Often, when passages have parentheses they're meant to convey an extra meaning or add to the context of the sentence or something of that nature.

But when Jesus says this:

31“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her a bill of divorce.’

32But I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

Matt 5:31-32 NABRE

Matthew adds a parenthetical, is he putting words in Jesus' mouth here, trying to explain something that Jesus plainly taught elsewhere so it's not construed the wrong way or is there a way of looking at dialogue that actually includes this. I have a hard time accepting that it's just something Jesus muttered under His breath.

For purposes of translation here's what's on Newadvent.


But I say to you, that whosoever shall put away his wife, excepting for the cause of fornication, makes her to commit adultery: and he that shall marry her that is put away, commits adultery.


Ego autem dico vobis: quia omnis qui dimiserit uxorem suam, excepta fornicationis causa, facit eam mœchari: et qui dimissam duxerit, adulterat.


ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι πᾶς ὁ ἀπολύων τὴν γυναῖκα αὐτοῦ παρεκτὸς λόγου πορνείας ποιεῖ αὐτὴν μοιχευθῆναι, [καὶ ὃς ἐὰν ἀπολελυμένην γαμήσῃ μοιχᾶται].

  • I just wanted to note that this marks our site's 500th question. And a really good one to boot! (Thanks, Peter.) Commented Apr 30, 2012 at 17:46
  • I'll have to crack open the UBS for this. It could be anything from an original statement by Jesus, to a Matthean redaction, to a later scribal insertion. I don't have it on me, so I'll have to look through the variants later.
    – swasheck
    Commented Apr 30, 2012 at 18:10
  • @GoneQuiet I put the Greek in there, I don't understand it. I see there are parentheses, but I don't know what a literal translation would be. Does this matter if one holds to the notion that Matthew was originally written in Aramaic? Commented Apr 30, 2012 at 18:20
  • 2
    also ... punctuation is never inspired as it didn't exist in the original manuscripts.
    – swasheck
    Commented Apr 30, 2012 at 18:25
  • 1
    @swasheck, there are also 2 extant mss of Matthew in Hebrew (not Aramaic). They are younger than some of the Greek mss. but not all. Also, there is a tradition in the church fathers that Matthew wrote in Hebrew. Jerome testified that he had touched the still existing original when he traveled to the Holy Land.
    – Frank Luke
    Commented Apr 30, 2012 at 20:43

4 Answers 4


I think this is a clear Matthean addition:

And he said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”—Mark 10:11-12 (ESV)

Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.—Luke 16:18 (ESV)

But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.—Matthew 5:32 (ESV)

And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.—Matthew 19:9 (ESV)

The basic teaching seems to be Divorce = Adultery. But the details of both sides of the equation are a bit fuzzy. Mark emphasized that whoever initiates a divorce, man or woman, and remarries has committed adultery themselves. Luke phrases it so that a man who divorces a woman and remarries, or a man who marries a divorced woman has committed adultery. And Matthew twice adds the "sexual immorality" clause.

However, the context of each of these verses is that God's intention was that marriage be permanent and that it was only "Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so." (Matthew 19:8 ESV) In other words, ideally divorce should be unnecessary, but in order to prevent worse abuses, the Torah allows marriage covenants to be broken.

I read Matthew's addition to be a clarification about where the problem lies. From the Luke version especially, it's possible to interpret a divorced woman as carrying some sort of taint from her previous marriage. Given the value pre-Modern cultures place on virginity, this would have been a sensible reading. But the problem is in the breaking of the marriage covenant, which could either mean initiating the legal process of divorce or breaking the marriage vows. Matthew presumably inserted the clause to clarify that point. Jesus was warning against breaking a marriage rather than forcing people to remain in a marriage that had already been broken.

Note that Jesus was not the first to point out the dire consequences of divorce:

“If a man divorces his wife
    and she goes from him
 and becomes another man's wife,
    will he return to her?
 Would not that land be greatly polluted?
 You have played the whore with many lovers;
    and would you return to me?
 declares the LORD.

—Jeremiah 3:1 (ESV)

  • That was a good answer and thanks for all the context! As far as satisfying my initial curiosity about the parentheses you're basically saying that since Jesus didn't actually say it at that time, He didn't have to say it under His breath? Commented May 1, 2012 at 17:28
  • @Peter: I don't think the text tells us one way or the other. My guess is that the disciples heard this same teaching dozens of times and sometimes Jesus made the point about sexual immorality, but often not. Perhaps he clarified after being questioned. We see the disciples doing just that twice in Matthew 19. Commented May 1, 2012 at 18:20
  • Jon, your answer comparing the various gospels clearly demonstrates that this a phrase added for clarity, be it by Jesus, the witness, or early translators. This is so simple and so very helpful.
    – user2027
    Commented Mar 6, 2013 at 17:34

To translate the so-called "exceptive clauses" of Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 as "unless the marriage is unlawful" (i.e., invalid) is a good translation, although it is not a faithful word-for-word translation.

The word used in Greek is πορνεία (porneia), which means anything related to prostitutes and sexual immorality (wantonness, uncleanliness, impure thoughts, immodesty, bestiality, incest, etc.). However, in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9, πορνεία takes on a restricted meaning of incest or anything else that impedes the validity of any putative marriage (so-called diriment impediments).

For more information, read the section "The Diriment Exceptives: Matthew 5:32; 19:9" of Paul Mankowski, S.J.'s article "Dominical Teaching on Divorce and Remarriage: The Biblical Data" in Remaining in the Truth of Christ.

  • Thanks, @Geremia. The opinion of US Catholic Bishops on the meaning of this phrase might be legitimate 'midrash', but what's the evidence for their reading of πορνείας as 'unlawful'? The lexicons at Perseus offer 78 occurrences of the word, all of them supporting the usual meaning of 'prostitution, fornication or (metaphorically) idolatry': perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/…
    – Schuh
    Commented May 4, 2015 at 0:34
  • @Schuh πορνεία itself does not mean unlawful, but πορνεία can refer to an incestuous union. Sexual relations within an incestuous union is fornication, so translating πορνεία here as "fornication" isn't bad, if you want to do a more word-for-word translation, but translating the whole phrase παρεκτὸς λόγου πορνείας (lit. "except for reason of porneia") as "unless the marriage is unlawful" is (although not a correct word-for-word translation) less prone to misinterpretation.
    – Geremia
    Commented May 4, 2015 at 1:02


John's answer is not bad considering that he is attempting it using only the literal.

The difficulty comes in with Matt 5:32. A woman is caused to sin when her husband divorces her, though no fault of her own is indicated. His conclusion that divorce = adultery seems logical, but patently unfair. We are each to be punished for our own sins, not the sins of another.

In SP Matt 5:32 stands out as an exception to the standard formulations. Therefor, it is calling attention to itself for special handling.

Adultery symbolizes unfaithfulness in the relationship with God. The man is Christ and the woman is the church, or us individually depending on the scope of the voice.

If there is a breach in the relationship, no matter who is at fault, the woman is separated from God. She is left with something other than God as God. Since God is faithful, this would never happen in the relationship with him, therefore, it is a hypothetical situation which says just the opposite.

We hear it this way: If God were to divorce the church, then he would make the church a harlot. Since God does not cause us to sin, he will never divorce her.

So the lesson we learn from the shadow of marriage is that Christ will not leave us, but instead will love us enough to lay down his life for us.


I understand @Peter’s question to apply to the reading of the parenthetical phrase in Mt.5:32 (and 19:9), not its implication on the theology of divorce. Toward that end, the preface to the first edition of the NABRE New Testament states:

“Parentheses are used, as ordinarily in English, as a punctuation device. Material they enclose is in no sense textually doubtful. It is simply thought to be parenthetical in the intention of the biblical author, even though there is no such punctuation mark in the Greek.”

This is often a helpful technique as, for example, where a phrase is a narrated interruption within a line of dialogue (e.g. Mk.2:10, Mk.7:19) or a narrated explanatory note or authorial aside.1

But the choice of NABRE translators to put the ‘exceptive clause’ in these two verses in parentheses is unique. All 23 translations I checked simply set-off the phrase with commas. Both in Mt.5:32 and 19:9 the phrase “except in the case of sexual immorality” appears in the middle of a line of dialogue – it is not narration breaking in from outside. There is no textual reason to read the phrase as anything other than an exception to Jesus' general rule about divorce offered in the same voice.

As @Peter suggests, the NABRE’s parentheses in these verses have the effect of taking these words out of Jesus’ mouth, of placing a question mark over them. Like the NABRE’s choice to translate πορνείας as ‘unlawful’ rather than ‘fornication’ or ‘sexual immorality’, their use of parentheses suggests a theological purpose not supported by the Greek text itself.

Whether the phrase is an authentic word of Jesus or a Matthean addition will be important to some interpreters, depending on their theology of biblical inspiration. So, too, the problem of squaring these verses with statements of the divorce rule by other gospel writers who don’t include the exception. But by itself, the ‘exceptive clause’ in Mt.5:32 and 19:9 is best understood as Jesus' own qualification to his fuller statement of the rule, not a narrator breaking-in or a whispered aside.

  1. The study of parenthetic asides, ‘whispers’ and ‘footnotes’ in John’s gospel has been reviewed by Tom Thatcher, and Michael Card offers a brief review of aside in the other gospels as well.

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