Questions From Readers
● Why, according to Matthew’s accounts, did Jesus use two different words—“fornication” and “adultery”—in discussing the proper grounds for divorce? Is not the only ground for Scriptural divorce “adultery,” as the term is generally understood?—U.S.A.
At Matthew 5:32 Jesus’ words are: “However, I say to you that everyone divorcing his wife, except on account of fornication [Greek, por·neiʹa], makes her a subject for adultery [Greek, moi·kheiʹa], and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” Similarly, at Matthew 19:9 we read: “I say to you that whoever divorces his wife, except on the ground of fornication [por·neiʹa], and marries another commits adultery [moi·kheiʹa].”
The account, therefore, does use two distinct words. Let us first see what they mean and then consider the significance of their use.
Moi·kheiʹa, one of the terms used in Matthew’s account, is properly translated “adultery.” The English word “adultery” comes from the Latin adulterare, which means, basically, “to alter” and, by extension, “to corrupt or make impure, as by the addition of a foreign or a baser substance.” Thus we speak of ‘adulterating’ food, making it impure by adding foreign substances. A marriage is ‘adulterated’ when one of the parties defiles the marital relationship by having relations with someone outside that relationship. This idea of adulterating or corrupting, and of unfaithfulness to a sacred relationship, is also inherent in the Greek term moi·kheiʹa. Therefore, both in Greek and in English, the focus is on the effect illicit sexual relations have on the marriage relationship, the adulterous mate being guilty of introducing someone else into that relationship, corrupting the union that should include just the husband and wife.
What of the other term used? “Fornication” focuses attention, not on the effect sexual immorality may have on a marital relationship, but on the nature or quality of the sexual activity itself. This is true, not only of the English word “fornication,” but also of the Greek word, por·neiʹa, used in Matthew’s account. Our interest, of course, is primarily in the Greek term used by the Gospel writer. For, no matter what the word “fornication” may commonly be understood to mean by English-speaking people, it is what the word used in the Bible meant to the writer and the people at that time that really counts and is decisive.
When “fornication” is mentioned today, people commonly think of sexual relations between members of the opposite sex, relations carried on outside marriage yet consisting of intercourse in the ‘ordinary’ or natural way. So, many have understood that, when Jesus said that “fornication [por·neiʹa]” was the only ground for divorce, he referred only to intercourse in the ordinary or natural way between a wife and a man not her husband, or, by extension, between a husband and a woman not his wife. But is that the case? Does por·neiʹa, the word used in Matthew’s account, refer only to such natural sexual relations? Or did it include all forms of immoral sexual relations, including those between individuals of the same sex and also perverted forms of sexual relations between members of the opposite sex? Just what did por·neiʹa mean to people in the first century when Jesus was on earth? And does a sincere and careful investigation of this meaning call for a reappraisal of our understanding as to what the Scriptural ground for divorce is?
A thorough study of the matter shows that por·neiʹa refers to all forms of immoral sexual relations. It is a broad term, somewhat like the word “pornography,” which is drawn from por·neiʹa or the related verb por·neuʹo. Lexicons of the Greek language clearly show this to be so.
They show that por·neiʹa comes from a root word meaning “to sell,” and it describes sex relations that are licentious and not restrained (as by the restraint of adherence to marriage bonds). Thus, of the use of the word in Bible times, Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament states that por·neiʹa described “illicit sexual intercourse in general.” Moulton and Milligan’s The Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament says it is “unlawful sexual intercourse generally.” The sixth volume of the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament says that por·neiʹa can come to mean “‘sexual intercourse’ in gen[eral] without more precise definition.”
It is because of its being a broad term (broader in its scope than the word “fornication” is in the minds of many English-speaking people) that many Bible translators use expressions such as “gross immorality,” “sexual immorality,” “sexual sins,” or similar, when translating por·neiʹa.
Does this mean that unnatural and perverted sexual relations such as those engaged in by homosexuals are included in the meaning of this term used by the apostle in recording Jesus’ words? Yes, that is the case. This can be seen by the way Jesus’ half brother Jude used por·neiʹa when referring to the unnatural sex acts of the men of Sodom and Gomorrah. (Jude 7) Concerning the use of por·neiʹa by Greek-speaking Jews around the start of the Common Era, the sixth volume of the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament says: “πορνεία [por·neiʹa] can also be ‘unnatural vice,’ . . . sodomy.”
What, then, is the significance of the Bible’s use of these terms and what does it reveal as to the valid Biblical grounds for divorce? It shows that any married person who goes outside the marriage bond and engages in immoral sexual relations, whether with someone of the opposite sex or someone of the same sex, whether natural or unnatural and perverted, is guilty of committing por·neiʹa or “fornication” in the Bible sense. Such sexual relations do not refer to minor indiscretions a person might commit, as by a kiss or caress or embrace, but refer to immoral use of the genital organs in some form of intercourse, natural or unnatural.
We find principles in the Law covenant in support of this broadened viewpoint. It is clear that under that Law marriages were dissolved when a mate committed serious sexual sins, including unnatural ones, inasmuch as such mate was put to death according to God’s own instructions.—Compare Exodus 22:19; Leviticus 18:22, 23, 29; 20:10-16; Deuteronomy 22:22; as well as the words of the Christian apostle at Romans 1:24-27, 32.
Taking Jesus’ words for what they mean, therefore, when a mate is guilty of such serious sexual immorality the innocent mate may Scripturally divorce such a one, if he or she so desires. One who obtains a divorce on such Scriptural grounds is also Scripturally free to remarry, not thereby being subject to a charge of adultery.
This clearly marks a correction in the view expressed on previous occasions in the columns of this magazine, but faithful adherence to what the Scriptures actually say requires it. There is much more that can be considered on the matter and for that reason it will be discussed more completely in a coming issue of this magazine.