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What exactly was Jesus saying in Matthew 5:32?

Matthew 5:32 (NKJV)
But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.

The Greek word in the passage is passive. Various translations render the key phrase vastly differently:

  • "causes her to commit adultery"

  • "makes her an adulteress"

  • "makes her a victim of adultery"

The respective implications of these differences are very weighty!

I found some interesting information about this on a site with commentary about Bible translations along with a lengthy discussion, but there are no solid conclusions drawn. Does anyone here have any scholarly insight into this issue?

Note: I have spent much time with all the passages in all the gospels pertaining to this, and with the OT law and with Paul's writings. If anyone sees how it all comes together I would welcome that in an answer just as much as an address to the word phrase immediately at hand. Or if you can point me in the direction of resources on the matter please post them in the comments.

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@Sarah-Before 'no-fault divorce' laws that were passed in the '70's, much scruitiny had been given to these passages, as "What God hath joined, let no man put asunder" was incorporated into our laws as part of Blackstone's legacy. Many lawyers have 'tweaked' the interpretation of these words-rendering meaningless their interpretation. Understanding this passage(and others) regarding marriage requires one to examine the whole counsel of Jesus's Word's, rather than one word or phrase which may be parsed differently-depending on one's theological persuasion. – Tau Dec 20 '13 at 4:01
@user2479, Do you understand how the pieces fit together. I have spent much time with all the passages in all the gospels pertaining to this, and with the OT law and with Paul's writings. Still this element of it alludes me. If you see how it all comes together I would welcome that in an answer just as much as an address to the word phrase immediately at hand. I will edit my question accordingly. – user2027 Dec 20 '13 at 15:03
Very interesting question. I can’t give anything beyond beliefs now. I’ve seen several citings that others have shared about the practice of divorce and marriage. You may well know these, but I’ve been told to check Deut 24:1-4 and how that pertains to Moses’ law, but then that being noted within Matthew’s 19:3-12. Others I’ve been given are Cor 7:8-11, and Eph 5:31. I agree they aren’t easy to reconcile. +1 – John Martin Dec 20 '13 at 19:22
GW and NOG give an interesting paraphrase "makes her look as though she has committed adultery" (has more plausibility than the NIV I think) -- I never realized any translations diverged this much. Thanks for pointing this out! – david brainerd Aug 3 '14 at 3:25
@Sarah, I'm sorry. I've got a sermon this Sunday, so my time here has been curtailed temporarily. No promises, but unlikely I'll get to answer something taking a lot of time. (And I see Jack has a good answer.) – Frank Luke Aug 8 '14 at 2:39
up vote 2 down vote accepted
  1. This is part of a series of illustrations on interpreting the law[1]

    We need to know how to interpret the entire series of illustrations in Matthew 5:17-48, before we can be confident we are understanding the specifics of verse 32. The illustrations are part of Jesus' explanation of how to interpret the law, and that he has come not to abolish the law but to destroy the evil and false (legalistic, outward) method of interpretation practiced and preached by the scribes and Pharisees:

    17“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

    [...] You have heard that it was said [...] (murder v anger)

    [...] You have heard that it was said [...] (adultery v lust)

    [...] It was also said [...] (divorce)

    [...] Again you have heard that it was said [...] (oaths)

    [...] You have heard that it was said [...] (an eye for an eye)

    [...] You have heard that it was said [...] (hate/love your enemy)

    48You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Matthew 5, ESV

  2. The illustrations teach us how to interpret any law

    In this context, each of these illustrations is not so much a specific instruction or command concerning murder, adultery or divorce but part of a picture of an interpretive framework - giving us the template for interpreting any law.

    Understanding and accepting this framework is the aim of these illustrations. It would be ironic and deeply misguided to take Jesus words here as merely a new or more strict set of outward observances.

  3. All law is to be applied to the heart, not merely outwardly observed

    The interpretive framework Jesus gives is that obedience at the level of the heart is the true calling of all law: the principles of legalism and exceptions/loopholes cannot apply in this framework. There could not be a greater contrast with the scribes and Pharisees, who are blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel as they interpret.

    Therefore the commandment about marriage is a call to a faithful heart, not a question of outward obedience. In essence the technical/legal question of divorce is not in view at all: it is possible to be legally divorced and obedient, and legally married (and not adulterous) and yet disobedient.

  4. The husband bears primary responsibility

    In the context of a patriarchal society and religion, whether the woman commits or is the victim of adultery, the man who divorces her bears responsibility[2]: any call to obedience must be first be followed by the man who has greater power and responsibility in the marriage.

    The woman is not being singled out for condemnation or exoneration in this context, and the broader application of the specific command would apply to her in a secondary sense. A contemporary application would need to take account of the culture of the day, for example whether a woman has the legal right to divorce her husband.

  5. Conclusion: a woman can please God and obey this command by having a deep heart-felt respect and awe for the holy union between husband and wife.

    This is 'perfection' in the sense of verse 48, not perfect outward obedience, but genuine, inner love and respect for the will of God. Therefore the righteousness or culpability of the woman involved does not depend on the physical act of divorce; however it may well be evidenced in a patient and persistent hope of reconciliation after divorce rather than a quest for speedy remarriage.

1 I've previously argued this at greater length on the "What does it mean for Jesus to fulfill the law?" question here

2 cf the punishment meted out to Adam despite his attempt to blame Eve (and God) for their transgression

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[Summarized from Brad Young's Jesus, the Jewish Theologian, pp. 114-116.]

Divorce and remarriage are permitted under Jewish law, and Jesus did not prohibit the two acts. However, many Christians have made divorce and remarriage for any reason the same as adultery. There are even Christian denominations which do not allow their ministers to be remarried (the Assemblies of God, for one. Within the last few years they have added an exception clause that they will credential those whose divorce took place before salvation).

While permitted, most rabbis taught divorce was to be a rare circumstance. Rabbi Eleazar stated that when a man divorces the wife of his youth, even the altar weeps (BT Gittim 90b).

Jesus addressed divorce in three parallel passages.

Matthew 5:32 but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the cause of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (NAS)

Mark 10:11-12 And He said to them, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her; 12 and if she herself divorces her husband and marries another man, she is committing adultery." (NAS)

Luke 16:18 Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery; and he who marries one who is divorced from a husband commits adultery. (NAS)

Some conclude that divorce is synonymous with adultery because of these statements. However, that is not the case. Jesus is seeking to prevent injustice.

In the Mishnah (Sotah 5.1), we learn that a woman who is divorced because of an adulterous relationship (her own) is not permitted to marry her lover. Jesus is addressing the case of a male. Some divorces come about so that the man can marry a younger, more attractive wife. Divorce in order to marry a specific person is adultery. Divorce itself was a way to end a union. Remarriage was expected afterwards, but it was sin to have picked out the new partner before the old union is broken.

In Luke, both the verbs "divorce" and "remarry" are in the present tense. The parallel in Mark puts them in the subjunctive mood. The subjunctive mood sometimes show a sense of purpose. While this is typically the case with a hina clause, there is no hina here. However, Mark could still have the intent in mind with his choice of teh subjunctive mood. That would render Mark's meaning as "Whoever divorces his wife in order to marry another commits adultery against her." Back translating the Greek into Hebrew would show that the actions are linked in continuous motion: "Everyone who divorces his wife in order to marry another commits adultery."

The second part of Luke's verse must be understood in the same way. In the Mishnah, if a man marries a woman who obtained divorce merely for the sake of her second marriage, then it is considered adultery. Divorce is not adultery. However, obtaining a divorce for the sake of a planned remarriage breaks the sacred trust of marital fidelity.

Jesus was not seeking abrogate the Hebrew scriptures concerning marriage, divorce, and remarriage. However, he sought to prevent the abuse and set limits to its application. If a man divorces his wife because he desires to marry someone else, it is adultery. Divorce can be employed to commit adultery.

Even when the letter of the law is followed in these cases, the spirit can be broken. Thus, the higher purpose of the law is annulled. Divorce must not be used as a convenience to consummate adultery.

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I think you responded to this based on my "note" in the question; this is a very well rounded answer addressing the many facets of the matter. Would you be able to include any insight about how this particular piece in Matthew 5:32 then fits into the puzzle--namely what the one who divorces for a reason other than sexual immorality causes for his wife. That still remains at the heart of the question though I do not wish to ignore or isolate it from the rest of the council of God on the matter. – user2027 Aug 2 '14 at 21:59
I think this answer would work better if the phrase "to marry another" were in this verse, which would mean the woman of whom it is said "causes her to commit adultery" is the new wife; but these words are not in the text as we have it. – david brainerd Aug 3 '14 at 3:32

A more difficult passage to some, yet saying the same thing with Jesus's same intent is found in Matt. 19:3-12 —

3 The Pharisees also came unto him, tempting him, and saying unto him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause? 4 And he answered and said unto them, Have ye not read , that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female, 5 And said , For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh? 6 Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together , let not man put asunder. 7 They say unto him, Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away ? 8 He saith unto them , Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so. 9 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. 10 His disciples say unto him, If the case of the man be so with his wife, it is not good to marry. 11 But he said unto them, All men cannot receive this saying, save they to whom it is given. 12 For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother's womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.

Here Jesus is confronted with a legal question by the Pharisees, who were attempting to trip Him up. Their context was Deut. 24:1-3, —

1 When a man hath taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favour in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her: then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house. 2 And when she is departed out of his house, she may go and be another man's wife. 3 And if the latter husband hate her, and write her a bill of divorcement, and giveth it in her hand, and sendeth her out of his house; or if the latter husband die , which took her to be his wife; 4 Her former husband, which sent her away , may not take her again to be his wife, after that she is defiled ; for that is abomination before the LORD: and thou shalt not cause the land to sin , which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance.

It was not lawful for a man to take back an original wife whom he had divorced,after she married another, and her second husband died.

Here you see Jesus state God's original intent*,"...the twain shall be 1 flesh."* This is the One Covenant still in existence before the downfall, that 'God' from Heaven sees 1 body. Therefore, whatever a husband and wife do together(in love) is covered under the 1 flesh covenant. Paul illustrates this in 1 Cor. 7; and in Heb. 13:4, —

Marriage is honourable in all, and the bed undefiled: but whoremongers and adulterers God will judge.

So, to understand Jesus's command, one must understand God's Original Intention, which existed before the Fall, and the One Flesh Covenant He makes with a man and woman rightly joined together in marriage. Another discussion is marriage entered under duress, false pretenses, etc., these are not "God Joined" marriages-therefore do not come under the "One Flesh" Covenant.

What is interesting is what Jesus tells His disciples(in private) after His confrontation with the Pharisees in Matt. 19.

First, when confronted by them about "Can a man put away his wife for any cause(no fault divorce)", and "Why therefore did Moses allow a Bill of Divorcement", Jesus responds, "Because of the hardness of your hearts." First of all, Moses never gave them 'carte blanche' to divorce their wives, it was for "uncleaness" (adultery, fornication) yet it could be interpreted 'disfavor', which an "evil and adulterous generation" could construe as meaning 'for whatever reason'.

So when He says,"But I say to you....", He has rolled back that understanding; instead, re-establishing 'uncleaness' as meaning fornication or adultery (fornication would be sexual union w/one who is unmarried, adultery is with one who is). One cannot be 'joined' to one who is joined to someone else unlawfully, this is clearly His intent.

Now, after He reproves the Pharisees, telling them that "...whosoever divorces his wife, or marries a woman who was put away (for adultery) commits adultery", His disciples have a huge question, and it goes like this: 'What about the one who has been unfaithful to, it would be better off for them not to get married in the 1st place. Are they to remain 'eunuchs' (those who are incapable or taken a vow of celebacy)?

Then Jesus responds,"To those who are given this 'command' by God, let them 'receive' it, meaning unless you are given direction by God(and the accompanying grace) to remain single, then get married(in the Lord). This does not apply to the offender, only the offendee. The 'offendee' (if through no cause of their own, God judges the heart) is divorced by their spouse, then they are "free from the guilt of adultery, and may take another spouse(of course, in the Lord)". The offender is charged with additional sin, which is to "drive their partner in the arms of another man/woman" which is tantamount to adultery.

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You've got some good stuff here but I think you wander a little too far from our site guidelines on this: "Answers should stop short of prescribing a contemporary application." Perhaps instead of the last couple paragraphs you could use the space to beef up you're case with connections from the text that you think people will need to make sound applications themselves. – Caleb Dec 23 '13 at 11:17
@Caleb-I'm not quite sure how, and not touch the 'application electrified barb wire'. I cringe sometimes when I post these kinds of answers; they go beyond pipe smoking academae and real people look at them and their circumstances and say, 'there is a way out...'. My answer is not intended to do that, rather, it is an understanding developed over many years. I could include the 1 Cor. 7 passage which got edited out. I will attempt(after Christmas) to add to the answer which would convey the seriousness that I treat this subject. – Tau Dec 24 '13 at 14:48

The literal translation of the key phrase in Mat 5:32 differs between the Textus-Receptus and the Westcott-Hort because the voice of the verb "to adulterate" differs. In the Textus-Receptus, it is literally translated as: "causes her to adulterate" (active voice). In the Westcott-Hort, it is literally translated as: "causes her to be adulterated" (passive voice). The reason why the scholars struggle with it is because we always say "commits adultery" instead of "adulterates" and we cannot make "commits adultery" into passive voice.

The only other time "to adulterate" is in passive voice is in John 8:4, and again, it is a woman being adulterated by a man. It is not possible for a man to be adulterated by a woman. It is only possible for a woman to be adulterated by a man. We see a similar thing with voice of the verb "to marry." In Mark 10:11-12, the man "shall marry another" (active voice) and the woman "shall be married to another" (passive voice).

We don't know which phrase Jesus used in Mat 5:32 (since Westcott-Hort and Textus Receptus differ), but if he said "causes her to be adulterated", then it is because another man was inevitably going to see her and want to adulterate her. Since the women had few skills in those days, she would likely let a man adulterate her in exchange for him marrying her or him housing her or some other compensation. It sounds strange to say "adulterates her", but here is another example of that. The words that are translated "commits adultery with her" in Matthew 5:28 are literally translated "adulterates her" because there is no preposition "with" in the Greek text. There is no example of a woman "adulterating him", because again it is not possible for a woman to adulterate a man.

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Hello and welcome! Thank you for bringing up the textual problem. Please tell me if I've got it wrong, but the TR I think says ποιει αυτην μοιχασθαι (vs NA28 - ποιεῖ αὐτὴν μοιχευθῆναι). So present pas. inf. from μοιχάω rather than aorist pas. inf. from μοιχεύω, but all passives. – Susan Feb 4 at 6:41

According to Matthew 19:9, getting divorced does not cause a woman to become an adulteress (or a man to become an adulterer); getting divorced and then marrying someone else does (unless the husband or wife committed fornication beforehand).

This is why Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 (NKJV):

Now to the married I command, yet not I but the Lord: A wife is not to depart from her husband. But even if she does depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband. And a husband is not to divorce his wife.

Paul specifically says this command was not from him but from the Lord. The woman must not re-marry if she leaves her husband, otherwise she will become an adulteress.

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The marriage tie can be broken only by death (Rom. 7:3) or fornication. Hence, to have a divorce for any other reason is to commit adultery.

But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife, except for fornication, and marries another, commits adultery; and he who marries her who has been divorced commits adultery. (Matt. 19:9)

So then if, while the husband is living, she is joined to another man, she will be called an adulteress; but if the husband dies, she is free from the law, so that she is not an adulteress, though she is joined to another man. (Rom 7:3)

According to the word of the Lord Jesus, the only cause for divorce is fornication. Only two things can break the marriage tie: either the death of one of the parties or fornication, adultery. If either party commits adultery, the marriage tie is broken. This is the principle. Therefore, the Lord Jesus said that there must be no divorce except in the case of fornication. But you should not take advantage of this as an excuse to remarry simply because an act of fornication has been committed. This also is a matter of motive. If possible, the offending one should be forgiven. However, it is different if the guilty party refuses to repent and lives in that kind of sin or marries someone else. In such a case as this, the marriage tie is broken, and the other party is free.

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Jesus made very clear just a few verses earlier (Matt 5: 17 to 19) that he wasn't about to over-turn the Law. Therefore his answer must be understood in this context. So while divorce is undesirable, as Jesus made quite clear (Matt 19: 8), it still remained a valid option when a marriage broke down.

The "exception clause" is entirely misunderstood. That comment ("except adultery") wasn't limiting the divorce to adultery alone. Rather Jesus was not so much discussing divorce, as discussing the matter of the issuing of the certificate of divorce.

So what Jesus meant was, "You are to do as Moses commanded, therefore, whoever divorces his wife for any valid reason, other than adultery, without giving her a certificate of divorce, as Moses commanded, will make her seem to be an adulteress, and anyone marrying a divorced woman without a certificate of divorce, will also be seen to be an adulterer.

The exception, if any, is that, if the divorced wife is a prostitute, there is little reason to give her a certificate of divorce as prostitutes don't need such to carry on their trade. In fact, Jesus could be taken to be saying, "...except for adultery, of course.." as that much was already understood by the audience.

This saying of Jesus not only needs to be understood in the full biblical context, but in the social context of the time, and in accordance with God's love. And having said that, there are sins worse than adultery and no woman (or man, for that matter) should be condemned to an impossible marriage, or banned from remarriage. Afterall, Jesus said, "Take my yoke and my burden is light."

Finally, Jesus explained the ideal principle behind marriage (permanence), but if the worse came to the worst and divorce became inevitable, the wife would be entitled to a certificate of divorce so that she can get on with life. Husbands were not to withhold it as a revenge.

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Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange, thanks for contributing - this is a great first answer! A few additional references would really help reinforce your points. There are many more passages engaging with this topic which you're not engaging with, and which (when taken at face value) cast doubt on several of your conclusions. Be sure to take our site tour to learn more about us. We're a little different from other sites. – Steve Taylor May 16 at 12:36

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