MDR: Matthew 5, Part 3 (a note on the meaning of “fornication”)

The exact meaning of “fornication” in this context has been hotly disputed. “Fornication” normally means any sexual immorality, such as incest, prostitution, adultery, or homosexuality.

Another intriguing possibility is that it refers to marriages that would be illegal or terminable under the Law of Moses, such as incestuous marriages or marriage by an Israelite to a foreigner contrary to the Law of Moses. Thus, the exception would refer primarily to what we’d call grounds for annulment, where the marriage not only should never have taken place but also should not be continued.

The New Jerusalem Bible, for example translates, “But I say to you, Everyone who divorces his wife, except for the case of an illicit marriage, makes her an adulteress …” See Gary D. Collier, RM-Bible discussion group, (April 15, 1996).

In The Complete New Testament Word Study Dictionary, Zodhiates states that the Greek word (porneia) translated fornication “may also refer to marriages within the degrees prohibited by the Law of Moses and generally to all such intercourse as prohibited in that Law.”

There are several arguments strongly in favor of this view –

  • This interpretation would solve the riddle of why Jesus refers to “fornication” as an exception rather than the more obvious “adultery.” Fornication has a wider meaning than adultery, but as he’s speaking of a married woman, it’s hard to think of anything she might do that would be fornication and not adultery in the minds of First Century Jews. After all, rabbinic law held that merely being alone with a man not her husband made her an adulteress. You might argue that Jesus was referring to homosexual misconduct, but it seems unlikely to have been such a serious problem in First Century Palestine that Jesus would have to carve out such an exception.
  • This interpretation solves the riddle as to why the parallel passages in Mark and Luke and Paul’s discussion in 1 Corinthians 7 don’t mention the exception. A marriage to a non-Jew was hardly an issue to Luke’s and Paul’s Gentile audiences, and Mark’s preference for brevity would permit the exclusion, as readers would understand that an improperly made marriage is no marriage.
  • This would accord with Ezra 10:10-11, where Ezra required the Jews to divorce their foreign wives, married contrary to the Law.

This interpretation would mean that Jesus is not choosing between rabbinic schools of thought but is rather declaring all marriages properly entered into sacred and not to be broken for any reason – such that breaking a proper marriage is sin, the moral equivalent of adultery. This places Jesus very much in line with Paul.

And, of course, the absence of the “fornication” exception would hardly mean that marriage can’t be broken. After all, to any First Century Jew, a spouse who violates his or her obligations under Exodus 21:10-11effectively puts away his or her spouse. Hence, if husband breached his duties to his wife, she had the right to require her husband to give her a certificate of divorce so she could remarry despite not being a virgin.

While the meaning is possible and has many advocates, it seems unlikely that Jesus’ audience would have understood “fornication” in these terms. They would have instead thought in terms of sexual sin, which was the usual meaning of the term and entirely consistent with the context where Jesus was discussing Deuteronomy 24. Hence, this argument is clever, even brilliant, but likely wrong.

Instone-Brewer takes “fornication” to be Jesus’ translation of “something indecent” in Deuteronomy 24:1, even though the Septuagint doesn’t use the same Greek word. He supports his view with these arguments –

  • In Jewish practice, an illicit marriage required no certificate of divorce, as no marriage had occurred at all. But Jesus mentions this exception both in Matthew 5 and 19, in both cases in the context of Deuteronomy 24:1, which is all about certificates of divorce.
  • “Fornication” in the rest of the New Testament is not limited to incest in the rest of the New Testament. It certainly can refer to incest (1 Cor 5), but isn’t so limited anywhere (p. 158).
  • The word order in the Greek is unusual (logou porneias), the reverse of the natural order, in parallel with the Shammaite interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1 (p. 159).

Thus, the solutions to the three problems solved by the proposed interpretation are better solved as follows:

  • Jesus mentions “fornication” as an exception, rather than adultery, because this parallels the language of Deuteronomy 24:1, referring to “something indecent.”
  • The exception isn’t mentioned at all in Mark, Luke, and 1 Corinthians 7 because fornication is such a breach of a spouse’s duty to the other that it is itself a putting away. It only needs to be mentioned explicitly to an audience concerned with the interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1.
  • The marriage Ezra ended were entered into in breach of the Law of Moses. In modern terms, they were annulled in that they were never proper. Today, if a man “marries” an under-aged girl or a woman already married or a woman too drunk to consent, no divorce is required because the marriage never happened. Rather, to clear up the public record, a court declares the marriage annulled, that is, as having never happened. It’s the same thing.
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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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One Response to MDR: Matthew 5, Part 3 (a note on the meaning of “fornication”)

  1. Some interesting stuff on fornication. I didn't know that the JB translated it that way thought.

    Here is some info that may interest you.

    Leslie McFall has an interesting way to deal with the so-called exception clause in Matthew 19:9 that some hold allows for divorce and remarriage in the case of marriage unfaithfulness.

    He has written a 43 page paper that reviews the changes in the Greek made by Erasmus that effect the way Matthew 19:9 has been translated. I reviewed McFall's paper at Except For Fornication Clause of Matthew 19:9. I would love to hear some feedback on this position.

    I also have list of good conservative articles on the subject of Divorce and Remarriage.

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