“Ask a Priest: What about Gospel ‘exceptions’ allowing for divorce?”

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Q: Why does the New American Bible not make the exception for sexual immoral acts or fornication like most all the other Bibles do? -R.L.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: The verse you refer to says, “But I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

The question revolves around the various translations of a word in the Greek text, porneia. True, some Bibles translate the word as referring to fornication or unfaithfulness, but that doesn’t seem correct.

Porneia seems to refer to cases where there was an ostensible marriage between people who were too closely related, either legally or by blood.

Here it might be worth quoting in full the footnote on this passage in the Revised New American Bible. It says:

“[5:31–32] See Dt 24:1–5. The Old Testament commandment that a bill of divorce be given to the woman assumes the legitimacy of divorce itself. It is this that Jesus denies. (Unless the marriage is unlawful): this ‘exceptive clause,’ as it is often called, occurs also in Mt 19:9, where the Greek is slightly different. There are other sayings of Jesus about divorce that prohibit it absolutely (see Mk 10:11–12; Lk 16:18; cf. 1 Cor 7:10, 11b), and most scholars agree that they represent the stand of Jesus. Matthew’s ‘exceptive clauses’ are understood by some as a modification of the absolute prohibition. It seems, however, that the unlawfulness that Matthew gives as a reason why a marriage must be broken refers to a situation peculiar to his community: the violation of Mosaic law forbidding marriage between persons of certain blood and/or legal relationship (Lv 18:6–18). Marriages of that sort were regarded as incest (porneia), but some rabbis allowed Gentile converts to Judaism who had contracted such marriages to remain in them. Matthew’s ‘exceptive clause’ is against such permissiveness for Gentile converts to Christianity; cf. the similar prohibition of porneia in Acts 15:20, 29. In this interpretation, the clause constitutes no exception to the absolute prohibition of divorce when the marriage is lawful.”

In other words, it is not that Jesus is allowing divorce; rather, he is saying that certain “marriages” should never have never occurred in the first place.

Thus, if “fornication” or “unfaithfulness” were grounds for divorce, then that would mean Jesus was leaving open a wide opportunity for divorce — which was certainly not his intention. (By the way, “fornication” would not be the right word in any case, since a married person who is having relations with someone other than a spouse would be guilty of adultery.)

In the Gospel according to Mark, Jesus’ words are even more pointed: “What God has joined together, no human being must separate” (Mark 10:9).

I hope this helps. God bless.

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