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Jesus taught that if a man would divorce his wife and marry another, he would commit adultery (all NKJV, emphasis added):

"And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery." (Matt. 19:9)

So He said to them, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her. And if a woman divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery." (Mark 10:11-12)

"Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced from her husband commits adultery." (Luke 16:18)

I take these passages to mean that such divorces are not recognized by God and, thus, the man is still married to the first wife when he takes a second wife. His still-standing (in God's eyes) marriage to the first wife makes him guilty of adultery (i.e., cheating on his first spouse) in marrying the second. Is this interpretation correct?

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  • 'Divorce' is a putting away, or an eviction from the matrimonial home. Taking a second wife is a completely different thing. Your idea of a 'still-standing marriage' making the second (supplementary) union wrong in some way is without scriptural foundation. It is the deliberate ejection of one wife in order to accommodate another that is wrong. Usually, the problem is that people have in their minds laws that have been made by modern Governments. (Which are not based on scripture.)
    – Nigel J
    Apr 9, 2022 at 15:27
  • yes it's correct and there must be many questions on this. The adultery is incidental to divorce, if the divorce was not intentionally for marrying someone else.
    – Michael16
    Apr 9, 2022 at 15:30
  • @NigelJ I edited the question to clarify that the marriage would be "still-standing" in God's eyes since He doesn't recognize the divorce. When you say the deliberate ejection of one wife to marry another is "wrong," the text is more specific than just calling it wrong, though: It calls it "adultery." Doesn't adultery refer to cheating on one's spouse? If so, in what sense is a man's ejection of one wife to marry another "adultery" (i.e., cheating on his spouse)? That's essentially what I'm asking in my OP. Is my understanding of the meaning of adultery incorrect, perhaps?
    – The Editor
    Apr 9, 2022 at 15:50
  • To commit adultery is to wrongfully be intimate with another man's wife. But if a man ejects a woman (in favour of taking in someone else, instead) he 'does poeieo adultery to her'. The Greek word is a matter of separation. The root is a matter of fields and boundaries. He destroys the bond between them. And what God has joined, no man can break asunder. It is for life.
    – Nigel J
    Apr 9, 2022 at 16:35
  • @NigelJ For clarification, how is the man being intimate with another man's wife? Would you agree that in marrying the second wife, the man is cheating on his first wife? If so, what makes it cheating? Would divorcing without taking the second wife be adulterous, or is it only adulterous when the man remarries?
    – The Editor
    Apr 10, 2022 at 12:50

3 Answers 3

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These verses have been taken out of context more than almost any other verses in all of scripture. I suggest that Jesus' teachings on divorce here cannot be understood if divorced from 4 critical pieces of context:

  1. The Old Testament

  2. The contemporary Jewish rabbinic debates on divorce

  3. The trap being laid by Jesus' enemies

  4. Jesus' prior teaching on divorce (see the Sermon on the Mount)



1. The Old Testament

There are 2 passages in the Torah and 1 in Malachi that provide the most directly relevant teachings on divorce:

Deuteronomy 24:1

If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house (NIV)

This avenue for divorce was only available to men; a woman could not choose to divorce her husband on this basis. The man, initiating the divorce, would give his wife a certificate of divorce, freeing her to marry another man.

Exodus 21:10-11

10 If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights.

11 If he does not provide her with these three things, she is to go free, without any payment of money. (NIV)

This instruction was given specifically in the context of a servant wife. The common Jewish understanding of this teaching, then, was that if a servant wife was entitled to these 3 things (food, clothing, love), a wife of any other standing would be as well.

As David Instone-Brewer has written here:

If either partner neglected to provide food, clothing or love, the other could take them to court and get a divorce. Cases of adultery or physical neglect (failure to provide food or clothing) were straightforward, and divorce was granted if the wronged partner wanted it.

In the Judaism of the time of Jesus, neglect was grounds for which a man or a woman could divorce a spouse. The New Testament never abrogates nor opposes that reality.

Malachi 2:14-16

14 You ask, “Why?” It is because the LORD is the witness between you and the wife of your youth. You have been unfaithful to her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant.

15 Has not the one God made you? You belong to him in body and spirit. And what does the one God seek? Godly offspring. So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful to the wife of your youth.

16 “The man who hates and divorces his wife,” says the LORD, the God of Israel, “does violence to the one he should protect,” says the LORD Almighty. So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful. (NIV)

The Hebrew root translated here as "unfaithful" is בָּגד ("bagad"), which is regularly rendered as "to deal treacherously" (this is the wording used in many Bible translations and the definition in Strong's Concordance).

Malachi tells us in verses 10-11 what he means by "deal treacherously" when making an analogy between the marriage covenant and God's covenant with His people. People deal treacherously with God when they leave Him for another god. In this context, then, a man deals treacherously with his wife if he leaves her for another woman.

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2. The contemporary Jewish rabbinic debates on divorce

As documented in detail by Instone-Brewer here, there was in Jesus' time an ongoing rabbinic debate regarding the meaning of the aforementioned Deut. 24:1.

We now know that Jewish rabbis at the time of Jesus were debating a new and very popular form of divorce called the “Any Cause” divorce, which implies that their question to Jesus should be understood as “Is it lawful to use the Any Cause divorce?”

Hillelite Pharisees invented this new form of divorce by dividing up the scriptural phrase “a cause of indecency”...which is the ground for divorce in Deuteronomy 24:1. They said that this phrase included two grounds for divorce: “indecency” (i.e., adultery) and “a cause” (i.e., any cause). They emphasized their conclusion that “a cause” meant “any cause” by saying that you could divorce a wife even if she burned a single meal.

This was, unsurprisingly, considered controversial, and early rabbinic traditions record the debate that they had with their rivals, the Shammaite Pharisees. The Shammaites agreed that “indecency” meant “adultery” but argued that “a cause of indecency” should be regarded as a single phrase and should not be divided up to produce an extra ground for divorce. They said that the whole phrase meant “nothing except adultery.” (ibid)

We noted earlier that Exodus 21:10-11 was understood to be grounds by which a man or a woman could divorce a spouse; whereas Deut. 24:1 provided another avenue for divorce, available only to men.

Under the Hillel view, a man could divorce his wife for literally any reason. Under the Shammai view, Deut. 24:1 gave men one and only one additional justification (apart from that provided in Exodus for either gender) to divorce his wife: adultery.

This difference -- and the extremes to which it was taken -- is documented in Mishnah Gittin 9:10

Beit Shammai say: A man may not divorce his wife unless he finds out about her having engaged in a matter of forbidden sexual intercourse [devar erva], i.e., she committed adultery or is suspected of doing so, as it is stated: “Because he has found some unseemly matter [ervat davar] in her, and he writes her a scroll of severance” (Deuteronomy 24:1).

And Beit Hillel say: He may divorce her even due to a minor issue, e.g., because she burned or over-salted his dish, as it is stated: “Because he has found some unseemly matter in her,” meaning that he found any type of shortcoming in her.

Rabbi Akiva says: He may divorce her even if he found another woman who is better looking than her and wishes to marry her, as it is stated in that verse: “And it comes to pass, if she finds no favor in his eyes”

The sickening reality of this debate was that in one school of thought, if a man saw another woman he thought was more attractive than his own wife, he could divorce his wife to marry this other woman. This is the backdrop of the question that was asked of Jesus, and the condemnatory response He gave.

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3. The trap being laid by Jesus' enemies

As was typical of their inquiries, the Pharisees weren't asking Jesus this question because they were curious or sought greater understanding. They were laying a trap; they were trying to get Jesus to take sides on a controversial contemporary issue. Here's how it was supposed to work (in their eyes).

  • If Jesus supported the "any cause" divorce interpretation, He not only faced the backlash of half the intellectual community, but He could be "cancelled" for teaching contrary to Moses. But they knew full well He would not answer in this way (see Sermon on the Mount section below)
  • If Jesus opposed the "any cause" divorce interpretation, He not only faced the backlash of the other half of the intellectual community, but He could be sent to the same fate as His cousin, John the Baptist.

John the Baptist was imprisoned by Herod Antipas because he (John) condemned Antipas for divorcing his wife in order to marry another woman (Herodias). John spoke in favor of the compassionate understanding of Deut. 24:1 and ultimately paid for it with his life. Herod Antipas was in the wrong, and he knew he was in the wrong, but he ultimately had John killed to protect his own (Antipas') lustful foolishness.

The Pharisees hoped to repeat this episode and send Jesus to His death in the same way, that is, by getting Jesus to offend Antipas.

Essential to understanding this teaching, then, is that the Pharisees are not asking Jesus about divorce in general (e.g. Exodus 21:10-11 was never in dispute here); they are asking for His interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1. In doing so they hope to trap Him in His words and get Him killed.

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4. Jesus' prior teaching on divorce

Jesus had taught on divorce at least once before, as recorded in the Sermon on the Mount:

27 Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery:

28 But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.

... (teaching through hyperbole on plucking out eyes & cutting off hands) ...

31 It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement:

32 But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery. (Matthew 5:27-32)

What is easily lost here, if not compared to the prior verses, is that this isn't three separate teachings (adultery in heart, then an odd aside about cutting off hands, then divorce) -- this is one continuous thought. Jesus is following the same pattern He just used in the last 6 verses about anger:

  • You've heard it said X, but I'm raising the bar to Y, which is the real principle behind the commandment
  • Example
  • Consequences of disobedience

Jesus' teaching on divorce cannot be understood separately from His statement about adultery in the heart: they are part of the same message.

As with pericope after pericope in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is responding to the debates, dissensions, and deeds of His time. In the context of the Hillel-Shammai debate above -- and the illuminating statement by Akiva -- it is evident that Jesus is condemning men who do the following:

  • A married man sees another woman and entertains sexual fantasies about her (adultery in the heart)
  • He divorces his current wife so that he can marry the other and enact his sexual fantasies with her
  • He claims that under the provisions of Deut. 24:1 he has done nothing wrong at all

Jesus condemns this atrocious behavior as adultery!!! Men who engaged in such behavior may have been abiding by the letter of the law (as erroneously taught by some religious leaders of the time), but they had fully & completely violated the spirit of the law. Jesus taught that divorce on such grounds was invalid, and therefore the future sexual relations between the man & his new wife, and between the previous wife & her new husband were as adulterous as if the divorce had never happened.

(note that in the Hebrew text -- see p. 21 here -- it is clearly stated that the man who instigated this is committing adultery himself. Whether or not Hebrew is the original language of the Gospel of Matthew is another matter, but in any event, Hebrew is helpful in understanding Jesus' teachings, many/most of which wouldn't have been originally given in Greek)

The poor woman who was his previous wife, lacking economic security on her own (this is the first century Roman Empire we're talking about), if she does not have other family support must now find another man if she is to survive ... but because she was "divorced" by her previous husband on illegitimate grounds, she is no freer to marry another than her dirty ex-husband is. The point of the bill of divorcement discussed in Deuteronomy was to protect the woman by making it clearly stated and known that she was no longer married to her ex-husband, and thus able to remarry.

As noted by Instone-Brewer:

the words that are found in all Jewish divorce certificates and many Graeco-Roman ones: “You are now free to marry any man you wish.” This wording is found in rabbinic traditions (m. Git. 9:3) and on the Masada divorce certificate of A.D. 72, as well as being quoted in 1 Corinthians 7:39 where Paul extends these same rights to widows. (source)

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Bringing it All Together

First, let's address some important nuances relevant to both the divorce teaching in the Sermon on the Mount and in the discussion with the Pharisees.

Except in cases of adultery

In both discussions, "saving for the cause of fornication/adultery" is a direct appeal to Deut. 24:1 as originally intended -- it granted a man the right to divorce his wife for adultery, not for any cause. The separate legitimate grounds for divorce, cases of neglect as discussed in Exodus 21, are neither affirmed nor denied; they are not the focus here.

Jesus is not saying adultery by one's spouse is the only legitimate cause for divorce; He's responding to the misuse in His time of Deut. 24:1 and affirming that this passage speaks only of divorce for adultery.

But why does it say the woman commits adultery?

This is where the behavior of the lustful men in Jesus' day gets even nastier. The 10th commandment "thou shalt not covet" gives several examples, including "thy neighbor's wife". Have you ever stopped to wonder why the 8th commandment & the 10th commandment specifically call out adultery(as opposed to other sexual sins)?

  1. In many cases in Old Testament times, a married man would marry another, unmarried woman (Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David) -- this was polygamy, not adultery. Polygamy is another topic, that's not the focus of Jesus' teaching here

  2. Women were married very young -- they're not out on the dating scene for a long time. In fact, if they were betrothed, they may never be "available".

With this background in mind, we can understand what the lustful men in Jesus' day were doing. Man A is married to Woman A. Man A is lusting after another woman, woman B -- who in most cases would already be married to another man! So man A divorces woman A (under any cause provisions), sees to it that woman B he wants is divorced from her current husband (we'll call him man B, under any cause provisions, if he's tired of his wife and happy to let her go to another, he can do so for any pretext), so man A can "marry" woman B and live out his sexual fantasies. The principal focus of condemnation in Jesus' teaching is man A.

Let us consider the following annotations to Matthew 5:32

32 But I say unto you, That whosoever [man B, tired of his wife] shall put away his wife [woman B], saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her [woman B] to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her [man A] that is divorced committeth adultery.

Man A, who instigated this perverse scheme described so plainly by Rabbi Akiva (see above), is the number one focus of Jesus' condemnation the whole time, from verses 28 through 32.

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This brings us back to the incident with the Pharisees. They ask Jesus to take sides on the Deut. 24:1 debate, knowing He does not approve of "any cause" divorce, thus hoping they can get Him to say something that'll anger the murderous tetrarch Antipas.

Jesus, seeing right through their diabolical scheme, explains what Deut. 24:1 really means(i.e. that a man can divorce his wife if she cheats on him), and goes back to first principles. Jesus teaches the purpose and the God-ordained nature of marriage by referencing Adam & Eve in Genesis, and scathingly denounces the misuse of marriage by the contemporary adulterous wolves in sheep's clothing, who are instigating divorce in order to enact lustful desires with another man's wife, and all the while claiming they are acting consistently with what is found in scripture!



Conclusion

While acknowledging that in a perfect world divorce provisions would not be needed -- but we don't live in that world -- Jesus is turning a baited trap around on His enemies and condemning their own immorality. They can no longer publicize this exchange so as to get Antipas involved since their own guilt has been laid bare.

Jesus is not forbidding divorce and remarriage -- He's affirming the Torah which explicitly acknowledges the possibility of remarriage after a legitimate divorce (Paul acknowledges the same thing later on as well).

Jesus is condemning the practice of leaving one's wife for another woman (as in Malachi 2). Jesus is condemning the practice of divorcing one's wife in order to justify having sex with another woman, just as Antipas had done. This is not a legitimate divorce, and so the marriage that follows is not legitimate either. That pernicious practice is, therefore, adultery.

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  • 3
    Wow!! This is simply fantastic! This genuinely gives wonderful answers to some questions I had problems with. Everything makes sense now. Incredible job. +1 :)))
    – Rajesh
    Apr 26, 2022 at 3:59
  • 2
    @Rajesh thank you. I spent a lot of time pondering this after a family-member got divorced. I was having a really hard time understanding what Jesus was talking about here...this is what I've learned. Apr 26, 2022 at 4:03
  • "I spent a lot of time pondering this after a family-member got divorced. I was having a really hard time understanding what Jesus was talking about here...this is what I've learned." I see. Well, thank you for your contribution. :))
    – Rajesh
    Apr 26, 2022 at 15:43
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    @Rajesh thanks for tidying up my post! Admittedly, the pun was totally intended =) Apr 26, 2022 at 18:12
  • Oh wow! my bad. I should have expected it though ^_^
    – Rajesh
    Apr 26, 2022 at 18:16
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It is. In the sense that when one becomes married to his wife, they become one flesh, and no man can dissolve that bond.

Mark 10:6 But from the beginning of the creation, God made them male and female. For this cause a man shall leave his father and mother; and shall cleave to his wife. And they two shall be one flesh. Therefore now they are not two, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.

The teaching is clear: when you are married, it is God who marries you, and He permits no one to dissolve this bond. Therefore, all attempts are failures, and every relationship with another who is not your wife, is adulterous, since you are still married as long as you live.

1 Corinthians 7:39 A woman is bound by the law as long as her husband liveth; but if her husband die, she is at liberty: let her marry to whom she will; only in the Lord.

No one is free to marry until their spouse dies, since marriage permanently joins two humans in a union only God can dissolve — or which is dissolved by death.

Mark 12:25 For when they shall rise again from the dead, they shall neither marry, nor be married, but are as the angels in heaven.

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The best summary of Biblical marriage rules are as found in 1 Cor 7.

  1. Do not deprive each other

3 The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4 The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife.

5 Do not deprive each other, except by mutual consent and for a time, so you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again, so that Satan will not tempt you through your lack of self-control. 6 I say this as a concession, not as a command. 7 I wish that all men were as I am. But each man has his own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.

  1. Both marriage and singleness are respectable and acceptable.

8 Now to the unmarried and widows I say this: It is good for them to remain unmarried, as I am. 9 But if they cannot control themselves, let them marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.

  1. Divorce should not be followed by remarriage to another

10 To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. 11 But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.

  1. If a spouse is a non-Christian, and divorces, then the believer is not bound.

12 To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If a brother has an unbelieving wife and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. 13 And if a woman has an unbelieving husband and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. 14 For the unbelieving husband is sanctified through his believing wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but now they are holy.

15 But if the unbeliever leaves, let him go. The believing brother or sister is not bound in such cases. God has called you to live in peace. 16 How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?

Note that there is nothing in the Bible saying divorce is wrong - just not advisable. The basic problem is the divorce and subsequent remarriage that is the "problem" under Bible rules. This is exactly what Jesus says in Matt 19 and parallel places.

Lastly, note the complete sexual symmetry of Paul's remarks in 1 Cor 7 - the same rules apply to both men and women.

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