Dialogue on the Matthew 19:19 Exception Clause & Divorce

Dialogue on the Matthew 19:19 Exception Clause & Divorce March 5, 2018

The Greek word porneia in the clause means that Jesus was referring to unmarried persons.


[Mike Grubb is an evangelical Protestant. His words will be in blue. ]


I wrote:

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.

But the context of Matt 19:9 doesn’t lend itself to your interpretation at all. Matt 9:3-10 says, 

Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?’ ‘Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate. “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”

Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.”
The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.

First of all, notice the Pharisees were looking to “test” Jesus. It wouldn’t have been much of a test at all if they were referring to people cohabiting, having concubines, or some other “illicit union” would it? 

This is shoddy reasoning. The context is clearly about divorce. The Pharisees wanted to know if divorce for any reason (which I believe was Rabbi Hillel’s position) was Jesus’ view. Jesus reiterated that His view was the exact opposite: no divorce at all. He merely mentioned as a sort of footnote that fornication was not included in the ban. If fornicators split up it isn’t adultery or divorce, because they are not married.

Jesus would have said, “Divorce isn’t the issue here, the illicit union is!”

That doesn’t follow at all. You’re not reasoning clearly. The issue at hand is what the “exception clause” refers to. The Greek settles it, in my humble opinion.

Secondly, Jesus established what they were talking about from the outset. Even if the Pharisees had been referring to an illicit union, Jesus made sure they were discussing true marriage when He said, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one.” Jesus is referring to a genuine, God ordained, “they’re no longer two but one” marriage.

Exactly. Now you’re getting it! And there is no permissible divorce. The two become one flesh. That’s why the parallel passage in Mark doesn’t even have the exception clause.

So, even if “porneia” is translated to “unlawful sexual intercourse” or “unchastity”, it would still amount to adultery within a true marriage which Jesus is clearly referring to.

As I showed in my chapter on divorce in The Catholic Versesporneia is never used in this fashion: not even once. The word for adultery should have been used if this were the case.

Don’t get me wrong, I agree the amount of divorce within the Evangelical ranks is scandalous and detestable. Jesus even pointed out why people wanted divorce, “because your hearts were hard.” So I would counsel any of my Christian brothers that God detests divorce and to take a long, hard look at his own heart before pursuing a divorce, because it’s probably hardened and causing him to make bad decisions.

Then you are closer to Jesus’ and the traditional Christian position than many, but still have a ways to go.

The Reformed church can easily defend divorce (which I absolutely don’t like doing); it’s in the Bible. How does the RCC defend annulments which are not referenced in the Bible?

The concept of annulments is indeed in the Bible (as it is in civil law also):

Biblical Evidence for Annulments

Annulment is not “Catholic Divorce”

You insinuated Jesus was referring to a “state of concubinage or some other illicit union” when he grants the right to “divorce” due to unfaithfulness, and I wasn’t sure if you thought the whole passage was about illicit unions or not; so I was showing that the issue is divorce of a true marriage from start to finish.

That is implied by the language of “exception clause.” It’s an exception precisely because the passage is about marriage being indissoluble and divorce being prohibited. You’re saying the “except” refers to adultery as a grounds for divorce; I’m saying it is a footnote pointing out that He is not talking about fornication, but about marriage (where sexual unfaithfulness is called “adultery”).

So you agree the Pharisees were referring to a true marriage when they were testing him; that’s all I was getting at in the first part of my previous comment.

Yes, of course. That’s not the issue, which is what Jesus meant by “except.”

At what point does Jesus switch from talking about a true marriage to an illicit union? There’s no indication whatsoever that He does so, just a supposition on your part due to one word being used unusually or uniquely in this instance.

This is a nice caricature of my argument. Are you contending, then, that the sole use of the word porneia in all of Scripture as supposedly “adultery” here has no bearing at all on the interpretation? That’s not “my” supposition; it is the biblical data of what words were used and in what contexts. Certainly that is relevant and important.

If you read my chapter from The Catholic Verses, that I linked to in the first paper, I provided all sorts of arguments from Protestants themselves which suggest various parts of the Catholic argument. Some Protestant scholars have even taken a position that the clause was a textual addition, because it seems to contradict the parallel passage in Mark. They do this for a reason. It doesn’t just come out of thin air. Catholics offer another interpretation, which is not based on nothing, either.

The problem is that the same passage in Mark is absolute: remarriage constitutes adultery, period. So is Mark correct: that there seem to be no exceptions, or is Matthew (in your sense): that there is supposedly a loophole of a spouse being unfaithful, which releases a person from a marriage vow?

The fact that the word used is porneia is, then, highly relevant, because it gives an indication of whether Jesus was talking about a married person or an unmarried one. To me, that is the key consideration to figure out what “except” refers to.

Catholic biblical scholar Fernand Prat, S. J., in his book, Jesus Christ (Milwaukee: Bruce Pub. Co., 1950. two volumes; translated from the 16th French edition by John J. Heenan, S. J.: a book I have in my own library), comments on Matthew 19:9 and draws a parallel to another passage:

Porneia (fornication) is always distinct from moicheia (adultery), but the word porneia can also mean “concubinage,” “marriage between relatives” forbidden by the Mosaic Law (Lev. 18:1-17) . . . The concubinage of the Corinthian who had married his stepmother is qualified by St. Paul as porneia and could not be designated in any other way, for the Greeks had no special word for concubinage . . . 1 Cor. 5:1 . . . Keeping rigorously to the terms, the texts of St. Matthew become very clear; “Whoever repudiates his wife . . . — outside the case of concubinage . . . — and marries another is an adulterer. Thus Jesus answers the Jews who interrogate him about divorce and not about a bodily separation. (Vol. II, p. 81)

On pages 82-83 in a footnote, Prat adds, citing someone who had studied the Church fathers’ view on the subject:

His conclusion is that all the writers of the first three centuries, and the Latin fathers with very few exceptions, are for the indissolubility of Christian marriage, even in the case of adultery . . . Many Protestants of the present day agree that this was the teaching of Jesus, . . . But they hold, at least some of them, that Matthew has introduced the restrictive clause on his own authority to avoid certain practical difficulties.

The beginning passage is about a true marriage (we agree on that), and the ending portion of the passage is about divorce of a true marriage; there’s no reason to think the that one sentence in the middle subtly switches to divorce in a fake marriage and right back to true marriage in the next sentence.

Why should that be so unusual? Paul used the same word (porneia) in referring to immoral concubinage in 1 Corinthians 5:1. Jesus (i.e., as translated into Greek) uses both porneia and moicheia in one sentence:

Matthew 15:19 (RSV) For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery [moicheia], fornication [porneia], theft, false witness, slander.

Mark 7:21 For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication [porneia], theft, murder, adultery [moicheia],

Indeed, He makes the same distinction in Matthew 19:9 itself. Obviously, then, He made the distinction between the two, yet in Matthew 19:9 and the related 5:32, the Gospel writers use porneia to convey His words, so again, the more plausible scenario is that He was referring to concubinage of unmarrieds, just as Paul does in 1 Corinthians 5:1. Jesus also is translated as using the related word pornee (usually, “harlot”) in Matthew 21:31-32 and Luke 15:30 (cf. same word in 1 Cor 6:15-16; Heb 11:31 [Rahab]. James 2:25, Rev 17:1,5,15-16; 19:2 [Whore of Babylon] ).

Why in the world (following your scenario) should Jesus (as recorded by the Gospel writers in Greek) use the word porneia and then use moicheia, when you are contending that He was referring to exactly the same thing in both instances? What point would there be to use the different Greek word, that always refers to fornication (unmarried sex) in Scripture, yet this time it supposedly has a wider compass? That makes no sense to me, whatever one’s prior views about divorce might be when approaching the exegesis of this passage.

In fact, porneia and its cognates (fornication) are used more in the NT (57 times) than moicheia (adultery) and its cognates (35 times). So it is not unusual at all that Jesus would mention one in the context of the other. St. Paul did the same, using both words in distinction, in Galatians 5:19. And he discusses fornication in the immediate context of his exposition on marriage and singleness (1 Cor 7:2 ff.), just as we are contending Jesus does here.

Moreover, we know that there was some confusion in the Jewish mind about the status of the concubine. Jesus was making the contrast very clear: the concubine was not a wife as God originally intended for the human race. Thus, The New Bible Dictionary (“Concubine” — p. 246) states:

Concubines were protected under Mosaic law (Ex 21:7-11; Deut 21:10-14), though they were distinguished from wives (Judges 8:31) and were more easily divorced (Gen 21:10-14).

Jesus, then, distinguished between a true wife and a concubine. If the concubine is put away, that is not divorce (hence, the “exception clause”), because there was no true marriage to begin with. Likewise, the “unbelieving partner” who desires to separate (1 Cor 7:15) is essentially a concubine, and the separation is, in effect, an annulment, such as we find in the Old Testament:

[I]n Ezra 10:1-19,44 (cf. 9:1-2,14-15), many Israelites “sent away” the “foreign women” they had married, not simply because they were foreigners, but because they caused them to become corrupted by false religions and idolatry (see. e.g., Dt 17:17, Neh 13:23-28). This was essentially an annulment, as opposed to a divorce. (from my note on divorce and annulment in The New Catholic Answer Bible)

The KJV says, “And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.” Notice it uses the term adultery after it uses fornication. If what you’re suggesting is true, once someone is in an illicit union or fornicates and then rightfully “divorces”, that person and anyone who marries that person commits adultery.

No, you’re confusing things. If one “puts away” a concubine (which is what we contend that “fornication” refers to), that is not a divorce, just as an annulment is not a divorce, because there was never truly a real marriage (by Christian and sacramental standards) present. You have yet to deal with the strong linguistic argument. You bypass it every time. If adultery had been the intent of the author, then moicheia was available in the Greek language to be used, just as it is so often elsewhere in the NT. But it doesn’t appear. We’re simply going by what these two Greek words mean, and synthesizing the two passages, whereas you are refusing to compare and harmonize the two, and refusing to examine the meanings and definitions of the words.

Even if reformed Bibles used “fornicate” or “unchaste,” (as some do) the meaning is still the same as if they used “marital unfaithfulness.” It’s still referring to someone who’s truly married and fornicates.

This is exactly my point. You have simply assumed this. But it is not what lexicons give as the meaning of the word porneia. To the extent that Protestant commentators attempt to blur the distinction, I would contend that they are eisegeting based on their prior acceptance of divorce, contrary to the teaching of the early Church for several hundred years and in conflict with plausibility: i.e., a number of cross-referencing and common sense considerations that I noted above.


(originally 11-10-08)

Photo credit: The Pharisees Question Jesus, by James Tissot (1836-1902) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


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