What Did Jesus Teach About Divorce and Remarriage?
Among Christians, divorce and remarriage tend to be viewed through a strict lens of biblical interpretation. It’s widely believed that Jesus taught that if a woman who has been divorced remarries—she is guilty of committing adultery. If you asked 100 seminary grads today how Jesus viewed divorce and remarriage most of them would tell you that this is the position He took.
But is this really what He said?
You would probably arrive at this conclusion yourself if you read most modern Bible translations. The King James is the most common translation used in Bible colleges and seminaries—particularly those with a fundamentalist perspective. No Bible translation is without problems. And although the King James is a respected translation, it is notorious for its improper translation of key words. And sadly, many of these mistranslations have found their way into other translations. Worse, is the fact that these translational errors aren’t usually discussed in Bible colleges and seminaries. So leaders are taught what positions they ought to take, without knowing that their views may be based on a faulty translation.
For the sake of clarity, I’d like to focus on one passage concerning divorce and remarriage. It’s a representative passage that clearly shows how Jesus viewed the subjects of marital separation, divorce and remarriage. If you compare similar passages, you’ll find the same teaching. The first place in the scriptures where Jesus taught on this subject is found in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapter five. They key here is that we need to look closely at the words He used for two terms: “divorce” and “put away.”
In verses 31 and 32 of Matthew chapter five, Jesus corrected a common practice of the Jews:
It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement: But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery. (Mat 5:31-32)
At first glance, the meaning of this passage seems pretty straightforward. Jesus was talking about two different things related to marriage. First he mentioned a practice called “putting away.” He said that there was only one condition for which a man could put away his wife. He went on to say that if a wife were put away for any other reason, the man who did so was guilty of causing her to commit adultery. In mid-sentence he changed subjects and said that if anyone married a woman who was divorced they would be guilty of adultery.
Or did He?
To know with certainty what He actually said, there are a couple of words we need to look at in the Greek text. The first is the word ἀποστάσιον (apostasion) which is nearly always translated “divorce.” This is the last word found in verse 31, but in verse 32 it is conspicuously absent. Instead, the Greek word ἀπολύω (apolyō) is used twice. This word is nearly always translated “separated,” or “put away.” Except for the second time it appears in this verse. And in that case it is translated divorce.
It’s odd that the translators would choose to translate the first instance of this word “put away” and the second one “divorce,” since the words have completely different meanings. Stranger still is the fact that when you look at the context of the passage it doesn’t make sense to translate it this way. The way it’s been translated, Jesus was apparently addressing the subject of wives being put away, but then shifted the conversation to the subject of divorce. If you translate the second instance of the word apolyō to match the first, the passage makes more sense and it takes on an entirely different meaning. Here is how it would be rendered:
It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement: But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is put away committeth adultery.
Do you see the difference?
If we translate the second instance of the word apolyō the way it would normally be translated, the passage flows more naturally. And we can see that Jesus wasn’t addressing divorce at all in this discussion. He was addressing the practice the Jews had of “putting away” their wives, and nothing else. A little background information on that practice might be helpful:
Under the practice of “putting away” their wives, Jewish men would kick their wives out of the home if they were unhappy with them. No particular reason was necessary and no certificate of divorce was given to them. The wives were still legally married to their husbands, though they were no longer allowed to live with them. In modern culture, it would be like a marital separation. And because the wives were not given a certificate of divorce, they could not legally remarry, although their husbands would usually find new wives. Jesus intended to correct this erroneous practice.
First, He placed a condition on the practice of putting away a wife. He said that it was only for the cause of fornication that a wife could be put away. No other reason was justified. Second, He pointed out that if a man put his wife away without giving her a certificate of divorce, she could not remarry without committing adultery, because she would be married to two men at the same time. Rather than forbidding a woman to remarry after she was put away, He demanded the Jews give their wives a certificate of divorce so they could remarry legally if they chose to. Being a man filled with compassion for those whose marriages had been destroyed, He provided a path to remarriage after divorce.
There is another passage where Jesus taught on this subject and it needs to be considered. In Matthew chapter 19, the Pharisees questioned Jesus about their practice of putting away their wives. (Matthew noted that they did this to trap Him.) In verse 9 of that chapter, the Lord gave them the same instructions found in this chapter. He even used the same words.
I’m not alone in my view about the best way in which to translate this passage. The American Standard Version (ASV) and Young’s Literal Translation (YLT) both translate this passage the way I’ve described.
I hope this explanation has helped you. If you’ve been condemned for remarrying after a divorce, maybe this will give you comfort. It may take a while for church leaders to see this issue differently. Traditions can be difficult to change. But if the opportunity arises, you might point out the mistranslation and start the ball rolling. Who knows where the conversation will end up.