And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.

We know, that adultery is not the only cause to divorce (Deuteronomy 24:1-4 and Exodus 21:7-11), which looks like Jesus' statement is untrue. Is εἰ μή mistranslated then? Or if it is translated correctly, how to understand the apparent contradiction?

EDIT: Another words, if it's not clear: We know that porneia is not the only thing that may cause divorce (like verses I mentioned above: divorce may be caused by husband not taking proper care for his wife and if man finds something indecent about her). Jesus in the quoted verse seem to say 'only porneia is cause for divorce', which is not true. My question is about the word 'except', is the greek equivalent to that word mistranslated, because if it means 'such as' then there is no contradiction.

  • My Greek text NA27 has μὴ ἐπὶ, not εἰ μή. I'm not finding εἰ μή in the textual commentaries.
    – Perry Webb
    Sep 2, 2018 at 12:29
  • @Perry Webb - I agree with you Perry. The same text in UBS5 and NA28. Further, μὴ ἐπὶ simply means "not upon" (= not based on). The translation is very straight forward. There are other variants at this point but the μὴ ἐπὶ is not one. Further, it is NOT adultery that is the reason for divorce but "pereia" = sexual immorality. I hope the enquirer clarifies the question.
    – user25930
    Sep 2, 2018 at 12:42
  • @DrPeterMcGowan - I updated the post. Sep 2, 2018 at 13:25
  • @PerryWebb - Updated. Sep 2, 2018 at 13:25
  • 1
    Just to clarify, without getting into a textual criticism debate, the TR does have ει μη επι, whereas the majority text and the various critical texts have μὴ ἐπὶ. Metzger does not touch on the issue. Alford lists three sources for the addition, Bazil from 370–379, Codex Bezae, and Codex Vaticanus. Alford adds that the addition is explanatory but to be honest his point is not explained so I don't understand why it was added in these few cases or why it was added to all of the various TR editions.
    – Ken Banks
    Sep 13, 2018 at 18:43

3 Answers 3


There is a misunderstanding of the New Testament view of divorce here. Mosaic, Old Covenant laws on divorce are not imported into the New, where Jesus makes clear divorce was only ever granted because of the hardness of people's hearts (Mt 19:8), and that He is here to reinstate the original plan of a sacred unbreakable marriage, a sacrament, intended from the beginning (Mk 10:8-9), not merely continuing to view marriage as a contract you can enter and leave, and as something legal.

As such, 'excepting the case of fornication' cannot refer to one exception to an absolute prohibition on divorce, but to the phenomena of being betrothed—but not having yet consummated—marriage with a partner. That is, if they have been found to have been unfaithful, in which case, according to New Testament teaching, to continue in a relationship with them is itself fornication and adultery (Mt 5:32). This is why Scripture calls Joseph "a just man," in the same breath as it says he was entertaining the idea of 'divorcing' Mary: they had not yet consummated the marriage, but were in the betrothal stage of Jewish marriage, and yet the child not being his, he didn't want to proceed with consummation.

The Greek terms μὴ ἐπὶ mean, respectively, and on their own, 'not' and 'upon.' But together they have a contextual meaning of 'not including [the case/cases of],' or 'not applying to,' or 'excluding,' where the implied thing that 'applies' is an absolute rule against divorce, per His argument that it is contrary to how God constituted man in the beginning.

As such, this isn't an exception to a rule against all divorce, but a case in which it is not strictly speaking divorce to 'divorce' someone, as in Joseph's case, where they had not consummated the marriage, they were as yet betrothed. All is not over until the marriage is consummated. This is proven by the fact that Jesus adds, "Therefore, what God has joined together, let no one separate." The absurdity that God will have preemptively not joined in actual fact, those who will go on to divorce because one accuses the other of fornication (unfaithfulness, adultery) speaks to this fact.

There is no contradiction here. Jesus is clear that Moses allowed divorce, and that He is restoring it now in the New Covenant to the way God originally intended marriage.

  • I do not understand the Scriptural source of your assertions about consummation - where are these in the text? By definition, a marriage was created by sexual consummation and the above passage provides the sole grounds for divorce.
    – user25930
    Sep 2, 2018 at 21:20
  • I don't accept that we have to have inspired records of how Jewish marriage worked, but here is a preliminary source; "Until late in the Middle Ages, marriage consisted of two ceremonies that were marked by celebrations at two separate times, with an interval between. First came the betrothal [erusin]; and later, the wedding [nissuin]. At the betrothal the woman was legally married, although she still remained in her father’s house. She could not belong to another man unless she was divorced from her betrothed" (myjewishlearning.com/article/ancient-jewish-marriage). Sep 2, 2018 at 21:35
  • But besides, my argument for what I said was based on the text and what Jesus said. We don't even need to know this about ancient Jewish marriages, we can deduce it as I did here. Sep 2, 2018 at 21:36
  • again, where is this material about betrothed as distinct from marriage come from?
    – user25930
    Sep 2, 2018 at 21:49
  • 1
    Notice also that only the Judaeocentric Gospel of Matthew, and the only one to mention the episode with Joseph, is the only one to include this qualification or clarification (which I contest of course is to vindicate Joseph). Sep 2, 2018 at 21:58

In the Matthew 19 discourse, the Pharisees ask the question concerning whether it was lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason. They were invoking Deuteronomy 24:1-4, as you mentioned. Jesus response that Moses allowed the divorce because of the hardness of men's hearts and that "from the beginning it was not so", nullified that passage, making it altogether (also in Mark 10:5-9). Also, the exception tends to be misunderstood as allowing for divorce and remarriage, but in fact, Jesus re-affirmed 'marriage until death' in a backhanded way. He lived in a time when Deuteronomy 22 ruled the day and the Jews he was speaking to understood well, the implications of accusing your betrothed wife of fornication. In vs 13-24, it makes clear that the penalty for fornication is stoning until death.

In the story of Jesus birth, in Matthew 1, when Joseph found Mary to be pregnant, he sought to send her away privately so as not to make her a public example (Matt 1:19), thus sparing her from being drug to her fathers house and being stoned to death. He wouldn't have been able to marry anyone else because he wasn't willing to take his case in front of the elders. Therefore, he wasn't divorcing her, so much as separating from her.

But, God saved the day and obscured the time of Jesus birth through the registration in Bethlehem and subsequent flight to Egypt and return to Nazareth (Matt. 2), saving Mary's life.

Given all of the teachings Jesus gave on forgiveness, it would be incongruent for him to teach that divorce for fornication would be acceptable, given the penalty for such an accusation, let alone for something frivolous.


No, εἰ μή cannot be legitimately translated as “such as.” It literally means “if not” and is equivalent to “except.” The word for “such as” (i.e., “for example”) would be οἷον.

Matt. 19:9:

9 But I say to you that whoever puts away his wife (except for πορνείᾳ) and marries another woman, he commits adultery, and whoever marries her who is put away commits adultery.

Θʹ λέγω δὲ ὑμῖν ὅτι ὃς ἂν ἀπολύσῃ τὴν γυναῖκα αὐτοῦ εἰ μὴ ἐπὶ πορνείᾳ καὶ γαμήσῃ ἄλλην μοιχᾶται καὶ ὁ ἀπολελυμένην γαμήσας μοιχᾶται TR, 1550

As Sola Gratia mentioned, the Gospel of Matthew is the only gospel to include this so-called exception clause despite an absolute prohibition on divorce occurring in all the other Synoptics.1 Likewise, the apostle Paul states that a woman who were to marry another man while her husband was alive would be an adulteress.2 Hence, divorce after marriage is impossible, for what the omnipotent God has joined no man can sever!3 Only once one party of the marriage has died can the other (living) person marry [again], for the former marriage has been dissolved.4

So, why only Matthew? It is no coincidence that Matthew’s gospel is the only one that features the narrative of Joseph nearly putting away Mary while they were betrothed after he found her to be pregnant.5 The New Testament confirms that betrothal was a distinct stage in the marriage process. The Gospel of Luke refers to Mary as Joseph’s “betrothed wife” (τῇ μεμνηστευμένῃ αὐτῷ γυναικὶ)6 which, if indeed betrothal and marriage were equivalent, such a phrase would be superfluous.

The culmination of betrothal was cohabitation and consummation, when the betrothed couple “came together.”7 But, it was before that consummation occurred—before they came together—that Joseph found Mary with child, and he suspected (as any rational man would) that she was unfaithful during the betrothal process. Mary was at least 3 months pregnant when she returned home from Elizabeth’s.

One would think they could just “call off” the betrothal, just as couples call off engagements today. However, once betrothed, a couple was considered lawfully married, for a contract had already been agreed upon by both parties. The only remaining aspect was the cohabitation and consummation. Therefore, Joseph was required to “put her away” (divorce her) as though they were completely married (so to speak).8

In the Mishneh Torah, Moshe ben Maimon wrote,9

Once the woman is acquired and becomes mekudeshet (sanctified), although she has not consummated her marriage and entered her husband’s home, yet she is married. And the man who comes upon her other than her husband is liable to be executed by the court. And if [her husband] desires to divorce [her], a get is necessary.

וכיון שנקנית האישה ונעשית מקודשת--אף על פי שלא נבעלה ולא נכנסה לבית בעלה, הרי היא אשת איש; והבא עליה חוץ מבעלה, חייב מיתת בית דין, ואם רצה לגרש, צריכה גט.

As far as the exception clause “except for πορνείᾳ” is concerned, πορνείᾳ refers to infidelity before or during the betrothal process. Deu. 22:14 and Matt. 1:18 are related.

Deu. 22:14:

I took this woman, and when I came to her, I found her not a virgin.

Matt. 1:18

Now the birth of Jesus Christ was thus: When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found having [a baby] in her womb of the Holy Spirit.

In Deu. 22:14, when it was determined that the woman was not a virgin (because no proof was found of her virginity), she is said «ἐκπορνεῦσαι τὸν οἶκον τοῦ πατρὸς αὐτῆς», that is, “to commit fornication in her father’s house.” Notice the verb: ἐκπορνεῦσαι, from the lemma ἐκπορνεύω, which is essentially a synonym of πορνεύω, both of which are related to the noun πορνεία. The woman “committed fornication,” that is, she had sex before or during betrothal. Extra-marital sex is not “fornication” (πορνεία); it is “adultery” (μοιχεία). The singular reason why divorce may occur is due to engaging in sexual intercourse before or during betrothal.

Since no Christians practice betrothal, there is essentially no justification for a Christian to divorce. (To note, Matthew was written to a primarily Jewish audience who did indeed practice betrothal.)

Response to comments:

[Ruminator] Jesus lived at the end of the Torah-centric, temple-centric age. In Matthew 5-7 he is teaching Torah to Jews. His teaching should not be taken as normative for the gentile assembly who is not under the law. For that see Paul.

Jesus promulgated a new law, just as Isaiah prophesied (Isa. 2:3), “...and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths, for a law shall go forth the from Zion and the word of Yahveh from Jerusalem.” This new law is his gospel. Isaiah does not speak of the Law (Torah) of Moses, for Isaiah uses the future tense and speaks of a law that shall go forthfrom Zion. On the other hand, the Law of Moses had already went forth (in the past) from Sinai. Both Jew and Gentile in Christ are equally under the law of Christ. Finally, both Jesus and Paul declared divorce to be impossible for those who are completely married (i.e., past betrothal and have consummated their marriage). Again, no man can sever what the Almighty God has joined. You can try, but you will fail, and marrying another while your original spouse still lives makes you nothing less than an adulterer, incapable of inheriting the kingdom of God.


1 Mark 10:11–12; Luke 16:18 (also cp. Matt. 5:32)
2 Rom. 7:3
3 Matt. 19:6 cp. Gen. 2:24
4 Rom. 7:2 cp. 1 Cor. 7:39
5 Matt. 1:18–19
6 Luke 2:5
7 Matt. 1:18
8 Jewish Encyclopedia on the entry for “betrothal” states, “The root ארש (“to betroth”), from which the Talmudic abstract ארוסין (“betrothal”) is derived, must be taken in this sense; i.e., to contract an actual though incomplete marriage.
9 Mishneh Torah, Sefer Nashim, Hilkhot Ishut, Chapter 1.3

  • Jesus lived at the end of the Torah-centric, temple-centric age. In Matthew 5-7 he is teaching Torah to Jews. His teaching should not be taken as normative for the gentile assembly who is not under the law. For that see Paul.
    – Ruminator
    Nov 2, 2018 at 9:57

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