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It has been said, “Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.” 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. – Jesus, Matthew 5:31-32, NIV (Emphasis added)

What is Jesus saying about the woman divorced by her husband in this text? Most translations suggest that the innocent wife becomes guilty by what her husband does to her. Here is a sampling of translations:

King James Version: … causeth her to commit adultery
American Standard Translation: … maketh her an adulteress
Contemporary English Version: … will cause her to be unfaithful
Good News Bible: … he is guilty of making her commit adultery if she marries again
The Message: … you’re responsible for making her an adulteress
New American Standard Bible: … makes her commit adultery
New International Version: … causes her to become an adulteress

We could list others as well, but this is representative of the translations. There is one problem with all of this. How can my action in divorcing my wife make her guilty of anything?

The paraphrase “translation,” The Good News Bible, adds a clause not found in the text at all – “if she marries again.” But that is not what Jesus said. He said the one divorcing his wife makes her an adulteress. Some have used this as a way to paper over the problem in this verse. They say that when you divorce without proper cause, you put your divorced spouse in a position where temptation to marry again will be strong – and that if he or she does remarry, then they are guilty of adultery. But that adds something to the text Jesus does not say. It is interpretation, pure and simple, with no basis in the text itself.

I repeat my question. How can my action in divorcing my wife make her guilty of anything? Ezekiel 18:20 clearly says, “The soul who sins is the one who will die.” Each person bears his or her own guilt, not that of another. So can we really say Jesus here is attributing the guilt of adultery to the innocent wife whose husband divorces her unjustly? She has done nothing. Does Jesus say she becomes guilty by her husband’s action?

Is it possible that the standard way of translating this text, which goes back to the Latin translations as well, reflects a misunderstanding of what Jesus is really saying here?

The Greek clause consists of three words: ποιει αυτην μοιχασθαι (poiei auten moichasthai). Let’s look at each of these and how its use  here and elsewhere.

ποιει (poiei) – literally, “is making

This is the 3rd person, present tense, active voice, indicative mood of ποιεω. The subject of this verb (i.e., the one acting in it) is the man who divorces his wife (unless it is for fornication). This is a verb with a variety of uses. It can mean to make, form, construct, create, effect, bring to pass, cause to take place, do, accomplish, to cause to be or become a thing, appoint (to some office), do, perform, execute, etc. This word can refer to God creating (Matthew 19:4). It is often speaks of man’s activity in doing or making something. Yet, it can also, in a different sense, mean “to make, assume, consider, regard, to use, to treat, or declare to be.” 1 John 1:10 is an example of this use where the one who claims to be without sin “makes God a liar,” though God is not a liar and indeed He cannot lie.

It is in this sense that the God’s Word translation renders it in Matthew 5:32 where it translates this clause “makes her look as though she has committed adultery.” (Definitions come from Bagster’s Analytical Greek Lexicon. A similar list of meanings is in both Thayer’s and Arndt & Gingrich lexicons.)

αυτην (auten) – literally, “her

This is the 3rd person, singular number, accusative case, feminine gender of the personal pronoun. The accusative case is roughly equal to the English direct object case, that is the receiver of the action. In this case, the woman whose husband divorces her, except for fornication, is the one acted upon by the verb “makes.” She herself is doing nothing;  she receives the action of her husband who is divorcing her. By the divorce, he treats her as if she is an adulteress.

μοιχασθαι (moichasthai) – literally, “to defile a married woman; to have unlawful intercourse with a married woman

This is the present tense, infinitive, passive voice of the verb μοιχαω (moichao). The passive voice means something happens to the subject of the clause. In this case, the subject of the clause is the woman divorced, except for fornication. This is the usual word for “to commit adultery.” In the passive voice, it would mean “to have adultery committed upon [or against] one.” The wife is the violated one. She becomes defiled passively by the fact he divorces her. This word in the passive voice can also speak of another man’s wife with whom a man has unlawful intercourse. That cannot be its meaning in this text, for it is the man’s own wife who is in view, and a woman does not commit adultery with her own husband.

There is a textual variation in the Greek manuscripts for this word. The above paragraph looks at the Textus Receptus (or Received Text), which is the basis for the King James Version (1611). This text is mainly supported by late MSS. The variant, supported by the earlier MSS, is μοιχευθηναι (moicheuthenai). This is the aorist tense,  passive voice infinitive of the verb μοιχευω (moicheuo). It comes from the same word family as that in the paragraph above, but with a slightly different meaning. It means, in the passive voice, “to suffer adultery, be debauched” (Thayer). Thayer gives Matthew 5:32 as an example of this use. This older reading is most likely correct.

Each of these variants is passive. The unjustly divorced wife is the violated person. She is not the one sinning;  she is sinned against. The older, more likely, reading is even stronger in showing the wife as a victim, not a sinner.

To say that my action in divorcing my wife unjustly makes her guilty of adultery makes as much sense as saying that if I beat her up, I make her to be an abuser. She would not be the abuser, but the abused. She is the victim sinned against, not the one who is sinning.

What It All Means

A careful examination of the meanings of these words shows that Jesus is saying the woman divorced without cause becomes an adulteress in the same sense we make God a liar when we say we have not sinned. Her husband treats her (by divorcing her) as if she is an adulteress.

One reason for the difficulty in translating this passage is that the English language does not have a verb corresponding to the noun “adultery.” Hence, translators resort to some variation of “to commit adultery.” This passage is further complicated by the fact it is in the passive voice. To say “makes her to have adultery committed against her” is very cumbersome – and it still does not get the proper nuance of meaning.

The closest English verb that would translate this idea is adulterate, a word that comes from the same Latin word family as adultery. We do not normally use this word to mean adultery – but the meaning is very close, for adultery is an adulteration. That is, it adulterates the covenant witnessed by God between the man and the woman (cf. Malachi 2:14). It violates the holiness of that union and makes it unclean and impure. Her husband treats her as if she were an adulteress; society looks at her with suspicion; and she herself feels adulterated – all without any sinful act on her part. Of course, if she has committed fornication, she has made herself an adulteress. His action in divorcing her does not make her any more of an adulteress than she already is.

There is a similar thought in 1 Corinthians 6:16. There Paul says, “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never!” (NIV). When one who is “one flesh” with Christ (cf. Ephesians 5:31) unites himself with a harlot, he makes himself “one flesh” with her. That violates the covenant relationship he has with Christ. Though he is one flesh with the Christ, by becoming “one flesh” with the prostitute he makes the person and body of Christ himself one with the sinful woman. The husband violates his wife by divorcing her; she is an innocent victim.

Is it any wonder God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16)?


7 Responses

  1. Thanks Jerry this a very interesting study. I am taking Greek this semester and I actually understand some of the things discussed. I am so glad.

  2. I know that moichao is a passive deponent according to the Majority Text. But do the more ancient manuscripts also render moicheuo as a deponent verb or merely in the passive voice?

    I ask because I’ve heard that the Greek deponent verb is passive in tense but active(or middle voice) in meaning.

    • R.J.,
      The passive form does double service, at least in this instance, by also representing the middle voice. The middle voice denotes action upon one’s self. Thus, “I hit the ball” is active voice, “I was hit by the ball” is passive voice, but “I was hit by myself by the ball” (i.e., “I hit myself with the ball.) would be the meaning of the middle voice.

      In Matthew 5:32, it does not make sense to make this a middle voice. How would the husband’s divorcing his wife “make her to adulterate herself”? Some suggest that this is what would happen if she should marry again. But that is not what Jesus said. He said that the husband’s action “makes [present tense, active voice] her to commit adultery” [present tense, not future, and passive voice]. Since English has no verb that means “to commit adultery”, much less a passive verb we can use to translate this passage, the closest we can come to it is that he “makes her to be adulterated.” In other words, he treats her as if she were an adulteress (since putting her away would be the proper thing to do is she had committed adultery). This does not mean that she really is an adulteress any more than in 1 John 1:10 where John says, “If we say we have not sinned, we make him [God] a liar” means that our claim not to be a sinner really makes God a liar. We just treat him that way.

      So the wife, in this passage, is a victim of the husband’s sin. She is sinned against by her husband; she has not sinned against herself, which the active or middle voice denote if it were her action that “made” her an adulteress. Instead, Jesus said that it was her husband who adulterated her by putting her away.

      • Here’s what Thayer says about Matthew 5:32b…

        “(yet WH brackets); (yet not WH marginal reading), 9b (R G L Tr brackets WH marginal reading)”.

        Does this mean the second part of this verse is an interpolation?

      • Do we have any other case of keeping the passive deponent verb passive(rather then middle or active) in the Greek New Testament? Are you saying that Greek deponent verbs don’t always have to thwart out their passive tenses?

      • Did the Jews treat deponent verbs differently then their secular contemporaries?

  3. No to the question about an interpolation. This is in reference to a variant reading and the way the Westcott-Hort edition of the Greek New Testament treats that variant. This is the one mentioned in my article above, where I state that the variant is most likely the original. The two readings are very similar and there is no hint of it being an interpolation.

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