“Did Jesus Permit Divorce?” Fr Kelvin Ugwu

Did Jesus Permit Divorce? If the Bible intended that adultery is a ground for divorce, the two words would have been moicheia.

Did Jesus Permit Divorce?

The answer is a categorical NO. Once marriage is validly contracted, even adultery as some of you wrongly allege is not a ground for divorce.

I know this whole misunderstanding is coming from Jesus’ statement in Matthew 19:9. I will clarify it. But before then, I am not writing this to give people license to cheat on their spouses. As a matter of fact, you owe your spouse fidelity and faithfulness. It is their right. You are not doing them a favor by being faithful.

Back to Matthew 19:9 where it seemed Jesus gave an exception for divorce:

“Whoever divorces his wife except for unchastity and marries another commits adultery.”

The exceptive clause, “EXCEPT FOR UNCHASTITY” is the major issue here. Simply put, unchastity is a good reason to divorce one’s spouse.

You may want to ask, what constitutes ‘unchastity?’ We shall get to know soon.

We all remember that the New Testament was originally written in Greek bah?

The Greek word for unchastity is “PORNEIA.” The Protestants argue that this Greek word “porneia” means adultery. This is why if you read the Protestant New International Version of the Bible, Matthew 19:9 is translated thus:

“I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, EXCEPT FOR MARITAL UNFAITHFULNESS, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

For most Protestants, though marriage is meant to last a life time, but adultery justifies divorce and remarriage. This is because they interpreted the Greek word “porneia” or “unchastity” as adultery.

This is not true. And this is not Catholic teaching.

Catholic biblical scholars believe that it is wrong to translate the Greek word “porneia” as adultery. In the Catholic New American Bible, Matthew 19:9 is translated thus:

“I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) and marries another commits adultery.”

Here, the exceptive clause is: “UNLAWFUL MARRIAGE.”

If you read King James Version of the bible, the translation for PORNEIA is even more interesting. It translates Matthew 19:9 thus:

“And I say unto you, whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for FORNICATION, and shall marry another committeth adultery.”

Here, the exceptive clause is Fornication. And fornication is the sin of two unmarried people having sexual intercourse. If either person is married or both are married to other people, the sin is called adultery. Following this translation, the only way that a couple could commit fornication is if they were never really in a Christian marriage to begin with.

Many recent translations of porneia in Matt 19:9 used “sexual immoralities.” That still begs the question on what sexual immoralities could mean.

In all these, what really is the correct translation for the word PORNEIA? Is it the Protestants’ “adultery”, the king James’ “fornication”, or the Catholics’ “Unlawful marriage”? Even if porneia is to be seen as unchastity or sexual immoralities, what constitutes unchastity?

The answer to the above questions can be better clarified using the bible. I will give you two examples: Matthew 15:19 and Mark 7:21-22.

Matthew 15:19 “For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, ADULTERY, UNCHASTITY, theft, false witness, blasphemy.”

Mark 7:21-22, “From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, UNCHASTITY, theft, murder, ADULTERY, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly.”

Pay attention to this: Adultery and unchastity are both prohibited in the texts above. If you read the Greek text, it is “porneia” that is translated as unchastity, in some bible it is translated as sexual immorality. While the Greek word “moicheia” is translated as adultery. Therefore, from these passages we can see that porneia does not mean adultery as that would be an unnecessary repetition.

The word for adultery in Greek is ‘moicheia.’ If the author of Matthew 19:9 felt that Christ was talking about adultery, he WON’T have used ‘porneia’ which means unchastity.

This is Matthew 19:9 in its original Greek

λέγω δὲ ὑμῖν ὅτι ὃς ἂν ἀπολύσῃ τὴν γυναῖκα αὐτοῦ μὴ ἐπὶ ΠΟΡΝΕΊΑΙ καὶ γαμήσῃ ἄλλην, ΜΟΙΧΑ͂ΤΑΙ.

I have put into capital letters two words:
πορνείᾳ (porneia) and μοιχᾶται (moichatai — verb form)

If the Bible intended that adultery is a ground for divorce, the two words would have been moicheia. And it will read thus: “I tell you that whoever divorces his wife, except for ADULTERY, and marries another woman commits ADULTERY.”

But fortunately or unfortunately, that is not how it was written in the Bible.

If you read Act 15:28-29, the Apostles addressed the gentiles prohibiting four things:

“For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: that you abstain (1) from what has been sacrificed to idols, and (2) from blood and (3) from what is strangled and (4) from unchastity. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.” RSV (inserted numbers, mine)

Take note of number (4), still talking about Porneia or Unchastity. These four prohibitions above were coming from a deep rooted Jewish tradition found in Leviticus 17 and 18.

If you read Leviticus through, you will discover that in chapter 18, what the Jews mean by unchastity or Porneia was explicitly explained. It was simply an incestuous marriage. Having sexual intercourse with close relative was greatly forbidden, not to talk of marriage. For the Jews, marriage of this nature is unlawful. This was what Christ was referring to in Matthew 19:9. It is a reference to an unlawful and thus invalid marriage. It is not reference, as Protestants view it, to a specific act committed during a legitimate “life-long marriage.

Jesus’ teaching on divorce was revolutionary. Remember that it was to answer the Jews who thought that one can divorce his wife for some reasons that made Jesus to give the answer he gave. If Jesus permitted divorce, what then makes his teaching different from the one Moses taught the Jews in the OT.

If Christ’s teaching on divorce was that simple, how can one explain the surprise that surrounded the disciples when they responded in the next verse?

Matthew 19: 10, “(His) disciples said to him, ‘If that is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.'”

©Fr Kelvin Ugwu

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