Divorce and Remarriage in Matthew’s Gospel

Looking at Mark 10:1-12 and Matthew 19:1-12, the late Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph. D., who served as a professor of Theology and Church History at Andrews University, went over all of the possible meanings of porneia and moicheia. (For more on this, click the annulment tag at the bottom of this post — it explains it in more depth). In his section on “4. The Teaching of Jesus in Matthew,” he says, regarding the view that GotQuestions.org takes (that porneia means something broader than adultery, and allows an exception for divorce), “In spite of its popularity, this interpretation has several problems.” He then names several:

  1. It “contradicts the immediate context where Jesus rejects the Mosaic provision of divorce as being against God’s creational plan for the permanence of the marriage union: ‘What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder’ (Matt. 19:6). […] In the light of Christ’s refusal to accept the Mosaic provision for divorce, it is hard to imagine that He would make allowance for the dissolution of marriage in the case of sexual misconduct. If the latter were true, Jesus would be contradicting what He had just affirmed regarding the permanence of the marriage union.”
  2. Additionally, if “Jesus permitted divorce for sexual misconduct, He would have hardly provoked such a reaction on the part of His disciples, since such a view was widely known and promoted by the rabbinical school of Shammai. The astonishment of the disciples indirectly proves that they understood Christ’s standard for marriage to be immeasurably higher and more exacting than that of the stricter rabbinical school of interpretation.” Why would “Christ teach that our righteousness must exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees and then side with one party of the Pharisees by saying that a man should not divorce his wife except for the cause of unfaithfulness?”
  3. It contradicts Mark and Luke, and as I mentioned previously, while “today we can bring together the teaching of Jesus on divorce as found in all the three Synoptic Gospels, the Gentile readers of Mark’s or Luke’s Gospels, who did not have access to Matthew’s Gospel which circulated primarily among the Jewish-Christians, had no way of knowing that Jesus made allowance for divorce and remarriage in the case of marital unfaithfulness.” So this would create two laws, one for the Jew, and one for the Gentile.
  4. This view also “contradicts Paul’s ‘no divorce’ teaching in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11, [where]Paul claims to give Christ’s own command by enjoining the wife not to separate from her husband and the husband not to divorce his wife.”
  5. An interesting fact I hadn’t noticed: “there is no provision in the Pentateuch for divorce in the case of adultery. The penalty for proven adultery was death (Lev 20:10; Deut 22:22, 23-27) and not divorce. The same was true in the case of a woman who had engaged in premarital sex before marriage (Deut 22:13-21). She was stoned to death and not divorced. There are no indications in the Pentateuch that divorce was ever allowed for sexual misconduct.” So if Jesus meant to allow an exception for adultery, He was broadening the right to divorce in this area, not narrowing it (which contradicts the entire context of His statement).
  6. He also quotes Edward Schillebeeck, who says, “If Matthew 19:9 is taken to mean that Jesus was siding with the followers of the school of Shammai, who permitted divorce on grounds of adultery, then the astonishment expressed in the apostles’ answers would be incomprehensible—‘then it is not expedient to marry’ (19:10). Their astonishment is only explicable if Christ in fact rejected all possibility of the dissolution of marriage. His rejection is reinforced by the statement: ‘Not all men can receive this precept, but only those to whom it is given.’”

Dr. Bacchiocchi concludes that “in the light of the foregoing considerations, we re bound to conclude that it is most unlikely that by the exception of porneia, Jesus meant to allow for divorce and remarriage on the grounds of adultery or sexual misconduct. Respect for the astonishing and radical teaching of Matthew 19:3-9 requires that porneia be interpreted in a narrower sense.” After considering other options, he concludes that interpreting the exception clause to preclude “Marriages Unlawful According to Mosaic Law” is “the most satisfactory and enjoys considerable scholarly support.” (In other words, the Catholic view is correct: a total ban on divorce and remarriage, unless the marriage isn’t valid). This, despite the fact that Dr. Bacchiocchi was not himself Catholic: he could still acknowledge that the Catholic view on a particular issue was correct. He then provides a wealth of examples supporting this conclusion. In addition to the examples I’ve provided in the past, he offers three more which I hadn’t:

  1. Other uses in the NT: Dr. Bacchiocchi explains that when Acts 15 discusses porneia, they actually mean incest. I’d been baffled by this use of the term, because James refers to idol sacrifices, porneia, things strangled, and animals with blood still in them – incest didn’t seem to belong in the category, but it turns out, he’s referencing Leviticus 17-18, where these four things are banned. He lists them out of order, but the Council puts them in correct order: “Idol Sacrifices Lev. 17:8-9; Blood Lev. 17:10-12; Things Strangled Lev. 17:13-14; Porneia Lev. 18:6-18.” In the Levitical context, the meaning as “incest” is clear. Eventually, Gentile Christians accepted Levitical bans on incest: Acts 15 seems to be the key for holding on to that part of the Law.
  2. Support from contemporary Jewish sources: “Joseph Fitzmyer has shown that porneia is the Greek translation of the Hebrew zenut (cf. LXX Jer 3:2,9) which is used in the Qumran material to refer to marriage within the forbidden degrees of relationship.”
  3. Historical setting: Dr. Bacchiocchi suggests that the Pharisees hoped to trick Jesus into openly attacking Herod’s incestual relationship, the kind of open attack that got Jesus’ cousin killed.

So it seems that even someone who rejects the authority of the Catholic Church can still recognize, on the basis of sound Biblical exegesis, that the Catholic position on a total bar to divorce and remarriage (when the marriage is valid) is correct.


  1. Much like the priestly celebacy posts, I appreciate this stance very much. Yet also, like the priestly celebacy posts, this series on bans to divorce and remarriage, although perhaps doctrinally sound, provide no pastoral advice for those consuling through the issue. As I mentioned on the celebacy posts, how does one pastor those who love Jesus, originally married “in the church,” divorced, remarried – are are again (or still) “in the church?”

    The church has a responsibility to not only establish doctrine for the discipleship (and safety) of those within, but it must also provide for reconciliation and a path to wholeness for those who have sinned. Without the latter, Christ’s church is no more effective than The Law in leading God’s people to communion with Him.

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