Nearly all the interpretations I've seen of the "exception clause" treat it as expressing a situation where divorce could be allowed, but I've heard another interpretation that instead attaches it to the following clause, concerning the commission of adultery (i.e. a man cannot cause his wife to commit adultery [by divorcing her, thereby forcing her to remarry] if she is already an adulteress).

Its placement in English (and in Greek) between the clauses seems to let it work either way, muddying the issue, and the reading one way or the other would either undercut a major argument of the "pro-divorce" position, strengthening the "anti-divorce" position, or vice versa, especially since these, along with I Cor. 7:15 are the only passages that seem to permit divorce, and the latter is clearly only for a "mixed" marriage between a believer and unbeliever.

So I'm wondering, is there anything in the structure of the Greek grammar that indicates which verb the exception should apply to?

Matthew 5:32 (KJV)

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 19:9 (KJV)

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.

See Matthew 5:32 and Matthew 19:9 for the variant Greek manuscript readings.

Related: This question, the answers of which discuss some of the various interpretations and contexts surrounding these and other passages, but doesn't address this particular question.

  • The proper translation is 'causes adultery to her'. Which is perfectly clear and agrees with Paul 'the woman that hath a husband is bound by the law to her husband as long as her husband liveth' (whether said husband likes it or not).
    – Nigel J
    Commented May 3 at 14:20
  • Note that this scripture does not read " except for the cause of adultery". Various translations read "for fornication" or "for sexual immorality" but it is never translated as "for adultery". People tend to put all of these in one category but you have to be careful with that. A married person can commit adultery but cannot commit fornication.
    – moron
    Commented May 15 at 1:03

2 Answers 2


Here is my very (overly) literal translation of these texts:

Matt 5:32 - But I say to you that everyone divorcing his wife, except on account of sexual immorality, causes her to commit adultery. And whoever shall marry the divorcee commits adultery

Matt 19:9 - But I say to you that whoever shall divorce his wife except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.

Note that the exception case is quite clear. The case of Matt 5:32 is quite interesting. Note that Jesus is saying that the act of divorcing a wife causes her to commit adultery - this was because in the Roman-Jewish world of the 1st century, it was rare and very difficult for a woman to be able to live a single life - almost all had to find a husband or face an invidious choice - get married or enter the life of prostitution.

It was for these reasons that the early church set up the widows fund as recorded in Acts 6 to care for widows.

Paul reinforces this point in 1 Cor 7 - if a couple separates, then no adultery is committed. Indeed, he encourages couples to either separate or be reconciled.

  • But is the "causing her to commit adultery" the part excepted? I.e. a divorcing husband makes his (ex-)wife to become an adulteress (because she essentially must remarry), unless by sexual immorality she already is one, so then he's not culpable for forcing her into an adulterous situation? (...not to say he's not culpable for other wrongs related to the situation, but just for that point in particular.)
    – Jed Schaaf
    Commented May 2 at 22:51
  • @JedSchaaf - there is the ,matter of which is innocent part - if the husband is unfaithful, then the divorced wife is free to remarry. However, if the wife is unfaithful, then divorcing her makes her continue to commit adultery by essentially forcing her to remarry. But this is getting pedantic. (Recall that a woman could not divorce her husband, only a man could divorce his wife.)
    – Dottard
    Commented May 2 at 22:55
  • Mark 10:12 explicitly mentions a woman who divorces her husband. And the Samaritan woman had had 5 husbands (apparently she had divorced at least some of them to get to that many).
    – Jed Schaaf
    Commented May 3 at 6:00
  • @JedSchaaf - actually, the word used is simply "separate" not divorced. Women could not divorce their husbands. Some simply left the home and took up with another man.
    – Dottard
    Commented May 3 at 6:06
  • If a couple separates, then no adultery is committed. No Greek text exists which expresses such a sentiment. 'Bound by the law to her husband as long as her husband liveth' is the apostolic wording.
    – Nigel J
    Commented May 3 at 14:23

You ask a good question. But it's a difficult one to answer, since, at the end of the day, it boils down to how one word is used. In the Greek we have these words:

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

My translation:

but I’m telling you that everyone who divorces his wife when she hasn’t committed a sin of sexual immorality causes her to appear as if she were an adulteress. And the man who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.

The one word that gives us pause is the word, "ⲙⲟⲓⲭⲉⲩⲑⲏⲛⲁⲓ". It's a passive infinitive. We would expect an active infinitive if the verse had the concept of actively committing adultery.

There are times that passive verbs take on active meaning. For example, consider the many times ⲉⲫⲏ pops up in the NT. It's a passive form. But it's translated actively. This could be one of those examples. The CSB takes it that way:

“But I tell you, everyone who divorces his wife, except in a case of sexual immorality, causes her to commit adultery. And whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 5:32 CSB17)

But could be taken in a different sense. John Brug ponders the possibility in his exegetical brief A puzzling verb form:

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.

To summarize, the rare use of the aorist passive of this word (ⲙⲟⲓⲭⲉⲩⲑⲏⲛⲁⲓ) can mean, "to make one appear to be" or " to make one be treated as." The context then is that the wife did not commit adultery. But, by divorcing her, the husband creates an environment that she is considered to be an adulteress when she is not.

We note the update in the NIV translation. In the NIV 84, we read:

“But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 5:32 NIV-GK)

However, in the NIV update, we read:

“But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 5:32 NIV11-GKE)

The NIV update contains some changes I would not approve of. But here is one that I wholeheartedly approve.

The key issue remains this: how much weight are we going to put on one verb form? I find John Brug's argument compelling. And I'm thankful that the NIV went back, did some more research, and arrived at their updated translation here.

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