Matthew 19:1-12 Supplement

a supplement to chapter 5 in Is It Lawful?

by Jeff Smelser

    The following is a description and critique of certain interpretations of the exception clause in Matthew 19:9 which were not included in my article in the book, Is it Lawful? (pp. 30-59), edited by Dennis G. Allan and Gary Fisher. For the full description of works cited here only in abbreviated form, the reader should consult the endnotes accompanying my article in that volume.

    The Preteritive interpretation, the Inclusive interpretation, the Christian/Unbeliever interpretation, and the awkwardly styled Interpretive interpretation are discussed herein. Discussion of the "betrothal interpretation", which is also mentioned in my article, is not available at the present time. None of these interpretations has gained support from such diverse quarters as has the so-called Rabbinic view.

    The first two interpretations to be discussed, the Preteritive and the Inclusive, attempt to rule out any true exception to true divorce, not by redefining πορνεία, but by redefining μὴ ἐπί. Fitzmyer labels these "tortuous attempts" and "subterfuges to avoid the obvious."1 Fellow Roman Catholic, Augustine Stock, calls them "attempts to escape the obvious."2

The Preteritive Interpretation

    Essentially that espoused by Augustine,3 this view was championed in this century by Anglican J. P. Arendzen4 and Roman Catholic Bruce Vawter,5 and is, for all practical purposes, the view defended by Thomas V. Fleming.6 It is aptly described by William Heth and Gordon Wenham as "the 'no comment' view."7 Either μὴ ἐπί or παρεκτός is taken to mean "irrespective of, setting aside, independently of."8 Thus in both Mt. 5:32 and 19:9, Jesus is made to say, "Never mind" the meaning of Dt. 24:1.9

    To arrive at this, Arendzen argued that either Matthew's μὴ ἐπὶ πορνείᾳ is a "freer rendering [than in 5:32] and a guess," or παρεκτὸς λόγου πορνείας should be regarded as the original reading of Mt. 19:9. Although Vawter did not follow Arendzen in speculating against the authenticity of μὴ ἐπί, in an effort to buttress the preteritive view, he argued that λόγου πορνείας in 5:32 is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew erwat dabar (shameful thing).10 In this his view was shown by Roman Catholic cleric A. Vaccari to be flawed.11

    The remaining fallacies to be noted are: (1) μὴ ἐπί does not mean "irrespective of,"12 and (2) as it stands in 5:32 and 19:9 v.l., παρεκτός does not mean "irrespective of " in the sense required by the preteritive view.13

The Inclusive Interpretation

    Like the Preteritive interpretation , the Inclusive interpretation relies on a novel understanding of μὴ ἐπί. In setting forth this interpretation, Roman Catholic Michael Brunec made "except for fornication" mean "even not outside the case of uncleanness," i.e., "even inclusive of the case of uncleanness."14 Vawter rightly termed Brunec's effort "linguistic gymnastics."15 For an English discussion of Brunec's view and refutation of the specific arguments, see Vawter's 1954 article, pp. 160f.

The Christian/Unbeliever Interpretation

    Based on the alleged connection between λόγου πορνείας and erwat dabar, Roman Catholic Aidan Mahoney proposed that in Mt. 5:32 and 19:9, πορνεία is to be understood as "something unseemly [in the eyes of God],"16 namely, marriage between a Christian and an unbeliever. Mahoney did not claim that such marriages were not in reality legitimate marriages (although Heth and Wenham,17 as well as Ryrie,18 supposed he did claim this). In the case of such a relationship, Mahoney concedes "grounds in the eyes of God for sundering of legitimate marriage,"19 but "only when a legitimate marriage confronts the covenant-union of grace in Christ rooted in faith"20 - in other words, only when the marriage union is in conflict with the spiritual union between the Christian and Christ. Thus Mahoney holds the Roman Catholic line against adultery as a just reason for divorce.

    In spite of Mahoney's complex reasoning, the purely gratuitous nature of his interpretation of πορνεία stands as a major objection to his view. Furthermore, such an interpretation of Mt. 19:9 is contradicted by Paul's teaching in 1 Corinthians 7:12-13, where the believer is forbidden to leave the unbelieving spouse. Indeed, as Mahoney points out, Paul said the believer is not under bondage if the unbeliever departs, but this is a far different thing than saying the believer, at his discretion, may put away the unbeliever.

The Interpretive Interpretation

    This, according to Vawter, was proposed by Roman Catholic J. Grimm (died 1896) and advocated by fellow Catholic A. Tafi.21 As Vawter describes it, the Interpretive view supposes that Jesus, "having stated the absolute indissolubility of marriage from the divine law, proceeded to interpret the Mosaic concession of Dt 24,1 in favor of the teaching of the school of Shammai."22

    Three objections can be noted. First, the interpretation wrongly (as has been shown in Is it Lawful?, pages 30-35) assumes that the discussion in Mt. 19:1-9 had in view the Rabbinical dispute described in Gittin 9. Second, the exception clause in Mt. 5:32 is made incomprehensible. In a context where Jesus' point is the insufficiency of the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees, why would he have decided between their rival interpretations of Dt. 24:1, neither of which (according to the proponents of this interpretation) was in accord with His new teaching? Third, in Bruce Vawter's words, "it attributes to Christ a highly questionable exegesis [of Dt. 24:1] that would best be left to Shammai and his school." 23


1    Fitzmyer, 207, n. 39.

2    Augustine Stock, "The Matthean Divorce Texts," Biblical Theology Bulletin 8 (Feb. '78):25.

3    Augustine, Adulterous Marriages 1, 9-10. Rather than making a linguistic argument, Augustine drew this conclusion by supposing that a husband's adultery is a greater wrong when he has put an innocent wife away than if he has put a wife away for fornication. Augustine thought the husband wrong in both cases, but Jesus "wished to mention what is more important," i.e., more grievous sin. Therefore, in reordering Jesus' words, Matthew is "silent concerning the other."

4    J. P. Arendzen, "Another Note on Matthew XIX, 3-12," Clergy Review 21 (July, 1941):23-6. "Rewriting St. Matthew," The Expositor 16 (Nov. 1918) :366-71.

5    Vawter, CBQ 16 (1954):155-67.

6    Thomas V. Fleming, "Christ and Divorce" TS 24 (Mar. '63):106-20.

7    Heth and Wenham, 179.

8    Arendzen, "Another Note," 25f.

9    Ibid. , 24.

10    Vawter, CBQ 16 (1954):166

11    Biblica 36 (1955):149-51, as described by Roman Catholics Dyson & Leeming in Scripture 8 ('59):77f. Vawter later abandoned the preteritive interpretation, but nevertheless, in an article titled "Divorce and the New Testament" (CBQ 29:534f, n. 12), he persisted in identifying λόγου πορνείας with the erwat dabar of Dt. 24:1, citing the Shammaite transposition. See above, p.5.

12    In his Biblical Greek, Roman Catholic M. Zerwick said that in Mt. 19:9 "μή not only may but should mean 'except', not that μή = 'except' is of itself admissible, but because μή is here dependent upon the introductory ὅσοι ἄν which is equivalent to εἄν τις ('whoever = if anyone dismiss his wife μὴ ἑπὶ πορνείᾳ . . .') and thus we have (ἐὰν) μή = 'unless', i.e. 'except'." (§ 442) Many other scholars could be cited to show the true exceptive force of μὴ ἑπί. Perhaps, however, the most significant here is Bruce Vawter, who finally abandoned his preteritive interpretation as untenable. In 1977, Vawter said of the exception clauses, "These clauses must . . . certainly be regarded as exceptive." Vawter's new view on the interpretation of the exception will be discussed below.

13    The preteritive interpretation requires that παρεκτός mean "outside of" in an indifferent sense rather than an exclusive sense. The instances wherein Arendzen found the meaning "outside of" for παρεκτός actually require the exclusive sense, not the indifferent sense. This is clearly demonstrated by Dyson and Leeming, pp. 78-80.

14    Michael Brunec, "Tertio de clausulis divortii" Verbum domini 27 (1949), as quoted in Vawter, "The Divorce Clauses in Mt 5,32 and 19,9" CBQ 16:160.

15    Ibid., 161, n. 24. Although Vawter described his own preteritive view as "linguistic simplicity" (p. 164), his characterazation of the inclusive view is a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black.

16    Aidan Mahoney, "A New Look at the Divorce Clauses in Mt 5,32 and 19,9" CBQ 30 (Jan. '68):32.

17    Heth & Wenham, 153.

18    Ryrie, 188.

19    Mahoney, 34.

20    Ibid., 35.

21    Vawter, "The Divorce Clauses," 162.

22    Ibid.

23    Ibid.