Matthew 5:32

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Matthew 5:32 is the thirty-second verse of the fifth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew in the New Testament and is part of the Sermon on the Mount. This much scrutinized verse contains part of Jesus' teachings on the issue of divorce.


The original Koine Greek, according to Westcott and Hort, reads:

ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι πᾶς ὁ ἀπολύων τὴν γυναῖκα αὐτοῦ
παρεκτὸς λόγου πορνείας ποιεῖ αὐτὴν μοιχευθῆναι
[καὶ ὃς ἐὰν ἀπολελυμένην γαμήσῃ μοιχᾶται]

In the King James Version of the Bible the text reads:

But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving
for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and
whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery.

The New International Version translates the passage as:

But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for
marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and
anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.

The New American Bible translates this passage as:

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.

For a collection of other versions see BibRef Matthew 5:32

Divorce is discussed in several other parts of the Bible. Malachi 2:16 has God disapproving of divorce, but Deuteronomy 24:1–4 makes clear that it is acceptable under certain circumstances (see Christian views on divorce). A very similar pronouncement on divorce is made by Jesus at Luke 16:18 and Mark 10:11, however neither of those two make an exception for πορνεία/porneia. Paul of Tarsus quotes Jesus ("not I but the Lord") in 1 Corinthians 7:10–11 with no exceptions granted although he ("I and not the Lord") goes on to give exceptions. Matthew 19:9 discusses the same issue, and does include the same exception as this verse.

Protestant view[edit]

One of the most debated issues is over the exception to the ban on divorce, which the KJV translates as "saving for the cause of fornication." The Koine Greek word in the exception is πορνείας/porneia, and it literally translates as sexual immorality (which some interpret to mean fornication). One view is that it should be more specifically translated as adultery or marital unfaithfulness. Instone-Brewer rejects this translation arguing that contemporary sources make clear porneia meant more than just adultery, he does not agree with the most liberal translations that have the word also refer to things such as spousal abuse.[1]

At the time of first century Iudaea Province, Pharisaic Judaism was divided between two major groups. The dominant teaching was that of Hillel, who taught that divorce could be granted on a wide array of grounds, even because a wife burnt a dinner. Shammai took a more conservative opinion, arguing that only adultery was valid grounds for divorce.[2]

Current mainstream theories of the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are that they are based upon a single writer whose original verse is that of Mark, with Matthew being the most intended to communicate with the Jewish community. Some scholars feel that in Matthew 5:32 Jesus is endorsing the view of Shammai over Hillel, and arguing for the adultery only rule. Protestant churches have traditionally read πορνείας/porneia as adultery. The main argument against this translation is that Matthew has just been discussing adultery in the previous antithesis, and there used the specific term μοιχεύσεις/moicheia, rejecting the vaguer πορνείας/porneia.

Following their reading of the verse, Protestant churches give prominence to the Gospel of Matthew over Mark and Luke and accepted adultery as a valid grounds for divorce. They also often believe that an innocent divorcee can freely remarry afterwards.

According to Bruce Metzger's Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, commentary on the Apostolic Decree of the Council of Jerusalem: "it is possible ... (fornication means) marriage within the prohibited Levitical degrees (Lv 18.6-18), which the rabbis described as "forbidden for porneia," or mixed marriages with pagans (Nu 25.1; also compare 2 Cor 6.14), or participation in pagan worship which had long been described by Old Testament prophets as spiritual adultery and which, in fact, offered opportunity in many temples for religious prostitution". Another reading is that the exception refers to the rules surrounding the Jewish betrothal ritual, linking this to Matthew 1:19, and has no relevance to the modern world.

Other scholars take the opposite view, arguing that the exception was not mentioned in the other Gospels because it was so obvious as to be implicit to contemporary readers. Leviticus 20:10 makes clear the punishment for adultery is death, so to Jesus's Jewish audience it would be assumed that adultery meant that the marriage would be over. While at the time of Jesus, and in modern societies, capital punishment is not imposed for adultery several scholars still feel the death sentence is important.[3] Martin Luther argued that since in the eyes of God an adulterer was dead, their spouse was free to remarry. More evidence for this view comes from Genesis 2:24, which makes clear that the sexual act permanently joins two individuals, so adultery can be understood to have created a new bond erasing the old one.

Another view is that the exception is not a part of Jesus's teaching, but rather a comment indicating that adultery automatically led to divorce under the law of the time, and that Jesus may very well have disagreed with this law. Instone-Brewer sees no evidence that this is how the law worked in that era, however.[4]

That adultery is a valid reason for divorce is the standard Protestant position, though some churches disagree. This interpretation was first advanced by Desiderius Erasmus,[5] and received the backing of Martin Luther, John Calvin, and most other major Protestant thinkers. Some Protestants took an even broader view. Swiss reformers Huldrych Zwingli and Heinrich Bullinger both read porneia as referring to all manner of marital immorality, including spousal abuse and abandonment. Anglican Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, who served under King Henry VIII, listed a considerable number of valid reasons for divorce, but this never became standard Anglican doctrine. The Church of England instead took a far more restrictive view, and adultery was one of the only legal reasons for divorce in Britain up to the twentieth century. The same was true in many parts of the British Empire and the United States.

In modern times Protestants have moved away from their traditional positions. Many mainstream Protestants churches have accepted a broader translation of porneia than just adultery, and now support a wide array of valid reasons for divorce. One modern view is that, since throughout the Sermon on the Mount Jesus condemns the excessive legalism of his day, delineating specific views of divorce from the exact wording of a piece of scripture should be rejected. Several major churches today believe that rules for divorce should be set to best advance Jesus's overarching goals of love and justice, rather than a legalistic interpretation of his words.

Orthodox view[edit]

The Orthodox Church has also recognized this verse as permitting divorce for adultery and other reasons, such as spousal abuse, abandonment, and apostasy. In Eastern Orthodox practice, churches are to allow penitential remarriage up to two times after a divorce.[6] A first marriage is celebrated, a second performed, a third tolerated, and a fourth prohibited.

Reasoning against divorce[edit]

The verse is important in that it gives a clear argument against divorce. At this time only a man could initiate a divorce. Jesus makes clear that while the divorce may not adversely affect him, it is forbidden because it forces his wife into sin. Some scholars believe that since in this era a woman had few legal rights, she was dependent on her husband for survival. It was thus assumed that a divorced woman would always remarry. Jesus makes clear that the sin of divorce is in the adulterous nature of a future remarriage, and thus in many jurisdictions where divorce was legal restrictions were still placed on remarriage. This verse does not say whether a second marriage for a divorced man would also be adulterous, but Matthew 19:9 makes clear that it is.[7] This reasoning also explains the logic of the exception for adultery. If the reason to stay married is to not force one's wife to engage in an adulterous second marriage, then if she has already engaged in adultery on her own this justification disappears.

The reasons Jesus imposed these new rules have also been much discussed. Some scholars feel that under the liberal divorce policy of Hillel men had been marrying woman and then casually divorcing them after they lost interest, deeply injuring the women. As mentioned a divorce could endanger a woman's very survival. Thus some have read Jesus' teachings here as a defence of the rights of the downtrodden wives. Feminist scholar Levine rejects this view. She notes that in this era elaborate prenuptial agreements were negotiated prior to every marriage, and that they invariably included steep financial penalties, known as ketubah, paid by the husband in case of divorce, guaranteeing the wife financial well being even in case of divorce.[8]


  1. ^ Instone-Brewer, David. Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context. Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 2002. pg. 156
  2. ^ Instone-Brewer, David. Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context. Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 2002. pg. 162
  3. ^ France, R.T. The Gospel According to Matthew: an Introduction and Commentary. Leicester: Inter-Varsity, 1985. pg. 123
  4. ^ Instone-Brewer, David. Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context. Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 2002.
  5. ^ Davies, W.D. and Dale C. Allison, Jr. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew. Edinburgh : T. & T. Clark, 1988-1997. pg. 80
  6. ^ Davies, W.D. and Dale C. Allison, Jr. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew. Edinburgh : T. & T. Clark, 1988-1997. pg. 81
  7. ^ France, R.T. The Gospel According to Matthew: an Introduction and Commentary. Leicester: Inter-Varsity, 1985. pg. 123
  8. ^ Levine, Amy-Jill. "Matthew." Women's Bible Commentary. Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998.

Preceded by
Matthew 5:31
Gospel of Matthew
Chapter 5
Succeeded by
Matthew 5:33