Mh Epi and The Negative Inference Fallacy of Matthew 19:9 (Paul Dixon)

By Timothy Sparks


[While I do not specifically subscribe to the “no comment” view, in the following, Paul Dixon illustrates and makes some solid points. In Mt. 19:9 there is an exclusion clause, not an exception. My personal understanding of the text is that Jesus is addressing a nonsexual dismissal. The point of this article is that there is no exception in Mt. 19:9 and to positively state that God gives favorable approval to divorce and/or marry another is to state the opposite of the Greek texts. In the Greek text of Mt. 19:9, no Greek manuscript has the reading ei mh or ean mh. Among the Greek texts only those in the Textus Receptus tradition have ei mh:]

Paul Dixon notes the following: 

“MH by itself (no accompanying particle, like EI or EAN) occurs over 500 times in the GNT. Nowhere else is it translated, ‘except.’ Only when it is accompanied by EI or EAN is it rendered so. 

Since neither particle exists in MT 19:9, in order to get the exception idea some have posited an ellipsis of either EI or EAN. 

If we assume an ellipsis, however, we still make a huge leap of blind faith if we conclude the negation, that is, if a man divorces his wife and she committed PORNEIA, and he subsequently remarries, then he does not commit adultery himself in so doing. 

No one, to my knowledge, has ever shown that such a construction as found in Mt 19:9 calls for this kind of conclusion. We are better off going with the conclusion of the early church fathers (e.g., Augustine) and see this as simply a preterition where the case of the wife who committed PORNEIA is being excluded from discussion at the point. Why so, one might ask. If for no other reason than the fact the Christ has just discussed this case in the immediately preceding verses” (

Additionally, Paul Dixon states:

“The preterition view says that the MH EPI PORNEIA is simply indicating that the case of PORNEIA is being excluded from consideration at this point and nothing said or implied about such. 

It might be rendered paraphrastically as: he who divorces his wife (excluding the case of fornication, which see elsewhere for discussion) and marries another commits adultery. 

What many conclude, however, is that MH EPI PORNEIA suggests or even demands an implied negational thought, such as: 
he who divorces his wife because of or upon fornication and marries another does not commit adultery. 

The early church fathers seem definitely opposed to this line of thinking. . . . But, if they conclude that divorce for fornication is justifiable, though not remarriage, because of Mt 19:9, then they have gone beyond the preterition view and still end up affirming an unstated negation, that is, that divorce is justifiable because of fornication” (

[Summary: The negative inference fallacy occurs when the negative of Mt. 19:9 is assumed: “If a man divorces his wife because of fornication and marries another, then he does not commit adultery.” Jesus does not say that, thus, the fallacy.]

The Negative Inference Fallacy of Matthew 19:9 by Paul Dixon

“Suggested interpretations of Matthew 19:9 and the exception clause abound. Almost all interpretations, however, are guilty of the negative inference fallacy. The conditional thought of the verse is, ‘if a man divorces his wife for any reason except immorality and remarries, then he commits adultery.’ The negative usually assumed is, ‘if a man divorces his wife because of immorality and remarries, then he does not commit adultery.’

Even Murray, who takes great pains to argue that the exception clause modifies both divorce and remarriage, then assumes the negative by assuming the clause also modifies adultery. He writes:
‘The question then is: does this exception, by way of right or liberty, extend to the remarriage of the divorcing husband as well as to the putting away? Obviously, if the right extends to the remarriage, the husband in such a case is not implicated in the sin of adultery in the event of his remarriage.’ (11)

Obviously? How does negating the protasis necessitate negating the apodosis? (12) Murray has fallen into the negative inference trap. In order to get the negation, Murray must show ‘if not P, then not Q.’ All he has done is affirmed ‘not P.’ He has failed to show ‘not Q’ follows from that. To assume it is to erroneously infer the negation.

The basic rationale for assuming the negation seems to involve the following question: why would Christ bring up this exception or additional condition if He did not mean to imply the negation? This, of course, is an argument from silence. Just because we cannot imagine another explanation does not mean this must be the right one, especially if it causes us to make invalid inferences.

Further attempts to justify the inference of the negation have focused on linguistics, but only as a cover for the real reason (the assumption of the negation). The English translations almost always render the Greek mh in Matthew 19:9 as ‘except,’ in spite of the fact that it is never translated like that anywhere else in the New Testament in similar constructions. (13) Some, apparently aware of this problem, have suggested an ellipsis of the Greek particle ei or ean in order to get the desired ‘except.’ (14) But even if an ellipsis is understood, it still does not deal with the problem, for that would give us only the first half of the desired negation. The silent second half of the negation still screams for assertion. We cannot simply infer it.

The translation ‘except’ is not only lexically without merit, but it is especially unfortunate if it conjures up the negation to the English reader. But that is precisely why the translators render it such, and it gives away their assumption of the negation. Porter and Buchanan, however, have shown that even the English ‘except’ does not necessarily imply the negation. As an example, they say: ‘All centers, except those over 6 feet tall, will fail in the NBA.’ (15) Clearly, this is saying nothing about the success or failure of centers over 6 feet tall. That consideration is excluded from discussion. The point, rather, is to assert something about centers under 6 feet tall.

There is no good reason why mh in Matthew 19:9 (mh epi porneia, ‘except for immorality’) should not be translated by its normal ‘not.’ Literally, the translation would be something like, ‘not for immorality,’ or ‘setting aside the matter of porneia,’ (16) the idea being to exclude porneia or immorality from consideration at this point, but certainly not to imply its negation.

Of the many suggested interpretations of the so-called ‘exception’ clause, only one does not erroneously assume the negation. Suggested by Augustine over 1500 years ago, (17) and essentially the view of the early church, (18) the preteritive view sees the clause as merely excluding from discussion the case of the wife who commits fornication. It has also been referred to as the ‘no comment’ view. (19) The situation regarding the wife who commits fornication is simply not being considered, and no inference may be drawn regarding such. According to this verse alone, the man who divorces his wife for fornication and remarries may or may not be committing adultery.

But why would the Lord exclude this case from consideration in verse 9? In part, because he has just discussed it in the immediately preceding verses. If the exclusion clause does not refer back to those verses, then it remains syntactically unrelated to anything in the text. If it does refer back, however, then the clause would serve to sharply separate the two discussions, making them mutually exclusive. Accordingly, if one wishes to justify divorce and remarriage on the basis of fornication, then he must do so from verses 4-8 where justification for divorce is the hardness of heart of the apparently unforgiving husband. But even such justification is offset by the clear teaching of Christ that God’s intent for marriage from the time of creation has always been and remains permanency.

A second reason for the exclusion clause is the hardheartedness of those questioning Jesus. As was His custom, Jesus limited His revelation accordingly. Full disclosure would have meant nothing to them. It would be enough for them to be told the that God’s purpose of permanence in marriage remains intact (vss. 4-7, 8b), that the divorce of an immoral wife was due to a hardness of heart (v. 8a), and that the divorce of a moral wife and remarriage constitutes adultery (v. 9). Their hardness of heart precluded their being able to handle the greater and more difficult statement as recorded in Mark and Luke. It was not until later and in private to His disciples only that the Lord more fully revealed the matter so as to include all divorce and   remarriage. . . .” (


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2 responses to “Mh Epi and The Negative Inference Fallacy of Matthew 19:9 (Paul Dixon)

  1. Patricia Curbow (KELLY)



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