This article details the problem with using the English word “except” to translate the Greek word μὴ in Mt. 19:9. Nowhere in either the Greek New Testament or the LXX is the word μὴ (mh or mē) or the words μὴ ἐπὶ (mh epi or mē epi; Mt. 19:9) to be translated as “except.”
There is no manuscript in existence that supports the Textus Receptus reading of εἰ (“if”) before μὴ (“not”) in Mt. 19:9. All the manuscript evidence supports the omission of εἰ. Based on overwhelming evidence, the correct reading is μὴ ἐπὶ (“not over”). The text is firmly μὴ ἐπὶ πορνείᾳ (“not over fornication”) and is the reading of the Majority Text (M-Text), the Greek New Testament (GNT) and all other texts that do not follow the Textus Receptus tradition.
In reading an English version of Mt. 19:9, many people seem to understand “except” as an exception. It is hard to get an exegesis correct if the translation is not correct or if the translation creates a misunderstanding.
Please consider the following reasons the Greek phrase μὴ ἐπὶ (mh epi or mē epi; Mt. 19:9) should not be translated “except for”:
1. Mὴ ἐπὶ (mh epi or mē epi; Mt. 19:9) should be translated “not over.”
2. The only evidence in the Septuagint (LXX; the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures) is that μὴ ἐπὶ means “not on/over/to/for.”
- 2 Kings 18:27—“not to”:
- Jer. 5:9—“not over/upon/for”:
- Jer. 5:29—“not over/upon/for”—
- Jer. 9:8-9—“not over/upon/for”—
3. The only evidence in the New Testament is that μὴ ἐπὶ means “not on/over/to/for.”
4. Dr. Guenther states the following in “THE EXCEPTION PHRASES: EXCEPT πορνεία, INCLUDING πορνεία OR EXCLUDING πορνεία? (MATTHEW 5:32; 19:9)” (https://legacy.tyndalehouse.com/tynbul/Library/TynBull_2002_53_1_05_Guenther_ExceptionPhrases.pdf):
“Indeed, Basil, the 4th century (AD) bishop, who interprets the text of Matthew quotes both Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 (presumably from memory) and instinctively writes the ‘exception’ phrase in 19:9 as εἰ μὴ ἐπί (except for), in contrast with the simple μὴ ἐπί (excluding) of Matthew. This reinforces our argument that μὴ ἐπί without the conditional conjunction does not mean ‘except’” (p. 94; p. 12 of the pdf).
“In Matthew 19:9, then, the divorce saying reads, ‘whoever divorces his wife (apart from/excluding/not introducing [the factor of] πορνεία) and marries another commits adultery’. It does not mean ‘except’ as it has traditionally been interpreted. Had the Gospel writer wanted to introduce an exception, he would have used εἰ μὴ ἐπί or ἐὰν μὴ ἐπί” (p. 95; p. 13 of the pdf).
“Our conclusion regarding the meaning of the μὴ ἐπί phrase in Matthew 19:9 is that it must be understood as, ‘apart from πορνεία, ‘πορνεία aside’, or ‘excluding the subject of πορνεία’. It does not mean ‘except’ as it has traditionally been interpreted” (p. 96; p. 14 of the pdf).
5. Many people think the English preposition “except” means “unless.” The primary definition of the English preposition “except” is “excluding” (see definition of “except”). The definition of the English conjunction “unless” is “except if” (see definition of “unless”). “Except/Excluding” does not mean “unless/except if.”
The proper understanding of μὴ ἐπὶ is “not over/excluding.” Mὴ ἐπὶ does not mean “except if for/unless for.” If μὴ ἐπὶ is rendered “except for” and if people misunderstand it to mean “unless,” that misunderstanding then might cause people to believe that Jesus taught in contradiction to God’s law.
- The Jews could not under God’s law grant divorce over adultery or fornication (Lev. 20:10; Deut. 22:22).
- If Jesus had changed God’s law while he was on the earth, he would have violated it (Deut. 4:2; Prov. 30:6).
- Jesus did not come to change God’s law but to fulfill it (Mt. 5:17-19; Lk. 24:44).
- Christ’s new covenant went into effect after his death (Heb. 9:16-17), not before his death.
6. Jesus calls us back to the way God instituted marriage, which did not include divorce (Mt. 19:4-8).
7. The evidence provided is sufficient to show that μὴ ἐπὶ should not be translated “except for.”
For a comprehensive discussion of translating Mt. 19:9, please see Explaining the Translation of Mt. 19:9 by Dr. Leslie McFall.
See also The “Except” List: Where It Is Necessary for Divorce and Remarriage to Be.