Re: Matt. 5 - porneia

From: Ward Powers (
Date: Wed Oct 08 1997 - 10:25:38 EDT

At 20:09 97/10/05 -0500, Jeffrey Gibson wrote:

>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

Jeffrey's thoughtful questions demand and deserve a thoughtful answer.


>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.?


I myself would consider that it is going beyond the evidence to conclude
that M. Git. says that the view in question originated with R. Akiba. The
passage states, "R. Akiba says". It does not assert that he was the first
one to say this, but only that it was the view that he (a prominent Jewish
teacher) held and affirmed. Thus it is the view associated with his name.
It is by no means unheard of that a view already proposed can be put
forward by a later advocate and become associated with his name. An
example: the view that Mark was the third of the Synoptic authors to write
his Gospel, and that he drew upon Matthew and Luke, was put forward by
Henry Owen in 1764. But after Griesbach made it the basis of his Synopsis
(1789/90) it became known as "the Griesbach hypothesis", and still is so
termed to the present time - e.g., in the title of the 1983 book by C.
Tuckett, "The Revival of the Griesbach Hypothesis". Why not call it "the
Henry Owen Hypothesis"? Indeed, William Farmer's school tried to popularize
the term "the Owen-Griesbach hypothesis". But, since the time of Griesbach,
his name has been attached to it. So also we have the evidence (see below)
that the view which the Talmud associates with Akiba was current as early
as Christ's day; and we can legitimately refer to it as "the Akiba
position" or the like.

>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?

What is the situation Jesus is discussing in Mt 19:9? It is the situation
of a man who leaves his wife and marries another woman instead - exactly
the situation put forward by Rabbi Akiba, who makes no mention of fault on
the part of the first wife (as in Deut 24:1) - just that the husband has
found someone else whom he likes better. Contrast this with Shammai and
Hillel, neither of whom mention the husband preferring another woman and
both of whom speak of some fault on the part of the wife, differing only in
how serious that fault needs to be. So Jesus is referring to behaviour in
line with the Akiba view when he talks of the person who sheds Wife No 1
when she has not been guilty of "porneia"/"ervath davar", and marries
instead of her, Wife No 2.

So also in Mt 5:32: the view, and the behaviour, that Jesus is addressing
is exactly identical with the Akiba position as set out in the Talmud.

>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

PAREKTOS only otherwise occurs twice in the GNT: 2 Corinthians 11:28, as an
adverb; and Acts 26:29, as a preposition (as in Mt 5:32) - its use in this
verse reads, "except for these chains".

The authorities I have consulted confirm my own understanding that, both in
and out of the GNT, as a preposition PAREKTOS means "except" (or a
synonym). I cannot see any basis for reading PAREKTOS as you propose, as
"notwithstanding" or "even" - which would give (as we both agree) a
different meaning to Christ's words. Is there an authority for this meaning
that I have overlooked?

If we accept then the recognized meaning of this word, the Greek of Mt 5:32
says, "Everyone who divorces his wife except on the basis of porneia makes
her into an adulteress." This comment is not condoning or (to use your
word) countenancing divorce. It is certainly not providing a ground that
excuses or allows divorce. Divorce always represents a failure to fulfil
God's perfect will, and is always a consequence of sin within the marriage.

Rather, Jesus is here saying, "Everyone who divorces his wife when she is
not guilty of committing porneia makes her (stigmatizes her as) an
adulteress - that is, gives her the stigma of a person who has committed
porneia, when she is not such a one." The case which Jesus excludes is when
she HAS been guilty of porneia, when of course she brings upon herself the
stigma of "adulteress".

>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)

No, this is certainly NOT what I am saying. (This is one of the eleven
views about divorce and remarriage which I have found held in the church,
and which in my book I seek to show to be misguided and erroneous.) Let me
hasten to clear up this misunderstanding of the interpretation which I
advocated in my previous post.

> and "... whoever divorces his
>wife, except for PORNEIA, and marries another, commits adultery"?

Jesus has just said (Mt 19:8) that Moses tolerated divorce, though this was
because of their hardheartedness, and it was not in accord with God's
intention from the beginning. The basis upon which Moses allowed divorce
was when the wife had been guilty of "ervath davar" ("porneia"). But the
Pharisees (Jesus says) have gone into hardheartednesss much further than
this. They endorse divorce, not on the basis of the wife's porneia (when
even that concession was an accommodation to hardheartedness), but just so
that the husband can marry another woman whom he desires more than his wife.

My understanding is that Jesus is here (Mt 19:9a) describing what some of
the people were doing, and he then tells them (Mt 19:9b) how this is viewed
in God's eyes. What they are doing is divorcing a wife, not on the ground
of her porneia, and then taking another woman as wife. This is turning from
one's wife to another woman: which is adultery.

Another of the eleven views of divorce found in the church just cuts off
the latter part of the precondition, and has it that marrying a second wife
(after a divorce) is adultery; this view therefore bans the remarriage of a
divorcee. But in the teaching of Jesus, the person who is committing
adultery is the person who is doing two things as a package deal (two sides
of the one coin, as we say): getting rid of Wife No 1 to marry Wife No 2.
The situation envisaged is where the first wife is discarded because the
husband is now more attracted to another woman and wants her instead. That
is, it is the Akiba situation exactly.

>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.

No! No!! A thousand times No!!! (If I were permitted, I would shout a
little here and say NO!!!! - just for emphasis. But I had better restrain
myself and confine myself to the quieter tones of scholarly discussion.)

The command of Christ is clear: What God has joined together let no human
being split asunder (Mt 19:9/Mk 10:11). Paul cites this command of Christ
(1 Corinthians 7:10): "To those who have become married, I give this
command - not I, but the Lord - a wife must not be separated from her
husband." (All these verses use the same word for what is forbidden:
CWRIZW, "sunder, sever, separate, split apart".)

There is no situation, ever, where divorce is "legitimate", in the sense of
"in accordance with the law of God", i.e., the will of God. It is always an
evil, the result of sin, a consequence of a marriage breakdown that ought
not to have occurred and that is due to culpable human failure. It is a bad
thing when a marriage breakdown occurs: there are no circumstances that can
make a bad thing into a good thing.

But lest this should go forth as a partial (and therefore unbalanced)
presentation of the total biblical teaching, let me hasten to add two extra

1. A broken marriage is not the worst possible sin. Sometimes the
sinfulness of how we treat each other in a marriage makes it a foretast of
hell, so that to get out of that situation is the lesser of two evils. But
even when something is "the lesser of two evils:, it is to be recognized as
an evil, not somehow transmogrified into something good.

2. A broken marriage is not the unforgivable sin. Christ came to bring
forgiveness, and the whole message of the gospel is a message of repentance
and forgiveness of sins (Lk 24:47). Repentance, forgiveness, and cleansing
bring us a fresh start, by God's grace. This can include remarriage, in
accordance with Paul's teaching in 1 Corinthians 7.

>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.

No question, there is a major point of difference between what Matthew
records, and what Mark records. Can they be reconciled? Some commentators
have said the later church added an exception into Mt 19:9 to avoid an
absolute total blanket prohibition on divorce and provide one basis for
escaping a marriage. (On this view, the "exceptive clause" does not go back
to Christ, and thus does not have dominical authority.) Other commentators
say that what is explicit in Mt is implicit in Mk, and so can be accepted.
My response is, The reconciliation between what is said in the two Gospels
comes from seeing the exact nature of the wording (and thus, the meaning)
of the clause in question in the Greek, and noting the different context in
Mt and Mk.

Mt 19:9 is paralleled in Mk 10:11 (cf. also Lk 16:18). How does it happen
that Mt 19:9 - and Mt 5:32 - have the reference to "porneia", whereas Mk
10:11 and Lk 16:18 do not? (In what follows I will summarize what requires
quite a few pages in "Marriage and Divorce".)

The answer is most clearly seen if we start by comparing Mt 19:9 with Mk
10:11. The two verses are almost identical in wording. Mk contains EP'
AUTHN ("with her" or "against her"), which Mt lacks, but the two major
differences are (a) that Mt contains (and Mk lacks) the MH clause MH EPI
PORNEIA: and (b) that Mt says he is recording what Jesus said to the
Pharisees (19:3) who were citing Deut 24:1 to Jesus (Mt 19:7), whereas Mark
says he is recording part of a subsequent further discussion between Jesus
and his disciples.

Now let's look at the other two relevant Gospel verses. Check Lk 16:18: it
is found in a context of general teaching without reference to Deut 24:1.

Check Mt 5:31-32: Jesus says, "It was also said, 'Whoever divorces his wife
must give her a certificate of divorce.'" This is a PARTIAL quote of Deut
24:1, omitting the reference to grounds. Jesus attributes this as something
that "was also said". He is not citing the OT; this is always done by
saying "it is written" (e.g., Mt 11:10; 21:13; 26:31) or "have you
not/never read" (e.g., Mt 21:16; 21:42; 22:31), or by giving the name of
the OT prophet or writer (e.g., Mt 13:14; 15:7; 22:43), or by attributing
what was said to God (e.g., Mt 15:4; 19:5).

In contradistinction, when Jesus says "you have heard that it was said" (or
similar, as occurs several times in Mt 5), he is referring to the oral
tradition amongst the Jews - he is picking up on those places where Jewish
tradition was distorting the teaching of the OT by adding something or
leaving something out, or giving it a slight twist. In Mt 5:31 Jesus is
citing a current oral use of Deut 24:1 which omits the ground for divorce
mentioned in that verse. That is, it is the Akiba teaching of divorce,
which omits "porneia" on the part of the wife.

In sum, then: What is the feature of the context of Mt 5:32 and 19:9 which
is not present in Mk 10:11 and Lk 16:18? The two occasions when Jesus
mentions "porneia" are in the context of current Jewish teaching about Deut
24:1 which omits reference to "ervath davar"; the two occasions when Jesus
talks of divorce without reference to porneia are in the context of
speaking to his disciples (Mk 10:11) or speaking more generally on the
topic (Lk 16:18), without the Pharisees or the question of current Jewish
teaching on Deut 24:1 being in view.

Conclusion: Jesus mentioned "porneia" ("ervath davar") in relation to a
type of teaching on divorce which, while drawing upon Deut 24:1, was
omitting the Deuteronomic reference to it.

>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.

Jeffrey, we are in complete agreement in our reading of the Scriptures that
God's will is that a marriage union should not be sundered, and that God
intended no divorce.

It was no part of the Deuteronomic legislation to "provide for" divorce in
any sense which means that divorce is to be regarded as acceptable
behaviour; it provides for divorce only in the same sense in which an
automobile insurance policy provides for car accidents or a fire
extinguisher and a first aid kit provide for fires and injuries. Therefore
it is quite wrong, it seems to me, to say that Moses accorded to divorce
the status of law, or of divine permission, for it goes quite beyond the
wording of Deuteronomy to say this. There is not the slightest suggestion
that Moses approved it or "made it legal". Rather, divorce had a "common
law" existence in the land and he sought to control and reduce it without
in any way condoning it or legalizing it - as in our country we might seek
to control road accidents or forest fires or prostitution without in any
sense approving of these things.

>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?

Divorce was a topical issue at the time. Asking Jesus a question about it
could be likened a little bit to asking a political candidate or prominent
leader today to declare where he stood on abortion or gun control. The
Pharisees were testing Jesus in the sense of putting him on the spot. If he
answered that he agreed with the Shammai or the Hillel or the Akiba
position, he would be put offside with the advocates of the alternative
schools; if he dodged the issue he could be dismissed as far as the
relevance of his teaching to real issues was concerned. The Pharisees
thought that, whatever Jesus answered or did not answer, it would
strengthen their position in opposition to him.

What Jesus did by way of answer was to show that divorce had no place at
all (on ANY grounds) in God's perfect will.

>Jeffrey Gibson

For your consideration.


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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