Brilliant Translation Decision

Brilliant Translation Decision January 17, 2013

In working through the edits for the commentary on the Sermon on the Mount I saw a change in the NIV 2011 I had not noticed because when the 2011 came out I was already beyond Matthew 5:31-32. I have read the NIV 2011 on the Sermon a number of times but this one translation just didn’t jump out at me the way it did last Friday.

TNIV:  But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.

NIV2011: But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

TNIV: she is caused to become an adulteress because she remarries, but the “causes her” leaves open the why she is caused. Historical context suggests she would have needed to be remarried in order to survive etc.

NIV2011: The blame becomes much more clear because the blame here is on the male, the woman illegitimately divorced becomes vulnerable and therefore a victim. I like it. (I would, however, suggest the “a” in “a divorced woman” could suggest “any” divorced woman, but a legitimately divorced woman was free to remarry so to remarry a legitimately divorced woman would not be adulterous.)

So the “a divorced woman” is the illegitimately divorced but now victimized woman? Blame the man for marrying her but not her fault?

What do you think?


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  • Scot, Craig Blomberg (a CBT member) explains that translation here:

  • scotmcknight

    From Andy Naselli:

    Scot, Craig Blomberg (a CBT member) explains that translation here:

  • Dan

    I’ve become tired of the constant discussions and debates surrounding adultery, divorce, and sexual immorality in the church. These debates are in my opinion why Christianity has lost so much credibility in the West. If the church applied as robust a practice of forgiveness, redemption, and reconciliation as it does in trying to define single words of scripture and whether this denomination or that denomination was valid, issues behind what porniea, adultery, and sexual immorality mean wouldn’t matter. It’s easy to understand when a wrong was committed, who has been hurt, and who needs to repent.

  • Don Johnson

    I disagree with this option, altho I agree it seems an improvement.

    What is wrong is the assumption that Matt 5:31-32 is a standalone truth, it is not an atomic truth statement, altho this can be challenging to see. The main reason it cannot be an atomic truth statement is that Jesus was a Torah observant Jew, and Jews recognized many Biblical reasons for divorce, see David Instone-Brewer’s works, specifically the reasons for divorce given in Ex 21:10-11, which are in addition to Deu 24:1-4.

    So what is the author of Matthew 5:31-32 doing? He is making a remez/hint to the fuller teaching of Jesus on divorce and remarriage, which is found in Mat 19:3-12. And where does Matt 5:31-32 fit into this larger teaching, obviously right after Matt 19:9 and before Matt 19:10. When Matt 5:21-32 is placed in this larger context, it makes sense.

    Jesus is asked by Pharisees in Matt 19:3 whether Hillel’s divorce for “Any Cause” is found in the Torah. Jesus corrects 6 OTHER misunderstandings of the Pharisees on their (mis) interpretations of Torah, before he finally answers their first question in Matt 19:9 (and then Matt 5:31-32), that is, if someone divorced using the reason of Hillel’s “Any Cause”, it is an invalid divorce. If a woman remarried with an invalid divorce, it would an invalid marriage, hence, she would be called an adulteress, even though it was not her fault.

  • Sherman Nobles

    In Mt.19, the Pharisees ask Jesus concerning the Hillelited “Any Matter” (No-Fault) divorce philosophy and proceedings. Jesus counters, affirming the divine ideal for marriage, avoiding the horns of the dilema the Pharisees tried to trap Him on. They counter asking “why then did Moses give (legislatively enact) the bill of divorce?” In answer to this question, Jesus underscores the reason Moses was inspired to legislatively enact the bill of divorce (which other cultures did not have). The reasons were:
    1. Because their hearts were hard and,
    2. To mitigate the oppression of women, to specifically address the Agunah problem, the issue of women being expelled from her home/family by her husband but legally unable to marry another man. If such a woman (separated but not divorced) married another man it was not a legal marriage and the woman and man were actually both committing adultery. Moses was inspired by God to legislatively enact the bill of divorce to stop this practice, to mitigate the oppression of women. In Israel if a man was to expell his wife, he was to give her a bill of divorce and legally free her to marry another man. In their legalistic wranglings over divorce philosophy and procedures the Pharisees had forgotten the reason for the bill of divorce. And instead of continuing in the “spirit” of the Law, had lessened the power of the law to mitigate the oppression of women. In fact, men could continue to expell their wives without giving them a bill of divorce. It even continues to be an issue today in Jewish communities because women do not have the right to divorce their husbands, because of the Pharisees interpretation of Moses’ directions concerning the bill of divorce. Of course, if a couple is not legally married (except for fornication) then there is no need for the bill of divorce.

    Jesus did not disagree with Moses, but fully endorsed every aspect of the Law. But He certainly disagreed with the Pharisees’ attitude, doctrine, and application of the Law.

  • scotmcknight

    Don, I see you have dropped this comment here too, so I’ll do the same:

    Donald I’m not sure anyone can prove Matt 5 belongs in Matt 19 though it is reasonable, in light of Matt 19, to set Matt 5 in the context of what else Jesus teaches about divorce and remarriage. Do you think Jesus’ exception clause (Matt 5, 19) intentionally ignores Exod 21 by going only to Deut 24’s erwat dabar, thereby limiting divorce to what is said in Deut 24? Your final conclusion, though, is not far from the “victim” translation when you say “even though it was not her fault.”

  • Bonnie

    I may be missing something but I see this as primarily about the binding nature of sexual relationship, and about being responsible for your own intent and for how your actions affect others. if a man divorces his wife when she has not breached their sexual relationship, then they are still “married.” Therefore, she becomes an adulteress when she remarries, and her new husband becomes an adulterer also, having taken a wife who wasn’t truly divorced. The husband’s actions affect both his wife and her new husband, causing them to be in an immoral state. In the passage (Matthew 5:21ff), intent is as important as action, and we are to come clean, putting away any evil intent whatsoever — he (she) who harbors hate against someone is as guilty of murder as he who actually kills, and should reconcile before coming before the Lord; he who lusts has already committed adultery in his heart; he should cut off whatever part of him causes him to stumble, and should swear by nothing except his own intent. He should not seek retribution, and should love his enemies.

  • Norman

    Perhaps Christ is clarifying the definition for the coming Eschaton when God divorces adulterous Israel therefore allowing the true faithful free to remarry Christ. Perhaps the sexual immorality of the Harlot is in mind and is a warning not to be joined to what was legitimately set aside.

    After all this extensive section appears to be instructions to those who are going to be His followers by setting the guidelines of the coming Kingdom.

    Rev 18:4 4 … “COME OUT OF HER, my people, lest you take part in HER SINS, lest you share in HER PLAGUES;

  • Percival

    This translation makes so much more sense to me and I admit I already interpreted it that way even with the traditional translation.

    Sherman #5, good background info. thanks.

    Norman, #8, you are “a hoot,” as my people would say. You continue to entertain me by the way you can find the coming Eschaton and Israel in any passage. Carry on!

  • I agree that this is a terrific decision! Many thanks to Craig for his work w/ the committee. 🙂

    Scot, I’ve seen a lot in scripture – both OT & NT – about men initiating divorce from their wives, but I don’t have any resources handy which confirm that women could divorce their husbands according to Jewish law. Paul indicated that it was possible in 1 Cor 7:13, but was he referring to the Roman laws Craig cited, or to Torah? What body of law would the Samaritans in John 4 be utilizing? Fr Raymond Brown (p. 171, volume I in my edition of his John commentary) assumed that the Samaritan woman was “markedly immoral” for her many divorces. He offered no other possibility – e.g., that she may have been “markedly infertile”. The very fact that she married so many times could indicate that she was moral and dependent on men’s support, imho.

  • Norman


    Thanks for being a good sport and indulging my obsession with Jewish contextual background in examining scripture.

    You did notice that I used the word “perhaps” though. 😉

  • Percival

    Ann F-R #10,
    I’m with you on the cultural context of ancient Jewish (and Samaritan) divorce. It seemed to be for men and by men. As Sherman Nobles pointed out above, this was not the intent of why Moses commanded a certificate of divorce.

    As I’ve expressed at Jesus Creed before, I think people like Fr Raymond Brown and most western commentators get the Samaritan woman wrong. We are misled by faulty translations that say things like “the man you are living with” in Jn 4:18. I won’t go into all those details again now, but as someone who is personally familiar with traditional middle-eastern village life, I can say that reading is implausible. In my opinion “the man she now has” is her betrothed. The number of husbands she has had shows that she has been unfortunate rather than wanton. In fact, judging from the response of her townspeople, the story shows that she must have been credited with an unusual level of respect among them.

  • Percival, you describe exactly what I pointed out while studying John w/ Marianne Meye Thompson. I lived in Africa briefly, and it had also struck me that women having any options other than marriage has been a relatively recent phenomenon.

  • Sherman Nobles

    In understanding Mt.5.31-32 it is helpful to note that the phrase “you’ve heard it said” was a reference to the oral doctrine/traditions of the Pharisees. So what Jesus is countering is NOT Moses legislatively enacting the bill of divorce; He is countering the philosophy and doctrine of the Pharisees built around the Deut. 24:1-4 passage. Thus this passage fits well with the Mt.19 passage.

    Have you noticed how different the Mark 10 passage is from the Mt.19 passage? Mark is addressing a Roman audience, whereas Matthew is addressing a Jewish audience with a focus on denouncing the philosophies, doctrine, and practices of the Pharisees. Mark’s audience did not know anything about the No-fault divorce debate or the reason for the bill of divorce. Thus Mark doesn’t quote what Jesus said concerning those, but elaborates on Jesus’ discussion of divorce with the disciples, highlighting that if a man divorces his wife “in order to marry another” he commits adultery; and if a woman divorces her husband “in order to marry another” she commits adultery. In this Jesus dealt with the motive behind the divorce, apparently also taking into consideration that in Greco-Roman culture a woman could divorce her husband as well as a man could divorce his wife, simply by leaving the relationship.

    It’s thus interesting that when Paul in 1 Cor. 7 quotes Jesus (the Lord not I), he apparently pulls in both of these when he quotes an abbreviated version of both discussions saying that 1) a woman should not “seperate” from her husband, but if she does she should either remain single or be reunited to her husband, and 2) a man should not “divorce” his wife. Of course, Paul is not giving a whole teaching on marriage and divorce, but is primarily dealing with the Corinthians struggle with sexuality in general, apparently wanting everyone to abstain from sex, even the married.

    And it’s interesting that later in the chapter, Paul specifically says that if a man who is divorced (loosed from his wife) remarries, he does not sin (7:27b-28a).

  • Don Johnson


    I tried to find my response on a FB reply, but cannot. So I try to reconstruct it.

    All of the 7 corrections by Jesus to the Pharisees misunderstanding of Torah in Matt 19 move things (from their understanding) so that both spouses are treated equally. Since the Hillel divorce for “Any Cause” (that is, for no reason at all) could only be done by the husband, it is also removed as being invalid and not taught in Torah. Since the divorce is invalid, any subsequent marriage is also invalid; but one needs to also see that Jesus is using hyperbole in the Sermon on the Mount. In other words, it is the husband’s actions that trigger the cascade of problems, so he is the one at fault.

    Jesus was silent on the reasons for divorce found in Ex 21:10-11, so one can reasonably assume that he accepted those, altho this is an argument from silence; but esp. because he went out of his way to correct 6 OTHER misinterpretations of Torah by the Pharisees when he was asked about 1 specific interpretation (Hillel’s divorce for “Any Cause”), if he had other concerns, he could have spoken on them also. Paul later confirms that the expectations found in Ex 21:10-11 are valid expectations for a marriage.

  • Tim

    I’d be interested in understanding on purely linguistic grounds why this translation is a more accurate/faithful one. While I can certainly appreciate the impulse to arrive at translations of Biblical passages more in line with what we would hope they taught…what we would like to see, I just think that such impulses don’t justify manipulating the text to suit our purposes. I’d like to know more about what exactly is going on here and why.

  • scotmcknight

    Tim, I don’t think there is any manipulation here but an explicitation of what is inherent to or embedded in the text in its context. The woman is not being blamed in this text; she has been rendered vulnerable by an illegitimate divorce; she is thus a victim. The word “victim” is implicit, yet under the surface, in “makes her to be” or “causes her to be.”

  • I had a brief conversation w/ Craig Blomberg about the issue Percival and I were discussing – whether a woman even had the ability to divorce under Jewish law. He responded to my question (raised above in #10): Women were normally not allowed to initiate divorce in Judaism; there is no evidence the Samaritans were any different. (Paul likely was thinking of Roman law.) This raises the interesting possibility, that I first read in Alice Mathews’ writing, that the woman in John 4 was the victim of five unscrupulous men and, to get the protection and provision of a man, now had to live with one outside of marriage. This would paint her in a quite different light!

    I first read the possibility of the woman not being so promiscuous in a Lutheran scholar’s book on John in the mid-90’s in Meye Thompson’s class, and it clicked w/ my experiences in Africa. I can dig up that book, too, if anyone is interested in title & author. (I recall there’s a later edition, last I checked.)

  • Percival

    Tim #16,
    The link provided in comment #1 & 2 provide the linguistic reasoning behind it.

  • Sherman Nobles

    I do not think Jesus is addressing the issue of valid or non-valid reasons for divorce or the debate concerning no-fault (any-matter) divorce. Rather, He is reaffirming the reason Moses was inspired by God to enact the bill of divorce, to mitigate the oppression of women, to enable an expelled woman to marry another man and not fear being denounced/punished as an adultress or being reclaimed by her first husband, like David did with Michal. Thus for me a better amplified translation of Mt.5:31-32 would be:

    “It has been said, ‘Whoever shall expell his wife, let him give her a bill of divorce’ (referencing the philosphy and doctrine of the Pharisees on divorce and specifically on this passage): and I say unto you, That whoever shall expell his wife (without a bill of divorce), except of course for immoral/illegal relationships, causes her to commit adultery: and whoever shall marry her that is expelled (without a bill of divorce) commits adultery.

    If the Pharisees would have embraced the spirit of the Law, then I think they would have moved towards at least forcing a man to give his wife a bill of divorce if he expells her or possibly even move towards giving women equal rights especially in the matter of divorce, allowing a woman to enact a divorce just like men could. Their philosophy and legislation concerning divorce should have been built upon protecting the weak and empowering the disinfranchised. Instead, they were hung up arguing over whether or not a man must publicly declare the reason for the divorce. And it is interesting that Joseph was noted as being a righteous man because he was going to divorce Mary quietly using the Hillelite no-fault divorce proceedings which was considered the more merciful meathod of divorce.

  • I find this translation helpful. In particular, I think it is helpful to the reader to be able to more clearly see the intention of this text. I suspect this will be helpful to anyone wrestling with the divorce texts.

  • Tim Atwater

    Re John 4 — When I was researching this text fifteen years ago, already many (mostly but not emtirely women) scholars had pointed out the wrong assumptions in most male interpretations of this text. Sandra Schneider perhaps in fullest treatment. It’s a shame that their writings have not been more broadly read and heeded, but perhaps that is happening, just not so visibly as we’d hope.

    And extending– besides divorce(s) there’s always the possibilities also of death of husbands, most famously in scripture in the deutero-canonical (canonical for Orthodox and R Catholics) Tobit (and similarly also in the Sadducees’ hypothetical question of the woman married to seven brothers in the synoptics)…

  • Thanks, Scot, for bringing this to our attention. My first assignment to students in BibHerm is to make them aware of their English Bibles. I/We lay out the KJV/NRSV/NIV78/NIV2011/NLT with a dozen or so illustrations of how moving from right to left usually moves to a higher degree of interpretation (not bad, just a fact to know…I’ll resist commenting on the NLT).

    The NIV-2011 messed up some of my “preaching.” They reverted (thank God) to translations in several cases that were less “leading” (e.g. Phil 3:6; 1 Cor 7:1; Matt 19:9; 1 Tim 3:11 to name a few).

    If students do not learn about translating and the multitude of “product” Bibles on the market today, how will they deal with lay people marching in with who knows what translation as if it is God’s final word. We can’t reverse the wheel, but we can use what exists for numerous teaching moments.

  • WHOOPS … that should be “…left to right…” !!!