Mark 10:10-12, A Second Response to Brother Barnett

Jeff Smelser


        Last fall, brother Barnett had two articles on Mark 10:10-12 published in Gospel Truths. I wrote a response that was published in the February, 2004 issue. In the same issue, a third article from brother Barnett was printed, this one in response to mine. Brother J.T. Smith, the editor of Gospel Truths, declined to print a second article from me, saying he wished to discontinue discussion of divorce and remarriage issues in his paper for the present time. However, there are a few things in brother Barnett's latest article that require comment.

The Issue

        The standard translations uniformly render the last two words of Mark 10:11 as against her. Apparently, brother Barnett feels that some doctrinal position he holds concerning divorce and remarriage is jeopardized by understanding against her to mean against the first wife. Because brother Barnett believes the words refer to the second woman, the woman in the adulterous relationship, he feels the need to explain how the adultery is against her. Of course, as he has noted, even a woman involved in such a sinful act is being wronged just as she herself is doing wrong. But brother Barnett is not sufficiently satisfied with that explanation to leave it at that. Instead, he has attempted to make the case that against might better be taken to mean with, the man commits adultery with her. The problem is, that's not what the English translations say. But brother Barnett wants us to believe that is what they might ought to say. He will not quite affirm it. But he wants us to be open to the idea. Remember, he wouldn't have this problem if he understood the words against her to refer to the first wife.

        Let's be clear about one thing here: There is no disagreement between brother Barnett and me about the fact that the man does indeed commit adultery with the second woman. But brother Barnett wants us to believe that if the man commits adultery with the second woman, he can't be committing adultery against the first wife, and if he commits adultery against the first wife, he can't be committing adultery with the second woman. In Genesis 39:9, Joseph refused to lie with Potipher's wife saying, "How then could I do this great evil and sin against God?" Had Joseph lain with Potipher's wife, wouldn't he have been sinning with her, and also sinning against God? Indeed he would have. And we might add that he would have been sinning against Potipher. Surely we have no difficulty in understanding that. That should help us to understand how adultery can be both with someone, and against someone else.

        But in Mark 10:11, the prepositional phrase against her is used to indicate only one of these facts. Brother Barnett belabors that point as if it is a point of disagreement. There is no disagreement between us on that point. The man commits adultery with someone, and he commits adultery against someone, but the prepositional phrase against her points to only one of these facts. Our disagreement is about which of these facts is indicated by the prepositional phrase.

Where we stand at this point

         I believe against her is the correct translation and the reference is to the first wife. But brother Barnett claimed that rules of Greek grammar demand we understand the reference to be to the second woman. Specifically, he first argued that "the closest substantive that agrees with the personal pronoun in gender and number is the antecedent." That would mean "another," i.e., the second woman, is the antecedent of the "her" in the phrase "against her." However, as I demonstrated in my previous article, the nearest preceding substantive need not be taken as the antecedent of the pronoun. Context comes into play in identifying the antecedent.

        In his latest article, Brother Barnett seems to have acknowledged that context will play a role in helping us to determine what the antecedent of a pronoun is, and that the nearest substantive agreeing with the pronoun in number and gender is not necessarily the antecedent. If that much is acknowledged, then the argument he made in appealing to alleged rules of Greek grammar regarding antecedents goes by the boards. Greek grammar does not require that the second woman be the antecedent of the pronoun in Mark 10:11. Greek grammar does not necessitate our understanding the verse to say the man commits adultery either with or against the second woman. If brother Barnett wishes to establish that this is what the verse means, he will need to build his case on something other than Greek grammar.

Variant Readings & Implications

        Brother Barnett makes one point that I can concede. I had shown that brother Barnett's position would make verse 12 require that the second woman stay in her illicit, adulterous relationship. It would result in having Jesus say the man "commits adultery with the second woman, and if she herself puts away her husband and marries another, she commits adultery." But brother Barnett notes that there is a variant reading in Mark 10:12 which replaces the intensive pronoun herself with the noun woman. If one were to believe that variant is the better reading, the particular point I made about the implications of Brother Barnett's position would not hold.

        My understanding of Mark 10:11-12 is consistent with either reading. However, I do not believe that the evidence for the variant reading advocated by brother Barnett is compelling. Brother Barnett seems to believe it is compelling. After noting that this is the reading of the so-called majority text and also noting that the King James Version incorporates it, brother Barnett says, "That is certainly correct because the pronoun in the Nestle text is referring to the wife of the first clause of verse 11." I do not understand the logic of determining the legitimacy of a reading found in the so-called majority text on the basis of the meaning of a different reading in a different text. Perhaps I simply don't understand what brother Barnett means to say here. In any event, it does not seem wise to me to be dogmatic about an interpretation of a passage that can only be sustained if one can assume the validity of a widely rejected variant reading.

        Brother Barnett writes, "brother Smelserís mistake is that he imagines that verse 12 continues the thought of verse 11. Rather, verse 12 is a parallel to verse 11." Brother Barnett is simply mistaken about what I imagine. The point I made is that his position would require understanding the woman in verse 12 to be the second woman of verse 11, and unless he can hang his hat on the aforementioned variant reading, that is true. His only escape is to affirm that the reading found in the standard Greek text is wrong. And apparently, he is willing to do that. So not only is he willing to say the Greek text has generally been mistranslated in Mark 10:11, he is also willing to dispute the standard Greek text itself.

        Well, there are times when we may have to question the legitimacy of a generally accepted translation, or even disagree with someone's conclusion in the area of textual criticism. But again, I would be leery of becoming a dogmatic advocate of a doctrine that stands on two legs, one being that the standard translations are generally wrong (as brother Barnett is inclined to believe in verse 11) and the other being that the standard Greek text is wrong (as brother Barnett seems to argue in verse 12).

Brother Barnett's Lexical Litany

        Brother Barnett reiterates his list of writers who concurred in supposing that epi can mean with, some of whom thought it might mean this in Mark 10:11 specifically. And while it may seem like an impressive list, we ought to give it a closer look

        Two of those he cites (Hanna, Marshall)  merely refer to Turner. If brother Barnett wishes to shore up Turner's argument, why not address the points I made in demonstrating the fallacy of Turner's argument? After I have shown that Turner's argument was based on the idea that "some in the early Christian period" spoke of  neighing when they meant committing adultery, and after I have shown the fallacy in Turner's reasoning that led to that conclusion, citing others who are simply basing their statements on Turner adds nothing to the discussion. If brother Barnett thinks Turner's argument holds water, why doesn't he explain how neighing is synonymous with committing adultery?

        Brother Barnett also reiterates his previous listing of some older lexica. He mentions the one by Bass. This was a small, rudimentary lexicon published in 1851. It was in fact pocket size. For epi with accusative meaning with, it cites only Heb. 8:8, a passage I'll deal with shortly. Brother Barnett also cites Henry Laing's lexicon. According to Laing himself, this was designed to be an "elementary work." It was primarily intended to serve as a guide to pronunciation with particular emphasis on vowel quantity. Beyond that its discussions truly are elementary.

        He mentions a lexicon published by Robinson in 1825. That was the year that Robinson's "earliest effort in the department of New Testament Lexicography" was published. It was a translation of Wahl's Clavis Philologica Novi Testamenti. But then in 1836, Robinson published his own lexicon. Several revisions were made, and then a thorough revision and rewriting was done for an 1850 edition. I have not seen the 1825 work that brother Barnett cites, but brother Barnett says it affirms that epi with the accusative means with "after verbs which include the idea of alliance." If such was affirmed in the 1825 work, I can only conclude that Robinson thought better of that notion, for in the 1850 edition, that claim is absent.

        Brother Barnett also cites a lexicon by Parkhurst. I consulted A Greek and English Lexicon to the New Testament by John Parkhurst, augmented by Hugh James Rose in a "new edition" (1829) with "works of some later writers." There is no mention of with as a meaning of epi with accusative. Perhaps brother Barnett is citing an earlier edition. If so, the claim that epi meant with didn't survive the process of revision.

        The fact is, none of these works are considered standard works today. It should not go unnoticed that if some of these older works offered with as a meaning for epi with the accusative, that notion has not been reaffirmed in the modern standard lexicon. Nor should it go unnoticed that when Turner sought evidence for with as a meaning of epi, he felt the need to go back to Jeremiah, not admitting of any evidence for such a meaning in the New Testament whereby he could establish a basis for his theory in Mark 10:11.

        In the foregoing remarks, I have not commented on all the works brother Barnett mentioned, but have only commented on those about which I have some knowledge and to which I have access. However, there remains one work cited by brother Barnett that demands consideration, for until recently it was considered the standard of New Testament lexicography. The current standard lexicon of New Testament Greek is an English translation and revision of Bauer's German work, now in its 3rd edition and titled A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, published in 2000. It is often referred to as BDAG, for Bauer, Danker, Arndt, and Gingrich. It recently supplanted the 2nd edition which was known as BAGD, published in 1979. With reference to the 2nd edition, brother Barnett writes,

In the Gingrich and Danker Lexicon, page 526, under the word, moichao, the authors give their opinion, and nothing more than their opinion, supporting the first woman as the antecedent. Yet, immediately following that comment, they consider Nigel Turner to be important enough to make reference to his 1956 article. They obviously did not consider that Turner should just be ignored.

And yet it is interesting that if you look up epi in this very same lexicon, you will find no support for brother Barnett's contention. There, you will find an extensive discussion of the use of epi, but you will find no hint that it can mean with when used with the accusative case. Regarding Mark 10:11 in particular, brother Barnett rightly notes that this lexicon does not endorse Turner's view - quite the opposite. On the page brother Barnett cites, where the verb for commit adultery is being discussed, it is noted that Turner's theory was predicated on associating Mark 10:11 with a phrase in Jeremiah 5. Again, I showed the fallacy of that association in my previous article. If brother Barnett wishes to continue to rely on it, why did he not address the points I made?

The Meaning of epi

        In the end, the meaning of a word is not going to be determined by consulting a lexicon, but by coming to understand its use after seeing it in a multitude of contexts. This, after all, is what a good lexicographer does. With regard to epi, we need to do the same thing. That is, we need to demonstrate meaning by use.

        And brother Barnett does put before us a couple of New Testament passages where he thinks epi with accusative means with, notwithstanding the fact that Nigel Turner supposed he would have to go to Jeremiah to find precedent for such an idea. Brother Barnett offers 1 Cor. 7:5, Heb. 8:8, and tells us he knows of nine other places that he could also cite, but does not. He will need those nine passages if they exist, because he is mistaken about 1 Cor. 7:5 and Heb. 8:8.

        In 1 Cor. 7:5, brother Barnett has in mind the phrase, "may be together again," and from the word together brother Barnett infers the meaning with. The word together represents the Greek phrase, epi to auto. But epi is not translated with, nor is it understood to mean with, nor even is it, in and of itself, understood to mean together. Rather the whole expression epi to auto is translated together. Very literally, the translation would be upon the same with place being inferred. The husband and wife are to be upon the same place or at the same place, an idea that we aptly represent in English using the word together. Note well that epi remains true to its fundamental meaning, upon. It no more means together or with in this passage than does to (the) or auto (same).

        epi to auto is an expression that occurs ten times in the Greek New Testament. The other nine occurrences are Mt. 22:34, Lk. 17:35, Ac. 1:15, 2:1, 2:44, 2:47, 4:26, 11:20, 14:23. I suspect these may be the other nine that brother Barnett has in mind. If so, then he has the same problem with all of them.

        In Heb. 8:8, at least brother Barnett can point to English translations that actually use the word with where the Greek text has epi. But the fact that an English translation of a phrase may use the word with is not the same thing as saying epi itself means with. Brother Barnett needs epi to actually mean with to support his argument in Mark 10:11. BAGD, the lexicon that brother Barnett himself cites, lists 16 different categories of usage of this preposition with the accusative case, and the idea of with is not to be found among them. Many English glosses are suggested, including on, upon, to, up to, toward, after, in the direction of, against, at, by, near, over, for, etc. But not once is with suggested. Nigel Turner went all the way back to Jeremiah 5 in an effort to find support for such an idea because there is no support for it in the New Testament.

        Then why do the translations say with in Heb. 8:8 if epi doesn't mean with? In the ASV, the text reads, "I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah." Though the Septuagint is quoted, the verb used in the Greek text represents a departure from the text as found in the Septuagint. The meaning of the verb used here is to complete or to bring to accomplishment. With the preposition epi, the idea is "I will bring to accomplishment upon (for) the house of Israel and upon (for) the house of Judah a new covenant." (See Alford, Barmby, Milligan, Rienecker.) But translators have tended to render the whole phrase "make (a covenant) with..." Why this is done, I can only speculate. Perhaps it is to have the phrase conform more closely to the Masoretic text of Jeremiah. Or perhaps some translators have found the idea of completing a covenant upon someone foreign to our understanding of covenants and have therefore substituted the more familiar idea of making a covenant with someone, an idiom more familiar to us. In any event, as we saw in 1 Cor. 7:5, the translation of a phrase does not, in and of itself, prove anything about the meaning of an individual word. The point stands: Brother Barnett has yet to cite any New Testament passage where a case can be made that  epi with accusative is generally understood to mean with. The standard lexicon of New Testament Greek, in its thorough treatment of the preposition epi, makes no allowance for the idea that the preposition could mean with when used with the accusative case.

        Brother Barnett asks, "Just how would brother Smelser have Mark 10:11 to read?" The ASV, KJV, NAS, NKJB, NIV, RSV, NRSV , NLT and ESV all translate it so as to say the man who puts away his wife and marries another commits adultery against her. At this point, I'm happy with that rendering.

        On the other hand, I am not adverse to being convinced, on the basis of reasonable arguments, that Mark 10:11 should be translated differently. I mean that in all sincerity. But I would need to see credible evidence. The case brother Barnett has made for a different rendering is based on such things as fallacious claims about antecedents and Turner's novel idea that "some in the early Christian period" spoke of  neighing when they meant committing adultery. And in his latest article, brother Barnett completely misunderstands the Greek expression epi to auto. This is the sort of case brother Barnett has made, and it is not credible.

        Perhaps there yet remains a credible basis for arguing that Jesus really meant with her rather than against her. I am very doubtful of such a proposition both because of the unusual meaning it would impose upon epi and also because of the strange notion it would impose on verse 12, unless we could somehow justify the reading found in the so called majority text, and that itself seems unlikely. But if one is inclined to pursue the matter, perhaps a case more credible than brother Barnett's can be made based on the idea that the phrase in Mark 10:11 is a Semitism, a notion I mentioned in my previous article. The relevant literature is cited in the 3rd edition of A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament edited by Danker. It seems to me there is sometimes excessive eagerness to identify things as Semitisms. Nonetheless, if someone wishes to make that case, I'm willing to listen. But if such an endeavor fails to yield a more credible basis for rejecting the rendering found in all the standard translations, and if the usual rendering presents a problem for someone's doctrine, then someone needs to reexamine his doctrine.

For the Record

        There is one other matter I would like to address in order to correct a misunderstanding. Brother Barnett penned the following: "Brother Smelser wrote in his original email to brother Smith that I was leaning 'on a bruised reed' in referring to Greek grammarian Nigel Turner." And then brother Barnett went on to speculate that I attempted to "discredit Nigel Turner." That is simply untrue. In a private e-mail to J.T. Smith, I referred to the article that appeared in Bible Illustrator in 1956 as a bruised reed. I did not refer to Nigel Turner as a bruised reed nor did I attempt to "discredit" Nigel Turner himself. Indeed, I closed my first response to brother Barnett by quoting from Nigel Turner whose statement contradicts Brother Barnett. While Turner supposed the text meant the man commits adultery with the second woman, he knew that nothing in Greek required that conclusion. In fact, he wrote, "It cannot be denied that the most frequent translation, commit adultery against (the first woman), is possible." This is where brother Barnett is at odds with Nigel Turner.

A Final Word

        Discussions about divorce and remarriage have become very contentious. And yet for each person faced with a choice, it is all important to make a right choice. For this reason, the pursuit of truth is important, and worth all the energy we expend in studying God's word on the subject - as long as we are truly studying God's word. But when our efforts become exercises in ferreting out obscure theories that might shore up endangered positions, we ourselves are in danger of straying from the pursuit of truth. We are in danger of defending a creed.