Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Divorce and Remarriage in the Synoptics

In light of my lack of time, I thought I'd give my faithful readers (I love you mom and dad) I paper that I wrote for my ethics class. It's not as exciting as Together for the Gospel, but I do quote Piper a few times. Oh, and in a sidenote, I just read that internet use actually increases depression and loneliness--just thought you all should know (and reading my posts can actually lead to a loss of consciousness). So, here's the post.

The contemporary epidemic of divorce in the United States demands Christians to evaluate the teaching of Jesus on divorce as presented in the Synoptic Gospels. There has been no little debate recently upon Jesus’ view on divorce and remarriage; especially owing to the Matthean ‘exception clause’ and the lack of any exceptions in the parallel accounts in Mark and Luke. The majority view (also known as the ‘Erasmian View’) espouses “the biblical legitimacy of divorce and remarriage for the innocent party of a spouse’s adultery/sexual immorality,” while the minority views deny the legitimacy of remarriage after divorce in the case of adultery or the legitimacy of both divorce and remarriage in the case of adultery. Both views stem from a high view of Scripture and of marriage. This paper will consider the four texts on marriage and divorce in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 5:31-32, 19:3-12; Mark 10:2-12; and Luke 16:8), and the evidence of both positions will be weighed to draw a conclusion of which understanding is the Scriptural position.

Mark and Luke: No Exception?

John Piper, an advocate of the minority position, begins his understanding of Jesus’ teaching on this subject with the absolute statement of Luke 16:18 : “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries one who is divorced from a husband commits adultery.” Piper believes that the New Testament prohibits all remarriage except in the case of the death of one’s spouse, and in his eleven supporting reasons against divorce and remarriage, he notes on Luke 16:18 that God does not view a marriage as terminating with divorce but considers the first marriage still valid, and any man who even marries a divorced woman is committing adultery. Since there are no exceptions mentioned, Piper believes that none of the first readers of the Gospel of Luke would have understood an exception to Jesus’ prohibition.

Mark 10:2-12 also yields no exception to the absolute prohibition of divorce and remarriage. Piper notes, “Mark 10:11-12 calls all remarriage after divorce adultery whether it is the husband or the wife who does the divorcing.” It appears that both Luke and Mark knew of no ‘exception clauses,’ and according to R.H. Stein, “It appears that the Markan and Lukan accounts are closer to Jesus’ actual words,” which he believes are “hyperbolic.”

If Stein is correct and these sayings are Jesus’ original words and Jesus spoke them in a hyperbolic fashion (as He often spoke, cf. Luke 14:6), then it is not necessary to take Jesus’ words in Mark and Luke to be an absolute prohibition of marriage, but as a teaching tool to emphasize His point. Matthew’s ‘exception clause’ may then include the historical understanding of the context in which Jesus’ debate with the Pharisees took place (Matthew 19:3-9, Mark 10:2-10) and an application of what Jesus really meant. Darrell Bock observes, “This saying in Luke is not designed to be a detailed presentation of Jesus’ view of divorce; it merely sets out the most basic standard as an illustration of the moral tone Jesus desires.” James Brooks makes a good summary after considering Mark 10:2-12: “The effect of Jesus’ teaching is to condemn all divorce as contrary to God’s will and to set forth the highest standards of marriage for his disciples…. Divorce may sometimes be the lesser of two evils, but it is never pleasing to God or good in itself. It should not be looked upon by conscientious Christians as the preferred option.”

Matthew: Except Anything Indecent

Unlike the Markan and Lukan passages mentioned above, Jesus’ teachings on marriage (and divorce) in Matthew contain an exception clause: “everyone who divorces his wife, except for the reason of unchastity [Gk. Porneia], makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Matthew 5:32, emphasis mine). This ‘exception clause’ has been the main focus of the debate on Jesus’ teaching on divorce and remarriage. Various interpretations have been given as to both what is being permitted (divorce or divorce and remarriage) and the meaning of porneia.

The debate over the ‘exception clause’ has given an ample amount of discussion to understanding the Greek word porneia. This concession for divorce comes from Deuteronomy 24:1, “anything indecent.” Some scholars of the minority position have taken this to refer to incest, but no Jew would accept an incestuous relationship as a valid marriage. Porneia also does not mean exactly “adultery,” as other scholars have contended, since the Greek word moicheia would have been a more suited word choice. Carson notes, “Matthew has already used moicheia and porneia in the same context (15:19), suggesting some distinction between the words, even if there is considerable overlap.”

The minority view advocated by Piper has the most weight of all minority views. The term porneia is used as a defense of Joseph’s actions toward Mary in Matthew 1:18-20, where Joseph, though betrothed to Mary, not yet having a consummated marriage, resolves “to divorce” her. The ‘exception clause’ in Matthew is then showing how Joseph’s decision is just in light of Jesus’ absolute prohibition of divorce. James Montgomery Boice adds, porneia “is impurity in the woman discovered on the first night of the marriage, in which case there would have been deceit in the marriage contract.” Though this view makes reconciliation with Mark and Luke’s absolute prohibition, it unnecessarily constricts porneia’s meaning, and there is no clear tie between Matthew 1:18-20 and 19:9.

The minority view holds that divorce does not break the original one-flesh union in God’s eyes, and thus Matthew 5:32 is not teaching that remarriage is lawful in certain cases, but that all remarriage is unlawful after divorce, even for the innocent party involved, “and that a man who divorces his wife is guilty of the adultery of her second marriage unless she had already become an adulteress before the divorce.”

Boice comments on Matthew 5:31-32, “Whoever divorces his wife for whatever cause at all (excepting ‘marital unfaithfulness’) causes her to commit adultery, presumably because she would find it necessary to remarry, and that whoever married her would also be guilty of adultery,” since he is marrying a woman who’s original marriage is still binding upon her.

While the minority view does a good job of reconciling Matthew with the absolute decrees of Mark and Luke, it does not adequately take into consideration the historical context of Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees. When the Pharisees confront Jesus to test Him with the question, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?” (Matthew 19:3), they are referencing a common argument concerning the meaning of Deuteronomy 24:1. The debate concerned the more liberal Hillelite reading of the text, permitting a man to divorce a woman and remarry another for anything he disliked in her, while the Shammaite reading of the text was more conservative, permitting (and commanding) divorce for sexual unfaithfulness. “Had Jesus said yes, he would have sided with one school of rabbis; had he said no, he would have sided with another school of rabbis….” The Pharisees desire to turn the crowds against Jesus by getting Him to submit to one position or the other. Jesus does not side with either legal decree, but gives a moral decree. A.E. Harvey argues, though Jesus’ teaching on divorce and remarriage occurs in a form similar to legal discourse (“whoever does x must expect the consequence y”), Jesus is giving moral instruction. Jesus “is using the casuistic form simply to give solemnity to his teaching and draw attention in a pointed way to the serious consequences which may follow from apparently trivial acts…. [This teaching method] points to the seriousness of what is often thought to be a trivial act by exaggerating the consequences.”

The Deuteronomy passage in question and Jesus’ reference to the one-flesh union (Matthew 19:5) is best understood with a consummated marriage in view, and not just the betrothal period. Jesus’ recent entry into Judea from Galilee gives us another clue, since the Pharisees may have raised the question in light of Herodias’ illegitimate divorce from her husband Philip and remarriage to Herod Antipas, in an attempt to get Jesus on bad terms with Herod, and suffer a similar fate as that of John the Baptist. Marriage, not betrothal, would then be in view. With a consummated marriage in view, adultery may be the intended meaning of porneia.

Carson notes that, although stoning may have been rarely carried out in the case of adultery, “as a legal system, irrespective of whether it was enforced, the Deuteronomic permission for divorce and remarriage could scarcely have adultery primarily in view,” since the offending spouse was as good as dead— “but porneia includes adultery even if not restricted to it.” Adultery was a radical breach of the one flesh union, and therefore was not in question as ground for divorce. Jesus’ defense of marriage as a one-flesh union means that “sexual promiscuity is therefore a de facto exception,” permitting but not commanding divorce. Jesus’ New Covenant community, with their changed hearts and eschatological kingdom ethics, should not operate from the hardness of heart that brings about divorce, but should rather forgive the offending party, as Matthew 18:21-35 dramatically emphasizes.

With a view similar to Shammai’s, though not commanding divorce, why do the disciples respond as they do in Matthew 19:10-12? Piper believes that Jesus’ explanation to His disciples in 19:10-12 is that God gives special grace to those who remain single after divorce, rather than remarrying. This interpretation hinges upon Jesus’ teaching that “not all men can accept this” is based upon the prohibition to remarry, rather than the disciples’ exclamation “it is better not to marry” (Matthew 19:10). Craig Blomberg understands the disciples to think, “even with the exception clause… fulfilling marital obligations may be harder than remaining single.” D.A. Carson believes that “far from backing down at the disciples' surliness, Jesus freely concedes that for those to whom it is given ‘it is better not to marry’; and ‘The one who can accept this should accept it.’” He explains, “‘eunuch’ is a strange figure for continence after marriage, especially since if the divorced spouse died, the survivor could remarry.” ‘Eunuch’ is much more naturally read in this way.


While either of the positions held can be defended biblically, the evidence is in favor of the majority position: it is biblically legitimate for the innocent party to divorce and remarry in the case of habitual sexual immorality. Kostenberger rightly notes the main point of the Biblical teaching: “Jesus affirms both that God’s ideal for marriage is a lifelong, ‘one flesh’ union… and that, because of people’s hardness of heart divorce is permissible (but not required) under certain circumstances.” Jesus’ teaching is focused on the ideal of lifelong, monogamous marriages, not the legalistic (even pharisaical) determination of cases in which divorce is justified. It would be a wise decision for pastors and teachers in the church today to focus on Jesus’ emphasis in the text, giving their energies to that which He gives the most attention, rather than outlining to the laity when divorce is permitted and when it is prohibited. Only when the clergy give the people a proper passion for the ethics of the kingdom (i.e. a lifelong one-flesh union and practicing forgiveness amidst difficult, painful circumstances) will the divorce trends noted below be stymied.


Andreas J. Kostenberger, God, Marriage and Family: Rebuilding the Biblical Foundation, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2004), 254-255.
Piper, John, Divorce and Remarriage: A Position Paper, July 21, 198, accessed November 29, 2005, available at, Background and Introduction.

Ibid., Eleven Reasons….
Robert H. Stein, Luke. The New American Commentary, (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1992), 420.
Darrell L. Bock, Luke, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series, (Downersgrove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 270.
James A. Brooks, Mark, The New American Commentary, (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1991), 158.
David Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context, Grand (Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002), 158.
D. A. Carson, Matthew, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. [CD-ROM]; (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998), v. 9.
Piper, Eleven Reasons….
James Montgomery Boice, Matthew, vol. 2, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2001), 402.
Carson, v. 9.
Kostenberger, 242.
Piper Eleven Reasons….
James Montgomery Boice, Matthew, vol. 1, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2001), 91-92.
Craig Blomberg, Matthew, The New American Commentary, (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1992), 289.
Craig S, Keener …And Marries Another: Divorce and Remarriage in the Teaching of the New Testament, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1991), 38.
A. E. Harvey, “Genesis versus Deuteronomy? Jesus on Marriage and Divorce,” in The Gospels and the Scriptures of Israel, Craig A. Evans and James A. Sanders, eds, (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994), 63-65.
Kostenberger, 243.
Carson, v. 9.
Jones, David Clyde. Biblical Christian Ethics. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1994, 199.
Carson, v. 9.
Blomberg, 294.
Carson, vv. 10-12.
Kostenberger, 244.



Blomberg, Craig. Matthew. The New American Commentary. Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1992.

Bock, Darrell L. Luke. The IVP New Testament Commentary Series. Downersgrove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994.

Boice, James Montgomery. Matthew. Vol. 1. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2001.

Boice, James Montgomery. Matthew. Vol. 2. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2001.

Brooks, James A. Mark. The New American Commentary. Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1991.

Carson, D. A. Matthew. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. [CD-ROM]. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998.

Davis, John Jefferson. Evangelical Ethics: Issues Facing the Church Today. 3rd Ed. Phillipsurg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2004.

Harvey, A. E. “Genesis versus Deuteronomy? Jesus on Marriage and Divorce.” In The Gospels and the Scriptures of Israel. Craig A. Evans and James A. Sanders, Eds. Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994.

Instone-Brewer, David. Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002.

Jones, David Clyde. Biblical Christian Ethics. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1994.

Keener, Craig S. …And Marries Another: Divorce and Remarriage in the Teaching of the New Testament. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1991.

Kostenberger, Andreas J. God, Marriage and Family: Rebuilding the Biblical Foundation. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2004.

Stein, Robert H. Luke. The New American Commentary. Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1992.


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