Matthew 19:9 “Divorce Exception” Translation Bias

Matthew 19:9 “Divorce Exception” Translation Bias August 5, 2016
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My reply to a question (in blue) on the Coming Home Network Internet forum (I was the moderator there from 2007-2010):

Do you have any general guidance for someone like me who is still reeling from learning that the NIV translation of Matthew 19:9 is inaccurate in the eyes of the Catholic Church? (“I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.”) For so many years as a Baptist Sunday School teacher, I directed ladies to that verse in the NIV. It seems clear as a bell. But the Church maintains that the translation of “marital unfaithfulness” is faulty.

Therefore countless decisions about divorce were made, in Baptist-land, based on a faulty translation. I loved the NIV and loved the NIV Study Bible (as far as it went) as a resource during my Baptist days. The horror of having incorrectly taught and advised persons for so many years, however, on Mt. 19:9 was traumatic for me . . . and left me fearful of relying on the NIV study aids.

This is a prime example of evangelical bias in the NIV. In this instance it is a very bad bias because it is favoring divorce on unbiblical, anti-traditional grounds, that is currently scandalously common in evangelical circles, and increasingly rationalized away. I dealt with this at great length in my 2004 book, The Catholic Verses, in a paper drawn from that, called Biblical Evidence for the Prohibition of Divorce. Here is the heart of that (but I urge anyone struggling with this to read the whole thing; it runs about eight pages in the book):

To understand the present disagreement between Catholics and Protestants on divorce, it is useful to examine the basis of the supposed loopholes or exception clauses found in Jesus’ teaching on the subject. The Greek word for unchastity in Matthew 19:9 is porneia, which is defined in standard Greek lexicons and other Bible study aids as “unlawful sexual intercourse.” Catholics hold that Jesus is here contrasting a true marriage, with a state of concubinage or some other illicit union. If there is not truly a marriage present, then a separation can take place, but it is not truly a “divorce” because there was no marriage there to begin with.

Many people use this verse, along with Matthew 5:32, to justify divorce based on the occurrence of adultery, yet the ordinary Greek word for adultery (moicheia) is not used. This supports the Catholic case that Jesus is referring to something else, for if adultery was the plain intent and meaning (the passage being about marriage in the first place), surely moicheia would have been used, as it is in many other places (thirty-five times in one of its forms).

The Greek word porneia and its cognates are never translated in the KJV New Testament as “adultery” but as “fornication” or “fornicator” (thirty-nine times), “harlot” (eight times), “whore” (four), and “whoremonger” (five). Likewise, every variant of the English fornication in the KJV is always a translation of some form of porneia.

The same holds true for adultery and its variants, which always are translations of some form of moicheia (which, in turn, are never translated as anything other than “adultery”). We also see the two Greek words distinguished from each other in the same verse (Matt. 5:19; Mark 7:21; Gal. 5:19).

Accordingly, we see how NIV shows a dubious bias in translating the passage in this fashion. It was not translating according to the Greek, but according to a preconceived bias, and eisegesis (literally: “reading into the Bible”). No one take my word for that alone. A look at other translations (most of them non-Catholic in origin) show that NIV is in a minority in this respect (Catholic translations are asterisked):

KJV, AKJV, RV, ASV, Douay-Rheims*, Third Millennium, Living, Wuest: fornication

Darby: not for fornication

RSV, NRSV, NEB, REV, Amplified, Goodspeed: unchastity

NASB, Confraternity*: immorality

International Standard Version, World English Bible, English Standard Version, Holman Christian Standard, NKJV: sexual immorality

Knox*: not for any unfaithfuness of hers

NAB (1986)*: unless the marriage is unlawful

Webster’s Bible Translation: lewdness

Jerusalem*: I am not speaking of fornication

Young’s Literal: whoredom

Some, however, show the same bias as the NIV:

God’s Word Translation, Good News, Phillips, Williams, Moffatt, Weymouth: her unfaithfulness

Today’s English Version: she has not been unfaithful

New Living: unless his wife has been unfaithful

New Century: if his wife has sexual relations with another man

Beck: adultery

Barclay: infidelity

The Message: where the wife has committed adultery

Basic English: loss of her virtue

Contemporary English Version: if your wife has not committed some terrible sexual sin

Thus the grand tally is:

Something other than adultery, unfaithfulness, infidelity, etc.: 27

Adultery (i.e., of a wife during a marriage): 15 (including NIV)

There were more with the latter bias than I expected to find, but they tend to be paraphrases, which are deliberately less literal, or less-used versions. Many are relatively recent in origin as well. I’d love to see someone of this school defend their translation.

The mainstream versions, which are overwhelmingly used by Christians (excepting the NIV, which is pretty popular), translate otherwise: KJV, NKJV, NASB, RSV, NEB, NRSV, Catholic versions.

I don’t really want to get into a discussion of divorce. My point is rather to demonstrate my skittishness about using Protestant resources. Their assertions sound so confident and so reasonable, but one has to have Catholic resources or Catholic experts at hand to avoid being confused or misled.

It is good to bear in mind that the NIV has a definite evangelical Protestant bias, and also that the less literal of a translation one is using, the more chance of translation bias creeping in. I always recommend RSV, myself.

Is it a matter of eventually becoming so familiar with Catholic doctrine that I don’t have to be fearful of being led astray by Protestant assertions?

Yes. One can use Protestant sources (I do all the time), and oftentimes they are as good or even better than (less orthodox) Catholic sources, but there is always a chance of bias or false doctrine being involved. The more one knows their Catholic doctrine, in that proportion, they don’t have to worry about possible falsehoods in Protestant sources. It’s a selective process. For Catholics who are still fairly new to the faith, it is good, therefore, to stick to orthodox Catholic sources as much as possible.

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