Category Archives: Exception Clause


The Greek word which translates as fornication in Mathew 5:32 and Matthew 19:9 is a general word covering all types of sexual intercourse (A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, pp. 699-700).

When looking to the Greek Old Testament (known as the LXX), the word “porneia” (translated as fornication or harlotry) is used on multiple occasions to describe both literal and figurative persons who are married who commit unlawful, sexual activity with someone other than their spouse (e.g., Amos 7:17; Hosea 1:2-3; 2:2-5; Ezek. 16:8, 20, 22, 25, 28, 29; 23:4-5).

In Ezekiel 16 and 23, God used the word fornication/harlotry (porneia) some 40 times concerning Israel’s unfaithfulness to Him. The word for adultery is used some six times here to describe the same action(s) (for more study see:

The LXX translates moicheia for naaph (adultery) and porneia for zanah (fornication/harlotry). In these chapters, and in Jeremiah 3, both words are used to describe the same action, as is seen in Ezekiel 23:43 where both words occur. Using the word fornication to describe unlawful sex when at least one of the parties was married was not at all uncommon.

Furthermore, the Greek word porneia occurs approximately 25 times in the New Testament. The times we see this word defined and used literally in context, it is seen as any type of consensual, physical sexual intercourse (Jn. 8:41; 1 Cor. 5:1; 6:13; 15-18; 1 Cor. 7:1-2; etc.). As shown above, this word is a general word covering all unlawful sexual intercourse. The only way that the word could be limited to a specific type of intercourse is if the context(s) demands it.

Porneia is also employed to describe the actions of a married person by Tatian and Origen (Divorce & Remarriage in the Early Church, p. 193, Harrell). Furthermore, there are historical writings that are non-inspired known as the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha that use both the words fornication and adultery together to reference the same action (Sirach 23:17, 23; Joseph 3:8-9; Ecclus. 23:23 etc.).

It was not at all uncommon to use the word fornication/harlotry to describe someone who was married who was having unlawful sexual relations with someone else. If an argument is going to be made to try and limit the meaning of the word “fornication,” it must be done based upon context because it cannot be done by appealing to the word itself.

– Kevin Pendergrass

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One question that often arises in regards to the marital exception clause found in Matthew 5:32 and Matthew 19:9 has to do with its absence from Mark and Luke’s account. In other words, why doesn’t Mark and Luke include the exception clause found in Matthew 19:9?

One must first understand that it was not at all out of the ordinary for one gospel writer to include information, qualifiers or exceptions when another gospel writer didn’t (e.g., Mt. 16:4; Lk. 11:29; Mk. 8:12; Mt. 6:14-15; Mk. 11:25-26; Lk. 17:3-4; etc.). It is for this very reason that we have four gospel accounts. We must look at all four gospel accounts in order to get all of the biblical information.

Additionally, we can see similarities of this in the Old Testament books pertaining to laws on marriage. In Deuteronomy 22:28-29, a law pertaining to marriage is given that states that if a man finds a virgin who is not betrothed and has sexual relations with her and they are found out, she must become his wife. An exception to this rule is found in Exodus 22:16-17 that is not found in Deuteronomy 22:28-29. The exception is that a father can pay a “bride-price” of virgins in order to save his daughter from having to be married. No one concludes that this is a contradiction or a problem just because Exodus gives an exception to a law when Deuteronomy does not. God’s word has always had to be looked at as a whole (Acts 20:27; Psa. 119:160; 2 Tim. 2:15).

Furthermore, divorce for fornication was never a debated point in the first century. It was unanimously agreed you could divorce for fornication. Historically speaking, it would have been a naturally understood exception.

Finally, one must also take into account that the doctrines of the New Testament were being orally taught for the first few decades. Thus, Jew and Gentile alike would have known the exception clause in Matthew through oral teaching. This is one of the reasons that the gospel accounts were not written until some 30 – 60 years after the establishment of the church. During that time, the disciples were out orally teaching the world (Acts 1:8; Col. 1:23; Titus 1:3; etc.). Churches of both Jew and Gentile were interacting with one another (Eph. 2:14-18; Rom. 1:16; etc.).

The disciples were commissioned to go into the entire world and teach the things the Lord had taught them (Mt. 28:19-20; Jn. 14:26; 16:13-15; Jn. 14:26; Heb. 1:1; 2:1-4; Mt. 5:32; Mt. 19:9; 16:13-15; etc.). Therefore, the exception given by Jesus found in the gospel of Matthew would be well known and well circulated to Jews and Gentiles.

– Kevin Pendergrass

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Deuteronomy 24:1 says:

“When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some uncleanness in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house…” 

One of the main texts for divorce under the Old Law is found in Deuteronomy 24:1-4. When the law was originally given, the penalty for sexual unfaithfulness was death, not divorce (Lev. 20:10). Therefore, the question is often posed as to the meaning of “uncleanness” in Deuteronomy 24:1-4. There are a couple of explanations as to the meaning of uncleanness in this text (both fitting within the context).

When it came to sexual unfaithfulness under the Old Law, not only was the woman to be put to death, but the man was also to be put to death according to the Levitical law (Lev. 20:10). However, the requirements of proving such were very difficult and included the following:

  • There had to be at least two witnesses to testify (Deut. 17:6).
  • The witnesses had to prove their case or they themselves could be stoned for being false witnesses (Deut. 19:15-21).
  • If the witnesses did prove their case, then they had to be the first ones to stone those who were guilty (Deut. 17:7).

It was nearly impossible to meet the demands of the law in order to enact the death penalty especially with actions done in secret. This is the reason why it appears that most rabbis discontinued the death penalty judgment shortly after the death of Moses (Divorce & Remarriage in the Bible, Instone-Brewer). There are instances of it being practiced after Moses (See Josh. 7:25; 1 Kings 21; etc.), but it was not commonly practiced after Moses’ death.

According to Instone-Brewer, most rabbis were opposed to stoning by the first century. This sometimes led to “mob stoning.” Mob stoning was not in accordance with the Jewish law nor did it meet the demands of the law—but it did happen in the first century (Jn. 8:1-12; Acts 7:54ff; Acts 14:19).

Since the death penalty against sexual unfaithfulness under the Old Law could only be enacted when the aforementioned laws of the land were met, then it could be the case that Deuteronomy 24:1-4 is about divorcing your spouse for sexual unfaithfulness when the proper legal evidence could not be supplied to enact the death penalty. While not enough evidence to legally meet the demands of a death penalty, a divorce could be enacted per Deuteronomy 24:1-4 (e.g., “He found” uncleanness vs. “witnesses found”).

Therefore, the first explanation is that the word translated “uncleanness” in Deuteronomy 24:1-4 did refer to sexual unfaithfulness and applied to divorce in cases where there was not enough evidence to convict per the death penalty.

This would mean when Jesus was speaking to the Jews in His marital teachings (Mt. 19:1-10; Mk. 10:1-12, etc.), He would be affirming that uncleanness (sexual unfaithfulness) is the authorized reason for divorce and not just “any reason.”

This is certainly a plausible explanation and would harmonize with both the Old and New Testament contexts on marriage. But there is a second explanation.

The second explanation points out that divorce for sexual unfaithfulness was always intrinsically understood as a “just” reason to divorce, and even an expected result (Hosea, Mt. 1:18-20; Isa. 50:1; Jer. 3:1). There is no evidence anywhere of someone trying to argue that sexual unfaithfulness was not a just reason for divorce. Therefore, this position assumes that Deuteronomy 24:1-4 wouldn’t be needed by the male to justify grounds for divorce per adultery since that would naturally result in death or divorce.

This position reasons that Deuteronomy 24:1-4 was put in place for the sole purpose of protecting the woman when the husband would divorce her because of her “uncleanness.” The words in Hebrew translated uncleanness are “erwat dabar.” There is only one other time in all of Scripture these two words are used together and that is in Deuteronomy 23:9-14 where it refers to hygienic problems (specifically in that context a man’s nocturnal emission and poor toilet practice).

This position argues that this uncleanness mentioned in Deuteronomy 24:1 refers to a woman’s menstrual flow. This would render the woman unclean during this time and if the man touched her in that condition, he would be rendered unclean (Lev. 15:19-33). Since this happened often, his frustration could lead to divorce. This explains why the subsequent husband might divorce her too since the same “male-urge” frustration could kick in (Deut. 24:3). Of course, only a hardhearted man would divorce his wife for such. Therefore, the law was put in place to protect the woman if the man did divorce his wife for such a trivial and hardhearted reason.

If this explanation is true, then when Jesus spoke to the subject of divorce, He reaffirmed their sinful hardheartedness for unlawfully divorcing their spouses, the Deuteronomy law which protected women, and the intrinsic moral justification of divorce for fornication which was always granted and assumed.

Either way one wants to interpret “uncleanness” in Deuteronomy 24:1-4, it needs to be understood that Jesus is not teaching a “new law” in His marital teachings. Jesus is properly teaching the law and correcting their misunderstandings of it (Matthew 5:17).

– Kevin Pendergrass

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Before we look at the contexts of the exception clause in Matthew 5:32 and Matthew 19:9, we will verify its authenticity. One view known as “The McFall Theory” attempts to dismiss Matthew 19:9 in our common versions of the Bible. This view states that the exception clause was never in the original text, at least not the way it reads today. This view asserts that a Catholic priest named Erasmus altered the text of Matthew 19:9 in his Greek Testament and added the exception.

The McFall Theory can be easily exposed by looking to manuscripts that predated Erasmus and that include the exception clause. Erasmus lived between 1466-1536 c.a. and he only had approximately eight Greek manuscripts on which to construct his New Testament text and most of those were later dates (Theological Propaedeutic, Philip Schaff, pp. 166-167). Today we have hundreds of Greek manuscripts of Matthew, including some of the oldest and most reliable, which all include the exception clause.

Furthermore, prior to 325 c.a., several Ante-Nicene “Church Fathers” refer to the texts containing Jesus’ exception clause.

The exception clause is mentioned by most of the writers who comment upon the subject of divorce, for most take Matthew’s Gospel as their main source. The clause is mentioned in Theophilus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Tertullian, and Lactantius” (Divorce and Remarriage in the Early Church, Pat E. Harrell, p. 190).

Erasmus could not have altered the text. The early “Church Fathers” had access to Greek manuscripts that predated Erasmus by centuries which included the exception clause. Furthermore, the origin of Matthew and his Gospel was unanimously accepted by the early church including the exception clause.

All of the English mainstream translations of the Bible in their scholarship accept the exception clause as being legitimate and translate it as such. I contacted Dr. Daniel Wallace, a textual expert, to find out more information about these texts. Dr. Wallace is one of the field’s leading scholars in textual criticism and is a professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary. He is founder and executive director of The Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts ( I asked Dr. Wallace about the authenticity of Matthew 5:32 and Matthew 19:9. Below you will find his response.

Kevin, the critical texts of the Greek NT do not list any variants whatsoever for the exception clause in Matt 5.32. However, Matt 19.9 is significantly different. There are eight variants there, some with good MS testimony. Yet not one of them changes the meaning. There are no variants that omit the exception clause in either verse. I take it that the exception clauses in both places are thus authentic…the oldest MSS we have for those portions of scripture are Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, both fourth century MSS. And yes, Matthew was most likely the most circulated Gospel at least in the second century, though John was especially popular in Gnostic circles.” (Kevin Pendergrass, Dr. Daniel Wallace e-mail, January 24th-25th 2014).

Since there is no textual reason to reject the authenticity of Matthew 5:32 and Matthew 19:9, the exception statements found in Matthew 5:32 and Matthew 19:9 should be accepted as textually authentic.

Kevin Pendergrass

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