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I am investigating the claim, made by Leslie McFall's Erasmus and Divorce in Matthew 19:9, that in fact Erasmus(1466-1536), a Catholic priest, in his construction of a Greek New Testament, altered the text of Matthew 19:9 to allow the fornication exception. He asserts the text should read:

"Now I say to you that whoever shall dismiss his wife—not even over fornication—and shall marry another, he commits adultery. And the one who marries one divorced commits adultery."

I have read various rebuttals which to my mind are compelling, such as several ante-nicene writers also have the Erasmus' "traditional" understanding (divorce is permitted following adultery). However, I am far from being a Greek scholar, theologian, historian or anyone with any particular knowledge other than what I've been able to glean on the web - mainly through blog posts.

So my question is: Does/has McFall's theory stood up to academic critique?

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7 Answers 7

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John Chrysostom, a 4th century Byzantine Greek Church hierarch quotes this verse in his 62nd Homily on Matthew:

Whosoever shall put away his wife except it be for fornication, and marry another, committeth adultery.

This would have been over a millennium prior to Erasmus.

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  • Thx vm for this. The articles I read referenced Clement, Origen, Tertullian and Novation with the same version as you have quoted above. It seems such a simple debunk of the thesis that I can't quite see how McFall, a lecturer in Hebrew/OT, and researcher at Tyndale House, Cambridge, didn't address it. Commented Jan 8, 2017 at 8:34
  • From reading the paper itself, he seems to believe that the "early church fathers" believed in "no divorce". I guess this is possible, despite several quoting the exception clause.."These authors [authors writing in favour of permitting divorce] believe that all the Early Church fathers were wrong" (pg 13 para 2 - .morechristlike.com/documents/…) Commented Jan 8, 2017 at 9:16
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I have checked out the few manuscripts supposedly used by Erasmus. (except for one which was inaccessible) None of them had "εἰ μὴ ἐπὶ". A few had "μὴ ἐπὶ". So why did he choose an expression found in none of his manuscripts? To match his "side by side" Latin translation. (Erasmus was primarily interested in the Latin translation and was keen to reconcile the Greek and Latin)

I'm entirely a novice when it comes to Greek but it seems clear that "εἰ μὴ ἐπὶ" translates as an EXCEPTION whereas "μὴ ἐπὶ" translates as an EXCLUSION. A subtle but crucial distinction. The "Textus Receptus" alone has the former, Majority and Critical, the latter.

Why would Jesus exclude certain sexual misdemeanors (πορνεια) from his answer? Because he was dealing with matters of law and the law prescribed death for certain sexual acts. In which case divorce/remarriage became an entirely different issue, demanding separate treatment. (Refer to "the woman caught in adultery". Yes, the death penalty still applies....but!)

Why can't the church see this? I suggest:

  1. Because we find it very hard to think in terms of certain sexual sins deserving the death penalty.
  2. Because as illustrated by the shocked response of the disciples, man always wants an exception to enable divorce. God's way seems too hard.
  3. Momentum. Erasmus got things moving, it was carried on by the Reformation and KJV, and modern translations have conveniently failed to correct the error. (apart from 2 or 3 minor translations, Jerusalem is clearest)
  4. There is a danger in insisting that every passage in the Bible is "word perfect" and can "stand alone". We need the whole counsel of Scripture.

Full disclosure: As a divorced person, I searched hard for a "loophole". But could not find one.

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    – agarza
    Commented Feb 28, 2022 at 2:26
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I, also, have read Mr. McFall's writings on the subject, as well as several of the writings of the early Church fathers and other writings on the subject. Here is my understanding from what I've learned:

I believe the reading and connotation, in the original Greek, of this clause - as per Mr. McFall- was "such as"; rather than the word "except". In the writings of the early Church Fathers, my understanding is that the majority did view marriage as permanent. Further readings offered the explanation that the Jews would have clearly understood Jesus' meaning, due to their own law: That the only "exception" was if one of the parties slept with another party, (which was adultery), during the Betrothal period. Betrothal was far more than the "engagement" period of today. It could only be dissolved by divorce. Bottom line according to this: Jesus was telling them the only time divorce was justified was in the case just described.

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There is no manuscript in existence that supports the Textus Receptus reading of εἰ ("if") before μὴ ("not") in Mt. 19:9. All the manuscript evidence supports the omission of εἰ. Based on overwhelming evidence, the correct reading is μὴ ἐπὶ ("not over"). The text is firmly μὴ ἐπὶ πορνείᾳ ("not over fornication") and is the reading of the Majority Text (M-Text), the Greek New Testament (GNT) and all other texts that do not follow the Textus Receptus tradition (https://timothysparks.com/2018/08/21/no-manuscript-support-for-if-mt-199).

Dr. McFall, who allowed me to edit and publish to my website his Appendix B in which he explains his translation of Mt. 19:9, considers the following translation the most likely interpretation, "If we take the most literal translation another meaning comes to light. The translation reads: 'Now I say to you that who, for example, may have divorced his wife—not over fornication which was punished by death—and may have married another woman, he becomes adulterous by marrying her. And the man having married a divorced wife, he becomes adulterous by marrying her'” (https://timothysparks.files.wordpress.com/2015/04/mcfall-mt-199-appendix-b.pdf, page 1).

For his complete ebook on divorce and remarriage, please see his website, which is maintained by his daughter and son-in-law: https://lmf12.files.wordpress.com/2014/08/divorce_aug_2014.pdf. You may also see other references to his work, which may provide clarification, here: https://timothysparks.com/marriage.

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    Please edit this post to explicitly say that the material being cited is your own. This site encourages external material to be used as citations to support the author's point in their answer posts, but ALL of the links you cite seem to be to your own work. That should be spelled out saying that you have further content on the topic, not referencing yourself in the third person as if you were appealing to some authority.
    – Caleb
    Commented Aug 22, 2018 at 10:30
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based on the kjv lexicon on Biblehub I have to agree with Dr. Mcfall and the other 4 discourses of the gospels seem to support it.

Matthew 19:9 ... "οτι - hoti hot'-ee:" "causative, because" "-- as concerning that, as though, because (that), for (that), how (that), (in) that, though, why."

"ος - hos hos: nominative singular masculine" "who, which, what, that -- one, (an-, the) other, some, that, what, which, who(-m, -se), etc."

"αν - an an:" "denoting a supposition, wish, possibility or uncertainty"

"απολυση - apoluo ap-ol-oo'-o: third person singular" "to free fully, i.e. (literally) relieve, release, dismiss (reflexively, depart), or (figuratively) let die, pardon or (specially) divorce"

"την - ho ho: accusative singular feminine" " the, this, that, one, he, she, it, etc."

"γυναικα - gune goo-nay':" "a woman; specially, a wife -- wife, woman."

"αυτου - autos ow-tos': genitive singular masculine" "the reflexive pronoun self, used of the third person , and (with the proper personal pronoun) of the other persons"

"μη - me may:" "any but (that), forbear, God forbid, lack, lest, neither, never, no (wise in), none, nor, (can-)not, nothing, that not, un(-taken), without."

"επι - epi ep-ee':" "meaning superimposition (of time, place, order, etc.), as a relation of distribution (with the genitive case), i.e. over, upon, etc.; of rest (with the dative case) at, on, etc.; of direction (with the accusative case) towards, upon, etc."

"πορνεια - porneia por-ni'-ah: dative singular feminine" "harlotry (including adultery and incest); figuratively, idolatry -- fornication."

"και - kai kahee:" "and, also, even, so then, too, etc.; often used in connection (or composition) with other particles or small words"

"γαμηση - gameo gam-eh'-o: third person singular" "to wed (of either sex) -- marry (a wife)."

"αλλην - allos al'-los: accusative singular feminine" "else, i.e. different (in many applications) -- more, one (another), (an-, some an-)other(-s, -wise)."

"μοιχαται - moichao moy-khah'-o: third person singular" "to commit adultery -- commit adultery"

"και - kai kahee:" "and, also, even, so then, too, etc.; often used in connection (or composition) with other particles or small words"

"ο - ho ho: nominative singular masculine" "the, this, that, one, he, she, it, etc."

"απολελυμενην - apoluo ap-ol-oo'-o: singular feminine" "to free fully, i.e. (literally) relieve, release, dismiss (reflexively, depart), or (figuratively) let die, pardon or (specially) divorce"

"γαμησας - gameo gam-eh'-o: nominative singular masculine" "gameo gam-eh'-o: to wed (of either sex) -- marry (a wife)."

"μοιχαται - moichao moy-khah'-o: third person singular" "to commit adultery -- commit adultery."

"...because he wishes to divorce (let die figuratively) her, the wife; he shall not lay with another woman (recalling the other person of autos) to fornicate with her or marry another wife to commit adultery with her. For, [apoluo) he divorced her/(he) whom the divorced woman][(gameo) he is married/marries]; he commits adultery."

The other accounts in the gospel read likewise (matthew 5:32, luke 16:18, mark 10:11-12 john 8). Matthew 5 contains a lovely thought in the verse concerning that divorce teaches that God causes judgment and reckoning and john is ambiguous as to whether the woman the woman has a boyfriend who is married or has married a divorce man but warns her to separate from him because from that day, she is told, she "will miss the mark and lose her prize."

to read the lexicon on it you can go to bible hub and fill in the book chapter and verse in the url, wherer I have indicated. https://biblehub.com/lexicon/book/chapter-verse.htm

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Before we try to understand the scripture of Mathew 9:19, you must understand the following:

  • The Torah contained 613 Mitzvahs or Commandments of God that could not be changed.

  • The Torah, God's Holy Law governed Isreal as the law of the land.

  • The Torah prescribed only the death penalty for sexual sins including unmarried daughters who were discovered to be not virgins meaning they were guilty of whoredom. It also prescribed the death penalty for men who sexually took other men's wives.

  • God chose to separate Isreal from all the other countries that surrounded them by cutting off all sexual immorality through the death penalty (other countries allowed sexually immoral persons to get in and out of marriage thus having many partners and unending sexual immorality and unending defilement)

  • There are cases where in the Torah sexual immorality was not punished but forgiven (if the person repented), such as David, or Ninevah, or David's concubine who was with another man. This forgiveness such as in the case of David's concubine resulted in the preservance of marriage and not the dissolution of it as marriage was until death which included the death penalty.

  • The Torah could not be changed or else it was a sin as two Mitsvahs in the Torah ascribe sin to whomever changes or diminishes any commandment of God.

  • Jesus being sinless could not and would not change God's Law.

  • Adultery was defined as "she who breaks wedlock" but God placed the guilt on men as well as women. In the case of Mathew 19:9 the guilt of "she who breaks wedlock" is placed on three persons. The husband, the forsaken wife, and the second man who enters a sexual relationship with the forsaken wife. (It should be noted that men who had multiple wives and who never put any of their wives away, were never guilty of [adultery] "she who breaks wedlock", instead these men were seen as righteous in God's eyes and included Moses, Abraham, David, Jacob, Gideon and more...)

Now therefore with the above 8 points to remember, let's look at the correct context of Mathew 19:9, Rephrased from the Wycliffe Bible:

And I say to you, except in cases where the wife was put to death for whoredome; whoever leaveth his wife, and weddeth another, causeth the forsaken wife to break wedlock and shares in the sin of her breaking wedlock, and also he that weddeth the forsaken wife shares in the guilt of her breaking wedlock"

To properly understand what Jesus was teaching, you must know the following:

  • Jesus was not and could not change God's Law

  • Moses created divorce with a living spouse, it was not so from the beginning

  • Jesus was not laying a new way to understand the new

  • Jesus was clarifying the Law of God

  • God's Law prescribed the death penalty for whoredom whether a person was married or single, there was not divorce for whoredom

  • God's Law prescribed marriage lasted until death

Finally, you must realize the following:

Jesus's sacrifice of the death penalty meant that after Jesus completed the work on the cross

  • Sins that carried penalties of death could be forgiven because of Jesus

  • Men must reconcile with their wives through repentance and forgiveness in Jesus, no more putting away using the death penalty, Jesus commanded this in 1 Corinthians 7:10

  • Men who have a wife who abandoned them or if they have a wife living at home with them in either case, these men can take additional wives as God's Law does not forbid men from taking additional wives it only forbids men from forsaking their wives. Even Apostle Paul stated, "are though bound to a wife, seek not to be loosed, are though loosed from a wife, seek not to be bound, but if thou marry thou has not sinned and if the virgin marry she has not sinned". Sin only occurs if the man forsakes his wife. In 1 Corinthians husbands must allow the door or reconciliation open for their wives until death, even in cases where the wife has committed adultery or whoredom. 1 Corinthians 7:10 Jesus commands men to never under any circumstances to put their wives away.

This is a hard saying but a few will receive it.

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  • True, the Bible nowhere explicitly states that men may not take multiple wives, but every example of polygamy in the Bible is shown to be a bad idea with a whole slough of problems, the kings were forbidden from multiplying wives to themselves, and in the NT the church elders (bishops & deacons) (KJV terms) were to have only one wife.
    – Jed Schaaf
    Commented May 2 at 21:02
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Your question (seems) to break down to two questions:

  • The state of the Greek text
  • The meaning of the Greek text

The State of the text

Philip Comfort adds this commentary for this verse:

 

(TR) WH NU ὃς ἂν ἀπολύσῃ τὴν γυναῖκα αὐτοῦ μὴ ἐπὶ πορνείᾳ καὶ γαμήσῃ ἄλλην μοιχᾶται

“whoever divorces his wife, except for infidelity, and marries another, he commits adultery” ℵ C3 D L (W) Z Θ 078 Maj all

variant 1 ος αν απολυση την γυναικα αυτου ποιει αυτην μοιχευθηναι “whoever divorces his wife makes her commit adultery” C✱ N RSVmg NRSVmg ESVmg

variant 2 ος αν απολυση την γυναικα παρεκτος λογου πορνειας ποιει αυτην μοιχευθηναι “whoever divorces his wife, except for the matter of unchastity, makes her commit adultery” B ƒ1 copbo none

variant 3 ος αν απολυση την γυναικα παρεκτος λογου πορνειας και γαμηση αλλην μοιχαται “whoever divorces his wife, except for the matter of unchastity, and marries another, he commits adultery” D ƒ13 33 it copsa none

It should be noted that 𝔓25vid supports either variant 1 or variant 2 because it shows the last word μοιχευθηναι. According to some manuscripts (ℵ C3 D L) the verse ends after μοιχαται or μοιχευθηναι. However, several manuscripts have an additional clause in two forms:

addition 1 και ο απολελυμενην γαμων μοιχαται “and the one marrying a divorced woman commits adultery” (B) C✱ W Z Θ 078 (Maj)—so TR

KJV NKJV RSVmg NRSVmg ESVmg NEBmg REBmg NLTmg HCSBmg addition 2 ωσαυτως και ο γαμων απολελυμενην μοιχαται “so that also the one marrying a divorced woman commits adultery” 𝔓25 none

The issue at stake in the first set of textual variations is whether (1) the man commits adultery by marrying another woman after divorcing his wife or (2) the divorced woman is put into a situation where she cannot but commit adultery if she marries another man. The other issue pertains to the clause, “except for unchastity,” which may be original or may have been borrowed from 5:32, where the text is firm on this clause. The various changes in the manuscripts   represent differing exegetical viewpoints among the scribes; in other words, the changes are not due to any kind of transcriptional error. Whatever the original reading, the man who divorces his wife is at fault because his remarriage is sin and so is the remarriage of his former wife. The only way for the man not to be held culpable is if the woman was unchaste, which is what nearly all the manuscripts say and which is affirmed by Jesus’ words in 5:32.

The issue in the second set of variants is just as critical, for it directly addresses the issue of a man marrying a divorced woman. Not only are divorced women who remarry culpable, so are those who marry them. Of course, Matthew may not have written this here, but it is fairly certain that he did so in 5:32 (the parallel passage), for the clause is included in all Greek manuscripts except D (see note).

(Philip W. Comfort, New Testament Text and Translation Commentary, Accordance electronic ed. (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, 2008), 56-57.)

Comfort does an admirable job in both laying out the evidence for the variants and the issues at stake. One of the canons of TC is that the explanation that explains the state of the evidence we have (or in this case, the messiness of the evidence) is the sometimes the best explanation. This is taken right along side the other canon: lectio difficilior præferenda est" (the more difficult reading is the one to be preferred). The more difficult reading is the one contained in our UBS/NA text: “λέγω δὲ ὑμῖν ⸂ὅτι ὃς ἂν⸃ ἀπολύσῃ τὴν γυναῖκα αὐτοῦ ⸄μὴ ἐπὶ πορνείᾳ καὶ γαμήσῃ ἄλλην μοιχᾶται⸅ ⸆.” (Matthew 19:9 NA28-T). This reading also had good external evidence behind it. We note (as Comfort does), that no English version goes with any other reading in the primary text than the UBS/NA text.

So, based on the good (albeit not massively overwhelming) external evidence, and also due to the internal evidence (the messiness of the evidence would explain the scribes effort to help the text). And finally the internal evidence that the text earlier on in Matt. 5:32 is not in question at all. And as a result, changing μοιχᾶται ("commits adultery") to μοιχευθηναι ("puts her in a context of adultery") would seem out of place.

Conclusion: Although the evidence for the text is not as clean as we would like (as it is in Matt. 5:32), the choice for the variant seems fairly clear. The UBS/NA committees made good choices here.

The meaning/implications of the text

A sizable part of the division/discussion over the whole context is what to do with μοιχευθηναι (found in Matt 5:32 and in the secondary readings here). In that context, John Brug writes:

An Exegetical Brief

John F. Brug

A Puzzling Verb Form

Students of the New Testament have long been puzzled by a strange passive verb in Matthew 5:32, μοιχευθῆναι . The correct interpretation of this verb is very important because of its significance in establishing the scriptural teaching concerning divorce. Is the passive of this verb "to commit adultery" to be translated actively when used of a woman? The husband who divorces the woman "causes her to commit adultery." The use of the passive form when a woman commits an act of adultery does occur in Scripture (see Lv 20:10 in the Septuagint). But it does not seem to be in harmony with the context of Matthew 5 and with the rest of Scripture to translate this passage in a way which suggests that a man who unjustly divorces his wife "makes her commit adultery" if she remarries. Some commentaries and translations render this verb as a true passive, with an expression like "he causes her to be stigmatized as an adulteress." Some have argued, however, that this is not the normal force of the passive of this verb when applied to the actions of a woman (even though Kittel and Liddell and Scott indicate that the verb does have the meaning to "violate" or "debauch"—both of which include the idea of how the woman is viewed by others).

Some light may be shed on this problem by another strange verb which occurs in Deuteronomy 24:4, a hutqattel of the verb ) טמא (be unclean). There are only four hutqattel forms in the Old Testament. They all have a passive subject and undersubject. The hutqattel conjugation also called Hothpa'al (Gesenius Kautzach Cowley, 54h), also has a declarative force. Thus, Deuteronomy 24:4 should be translated, "she had been made to declare herself to be unclean" by her first husband's act of divorcing her. This uncleanness did not result from an act of immorality by the woman nor from her marriage to a second husband, but from the declaration that she had been forced to make by her first husband when he divorced her. The woman is not forbidden to remarry after her first or second marriage. She is only forbidden to remarry her first husband who had caused her to declare herself to be unclean by his divorce action against her. The prohibition of Deuteronomy 24 is really directed against her first husband, not against the woman.

A fuller study of the hutqattel and its implications in Deuteronomy 24 may be found in Hebrew Studies, 1991, pp 8 17.

A correct understanding of Deuteronomy 24:4 may help solve the problem of Matthew 5:32. The puzzling passive in Matthew may be an attempt to express a grammatical and moral situation which is very like that in Deuteronomy 24. A selfish husband is forcing a wife to declare herself unclean. Greek had no verbal form exactly parallel to the hutqattel of Hebrew, but the writer of the Gospel is trying to express a similar thought with the closest form which he had available to him.

The interpretation of the puzzling verb in Deuteronomy 24 may shed some light on the puzzling verb in Matthew 5. The force of the hutqattel may be one more bit of grammatical information to be considered by advocates of translating Matthew 5:32, her husband "causes her to be looked upon as an adulteress and whoever marries her is looked upon as an adulterer." This would have approximately the same force as the hutqattel in Deuteronomy 24. ([A Puzzling Greek Form])1

The verb form μοιχευθηναι, is an aorist passive infinitive. Aorist passives are notoriously hard to take from the source text into the target text. They are often categorized as causative (making something into something). But here what causative context fits? Here causing her to appear as if she were an adulteress is probably the better understanding. The updated NIV takes this path: “But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery,” (Matthew 5:32 NIV11-GKE)

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