(Mat 5:31-32 ESV) “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
“Marries” in v. 32 means, in the Greek, marries. Really. Therefore, if a divorced woman remarries, she really marries. There is nothing in the text suggesting that the marriage is void. Jesus says it’s a marriage, and therefore it’s a marriage.
“Divorces” in v. 32 means divorces. Really. The marriage is ended. Jesus is not saying that the original marriage continues. No, he quite plainly calls what happens a “divorce” not “an attempted divorce.”
“Sexual immorality” translates porneia, generally translated “fornication” or “sexual immorality.” It’s a bit surprising that Jesus doesn’t say “adultery,” and this has led to all sort of theories as to why. For example,
* Some take porneia to refer to incest, that is, any relationship that would make the marriage void under Torah, such as marrying a sister. But it’s far more likely that Jesus would have considered an incestuous marriage as no marriage at all. And this would have been a very unlikely circumstance among the Jews.
* Some take porneia to refer to the wife’s premarital sex, so that she comes to the marriage bed as a non-virgin. In such a case, the husband would have the right to divorce her or even have her stoned (Deu 22:20-21). Given that Deu 22:21 refers to the wife as guilty of ἐκπορνεῦσαι (ekporneusai), that is, whoring — an intensive form of porneia — the argument carries some weight.
* Some take porneia as referring to sexual sins that aren’t quite the same as adultery, as adultery was dealt with by capital punishment, not divorce. Hence, the word would pick up a woman being found in bed with a lover but with no proof of intercourse. And this is the majority view.
All of which brings us to “commit adultery.” I should first note that the verb is passive in both instances, which is nearly impossible to replicate in English, largely because we don’t have a single English word meaning “commit adultery.” In fact, to have a passive verb, you need a transitive verb meaning “commit adultery against.”
We might use a word such as “dishonor.” My wife dishonors me if she commits adultery against me. Thus, we could translate the passage —
31 “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her [to be dishonored] [Greek is a passive infinitive], and whoever marries a divorced woman [is dishonored] [Greek is a present passive or middle].”
The second occurrence of “commit adultery” in v. 32 raises the additional problem of being in form either passive or middle. Passive would be “is dishonored” as shown in the re-translation, but middle would be “dishonors” (intransitive) or even “dishonors himself,” although the middle voice is most typically translated intransitive in English.
In addition, we need to consider the mood, and in the first case, “commits adultery” or “to be dishonored” is in the aorist voice, referring to a particular moment (punctiliar) rather rather than continuous, and so the divorced woman is dishonored by the divorce itself and not the remarriage. Clearly, the grammar does not suit the theory that she commits adultery every time she has sex with her second husband. In fact, the text says she is sinned against (is dishonored) by the divorce, not by the remarriage.
The second occurrence of “commits adultery” is present tense indicative, and in the indicative mood, the present tense indicates neither continuous nor punctiliar time. Rather, it takes its sense of time from the context, and the context is clearly punctiliar. After all, “marries” is aorist (punctiliar), the first “commits adultery” is aorist, and “divorces,” although a present participle (is divorcing), clearly occurs at a point in time, not continuously. Hence, neither is the second husband charged with committing adultery whenever he has sex with his new wife. Whatever Jesus means, it’s a point-in-time event.
In short, the grammar plainly makes the divorce the moment when the wife is dishonored, that is, when she is sinned against — treated as though she were an adulteress even though she is not. It’s a sin committed just once — but nonetheless a most serious sin because its effect is continuous. When a man divorces his wife in that culture, without cause, she is sinned against both because she appears to have been an adulterous and, much more fundamentally, the husband has broken faith with her.
And this brings us to the meaning of “adultery.” Throughout the OT and the Gospels, “adultery” refers not only to the sexual sin but to breaking faith or violating covenant. For example,
(Jer 3:6-9 ESV) The LORD said to me in the days of King Josiah: “Have you seen what she did, that faithless one, Israel, how she went up on every high hill and under every green tree, and there played the whore? 7 And I thought, ‘After she has done all this she will return to me,’ but she did not return, and her treacherous sister Judah saw it. 8 She saw that for all the adulteries of that faithless one, Israel, I had sent her away with a decree of divorce. Yet her treacherous sister Judah did not fear, but she too went and played the whore. 9 Because she took her whoredom lightly, she polluted the land, committing adultery with stone and tree.
(Mat 12:38-39 ESV) Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” 39 But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.
(Jam 4:4 ESV) 4 You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.
As James shows, in Jesus’ context, “adultery” was a conventional idiom for being faithless to one’s covenant partner. It does not always refer to literal sex. Indeed, for the most obvious example of the metaphor, consider —
(Mat 5:27-28 ESV) “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
Jesus, in the same discussion, uses “adultery” to refer to a husband dwelling on the temptation to have sex with another woman. This is not literal adultery, but it’s a sin of the same nature.
And so, when Jesus says that the husband who divorces his wife without cause, causes her to have adultery committed against her (infinitive, passive, aorist) or “to be dishonored,” Jesus is not speaking of literal adultery but a sin of the same nature.
Remember: in these verses, Jesus is not making new law. He’s reading existing law more correctly — getting to the heart of God’s will as revealed in Torah. Therefore, he says, if it’s wrong to violate your covenant with your wife by having sex with another woman, then it’s also wrong to divorce her without cause — in order to have sex with another woman. Going through the formality of a divorce before you sin against her might satisfy the legalistic mind, but it’s still a sin against her — and obviously so.
Jesus is extending his earlier discussion of lust and the eyes. If you are married to a woman, and you allow yourself to lust after another woman, you do not make it right by divorcing her and then marrying the new woman before having sex with her. The divorce is just as adulterous as lusting after the other woman was — you’re not being faithful to your wife, and the divorce does not make it okay.
No other interpretation fits the context or the grammar.
But what about the second husband? Well, he is said to be “dishonored,” present, passive, indicative. Grammatically, this happens at the moment of the second marriage. Why? Well, the subject of the verb is the first husband. How has he dishonored the second husband? By making it appear that the wife is an adulteress and that the second husband is the one with whom she committed adultery. Thus, one Greek dictionary defines the word as —
become an outcast, formally, “become adultered”; note if the prior verses are taken as passives, then the person becomes a social and moral outcast
James Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Greek (New Testament), 1997. Lenski’s commentary on Matthew concurs.
And so, the old teaching that the marriage has not ended and so the wife commits adultery every time she has sex with her new husband, even though she is plainly the party sinned against, is simply not to be found in the text. This interpretation goes back to the decisions of the Council of Trent and fits with the mindset of Medieval Catholic Scholasticism very well, but it’s foreign to the words of Jesus — and even more importantly, to the heart of God.