THE EXCEPTION CLAUSE: EXAMINING THE INCESTUOUS MARRIAGE VIEW

The “incestuous marriage” view argues that Jesus, in Matthew 5:32 and Matthew 19:9, was giving an exception to divorce your spouse if it was an incestuous relationship. Consider the following argumentation and talking points from one of the leading proponents of this view, Samuele Bacchiocchi.

“Jesus allows for divorce only where a marriage should not have taken place in the first place, namely, within the degrees of prohibited relationships. Consequently, in Matthew, Jesus does not envisage any exception to the absolute ban on divorce but only allows for the dissolution of a marriage which was validly contracted according to Greco-Roman laws but which was in conflict with the Mosaic law of prohibited relationships” (The Marriage Covenant: A Biblical Study of Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage, Chapter 6.).

“One of the possible lexical meanings of porneia is ‘incest’ or ‘incestuous marriage.’ We find this meaning in 1 Corinthians 5:1 where Paul demands the expulsion of a Christian who has married his stepmother, a clear violation of Leviticus 18:8. The same meaning of porneia appears in Acts 15:20, 29 where the Jerusalem Council recommends that Gentile converts should abstain from idol sacrifices, blood, meat of strangled animals, and porneia” (ibid, Chapter 6).

“It is quite apparent that James was thinking of the Leviticus 17-18 restrictions but suggested them in the wrong order (Acts 15:20). Then, when the Council formulated its decision, the restrictions were recorded in their correct order according to Leviticus 17-18 (Acts 15:29). In the light of the correlation existing between the four recommendations of the Jerusalem Council and the regulations of Leviticus 17-18 which appears to be the source of the Council’s recommendations, it seems plausible to conclude that porneia refers not to sexual immorality in general, but to the forbidden marriage relationships of Leviticus 18:6-18 in particular” (ibid, Chapter 6).

Matthew wrote his gospel principally for Jewish converts to Christianity. Jewish-Christians continued to follow the Mosaic marriage laws which prohibited marriage with a near relative (Lev 18:6-18). Gentile converts to Christianity kept the Greco-Roman laws of marriage. This would explain why Matthew, in writing to a Jewish-Christian audience familiar with the prohibitions against marriage to a near relative, includes the exception clause (“except for porneia”). Mark and Luke omit the clause presumably because Gentile Christians were less likely than Jewish Christians to marry a near relative. Gentile people were not as tribally related as Jewish people.” (ibid, Chapter 6).

“The narrower interpretation of the porneia exception as referring to incestuous marriages prohibited in Leviticus 18:6-18 is supported also by the historical setting of Christ’s dispute with the Pharisees. Since the dispute occurred in Perea (Matt 19:1; Mark 10:1), the territory governed by Herod Antipas, it is quite likely that the Pharisees wanted to trick Jesus into making a statement against the incestuous marriage of Herod Antipas. John the Baptist was imprisoned and executed for condemning Herod Antipas for divorcing his wife in order to marry the wife of his brother Philip (Matt 14:4). Antipas had violated the Mosaic law which stated, “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your brother’s wife; she is your brother’s nakedness” (Lev 18:16; cf. 20:21)” (ibid, Chapter 6).

“The immediate context supports the narrower interpretation of the porneia exception as a reference to the prohibited relationships of Leviticus 18:6-18. In Matthew 19:4-8, Christ rejects the Mosaic provision for divorce as a mere concession to human rebellion running contrary to God’s original plan for marriage. In this context, it would be inconsistent for Jesus to proceed to make a concession of his own for divorce in the case of sexual misconduct” (ibid, Chapter 6).

With the above in mind, we will analyze this argumentation. This position, as we will see, falls short of Bible, logic and consistency. The main problem with his argumentation is that it relies heavily on assumptions and presuppositions that are not supported by scripture.

The first problem with this position is that it attempts to give some sort of special and limited meaning to the word fornication (“porneia”) in Matthew 19:9. Porneia is an all-encompassing word including any and all acts of unlawful sexual intercourse.  If one wants to place a limited definition upon this word, they must do so from context and not the word itself. There is no doubt that this word could be used to condemn incestuous relationships because incestuous relationships would fall under the category of porneia (see: 1 Cor. 5:1-5). However, there is nothing in context that would demand the word “porneia” to be limited to only incestuous sexual intercourse/marriage in Matthew 19:9.

Interestingly enough, Bacchiocchi is attempting to use a passage from the Old Testament (Lev. 18:8) that does not even contain the word “porneia” in the LXX. Furthermore, even if we grant that Acts 15:20, 29 is speaking of sins listed in Leviticus 17-18, it does not support his presupposition because, while these passages in Leviticus deal with incest laws, the Greek word “porneia” is never used in the LXX in these passages.

Also, using this explanation as to why the exception clause was only recorded in Matthew’s account doesn’t make any sense when considering his understanding of Acts 15:20, 29. He says the reason why Mark and Luke leave out the exception clause is because:

Gentile converts to Christianity kept the Greco-Roman laws of marriage. This would explain why Matthew, in writing to a Jewish-Christian audience familiar with the prohibitions against marriage to a near relative, includes the exception clause (“except for porneia”). Mark and Luke omit the clause presumably because Gentile Christians were less likely than Jewish Christians to marry a near relative.” 

If it were the case that the exception clause was omitted in Mark and Luke’s account because the Gentile Christians were less likely than Jewish Christians to marry a near relative and it didn’t apply to them, then why would Paul teach the Gentiles in Acts 15: 20, 29 what Bacchiocchi argues was not necessarily for the Gentiles to hear? Why teach it to the Gentiles in Acts 15, but exclude it in Mark and Luke? This doesn’t make any sense, especially since Luke is the author of Acts and Luke.

In regards to Herod and Herodias, there is no doubt that the situation of Herod & Herodias involved the violation of the incestuous Jewish law. However, that would in no way prove that Jesus was taking the word “porneia” and using it in a limited way in Matthew 19. In fact, the word “porneia” is not even used in any of the contexts of Herod & Herodias (although it would certainly be applicable).

If indeed the exception was only in the case of incestuous unions, then it would be odd that Jesus would give forth an exception that would just “allow” them to divorce. If one argues that this marriage (where a man married a close kin) was never even a God-joined covenant to begin with, then not only would they have to argue that Jesus was giving an exception to get out of this marriage, but they would have to say He was making it mandatory. Yet, this is not what the text says nor does it fit within the context of Matthew 19:9.

Finally, he argues that God’s original purpose was for there to be no incest. That is not the context of the marital teachings of Jesus. Prior to the writing of Leviticus, there are no Old Testament passages that condemn incest. In the whole book of Genesis, incest is a common practice. Abraham married his half-sister (Genesis 20:12), and both Isaac and Jacob married kinsmen (Genesis 22:20ff; 24:4; 24:43). Of course, all of Shem, Ham, and Japheth’s children, Jacob, all of Adam and Eve’s grandchildren, Isaac, Esau, etc. would have been in incestuous relationships. The people of the Patriarchal Period, therefore, were not under the specific regulations of the Mosaic Code.

“Prior to Moses time, incest in many of the forms later proscribed, were not thought to be wrong. Thus, even Moses’ own father, Amram, married an aunt, his father’s sister, Jochebed (Exodus 6:20)” (Hard Sayings of the Bible, eds. Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., F. F. Bruce, p. 101).

In the early stages of human history, marriage among kinsmen was not deemed immoral. In fact, it was a necessity from the nature of the situation. The children of Adam and Eve married kinsmen, for there were no other people on earth except those who descended from the original pair. Therefore, the laws on incestuous relationships were not given until the earth had been populated and the Old Covenant was given to Moses.

Therefore, the incestuous view should be rejected for the aforementioned reasons.

– Kevin Pendergrass

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