The biblical teaching about divorce and remarriage is straightforward until we encounter the cryptic “exceptive clause” which is found only in Matthew.
Matthew’s gospel differs from Mark’s account by adding a limiting clause: “except for the reason of porneias”. The Greek word porneia means sexual immorality in a general sense, and has a large range of possible meanings. It can refer to any sexual activity outside of marriage as well as abnormal sexual activity inside of marriage. The following are examples of how some Bibles translate this clause:
excepting for the cause of fornication” (Rheims)
“saving for the cause of fornication” (KJV)
“except for the cause of unchastity” (NASB)
“unless the marriage is unlawful” (NAB)
“except for marital unfaithfulness” (NIV)
“except on the grounds of unchastity” (NRSV)
In general there are three major schools of thought about how to interpret the Greek word porneia in this context. Porneia can mean (1) adultery; (2) sexual activity prior to marriage; (3) marriage within prohibited degrees of kinship.
The majority Protestant position translates porneia to mean adultery. Therefore, the meaning of the exceptive clauses is: divorce and remarriage are prohibited, unless there has been adultery in the marriage, in which case the marriage is already broken. This is a very weak interpretation, however, because it stands in contradiction to all of the other saying of Jesus about the indestructible nature of the bond of marriage.
There is also a long standing Catholic tradition which interprets porneia to mean adultery. Catholics hold that divorce is allowable if one party is unfaithful, but remarriage is not allowed because the bond of marriage is unbreakable. This Catholic interpretation, then, requires the exceptive clauses to refer only to divorce and not to remarriage.
As an historical note, shortly after the time of Christ, Jewish as well as Roman husbands were compelled by law to divorce their wives if it became known that she committed adultery. In this context Matthew’s exceptive clause is an accommodation to a cultural situation in which Christians would be facing legal persecution if they did not divorce.
Sexual Activity Prior to Marriage
Another interpretation of porneia is to translate it as sexual activity prior to marriage. This is known as the “Betrothal” view. In Jewish marriage, betrothal was a formal step prior to the consummation of the marriage. Once betrothed, the parties were legally married even though they did not enjoy all of the benefits of marriage. Nevertheless, divorce would still be required if someone wanted to call off the wedding. According to the betrothal view, the exceptive clause means: divorce and remarriage are prohibited, unless there has been infidelity prior to the wedding itself, in which case the marriage does not have to take place.
The betrothal view is appealing because, in the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel (See Mt 1:18-19), Joseph is described as a “righteous man,” who, nevertheless, had decided to divorce Mary during their betrothal period since he suspected her of porneia. Joseph could not be called “righteous” if he was about to do an action which would later be condemned by Jesus. Therefore, this situation in the beginning of Matthew's gospel explains why Matthew inserted the exceptive clause.
Marriage within Prohibited Degrees of Kinship
A third interpretation is called the “Rabbinic” view. In the rabbinic view, porneia is interpreted to mean marriage, or in general, sexual activity, within the prohibited degrees of kinship as specified by Leviticus 18. Many scholars agree that Matthew was writing to a mixed Jewish/Gentile community. Gentiles, unlike the Jews, would sometimes enter into marriage with a close blood relative. The influx of Gentiles into the Christian community caused the leaders of the Christians to specify what was necessary of Gentile converts. Their decision is found in Acts 15:20, which includes a statement that Gentiles must avoid porneia. In this context, porneia most likely means marriage to a close blood relative.
According to the rabbinic view, the exceptive clause means: divorce and remarriage is prohibited, unless the marriage is unlawful in accordance with Lev 18, in such a case Gentiles must separate and enter into a lawful marriage.
And so, there are at least three ways in which the exceptive clause in Matthew can be interpreted. But it is wrong to interpret this clause in such a way that it contradicts or overturns Jesus’ consistent teaching about divorce and remarriage.