The Exception For Divorce In Matthew’s Gospel

The Exception For Divorce In Matthew’s Gospel

Matthew records an exception to Jesus’ teaching that divorce caused adultery (Matthew 5:32 and 19:9). It is this exception which has generated almost endless debate and in the eyes of many been the basis of the right to divorce and remarry for a number of centuries. But does a long tradition necessarily make it right? This divorce tradition rests on four assumptions:

1. It assumes the exception is universal, applying to all peoples of all ages. However the exception, where a wife has committed fornication or unchastity (Greek: porneia), is unique to Matthew. Mark (who records the same conversation with the Pharisees) does not mention it and neither do Luke and Paul. Should we just assume, as some suggest, that Mark, Luke and Paul knew of the exception but saw no need to mention it? We should always be very cautious in assuming anything in God’s word, lest we become guilty of adding to it. As the Proverb says:

Do not add to His words Or He will reprove you, and you will be proved a liar (Proverbs 30:6).

2. It assumes that divorce, if justified, ends the marriage covenant, all obligations of each spouse for each other and gives freedom to marry another.

3. It assumes the right to divorce, based on Matthew’s account, applies to both men and women. Yet the exception is only given for a man divorcing his wife not a woman her husband. Again, to assume such without fully understanding the context and what the exception refers to, may lead us to error.

4. It assumes the grounds for divorce, fornication (from the Greek word porneia), means sexual sin in general. It is said to include adultery, fornication, homosexuality, incest and indulging in pornography. However as I hope to show later, porneia, as it is used in the New Testament in the context of a man-woman relationship, does not mean sexual sin in general and certainly not adultery.

Is it right to make these four assumptions, based on two verses in Matthew, when the plain teaching elsewhere in the New Testament is that divorce and remarriage (while the former spouse is living) is adultery? Again, I would say it is a serious matter to assume anything of God’s word, and especially with regard to marriage which is a type of the relationship between Christ and His Church.

To understand why this exception is unique to Matthew we first need to consider what is unique about his gospel and how that is relevant to the exception.

The unique features of Matthew’s gospel and their significance.

1. There are more Old Testament quotations in Matthew than in the other Gospels.

2. There are many expressions unique to Matthew, for example:

“Don’t think that I have come to abolish the Law and the prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfil for truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished “ (Matthew 5:17-18).

Comment: It needs to be noted that when Jesus spoke these words the Law of Moses was still in force. Jesus, during His time of ministry, revealed the laws of the coming Kingdom of God and the New Covenant. Yet, at the same time, He could not and would not say anything to contradict the Law while it was still in place. Therefore, it is in the context of the Law of Moses these words should be understood. Not until Christ died on the cross was all accomplished and the Law of Moses, the Old Covenant done away with.

“Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 5:20).

Comment: Jesus was teaching a standard of righteousness for His followers that went beyond conformity to the Law of Moses as taught by the scribes and Pharisees. They emphasised minor aspects of the Law while neglecting the more important. Jesus directed them to the spirit of the law as opposed to the letter as understood by the Pharisees.

“Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering” (Matthew 5:23).

Comment: This clearly applied to temple offerings made under the Law of Moses. Under the new covenant after Jesus’ death the earthly temple altar had no significance, for Christ Himself became the offering for sin.

These twelve Jesus sent out after instructing them: “Do not go in the way of the Gentiles, and do not enter any city of the Samaritans (Matthew 10:5).

Comment: Again, clearly an instruction which is no longer valid, but only applied until Jesus died and rose again.

“If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matthew 18:17).

Comment: An instruction which was only relevant to Jewish believers at that time. While we can make a spiritual principle of this for today, the terminology Jesus used clearly was meant for that time.

“Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ’Whoever swears by the temple, that is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple is obligated” (Matthew 23:16).

Comment: Again such an instruction was only relevant to Jews, under the Law, while the temple stood.

3. In Jesus’ teaching in what is known as ‘The Sermon on the Mount’, six times he corrects the teaching of the scribes and Pharisees by saying “You have heard that it was said….” and ending with “but I, I say to you….” (Matthew 5:21-43). In each case Jesus gave the new standard of righteousness of the kingdom of God that went beyond the letter of the Law of Moses as taught by the Pharisees.

From these passages it should be seen Matthew has recorded the words of Jesus as they were directed to the Jews of His day. Jesus taught the true righteousness of God and corrected the false interpretations by the scribes and Pharisees. Yet such unique expressions as those above would only had relevance to Jewish hearers still living under the Law, the Old Covenant. Therefore for this reason, the unique exception given by Jesus for divorce needs to be understood in the context of the Law of Moses.

Luke also recorded Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (Luke 6:20-49) but it is significant that in his account he made no reference to the Law of Moses. This again indicates Matthew was written for Jews acquainted with the Law.

Jesus’ Teaching About Marriage and Divorce

Jesus’ teaching on marriage and divorce began with the words:

You have heard that it was said, ’You shall not commit adultery’ (Matthew 5:27).

Here Jesus expounded the seventh commandment by saying adultery was committed not only when a man had sex with a married woman (other than his wife), but also when he looked lustfully at another’s wife and also (contrary to popular belief) as a consequence of divorce (Matthew 5:28; 5:32).

These are Jesus’ words as recorded by Matthew:

It was said, Whoever sends his wife away, let him give her a certificate of divorce’ but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the reason of unchastity (Gk: porneia), makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery (Matthew 5:31,32).

They said to Him, “Why then did Moses command to give her a certificate of divorce and send her away?”He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, (Gk: porneiaand marries another woman commits adultery” (Matthew 19:7-9).

Jesus corrected the Jews misunderstanding of the Law. The Pharisees claimed the Law commanded divorce, but this was not the case. Moses permitted divorce because of their hardness of heart but it was never God’s original intention. He then said if a man divorces his wife for any reason, other than porneia, and marries another he commits adultery. The Law didn’t command divorce and divorce did not break a consummated marriage as was commonly believed. Therefore a subsequent remarriage constituted adultery, which was totally at odds with the prevailing view of that time.

Jesus made one exception to the rule that divorce followed by remarriage was adultery. That was if the man’s wife had committed porneia (the Greek word translated as ‘unchastity’ and ‘immorality’ in these two verses) prior to the divorce. But what does this exception for porneia refer to?

Again, I don’t believe it is meant to be a mystery. Scripture does provide the answer if we are prepared to accept it. There are two ways of understanding the exception: first from the relevant passages of the Old Testament law and secondly from the meaning of porneia as it is used in the New Testament. The meaning of porneia from other sources will also be examined.

First, to what law were the Pharisees referring to when they said Moses commanded a man to give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away? In Deuteronomy we read:

When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that she finds no favour in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out from his house (Deuteronomy 24:1).

Reading the rest of this passage it is important to note what it does not say. It did not command or prohibit divorce but regulated an already existing practice. It says a divorced, or divorced and widowed woman cannot return to her first husband. Yet it did not prohibit divorce where some indecency had been found in her. The Hebrew term here is literally ‘a thing of nakedness’ and is of a sexual nature. What can this refer to? Again, Scripture gives us an answer. Earlier in Deuteronomy we read:

If any man takes a wife and goes in to her and then turns against her, and charges her with shameful deeds and publicly defames her, and says, ’I took this woman, but when I came near her, I did not find her a virgin (Deuteronomy 22:13,14).

Note these two passages in Deuteronomy show three similarities:

1. A man takes a wife.
2. He marries and goes into her (that is initiates or has sexual intercourse).
3. He finds something in her which gives him cause to reject her.

In Deuteronomy 22 he finds her not to be a virgin. That is, on initiating sexual intercourse he has found her hymen not intact. She is accused of committing fornication and if proven, according to the Law of Moses, was to be stoned to death.
In Deuteronomy 24 he finds indecency (something of a sexual nature).

Therefore I believe the conversation between Jesus and the Pharisees was based on the interpretation of these two passages. The Pharisees basis for divorce came from Deuteronomy 24 and believed it justified divorce for any cause. Jesus however said there was only one cause: specifically the indecency of fornication committed by a betrothed wife based on Deuteronomy 22 and 24.

That Jesus was referring to Deuteronomy 22 is supported by another term Jesus used in Matthew 5:32. Literally it says: ‘except for word (Gk: logou) of fornication (Gk: porneia)’. In Deuteronomy 22:14, a literal rendering of the Hebrew is: ‘and makes accusing words against her’. The Greek Septuagint uses the word logous – the same as in Matthew 5:32.

In view of the above, the meaning of the exception becomes clear. A young woman betrothed to a man was considered his wife (Deuteronomy 22:23-24), even though the marriage had not been consummated in sexual intercourse. It was a binding covenant which could only be broken in two circumstances. Under the Law, God made the ‘one flesh’ principle a serious matter. A husband who, at the beginning of marriage found his bride was not a virgin, could charge her with fornication. The Hebrew and Greek words for fornication (the sin of the unfaithful betrothed woman) are zanah and porneia respectively, which refer to sex with or by an unmarried woman (see next section ‘What Does porneia Mean?). The Law required, on the basis of  witnesses (Deuteronomy 19:15) or evidence as described previously, that a woman who had been sexually unfaithful before marriage be stoned to death (Deuteronomy 22:13-21).

Some have therefore argued that the exception Jesus gave for porneia cannot mean betrothal unfaithfulness because death by stoning was required, not divorce. Yet we have three examples in Scripture where the death penalty was not applied as required by the law of Moses for adultery and betrothal unfaithfulness. 1. King David’s adultery with Bathsheba (2Samuel 3:3-4). 2. The woman caught in adultery (John 8:3-11). 3. Mary’s supposed betrothal unfaithfulness as recorded by Matthew:

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit and her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. (Matthew 1:18-19 ESV)

Joseph, after learning of Mary, his betrothed wife’s pregnancy and believing she had been unfaithful to him, sought to divorce (the same word Jesus uses in his teaching on marriage and divorce) her but after being told the truth by an angel in a dream took Mary to be his wife.

So we can see the death penalty was not necessarily applied in every case of suspected premarital unfaithfulness (or adultery) but rather divorce. The other circumstance whereby a betrothal was broken was, of course, by the death of one of the couple.

So to summarise: there was only one exception to Jesus’ rule that a man could not divorce his wife. If he, before or at the very beginning of marriage, could prove his wife had been unfaithful (committed fornication – porneiabefore marriage, he could (but not necessarily had to) divorce her (as Joseph intended to Mary) because she had already become one flesh with another man. If he subsequently married another he did not commit adultery. This explains why Matthew (who wrote for Jewish believers) alone recorded an exception to divorce and only Matthew records Joseph’s intention to divorce Mary, since betrothal was a Jewish practice governed by the Law of Moses. While the Romans and Greeks of that time also had pre-marriage agreements they were not regarded as husband and wife as in Jewish culture.

The differences between Matthew’s and Mark’s accounts and their significance

Mark also recorded the same encounter of Jesus with the Pharisees as Matthew but there are three significant differences.

1. Matthew recorded the Pharisees’ question as: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?” Matthew goes on to record Jesus’ answer to this question, giving one cause for divorce – fornication (porneia). Mark, however, omits ‘for any cause’.

2. Mark also omits Jesus’ reply to the Pharisees containing the phrase ‘except for fornication’. These two omissions by Mark, I believe are not incidental but intentional. He omitted this one cause or exception for divorce – fornication (in this context betrothal sexual unfaithfulness) because it was not relevant to his intended readers – Romans and Greeks.

3. Matthew’s account does not include Jesus’ comments to His disciples after the debate with the Pharisees (Mark 10:10-12) recorded by Mark in which He teaches no exception and adds the circumstance of a woman divorcing her husband. There was no provision under the Law of Moses for a woman to divorce her husband. However under Roman and Greek law a woman could divorce her husband.

These three differences are consistent with the understanding Matthew originally wrote to Jews while Mark wrote to Romans and Greeks. Luke and Paul (who wrote to non-Jews) also make no reference to the exception.

In Matthew 24:20 we read “But pray that your flight will not be in the winter, or on a Sabbath” ( in Jesus’ teaching of the end time). Mark recording the same teaching, however, omits the words “or on a Sabbath” (Mark 13:18) for the same reason: they were not relevant to non-Jews.

Therefore the different accounts were written intentionally, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, because they were intended for different recipients. The exception to divorce, as recorded by Matthew, applied to the Jewish practice of betrothal. A man was not bound to consummate a marriage and could divorce his betrothed if she had been sexually unfaithful. Jesus’ teaching in Mark and Luke and Paul’s teaching are in harmony with Jesus’ teaching in Matthew once we understand the reason for the differences.

This next section will examine the meaning of ‘porneia’ as it is used in the New Testament and from other sources. I hope to show that its meaning, in context, is consistent with the above understanding of ‘except for porneia’.

Next: What Does porneia Mean?