This is part 4 of 8 in a series on what the bible says concerning divorce and remarriage. For the other posts see here:
There are 4 locations in the synoptic gospels that have explicit teaching on divorce and remarriage: Matt. 5:31-32, 19:3-9; Mark 10:2-12; and Luke 16:18. Here I’ll give my own translation of the crucial verses and then explain.
Matthew 5:32 - But I declare to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual unfaithfulness, causes his wife to be a victim of adultery; and anyone who marries a divorced woman [or: a woman who has gained a divorce for herself] commits adultery.
Matthew 19:3, 9 - Now, the Pharisees came to him and wanting to test him asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?” Jesus responded…. “I declare to you that whoever divorces his wife, excepting sexual unfaithfulness, and marries someone else, commits adultery.”
Mark 10.2, 12 - Then the Pharisees approached him and asked if it was lawful for a man to divorce his wife, in order to test him. Jesus responded…. “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
Luke 16:18 - Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery and the man who marries a woman who has been divorced from a man [or: a woman who has divorced herself from a man] commits adultery.
That there are four passages to look at simultaneously makes the task of understanding them more difficult (one only has two eyes), and that they all prima facie seem to say something only slightly different than the other compounds the difficulty. In this post I’ll explore four general points of comparison. Then in the next post I’ll situate each passage into their respective contexts.
1) Divorce vs. Divorce and Remarry: All but Mt. 5:32 have “divorce and remarry”. It’s possible that Mt. 5:32 is simply abbreviated to allow direct contrast with the Dt. 24:1 passage quoted in the previous verse and/or because this is the only passage not set in a narrative, thereby allowing the same structure as the other 5 kingdom demands in Mt. 5:21-48. However, more important is that, in the culture, it would be inconceivable to divorce without being able to remarry and, moreover, one hardly divorced except in order to remarry[i]. There would have been little point to divorce simply for separation – remarriage can be reasonably assumed. Whereas the legal structures in place today really require divorce for separation (e.g. the need to break financial bonds) there was little need for it in 1st century Palestine. So there is little reason to think there is a substantial difference between the passages at this point.
2) Exception Clause “Except for Sexual Immorality”: The exception clause is only found in Matthew. Many scholars these days take the clause (per redaction criticism) as added by Matthew and not original to Jesus; though, quite a few of these see it as still faithful to the intent of Jesus’ sayings. Redaction criticism or not, there is indeed little warrant for thinking it’s not faithful to Jesus’ original intent. “Sexual immorality” is best taken to refer to any sexual infidelity with regard to the marriage and is broader than adultery. An example can be found in Matthew 1 where Joseph contemplates divorcing Mary because it appeared she had been sleeping around. Though not yet married, being betrothed carried a marital-level commitment and thus would require a formal divorce to separate. At a different degree, the examples of divorce in the Mishnah, listed in the previous post, would constitute similar violation: for a married woman to go out with loose hair, for example, was to play “easy to get”, in that culture.
Thus Matthew and Jesus recognize that if faithfulness to the marriage is compromised, then divorce may be permitted. For Matthew, however, believers don’t just rigidly apply law but rather operate within a framework of forgiveness (Mt. 18:21-35) where divorce might be permitted yet not necessary. The breaking of marriage without any consideration of forgiveness on the part of the offended is wrong also.
3) First Clause, Direction of Adultery: In Mt. 19:9 and Lk. 16:18 the man simply commits adultery, in Mk. 10:11 the man commits adultery against the wife, in Mt. 5:32 the man makes to commits adultery (traditional translation) or makes her to be the victim of adultery.
The first two passages are straightforward in thought: by the husband’s actions, he commits adultery. The Mark passage is slightly more complex but straightforward: by the husband’s actions, he commits adultery against the wife. This might be obvious to us but not so in ancient Palestine. If the woman slept around, she committed adultery against her husband. But if the man slept around, he might be said to have committed adultery against the wife’s father, and if he slept with the wife of another man, he would have committed adultery against the woman’s husband. But such action was not against the wife. Jesus comes along and levels the field, raising the woman to a new place of dignity.
The parallel clause in Mt. 5:32 is the most interesting and complex. Some translations translate as a noun with the sense of “makes her an adulteress” (NIV 1984, ASV). This errs considerably; not least because the Greek is a verb but more so because this implies the woman is now placed in the category of “one who adulters” rather than a point-in-time failure. Most translations have a better translation in the sense of “causes her to commit adultery”, placing some degree of sin on the woman for the man’s actions but placing the larger blame on the man for causing it[ii]. This sense is clearly different than the other parallels since he causes adultery rather than committing it.
However, there seems to be a better translation: strictly speaking, “causes her to be adultered” or better put, “causes her to be the victim of adultery” (see NIV 2011). That is, the thought in Mark is heightened: it is not simply that the man sins against his wife but rather the woman is a victim of the husband’s sin. This more accurately accounts for the fact that the verb is passive and so should carry a passive sense. The standard translation of the woman committing adultery is based on the standard Greek usage of the verb where, when the man is subject the verb is active (or a unique Greek “middle” voice) and when the woman is subject the verb is passive. However, with R.T. France[iii] and Craig Blomberg[iv], a review of the evidence of Leviticus 20:10 (Septuagint vs. Hebrew Text), Jeremiah 3:9, Hosea 4:13-14, and Sirach 23:23, and the unusual language here in Mt. 5:32, strongly suggests that the woman here is the object of the sin, not the subject who is forced into sin by her husband’s actions[v].
4) Second Clause, Object of Adultery: Mt. 19:9 simply omits this clause[vi]. Mk. 10:11 simply parallels the first clause: if the wife divorces and remarries, she commits adultery too. Mt. 5:32 and Lk. 16:18 have essentially the same thought. Every translation has something along the lines of “whoever marries a woman who has been divorced commits adultery”.
There is another possible translation. The participle used for a “woman who has been divorced” is usually taken as a passive participle. However, its form could be a middle voice also – a voice used in Greek where, roughly speaking, the subject and object of the verb have the same referent. How would this work then? In a Jewish cultural context, a woman couldn’t divorce her husband, only vice-versa. However, if she wanted a divorce, she could strongly influence her husband or even the court that her husband should divorce her even if he objected[vii]. She might even commit something that, by the Mishnah, would force her husband to divorce her. This would fit the sense of a Greek middle voice: the woman who “has gained a divorce for herself”. This sense is further suggested by the redundant “from a man” in Luke[viii]. The sense of this clause, then, is that the man who divorces such a woman commits adultery since he has been the object to cause the breaking of a marriage.
The use of this word for divorce is rare, but we find the same vein of thought in a passage by Josephus[ix] where he mentions a quarrel by Salome, one of Herod the Great’s granddaughters, with her husband Costobarus. Josephus mentions that she “soon [after] sent him a document dissolving their marriage, which was not in accordance with Jewish law.” The word for “dissolve” is the same word for “divorce” found here in these passages, and is also in the middle voice[x]. Note that this incident refers to the same family as that recorded in Matthew 14. Both passages condemn the same family for their marital actions.
I should add that I’m arguing for a reading that almost no commentator has adopted for this clause[xi], so caution is warranted, though I think the small evidence we do have is quite suggestive. This reading of the passage also has an advantage in that it makes Mt. 5:32, Lk. 16:18, and Mk. 10:11 all say the same thing with the exception that Mark’s reading has shifted to account for speaking to a Gentile audience, where, per Roman law, a woman could divorce a man outright, so he uses an active verb.
Yet, in the possibility that I’m wrong, the reader is directed to my next post where the rhetorical context warrants a bit more nuanced reading than simply claiming absolute law. In the end, taking this as an absolute rule misses the point.
[i] There are some who essentially argue that Jesus is really referring here to what we’d have to call separation - remarriage is not allowed at all. The problem is that the sense of divorce is without qualification referring to absolute breaking of the marriage. When one is no longer married, one is no longer married. Remarriage is thereby allowed by default. David Instone-Brewer makes the point well that (in this case) Jesus (and Matthew) would have to have been more explicit to be referring to a divorce that only amounted to separation.
[ii] That she is forced into sin is usually explained by saying that the divorced woman was forced to remarry due to the poor financial circumstances. However, this has been shown by Instone-Brewer (Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible) to not be true, generally speaking. If she was not to blame, she would have the dowry returned to her, which probably would have sustained her comfortably for a year or more. And she usually could have returned home.
[iii] The Gospel of Matthew (NICNT), 2007, pp. 192, 206ff and personal correspondence. See also John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew (NIGTC), 2005, pp. 240ff.
[v] The verb is μοιχευω (moicheuo) and translates [an (na’aph) in the LXX. In Lev. 20:10 the man is the subject and primary perpetrator. In the last clause, two participles of μοιχευω are used: active for the man and middle (maybe passive) for the woman (the Hebrew participles are active for both but the verb doesn’t occur in the passive); both are sentenced to death. In Jeremiah 3:9 and Hosea 4:13-14 a woman is the subject and μοιχευω is used in the active voice. Sirach 23:23 interestingly uses a passive μοιχευω but the woman is the subject and primary perpetrator. However, the normal passive sense is probably still retained: in a sense, she causes herself to be adultered. Compare and contrast here in Mt. 5:32 where the husband is the primary perpetrator leaving the wife the one violated.
[vi] There is little doubt that the textual basis for the KJV is incorrect here.
[vii] Instone-Brewer, pp. 85-90
[viii] See also the discussion on the same phrase used in 1 Cor. 7:10.
[ix] Jewish Antiquities 15.259.
[x] Grk. ajpoluomevnh to;n gavmon. Since the verb is middle, it appears that to;n gavmon is an adverbial accusative.
[xi] Though see John Nolland, The Gosple of Matthew (NIGTC), 2005.