Freed to live through the death of another.

The Divorce ‘Exception’ Clauses in Matthew’s Gospel

1. Introduction

No one is surprised anymore when it is declared that divorce rates are on the rise. It is simply a matter of fact in Canada. As of the end of 2003, more than 38% of marriages will result in divorce before the couple celebrates its 30th anniversary.[1] This is particularly alarming when other studies show that divorce amongst older couples who have been married longer is on the rise.[2] What’s more, about 16% of all divorces in Canada involve at least one partner who has been previously divorced (i.e. this is at least his / her second divorce).[3] Perhaps the most alarming fact is that “born again” Christians are every bit as likely to divorce as those who do not profess faith in Christ.[4] In a very sad way, we who are supposed to be “salt” and “light” have lost all taste and brightness. The reason for studying divorce is clear: it is “one of those rare subjects for which academia has the potential to make a direct and meaningful impact on the real mess of people’s lives.”[5] Divorce is everywhere in today’s culture and Christians must be able to speak with clarity and insight to a world of hurt (both in and outside the church).

There are many problems inherent with studying this topic, however. One may lament with Vawter that no matter how persuasively Christian leaders argue against divorce, pragmatism and hardness of heart will still win in the end,[6] or one may simply be overwhelmed by the amount of discrepancy and debate involved in the subject. Collier laments that even though this is an opportunity for the church to speak to our people and our culture “where the rubber meets the road” it is incredibly difficult with the number of studies produced to even understand the text, let alone gain direction from them.[7] David Janzen can identify with the “lostness” which can attend studying even just Jesus’ exceptive clauses in Matthew: “It is likely that not a truer word has been written in the field of biblical studies than Ben Witherington’s observation that nearly everything about the two Matthean divorce exception clauses is disputed.”[8] Collier cites Luz’s commentary on Matthew (1985, v.1, p.73) and says that the literature on porneiva and the exception clause is “unsurveyable.”[9] Having noted all that, it is still the intention of this author to deal with this very issue.

Though the material is “unsurveyable,” it could well be argued that many of the volumes currently being produced are merely reproducing and recycling arguments which have previously been put forward. Scholars are (very) broadly divided into three main positions[10] with regard to Jesus’ allowance for divorce in Matthew’s Gospel: (1) No divorce is allowed, since πορνεα should be translated “incest” and refers to the annulment of incestuous marriages of Pagan converts to the Matthean Christian community,[11] (2) Divorce is allowed in cases of πορνεα, but remarriage is always forbidden,[12] or (3) Divorce and remarriage are allowed only[13] in cases of πορνεα.[14] These three groups continue to publish articles and books back and forth with regards to the origin / authenticity of the exception clause, whether the statement itself was formulated as an apodictic general prophetic principle or in legal ordinance form, the meaning of πορνεα, the referent of the exception, what the assumptions of Jesus’ audience would have been, what the early church believed (and if that is even a legitimate argument to build a case on),[15] etc., but no consensus has been reached as to what Matthew actually intended to convey in his exception clauses.

It is the opinion of this author that with this amount of material being produced, one of three possibilities must be the reality: (1) One group is right and the others are simply not capable of understanding (or willing to accept) it; (2) One group is right, but both sides are spending so much time and effort talking that they are not taking the time to listen, or; (3) Everyone is arguing their own positions from the same pool of inconclusive data, which results in people simply compiling the evidence which best supports their preconceived conclusion.[16] Since the first two are hardly likely, it will be the goal of this paper to examine a few of the key current issues being debated, showing how the evidence on both sides in many cases is both convincing and yet inconclusive, and then finally to suggest another alternative which—though not really new—perhaps has not received the fair hearing it deserves. This paper will not develop a comprehensive theology of divorce, but will seek only to deal with some of the issues surrounding the Matthean exception clauses and perhaps draw some tentative conclusions from there.

2. Popular, Yet Inconclusive Debates

A. The Origin / Authenticity of the Exception Clause

Since the synoptic parallels of Jesus’ divorce statements (Mark 10.2-12; and Luke 16.18) appear without the exception given them by Matthew in both 5.32 and 19.9, critical commentators are quick to offer suggestions about redactional additions by the author of Matthew. This issue must preface all discussion on the exception clause, for if the clause is not original then we have already received an interpretation of Jesus’ statements on divorce: Matthew clearly feels that even though the original statements of Jesus were absolute, his disciples were free to allow exceptions, as Matthew himself does here.[17] But is it so clear that the exception clause is in fact redactional?

Vawter assumes “as most do”[18] that the clauses are redactional insertions, saying that “certainly the direction of the Q saying has been radically changed by someone.”[19] He argues that it is

in keeping with Matthew’s general purposes and the context in which he has set the logion to conclude that he has simply adapted the dominical saying to the more of a society in which porneia had long been regarded as making divorce mandatory, not optional.[20]

In other words, Matthew is merely adapting the saying of Jesus—which was originally absolute prohibition of divorce—to his culture, which demanded divorce.

Davies and Allison,[21] Nolland,[22] and Hagner[23] all agree with Vawter that the exception is a Matthean addition. It is argued that it is “extremely unlikely” that the sayings are original with Jesus because (1) they do not fit with the context of absolute statements regarding the ethics of the kingdom (or the synoptic parallel divorce teachings for that matter), (2) the clause is an accommodation to the common understanding of Deuteronomy 24.1, which probably reflects the actual practice of the Matthean community more than Jesus’ teaching, and (3) the addition of the exception nullifies the antithesis (5.31) and in the case of the parallel in 19.3-12 weakens the logic of the passage, where Jesus appears no different than the Pharisees of the Shammaite persuasion.[24]

Nolland believes that the exception clause is from a group of believers who wanted to make Jesus’ directions practical, not understanding that he was seeking to establish an absolute moral vision rather than giving practical directions on how we should live, implementing that principle.[25] He concludes,

I think it most likely that Matthew found the exception clause in the tradition that stands behind Mt. 5.32, and that to produce consistency he added this into the tradition that stands behind Mt. 19.9, which came to him without an exception clause, but that the exception clause is still best taken as a pre-Matthean addition to a tradition which originally lacked it.[26]

The difference between Jesus’ absolute statement and the excepted one that the Matthean community produces is to be expected: “Such rules for life are never exactly the same thing as the original moral vision.”[27]

In clear contrast with these scholars, Carson argues for the authenticity of the exceptive clause.[28] In his words, “not a few scholars hold that, at least on this point, Matthew 19:9 is authentic and that Mark omits the obvious exception.”[29] It is argued that since most assume Matthean redaction because the exception clause makes verse 9 incoherent with verses 4-8, if verse 9 can be shown to be coherent with the rest of the passage, it forbids claiming that Matthew was dependent on Mark. And even if one could prove Markan priority in this pericope, the elements that would be presumed to be redactional cannot be assumed ahistorical unless there is strong evidence showing that Matthew had access to no other information—evidence which simply does not exist.[30] Likewise, Cornes argues that it is difficult (to say the least) to think that Matthew would simply make a redactional concession to the hard circumstances of his community given the uncompromising nature of the Sermon on the Mount and the fact that there is no tendency anywhere in Matthew to soften the requirements of the law. This idea is “without parallel” elsewhere in the gospel.[31]

In conclusion, it appears that nothing may be proven in a hard and fast manner about the origin of the exception clauses: Those arguing that the clause is redactional do so based on their own conclusions and assumptions, not on any textual evidence and those who argue for the origin of the sayings with Christ simply point this out. The burden of proof, ultimately, still must lie with those who would argue that the clause is an editorial insertion.[32]

B. Popular Understandings of πορνεα

The question of what Matthew means by the word πορνεα has produced no shortage of scholarly interest and presents a particular problem in the texts at hand. Had Matthew simply intended to convey the idea of “marital unfaithfulness,”[33] the choice of πορνεα instead of μοιχεα is unusual at best. Feinberg and Feinberg have their doubts about translating πορνεα simply as “adultery”:

We doubt that the word (porneia) refers only to adultery. The more usual word for adultery is moicheia, and in 15:19 Matthew distinguishes porneia from moicheia. In fact, in Matthew porneia only occurs three times (5:32; 15:19; and 19:9). Two of the three are the cases in question, and the third (15:19) clearly distinguishes moicheia from porneia.”[34]

Davies and Allison agree: “μοιχεω and μοιχομαι are the words the evangelist uses for ‘commit adultery’ (5.27, 28, 32; 19.9, 18), and in 15.19, μοιχεα and πορνεα are clearly two different sins. So πορνεα is not likely to mean ‘adultery’.”[35]

So the question must then be asked, “why did Matthew choose πορνεα rather than μοιχεα?” Fitzmyer has suggested that it is because the πορνεα under discussion is incest.[36] The argument is that there is evidence from Palestinian literature that marriage was acceptable amongst pagans within degrees of kinship too close for Jewish law. For those who were converting to Christianity, this posed a serious problem: What happens to the marriage? This explanation helps to inform us why πορνεα was one of the things that Gentiles were to refrain from in Acts 15.29 at the Jerusalem council. Here appeal is also made to 1 Corinthians 5.1 where a man is chided for committing πορνεα in his union with his father’s wife.

This argument has been widely refuted, however. For one thing, with regard to the 1 Corinthians 5 passage, “it is very doubtful whether Paul or any other Jew would have regarded an incestuous relationship as marriage” at all. Rather, “Paul would not have told the couple to get a divorce but to stop what they were doing.”[37] In his excursus on porneiva as incestuous unions, Keener notes that this position “requires us to suppose a situation that must have been so rare as barely to warrant mention, especially if we assume a Syro-Palestinian provenance for Matthew.”[38] He goes on to explain that while there is evidence that the Jews suspected the Gentiles of widespread incest, their suspicions “misrepresented the actual degree of incidence of the activity.”[39]

There are, most assuredly, many problems with the incest view. The “evangelical consensus” or “Erasmian” view is the most widely accepted reading of the text. Keener argues for this position from the perspective of how Jesus’ audience would have understood his words: they would have “understood this (πορνεα) as a legal charge, interpreting these words in line with the typical meaning of ‘infidelity’ as grounds for divorce, namely, sexual unfaithfulness to the marriage.” Since Jewish and Roman law both mandated divorce on such grounds, “Mark and Luke could probably assume such an exception without explicitly stating it.”[40] France agrees:

The Matthaean clause merely spells out what was taken for granted in current thinking, and is therefore assumed in the other versions, i.e. that adultery automatically annuls a marriage by creating a new sexual union in its place… The Matthaean exceptive clause is not therefore introducing a new provision, but making explicit what any Jewish reader would have taken for granted when Jesus made the apparently unqualified pronouncements of Mark 10:9-12.[41]

Fundamental to this conclusion is the argument which Carson makes in his comments on 19.9:

Sexual sin has a peculiar relation to Jesus’ treatment of Genesis 1:27; 2:24 (in Matt 19:4-6), because the indissolubility of marriage he defends by appealing to those verses from the creation accounts is predicated on sexual union (“one flesh”). Sexual promiscuity is therefore a de facto exception.[42]

Based on these observations these scholars are able to rest firmly in the position that they may take the “natural” understanding of porneiva as “unrepentant adultery,”[43] “sexual unfaithfulness to the marriage,”[44] or “sexual sin of any sort.”[45] Divorce and remarriage can be legitimate since the sexual promiscuity of the one partner has fundamentally broken the “one-flesh” union.

At first glance, this position seems safe from refutation, but such is not the case. On account of space limitations, the problems inherent with this view can only be addressed briefly. (1) The idea that the “one-flesh” union is created by the act of intercourse and thus can be broken by an act of intercourse is not in fitting with the text. Though the sexual union appears to be the means by which the two are brought together, it is not what joins them together—God is the one doing the joining. This is why Jesus says, “What God has joined together, let not man separate” (19.6). If it were the case that “one-flesh unions” were broken by adultery then it would only follow that if a wife committed πορνεα, the husband would have to divorce her since she has become “one flesh” with another man and therefore, she is no longer his wife. For him to remain with her, then, would be adultery. This is clearly not what the text is saying. Moreover, if a lustful glance is adultery (5.27-30) and “sexual sin of any sort” is grounds for divorce (5.31-32), then it is difficult to see how Jesus is being strict on divorce at all.

(2) This argument amounts to nothing more than a “Christian statement of the Shammaite position”[46] excepting that where Shammai demanded divorce, Jesus merely allows it. This hardly accounts for the disciples’ shock in 19.10. (3) This argument does not explain the choice of πορνεα over μοιχεα except if one is willing to admit that “porneia should mean more than adulterous infidelity.”[47] Again, this does not seem to fit with Jesus’ demand for a righteousness that will surpass the Pharisees’ (5.20).

(4) This view of divorce based on “hardness of heart” (19.8) does not seem to fit in with the kingdom ethic or the heart reflected in the beatitudes (5.3-10).[48] While Carson argues that kingdom morality is not being appealed to in 19.3-12,[49] the same cannot be said about the clause in Matthew 5. Moreover, Collier has put 19.1-12 into the context of this section of Matthew’s gospel and arrives at an entirely different conclusion:

Matt 16:13-20:34 specifically deals with the demands or rigid-ness of following Jesus, and the values of the kingdom of heaven are set forth: self-sacrifice and allegiance (16:24-17:13); faith (17:14-21); submission to authority (17:24-27); self-denial and humility (18:1-14); forgiveness and mercy (18:15-35); moral purity (19:1-12); innocence and humility (19:13-15); detachment from possessions (19:16-30); and position and service (20:1-16; 20-28). With the interspersion of Jesus’ fate (viz., to suffer, be killed, and be raised: 16:21-23; 17:22-23; 20:17-19) into the demands or values of the kingdom of heaven, the ultimate demand is shown: a willingness on the part of disciples to follow the steps of Jesus even to death. This is a call to total discipleship. Those who understand the demands or values of the kingdom in the context of suffering know what it is to think the things of God. It is in this context of the rigidness of the values of the kingdom that Matt 19:1-9 appears as a call to moral purity in the face of the Pharisees’ abuse of the law of Moses.[50]

Seen in this context, a call to absolute righteousness seems far more appropriate than allowance for “hard heartedness.”[51]

(5) France has explained the presence of the exceptive clause in Matthew alone by stating that Matthew is simply “making explicit what any Jewish reader would have taken for granted when Jesus made the apparently unqualified pronouncements of Mark 10:9-12.”[52] This proves quite problematic, however. For one thing, if any “Jewish” reader would have assumed this, then why would the gospel-writer to the Jews be the only one to include it? Would this not be a more likely explanation if Luke were the only writer to include it? Even more importantly, however, is how dangerous this logic can be when applied consistently. The proposition here is that when Jesus makes an absolute statement, a, and there are cultural expectations which limit that absolute, b, present, then b trumps (or at least qualifies) a. So if Jesus declares that every lustful glance is adultery, a, but there is the cultural expectation that men are allowed to take such glances, so long as they are not excessive, b, then b must rule a, and men should be allowed to (at least in a limited sense) look lustfully at women. This is troublesome to say the least and it is doubtful if anyone would want to consistently apply this logic.

(6) France and others see Matthew as trying to be practical by providing a realistic expectation: “The fact that Matthew includes the phrase suggests that he had an eye not only to the general statement of principle but also the applicability of his teaching in a real-life situation.”[53] This presents a problem, however, for those who would otherwise hold that Jesus’ teaching style in Matthew 5-7 is much more haggadic.[54] With this understanding one is put in the uncomfortable position of having to discern why Jesus was inconsistent in his teaching style (haggadic for 5.21-30, then halakhic for 5.31-32, then haggadic again in 5.33ff) or else having to explain why Matthew has misunderstood or misrepresented Jesus by offering a halakhic interpretation of what Jesus taught in haggadic manner.[55]

In summing up this matter one is forced to conclude that even though the incest view is extremely unlikely (if not entirely implausible) still the “marital unfaithfulness” position is perhaps not an air-tight alternative. This remains, however, the majority position. As stated in the introduction, within this “divorce for marital unfaithfulness” camp there are two main schools of thought; one which allows remarriage if the divorce is legitimate (i.e. for porneiva), and one which decries all remarriage as adultery.[56] The reason for this difference of opinion is where attention is turned next.

C. To What Does the Exception Clause Refer?

Commenting on the text of exception clause in Matthew 5.32, Davies and Allison regretfully inform the reader that “In our judgment, the issue cannot, unfortunately, be resolved on exegetical grounds: Matthew’s words are simply too cryptic to admit of a definitive interpretation.”[57] Unfortunately, this issue, like many of the others surrounding these texts, does not seem to yield much common ground between interpreters or clarity for the reader. The issue debated here is whether or not the exception clause (“except for πορνεα”) refers to the divorce alone (thus giving grounds for legitimate divorce, but not remarriage), or whether it governs the entire protasis (thus giving ground for divorce and allowing for remarriage in cases where the divorce was conducted for porneiva).

As a leading proponent of the “valid remarriage” school of thought, D.A. Carson argues that the exceptive clause must “be understood to govern the entire protasis. We may paraphrase as follows: ‘Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery—though this principle does not hold in the case of porneia.’”[58]

Those who have spent the most time and effort arguing against this reading of the clause are Heth and Wenham.[59] The main thrust of their argument is as follows:

The elliptical phrase ‘except for immorality’ does not contain a verb, and the one to be supplied is the one immediately preceding it – ‘put away’ – the one Matthew’s readers just passed over. It would indeed be grammatically harsh to force another verb – ‘marries another’ – into this elliptical clause that is clearly, by the nature of its position in the protasis, linked only with ‘put away’. The construction of 19:9 basically indicates that we are dealing with two conditional statements, one that is qualified and one that is unqualified or absolute:

1 A man may not put away his wife unless she is guilty of adultery

2 Whoever marries another after putting away his wife commits adultery[60]

The problem that interpreters like Murray and Carson have with these verses, they argue, is that they try rearranging the words in a way that makes sense in English, rather than thinking about them from the Greek mindset.[61]

This author simply does not have the facility with the language required to conduct an educated evaluation of the arguments, but it does appear that there is now somewhat of a scholarly consensus (in part). Keener,[62] Hagner,[63] Cornes[64] and others have all acknowledged that Heth and Wenham’s treatment of the text is to be preferred over Carson and Murray’s, although this does not mean that they all agree about the conclusions to be drawn.

Even Carson concedes that it is “formally true that the except clause is syntactically linked to the divorce clause, not the remarriage clause,” but yet he insists that “this is scarcely decisive.”[65] In similar fashion, like-minded Keener acknowledges that “‘except for infidelity’ may modify Jesus’ statement about divorce rather than remarriage, but if it does it does so precisely because, in Jesus’ graphic statement, it is the validity of the divorce that is in question.”[66] In stark contrast, Cornes, who holds the opposite view, is willing to acknowledge that Carson and Murray’s understanding of the syntax is “a perfectly natural way to understand the verse in isolation.”[67] He concludes:

So, both interpretations of Matthew 19:9 are possible and the syntax of the sentence, taken by itself, might lead us to believe that Jesus allows remarriage (and is saying that the marriage bond has been destroyed) in the case of divorce for adultery.[68]

Thus, in the end, the reader is left with the understanding that even the scholars writing on the issue are unable to draw conclusions based on the syntax of the sentence. Each writer is willing to concede that the sentence may rightly be taken in the way that his opponent takes it, but will not concede that such an understanding would lead to his opponents’ conclusion.[69]

It appears that Davies and Allison were right and that the issue cannot be decisively resolved on exegetical grounds because each scholar is drawing from inconclusive evidence and using that to support the positions which are developed from elsewhere. Heth, too, has recognized to some extent the futility of the study thus far:

Most NT specialists concentrating on the NT divorce material seem to be sufficiently aware of cultural backgrounds and prevailing attitudes in both Jewish and Greco-Roman contexts. Yet when each one takes his or her own hypotheses about what Matthew’s and Paul’s readers would have assumed, combines them with their exegesis of the pertinent OT and NT texts, and then filters it all through their own biblical theology of Christian ethics, sometimes radically different conclusions emerge. This must mean that good textual, grammatical, lexical, biblical-theological, contextual congruency, and cultural context points of validation are being offered on all sides.[70]

So what is the thoughtful Christian who is thus far unpersuaded left with?

3. A Suggested Solution

A. The Legitimacy of Looking Within

In March of 1993 Dale Allison published an article entitled “Divorce, Celibacy and Joseph (Matthew 1:18-25 and 19:1-12).” In it he discussed some of the thoughts that he has had since his commentary on Matthew was published; namely, with regard to the figure of Joseph in Matthew 1 and his potential connection to Jesus’ teachings on divorce and celibacy in Matthew 19. In this article Allison pushes his colleagues to move beyond looking for technical, syntactical or extratextual evidence for determining the meaning of the divorce exception clauses and to look within Matthew for an intertextual explanation:

Maybe we have been looking for an extratextual explanation—Matthew borrowed from Shammai (so most), or Matthew’s brand of Judaism required divorce for adultery (so Bockmuehl), or Matthew’s community had a problem with Gentile converts incestuously married (so Fitzmyer)—whereas we should have been looking for an intertextual explanation: the exception clauses allow for harmony with 1.18-25.[71]

In Matthew 1.18-25 the story of Joseph is narrated, and he is declared “righteous” (a loaded word in Matthew’s gospel) because he was desirous of divorcing Mary quietly when he found out that she was pregnant. This “righteous” man’s decision to divorce would surely still be in the mind of the original audience when, only a few chapters later, Jesus teaches on divorce in the Sermon on the Mount. Allison reflects, “Although discussions of Mt. 5.31-32 and 19.1-12 have, at least in my reading, paid little if any attention to 1.18-25, it is difficult to fathom why.”[72] The argument is made, then, that the reason why Matthew includes the exception clause is specifically because he is creating harmony between Jesus’ righteous father and Jesus’ righteous teaching.[73]

At this point, however, Allison’s argument contains a fatal flaw. He instructs the reader to note well: “such harmony only obtains if πορνεα = ‘adultery’, for adultery is (despite the demurral of a few commentators) the imagined crime of Mary.”[74] Janzen points out that Allison is wrong here because “he sees the situation of Joseph and Mary as one of full marriage. Mt 1.18 is quite clear, however, that at this point the couple is only engaged.”[75] And thus, by taking a narrative-critical approach to the gospel of Matthew one can begin to let Matthew be his own interpreter, and also begin to discover the proposed solution.[76]

B. A Potential Insight from πορνεα

The proposal being brought forward is an offshoot of the betrothal view. The most common critique of this view comes from the use of the word πορνεα. Perhaps being overly kind, Heth and Wenham critique the betrothal view as such: “The only major objection to this view is the restricted nuance given the word porneia. Without specific contextual indicators would Matthew’s readers have understood it to mean betrothal unchastity?”[77] Carson critiques the view along the same lines:

It must be admitted that the word porneia itself is very broad. In unambiguous contexts it can on occasion refer to a specific kind of sexual sin. Yet even then this is possible only because the specific sexual sin belongs to the larger category of sexual immorality. Porneia covers the entire range of such sins and should not be restricted unless the context requires it.[78]

He offers only a brief treatment of this view, rejecting the notion that pre-marital fornication could be meant by πορνεα because “there are too many other possibilities; and there is no reason to adopt this one if porneia is being squeezed into too narrow a semantic range.”[79] The challenge, then, is to present a context in which πορνεα can legitimately be seen to mean “pre-marital unchastity.”

First of all it must be established that “fornication” is a legitimate translation of the word in some setting, because if it is without attestation, the case is lost. A look at the lexicon yields the possibilities: “Unlawful sexual intercourse, prostitution, unchastity, fornication.” The lexicon also points out that it can be distinguished from μοιχεα (“adultery”).[80] Most scholars are quick to point out that this distinction is made clearly in Matthew’s gospel.[81] Janzen takes a step in the desired direction when he states that πορνεα in the divorce clauses can refer to sexual intercourse during betrothal or marriage.[82] Again,

The notion is a somewhat broader one than that encompassed by moicheia, since that usually refers only to extra-marital sex, not to sex during betrothal. While moicheia usually means ‘adultery’, it can refer to illicit intercourse in general. If Matthew employs the term porneia, it is in order to make it clear that sex outside of betrothal and outside of marriage allows the husband to divorce.[83]

So it is acknowledged that πορνεα should be distinguished from μοιχεα and can be used to refer to unfaithfulness in the betrothal stage. Isaksson, in his influential work, even went so far as to note that “we can find no unequivocal examples of the use of this word to denote a wife’s adultery.”[84]

With the understanding that this is a possible meaning for πορνεα and that the justification of the “righteous” Joseph is the backdrop for Jesus’ teachings on divorce in Matthew 5, it is not at all a stretch to see πορνεα in Matthew 5.32 as “fornication.” Heth and Wenham concede,

…the restricted nuance of porneia denoting that kind of sexual sin of which Joseph suspected of Mary is a definite possibility and should not be dismissed lightly. If the Sitz im Leben of the exception clauses is the life of Jesus then the betrothal view has even a better chance of being correct…[85]

Other significant biblical evidence comes from John 8.41 where the Pharisees accuse Jesus of being born of πορνεα. Remarkably, there is even inter-gospel attestation to the idea that Mary’s suspected sin would be referred to as πορνεα. Perhaps a helpful question would be to ask, “If Matthew had in mind to record the exception clause to justify Joseph, what word would he use?” He would certainly not use μοιχεα, because that would denote adultery within a marriage. So what word is the most suitable for the “sin” of Mary without potentially confusing the audience into thinking that he is referring to divorce from a marriage? The most likely option is surely πορνεα.[86] And once the clause is included in chapter 5 it is only natural to see it included again for consistency in chapter 19 (the minor wording alterations are insignificant both to meaning and to this argument).

C. The Practical Import

So what is this position? Matthew’s original readers were to know that they were free to divorce for πορνεα within the betrothal period, but that divorce outside of that time period was unacceptable. Since Western culture today does not require divorce for breaking off engagements, today’s disciple of Christ should never seek divorce or remarriage as long as their spouse lives.[87]

D. Arguments Against This View

As it has been noted, the main scholarly objection to this view has been the narrowed nuance of πορνεα. Once Matthew’s recording of Jesus’ teaching on divorce is placed in light of Matthew 1.18-25, however, the use of πορνεα for fornication does not seem so far-fetched. There still remain further arguments against this position, however.

Davies and Allison have posited that the betrothal view cannot be accepted because marriage is clearly in view in both 5.32 and 19.9, not betrothal.[88] Furthermore, the betrothal view seems to make fornication out to be a bigger sin than adultery since it alone is grounds for divorce.[89] In answer to the former it might be suggested again that a look to the context could help. While marriage may have been the topic at the time when Jesus was preaching, when Matthew was writing he was aware of his literary context and the repeated use of πολω which would catch the perceptive listener’s ear and would stick out if there was no qualification. In response to the latter it is suggested that this is not the case since the breaking apart of a betrothal is far less severe than the breaking apart of a marriage already consummated.[90]

Köstenberger objects to the betrothal view on the basis that it would ban Joseph from remarrying.[91] This objection falls short, however, as Piper notes: Since the “divorce” under discussion is not the breakup of a marriage, “we may take it for granted that the breakup of an engaged couple over fornication is not an evil ‘divorce’ and does not prohibit remarriage.”[92] One could also refute this objection by noting that it would only hold true (that Joseph would be banned from remarrying) if it is assumed that the exceptive clause governs only the divorcing, not the remarrying (i.e. siding with Heth and Wenham). If, however, one abides by the grammar of Carson and Murray, or even the logic of Keener, Bock, or Blomberg, then “remarriage” is acceptable, so long as the divorce took place in the betrothal period, and on account of πορνεα.[93]

F. Benefits of This Position

The benefits of accepting this interpretation (in no particular order) are at least as follows: (1) This view makes the debate about the authenticity of the exception clause a moot point. If it is original, then all is fine and good,[94] and if it is redaction, that is fine as well because it is included merely to reconcile Jesus’ teachings with the righteous decision of his father which might otherwise have been misunderstood. (2) The betrothal view preserves the “righteousness” that Matthew ascribes to Joseph. (3) This position preserves the integrity of the gospel-writers. In the words of John Piper, “It does not force Matthew to contradict the plain, absolute meaning of Mark and Luke and the whole range of New Testament teaching”[95] on divorce. With this position we avoid taking the tack of Vawter who concludes that the direction of Q has been “radically changed” by someone.

(4) With this position is ended the seemingly futile pursuit of extra-textual knowledge on which one can build endless hypotheses about what the original audience would have expected to hear and / or would have assumed.[96] (5) In a similar fashion, this argument ends dependence on extra-textual evidence for the meaning of πορνεα since the meaning is attested in context of the gospels and the New Testament and is limited by its own context. (6) This view easily squares with Matthew’s own usage of πορνεα in Matthew 15.19.[97] (7) The betrothal view adequately explains why Matthew would choose porneiva instead of μοιχεα.[98]

(8) Further, this position renders the referent of the exceptive clause of secondary importance at best. One no longer needs to depend on how he or she explains the construction of the sentence in order to develop a practical position on divorce and remarriage. (9) This idea is consistent with the ideal of a perfect (Matthew 5.48) kingdom ethic. It avoids the pragmatic downgrading of Jesus’ moral vision that comes with the allowance of divorce and remarriage in contexts where Jesus has absolutely prohibited them. (10) Lastly, this view fits well with the notion that the New Creation (i.e. the inbreaking of the kingdom of God on Earth) should have a moral ideal at least equivalent to God’s original standard for creation (Matthew 19.4-6).

4. Conclusion

Has the case been proven? Absolutely not. This paper falls short in many ways; not the least of which is that it only takes into account two of the relevant texts for developing a New Testament theology of divorce. Moreover, these passages are not examined in depth or in their own contexts. Much more attention needs to be given to the actual grammar and structure of the texts, as well as to their canonical setting within the flow of redemptive-history: Do these texts function as the final authority on divorce for believers today? In the end nothing has been proven, but then again, that was not the goal. If this paper has stimulated the reader to give more thought to re-examining his or her own understanding of the Matthean divorce texts, then it has served its purpose. This paper has succeeded if it provides the betrothal view more of a hearing in any sense whatever.

At the end of the day we do not know much more for certain than we did at the beginning, but there are some things that we can know for certain. “All evangelicals agree that God strongly opposes divorce,”[99] and we all agree that the focus of evangelical Christians with regard to the topic of divorce and remarriage should be on “God’s original plan”, not on a “concession made because of hard hearts”.[100] We also all agree that principles such as not condemning the innocent (Matthew 12.7) and mercy (23.23) should take priority of place over enforcing rules rigidly.[101] Noting all that is held in common, we conclude with a quote from Collier:

The central message of the two accounts is: ‘What God joined, we must stop destroying’ (Mark 10:9; Matt 19:6). The uniting of male and female took place at creation and is reenacted in individual marriages. In effect, a marriage relives and reflects the creation event. Divorce and remarriage are not impossible; they are unthinkable! Divorce is never, was never, and never will be the will of God. Whenever divorce occurs it will always be, as it always has been, the result of the hardness of our hearts. Anything short of faithful marriage relationships is a failure before God and, ultimately, a rejection of his creative act. This much is clear and should be our unequivocal message.[102]

May God give all his children grace to live this way, that we could once again be real salt and light to a world that needs to hear and to know the reconciling love of God!

Works Consulted

Allison, Dale C., Jr. “Divorce, Celibacy and Joseph (Matthew 1:18-25 and 19:1-12).”

JSNT 49.1 (March 1993), 3-10.

Blomberg, Craig L. “Marriage, Divorce, Remarriage, and Celibacy: An Exegesis of

Matthew 19:3-12.” TrinJ 11.2 (Fall 1990), 161-196.

Blomberg, Craig L. Matthew. NAC. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992.

Bock, Darrell L. Jesus according to Scripture. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002.

Bockmuehl, Markus N.A. “Matthew 5:32, 19:9 in the Light of Pre-Rabbinic Halakhah.”

NTS 35.2 (1989), 291-295.

Carson, D.A. “Matthew.” EBC v.8. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984.

Collier, Gary D. “Rethinking Jesus on Divorce.” Restoration Quarterly 37.2 (1995).

Available online at:

Collins, Raymond F. Divorce in the New Testament. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press,


Cornes, Andrew. Divorce & Remarriage: Biblical Principles & Pastoral Care. Grand

Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993.

Danker, Frederick William, ed. “porneiva”. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New

Testament and other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Davies, W.D. and D.C. Allison, Jr. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel

according to Saint Matthew. ICC. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1988.

Feinberg, John S. and Paul D. Feinberg. Ethics for a Brave New World. Wheaton, IL:

Crossway, 1993.

Fitzmyer, Joseph A. “The Matthean Divorce Texts and Some New Palestinian Evidence.”

TS 37.2 (June 1976), 197-226.

France, R.T. Matthew. TNTC. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985.

France, R.T. Matthew: Evangelist and Teacher. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1989.

Hagner, Donald A. Matthew. 2 vols. WBC. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1995.

Heimbach, Daniel R. True Sexual Morality: Recovering Biblical Standards for a Culture

in Crisis. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004.

Heth, William A. “Divorce and Remarriage: The Search for an Evangelical

Hermeneutic.” TrinJ 16.1 (Spring 1995), 63-100.

Heth, William A. “Divorce in the New Testament.” JETS 39.4 (December 1996), 676-


Heth, William A. and Gordon J. Wenham, Jesus and Divorce: Towards an Evangelical

Understanding of New Testament Teaching. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1984.

Hill, David. The Gospel of Matthew. NCB. London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1972.

House, Wayne, ed. Divorce and Remarriage: Four Christian Views. Downers Grove:

InterVarsity Press, 1990.

Isaksson, Abel. Marriage and Ministry in the New Temple. Copenhagen: Munksgaard,


Janzen, David. “The Meaning of Porneia in Matthew 5.32 and 19.9: An Approach from

the Study of the Ancient Near Eastern Culture.” JSNT 80.1 (December 2000), 66-80.

Keener, Craig S. A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,


Keener, Craig S. …And Marries Another: Divorce and Remarriage in the Teaching of the

New Testament. Peabody: Hendrickson, 1991.

Köstenberger, Andreas J. with David W. Jones. God, Marriage and Family: Rebuilding

the Biblical Foundation. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004.

Loader, William. Sexuality and the Jesus Tradition. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005.

Moloney, Francis J. A Hard Saying: The Gospel and Culture. Collegeville, MN: The

Liturgical Press, 2001.

Murray, John. Divorce. Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1972.

Nolland, John. “The Gospel Prohibition of Divorce: Tradition History and Meaning.”

JSNT 58.1 (June 1995), 19-35.

Piper, John. “Divorce and Remarriage: A Position Paper.” Written in 1986 and published


Porter, Stanley E. and Paul Buchanan. “On the Logical Structure of Matthew 19:9.” JETS

34 (1991), 335-339.

Quesnell, Quentin. “Made Themselves Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven (Mt 19:12).”

CBQ 30.3 (July 1968), 335-358.

Roop, Eugene F. “Two Become One Become Two.” Brethren Life and Thought 21.3

(Summer 1976), 133-137.

Stein, Robert. “Divorce.” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Joel B. Green, Scot

McKnight, and I. Howard Marshall, eds. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press,

1992), 192-199.

Vawter, Bruce. “Divorce in the New Testament.” CBQ 39.4 (October 1977), 528-542.

Vawter, Bruce. “The Divorce Clauses in Mt 5, 32 and 19, 9.” CBQ 16.2 (April 1954),


Wenham, Gordon J. “Matthew and Divorce: an old crux revisited.” JSNT 22.1 (October

1984), 95-107.

Wenham, Gordon J. “The Syntax of Matthew 19:9.” JSNT 28.1 (October 1986), 17-23.

Witherington, Ben. “Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 – exception or exceptional situation?” NTS

31 (1985), 571-576.

[1] According to The Daily, produced by Statistics Canada, March 9, 2005. Available online from

[2] See The Daily, May 4, 2004 available from

[3] The Daily, March 9, 2005.

[4] The Barna Update: Born Again Christians Just As Likely to Divorce As Are Non-Christians, September 8, 2004. Available from:

[5] Gary D. Collier, “Rethinking Jesus on Divorce,” Restoration Quarterly 37.2 (1995). Available online from

Unfortunately, since the online version is the source that will be cited, page numbers cannot be given.

[6] Bruce Vawter, “Divorce in the New Testament,” CBQ 39.4 (October 1977, pp. 528-542), 540-542. Indicative of the truth of this sad sentiment is the story recorded by Eugene F. Roop (“Two Become One Become Two,” Brethren Life and Thought 21.3 [Summer 1976], 133-137) who describes his friend—a Salvation Army Major, “conservative in his approach to the Bible”—who “with lowered eyes and voice” says, “Sometimes I just have to turn off my conscience and try to do what seems right” when it comes to pastorally counselling people about divorce (133).

[7] “Rethinking Jesus on Divorce.” Collier writes: “The more that is published the more fractured the topic becomes, and the more hopeless one may feel about whether anything relevant for current questions can be known about the subject. Both scholarly and popular approaches wrestle to fit the pieces together.”

[8] David Janzen, “The Meaning of Porneia in Matthew 5.32 and 19.9: An Approach from the Study of the Ancient Near Eastern Culture,” JSNT 80.1 (December 2000, pp. 66-80), 66. Janzen is confirming Ben Witherington’s comments from “Matthew 5:32 and 19:9—exception or exceptional situation?” NTS 31 (1985, pp. 571-576), 571.

[9] Collier, “Rethinking Jesus on Divorce.”

[10] The simple fact that there is a “Four Views” volume published (Wayne H. House, ed., Divorce and Remarriage: Four Christian Views [Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1990]) on the topic should tip off even the average reader to the fact that there are more than these three “main” positions. For the purposes of simplicity, however, only these three—which are the most popular interpretations of Jesus’ teaching on divorce in Matthew both in popular and scholarly circles—will be examined.

[11] Cf. J. Carl Laney, “No Divorce, No Remmariage” in Four Christian Views; Joseph A. Fitzmyer, “The Matthean Divorce Texts and Some New Palestinian Evidence,” TS 37.2 (June 1976), 197-226; or a slight variant in Ben Witherington, “Matthew 5:32 and 19:9.”

[12] Cf. Andrew Cornes, Divorce & Remarriage: Biblical Principles & Pastoral Care (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993); William A. Heth, “Divorce and Remarriage: The Search for an Evangelical Hermeneutic,” TrinJ 16.1 (Spring 1995), 63-100, and “Divorce in the New Testament,” JETS 39.4 (December 1996), 676-678, and “Divorce, but No Remarriage,” in Divorce and Remarriage: Four Christian Views; William A. Heth and Gordon J. Wenham, Jesus and Divorce: The Problem With The Evangelical Consensus (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1984); Quentin Quesnell, “Made Themselves Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven (Mt 19:12),” CBQ 30.3 (July 1968), 335-358; Vawter, “Divorce in the New Testament”; Gordon J. Wenham “Matthew and Divorce: an old crux revisited,” JSNT 28.1 (October 1984), 95-107, and “The Syntax of Matthew 19:9,” JSNT 28.1 (October 1986), 17-23.

[13] At least this is the case with Matthew’s exceptions. Many argue quite persuasively that Jesus does not limit the legitimate causes for divorce and remarriage simply to porneiva since Paul feels free to add other allowances later (i.e. 1 Cor 7). Therefore, Jesus could not have been insinuating here that porneiva is the only legitimate reason, but rather that it is a legitimate reason, of which there are many. So Craig S. Keener, …And Marries Another: Divorce and Remarriage in the Teaching of the New Testament (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1991), 105: “Assuming that Jesus’ teaching on the subject is a general principle meant to admit exceptions (as Matthew and Paul demonstrate), and acknowledging the probability that his teaching is hyperbolic, we may allow some exceptions not addressed by Matthew or Paul because they were not specifically relevant to the situations these writers addressed.” Cf. 171, n.82. This debate is outside the scope of this paper, however, so only the reason given by Matthew can be examined here.

[14] Cf. D.A. Carson, “Matthew” in EBC, v.8 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984) 152-153 and 410-419; Craig S. Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 189-192 and 462-472, and …And Marries Another; Craig L. Blomberg “Marriage, Divorce, Remarriage and Celibacy: An Exegesis of Matthew 19:3-12,” TrinJ 11.2 (Fall 1990), 161-196, and Matthew, NAC (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992), 111 and 293; W.D. Davies and D.C. Allison, Jr., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, ICC (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1988), v.1, 528-532; Dale C. Allison, Jr. “Divorce, Celibacy and Joseph (Matthew 1:18-25 and 19:1-12),” JSNT 49.1 (March 1993), 3-10; Darrell L. Bock, Jesus according to Scripture (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 135 and 300; Donald A. Hagner, Matthew, 2 vols., WBC (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1995), v.1 pp.123-126, v.2 pp.546-551; John Murray, Divorce (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1972).

[15] Cf. Keener, …And Marries Another, 44. Keener is rebutting arguments put forward by Heth and Wenham (Jesus and Divorce, 19-69) and Cornes (Divorce & Remarriage, 223-230) that the early church’s near unanimous understanding of the clause as forbidding remarriage should be instructive to us. Keener argues that the cultural assumptions of the early church (namely their penchant for asceticism) jaded their view of marriage so that celibacy rather than remarriage would be more a cultural than a biblical position. This seems, however, to be a prime example of choosing selectively which data to build a case on. Keener goes to great lengths in his own work to show how a right understanding of the culture of Jesus’ day teaches us how his audience would have heard his teaching and what assumptions they would have made. In a cyclical and unfruitful response, Heth poses an impossible challenge to Keener’s position, where he argues that one cannot depend on his own reconstruction of what the original audience would have assumed: that is an argument from silence proving the conclusion (“The Search for an Evangelical Hermeneutic”, 79.

[16] Raymond F. Collins notes that “even scholars viewing the same data from the same angle often come to different conclusions. The use of similar methodology does not always provide the same results” (Divorce in the New Testament [Collegevile, MN: Liturgical Press, 1992], 7). Similarly, when Heth compares another scholar to Keener, he says, that he, “like Keener, utilizes socio-historical methodology and places great emphasis on the socio-cultural assumptions of Matthew’s readers—yet comes to the opposite conclusion! Frustrating, isn’t it?” (“The Search for an Evangelical Consensus, 79, n.59.)

[17] Cf. Hagner, Matthew, v.1, 126, who argues that since Matthew includes a redactional exception, this is proof in and of itself that Jesus’ statement need not be taken absolutely.

[18] Vawter, “Divorce in the New Testament,” 535.

[19] Ibid., 530.

[20] Ibid., 535.

[21] Saint Matthew, v.1, 528.

[22] John Nolland, “The Gospel Prohibition of Divorce: Tradition History and Meaning,” JSNT 58.1 (June 1995, pp.19-35), 21, 24-25.

[23] Matthew, v.1, 123, 126.

[24] Ibid., 123.

[25] “The Gospel Prohibition,” 24-25. Likewise, David Hill: “The introduction of the exceptive clause suggests that Matthew is making Jesus’ total prohibition of divorce (so Mk and Lk.) a principle to be applied in a regulatory fashion: he makes the absolute practicable and therefore a matter of legality” (The Gospel of Matthew, NCB [London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1972], 124).

[26] “The Gospel Prohibition,” 21.

[27] Ibid., 25.

[28] Carson is emphatic: “There can be no doubt that an except clause is original” (“Matthew,” 413).

[29] Ibid., 417. Cf. Abel Isaksson, Marriage and Ministry in the New Temple (Copenhagen: Munksgaard, 1965), 75-92.

[30] Carson, “Matthew,” 418.

[31] Cornes, Divorce & Remarriage, 203.

[32] Keener chooses to toe the line, noting that the early church viewed the clause as original but that most scholars today see it as redactional. He sees no problems in holding this position and maintaining a conservative stance: “Many of us suspect it articulates the implications of the more general saying” (Matthew, 466, n.17). In other words, even if the words were not actually spoken, they are included in the intention of what Christ did in fact say.

[33] As per the NIV.

[34] John S. Feinberg and Paul D. Feinberg, Ethics for a Brave New World (Wheaton: Crossway, 1993), 328.

[35] Davies and Allison, Saint Matthew, v.1, 529. For a similar argument from the verbal cognates, see Ethics for a Brave New World, 328.

[36] Fitzmyer, “The Matthean Divorce Texts,” 208-211.

[37] Carson, “Matthew,” 414.

[38] Keener, Matthew, 468.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid., 466-467.

[41] R.T. France, Matthew, TNTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), 123-124.

[42] Carson, “Matthew,” 417.

[43] Keener, Matthew, 192. It is interesting to note here that Keener puts forward this definition without any real defence for the fact that it is “unrepentant adultery.” One cannot help but wondering if he is not making the word more narrowly nuanced than what is justified here (the very same thing he accuses others of doing).

[44] Ibid., 466.

[45] Carson, “Matthew,” 417.

[46] Davies and Allison, Saint Matthew, v.1, 530.

[47] Keener, Matthew, 467.

[48] John Chrysostom (c.347-407ad): “For he that is meek, and a peacemaker, and poor in spirit, and merciful, how shall he cast out his wife? He that is used to reconcile others, how shall he be at variance with her that is his own?” As cited in Cornes, Divorce & Remarriage, 423.

[49] Carson, “Matthew,” 419.

[50] Collier, “Rethinking Jesus on Divorce.” Hagner, too, maintains that even in 19.3-12 Jesus is speaking “to the question of divorce in terms of the ethics of the kingdom of God (cf. chaps. 5-7)” (Matthew, v.2, 546). Though he concedes this, yet he maintains that provision must be made for hardness of heart. “But if provision was made through Moses for the ‘hard-heatedness’ of Israel by the allowing and regulating of divorce, it may well be asked, ought not some similar provision be made for those who still exist ‘between the times,’ i.e., who participate in the kingdom of God but also remain at the same time fallen creatures in a fallen world that remains short of the eschaton? Although realistically a positive answer must be given to this question (as indeed the introduction of the exception clause already indicates), it is not possible for the ethics of the kingdom to be articulated in anything less than ideal terms” (v.2, 550-551). It is difficult to see why this provision must be made unless we are driven by pragmatic “realism” rather than the text and our understanding of the nature of the New Covenant.

[51] Cf. Ezekiel 36.26 and 2 Corinthians 3.3.

[52] France, Matthew, 124.

[53] France, Evangelist and Teacher, 255.

[54] See the argumentation of Keener in …And Marries Another, 12-37.

[55] Cf. Davies and Allison, Saint Matthew, v.1, 532. Cf. Keener, Matthew, 191.

[56] See footnotes 12 and 14.

[57] Saint Matthew, v.1, 524.

[58] Carson, “Matthew,” 416. Carson is here taking up the cause of John Murray (Divorce), 39-43.

[59] For their argument, see Jesus and Divorce, 116-120.

[60] Ibid., 117.

[61] Ibid.

[62] Keener, Matthew, 469.

[63] Hagner, Matthew, v.2, 549: “Exegetically, Wenham is more convincing on this passage.”

[64] Cornes, Divorce & Remarriage, 217.

[65] Carson, “Matthew,” 416.

[66] Keener, Matthew, 469. For Keener, the validity of the divorce is the key for ability to remarry; the audience would have assumed such a right if the divorce is shown to be legitimate.

[67] Cornes, Marriage & Divorce, 216-217.

[68] Ibid., 217.

[69] In other words: “Even if I were to accept your premise as valid (which may well be shown), your conclusion is clearly a non-sequitur.”

[70] Heth, “The Search for an Evangelical Hermeneutic,” 67.

[71] Allison, “Divorce, Celibacy and Joseph,” 4-5.

[72] Ibid., 4.

[73] Ibid., 5.

[74] Ibid.

[75] David Janzen, “The Meaning of Porneia in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9: An Approach from the Study of the Ancient Near Eastern Culture,” JSNT 80.1 (December 2000, pp. 66-80), 79, n.32.

[76] Although Allison notes in this article that his comments need to be updated and expanded in this regard in his commentary, the seed ideas of this article do appear in his commentary. If “Matthew had failed to tack on the ‘except clause’ in chapters 5 and 19, Joseph’s resolution might invite the thought that the father of Jesus did not act in accord with Jesus’ command about divorce. So 5.32 and 19.9 may be influenced by the desire to remove any question as to the consistency between a righteous man’s action and the words of Jesus” (Davies and Allison, Matthew, v.1, 531; cf. v.3, 16, where he again states that the exceptive clause could be justification of Joseph). For a similar discussion, see Heth, “The Search for an Evangelical Hermeneutic,” 79-81. Oddly enough, Heth, like Allison, fails to note that Mary and Joseph are betrothed, not married, in the account in 1.18-25.

[77] Heth and Wenham, Jesus and Divorce, 178.

[78] Carson, “Matthew,” 414.

[79] Ibid.

[80] Frederick William Danker, ed., “porneiva,” A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 854.

[81] See footnotes 33 and 34.

[82] Janzen, “The Meaning of Porneia,” 67.

[83] Ibid., 72; cf. 79. Janzen even sees that the connection Allison brings out between 1.18 and 5.31-32 and 19.1-12 probably has something do with Matthew’s decision to use porneiva and Janzen quite easily associates this word with sex during betrothal.

[84] Isaksson, Marriage and Ministry, 134. While this statement has not held up entirely under scrutiny, the point is sufficiently substantiated, that porneiva refers not to a wife’s unfaithfulness (usually), but to a fiancée’s unfaithfulness.

[85] Heth and Wenham, Jesus and Divorce, 177.

[86] William Loader questions this view saying that “such an act is usually identified with the word moiceiva, ‘adultery’ (Sexuality and the Jesus Tradition [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005], 70). There is at least as much evidence to suggest that porneiva could be used in this context as moiceiva, especially if Matthew is being careful to use a word like porneiva so that people will intentionally inquire as to why he has made that word choice (moiceiva would without a doubt leave people to believe that divorce in the case of adultery is acceptable).

[87] Again, this is only with regard to the Matthean texts and exception clauses. This statement is not designed to speak to the issues raised in other places, such as 1 Corinthians 7.

[88] Davies and Allison, Saint Matthew, v.1, 529. J. Carl Laney also makes this objection as well (“No Divorce, No Remarriage,” 35). Laney also objects that Greco-Roman culture also had betrothal periods, so why would Mark and Luke not include the clause? The answer, again, must be context. Neither of the other gospels preface Jesus’ teaching on divorce with the account of his father’s decision to divorce his mother.

[89] Davies and Allison, Saint Matthew, v.1, 529.

[90] Heth testifies to this in “The Search for an Evangelical Hermeneutic”: “Even though a betrothed couple was considered legally husband and wife (Gen 29:21; Deut 22:23-24), there is a fairly clear distinction between betrothal and the final form of marriage. This, of course, is well-known to Matthew’s readers (1:20, 24). It is doubtful that Jesus would say of a betrothed couple who have not yet consummated their intention to marry: ‘So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, let no one separate’ (Matt 19:6, NRSV)” (79).

[91] Andreas J. Köstenberger with David W. Jones, God, Marriage and Family: Rebuilding the Biblical Foundation (Wheaton: Crossway, 2004), 252.

[92] John Piper, “Divorce and Remarriage: A Position Paper,” written in 1986 and available online at

[93] There is a third critique levelled against this view by Köstenberger (God, Marriage and Family, 242) with regard to Deuteronomy 24.1-4. It is argued that it is very unlikely that this passage refers to sexual unchastity in the betrothal period. An OT scholar could examine this question by looking at the passage in Deuteronomy, or an NT scholar could take the time to answer it well as a result of studying Jesus’ teachings on the Law in Matthew’s gospel: is he merely restating it, applying the heart principles, abrogating, instituting new law, etc.? The scope of this question is beyond what can be dealt with here. It does seem, however, that even this objection is answerable.

[94] Although certainly we can presume that Jesus would have taught this more clearly in person to his listening audience. Literary considerations are what make the concept difficult for modern scholars.

[95] John Piper, “Divorce and Remarriage.”

[96] See footnotes 15 and 16. This is not in any way to discount the absolutely fabulous work done in background studies by men like Wenham and Keener. See, for example, the mind-stretching Index of Ancient Sources in the back of Keener’s …And Marries Another, 239-256. While this work is invaluable and there is much gain in it, it seems desirable to be less dependent on such extra-textual sources for our interpretation of the biblical text wherever possible. If there is an intertextual answer to be had, it is to be desired.

[97] John Piper, “Divorce and Remarriage.”

[98] Ibid.

[99] Daniel R. Heimbach, True Sexual Morality: Recovering Biblical Standards for a Culture in Crisis (Wheaton: Crossway, 2004), 204.

[100] J. Carl Laney, “No Divorce, No Remarriage,” 33.

[101] Keener, Matthew, 191.

[102] Collier, “Rethinking Jesus on Divorce.”


  1. Neal Doster

    Matt. 19:9. John Piper argues that "except for immorality did not refer to adultery but to premarital sexual fornication which a man or a woman discovers in the betrothed partner.”
    Myron Horst another permanence view advocate writes “What then does the "exception clause" mean? Jesus was speaking to Jewish men, the Pharisees, in response to their question when He spoke these words in Matthew 19:9. Jesus said "Except it be for fornication and shall marry another." Fornication is sexual relations with another unmarried person before one is married. (continued)

  2. Neal Doster

    The Jews required a man to write a certificate of divorce to end an engagement. We see this illustrated in the story of Joseph and Mary. Joseph believed that Mary had committed fornication with someone else and was planning to divorce her even though they were not yet married, when God stopped him.( Matt. 1:19,20) What Jesus said to these Jewish men, the Pharisees, in Matt. 19:9 is that divorce and remarriage is sin unless the divorce occurred in the engagement period. Even then the engagement could only be broken if the fiancée committed fornication with another person. Jesus said that if the man divorced his fiancée in the engagement period before marriage occurs, then it is permissible for him to marry another. The exception only applied to the Jewish custom requiring divorce to break an engagement.” (continued)

  3. Neal Doster

    This supposition is referred to as the “betrothal or espousal theory” and many of the permanence view advocates teach it. They use Joseph’s dilemma with Mary’s pregnancy (Matthew 1:18-20) as an example of the exception clause. Having rejected the belief that infidelity after marriage is biblical grounds for divorce these teachers set forth the supposition that fornication is premarital and adultery is marital. By defining these words this way they precede to build a case that divorce was allowed before marriage but not afterwards. Keep in mind this is a key point in their defense in rejecting the exception clause as allowing for marital divorce.
    The betrothal theory has at least two suppositions that are false and consequently proves that it fails in being the exception clause. The two suppositions implied by the permanence view suggest that scripture teaches –
    1) Fornication is pre-marital
    2) There is different recourse for betrothal infidelity than that of marital infidelity. (continued)

  4. Neal Doster

    Mike Gorrie writes,
    “Betrothal among the Jews in Biblical times took place nine to twelve months before marriage. The bride being in all respects bound as a wife, she could be freed only by death or divorce, under the same divorce laws as the married woman. During the espousal period of between nine to twelve months before the marriage proper took place, the woman who was betrothed or espoused was regarded as the man’s wife, and he as her husband, even though they had not sexually come together or made their marriage vows. (continued)

  5. Neal Doster

    Deuteronomy 22:23 (Sleeping with a betrothed/espoused damsel was regarded as sleeping with another man’s wife).
    Matthew 1:18-21 Mary was only betrothed/espoused to Joseph when she was found pregnant. They were not properly married and thus, according to Hebrew custom he could put away his espoused wife by giving her a writing of divorcement.
    Death (not divorce) was the penalty for adultery in Old Testament times.
    Leviticus 20: 10 (A man committing adultery with another man’s wife must be put to death).
    Leviticus 18: 20 (Adultery defiles a man and makes him ritually unclean)
    Deuteronomy 22: 22 (A man and a woman committing adultery: both must die).” (continued)

  6. Neal Doster

    Notice the sentences and the scripture references given by Mike to emphasize that death was the recourse for marital infidelity or “adultery” as he would term it, while implying divorce was the recourse for infidelity when betrothed or “fornication” as he would term it. Look up his reference to Deuteronomy 22:23 and see what the biblical recourse was for “Sleeping with a betrothed damsel.” If his conclusion is correct we will find that divorce was the recourse there. If it’s not, his whole point has mislead the reader because he intentionally lead us to believe that there was different biblical recourse for one case of infidelity than there was for the other. So, notice that his reference to Deuteronomy 22:23 omits the biblical recourse for “Sleeping with a betroth damsel” (continued)

  7. Neal Doster

    If the relationship between the betroth couple was as stringent as he describes (and I believe it was) and if “Sleeping with a betrothed/espoused damsel was regarded as sinful as sleeping with another man’s wife,” then adultery would result from “Sleeping with a betrothed damsel.” If sleeping with a betrothed damsel is adulterous we would expect the same retribution for it as we would within marriage itself (Deuteronomy 22:22,23). That is what we do find, therefore, there is no reason to maintain that adultery only occurs within marriage. Nor to lead others to believe that fornication is not adultery. (continued)

  8. Neal Doster

    Look a little further and compare Deut. 22:23,24 with verses 28,29 and ask what’s the difference there? Why the different retribution in verses 28,29? The obvious answer, there is no violation of the marriage covenant. Fornication in this instance did not result in adultery, adultery being the grounds for capital punishment. In verses 23,24 covenant obligation is violated even though the woman is not yet married. Fornication in this instance is adulterous.
    This illustrates how the permanence view advocates alter a text. By adding their own convictions (eisegesis ) it makes their view convincing. The premise that “porneia” (fornication) is premarital and adultery is marital is more a sleight of words than uniformly true. That’s why it’s important to define these words from a comprehensive perspective of scripture. John Piper himself acknowledges that fornication is not restricted to pre-marital sex.
    John Piper “I am ready to admit that now and then porneia is used in a sense which can include adultery”
    (To be continued)

  9. Neal Doster

    What the permanence view fails to see or acknowledge is, that in Jewish biblical culture, premarital fornication while betrothed itself would be an act of adultery (Deut. 22:23-24). What’s important to see here is that the Bible doesn’t differentiate between these two categories of infidelity in the same manner as these men are doing. Both these acts of infidelity resulted in the same retribution, same recourse in the Old Testament (Deut. 22:22-24). If this is true then what the permanence view teaches is not! For they have build their case on the belief that betrothal infidelity had different recourse than that of marital infidelity. (continued)

  10. Neal Doster

    Their advocacy for premarital divorce on these grounds actually hurts their position and supports the proviso view that infidelity is so serious that, as in the bible, it warrants the same and severe recourse under both conditions. Deuteronomy 22:23,24 affirms that covenant obligation precedes the marriage. Fornication (with someone else) while betroth consequently would be adulterous. Fornication here is adulterous and not merely a pre-married infraction. Therefore their word defense, that God allowed divorce for fornication and not adultery is proven both a sleight of words and false. Both supposition, 1) the play on words and 2) different recourse for betrothal infidelity are proven false.
    Conclusion, the proviso given by the Lord is best understood in the context its found. To introduce something else into the text only subverts it.

  11. Bill

    A very good presentation! I perhaps feel that way because I’ve drawn the same conclusions, but your analysis is very even-handed and pays due consideration to other viewpoints.

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