Re: Matt. 5 - porneia

From: Ward Powers (
Date: Sat Oct 04 1997 - 05:54:39 EDT

Fellow b-greekers,

The issue of porneia raised by Graeme Codrington on October 1 (just a few
days ago!) has certainly led to mining a rich vein of ore. There have been
14 contributions on this thread so far, and doubtless more are flowing in
even as I write this.

In this contribution let me reply to Graeme's post, which started it all.
He wrote:

>Excuse my elementary questions, but I have once again been confronted
>with the issue of divorce and remarriage, and going back to the
>Biblical texts, once again am confused by all the literature on the
>use of the word, porneia in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9's (in)famous
>exception clauses.
>Does porneia, NIV = "marital unfaithfulness" refer only to sexual
>adultery (or fornication), or can it refer to other marital
>misconduct. Also, could it have reference to withholding sexual
>intercourse (cf. 1 Cor. 7:5-6 - and if this is so, what is the
>meaning of verse 6?).

It was on this issue that I wrote my doctoral dissertation for the
University of London (published as "Marriage and Divorce - the NT
Teaching", 384 pp., Family Life Movement of Australia). I chose this
subject because, like Graeme, I had encountered this confusion in the
literature about the whole question. More to the point, for me: I had found
an equal diversity of viewpoint being expressed in practice in the churches.

As a parish minister, I needed to come to some clarity of thinking about
how I myself was to respond when a divorced person asked me to perform a
second marriage ceremony - this in fact was the catalyst for my concern,
and research. It was not just an academic quodlibet.

Upon investigation, I uncovered eleven different and mutually exclusive
views held in the Church on the question of divorce and remarriage. Several
of these variant views involved the meaning of porneia, and as a
consequence differing interpretations of Mt 5:32 and 19:9. Four or more of
these views were held, and acted upon, by different bishops and clergy in
my own (Anglican) denomination.

Julio Dam wrote on October 2 that he had researched "porneia", and he
showed us that it was the equivalent of "ervath davar" in Deuteronomy
24:1-2, having general connotations of sexual misbehaviour. He spelt that
out in further detail in his post of October 3. Thank you, Julio, for
sharing this research with us.

I too have researched porneia, though along different lines. But I have
reached the same conclusions as Julio. In particular, I have come to see
that the clue to the understanding of the use of porneia in Mt 5:32 and
19:9 is recognizing that (in these passags at least) this term is the Greek
equivalent of ervath davar in Deut 24:1 (Ben Crick, October 2, also makes
this connection.)

Deut 24:1-4 is placing a curb upon divorce in Israel, for the protection of
the wife. (Situation: If your husband was really angry and sent you
packing, was this a divorce, or just a marital rift, and you really were
still married? The situation became acute in a male-oriented society if
during such a rift you had the opportunity to marry another man. Did you
original husband regard himself as still married to you? Major problems, if
you misread the situation. Answer through Deut 24:1-4: You were only
divorced if your husband formally put it into writing. In a rotten
situation, at least you knew where you stood, matrimonially speaking.)

But first of all, in such a situation of divorce, the wife must have been
guilty of ervath davar, a general term meaning sexual misbehaviour without
being specific to any one kind. If a husband divorced his wife for this
cause (and no other ground was specified in the law), and she married
again, then the second marriage was a REAL marriage, and was now to be
protected, by the provision that that woman could not return again to her
first husband under any circumstances.

Now to the role of porneia in the interpretation of Mt 5:32. Several posts
have referred to the views about the meaning and practical application of
Deut 24:1-4 held by Hillel and Shammai, as set out in the Talmud Mishnah
Gittin 9:10. But no one so far has made mention of the fact that in this
passage, mention is made not just of TWO views of the practical
interpretation of Deut 24:1-4, but of THREE. The third is that of Rabbi
Akiba. This rabbi himself dates from just after the time of Christ, but the
view which the Talmud attaches to his name flourished during the time of
Christ. To quote this passage of the Talmud:

"Rabbi Akiba says: He may divorce his wife if he found another that is more
beautiful than his wife, because it was said (Deuteronomy 24:1), 'If it
comes to pass that she find no favour in his eyes'."

The third view is an extension of the laxness of the second (Hillel) - but
at least the Hillel view and the strict Shammai view have this in common,
that they both require some fault on the part of the wife to justify her
husband divorcing her, whereas the Akiba view allowed the husband to
divorce his wife when she had done nothing amiss, but rather the husband's
fancy had been taken by someone else. But Deut 24:1 did not envisage
divorce without a cause, just on the whim of the husband. This in fact is
the very evil which had existed in Israel before, and which Deut 24:1-4 was
aimed to alleviate.

It is the Akiba view to which Jesus is referring in Mt 5:31 when he says,
"It has been said, 'Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a
certificate of divorce.'" Note: the only requirement in the view which
Jesus is refuting is to put the divorce formally into writing: no mention
is made of any fault on the part of the wife.

In his reply Jesus uses "porneia" as the Greek equivalent of the "ervath
davar" which the Jewish advocates of lax divorce omitted in their statement
of the divorce requirements of the law. Note also that the husband in
divorcing his wife "causes her to commit adultery" (NIV) or "causes her to
become an adulteress" (NRSV). The word translated here is the passive form
MOICEUQHNAI, which identifies something DONE TO the wife rather than
something that she does. So the meaning is, "causes her to be made (i.e.,
catigated as, given the reputation of being) an adulteress", as ervath
davar was the only ground of divorce recognized in the law.

If the wife had been guilty of unchastity, then such a reputation was
deserved, and her own fault. But if - as was happening - she had not but
was being cast aside by her husband on the basis of the lax Akiba view,
then her husband was acting very unjustly by putting her in the position of
being given this reputation (on the "where there's smoke there's fire"
principle) with her compatriots. And similarly a man who was then to marry
her would be identified, and stigmatized, as her adulterous lover - an
unjust accusation against such a man in the circumstances described by
Jesus, of a wife who had not been guilty of porneia.

So the meaning of Mt 5:32 is:

"But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife other than on the ground
of sexual misbehaviour (i.e., the ground stated by Moses in Deut 24:1)
causes her to be given that stigma, that is, to be regarded as an
adulteress; and whoever were to marry her would similarly be made out to be
an adulterer."

Jesus is not condemning the wife or a second husband, but the first husband
who put his innocent wife into this situation.

Similarly, "porneia" in Mt 19:9 refers to "ervath davar" in Deut 24:1. But
note that the so-called exceptive clause in Mt 19:9 does not exist: rather,
it is a NOT clause (it begins with MH), referring to a person divorcing his
wife NOT because of her sexual misbehaviour (the ground of Deut 24:1) but
to marry someone else (that is, to do what the Akiba view said was
permissible). This is turning from one woman to another, which is adultery
- and Jesus says that this behaviour is still adultery notwithstanding that
it is being covered up behind a veneer of legality: first a divorce, then a
second marriage.

The teaching of Scripture (OT and NT) condemns divorce (or rather, a broken
marriage relationship) as sinful and against God's perfect will. However,
it is not the unforgivable sin, and there is no place in Scripture which
prohibits or condemns per se remarriage after divorce for a repentant
divorcee. In fact, Paul expressly says this is not a sin.

That at any rate is the conclusion to which I have been brought after a
careful examination of all the Scriptures. But you are free to dissent.


Rev Dr B. Ward Powers Phone (International): 61-2-9799-7501
10 Grosvenor Crescent Phone (Australia): (02) 9799-7501
SUMMER HILL NSW 2130 email:

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