Digging Deeper into MH EPI (Mt. 19:9) and How “the Church Fathers” Understood Marriage

By Timothy Sparks


As you delve into the translation of MH EPI, it will become clear that “except” (if it is misunderstood to mean “unless”) is not a legitimate translation (Mt. 19:9). How should we translate Mt. 19:9 and what are the possible meanings of the verse? Please consider the following:

“Whoever divorces his wife not over fornication and should marry another, is committing adultery and he who marries her when she is divorced is committing adultery” (Mt. 19:9, Modern Literal Version, MLV).

1. Paraphrase: Whoever divorces his wife not for fornication and marries another commits adultery.

Explanation: Whoever divorces his wife for a nonsexual cause and marries another commits adultery. Jesus does not address divorcing for fornication. The Jews could not under God’s law grant divorce over adultery or fornication (Lev. 20:10; Deut. 22:22). Therefore Jesus does not say, “Whoever divorces his wife for fornication and marries another does not commit adultery.” Jesus says the effect of divorcing a God-joined spouse and marrying another is adulterous. The consistent teaching of Jesus is:

Divorce + Marriage to another = Adultery (Mt. 5:32; 19:9; Mk. 10:11-12; Lk. 16:18).

2. Dr. McFall gives this as a possible but not the most probable translation: “Now I say to you that who, for example, may have divorced his wife—he may not have divorced her  for fornication—and may have married another woman, he becomes adulterous by marrying her. And the man having married a divorced wife, he becomes adulterous by marrying her(Explaining the Translation of Mt. 19:9 by Dr. Leslie McFall, p. 1).

3. Dr. McFall believes the following is the most likely interpretation: “If we take the most literal translation another meaning comes to light. The translation reads: ‘Now I say to you that who, for example, may have divorced his wife—not over fornication which was punished by death—and may have married another woman, he becomes adulterous by marrying her. And the man having married a divorced wife, he becomes adulterous by marrying her’(Ibid., p. 1).

4. God’s Word provides the answer. Sometimes, we may need help with the translation and interpretation.

The interpretation of those who lived very close to the first century (such as Justin Martyr, AD 151, who also did not believe in marriage after divorce while the God-joined spouse lives) should cause us at least to “sit up and pay attention” rather than completely dismiss how they viewed the New Testament Greek Scriptures. The so-called “church fathers” believed that marriage was indissoluble until death. Why? They clearly did not understand Mt. 5:32 and Mt. 19:9 as many do today. They did not have the confusion we may have with our English translations that cause us to understand “except” as “unless.” It is far more accurate to say they understood Mt. 5:32 as an “exemption clause” (see The Exemption Clause (Mt. 5:32)) and Mt. 19:9 as an “exclusion clause” (fornication is excluded from the action of dismissal, thus referring to a non-fornication dismissal) (The Biblical Teaching on Divorce and Remarriage (Dr. McFall), pp. 76-77, 204, 208-210). They certainly did not understand Mt. 5:32 or Mt. 19:9 as an “exception clause” permitting marriage to another while the God-joined spouse lives.

Dr. McFall documents, “For the first four or five centuries Christ’s Church retained Jesus’ teaching on marriage and no divorce (only separation for the unbelieving partner who demanded it). [Footnote 347: See J. Carl Laney’s contribution in H. Wayne House (ed.), Divorce & Remarriage: Four Christian Views (Downers Grove, ENG.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1990), p. 34 n. 33, where he states that the majority of the Patristic evidence is that they permitted divorce for adultery (equated with fornication) but not remarriage, which is footnoted to Gordon Wenham, “May Divorced Christians Remarry?” Churchman 95 (1981), pp. 152-53. The single exception was Ambrosiaster (A.D. 375) who allowed remarriage for an ‘innocent’ husband, but not for an ‘innocent’ wife.] (Ibid., p. 296). McFall further states, “Davies Morgan made a thorough study of the Early Church Fathers’ understanding of the term porneia in 1826, and this was his conclusion. ‘Little attention has been given to the exceptive clause [in Matthew] and no attempt had been made to mitigate its restriction, except by Origen. It had been seldom quoted. Tertullian was almost its only expositor; and all the Christian fathers were agreed in upholding the indissolubility of marriage, as if there had been no clause of exception, or as if that clause related only to a cause precluding marriage.’ [Footnote 348: Hector Davies Morgan, The Doctrine and Law of Marriage (2 vols; Oxford: W. Baxter, 1826), Vol. II. Appendix I. (pp. 396-550) ‘On the Hellenistic and Ecclesiastical meaning of the word πορνεία,’ p. 550.] (Ibid.).

The following is another document for research along the same lines: http://www.marriagedivorce.com/pdf/Restoration-of-Christian-Marriage.pdf. Under “Complete Agreement” Stephen Willcox says:

“Of all the early recognized Church Fathers who ever wrote, all who were written about, concerning every discussion and every debate, in thousands of surviving documents, over hundreds of years, there is not a single dissenting authoritative voice on the essential core doctrines of marriage, divorce and remarriage. Each taught the same doctrine, each held the same opinion and each enforced the same moral standards you read here.”

See also the previous article: Reasons Mὴ Eπὶ (Mt. 19:9) Should Not Be Translated “Except”

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