But I say to you: divorce

sermon-on-the-mountA Teaching About Divorce. 31 “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her a bill of divorce.’32 But I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

The teaching of the Jesus (here in Matthew) in relation to the Law may be clarified by considering the following history of the tradition of Scripture regarding divorce.

  • There is no Torah command against divorce. There is no specific verse that makes clear divorce is within the intention of God. On the other hand, God’s intention is clear in other places: For I hate divorce, says the LORD, the God of Israel (Mal 2:16). In the NT Jesus gave the authentic interpretation of this text: “Moses, by reason of the hardness of your heart, permitted you to put away your wives; but it was not so from the beginning” (Matthew 19:8,9). The intent seems clear in Matthew: Moses allowed divorce – but it was never intended by God
  • Rather than being a law that allows divorce, Dt 24:1-4 assumes the existence of divorce. This text is directly concerned only with forbidding divorced couples to remarry each other, and indirectly with checking hasty divorces, by demanding sufficient cause and certain legal formalities. Divorce itself is tolerated as an existing custom whose evils this law seeks to lessen (Dt 22:19,29; Malachi 2:14–16).
  • The evils arose surrounding the issue of remarriage. Divorce had to be official and regulated by the community, thus offering some protection to the divorced woman by granting her legal status and permitting her to marry someone else. Yet, the decision to divorce was strictly the prerogative of the husband, who did not have to go to court, but could simply make the decision himself in the presence of certified witnesses.
  • Deuteronomy 24:1-4 was the locus of the scribal discussion in Jesus’ day. The issue between the rabbinic schools being how strictly the grounds for divorce (“something objectionable”) should be defined. The strict school of Sharrimai interpreted this to mean sexual sins or perhaps gross impropriety, while the liberal school of Hillel argued that it could be anything that displeased the husband (burning his dinner, Git. 9:10, is often cited as the illustration).  In either tradition, divorce was relatively easy to obtain and frequent in occurrence, encouraging a lax attitude toward marriage.
  • Against both Dt 24 and later tradition, Jesus proclaimed the absolute prohibition of divorce as the will of God. Mark 10:2-9 and 1 Cor 7:10-11 still reflect this oldest tradition, in which Jesus functions as a prophet who proclaims the unqualified will of God, without making any adjustments for the demands of practical necessities; such an absolute prohibition of divorce is unprecedented in Judaism.

Reaffirmation. What is reaffirmed? In reality, it is the previous command regarding adultery – and since divorce is the precursor to adultery insofar as a 1st century woman in Palestine would have sought to remarry because of the protections it afforded her – then divorce must be considered aligned with adultery.

Radicalization. As noted above Jesus’ absolute prohibition of divorce is unprecedented.

Situational Application. Matthew preserves Jesus’ saying about divorce, but reintroduces the issue of remarriage, a practical necessity in the case of the divorced woman. In the Gospel according to Mark, the sacred author adjusts the saying to his Gentile context by adding the provision for a woman to divorce her husband (Mark 10:12). This provision was unknown in Jewish society except in exceptional cases, such as for royalty.


Matthew 5:31-32 [general comment]: See Deut 24:1-5. The Old Testament commandment that a bill of divorce be given to the woman assumes the legitimacy of divorce itself. It is this that Jesus denies. (Unless the marriage is unlawful): this “exceptive clause,” as it is often called, occurs also in Matthew 19:9, where the Greek is slightly different. There are other sayings of Jesus about divorce that prohibit it absolutely (see Mark 10:11-12; Luke 16:18; cf 1 Cor 7:10, 11b), and most scholars agree that they represent the stand of Jesus. Matthew’s “exceptive clauses” are understood by some as a modification of the absolute prohibition. It seems, however, that the unlawfulness that Matthew gives as a reason why a marriage must be broken refers to a situation peculiar to his community: the violation of Mosaic law forbidding marriage between persons of certain blood and/or legal relationship (Lev 18:6-18). Marriages of that sort were regarded as incest (porneia – a general term for illicit sexual relations), but some rabbis allowed Gentile converts to Judaism who had contracted such marriages to remain in them. Matthew’s “exceptive clause” is against such permissiveness for Gentile converts to Christianity; cf the similar prohibition of porneia in Acts 15:20, 29. In this interpretation, the clause constitutes no exception to the absolute prohibition of divorce when the marriage is lawful.


  • T. France, The Gospel of Matthew in the New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 2007) 177-217

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