Divorce and Remarriage: The Gospels

Matthew 5

It hath been said, whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement:  But I say unto you, that whosoever shall put away his wife, save for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery:  and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery (Matthew 5:31-32).

  Divorce and remarriage are mentioned in six New Testament texts.  The first occurrence appears in ‘The Sermon on the Mount’.  This sermon represents Jesus’ relationship to the Law of God.  Jesus was not presenting a rival system to the Law of Moses.  His message was fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets in contrast with the traditions of the Pharisees. Christ taught the people that unless their righteousness surpassed that of the scribes and the Pharisees, they could never enter the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 5:20).  This did not mean they could earn salvation by obeying a higher standard of rules and regulations.  Salvation came only by faith in the Messiah.  One point of this sermon was to show God’s true righteous standards as compared with the man-made traditions which had been established by the Jews.

The religious leaders claimed a man could divorce his wife by simply giving her a certificate of divorce.  Those who were divorced were then free to remarry.  If this second marriage did not work, the process could be repeated as often as necessary (cf. John 4:18).  The theological school of Shammai interpreted Deuteronomy 24:1-4 to mean that a man could only divorce his wife and remarry for serious sexual sins.  The school of Hillel interpreted Deuteronomy 24:1-4 to mean that a man could divorce and remarry for minor offenses.   This is what “had been said” (Matthew 5:32).

  The Lord Jesus Christ begins this section with stating the seventh commandment, “you shall not commit adultery” (Matthew 5:27).  Jesus gives two examples of violations which His audience might not contemplate as adulterous; lust and remarriage.  Whoever looks at a woman lustfully, commits adultery in his heart (Matthew 5:28).  Whoever divorces and remarries, commits adultery (Matthew 5:32).  The people had been told that if a man wanted a divorce, all he had to do was give his wife a certificate that would allow or even force her to depart.  Both parties were then free to remarry.  The certificate was a written bill of divorcement which was worded in this manner: 

  On the ____ day of the week, the day of the month ____ , in the year ____ from the creation of the world, in the city of ,____ I, ____ , the son of ____ , do willingly consent, being under no constraint, to release, to set free, and to put aside thee, my wife, ____ , daughter of ____ , who has been my wife before.  Thus I do set free, release thee, and put thee aside, in order that thou may have permission and authority over thyself and to go and marry any man thou desire.  No person may hinder thee from this day onward, and thou art permitted to every man.  This shall be for thee from me a bill of dismissal, a letter of release, and a document of freedom, in accordance with the Law of Moses and Israel.   ________ the son of ________ , witness.  ________ the son of ________ , witness.

   Some claim that Matthew 5:32 agrees with this practice and furthermore allows Christians to divorce and remarry if their spouse commits adultery.  They believe that adultery severs the one flesh bond and therefore Jesus must have used the word porneia (fornication) as an equivalent term for moicheia (adultery).  English translations render this word in various ways: Fornication (KJV); Sexual Immorality (NKJV); Unchastity-Matthew 5:32 and Immorality-Matthew 19:9 (NASB); Marital Unfaithfulness (NIV); Unchastity (RSV).  The NIV comes closest to rendering this word as adultery yet falls short. The NIV uses the dynamic equivalent (thought for thought) theory rather than a more literal (word for word) rendering of the biblical text.  The translators of the NIV may have substituted their interpretation into the text rather than letting the reader decide the issue for their self.

   The Bible student must determine what porneia and moicheia mean in context.  Strong’s Concordance codes each Greek word to a number.  This allows those who are unfamiliar with the Greek language to look up the basic definition of any given word.  This can then be cross referenced with other biblical passages.  Porneia and its cognates are coded as follows: porneia\4202; porneuo\4203; porne\4204; pornos\4205.  Moicheia and its cognates are coded as follows: moicheia\3430; moichalis\3428; moichao\3429; moicheuo\3431; moichos\3432.

 Lexical Study.  Five Greek Lexicons will be examined to find the definition or range of meaning for the terms porneia and moicheia.  The criteria for choosing these Lexicons is as follows.  A. Length of time in print.  Have they been published for a sufficient length of time so as to allow grammarians the chance to correct any errors?  B. Acceptance by students and scholars.  Are they widely used by Greek teachers and students from various backgrounds because of their precision and accuracy?  C. Historical Research.  Have the authors and editors researched a broad enough source of Greek literature to enable them to give an accurate range of meaning to each word?  The Lexical definitions given for porneia, moicheia, and their cognates are as follows:

 G. Abbott-Smith, A Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament, published by T. & T. Clark 1921.  Last reprint 1968.

 porneia- Fornication is the basic definition.  Distinguished from adultery.  May equal adultery because Sirach 23:23 uses it this way.  Used metaphorically of idolatry.

porneuo- To prostitute the body for hire.  To commit fornication. Idolatry.

porne- A prostitute or harlot.  Metaphorically for Babylon (i.e. Rome).

pornos- A male prostitute.  A fornicator.

 moicheia- Adultery.

moichalis- An adulteress.

moichao- To commit adultery with.

moicheuo- To commit adultery.

moichos- An adulterer.


G. Kittel and G. Friedrich, translated by Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, published by W. Kohlhammer Verlag 1933.  Last reprint 1992.

 Non-Jewish usage

porneia- Fornication or licentiousness.

porneuo- To prostitute or commit fornication.

porne- A harlot for hire (usually referred to slaves).

pornos- A whoremonger or male prostitute.

 The Old Testament (Septuagint)

porneia- Fornication sometimes involving adultery.

porneuo- To play the harlot (sometimes involving adultery).  It may be used of the prostitute or a betrothed woman who proves to be unfaithful.

porne- Harlot.

pornos- Does not appear in the Old Testament.  Only appears in the Apocrypha during this time. No definition given.

 The New Testament

porneia-  The problem in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 is perhaps that Jewish Christians who keep the Law are required to divorce adulterous wives and hence cannot be responsible if these contract a new relationship which is from a Christian standpoint itself adulterous.  Divorce itself is not conceded.  In John 8:41 the Jews claimed they were not born of fornication (porneia).  Acts 15:20, 29; 21:15 requires the Gentile Christians to avoid fornication (cf. Leviticus 17-18).  Porneia has no part in God’s kingdom.

porneuo- degeneracy.

porne- degeneracy. The center of paganism with its harlot-like apostasy from God.

pornos- Excluded in I Corinthians 6:9 and Ephesians 5:5.

moicheia- Adultery.

moichalis- Adulteress or adulterous.

moichao- To commit adultery with.

moicheuo- To commit adultery.

moichos- Adulterer.

 The Apostolic Fathers

porneia- Hermas Mandates 4.1.1 warns against porneia, which differs from, but also includes, adultery (cf. Mandates 8.3; 4.1.5).  We do not find the transferred use in the apostolic fathers, who abandon the terminology of the O.T. prophets.

 J. Moulton and G. Milligan, The Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament, published by WM. B. Eerdmans 1930.  Last printed 1976.

 porneia- Originally meant prostitution or fornication.  Came to be applied to unlawful sexual intercourse. It was a wider term than adultery, embracing the idea of barter or sexual vice.  In the Old Testament there was a tendency to assimilate the two terms.

 porneuo- To commit fornication.

porne- Prostitute.

pornos- A male prostitute, but generally understood in the N.T. in the sense of fornication.

moicheia- Adultery.

moichalis- A married woman who commits adultery.

moichao- To commit adultery with.

moicheuo- To commit adultery.

moichos- Adulterer.

 H.G. Liddell and R. Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, published by Oxford University Press 1843.  Last printed 1996.

 porneia- Prostitution. Refers to fornication in Matthew 19:9.  Metaphorically of idolatry.

porneuo- To become a prostitute.

porne- A harlot or prostitute.

pornos- A catamite, sodomite, or fornicator.

 moicheia- Adultery.

moichalis- Adulteress.

moichao- To commit adultery.

moicheuo- To commit adultery.

moichos- Adulterer, sodomite, or idolatrous person.

 W. Bauer and W. Arndt and F.W. Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon Of The New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, Published by University of Chicago Press 1952.  Last printed 1974.

 porneia- Basic definition is fornication, prostitution, or unchastity.  Of every kind of unlawful sexual intercourse.  Differentiated from adultery in Matthew 15:19 and Mark 7:21.  Appears as adultery in Sirach 23:23.  Sexual unfaithfulness of the married woman in Matthew 5:32; 19:9.  An illegitimate or bastard child.  In the Old Testament as a symbol of apostasy from God or idolatry.

porneuo- To prostitute or practice sexual immorality.  Distinguished from committing adultery.

porne- A prostitute or harlot.

pornos- A fornicator, one who practices immorality.  Differentiated from an adulterer.

moicheia- Adultery.

moichalis- Adulteress.

moichao- To commit adultery.

moicheuo- To commit adultery.

moichos- Adulterer.


  When performing lexical research it is important to consult quality scholarship sources.  One example of poor quality scholarship is found in Vines Complete Expository Dictionary.  Under the heading Fornication Vines writes:


In Matt. 5:32 and 19:9 it stands for, or includes adultery; it is distinguished from it in 15:19 and Mark 7:21.


  Although it is true that the term fornication can include adultery in limited contexts.  This is in not definite in the context of Matt. 5:32 and 19:9.  It is improbable that it “stands for” adultery as Vine asserts.  He correctly understands that in Matt. 15:19 and Mark 7:21 that two words porneia and moicheia are used in the same context to distinguish between the two.  He fails to realize that this is most likely done in Matt. 5:32 and 19:9 for the same reason.  In determining the meaning of words in their intended context it is not enough to state what is possible based upon a broad range of lexical definitions.  The job of the expositor is to determine the most probable usage of the word in context.

 New Testament Survey  

A study of relevant New Testament passages may shed light on how the term porneia could be interpreted.  We will examine New Testament texts other than Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 where the term porneia is used.  Special attention will be paid to passages where porneia and moicheia are used in the same context.

 Matthew 15:19.  Porneia and moicheia are used in the same sentence to differentiate between the two sins.

 Mark 7:21.  Porneia and moicheia are used in the same sentence to differentiate between the two sins.

 John 8:41.  The Pharisees accused Jesus of being born of porneia.  In this context porneia refers to unlawful sexual relations during the betrothal period.

 Acts 15:20, 29 and 21:25.  Porneia is one of four things which Gentiles are to abstain from.  In this context porneia refers to the unlawful incestuous marriages listed in Leviticus 18:6-18.

 Romans 1:29.  Porneia refers to sexual deviancy in general.

 I Corinthians 5:1.  The incestuous man who has his father’s wife is committing porneia.

 I Corinthians 6:13, 18.  Porneia refers to sexual deviancy in general.  No claim is made whether the man who joins himself to the harlot is married or not.

 I Corinthians 7:2.  Porneia is used as a term for sexual deviancy in general.

 2 Corinthians 12:21.  Porneia is used as a term for sexual deviancy in general.

 Galatians 5:19.  Porneia and moicheia are used in the same sentence to differentiate between the two sins.

 Ephesians 5:3, 5.  Porneia refers to sexual deviancy in general.

 Colossians 3:5.  Porneia refers to sexual deviancy in general. 

 I Thessalonians 4:3.  Porneia refers to sexual deviancy in general.

 Revelation 2:21.  Porneia refers to sexual deviancy in general.

 Revelation 9:21.  Porneia refers to sexual deviancy in general.

 Revelation 14:8; 17:2, 4; 18:3; and 19:2.  Porneia is used to refer to spiritual harlotry or apostasy.


  Cognates that are related to the word porneia appear 29 times in other New Testament passages.  The words porneia and moicheia are clearly differentiated in the following passages.

I Corinthians 6:9.  Pornoi and mochoi are used in the same sentence to differentiate between the two sins.

 Hebrews 13:4.  Pornos and moichous are used in the same sentence to differentiate between the two sins.


  Those who wish to study the remaining 27 passages will find the following definitions are used:  1. Sexual deviancy in general.  2. A prostitute.  3. Spiritual harlotry or apostasy.

 Summary.  Porneia means fornication or prostitution.  It is often used for sexual deviancy in general.  This may include homosexuality, incest, polygamy, adultery, pre-marital sexual relations, or prostitution.  In certain contexts the New Testament does limit the meaning of porneia to specify spiritual apostasy, incestuous marriages, or unlawful sexual relations committed during the betrothal period.  There is no evidence that porneia is used as an exact one-to-one, no more no less, equivalent for adultery in the entire New Testament. 

  Moicheia means adultery.  Some Lexicons claim Sirach 23:23 uses porneia as a synonym for adultery.  This usage in Sirach is far from certain.  Sirach is an Apocryphal book of wisdom literature written about 200 B.C.  The phrase used is “in fornication she committed adultery” (en porneia emoicheusthe).  Joseph Jensen, possibly the author of the finest article examining the uses of porneia in relevant literature, translates Sirach 23:23 “she wantonly committed adultery”.1  Bruce Vawter believes it is difficult to prove Sirach 23:23 uses porneia as an equivalent to marital infidelity.2  Abel Isaksson thinks that porneia in Sirach 23:23 refers to the ‘sexual desire’ that led the woman to commit adultery.3  The same is probably true of porneia as recorded in The Shepherd of Hermas Mandate 4.1.5 and Tobit 8:7.  If Sirach did use porneia as an expression for adultery this in no way proves that Jesus or any other biblical writers used the word in this manner.  New Testament authors use the terms porneia and moicheia together when they wish to differentiate between the two sins.  Most commentators do not hesitate to admit that Matthew 15:19 and Mark 7:21 use moicheia and porneia in the same sentence to differentiate between the two.  It is most probable that Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 intend to show a distinction also.

Interpretative study 


Some claim that Matthew 5:31-32 teaches a man may divorce his adulterous wife and then remarry.  In Verse 31 Jesus is merely recounting what Rabbinic tradition allowed.  He does not give approval of this practice.  He told His listeners to be “perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).  Every other point of the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ reflects a higher standard than the Rabbinic traditions of Jesus’ day.  Why would this subject be the one exception?  Those who claim a person can divorce and remarry in cases of adultery are simply making Jesus a disciple of Shammai.  Jesus would not be upholding the ideal but would be teaching an ideal with one exception.



Edersheim writes:


  It is a serious mistake on the part of commentators to set the teaching of Christ on this subject by the side of that of Shammai.4

Will Durant writes:

He [Jesus] hardened the Law in matters of sex and divorce.5

Although Durant is not entirely correct in his statement he rightly understands that Jesus taught a higher standard than the scribes and Pharisees.  It is not so much that Jesus hardened the Law but that Jesus taught God’s true righteous standard.  If lust is seen as breaking the seventh commandment (Matthew 5:27-30) it should not surprise us to find divorce and remarriage condemned in similar terms (Matthew 5:32).  Jesus claimed that adultery could be mental as well as physical.

  Matthew 5:32 is phrased in this manner:

“But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife except for a matter of porneia\fornication, makes her moichasthai\commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced moichatai\commits adultery.”

When interpreting this passage attention must be paid to the fact that the ‘exception clause’ appears only in Matthew’s Jewish Gospel.  The cultural and historical context must be taken into consideration.  The man in Jewish society was not simply allowed to divorce a fornicating wife, he was compelled.  If his wife was found to have committed sexual sin, he would have no choice but to put her away.  This is true both during the betrothal period as well as after a consummated marriage.  According to Rabbinic Law, the wife could intentionally cause the man to divorce her by being unfaithful.  The man would have no say in the matter.  Both Roman and Jewish cultures compelled a man to divorce an unfaithful wife; both during betrothal and after consummation.  Both Roman and Jewish cultures compelled the remarriage of a divorced woman.  When she remarried, Christ claimed that she would commit adultery.  Matthew 5:32 teaches that the man, who divorced his wife for any other reason except fornication, was the cause of her adultery.  This does not mean a wife who was put away for adultery was allowed to remarry.  Rather, it teaches that when porneia has been committed by the woman, her husband is not the cause of her adultery, she is.  If the wife was unfaithful, it was she and not the man who was responsible for the divorce and the subsequent adulterous remarriage.  

   In this case the exception merely exempts Jesus’ disciples from the responsibility for the divorce which an unfaithful wife brings about.  These teachings relieve the man of the responsibility for the divorce and its consequences.  The wife bears the responsibility.  Remarriage is still called adulterous.  This is what the ‘exception clause’ means.

 Augustine in his exposition of Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount has this to say about the exception clause listed in Matthew’s gospel:

   Wherefore did he not add, saving for the cause of fornication, which the Lord permits, unless because he wishes a similar rule to be understood, that if he shall put away his wife (which he is permitted to do for the cause of fornication), he is to remain without a wife, or be reconciled to his wife?...And for this reason also, because He who says, It is not lawful to put away one’s wife saving for the cause of fornication, forces him to retain his wife, if there should be no cause of fornication: but if there should be, He does not force him to put her away, but permits him, just as when it is said, let it not be lawful for a woman to marry another, unless her husband be dead; if she shall marry before the death of her husband, she is guilty; if she shall not marry after the death of her husband, she is not guilty, for she is not commanded to marry, but merely permitted...Now when He says, “saving for the cause of fornication,” He has not said of which of them, whether the man or the woman.  For not only is it allowed to put away a wife who commits fornication; but whoever puts away that wife even by whom he is himself compelled to commit fornication, puts her away undoubtedly for the cause of fornication...But in reference to what He says, “whosoever shall marry her that is divorced commits adultery,” it may be asked whether she also who is married commits adultery in the same way as he does who marries her. For she is also commanded to remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband; but this in the case of her departing from her husband.  There is however, a great difference whether she put away or is put away.  For if she put away her husband, and marries another, she seems to have left her former husband from a desire of changing her marriage connection, which is, without doubt, an adulterous thought.  But if she is put away by the husband, with whom she desired to be, he indeed who marries her commits adultery, according to the Lord’s declaration; but whether she also be involved in a like crime is uncertain, - although it is much less easy to discover how, when a man and woman have intercourse one with another with equal consent, one of them should be an adulterer, and the other not.  To this is to be added the consideration, that if he commits adultery by marrying her who is divorced from her husband (although she does not put away, but is put away), she causes him to commit adultery, which nevertheless the Lord forbids.  And hence we infer that, whether she has been put away, or has put away her husband, it is necessary for her to remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband. (Bold emphasis mine)

   Some modern writers wrongly teach that Jesus gave an exception for remarriage after divorce in Matthew 5:32 without calling it adultery.  Their logic is manifestly absurd.  It would make no sense at all for Jesus to claim the woman who was divorced for porneia was allowed to remarry while the woman who was divorced for any other reason was not.  Jesus clearly refutes this kind of thinking by stating “whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery”, He gives no exceptions. 

Summary:  Matthew 5:32 places the emphasis of the guilt on the husband who divorces for unwarranted reasons.  The exception clause is given to show that in the one exception, fornication, the primary blame lies not with the man, but with the woman.  The remarriage is still adultery but the blame is shifted from the man to the woman.  The exception clause is simply a matter of fact recognition that the woman has already committed fornication.  She is responsible for the divorce, he is not.  This does not allow her to remarry.  The last part of verse 32 makes it clear by claiming “whoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery”.  Jesus taught a higher moral standard than either Hillel or Shammai.  Every standard given in Matthew 5-7 surpasses the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees.  This subject is no exception.


Matthew 19:3-12

  The Pharisees also came unto him, tempting him, and saying unto him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?  And he answered and said unto them, Have you not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female, and said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall become one flesh?  Wherefore they are no longer twain, but one flesh.  What therefore God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.  They said unto him, Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and put her away?  He saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so.  And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.  His disciples say unto him, If the case of the man be so with his wife, it is not good to marry.  But he said unto them, all men cannot receive this saying, save they to whom it is given.  For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother’s womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake.  He that is able to receive it, let him receive it (Matthew 19:3-12).

 Differing views Six interpretations of the ‘exception clause’ are listed below:

 1.  God Forgives.  This view states that since God forgives, the divorcee may remarry.  God may consider remarriage adultery but if remarriage meets a person’s needs, then it is allowed; God will forgive them.  It is believed that God wants people to be happy or fulfilled.  If a person needs their sexual, emotional, or financial desires fulfilled then this overrides the fact that God calls remarriage after divorce sin.  This interpretation is built on half-truths and very little exegesis.  It is true that God forgives sin.  It is not true that forgiveness allows the believer to break His commands.  It is true that God wants fulfilled children.  Fulfillment comes only from obeying Christ.  This view is really no more than an excuse for sin without the need for repentance. 

It is interesting to note that many who hold this view normally expect God to forgive them if they divorce their spouse and remarry but they themselves have no intention of forgiving their spouse of any wrongs they may have committed.  This is called hardness of heart.  Jesus warned against this in the parable of the unjust slave (Matthew 18:23-35).  Those who have been forgiven by God should be willing to forgive others.  The husband or wife who expects to be forgiven by God should be willing to forgive their spouse.


2.  Erasmian Adultery.  This view is called Erasmian because the basic conclusion was given its greatest impetus by Erasmus in the 16th century.  To be precise there is an old Erasmian interpretive method and a new Erasmian interpretive method.  Both are termed Erasmian because of the common conclusion that the innocent spouse may divorce and remarry in cases of adultery or desertion.

  Erasmus and many of the Reformers held to this conclusion because of a form of interpretive legal fiction that saw the adulterous spouse as figuratively dead.  Modern Erasmians hinge their conclusions on the following three major assumptions: First, Jesus was speaking of the same kind of divorce as the Jews were.  Namely, adultery dissolves the one flesh bond which gives a person the right to divorce and remarry.  Second, the exception clause modifies both the preceding verb phrase “whoever divorces his wife” as well as the following verb phrase “and marries another”.  Third, porneia is a one to one equivalent for adultery.  All three of these assumptions are implausible.

Problems with the Erasmian Interpretation

  The interpretive legal fiction method, as originally held by Erasmus and some of the Reformers, has been shown to be faulty.  Because of this it has basically been abandoned by those who support divorce and remarriage.  Since the old Erasmian method of allowing divorce and remarriage was proved deficient new interpretive methods are now used to achieve the same results.

The problems with the new Erasmian method include:

First, although it is true that both Jewish and Roman divorce laws allowed both parties the freedom to remarry in cases of adultery, this does not mean that Jesus agreed with this practice.  Jesus often clashed with the traditions of men.  We may have here in the Matthean Gospel texts clear examples of the difference between the law of God and the laws of men. This would certainly answer the question as to why the disciples reacted so strongly to the teaching of the Lord: “If such is the case of the man with his wife, it is better not to marry” (Matthew 19:10).  If Jesus were teaching that a man could divorce his adulterous wife and remarry one would not expect such a surprised reaction from the disciples.  Jesus would basically be teaching the same thing as the house of Shammai.

The incorrect application of this cultural understanding of divorce laws has led to further error.  Since Jewish and Romans laws allowed remarriage after divorce for any reason it is taught that Jesus must have allowed remarriage after divorce for any reason also.  This clearly contradicts the teaching of the New Testament.

Second, there is no biblical evidence to support the Erasmian claim that adultery ends or dissolves the one flesh marriage bond.  Many Erasmian interpreters are reluctant to claim that one act of adultery dissolves the one flesh bond and allows divorce and remarriage.  For this reason the normative claim is that it is persistent adultery that ends the marriage and allows one to divorce and remarry.  The term “persistent” is vague and undefined.  Are three acts of adultery considered persistent; ten, twenty, one hundred?  Who is to decide how many acts of adultery are considered persistent? To what degree must adultery persist until divorce is allowed?  Jesus told His disciples to forgive seventy times seven which is a way of saying that Christians should forgive as many times as necessary (Matt. 18:22).  The Christian is to forgive their unfaithful spouse and pray for reconciliation.  They are not divorce them and find another spouse.  No matter how persistent the sin, reconciliation is always an option until either spouse dies.

Another problem with the persistent adultery theory is we are not told when the persistent adultery is discovered.  The normative Erasmian assumption is that the adultery of the guilty spouse is discovered early on by the innocent spouse.  After this the guilty spouse continues to commit adultery for an extended period of time. It is this continuous adultery, after being discovered, that we are told, allows the innocent spouse to divorce the guilty one.

What if the adultery persists for years before the innocent spouse discovers it? What if, as soon as the guilty spouse is discovered, the guilty spouse repents and ceases their sin?  Erasmians who are consistent would need to claim that the one flesh bond was dissolved because the adultery was persistent.  What if the guilty spouse had adulterous affairs for years, then ceased, and the innocent spouse did not learn of the unfaithfulness for years after the fact?  The Erasmian position would lead one to believe that the innocent spouse could divorce the guilty one even if the adultery had ceased years before.  This is because Erasmians teach that Jesus allowed divorce and remarriage in cases of persistent adultery

A related problem with the Erasmian interpretation is their claim that the “innocent” spouse in matters of adultery has the right to remarry.  By default this means that the “guilty” spouse does not.  If the marriage bond is truly ended by adultery or divorce then it makes no sense for only the innocent party to have the right remarry.  If the marriage is irreconcilably ended then both parties would have the right to remarry. The teaching that the innocent party is free to remarry is based upon the erroneous belief that adultery breaks the marriage bond.  If this was true and the innocent party forgave the guilty party, they would need to be remarried. 

Second, it is doubtful that porneia is a one to one equivalent for adultery.  Every other time in the New Testament where the words porneai and moicheia are used together it is done for the purpose of distinguishing between the two.  It is most probable that Jesus used the word porneia to refer to something other than adultery.  There are at least three other reasonable explanations of the meaning of “except fornication” in Matthew 19:9.  If any of them are true then the Erasmian interpretation falls.

Third, it is probable that the exception clause modifies only the preceding “whoever divorces his wife” and not the following “and marries another” phrase.  Neither Erasmus, a Greek scholar, nor the Reformers make any reference to the exception clause modifying both the preceding and the following verb phrases.  They resorted to the use of Old Testament legal fiction.

  The Erasmian view is based upon the belief that “two wrongs make a right”.  If one spouse wrongs the other by committing adultery (has sexual relations outside the marriage bond) then the other spouse can also break their vows and have sexual relations outside of the original marriage bond.  One emphasis of the teachings of Jesus is forgiveness.  The followers of Jesus Christ are to forgive even their enemies and pray for those who mistreat them (Matthew 5:44; Luke 6:28).  To Erasmians these commands of Christ to forgive do not seem to apply to spouses.  If a spouse sins against them by committing adultery they can divorce that spouse and find another one.  If taken to its logical conclusion the Erasmian position would allow a person to divorce and remarry every time their current spouse commits a sin qualified under the “exception clause”.  Under this scenario one could theoretically be divorced and remarried dozens of times, all with the approval and blessing of the Lord. 

3.  Unlawful Marriage to Gentile Idolaters.  In Ezra’s day the Jews were required to divorce their Gentile wives in order to keep the Jewish ancestral lineage free from impurity and idolatry (Ezra 9-10; Nehemiah. 13).  Some have applied this to mean that a Christian may divorce an unbelieving spouse and remarry.  There are at least three problems with this view.  First, most marriages take place between two Gentiles.  It would make no sense for God to command Gentiles to divorce in order to keep their lineage pure.  Second, First Corinthians 7:12-13 makes it clear that a believing spouse is not to divorce their unbelieving partner as long as they consent to live with them.  Third, what took place in the restoration community under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah was a unique occurrence.  The separation from Gentile wives was necessary to insure the continued existence of the Jewish nation (Deuteronomy 7:3-4).


4.  Incestuous Marriages.  This view is sometimes called the Rabbinic view.  It teaches that fornication refers to unlawful marriages which are prohibited in Leviticus 18:6-18.  Some leading adherents of this view include W.K. Lowther Clarke, F.F. Bruce, J. Carl Laney, J.A. Fitzmeyer, and Charles C. Ryrie.


Leviticus 18:6-18 deals with prohibitions of incestuous marriages.  The phrase used is “you shall not uncover the nakedness of”.  This is a Hebrew euphemism for sexual intercourse in the confines of an incestuous marriage.  A man was not allowed to marry his mother, sister, daughter, granddaughter, niece, aunt, mother-in-law, daughter-in-law, or sister-in-law.  Incestuous marriage may be what Christ meant when He said “whoever divorces his wife except for fornication”.  I Corinthians 5:1 may refer to a man marrying his father’s widow.  This would be a flagrant violation of Leviticus 18:8.


Acts 15 uses the term porneia to refer to incestuous marriages.  Some converts from the Pharisees had come down from Judea and were teaching the Gentile believers that unless they were circumcised and kept the law of Moses they could not be saved (Acts 15:1).  Paul, Barnabas, and other brethren met at Jerusalem to discuss this issue.  After much debate they were led by the Holy Spirit to tell the Gentile converts that they should abstain from idols, things that were strangled, blood, and fornication (Acts 15:20, 29).  These are the things which are listed in Leviticus 17:10-18:18.  It seems to be assumed that a believer would abstain from adultery, bestiality, homosexuality, and sacrificing of children (Leviticus 18:20-23). 


The Jerusalem Council would have no need to tell believers to refrain from fornication if it meant adultery or other sexual perversions in this context.  The evidence points to them telling the Gentile believers not to enter into incestuous marriages.  These four prohibitions may have been designed to promote peace between Jewish and Gentile believers.  Gentiles were not to practice those things which were offensive to Jewish brethren.  Some believe these four prohibitions are binding on Christians for all time.  In either case, this would explain why Matthew would include this exception clause in his Gospel to Jewish readers.


Some may wonder how probable it is that a person would enter into an incestuous marriage?  The Romans had laws against incest but they were not as strict as the Mosaic Law.  They also did not seem to be well enforced.  The Bible gives us the narrative of Herod Antipas.  Herodias was the wife of Herod Philip I.  Herodias was the niece of Herod Philip I, which means she was married to her uncle.  Herodias was also the niece of Herod Antipas.  Herod Antipas and Herod Philip I were half brothers.  Herod Philip I and Herodias divorced.  Herodias remarried Herod Antipas.  Now Herod Antipas was married to his half-brother’s wife who was also his niece.  According to Leviticus 18:11 and 20:21, these were illegal incestuous marriages.  Not because she was considered his brother’s wife but because she was his niece. Some believe that John the Baptist was thrown into prison and beheaded for preaching against this sin.  The weakness of this assumption is the biblical text states that John told Herod “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife” (Mark 6:18).  John did not say it is not lawful for you to marry your niece.  It appears that the emphasis of John’s preaching was against the sin of divorce and remarriage itself. 


Josephus also reports the practice of incest among Roman rulers.  Archelaus divorced his wife and married Glaphyra, the former wife of his half-brother.  Bernice was originally married to her uncle, Herod Chalcis.  Bernice also had an incestuous relationship with her brother, Herod Agrippa II.  Bazeus married his sister, Helena.


5.  Betrothal.  Unlike western societies which practice engagement, the Jewish culture practiced betrothal.  Betrothal was a binding legal contract that could only be broken by death or divorce.  The betrothed couple were considered husband and wife.  The marriage was usually arranged by parents.  The bride price or dowry was paid to the father of the bride for economic loss to the family.  This would compensate the father for the daughter’s work he would lose.  He could earn interest off the dowry but it was not to be spent in case his daughter was widowed or divorced.  Next, a betrothal promise was made, but the marriage was not yet consummated.  During this time the bride would prepare herself for marriage.  The groom would prepare a home for them, usually in his father’s house.  At the end of one year, a ceremony and wedding feast took place.  During the feast, the bride and groom would go into the bridal chamber and consummate the marriage.  A cloth would be brought out to prove the bride’s virginity.  If the bride was found to not be a virgin, either before the wedding or at the time of consummation, she was to be divorced.  This is why weddings of virgins were usually held on Wednesdays and weddings of widows were held on Thursdays.  The courts sat on Mondays and Thursdays.  If it became evident to the groom on Wednesday night that his bride was not a virgin, he could go to court on Thursday and bring suit against her and her father.  

This was the situation Joseph thought he was in with Mary. This also explains why the Jews claimed Jesus was born of fornication (John 8:41).  Before the marriage was consummated Mary was found to be pregnant.  Joseph was not simply allowed to divorce Mary; Jewish law compelled him to do so.  Joseph was a righteous man so he sought to divorce her secretly.  If Joseph sought to divorce Mary publicly this could have led to her death by stoning.  It was not up to Joseph to stone his betrothed for the sin of fornication it was the men of the city who would do so (Deut. 22:20-21).


Luke 2:5 only mentions the betrothal to his Greek-Gentile readers.  Matthew 1:18-25 gives a fuller account to his Jewish readers.  The betrothal view teaches that porneia is premarital sexual relations between a betrothed person and a third outside party.  It takes into account Matthew’s inclusion of the ‘exception clause’ to his Jewish audience. Christ stated a consummated marriage was permanent until death.  One could divorce his betrothed wife because of porneia.  This view has been proposed by James Montgomery Boice, Abel Isaksson, and Lehman Strauss


The strengths of the Betrothal view include:


First, every other time in the New Testament that porneia (fornication) and moicheia (adultery) are used together it is done to differentiate between the two sins.  It is probable that this is done in Matthew 19:9 also.

Second, there is no evidence that Jesus used the word fornication to refer to broader sexual sins which included adultery.

Third, the betrothal view takes into consideration the reason why the “exception clause” is listed in Matthew’s Jewish Gospel and not the gospels of Mark and Luke which were written primarily to Gentile readers.

Fourth, there is an example of the righteous practice of this type of divorce listed earlier in Mathew’s Gospel (Matt. 1:18-20).

Fifth, this view explains the surprised reaction of the disciples in Matthew 19:10.


One interesting fact should be considered.  As far as I know none of the early Christian writers mention the betrothal view.  Almost all of them quote Matthew 5:32 when mentioning the “exception clause”.  Some quote from Matthew 19 but few, if any, quote Matthew 19:9 directly.  It is often assumed that the “exception clause” in Mathew 5:32 refers to the same thing as Matthew 19:9.  Could it be that Matthew 5:32 prohibits remarriage after divorce for consummated marriages while Matthew 19:9 refers to betrothals?  This could be one explanation as to why the early Christian writers quoted from Matthew’s gospel but did not hold the betrothal view.  For the modern Christian who is wondering how each view might apply to his life; both the betrothal view and the early Christian view prohibit remarriage after divorce for any reason.

 6.  The Early Church View.  The early Church taught that porneia meant sexual deviancy in general, but it was not limited to adultery.  If a man’s wife committed fornication, he was to separate from her until she repented of her sin.  He was then to receive her back with the same love with which Christ loved the Church.  To live with an unrepentant adulterous wife was a sin; to not forgive her was also a sin.  If a legal divorce took place, remarriage while one’s spouse was alive was still prohibited.  This view is so named because it was held by a virtual consensus of the early church for the first six hundred years.

   The strengths of the Early Church view include:

First, it best explains the placement of the “exception clause” in the Lord’s teaching on divorce and remarriage.

Second, this view explains the surprised reaction of the disciples in Matthew 19:10.

Third, it explains the inclusion of the “exception clause” in Matthew’s Gospel since a Jew would have been compelled to divorce his wife who had committed fornication.


Fourth, fornication is not a one to one equivalent with adultery.


Interpretive Study

The Pharisees came to test Jesus.  Three motives have been proposed as to why they asked this question.  1. They were attempting to get Jesus to incriminate Himself by speaking against the Mosaic Law (actually it would be against their interpretation of the Law since the Law did not specifically address the issue of divorce and remarriage). 2. They wanted to know what Jesus’ interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 would be.  Would Jesus side with the house of Hillel or the house of Shammai?  3. Since John the Baptist had recently been beheaded for speaking against the divorce and remarriage of Herod, they were attempting to get Jesus to say something against the political authorities.

    Mishna, Gittin 9.10 reads: 

The school of Shammai says: A man may not divorce his wife unless he has found unchastity in her, for it is written, Because he has found in her indecency in anything.  And the school of Hillel says: He may divorce her even if she spoiled a dish for him, for it is written, because he has found in her indecency in anything.  Rabbi Akiba says: Even if she found another fairer than she, for it is written, and it shall be if she found no favor in his eyes…

  Gittin is the plural form of the Hebrew word get (divorce).  The laws of gittin only allow for divorce initiated by the husband.  If there was just cause for a man to divorce his wife, the court required him to do so.  If a husband refused the court’s demand to divorce his wife he is subject to penalties including excommunication, monetary fines, or physical punishment.  The above mentioned opinion of Rabbi Akiba (A.D. 50-135) may not have been a factor in Jesus’ day since Akiba was not born until after Jesus was crucified.

  It appears that this group of Pharisees held to the dominant view of Hillel.  They did not ask if a divorced man could remarry.  They assumed that any divorced person could remarry.  They wanted to know if a man could divorce his wife for any reason.  The answer they received surprised them!  Instead of entering into a debate over the interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1-4, Jesus by-passed their traditions and took them back to the beginning of creation, Genesis 1 and 2.  To Jesus, man and wife were one flesh.  Because God had joined them together, no man was to separate them (Matthew 19:6).  The Jews retorted with the Mosaic concession.  They claimed Moses commanded a man to divorce his wife.  Jesus replied that Moses only allowed this to happen because of the hardness of man’s heart.  From the beginning of time this was not God’s plan.

  Up until verse 9, all agree that Jesus taught an absolute prohibition of divorce and remarriage.  It is verse 9 that causes people problems.  The main reason for this is that few Christians take into account the cultural and Jewish legal considerations when examining the ‘exception clause’ in Matthew’s gospel.  Matthew records one exception for divorce when writing to his Jewish readers.  Mark writes to Romans and gives no exception for divorce.  What does the ‘exception clause’ mean?  The Pharisees wanted to know under what circumstances a man was allowed to divorce his wife.  Jesus answered their question, porneia.  The societal structure under which the Jews lived did not merely allow a man to divorce his wife, it compelled him.  A man in Jewish culture, who found his wife to be guilty of porneia, would be compelled by society to divorce her.  This could mean a man’s wife was found to be guilty of sexual sin after consummating a legal marriage.  It may simply be speaking of the man who found his wife to have lost her virginity before their wedding night.  

It is possible that Matthew 19:9 should be understood in a similar manner as Matthew 5:32.  Since the culture of Jesus’ time compelled a man to divorce a fornicating spouse, then Jesus does not hold his followers responsible for the divorce of a wife who has committed porneia.  The Pharisees asked the question: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason?”  The answer was no!  A man can not divorce his wife for any reason, except porneia.  Lest they should think that the man had the right to remarry, Jesus added, “and marries another commits adultery”.   Some have assumed that since the Pharisees used the word divorce to include the right to remarry, then Jesus must have used the word in the same way.  It is true that the Jews of Jesus' day believed the right to remarry came with the right to divorce.  Is it correct to assume that Jesus must have taught the same kind of divorce that the Jews practiced?  To assume this wrongly makes Judaism, not the teaching of Christ, the decisive factor in interpreting Scripture. 

The burden of proof lies with those who claim that Jesus was using the term ‘divorce’ in the same manner as the Pharisees; namely, divorce with the right to remarry.  Lest they should think that the woman had the right to remarry, Jesus added, “and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.”  Some translations (NIV, RSV, and NASB) that are founded on the eclectic Critical Greek Text omit this final phrase.  Those translations (KJV, NKJV) which follow the majority of Greek manuscripts retain this saying.  Recent research has shown that there is much evidence that the longer reading of Matthew 19:9 is to be preferred.  

  Verses 10-12 are contextually related to what Jesus had previously stated in verses 4-9.  They give strong support that Jesus was teaching a higher standard than the scribes and the Pharisees.  The disciples had an astonished reaction to the teaching of Jesus on the subject of divorce and remarriage.  They realized that the permanence of marriage meant a man might be better off not to marry.  If Jesus had allowed remarriage for cases of porneia He would have simply been agreeing with the conservative school of Shammai.  The response of the disciples confirms that man was in a serious situation.  He could not be freed from a marriage, even if his wife was guilty of porneia

  In response to their reaction Jesus assures them that they would be able to accept such a high standard.  Jesus uses the illustration of eunuchs to prove what He has just commanded.  Some are born eunuchs.  Some are made eunuchs by other men.  Some voluntarily make themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.  Since eunuchs are able to refrain from sexual relations then His followers would be able to refrain from remarriage.  The true disciple of Christ will be given the grace to obey what God has commanded. 

Summary  No legislation or cultural pressure exists in modern Western society which would compel a man to divorce his wife if she was guilty of porneia.  Jesus told His disciples to forgive seventy times seven.  Men are commanded to love their wives as Christ loved the Church.  If a man’s wife is found to have been unfaithful love and forgiveness are God’s standards, not divorce.  If one spouse deserts the other to live in an adulteress relationship, the one flesh bond may be polluted but still remains intact.  Since the one flesh bond is never truly broken by anything except death, remarriage after divorce is considered adultery.

  Grammatical Study

  Grammar and syntax regulate the formation and usage of words in a sentence. They come from analyzing and classifying the language itself.  They do not externally govern the language; they simply deal with the internal facts of how the language is constructed.  Grammar and syntax tell us how words relate to one another in any given sentence.  Lexicons give the possible range of meanings for a particular word.  Grammar and syntax tell us how each word is used in a particular sentence.  The syntactical relations and groupings of words are factors just as important for the bearing of significance as the lexicographical aspect of a single word. 

  The main grammatical issue appears in Matthew 19:9.  A person can get an adequate understanding of the issues involved by comparing several good English translations of the Bible.  A better grasp can be attained by looking at the sentence structure in Greek. 

  Matthew 19:9 states, “And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except porneia, and marries another, commits adultery”. (“Lego de hymin hoti hos apolyse ten gynaika autou, me epi porneia, kai gamese allen, moichatai”). 

  Which clause(s) does the phrase “except porneia modify?  Some claim the phrase “except porneia” modifies the following verb phrase “and marries another” as well as the preceding “whoever divorces his wife”.  In saying this they wish to prove that the person who divorces for the cause of porneia does not commit adultery if he remarries.

  One commentator writes:

   Although it is not directly stated it seems obvious from the words of our Lord that where a divorce has been obtained on grounds of adultery, the innocent party is free to remarry (emphasis mine).6  

  D.A. Carson in his book Exegetical Fallacies calls this the “abuse of obviously”.  He writes:

  It is perfectly proper for a commentator to use “obviously” when he or she has marshaled such overwhelming evidence that the vast majority of readers would concur that the matter being presented is transparent, or that the argument is logically conclusive.  But it is improper to use such expressions when opposing arguments have not been decisively refuted, and it is a fallacy to think the expressions themselves add anything substantial to the argument.7

  The previously quoted commentator makes the mistake of inserting the word adultery in place of fornication.  He then fails to decisively refute or even mention opposing arguments regarding Matthew 19:9.  He does not deal with lexical, grammatical, or exegetical evidence.  He simply gives his opinion on this subject.  He openly admits that what he is teaching is not directly stated.  This is unwise.  If it is not directly stated in Matthew 19:9, then it is not stated anywhere in the entire New Testament. 

  There are grammatical problems with claiming porneia allows a person to remarry as well as divorce.  ‘Except porneia’ is a prepositional phrase.  It does not contain a verb.  One must be supplied from somewhere else in the sentence.  Prepositional phrases are adverbial and normally qualify the verb which they follow.  Matthew 19:9 contains a compound conditional clause (two verbal actions). 

  Matthew placed “except porneia” after the first verbal action, “divorce”.  Like this: 

Whoever divorces his wife, except porneia, and marries another, commits adultery.

   In this case ‘except porneia’ modifies only the preceding verbal action, divorce.  This construction allows divorce for the cause of porneia but not remarriage.  This is where it is placed in the Greek text. 

  He could have placed “except porneia” after the second verbal action, “and marries another”.  Like this:

Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, except porneia, commits adultery. 

In this case “except porneia” would modify two sequential actions, divorce and remarriage.  This construction would allow remarriage if the divorce occurred for the cause of porneia

Summary  The syntactical burden of proof lies on those who claim that the clause “except porneia” modifies the following verbal action “marries”, as well as the preceding verb “divorces”.  The grammatical evidence points to Jesus only allowing a very restrictive form of divorce without the right to remarry.  The early church writers (many used Greek as their mother tongue) interpreted the “exception clause” to allow only divorce, not remarriage.  The Reformers did not claim the exception clause modifies “and marries another”, they resorted to legal fiction.  If the exception clause modifies “marriage” as well as “divorce”, it would seem strange that the early Christians who spoke Greek would not recognize this.

  Bill Heth writes:

  The syntactical argument that except fornication modifies remarriage as well as divorce is unique to the latter half of this [the 20th] century. The early church Fathers understood the exception clause as a simple limitation of the divorce action only, not a “dissolution” of marriage.  They never discuss or debate the modern day controversy about which verb or verbs the exception clause qualifies [brackets mine].8  

  The grammatical evidence shows that Matthew’s construction was not meant to qualify both the following, as well as the preceding, verbal action.  If it was, then this would be the only place in the entire New Testament where such a grammatical construction appears.



   God has given man a logical mind.  Logic alone is fallible.  Logic guided by the constraints of Scripture can help determine if one’s arguments and conclusions are consistent with all the biblical data.  Those who claim Matthew 19:9 allows a divorced person freedom to remarry create logical fallacies which are inconsistent with all the biblical evidence. 

1.  Those who allow remarriage usually maintain that porneia is a one-to-one equivalent for adultery in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9.  They then claim this adultery breaks the one flesh bond and allows a person to remarry without committing adultery.  No biblical passage clearly teaches the one flesh marriage bond is ever broken by anything except death.  Those who claim the one flesh bond is broken by adultery must contend with inconsistency.  If a man’s wife commits adultery then the two would cease to be one flesh.  The man who continued to live with his wife after she committed adultery would be having sexual relations with a woman whom he had ceased to be one flesh with.  Consistency would require the couple in this instance to remarry in order to restore the one flesh bond.  If the wife committed adultery a second time, the process would need to be repeated all over again.  Some have taught that it is persistent or continual adultery, not a single act that breaks the one flesh bond and allows a person the freedom to divorce and remarry.  This is also illogical.  One act of adultery either does or does not dissolve the marriage bond.  There can be no middle ground. 

2.  Some teach that Matthew 19:9 allows only the ‘innocent’ spouse freedom to remarry in cases of adultery.  This is inconsistent as well as illogical.  If adultery truly breaks the marriage bond then both parties would be free to remarry; not just the ‘innocent’ one.  This teaching would put a premium on the sin of adultery.  A person who wanted a divorce could commit adultery (or claim they had) in order to be released from their marriage.  If a person claimed to have committed adultery there would be no way to prove that they had not. 

3.  Matthew 5:32 teaches that the man who divorces his wife for any reason except porneia causes her to commit adultery.  A man could put away his wife for reasons other than porneia and simply wait.  Once she remarried (committed adultery) the Erasmian interpretation of Matthew 19:9 would allow the husband freedom to remarry without himself committing adultery.  The man who caused his wife’s adultery would be the one who was allowed to remarry.  The woman who was unjustly put away would not be allowed to remarry without committing adultery.  Consistent application of the Erasmian position would allow a man to divorce his wife for any reason and remarry without committing adultery.  The Early Church, Betrothal, and Incestuous positions cause no such problems. 

Conclusion:  The lexical, grammatical, exegetical, and logical evidence points to the ‘exception clause’ as allowing divorce only in the limited instance of porneia.  Jesus was not compelling people to divorce an adulterous spouse.  Man’s legal bill of divorcement could never separate what God had joined together (Matthew 19:6).  He was not telling divorced people to remarry.  This would be in opposition to God’s one flesh covenant (Matthew 19:5).  This is why the disciples were so astonished at the teaching of Jesus (Matthew 19:10).  They knew Christ was teaching a higher standard than the religious leaders of His day (Matthew 5:20, 7:28-29). 

Lehman Straus writes: 

  The whole idea of divorce is diametrically opposed to the marriage plan as it was instituted by God…Beware of all teaching and teachers, whether in or out of the organized church, which speak of ‘scriptural grounds for divorce’.9 

No plain rendered statement in the entire New Testament clearly mandates the right of a divorced person to remarry while their spouse is alive.  Matthew 19:9 may come closest, but the ‘exception clause’ gives an exception for divorce which does not include the right to remarry.  Jesus taught that the permanence of marriage was based on the one flesh bond which God had ordained for man and woman from the beginning of creation.  It is for this reason that man is not to separate what God has joined together.

Mark 10

And the Pharisees came to him, and asked him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife?  Tempting him.  And he answered and said unto them, What did Moses command you?  And they said, Moses suffered to write a bill of divorcement, and to put her away.  And Jesus answered and said unto them, For hardness of your heart he wrote you this precept.  But from the beginning of the creation God made them male and female.  For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife;  And they twain shall be one flesh: so then they are no more twain, but one flesh.  What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.  And in the house his disciples asked him again of the same matter.  And he saith unto them, Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her.  And if a woman shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery (Mark 10:2-12).

  It was now the spring of Jesus’ final year of ministry.  He had just left Capernaum, went through Judea, and ended up on the east side of the Jordan in Perea.  Perea was one of two districts under the jurisdiction of Herod Antipas.  Herod Antipas had previously thrown John the Baptist in prison for preaching against his divorce and remarriage.  It was under these circumstances that the Pharisees came to ask Jesus a test question concerning divorce. 

  The Pharisees asked Jesus whether it was lawful for a man to divorce his wife?  Jesus said to them, “What did Moses command you?”  The Pharisees believed that Moses permitted a man to divorce his wife if he protected her rights by giving her a certificate of divorce.  First century Rabbinic law not only allowed divorce it compelled it.  A man was not permitted to be reconciled to a fornicating wife. 

  In verse 5 Jesus claimed that it was their hard-heartedness and obstinate refusal to accept God’s view of marriage that allowed for divorce.  The Law of Moses only acknowledged the presence of divorce; it did not institute or authorize it.  Jesus took his tempters back to God’s original divine intent regarding the institution of marriage.  The man and woman are not simply two partners in a legal contract.  They are joined together in an indissoluble one flesh covenant union.  Because of this, what God has joined together let no man separate.  

Later, while the disciples and Jesus were in a house, the disciples asked him for a confirmation of what he had previously spoken.  Although Jesus spoke to the religious leaders in proverbs he answered the disciple’s questions in a straight forward manner: “The man who divorces his wife and remarries commits adultery.”  Both Matthew 19 and Mark 10 give a synopsis of the same event.  Each author was inspired by the Holy Spirit to record those items which would be needed by their intended audience. Matthew wrote primarily for Jewish readers and recorded the exception for divorce in the case of fornication.  This was probably included because of the Rabbinic law which compelled a man to divorce his fornicating wife.  Mark wrote to a Roman audience.  He included Jesus’ teaching regarding a woman who divorced her husband and remarried.  He gave no exception for divorce.   Even though Roman law compelled a man to divorce an adulterous wife, it did not allow her to remarry.  The lex Iulia de pudicitia et coercendis adulteriis – “The Julian law of chastity and repressing adultery” – was established by Augustus and the Roman Senate in 18 B.C. 

Concerning this law Will Durant writes:


  Within sixty days of detecting a wife’s adultery, the husband was required to bring her before the court; if he failed to do this, the woman’s father was required to indict her; if he too failed, any citizen might accuse her.  The adulterous woman was to be banished for life, was to lose a third of her fortune and half her dowry, and must not marry again.10

 Under Roman law a woman could initiate a divorce.  Rabbinic law did not allow this.  Though Roman law allowed remarriage after divorce in most cases, Jesus boldly claimed that whoever remarries after divorcing their spouse commits adultery.


Luke 16

And the Pharisees also, who were covetous, heard all these things: and they derided him.  And he said unto them, Ye are they which justify yourselves before men; but God knoweth your hearts: for that which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God.  The law and the prophets were until John: since that time the kingdom of God is preached, and every man presseth into it.  And it is easier for heaven and earth to pass, than one tittle of the law to fail.  Whosoever putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery: and whosoever marrieth her that is put away from her husband committeth adultery (Luke 16:14-18).

  The Pharisees scoffed at Jesus for teaching man cannot serve both God and money.  Their covetousness was detestable to God.  They had nullified the true interpretation of the Law and the Prophets.  They had justified their actions by living according to the traditions of men.  Jesus announced that since John the Baptist, the kingdom of God had been preached.  The coming of the New Covenant did not set aside God’s law; rather it was the fulfillment of it.  It would be easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for the smallest part of the law to fail.  The Old Testament prophecies would be completely fulfilled, and the moral law of God would remain absolutely authoritative. The Pharisees were very adept at setting aside the true meaning of God’s law and inventing their own standards of righteousness (cf. Mark 7:13). 

  In verse 18 Jesus uses an illustration to show the Pharisees how far they were from obeying the true intent of God’s law.  He tells them that everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery.  The man who marries the divorced woman also commits adultery.  The Pharisees allowed both remarriage after divorce.  The evidence shows Jesus did not.  Man may attempt to justify himself by lowering God’s standards and then judging himself accordingly.  God knows the hearts of everyone.  In the end, all judgment will be based upon God’s impeccable righteousness.



   Jesus based His teaching concerning marriage on the one flesh union created by God.  His standards were permanence and forgiveness.  Though realizing culture may compel one to put away a fornicating spouse, He never commanded divorce.  Divorce was caused by hardness of heart (Mark 10:5).  Hardness of heart may lead one partner to commit adultery.  Hardness of heart may cause a spouse to be unforgiving.  Neither are God’s will.  If adultery occurs, it does not dissolve the one flesh bond or replace it with a new one.  If a legal divorce takes place, it cannot nullify the one flesh relationship which exists between husband and wife. 

Heth and Wenham write:


  Should a man be forced to put away his unfaithful wife, as the Jewish readers of Matthew’s Gospel would have been, Jesus does not hold him responsible for breaking His command not to divorce.  The guilt and the blame lie with the woman who is an adulteress by reason of her offense.  And should the hard-heartedness of one of the partners result in an unfortunate divorce, lack of forgiveness and a refusal to be reconciled, Jesus requires His disciples to remain single.  One thing appears certain from this study: the New Testament and the early church as a whole are not vague or confusing when it comes to the question of remarriage after divorce.  It is clear that Jesus said that a man may have one wife or no wife, and if someone puts away their partner for whatever reason, they must remain single.11

Jesus did not command people to divorce a fornicating spouse.  He told them to forgive.  He did not tell divorced people to remarry.  He told them to reconcile or remain single (First Corinthians 7:11).


1  Joseph Jensen, ‘Does Porneia mean Fornication? A Critique of Bruce Malina’.  Novum Testamentum 20 (1978): p. 172-173. 

2  Bruce Vawter, ‘Divorce and the New Testament’.  Catholic Biblical Quarterly 39 (1977): p. 531.

3  Abel Isaksson,  Marriage and Ministry in the New Temple.  A Study with Special Reference to Mt. 19:13 and 1 Cor. 11:3-16.  Acta Seminarii Neotestammantici Upsaliensis. Vol. 24 Lund: Gleerup: Copenhagen: Munsgaard, (1965) p. 133-134.

4  Alfred Edersheim, Life and Times of Jesus The Messiah, p. 245.

5  Will Durant, Caesar and Christ, p. 568

6 William MacDonald, Believer’s Bible Commentary on Matthew.

7  D.A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, p. 122.

8 William Heth, May a Divorced Person Remarry?  p. 3.

9 Lehman Strauss, The Permanency of the Marriage Relationship.

10 Will Durant, Caesar and Christ, p. 223.

11 William Heth & Gordon Wenham, Jesus and Divorce, p. 199.


Copyright 2008 by Joe Fogle.  All rights reserved.