Does the Bible Permit Divorce in the Case of Adultery?

I mentioned yesterday (and will mention them at least once more, tomorrow), but today’s post is only somewhat related to them. This is an e-mail I sent them a while back, but it addresses a topic which I think has been the source of great confusion: does the Bible permit divorce in the case of adultery? They say yes, I say no, here’s how we came out differently.

Hi GotQuestions folks,

I wanted to write you in regards to an article I read on your site recently ( As a Catholic, I often disagree with your conclusions, but like your approach: I find it is generally charitable, and acknowledges ambiguity where it exists. I can only hope that my rejoinder to this article is as irenic.

Your article makes three claims: (1) that Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 allow divorce “in the case of the adultery of the other party”; (2) that the Catholic Church, rather than admit this, decides to enforce a rule stricter than required by God; and (3) that the Church perverts the Greek terms in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 because the NAB editors translate porneia (the Greek term in question) as “unlawful marriage.”

At no point in the New Testament does porneia ever mean “adultery.” Porneia refers to fornication, sexual deviancy and possibly idolatry.

Two major points to start: First, just look at the context of the chapter. In Matthew 5, Jesus is saying that the spirit of the law goes beyond the law. One of the problems with those who tried to be justified under the law is that they would do what was statutorily required, rather than obeying the principle the law pointed to. This is where He talks about turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, and so forth. He already addressed adultery earlier in the chapter as well, saying, “You have heard that it was said: Do not commit adultery. But I tell you this: anyone who looks at a woman to satisfy his lust has in fact already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-28). So after saying that even lust is forbidden, He says, “It was also said: anyone who divorces his wife must give her a written notice of divorce. But what I tell you is this: If a man divorces his wife except in the case of porneia, he causes her to commit adultery. And the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 5:31-32). In Matthew 19, He is talking about how God binds the marriage together so “let no man separate what God has joined” (Matthew 19:6). When asked why Moses allowed divorce, He says that it was because of their stubborn hearts – He proceeds to say, “Therefore I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, unless it be for porneia, and marries another, commits adultery.” However you interpret this passage, it needs to be read as going beyond the Old Testament rule – that´s the trend of the entire context.

Second, read the Bible with a hermeneutic of continuity. Skeptics like to point out supposed Biblical “contradictions,” yet read with the right understanding, none of these verses ever actually contradict each other – it´s usually a matter of sloppy translation, or misunderstanding the context of the passage. This is the same way. Remember that the early Christians often didn´t have every one of the books which we have today, and there were gaps of time between the writings of each Gospel. If the traditional Protestant version is correct- that porneia means adultery, meaning that Jesus allows divorce for adultery cases, this would create a Biblical contradiction. Regarding the question of “is divorce allowed in cases of adultery?” Those who had read Mark and/or Luke´s Gospel could answer definitively no (based on Mark 10:11-12 and Luke 16:18); those who read Matthew could answer definitively yes… and both would cite to the same teaching of Jesus (since all three seem to be describing the same event). So either one or more of the Gospel writers were wrong, or the traditional Protestant interpretation is.

Here´s the basis in Greek for why the Protestant interpretation is wrong. There is a word for adultery in Greek, it´s moicheia – the verb form is moicheuō or moichaō. These three terms are used some 22 times in the New Testament. Another variation of the term, moichalis, is used in 2 Peter 2:14. So if Matthew wanted to translate Jesus´ words as allowing an exception for adultery, he had the word available to him. In fact, the term moichaō is used in both Matthew 5:31-32 and Matthew 19:6, but never for the exception. Rather, it´s for the consequence: “whoever divorces his wife, unless it be for porneia, and marries another, commits moichaō.”

So let´s look to the use of porneia in the New Testament.

St. Matthew uses the term in Matthew 15:19: “For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries (moicheia), porneia, thefts, false witness, blasphemies…” If porneia and moicheia mean the same thing, this doesn´t make any sense: why list the same thing twice under two different names? But of course, Protestants don´t translate porneia as “adultery” there. Mark´s Gospel has the same problem on the parallel account, Mark 7:21. St. Paul also distinguishes between the two: 1 Corinthians 6:9 delineates between the two in describing those who will not inherit eternal life. Galatians 5:19 starts the list of works of the flesh with moicheia and porneia … as separate sins.

So porneia clearly doesn´t mean adultery – so what does it mean? The term is often translated generically as “fornication,” which is on the right track, but incomplete.

In John 8:41, the term is used for illegitimacy. The Jews replied to Jesus, “We be not born of porneia; we have one Father, God.” In Romans 1:29, St. Paul accuses the Romans of porneia right after describing their homosexual practices (in v. 27). In 1 Corinthians 5:1, he uses it to describe incest between a stepson and stepmother. In 1 Corinthians 6:13 and 6:18, he uses the term to refer to sleeping with a prostitute (see v. 16). St. Paul also uses the term to refer to premarital sex, most clearly in 1 Corinthians 7:2. [Additionally, in Acts 15:20, 15:29, and 21:25, it is used in the context of idolatry regarding what meats can be eaten: it use here is almost certainly a figure of speech which doesn´t translate well into English].

Excluding the references from Acts, we have something of a picture. These are generally deviant sexual practices, and they´re illegitimate: children born from porneia are illegitimate. In other words, there´s no marriage. Which is exactly what the Catholic translation was attempting to convey in the NAB.

Take, for example, pagan common-law spouses: or, if you want a modern example, gay “marriages.” Say that one partner in one of those unions converts, repents, and wants to live a life pleasing to God: need he be worried that God will be worried when he seeks a civil divorce from his “husband”? No! God never recognized the marriage to begin with.

This interpretation accounts for the delineation between porneia and moicheia, and completely accounts for the other Biblical uses of both terms (excluding the bit about meat, once again). I think that the Catholic Church´s policy of no divorces is strictly in line with what Jesus said in these passages. Note that He is making the rule stricter than it was in Old Testament times. The Church´s stance that no divorce is allowed is easily proven by recourse to Malachi 2:16a, Matthew 19:6, Mark 10:11-12, Luke 16:18, and 1 Corinthians 7:10. In keeping with going beyond the Old Testament rule, which allowed divorces, these passages all say that divorce displeases God and is forbidden. None of the texts which I cited make any exceptions. Since God doesn´t contradict Himself, the case is closed, so far as I can tell: no divorce means no divorce.

Anyways, thanks a lot for taking the time to read this: I hope that it helps to shed more light on why the NAB translated the phrase as it did (I agree that it is strangely worded, particularly if you are not acquainted with the complexity of translation). Yours in Christ,


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