Re: Matt. 5 - porneia

From: Jeffrey Gibson (
Date: Sun Oct 05 1997 - 21:09:34 EDT


Thanks for your considered thoughts on the background and
interpretation of the meaning of PORNEIA in Mt 5:32 and 19:9. I,
too, have previously been involved in writing on NT divorce texts
(specifically Mk 10:1-12). And what you have said set in contrast
with my own views have led me to the following comments and

1. On a general methodological level, I think we both agree that
exegetes of the divorce texts of Matthew all too often jump too
quickly from what 20th century scholarship has established was the
meaning of the ervath devar of Deut. 24.1 in the 6th cent BCE (or
when ever Deuteronomy was composed) to what it then had to mean in
the time of Jesus and the evangelists. While it seems certain that
the author of Deuteronomy and probably the LXX translator of that
text took it to mean "sexual misconduct", the very fact that there
was debate, as M. Git. shows between Rabbinic Schools over the
meaning of ervath devar indicates that in the first and second
centuries CE the term was ambiguous and was NOT thought to be self
evidently a reference to matters sexual. This needs to be kept in
mind when anyone on the list wants to say anything about what the
Matthean Jesus is saying when makes pronouncements like PAS hO
PORNEIA KAI GAMHSH ALLHN MOIXATAI (Mt 19:9), and I think it is
something that your posting DOES keep in mind.

2. You are quite right to say that respecting the Rabbinic
interpretation of Deut 24:1, M. Git records three, not two

In fact, here is the text:

     The School of Shammai say: A man may not divorce his wife
     unless he has found any unchastity in her, for it is
     written 'Because he has found in her indecency in
     anything' [Deut. 24:1a]. And the School of Hillel say:
     (He may divorce her) even if she spoiled a dish for him,
     for it is written 'Because he has found indecency in
     anything'. R. Akiba says, Even if he found another fairer
     than she, for it is written, 'And it shall be if she find
     no favour in his eyes ...'.

But I am a little leery of your claim not only that Akiva lived
"just after" the time of Jesus, but also that the view attributed
to Akiva flourished during the time of Jesus, and therefore
represents the foil against which the Matthean Jesus formulates his
teaching on divorce, and against which PORNEIA should be
understood. Akiva, according to Strack, flourished between 110-135
CE. (And he was known to be ignorant of the Law until he was
forty!) So if it the third view originates with him, *as M. Git.
clearly states*, it is hardly one that is contemporary with Jesus
(or, for that matter, Matthew). If it did *not* originate with him,
but earlier (and presumably with someone else), why is this not
indicated in M. Git.? My reason for raising this point (and my
justification that raising it is within the scope of B-Greek) is to
question whether Akiva's view is really the interpretative key to
Mt 5:32. It seems to me, based on the evidence of M. Git., that it
is far too late to qualify as such. What is your evidence that the
view attributed to Akiva co-existed, and did not follow (as M. Git.
implies) with those of Shammai and Hillel?

3. Even should we admit that the Akivan view of the *grounds* for
divorce *was* "flourishing" prior to 30 CE (or before the time of
Matthew -- when do you date Matthew, by the way?), this, I think,
gains us nothing. My reading of Mt 5:32 is that Jesus is not
dealing with the issue of whether certain grounds used in
justifying divorce (whether Akiva's or anyone else's) are
illegitimate, but whether divorce itself is to be countenanced,
*even when the wife has engaged in PORNEIA*. For Jesus'
pronouncement, standing as it does as an antithesis (EGW DE LEGW
hUMIN hOTI), is in meany in Mt. 5 to undercut the view to which it
stands antithetically. And this is not "You have heard it said,
`Anyone who divorces his wife may do so if he finds in her some
unseemly thing such as spoiling food or getting ugly'". Rather it
is, "It was also said, `Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her
a certificate of divorce.'. Might we not be better off in taking
PAREKTOS LOGOU PORNEIAS as meaning "the grounds of PORNEIA (however
interpreted) not withstanding", and therefore Jesus pronouncement
as saying "But I say to you that every one who divorces his wife,
even on the otherwise legal ground of unchastity, makes her an

4. If I understand you correctly with regard to the meaning of Mt
19:9, you make the claim that, given the appearance of MH at the
beginning of the clause containing the term PORNEIA, Jesus'
pronouncement contains a "not" and not an "exceptive" clause. But
is there functionally any real difference between Jesus saying "...
who ever divorces his wife for any grounds other than PORNEIA, and
marries another commits adultery" (which I take to be the essence
of how you'd translate this verse) and "... whoever divorces his
wife, except for PORNEIA, and marries another, commits adultery"?

5. In either case, we end up with a Jesus who seemingly says that
there IS at least one circumstance in which divorce is legitimate,
namely, when the husband finds ervath devar/PORNEIA in his wife.
But this leaves us with Jesus teaching something which is in flat
contradiction not only to what Jesus is reported as teaching in Mk
10:2-12, but also in the remainder of the Matthean story in which
Mt 19:9 occurs (Mt 19:3-12). I'm curious to know how you resolve
the conflict.

6. Might not the conflict be solved if we understood MH EPI PORNEIA
not as "except for PORNEIA" nor "for any grounds other than
PORNEIA", but as PORNEIA notwithstanding"? To my mind this fits in
better with what precedes Jesus' pronouncement (his appeal in Mt
19:4-6 to Gen 3 to show that God's will is that a marriage union
should not be sundered) as well as with his answer to the question
of his interlocutors about why, if God intended no divorce, Moses
allowed it (Mt 19:8; cp. vs. 7), AND with the disciples'
proclamation that in the light of Jesus' teaching "... it is not
expedient to marry" (Mt 19:10) - a response that seems inexplicable
if Jesus HAD conceded that divorce for PORNEIA is legitimate.

7. I'm also curious to know what you make of the fact that the
question which garners Mt 19:9 from Jesus is said by Matthew to be
something which subjects Jesus to PEIRASMOS (cf. Mt 19:2; compare
Mk 10:2). Is this purely an academic test, a request for
information which might be helpful in settling the (as M. Git
shows) a vexed question on how ervath devar should be interpreted?
Or do you see it as something else?


Jeffrey Gibson

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