[revised 2/18/04]

A Response to Brother Barnett on Mark 10:10-12

Jeff Smelser

      In the current discussion concerning the marital prospects of certain persons who have been divorced, some have argued that in Mark 10:11 when Jesus said, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her," the her refers to the second wife, not the first. Those who make this argument suggest that Jesus may have meant the man commits adultery with the second wife, rather than against her.

      There's no denying the man commits adultery with the second wife. But is that really what this passage is saying?


      In two articles recently published in Gospel Truths (XIV:10, Oct, '03 & XIV:11 Nov., '03), Maurice Barnett identifies the her with the second woman. He argues that another must be the antecedent of her because "the closest substantive that agrees with the personal pronoun in gender and number is the antecedent."

      It is true that we will tend to look first to the closest eligible substantive as the antecedent. But brother Barnett overstates the matter. Just a quick glance at the first couple of chapters of the first book of the New Testament yields several examples of this same pronoun (autoV) referring to a more remote antecedent when there is a nearer substantive agreeing with the pronoun in gender and number. I see examples in Mt. 1:20, 1:24, 2:2, and 2:5. If we were to rely on proximity without taking into consideration the context, in Mt. 2:2 we would have to suppose the last part of the verse means "we came to worship it," i.e., the star. In Mt. 2:5, if we were to rely on proximity without considering the fact that there is a dialogue between Herod and the chief priests and scribes about the Christ, we would have to suppose that the beginning of the verse means, "They said to the Christ...."

      The word order in the Greek text at Mt. 4:11 is such that the nearest substantive preceding the second pronoun translated him is diaboloV (devil), but clearly the angels came and ministered to Jesus, not to the devil.

      In Mt. 4:22, the fact that James and John left their father removes him from logical eligibility as the antecedent of him whom they followed, even though father is the nearest substantive that precedes and agrees with the pronoun. In the parallel passage in Mark 1:20, noting that the pronoun translated him could be taken as either masculine or neuter, the antecedent would have to be boat if relative proximity is determinative. The second choice would be their father Zebedee. Both of these are closer to the pronoun than the actual antecedent which is Jesus, last mentioned explicitly in verse 17.

      In Mark 10:2 we have the word translated man as the nearest masculine singular substantive prior to the pronoun translated him. However, grammatically, it must be the Pharisees who are doing the testing of him by means of their question, and therefore it makes no sense to suppose that the object of the their testing is the hypothetical man within their question. Rather, the object of their testing and the antecedent of the pronoun is him whom they were questioning, Jesus, mentioned earlier in the verse but not explicitly named since verse 39 of the preceding chapter.

      The foregoing passages illustrate the point that the closest substantive agreeing with the pronoun in number and gender is not necessarily its antecedent. Factors other than relative proximity and agreement in number and gender help to identify the antecedent of a pronoun, and in fact a more remote substantive may be the antecedent.

      But perhaps the best way to show the error of staking so much on proximity in Mark 10:11 in particular is by means of Jn. 9:16. This passage is very similar to Mk. 10:11 inasmuch as both passages have a form of the word alloV (other) as the closest substantive of like gender and number prior to a pronoun that is a form of autoV. In John 9:16, we read,

Therefore some of the Pharisees were saying, "This man is not from God, because he does not keep the Sabbath." But others (alloi) were saying, "How can a sinful man do such signs?" And a division arose among them (autoiV).

Notice that the antecedent of autoiV (them) is not alloi (others) but is the more remote Pharisees. No, we cannot apply the "rule" stated by brother Barnett so rigidly.



      Because brother Barnett believes it is the second wife who is the object of the preposition in Mark 10:11, he thinks we might perhaps understand Jesus to say the man commits adultery with her, rather than against her. Jeff Belknap quotes Donnie Rader as suggesting the same thing, and both Barnett and Rader cite Nigel Turner.

      The preposition translated against in Mk. 10:11 is epi. The basic meaning of epi, regardless of the case with which it is used, is upon, and all nuances as flavored by its use with various cases in various contexts grow out of this idea. Robertson said,

Sometimes indeed in the causal and ethical usages the root-idea seems dim, but none the less it is there. The only safety consists in holding on to the root-idea and working out from that in each special context. (A.T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament, p. 600)

Against is merely one of the various context and case flavored nuances of epi arising from the fundamental meaning upon. epi might be used of coming upon someone or something, as in Mt. 3:16, 10:13, Mt. 21:19/Mk 11:13, Ac 8:36, Ac 12:10, and Acts 12:12. But if the coming is adversarial, in English we might communicate that idea by saying one comes against someone or something, though in Greek the preposition is still epi, as in Lk. 14:31, Eph. 5:6, and Mt. 26:55/Mk. 14:48. In these last examples, though the context indicates the adversarial idea, the meaning of epi is still basically upon.

      A good example in English of using upon in an adversarial sense is the expression, perpetrate a fraud upon the public. In Mark 10:11, epi has generally been understood in a similar way. A man commits adultery upon his wife, i.e., in his adulterous conduct, he betrays her. However, in English, we don't speak of this sort of sin against a spouse as committing adultery upon the spouse. Therefore, the passage is translated, "he commits adultery against her."

      What context could we imagine wherein the root idea upon would in effect end up meaning with, i.e., in concert with? In fact, there is no other NT passage where epi is understood to mean such a thing.

      Some have suggested that Mark may use epi for with in Mk. 10:11 due to Semitic influence. But if the expression makes perfectly good sense without such a hypothesis, why hypothesize? And it does make perfectly good sense if we understand epi in an adversarial sense.

      But brother Barnett cited noted grammarian Nigel Turner in support of taking epi to mean with in Mark 10:10-12. Nigel Turner wrote volumes 3 and 4, (Syntax and Style) for Grammar of New Testament Greek, the grammar which bears the name of J.H. Moulton. In the volume on Syntax, Turner cited Mk. 10:11 as an example of epi for with (p. 272), but it is in the article which brother Barnett cited that Turner explained his rationale. That very brief article was published in The Bible Translator, vol. 7 no. 4, 1956, pp. 151f.

      Turner thought he found a precedent for taking epi to mean with in Jer. 5:8 in the Septuagint. (He actually cited the passage as Jer. 5:9.) The picture is of a stallion neighing for a mare, not explicitly of copulation with a mare, though of course that was the desire. Translating from the Septuagint, the passage is, "They became female-crazed horses, each one was neighing to the wife of his neighbor," not "neighing with the wife of his neighbor." (epi = upon can often be represented by to in English.) But it appears that Turner lost sight of the imagery that is present in Jeremiah. It seems he got ahead of the imagery, thought "committing adultery with the wife of his neighbor," and thus misconstrued epi. Then, based on his misconception of the Jeremiah passage, he saw a precedent for taking epi in Mark to mean with.

      But there was just a bit more to it than that. Turner appealed to the pseudepigraphal Psalms of Solomon to support his idea. He saw in Ps. of Solomon 8:10 an echo of the phrase in Jer. 5:8. But in Ps. of Solomon 8:10 there is no allusion to horses neighing. Rather the text simply talks about committing adultery, "each one with his neighbor's wife." And apparently on no other basis Turner suggests, "It would seem that some in the early Christian period regarded the verbs moicaomai and cremetizw (= neigh, js) as practically synonymous." This he deduces merely because a phrase about "each one" and "his neighbor's wife" is found both in Jeremiah and the Psalms of Solomon, and because one context uses the verb cremetizw while the other uses the verb moicaomai.

      That's really all there is as a basis for Turner's suggestion that Mk. 10:11 should be translated with her, having reference to the second woman. But the use of the two different verbs should not lead us to conclude the verbs were interchangeable in anyone's mind. Rather the difference in verbs is due to that fact that in one passage the imagery of horses is present while in the other passage, it is not.

      Turner did suggest that against her is somewhat difficult for a couple of reasons. He said Mark's other uses of epi in the sense of against aren't about sinning against someone but instead have in view doing violence against someone. And he also mentioned the preference of looking for the antecedent of a pronoun in the nearer object rather in the more remote object. But neither of these points is a great difficulty and neither is a sufficient reason for alleging a new meaning for epi. Regarding Mark's use of epi with the accusative case in the adversarial sense of against, there are these 7 occurrences:

Mk. 3:24   kingdom divided against itself
Mk. 3:25   house divided against itself
Mk. 3:26   Satan rises up against himself
Mk. 13:8   nation against nation
    kingdom against kingdom
Mk. 13:12   children rise up against parents
Mk. 14:48   come out as against a robber

If we think of the betrayal of one's spouse that is involved in adultery, the occurrence in Mk. 10:11 seems at home among these. What wife of an adulterous husband does not feel that she has been wronged by his infidelity?

      When Turner argued that the adversarial use of epi is only found in contexts of violence, he was speaking only with reference to Mark's use of the preposition. Brother Barnett, in his second article, seems to go a step further and suppose that this is generally true. We need only consider Lk. 9:5 (a testimony against them), 1 Cor. 7:36 (to behave dishonorably toward his virgin daughter), and 2 Cor. 10:2 (to be bold against some) to see epi used with adversarial force but with no hint of violence.


      When moicaw is used of committing adultery with a woman or debauching her, that is, when the woman involved in the illicit relationship is mentioned as an object of the verb, there is no need for a preposition at all. We usually see merely the verb and its object. This was the case in the previously mentioned Ps. of Solomon 8:10. See also in the Septuagint, Jer. 36:23 (=29:23 in English).


      It ought also to be noted that if we understand the second wife to be the one against whom the man commits adultery, we have a problem. By taking the her to refer to the second wife, we make the reference to putting away the first wife merely an explanation of the occasion of marrying and adulterating the second woman. The first wife disappears from view and the second woman comes into focus as the primary object, the object of both the verb translated marries and the preposition epi. Then the following clause has intensive autoV, represented in English by the word herself - "And if she herself should put away her husband...." The herself functions to call attention to the fact that the woman who was the object in the preceding clause is now the subject of the action, in contrast to the man who had previously been the subject of the action. So if we assume the object of the preposition is the second woman, now we have Jesus saying that the second wife has no right to put away the adulterous husband, the husband who had no right to marry her in the first place. The meaning would be,

Whoever divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery with her (i.e., the second woman). And if she herself (i.e., the second woman, now married illicitly) divorces her husband and marries another man, she is committing adultery.

Thus those who are contending that the her is the second wife end up unwittingly making Jesus teach that the woman in the adulterous second marriage must stay in it.


      Rather than invent a new meaning for epi and force the passage to teach that the adulterous union must persist, we do better to retain the translation that has long been accepted, the man commits adultery against her, and to understand the her to have reference to the first wife. Even Nigel Turner said, "It cannot be denied that the most frequent translation, commit adultery against (the first woman), is possible."