His ministry also went to the Gentiles (Matt. 15:21 ff.). Doubtless the words and ideas of the Sermon were rhetorically designed for Jewish disciples’ ears, but we should guard against making Jesus say things contrary to the teachings of His disciples, to whom He promised the Holy Spirit to “lead them into all truth” (John 16:23) and to whom He gave the task of discipling the nations, “teaching them to observe all that I taught you” (Matt. 28:20).

Some might suggest that Jew-Gentile intermarriage might have been proscribed as a concession to the Jewish community. Though at first seemingly supported by the Council of Jerusalem’s dictates (which appear to have had a similar design), this is unacceptable. Such a concession more closely parallels Peter’s avoiding gentile fellowship in order to impress his Jewish friends, according to Galatians 2:11 ff., is clearly condemned therein by the Apostle Paul. It is one thing to ask Gentiles to forgo certain forms of behavior so as not to offend Jews. It is quite another to tell Jewish believers to refrain from marrying Gentile unbelievers so as not to offend Jews. In the first case, Gentiles are asked to act like Jews so as to break down the wall dividing them; in the second, Jews are being asked to preserve the wall.

With regard to the possibility that Jesus anticipates intermarriage between Christians and unbelievers, Paul, in his second letter to the Corinthians, does apply the Old Testament principle of separation to the people of the new covenant (chapter 6). Perhaps even this early on in the spreading of the kingdom message Jesus wanted His disciples to know that interfaith marriages were unacceptable to a standard of true discipleship. But is Jesus referring in the Sermon to sinning disciples who need to have their lives straightened out by disciplinary divorces? Most unlikely, for Paul comments that Jesus did not speak to this subject of intermarriage (1 Cor. 7:12).

Though it is true that each of the first three sayings in the Sermon implies the disciple is a sinner, a careful reading of verses 31 and 32 shows that the sinner is only a sinner when he divorces, not prior to the divorce. The saying seems to assume that the divorce is only valid if the wife is guilty of porneia, not the husband! In my view, then, though a divorce that aims at being a “fruit of repentance” would not be adulterous (because grounded upon the adultery of the marriage itself), we cannot see that this is the primary meaning of Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:32a.


Besides interfaith marriages, another species of illicit marriages would be those that are incestuous. A leading proponent (in America) of the “incest” interpretation of porneia is Carl Laney. Arguing for another technical definition of porneia in the exception clauses, Laney offers several points for our consideration.253

First, porneia as “incest” is a New Testament usage. Borrowing from F. F. Bruce, Laney analyzes the structure of the definition of the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:20, 29) to determine the usage there of the word porneia. The Council’s reordering (Acts 15:29) of James’s list (Acts 15:20) of requirements for the Gentile believers evidences a thinly veiled dependence upon the “holiness code” of Leviticus 17:8-18:18 as a source for the suggestions. Assuming the Leviticus material to be ceremonial in nature, Laney argues that since porneia means “incest” in Acts 15 it could mean the same in the exception clauses.

Second, porneia as “incest” is a first-century Jewish usage. It is used that way in the Qumran materials (the Damascus Document), according to Joseph Fitzmyer.254

Third, porneia as “incest” fits the Jewish context. Here Laney presents his form of the “ethnic calculus”: the holiness code is a Jewish concern, and that is why porneia is found in Matthew and not in Mark or Luke.

Fourth, porneia as “incest” fits the historical background. Here Laney ties the context of the Herod-Herodias affair to the exception clause in Matthew 19, arguing that restricting porneia to incest in that passage is all that is needed to give sufficient meaning in light of the historical context. Moreover, a pronouncement by Jesus would have been needed, since “incestuous marriage was obviously rather popular among the political leaders of Palestine in the first century” (citing not only Herod Antipas, but also Archelaus and Herod Agrippa II as evidence). Laney sums up these arguments by saying that “Jesus seems to be [saying] that it would be better for a couple to separate and end an illegal marriage than to continue an illicit sexual relationship.255

The major problem with this form of the illegal marriages view is that, like the forms already criticized, it fails to show that what is doubtless a kind of porneia is the only kind intended by Jesus in the questioned passages. Even if we grant all Laney’s arguments, the definition of porneia may still be properly considered inclusive rather than exclusive. Moreover, some of the arguments themselves are flawed. For instance, Heth/Wenham, by rather thorough analysis, show that the attempt to limit porneia in Acts 15 to a “holiness code” item, relevant only to ancient Israel, is fraught with problems. It could well be that the list in Acts represents the “Noaic Constitutions,” that is, universal prohibitions against idolatry, blood drinking, and fornication or, as the Western Text has the list in Acts 15, “idolatry, fornication, and murder”. Either of these latter lists involves “essentials,” to use the wording of Acts 15:28.256

Similarly, Heth/Wenham point out that Leviticus 18 itself does not seem to be dealing with matters of Christian liberty. They ask if believers are free to practice incest today.257 Of course not, and realizing this leads the critic to inquire further into Laney’s use of the Acts/ Leviticus tie. Why, one may ask, does Laney limit the Leviticus reference to Leviticus 17:8-14(16) and Leviticus 18:6-18? Why does he skip Leviticus 18:1-5 and 18:19-30? Since these sections too are a part of the “code,” one would think they would be relevant. The apparent reason for the arbitrary exclusion is that the banished portions show two things that are destructive to Laney’s thesis:

1. Leviticus 18:1-5 and 24-30 show that the porneia equivalents found therein are the gross sins of the Gentiles, which caused God to remove them from the land; they are not a list of ceremonial rituals at all. Thus, Laney’s effort to direct the discussion to something peculiarly Jewish, that is a “holiness code” matter, backfires.

2. Leviticus 18:19-23 includes other offenses that would logically have to be classified as porneia equivalents: adultery, homosexuality, bestiality. But the whole effort to restrict porneia to a technical use is vitiated by expanding the list to include these. Adultery, especially, is a concept that Laney is at pains to exclude from the meaning of porneia. Again, the effort defeats itself and actually supports a quite broad definition of the questioned term.

Though Laney has failed to make his point, reviewing his material is helpful in establishing a broader definition of porneia. More will be said about that when we analyze the views of the patristic and Erasmian schools. But first we must consider the preteritive view’s idea of porneia.

Preteritive View

Since this position has already been criticized in other regards, here I merely point out that, if Jesus did intentionally avoid controversy regarding the meaning of “uncleanness” in Deuteronomy 24:1, porneia could mean anything. It really does not matter. Although a particular definition might be correct for porneia/”uncleanness,” it is of no consequence to our understanding of the morality of divorce and remarriage. This seems likely that Jesus intended this.

Patristic and Erasmian Views

Some might see the patristic and Erasmian views as limiting the meaning of porneia to “adultery,” but their proponents generally define that word “sexual infidelity.”258 Though they argue long for the inclusion of adultery in porneia,259 they would also include the other sexual offenses, such as homosexuality and bestiality, probably including incest with them as forms of adultery. The support for such breadth comes in part from the lexicon. Guy Duty lists most modern lexicons up to his writing (1967) and adequately shows the standard definition of porneia to be “sexual immorality in general.”260 This holds true for the Hebrew parallel term “zanh and the use of porneia in the Septuagint.

What then could be the complaint against this definition? Laney offers the following:261

1 Porneia is not the normal word for “adultery.” The normal Greek word is “moicheia, which is much narrower in scope. The two terms should not be equated.262

2. The words are found in the same verses, which indicates that they are not intended to be synonyms (cf. Matt. 15:19; Mark 7:21; 1 Cor. 6:9; Gal. 5:19; Heb. 13:4).

Several responses are in order. First, it is true that porneia is not the normal word for “adultery”; however, no one really argues that it is. Rather, these schools believe that porneia includes moichos. This Laney himself seems to admit when he says that “porneia can be used in a broad sense in the New Testament to refer to any kind of unlawful sexual activity.”263

Second, the passages that include both terms retain a sense of the distinctiveness of each when you presume the concentric nature of their definitions. For instance, careful consideration of Matthew 15:19 reveals the overlapping nature of terms:

For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders. These are the things which defile the man …

Note that, in this series, no less than four times a more limited concept precedes a broader concept that (linguistically) encompasses it:

1. 1. “Things which defile” includes all previous items on the list.

2. 2. “Murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, and slanders” all include “evil thoughts,” for the text tells us that it is “from the heart” that such things come.

3. 3. “Slanders” include “false witness,” although sometimes slander might include truthful witness.

4. 4. “Fornication” includes “adultery” but also other unseemly things, such as homosexuality, bestiality, and incest.

As may readily be observed, the narrower term(s) comes first, immediately followed by the broader term(s). In this list, Jesus goes from the specific to the more general, so as to catch up other evils not implied by the narrower term.

As for the other passages, Mark 7:21 (a parallel text to Matt. 15:19) does not have the poetic structure of its parallel, but the obvious overlap is present. Would Laney wish to argue that “coveting” is totally distinct from “thefts,” or that “pride” and “foolishness” are mutually exclusive? First Corinthians 6:9 yields the same analysis: is “theft” separable from “coveting”? As for Galatians 5:19-21, is there not linguistic overlap between “strife” and “outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions”? Only Hebrews 13:4 does not allow such a comparative analysis. But that does not mean that the writer is not using them as synonymous parallelisms: “fornicators even adulterers God will judge.”264 Laney is far from making his case against the general sexual meaning of porneia.

I would suggest, however, that there are two moot issues in the definition of porneia held by these two schools: First, should porneia be limited to the realm of sexuality? I am not trying to suggest that sexuality is not the marked connotation of porneia; rather, in view of the Old Testament understanding of “spiritual” porneia, might not one leave open the possibility of porneia being defined in principle as “activity against the covenant”? Although this would readily seem to be far too broad, I shall presently give evidence that a broadened definition of moichos (implicit in porneia) was indeed the intention of our Lord, and that, when that meaning was fully understood by the Pharisees, they sought to challenge Him on the matter, namely, in the Matthew 19 incident. We shall discuss the matter in greater detail in chapter 7.

A second point, and one that is far more questionable, is whether Jesus intended porneia, as a grounds for legitimate divorce, to include male “unfaithfulness,” in the sense of “sexual infidelity.” We must remember that in the ancient world it was never the case that a man’s sexual activities outside his relationship with his own spouse would be considered “adultery” against her. The practice of polygyny and the definition of the fornication laws in the Bible preclude any interpretation of such activity as adultery against her. Even his adultery against another man’s covenant (i.e., his sexual relations with another man’s wife) would not have been considered adultery against his own wife.

Such activities would, however, have been considered porneia, not against his wife, but against God (cf. 1 Cor. 7:2). Yet there is a very good reason for not interpreting a husband’s porneia as being grounds for his wife divorcing him. In the first place, the Old Testament at no point made it such. Second, Jesus’ comments on the point specifically speak of the man divorcing his wife on the ground of porneia; the comments make no reference to her divorcing him on such grounds. But can we not simply assume that the exception clause may be reversed? After all, does Jesus not reverse the condemnation of a woman who divorces her own husband (Mark 10:12)?

I believe not, and for the following reason: Jesus makes it a point to note that a woman who divorces her husband is guilty of adultery. This is to say, where the difference in sex of the spouse is relevant, He notes the reciprocity. Lest any think that a woman may divorce her husband without bearing the onus of adultery, Jesus in Mark’s “reversal saying” (10:12) makes it clear that this is a wrong inference to make. But Mark’s complementary parallel does not offer porneia as grounds for the woman to divorce her husband. Had Jesus intended to imply that, we may presume that He would have simply said so. Neither does Jesus deny that a woman may legitimately be free from her husband for his intentional failure to provide or for his abuse of her. If He had, He would have been abrogating a right given in the Law (Ex. 21:10-11). Such freedom would have necessarily involved a divorce wit. Jesus is silent about such matters, because He is not discussing the woman’s right to divorce but, rather, the man’s rights and responsibilities.265

Remember that Jesus is trying to clarify the meaning of the Law of God. That Law needed clarification on the point of the woman’s unfaithfulness, insofar as the execution strictures (Deut. 22; Lev. 20, etc.) were no longer and could no longer be exercised and the marriage ended in that way. But on the point of the woman’s grounds for putting away her husband for abuse, the Law was still clear and relevant (though often ignored by the rabbis). For Jesus to have allowed for a woman to put her husband away for porneia would have been for Him to have introduced an application not in accord with the Law, to have introduced a custom not arising from previous biblical principle.266

Finally, we must ask whether Heth/Wenham are correct in seeing the effect of the exception clause as only freeing from the stain of adultery a man who is forced by his culture to divorce an adulterous wife. On this view, the definition of porneia remains as the broad Erasmian position asserts, but effectively ends up in the place of the preteritive view, which denies that the exception clause has anything to do with the prohibition of divorce. The divorce is still wrong, but the guilt for it is charged to the woman’s account.267

This view is inadequate for three reasons. First, I believe that the Old Testament (Jer. 3:1; Isa. 50:1; and Hosea 1 and 2) and the New (Matt. 1:19; 18:15 ff.) are united in their approval of divorce as a discipline. For Jesus to go against this tradition would be for Him to abrogate the penalties for adultery. He denies that He intends to do any such thing (Matt. 5:17 ff.).268 Second, it is highly questionable to interpret Matthew as saying, “He who divorces his wife is guilty of adultery unless he is forced to do so because his wife has committed adultery, in which case she is responsible for the sin that such divorce instances.” About the best that can be said for this interpretation is that it would be in harmony with the absolute prohibition of divorce already held to by Heth/Wenham. Finally, this view creates an interesting ethical dilemma. How is it possible that a culture can force a man to divorce his wife if he refuses to do so? Would we not hold such a man responsible to stand against his culture and uphold the ideal of God?

Does God accommodate culture in that way? Daniel and his three friends would surely have adopted a different stance if they had Heth/Wenham to advise them! But Daniel and company were not slow to stand against immoral culture; they refused to compromise their standards. And God is no more to be bullied than they. Was His divorce of Israel a result of cultural pressure? Certainly not. In short, I find this variation ethically sub-biblical.269

“Makes Her Commit Adultery [when she remarries]”

Let us again go into detail.

“Makes … ”

Some versions translate this verb “causes,” and that raises an interesting contrast between this word and another, similar concept of causation in Matthew 5:29. The earlier verb is “scandalizo, which means “cause, obstruct, or offend.” Carson notes that its noun form is used “originally referring to the trigger of a trap (cf. Rom. 11:9).270 This earlier verb is full of the connotation of indirect cause … the other person stumbles, but you caused it. This causation is one act becoming the occasion of another’s volitional act of sin.

The verb in Matthew 5:32 (poieo), however, seems to imply more direct causation. It is the divorcing husband who makes the wife do or be something. Given the close relationship of these verbs in the context, one is surprised that the text would not have repeated “scandalizo rather than using poieo. Conceptually, the traditional interpretation, “causes her to commit adultery,” involves the idea of an act that becomes the occasion for the woman stumbling into adultery when she remarries. In other words, the divorce was a scandalon to her—the trigger to the trap that sprang shut upon her at the time of her remarriage. Later uses of scandalizo in Matthew (18:6, 8, 9) support this point. Matthew uses that word whenever he wishes to speak of one person causing another to sin. It is not clear that he ever uses poieo for that purpose.

It is true that poieo is sometimes used with the infinitive to show action that results from the initial “makes.” One lexicon, under poieo cites Mark 1:17, 7:37b, Luke 5:34, John 6:10, Acts 17:26, and Revelation 13:13b.271 Of these, however, only Acts and Revelation associate poieo with a passive infinitive, and in each case, there is no volitional choice involved in the action of the infinitive. In our verse, by contrast, we are asked to believe that the woman is forced by the divorce to enter into an act of adultery. Why should we suppose this? Cannot that innocent woman realize that to remarry would be to commit adultery and remain celibate for the rest of her life—living honorably with her parents’ family?272

An Adulteress or a Stigmatized Woman?

The clause “makes her commit adultery,” as it is customarily interpreted, appears to fly in the face of the entire doctrine of marriage that I have been setting forth in this work. It seems to controvert the idea that a divorce ends the marriage relationship, for, if the woman who is presumed innocent and is divorced by her husband is still liable to being classified as an adulteress when she remarries, then one can only conclude that her marital union still exists in spite of the legalities. Even Murray, who holds to the view that the innocent party may remarry, says,

The evil of putting away (for any other reason than that of adultery) is viewed from the standpoint of what it entails for the woman divorced. The man “makes her to be an adulteress.” … The man is not said in this case to commit adultery—his sin is rather that he becomes implicated in the wrong of adultery on the part of his dismissed wife.273

Like almost all the scholars who comment on this clause (and a surprising number simply ignore it when it comes to detail), Murray accepts two questionable points in concluding as he does.

1. 1. The aorist passive infinitive (moikeuthanai) is properly translated as an active “to commit adultery.” Says Murray, “It is apparent that the sense is active and means, ‘to commit adultery.’”274

2. 2. The act of adultery is not the divorce but the remarriage, by anticipation from the next clause (“and he who marries a divorced woman commits adultery”). Murray: “The wife does not become an adulteress simply by being divorced … It is necessary, therefore, to envisage some subsequent action in which the woman is involved as drawn within the scope of this expression ‘Makes her to suffer adultery’”275

Murray was aware, however, that R. C. H. Lenski had previously challenged this traditional interpretive framework as poorly analyzed by it proponents. In 1943 Lenski argued the following points:276

1. 1. The woman of 5:32a is innocent of wrong. It is her husband who has destroyed the marriage by the divorce—rendering her unable to fulfill her marital commitments. It is improper grammatically to find the responsible agent for her “adultery” in a second, hypothetical husband, for the causal agent of an infinitive must precede it.

2. 2. The “adultery” relating to the wife is said to occur at the time of the divorce, not in some subsequent marriage; 5:32a and 5:32b are independent clauses.277

3. 3. The woman is said to “suffer” the adultery, not “commit” it. The infinitive is passive not active (the active form available-used in the prior context—but not chosen), and no one has shown that it should be translated actively.

4. 4. Therefore, it seems better to interpret this verse as condemning the woman’s husband for stigmatizing her as an adulteress.

Murray attempts to do the missing study Lenski laments. Murray first notes that the passive oimoikeuo occurs only two other times in the New Testament, once in the parallel saying of Matthew 19:9 and once in John 8:4. But he goes on to point out that the former is unhelpful, since it is in exactly the same saying, and the John 8 passage is textually doubtful, though he adds that those verses are “helpful in determining the meaning of the passive, if moikeuomena278 is regarded as passive rather than middle.”279 Murray’s discussion of this text actually appears on the next page in the continuation of the note. There he argues that it has the sense of active, even if passive, but could be middle. Few, if any, would regard the form in John 8:4 as other than middle. In fact, the context of John 8 demands that the woman be identified as the actor because it comes in a statement of charges against her. The Pharisees are reported as saying, ‘This woman has been caught in the act herself committing adultery” (emphasis added).

Murray then considers evidence from the Septuagint and finds but one “possible” instance of the passive of moikeuo in the canonical books: Leviticus 20:10. Actually, the verb form moikeusatai appears twice in that verse. He forthwith identifies that form as aorist subjunctive middle, translating the Hebrew imperfect Qal construction of the verb. He then states that it should be translated in the sense of an active verb form (“to commit adultery”). Thus far, this is not very impressive, as the middle form is usually translated with an active sense, and the verse in Matthew 5:32 is definitely not a middle. Then Murray enters upon a long discussion of how the Greek noun (moikeuomena) translated “the adulterer” and “the adulteress” is itself a translation of the Hebrew active participle (“committing adultery”). But here, too, Murray is blocked by the fact that moikeuomena (a noun, which arises from the more basic verb form) may arise from the middle (indicative) rather than the passive form of moikeuo. Given the context of the word in Leviticus 20:10, this is by far the most likely choice. But Murray drives onward with an “if” argument that I leave to the reader’s discretion to pursue.

A passage from Sirach (23:23) is then discussed. The form of the verb here is aorist passive (hemoikeutha). The wording could be either of the following:

And, thirdly, she commits adultery in fornication and brings in children by a strange man.


And, thirdly, she is made to suffer adultery in fornication and brings in children by a strange man.

Murray finds the former the more “natural,”280 but argues that in either case the context shows that the woman is guilty of actively committing the offense of adultery.281 It is true that the woman is known to have been guilty of actively committing adultery, but it is not clear that we know that from the verb in question. We know it from verse 23, which tells us that she “leaves her husband and brings in an heir by a stranger.” This is not a case of divorce (as the woman could not initiate that except in the case of her husband’s abuse—which the context seemingly excludes) but of desertion. In other words, we may choose the second option and still see within it the offense of adultery—because of the context, not because it is necessary to translate the verb actively.282

But is this not the very point to be raised concerning the Matthean passage, namely, that the context there implies nothing of the kind? The culpable actor there is most definitely the divorcing husband. If, as Lenski insists (and concerning which Murray has nothing grammatically to say), it is improper to bring the subsequent clause (“and the man who marries the divorced woman”) into the interpretation of the questioned clause, then Murray has not proven his point, but may in fact have proven what he intended to deny, that is, that the woman is the recipient of the stigmatization as an adulteress in the event of the divorce.

In spite of this shaky groundwork, Murray becomes emphatic:

In Matthew 5:32, therefore, it is not impossible to regard moikeuthanai as having an active meaning, namely, to “commit adultery.” In this case the clause would be rendered, “he makes her to commit adultery.” But whether this be the sense or not, it is not feasible to exclude from the word moikeuthanai actual involvement in the sin of adultery. Let the sense be active or passive, the woman is conceived of as entering into adulterous relations.283

It may be helpful at this point to get out of the exegetical swamp and try and find a hill from which we can get a better perspective on where we have come from and where we are. Murray’s work at this point may create in the reader exegetical vertigo. He makes us feel that the burden of proof rests upon his opponent (Lenski) rather than upon himself.284 We must remember several grammatical points:285

1. 1. The verb moikeuthanai in the text of Matthew 5:32 is an aorist passive/middle infinitive. As an infinitive, it is a verbal substantive. The question is, which (verbal or substantive) predominates this verse? The infinitive in question seems to be the direct object of the main verb, in our case, “to make” or “cause “ It identifies what the divorcing man makes her to experience.

2. 2. As to voice, its force may be presumed to be not as strong as that of the main verb, but it cannot be ignored. In the case of our infinitive, the voice is passive or middle. If middle, there is a stress upon personal interest in the actor, in this case the treacherously divorced woman. It would emphasize her part in committing the sin of adultery. Since such interest would seem to displace the interest which the text clearly places upon the man who divorces her without grounds, the selection of this voice is generally ignored by interpreters in favor of a simple active force. If it is a passive, then the woman becomes the recipient of the adultery which is caused (main verb) by the divorcing husband. She suffers the sin of adultery, not commits it. The presumption rests with the passive, since the middle voice is more rare, and since the middle places a wrong emphasis upon the woman’s culpability rather than that of her former husband.

3. 3. The exception to this presumption is when the verb is defective. Such a defective verb, called “deponent” by Greek scholars, would have to be one of a short list of such verbs which had, through the process of the evolution of the language, lost their active voice forms. Moikeuthanai is not one of those verbs, therefore, the presumption remains in favor of the passive interpretation and anyone suggesting otherwise has the burden of proof if he suggests another voice/force, namely active. The translation preferred would be either “he causes her to be adulterized” or “he causes her to suffer adultery.”

4. 4. The tense of the infinitive is aorist. This tense implies “punctiliar action,” action which is conceptually complete, not a continuing activity. As to when the act occurs, that is determined by the main verb, “to cause” But the tense of the clause is present and must be supplemented by some other wording to identify when this causing is occurring. For that, the immediate context provides the explanation: when the divorcing takes place.

5. 5. The participle (“he who is divorcing”), which matches the main verb as to tense (present), voice (active) and mode (indicative) is predicative (essential to the meaning of the sentence), making a statement about the subject of the sentence, namely the divorcing man. It is possible that both the verb and the participle are present tense verbals functioning as perfects. That is with a stress more on the state of the action as being complete, rather than durative or continuing actions. But, in either option (present or perfect) the time of the participle is determined by the main verb and is presumed to be inexorably tied to it as to time. The “causing” the man does, occurs when the divorcing takes place, not at some subsequent time, such as her speculated remarriage.

Thus, in sum: “the one who is divorcing without the cause of fornication is causing his wife to be adulterized or “the one who is divorcing without the grounds of fornication is making his wife to suffer adultery”—or simply, when he groundlessly divorces her he makes her suffer adultery. He has broken his vows to her to care for her.

Returning to Murray, he resists this grammar, and attempts to rest his burden of proof for translating the passive voice of the infinitive as an active, upon one such similar infinitive form in the Apocryphal book, Sirach (23:23). There definitely passive form of the verb “commit adultery” may possibly have an active force. But note that what convinces us about the need to translate these words actively is a context that is significantly different from the one in the Matthean Sermon. In Sirach 23:23 the woman is at fault because she deserted her husband and had relations with another man (all one sentence), whereas in the Matthew 5:32 passage the woman has been legally deserted by her husband and, for all that independent clause tells us, may never have had relations with another man (such a relation is mentioned in a second, independent clause). Murray seems to be skating on rather thin exegetical ice. Certainly it is not normal procedure to use such an exceptional point to overturn the standard rules.

Yet Murray concludes the argument in his note by engaging Lenski directly. His main argument centers upon Lenski’s self-admittedly tentative translation of the passive as, “brings about that she is stigmatized as adulterous.” Murray insists that such an interpretation of the force of the aorist passive is wholly unwarranted. And, while it is true that some kind of passive force may have to be recognized, the passive cannot be forced into this kind of service. Says Murray, the idea of merely subjective judgment on the part of others is not inherent in the passive. And whatever strength may be given to the passive in this case, the woman is still viewed as implicated in adultery.286

One cannot resist a couple of rejoinders to Murray. First, though Lenski’s translation may be grammatically unwarranted since not inherent, that is not to say that the context might not warrant such a translation. It is to be remembered that the Old Testament was quite concerned about the stigmatizing of a pure woman. Twice the Law spoke to such issues: Num. 5:31, by allusion, teaches that if she were innocent of allegations of adultery, her husband should bear the guilt; Deut. 22:17-19 teaches that if she was innocent of such a charge he had to pay one hundred shekels of silver, or about one hundred months’ wages. If a person is morally permitted only to divorce his wife on the grounds of “unchastity” (and in most instances this would entail adultery), but instead divorces her without these grounds, what does the divorce imply about this woman? The watching world will see the divorce and assume that the woman is guilty of adultery. This in effect puts the sin of the husband upon the head of the woman! He broke his vow of provision by divorcing her (a non-sexual form of adultery or treachery; see appendix D) and framed her with the stigma of being guilty of the only grounds for divorce allowed in the kingdom: sexual adultery. Thus, the woman is treated like a piece of property that has received the stamp “DEFECTIVE,” when in fact, it is the “stamper” who is morally defective. Moreover, grammatically, if the idea of the infinitive as a purpose of the main verb is stressed, it makes sense to say that the aim of his divorcing her is to render her adulterized, or “as an adulteress.” This might even be stronger if the infinitive were rendered as a noun: “He makes her an adulteress.”

An Adulterized Woman

But the likelihood is that the adulterization that the text wishes to express is not his “making her out to be” an adulteress (so Lenski), but rather that his act of divorcing makes her adulterized. In other words, it seeks to identify her husband as an adulterer. After all, the chief problem with the prevailing Pharasaical teachings on Deuteronomy 24:1-4 was their implication that the husband was guiltless. But as I believe I have shown in chapter 3, the text of Deuteronomy intends nothing of the kind; it was intended to protect the woman from such a man. How ironic that Murray and others have preserved the exact Pharasaical mistake by insisting that the woman is “implicated in adultery.” Rather, it is the husband who is guilty of adultery in the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:31 f.

The context bears this out:

Matt. 5:21-26 You think that you are innocent of murder, because you only did it in your heart? You are wrong. You are guilty of murder!

Matt. 5:27-30 You think that you are innocent of adultery, because you only lusted in your mind? You are wrong. You are guilty of adultery! Matt. 5:31-32

You think that you are innocent of adultery, because you have a legal writ? You are wrong. You are guilty of adultery!

It would be as wrong-headed to suggest that the wife was complicitous in the adultery of 5:32a as to suggest that the woman of 5:28 was complicitous in the lust, or that the brother of 5:23 was deserving of the unjust anger.287 No, the context draws us inexorably to the conclusion that the woman suffers the offense of adultery in the event of the divorce. Simply, “everyone who divorces his wife, except for the cause of unchastity, makes her to suffer adultery.” This is exactly what the Old Testament Law says in Malachi 2. The man who has divorced his wife without grounds is guilty of treachery against her.

But if this is so, why does not Jesus simply say “everyone who divorces his wife, except for the cause of unchastity, is committing adultery against her” as He does in Mark 10:11a.? Why does Jesus make a point of using the difficult passive form? Nonetheless, the Pharisees were clearly unconcerned with the impact of such a divorce could reflect upon the woman’s character. In a world in which a woman could be divorced for reasons relating to matters from soup to sex, the woman is clearly prejudiced by the action and as the case usually is with prejudice, inquiring minds will not likely assume that only the soup was burned. Over and against this sort of potential slander, God’s previous revelation sought to keep the woman’s reputation clear. Therefore, it is quite fitting by way of response to the Pharasaical teaching of Deut. 24:1-4, that the matter of stigmatization be realized and dealt with in some fashion. Nonetheless, since the primary point of the Pharasaical teaching was the right of the divorcing husband and the insensitivity to stigmatization secondary, I believe Lenski’s interpretation must be kept to a secondary level. I believe that only the aorist passive infinitive is able—in as few words—to convey the idea of both Malachi 2 an appropriate primary response to an inadequate understanding of Deuteronomy 24:1-4, and Deuteronomy 22:19, the secondary implication of the Pharisee’s misunderstanding to the Deuteronomic passage.288

Finally, it is indeed interesting to compare Matthew 5:31 and Deuteronomy 24:4 on this matter of difficult verb forms. In each case, the biblical text has made it hard on us by choosing a verb that in one way or another is nearly a hapax (used in the Bible only once). The Hebrew translated “she has been defiled” is without parallel in the Old Testament. Even the verb form is nearly once-spoken. The commenting passage in Matthew 5:32 offers to us another unusual form. And it is difficult to know whether to use Deuteronomy to interpret Matthew, or Matthew to interpret Deuteronomy. Should we translate “suffers adultery” as “adulterizes herself because the Hebrew has a seeming reflexive/passive idea, or should we translate the Hebrew “she has been defiled [by her husband who cast her to another man]”? Should we use the fact that only when the second marriage occurs does Deuteronomy declare the woman defiled (thus perhaps implying that the union remains) to suggest (after all we have said) that, in Matthew, the clause following the questioned infinitive does give the cause to the infinitive? Or, should we allow the sufficiency of the stigmatization-in-the-divorce of the treacherously divorced woman help us infer that it is the husband (in Deuteronomy) who allows his wife to contract a marriage with another man who is the defiler? Or perhaps we should not see the two as synonyms after all; perhaps it is that the woman who suffers adultery becomes defiled (i.e., morally “off-limits”) with regard to her hardhearted husband when he allows her to marry another rather than seeking reconciliation. These are hard and humbling choices.

My own feeling is that we should first interpret Deuteronomy 24:1-4 in its own right as we have done above, then allow the Matthew passage to inform the Deuteronomic one insofar as Pharasaical misinterpretation is involved, because that is what Jesus is trying to do in the Sermon at that point. There was misunderstanding regarding the Deuteronomic passage, and Jesus is trying to clear the problem up. The Pharisees regarded the husband of Deuteronomy 24:1 as righteous and the woman as guilty and defiled. Jesus reversed this to say that the man who took advantage of the Deuteronomic concession was guilty of adultery, and the woman was innocent of moral guilt, though, perhaps, stigmatized. Jesus is probably silent regarding the defilement of Deuteronomy 24:4 precisely because, having stated that the woman was put away, it was not necessary to reaffirm the obvious, that is, if she remarries she may not subsequently return to the former husband. The Pharisees, after all, did not argue about that; nor did they misunderstand the rule in that respect. Though they emphasize different sides of the coin, the main intent of both Deuteronomy 24:1-4 and Matthew 5:31-32 is to protect the woman from a hard-hearted husband who is treacherously inclined to treat her like chattel property. Deuteronomy 24 emphasizes the protection of the innocent wife. Matthew 5 emphasizes the culpability of the divorcing husband. Deuteronomy is not trying to exonerate the husband of the guilt of a form of adultery; Matthew is not trying to implicate the wife in adultery. Deuteronomy is not trying to offer a legal way out of a broken marriage; Matthew is not trying to prohibit the legal ending of a broken marriage. And by the same token, it is not the main purpose of Matthew to teach a legal way out of marriage. The exception clause is only an aside to the main point: implicating the treacherous male as an adulterer in the eyes of God over and against a Pharasaical, chauvinistic society.

The Response of the Feinbergs

While agreeing that Jesus condemns a man who is groundlessly divorcing his wife, the brothers Feinberg reject the idea that Jesus limits His criticism to such a husband in 5:32a.289 Understanding the pivotal issue to be the translation of moicheuthenai, the infinitive for which I have suggested the translation: “to suffer adultery,” they offer three responses. First, they contend that a passive translation is not justified by “word usage” or by “contextual considerations.” Second, they consider my suggested translation, “to be adulterized,” is a “tortuously difficult way” to express two passages (Deuteronomy 22:19 and Malachi 2:14-17), which, they hasten to add, are not under consideration by Jesus. Finally, they do not think that the overall conclusions drawn above (apparently driven by the passive translation), do justice to the antithetical context, i.e., “Jesus powerful indictment of the man who thinks he is righteous because he has met the letter of the law by giving his wife a bill of divorcement.”

Their first objection betrays a grave misunderstanding of who bears the burden of proof in this discussion. Whatever “word usage” may mean to the Feinbergs, it certainly cannot mean the grammar of the word itself. It is undisputed that moicheuthenai is middle/passive in form. It is also undisputed that moicheuthenai is not deponent.290 Given these two facts, it is to be expected that a translation of a passive/middle voice infinitive will be given a passive or middle sense unless the context clearly will not allow such. Less convincing, but still significant, would be evidence that the same passive/ middle infinitive appears in other verses where the contexts of require an active force. But in each of these situations, as shown above, the burden of proof rests upon the translator who contends that the grammar (passive/middle) should be ignored. Murray tried that unsuccessfully. That is to say the Feinbergs, and not I, have the burden of proof. And, while they do bring up the context in their third argument,291 which I will address below, at no point do the Feinbergs appeal to similar contexts in support of their own translation, and their defense of the active translation rests solely upon an appeal to “usual” interpretation and to their own intuition.292 Needless to say, neither of these defenses is very impressive.293

The second objection presented by the Feinbergs involves a serious misrepresentation (and perhaps misunderstanding) regarding the importance of Deuteronomy 22 and Malachi 2 to my understanding of the passive. They claim that I admit that I hold “my view” (presumably my insistence on translating the infinitive with passive force) “because of Malachi 2 and Deut. 22:19.” Their inference seems to arise from my statement (supra) that only the passive can convey the ideas present in those two passages, and from a footnote in which I stated that the idea of stigmatization “determined” the use of the passive by Matthew. In any case, they twist my writing to make it appear that I have Jesus responding to a misrepresentation of those two Old Testament passages rather than to Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Say they, “However, there is no contextual evidence in Matthew 5 that Jesus is correcting anyone’s understanding of those passages. Instead, Jesus’ words (v. 32) are antithetical to the common understanding (mentioned in v. 31) of Deut 24, and Deut. 24:1-4 does not cover the issue of Deut 22:19. Likewise it is dubious that Malachi 2 relates to Deuteronomy 24.”294

At no point in my discussion of moicheuthenai do I ever say that I depended upon Deut. 22 or Mal. 2 in coming to the translation “to be adulterized.” Further, at no point do I say that Matthew depended upon either of those texts in choosing the passive form in 5:32a. And, at no point do I loose contact with Deut. 24:1-4 as the primary object of Christ’s correction of Pharasaical misinterpretation. The Feinbergs have confused 1) my supplemental argument, intending to show that my suggested translation has Old Testament conceptual precedent, for 2) my primary justification for translating moicheuthenai according to its grammatical form. They have also confused the limited discussion of justification of translating the passive infinitive according to its grammar with the overall discussion of context and correction of Pharasaical misinterpretation. It is difficult for me to understand how two scholars could argue this unless they only read the first edition of this book selectively.

Let me restate the issues. We are presented in the text of Matthew 5:32a with a difficult verb form, an infinitive with a passive /middle voice. The customary translations (“to commit adultery”) should arise from an active form not chosen by Matthew as he records Jesus’ words (probably spoken in Aramaic). Lenski’s alternative translation (“to be stigmatized as an adulteress”) should arise from a different verb, also not chosen by Matthew. The translation I have offered above is true both to the verb chosen and its voice (form). To admit that the verb form is “difficult” to translate is honesty. To call the literal translation “tortuous” is to prejudice the discussion. I think it more tortuous to translate a (non-deponent) passive/middle as an active and in such a manner as makes no sense in its own sentence.

The Feinbergs also confuse the discussion by noting my statements regarding Mark 10. Condensing ten pages of my text, a good portion of which involves Murray’s attempt to respond to Lenski, the Feinbergs represent me as saying that the difficult verb form might better have been replaced by the wording of Mark 10:11. But that is not what I said. Rather, the thrust of my argument is that Matthew did not chose to do so, and therefore we are justified in asking what the difference is between a simple use of the wording of Mark 10:11 and the more complex verb chosen by Matthew.

It was here that I considered how the concept of stigmatization, which we have come to identify with R.C.H. Lenski, as a secondary consideration, might have determined not selecting the words Mark did.295 The words Matthew did choose allow enough ambiguity to include both the idea of committing adultery against the first wife. It is at this point that my hypothesis that Matthew’s difficult word choice could reflect an intended ambiguity to allow for a concept similar to Lenski’s stigmatization that I went searching in the Old Testament for conceptual precedent. I reasoned that if none could be found, it was unlikely that Lenski’s view, even as a supplemental reason for employing the unusual form could be sustained. Upon searching, I found Deut. 22:14-17, which does speak of a woman being unjustly stigmatized as an adulteress. Along the say, I considered Malachi 2, which performs a similar service for the concept of a wife being the object of treachery (adultery) by her divorcing husband. In other words, the Pharasaical misunderstanding is not just that the groundless divorcer has sinned against God’s (abstract) law by his treachery, but that he has sinned against his wife in particular. Mark 10, Matthew 19, and Luke 16 do not make that as clear with their active forms (“commits adultery”) as Matthew 5:32a does with its passive (causes her to be adulterized). It is an amazing objection that prior Biblical teaching on divorce and remarriage (Malachi and Deut. 22) are irrelevant simply because the occasion for getting into the subject is Deut. 24.

The third objection raised by the Feinbergs is related to the other two. The Feinbergs contest that my “interpretation” “does not meet the demands of the immediate context” in the sense that it “does not take seriously enough Jesus’ point in citing the traditional understanding of Deut 24:1.296 They think that I am so concerned with forcing Deut. 22 and Malachi 2 into the passive infinitive that I have forgotten that Jesus is trying to give a “powerful indictment of the man who thinks he is righteous because he has met the letter of the law by giving his wife a bill of divorcement.”297

Nothing could be further from the truth. Any fair reading of the earlier part of his chapter in the first edition298 will contradict their misrepresentations, and any fair reading of Ethics for a Brave New World will show that the Feinbergs are guilty of the very things they charge against my view. My position is forged against explicit discussions of the grammar (the given verb form), the most immediate context (independent clauses), the context of the Sermon (Pharasaical misrepresentation of Deut. 24:1-4), the historical context (Herod/Herodias), and the more distant contexts, namely backward toward the prophet Malachi and the Law in Deut. 22:14-17, and forward toward Jesus’ comments in Matthew 19, Mark 10, and Luke 16. Well over ten pages in this book were devoted to consideration of the contextual issues, and even a cursory reading of the headings should dispel the thought that any aspect of context is ignored.

As to specifics, it is simply not true, as the Feinbergs contend, that the view set forth above does not take seriously enough an antithesis to the traditional interpretation of Deut. 24:1-4. Accepting the Feinbergs’ statement of that tradition to the degree that they are correct in saying that men believed themselves to have fulfilled the letter of the law by merely granting a bill of divorcement to their wives, one wonders why it is not sufficiently antithetical to say that such a man is guilty of breaking the Law by doing so without the grounds of porneia?

The Feinbergs’ objection must “glean from another field” if it is to be telling. Observe that they do not merely wish to direct their reader’s attention to the self-righteousness of men who feel that they have fulfilled the letter of the law by providing a writing of divorcement. They go beyond that to include a means by which these self-righteous men console their consciences regarding the cast-off woman’s future welfare. They say, “ … men think they care for the rights of the woman they divorce. They reason that with the bill of divorce she is free to remarry, so some other man will care or her. She need not beg on the streets or become a prostitute.”

To see that we are in another field, the reader should notice that the statement which Jesus contests, namely the Pharasaical interpretation of Deut. 24:1a makes no mention of the groundlessly divorced woman’s remarriage or anything else that happens to her subsequent to giving her a writ. Remarriage is only the subject of Deuteronomy 24 in the material that is not cited as Pharasaically misconstrued. And, as we noted above, the idea that such a remarriage (i.e., in Fourth chapter, in the section on Deut. 24:1-4) involves adultery is highly questionable. The Feinbergs were best able to interpret Deuteronomy 24 as condemning remarriage as adulterous (when it is based only upon erwat dabar), by reading the Gospel passages back into that ordinance. Yet here, in the first instance of Jesus speaking directly to the subject of the meaning of Deuteronomy 24, Jesus seeks to correct an interpretation which doesn’t even mention the remarriage. So what do the Feinbergs do? They insert remarriage into the discussion by means of an expansive explanation of how men, anticipating their former wives’ would remarry sought solace of conscience in a divorce writ. They give no citation from the first century to support the probability of remarriage much less of Pharasaical discussion of the wife’s remarriage.

The reason why it is so crucial to the Feinbergs to find remarriage in the Pharasaical misinterpretation is that, only if it is there, do the Feinbergs have an antithetical basis for Jesus to speak of the morality of a man causing his wife to commit adultery when she remarries. Only then do we have a “context” which require us to translate passive infinitives as actives, and grammatically independent clauses as logically dependent upon one another to make sense. Only if Jesus confronts a false opinion that remarriage is sinless do they have a basis for contending that my view does not do justice to the context! I believe that a fair reading of the arguments shows that it is their position which does not take seriously enough the exact statement of the context. Their view ignores the context’s limits.

As for the interpretation set forth in this book, i.e., that Jesus is condemning men who thought they had Mosaic right to cast their wives away for no reason but with a writ, that fits the context to a “T.” More specifically, to say that a writ is not sufficient to render the groundless divorcer innocent of adultery (regardless of whether or not the former wife remarries) (5:32a), is clearly in context with that which Jesus attacks as false interpretation of God’s Law. On the other hand, for Jesus to get into discussions of adultery committed in marriage subsequent to groundless divorce is far a field from the antithetical context and requires serious distortion of the common word usage (specifically usage of non-deponent passive infinitives and the relation of independent clauses).

I cannot find in the Feinberg’s arguments a reason to change my interpretation that, in the first saying, Jesus is countering Pharasaical teaching that a man is guiltless in a divorce simply by providing his wife with an official writ. Jesus says, “On the contrary, when you divorce her without a proper grounds, you adulterize her, i.e., she suffers adultery (because you broke covenant), while at the same time making her look like she was guilty of something worthy of discipline. The Pharisees bank all on the writ of divorcement, Jesus turns that divorcement against them. I know of no Pharsaical teaching prior to the Sermon, which got into the issue of a wife’s remarriage based upon divorce by writ. Matt. 5:32a doesn’t either.

We turn now to the second saying, in which we see an adulterous man again depending on a divorce writ to justify his immoral actions. But in this instance, the marriage he destroys is not his own, but that of another man and his wife. Remember Herod. With no Pharsaical objection, he lusted after another man’s wife (condemned by Matthew 5:27-28), he destroyed his own marriage (condemned by Matthew 5:31-32a), and he destroyed his half brother’s marriage (Matthew 5:32b), taking Herodias to himself. The first sin in his head, the last two in a social world which sought to justify treachery by divorce writs. God condemns such actions, now as then.

Coordination of Verbs

A final word needs to be said about the grammar of the verbs in this first saying. Poieo, the central verb (“to make”), is present active indicative. The same is true oiapoluon (verb for “divorce”), thought it is a participle. Two matters arise: First, it is important to note that these two verb forms are the only ones in 5:32 that are present active indicative. The implication is that the actions are co-terminus, that is, they are happening at the same time. Second, being as divorce in those times was not a prolonged legal action, as in our own, but rather a rather succinct procedure, and being that on all interpretations the “causing” relating to adultery is also a concentrated act, I believe that these verbs are to be interpreted as so-called “presents as perfects” (presents functioning as perfects). That is, their action is durative (the root concept of the present) only in the sense of the state rather than of linear action. The act of “divorcing” and the act of “making” are completed actions, the state of which goes on, though the actual action is not continuing endlessly. Translation wise, we would say, “He who divorces” is the one who “makes” or “causes.” Combining these grammatical conclusions, it is fair to say that the act of “making” is coterminous with the act of “divorcing.”

What is the significance of so concluding? Simply that, since no further action of the divorcing male is offered, such as “marrying another” (found only in less supportable manuscripts) or the wife’s marrying another man (which discussion of a divorced woman remarrying only occurs in the next, independent saying), the assumption is that the causing occurs at the time of the divorcing, rather than at some future time when the woman remarries. Put another way, it is probably not proper to imply, as the traditional interpretation does, that the man divorces his wife which becomes a basis for his causing her to commit adultery at such a time as she remarries (borrowed from the next saying). Such an interpretation would be more defensible had the main verb been in the future tense: He will cause her to commit adultery when she remarries.” Rather, the grammar directs our attention toward the sole event of her divorce, which alone in the saying identifies an action in which the “making” occurs.

Grammatically, there are other options for the present indicative. For example it is possible that the present indicative functions as a simple linear action after all, or that it functions as a so-called “futuristic present.” The former would be translated, “He who is divorcing … is making.” The latter would say, “He who divorces … commits” in the sense that those actions may be yet future. An example of such a use is in Matthew 26:45, where Christ comments about His pending betrayal using the present tense, even though the exact act was yet a bit in the future. I consider both of these options less likely than the “presents as perfects,” but the point is that however you decide to go with the main verb, you ought also to go with the participle. They stay together. And, seeing them as such, the conclusion to be drawn is that the offense of making adultery occur happens with the action of divorce, not with some disassociated secondary action of remarriage that has not yet occurred when the divorce takes place. The sin is in the divorce, not in the remarriage.

The tense of the infinitive for the act of adultery is aorist, which stresses punctiliar action. “Punctiliar” means specific action, indefinite or undefined as to the time it occurs. If you want further to pin the time down for the infinitive, you have to refer to the time sense of the main verb. Compare this with Acts 15:37, where Barnabas proposes to take Mark on the pending missionary journey. Thus, the debated phrase relating to the divorce woman and adultery, would seem to be saying that the point-act of adultery happens when he causes it, which, in turn happens when the divorce takes place. All of this supports our previous conclusion that recourse to the second, independent saying should not be taken, but the first saying should be interpreted on its own. And, it would seem that only an interpretation such as we have offered here, “causes her to be adulterized,” or perhaps, “causes her to suffer adultery” will do justice to the grammar.

Jesus’ teaching on the sin of groundless divorce was apparently not understood by His listeners. Even His own disciples later show confusion on this matter. This confusion was resolved at later times when Jesus was in critical dialogue with the Pharisees whose views He was here attempting to correct.

207   In this book, I will presume that the material in the Sermon preceded the Matt 19/Mark 10 discussion with the Pharisees, with the Lucan (16:18) statements intervening. We wilt treat the statements in the text as genuine statements by our Lord. For those interested in the ordering and other methodological considerations, appendix C provides further information.

208   Note that 5:16 is conceptually different from 5:13-15. The initial verses paint a picture; 16 begins the admonition. After a brief digression concerning entrance into the kingdom (balanced by a similar digression, 7:13-23, that ends the “salt” section, 7:1-23), Jesus tells his listeners how to shine as a light before then- neighbor in their behavior toward the neighbor (5:21-48), in their behavior toward God (6:1-18), and in their behavior toward themselves (6:19-34). Note the phrase “before men” that occurs in 5:16 and a similar phrase that occurs in 6:1,5, 16. Note also the structural concept of light that reoccurs in 6:22, 23.

209   This somewhat peculiar order is the same as Jesus employs in the combined parallel accounts of his conversation with the rich young ruler’- (Matt 19:16-29/Mark 10:17-30). I hope to deal with the structuring of the Sermon in more detail in a later work on Biblical ethics.

210   See the excellent programmatic essay by Steven Kaufman. “Structure.” See also Appendix. J, which summarized my more extended approach to the Biblical comments on the Ten Commandments.

211   This against John J. Kilgallen, “To What Are the Matthean Exception-Texts (5,32 and 19,9) an Exception?” Biblica 61(1980): 102-5.

212   Cf. Chap 3.

213   I confess that I used to believe that he did, and once lectured at a gathering of theologians and Bible scholars on the subject. I suspect that I sounded rather convincing; I heard few objections. But I am now unconvinced by the kind of argument I used. There is a far better way to handle the text.

214   The phrase “you have heard that the ancients were told”— identified the collection into two group of threes.

215   The oft-alleged statement that Shammai permitted divorce only on the grounds of adultery seems to be better directed to Shammai’s school. See Hurley’s Man and Woman, p. 100 (see chap. 3, n. 21), where he shows that Shammai’s own position probably did not include adultery insofar as Shammai never quotes in his discussion of the Deut 24:1-4 passage any of the adultery passages in the Law. Moreover, the presumption by Talmudic scholars is that Shammai meant by “unchastity” behavior characteristic of an adulteress, such as immodest dress, going without the veil, and “spinning in the streets” (not as in turning around, but as in working on a spindle while waiting for a “john”) (jSot 1.1).

216   Murray, Divorce, p. 20.

217   Ibid, p. 21.

218   Murray correctly notes that Deut 24:1-4 has within it the implicit command for a divorcing husband to give his wife a writ This is to say that, aside from questions regarding the right of the husband to divorce her, it is proper for him to clarify the resulting relationship by means of a writ (Divorce, p. 20). That this is implicit is clear once one realizes that Deut 24:1-4 is designed to protect the wife from the husband’s hard-hearted actions. It would be folly to permit her to be free from the man while at the same time legally clouding her freedom.

219   The Feinbergs, in their Ethics (p. 340), contest that I have not paid enough attention to the antithetical relation between the Pharasaical teaching common to the people and the corrective saying of Jesus. I believe that any fair reading of the first edition will show that I have paid ample attention to every aspect of context, but I will attempt here and later to place my position in regard to context, beyond reasonable objection.

220   The reader is invited to consider the lexicon definitions/uses of “kai” found in A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. My edition notes numerous uses of “and”. None have the sense of “when” or “because.” Under the heading of connecting clauses, the most promising for those who wish to see the second saying as explaining the meaning of the first clause, is: “to introduce a result, which comes from what proceeds: and the, and so.” Matt 5:15 is cited as an example of such a use. A consideration of 5:15 shows that the sense is “with the result that … ” (the light is put on the lampstand, with the result that it lightens all in the house). In that instance, the second phrase is understood by the first (all are illumined because the candle was put on the lampstand). In our verse, the traditional interpretation is not that the husband causes his divorced wife to commit adultery with the result that he who marries her is implicated in adultery. Rather, the traditional view is that she commits adultery because she remarries. The causation runs the opposite direction!

A second use of kai that seems promising is that in which “a word or clause is connected by means of kai with another word or clause, for the purpose of explaining what goes before it”. Taken alone, that’s impressive, but lexicon goes on to add the sense of this definition: “and so, that is, namely.” But the traditional interpretation, which interconnects the clauses is not doing that either. No one is saying that the second clause explains the first in the sense of a different wording of the same point.

221 Grammar, p 149.

222   Feinberg, Ethics, pp. 340-41.

223   Ray Summers, Essentials of New Testament Greek (Broadman Press: Nashville), p 88.

224   Ibid., p. 89.

225   Ibid., p. 90.

226   See chapters 2 and 3 above.

227   Laney, Myth, p. 66.

228   Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary of the Greek New Testament (London: United Bible Societies, 1971), pp. 13-14, 47-48.

229   Ibid. Not all are willing to admit this. One of the sadder and more frustrating experiences for me personally has been dealing with a former colleague, who, though exceedingly conservative in his view of the Bible, was unwilling to admit that the Bible could voice such an exception clause. Knowing the grave lack of textual support for his belief that the clauses in Matthew are not genuine, he persisted in affirming that someday a flood of manuscripts will appear with the offending clauses omitted. Until that time he was willing to act as if the mythical manuscripts were reality and were the better textual option. If such an approach to textual criticism were to become popular, the heretic Marcion should make posthumous appeal for better treatment by the early Church.

230   Heth and Wenham, Jesus, p. 179.

231   Ibid., p. 247

232   Carson, “Matthew” p. 415. Similar arguments are found in Dupont (Mariage et divorce dans levangile. Matthieu 19. 3-12 etparal/les [Desclee de Brouwer, 1959], pp. 102-6).

233   B. Vawter, “The Divorce Clauses in Mt 5:32 and 19:9” CBQ 16 (April 1954):160-62.

234   Heth and Wenham, Jesus, pp. 188-89.

235   Q. Quesnell, “‘Made Themselves Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven’ (Matthew 19:12)” CBQ 30 (1968):340 ff., G. J. Wenham, “May Divorced Christians Remarry?” Churchman 95 (1981):150-61; Dupont, “Mariage,” pp. 93-157.

236   Carson, “Matthew,” p. 416.

237   Cf. Kilgallen, “Exception,” pp. 102-5.

238   Carson, “Matthew,” p. 417.

239   Heth and Wenham, Jesus, p. 14.

240   Ibid, p. 15. They call this position the “nullity” view of the exception clause and draw from it the conclusion that fornication nullified the marriage—“a legitimate marriage has never occurred.” Fornication does not justify a real divorce, but only an annulment, and remarriage for the innocent husband would not be justified either. I rejoin that the exception clause is subjoined to a term that means “divorce” not merely annulment-for annulment to be at issue, the verse would have to relate to porneia occurring during the betrothal period, and that cannot be the main identification of the relationship that exists between the woman put away and the divorcer in this text.

241   Steele and Ryrie, Meant, pp. 96-98.

242   Isaksson, Marriage.

243   So Heth and Wenham, Jesus, p 176.

244   Ibid., p. 172.

245   This against Murray and others who insist that the disciplinary measure was purely optional.

246   Heth and Wenham, Jesus, pp. 173-74.

247   The reader can easily understand why I am not impressed with Laney‘s objection that Jesus and the Pharisees are not discussing betrothal but rather marriage in Matt 19. Although this is true, it too misses the point that the Jewish mind would have seen inclusion of betrothal unfaithfulness as a foregone conclusion had the discussion become more specific. Cf. Myth, p. 70.

248   W. K. Lowther Clarke, “The Exceptive Clause in St Matthew:’ Theology 15 (1927), pp. 161-62, and New Testament Problems (New York: Macmillan, 1929), pp. 59-60; Charles C. Ryrie, The Role of Women in the Church (Chicago: Moody, 1970), pp. 40-50, and You Mean the Bible Teaches That? (Chicago: Moody, 1974), pp. 45-46, C. Laney, Myth, pp. 71-77; and F. F. Bruce, Paul: The Apostle of the Heart Set Free (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977), p 185.

249   Heth and Wenham further break this option down into those who make the inter-faith marriages Jew-Gentile: J Bonsirven, Le Divorce dans le Nouveau Testament (Paris: Desclee, 1948); H. Baltensweiler, “Die Ehe-bruchsklauseln bei Matthus zu Matth. 5:32; 19:9 “Theologsches Zeitschnft 15 (1959)340-56, and Die Ehe im Neuen Testament (Zurich: Zwingli, 1967) The reference in Heth and Wenham is chap. 7.

250   Heth and Wenham, Jesus, p. 163.

251   Putting all this in the context of the day in which Jesus addressed the disciples, it would not have sufficed for Herod simply to have sent Herodias away. She had to be “put away.” The public marriage required a public declaration that the relationship was completely severed (legalities and all). This brings us to probably the most telling response to Heth/Wenham. In Luke 16:18, Jesus does refer to an illegitimate marriage (i.e., Herod’s) with the normal word for “marriage.” But this illustration is of a different sort of “illegal marriage” so I put this discussion in a footnote.

252   I do recognize that some forms of dispensational theology relegate the Sermon to ages past/ future, but do not wish here to take the time to refute them. I myself am a dispensationalist of sorts.

253   Laney, Myth, pp. 71-78.

254   Joseph A. Fitzmyer, “The Matthean Divorce Texts and Some New Palestinian Evidence.” Theological Studies 37(1976), pp. 213-21.

255   Laney, Myth, p. 78.

256   Heth and Wenham, Jesus, pp. 165-66.

257   Ibid. p 161.

258   Murray, Divorce, p. 21.

259   Cf. Guy Duty’s Divorce & Remarriage (Minneapolis: Bethany, 1967).

260   So W. Baur, W. Amdt, F. W. Gingrich, F. Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Greek and Other Early Christian Literature, 2d ed., revised (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), s.v. “porneia”; J. H. Thayer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, corrected ed. (New York: American Book Co., 1886), s.v. “porneia”; Thayer, etc. Kittel, Hauck/Schulz, TWNT, s.v. “porneia,” vol. VI, pp. 579-95, is vague, choosing to spread the smorgasbord of scholarly opinion, with a slight leaning toward a restrictive definition, but only because of the views of scholars already sufficiently criticized in this book and in Heth/Wenham.

261   Laney’s objections are actually brought to bear against the idea that you can be divorced/remarried on the grounds of adultery.” I have tried to cull out his objections to the definitional issue alone. Laney’s arguments are found in Myth on pp. 68-69.

262   See Laney, Myth, p. 52, and also Steele and Ryrie. Meant, pp. 105, 112.

263   Laney, Myth, p 77. Actually the word in the Matthew 15:19 and Mark 7:21 texts is moicheia, a variant of moichos.

264   But it is probable in this latter case that God picks out the more likely instance of fornication to highlight it against the backdrop of the marriage discussion.

265   Note that even the discussion of a woman’s groundless divorce of her husband (5:32b)—see Chap 6—has the complicitous male as the focus of attention in the Sermon.

266   This perhaps goes some way toward explaining why Paul speaks of his “instruction” (1 Cor. 7:11 ff.) as his own, not the Lord’s. The issue in the instruction is not porneia, at least in the usual sense of that word, but, rather, failure to provide and to stay in the covenant, especially the (unsaved) husband’s failure to remain with the (believing) wife—a matter of failure to provide. Thus Paul is legitimately applying the principles of the Law (Exod. 21:10 f.), though not directly using the instruction of Jesus.

267   Cf. Heth and Wenham, Jesus, pp. 198-99.

268   His mercy and forgiveness must be seen in the context of forgiveness and the fruits of righteousness.

269   I will restate this important criticism in chap. 7, when we deal with the commonly misunderstood idea that Moses’ concession was a compromise on behalf of hard-hearted husbands.

270   Carson, Matthew, p. 152.

271 BAGD, s.v. “poieo.”

272   I have already argued that the saying about divorcing an innocent woman is essentially independent of the second saying concerning someone marrying a divorced woman (5:32b).

273   Murray, Divorce, pp. 21-22.

274   Ibid, p. 22 n.

275   Ibid., pp. 23 f.

276   R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Matthews Gospel (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1943), pp. 232-33.

277   See note on “kai” above.

278   The form in John 8:4.

279   Murray, Divorce, p. 22.

280   This “natural”— appears to me to be grammatically “unnatural.”

281   Murray, Divorce, p. 23.

282   It would seem to me that the upshot of this in the Sirach passage would be to see the aorist passive form tied to the context as producing the effect of an aorist middle, by her action she has made herself to suffer adultery.

283   Murray, Divorce, p. 23.

284   The Feinbergs do the same thing in their criticism of my position. In their Ethics, p. 340, they suggest that the passive should not be translated as a passive since unless it can be justified on grounds of word usage or contextual considerations.” They forget that to assert something in disagreement with the normal grammar (passive voice) places the burden of proof on them.

285   The source of the grammatical discussion which follows is William D. Chamberlain’s An Exegetical Grammar of the Greek New Testament (Baker, reprinted 1979 from the 1941 original, pp. 104-09).

286   Murray, Divorce, p. 24.

287   We know it to be “unjust” because the angry person is told to “be reconciled”—a word that implies guilt on the part of that person.

288   Carson (“Matthew,” p. 155) rejects Lenski’s theory—which is assigned solely to B. Ward Powers, “Divorce and the Bible,” Interchange 23 (1938): 159— “because it has no counterpart in (Matt 19:3-12]” He further contests that “stigmatizes her as an adulteress (even though it is not so)” is not proper, because the Greek uses the verb, not the noun. Carson says that “the verbal construction disallows Powers’s paraphrase.”

However, neither of Carson’s points is convincing to me. In the first place, why is it necessary that all the points in Matt 5 appear also in Matt. 19? Carson does not tell us. Secondly, Carson seems favorable to the NIV’s translation of the verb as “causes her to become an adulteress.” Does this translation not turn the verb into a noun as well? Why not simply translate it “causes her to become stigmatized as an adulteress”?

Confusion enters this discussion, however, when later in his commentary Carson rejects “makes her an adulteress” in favor of the traditional makes her “to commit adultery” (“Matthew,” p. 417). Of course, I prefer to translate the clause “causes her to be adulterized” which, I think, more properly translates the verb as a verb, but I think that Lenski’s and Powers’s idea is not wholly wrong-headed. As I noted earlier, stigmatization could be involved in the “adulterization” as a secondary concept, which determined the choice of the passive voice by Matthew.

289 Ethics, 340-341.

290   Deponent is what we call a verb which had lost its active form during is linguistic evolution, but which clearly retains an active sense though only a passive form is to be found in the language.

291 Ethics, p. 340.

292   Ibid., p. 549.

293   The Feinbergs say that it “troubles” them that I should insist that a passive be translated passively. I am troubled that their solution ignored the grammar and the burden of proof, the latter of which was discussed above in the section on Murray’s criticisms of Lenski, and therefore available for their consideration when they wrote.

294 Ethics, p. 340.

295   The reader should be aware that my interpretation of Mark 10:11 differs from that of the Feinbergs. Whereas I view the point of adultery to be the groundless divorce, the Feinbergs see it as the remarriage, or, more specifically the sexual act which consummated the second marriage. Their comments at this point in the discussion are confusing insofar as a sheer reference to Mark 10:11 does not clearly identify what I am doing with the Marcan passage.

296 Ethics, p. 340.

297   Ibid., p. 340-4.

298   Which was not available to the vast majority of the Feinbergs’ readers insofar as my first edition was out of print and, during that time, beyond the reach of even book-search companies.

Related Topics: Christian Home, Marriage, Divorce