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In conversations, blog posts and books, I’ve noticed a few people making distinctions between certain Greek and Hebrew words used in the Bible in the context of divorce. They claim that only some of these words actually refer to divorce. In this article, I briefly look at the language and context of relevant verses. My claim is that divorce, the end of a marriage, is the meaning regardless of the different words used.

Divorce Terminology in the Gospels

Apoluō and Biblion Apostasiou

The Greek verb apoluō is used in a technical sense to mean “divorce” in the Jewish setting of the Gospels. This verb is usually translated in English New Testaments as “send away,” “put away,” or “divorce” when used in the context of the end of a marriage.

Apoluō occurs, in various forms, three times in Matthew 5:31-32, five times in Matthew 19:3-9, four times in Mark 10:2-12, twice in Luke 16:18, all with the sense of “divorce.” It also occurs in Matthew 1:19 where Joseph plans to end his betrothal to Mary.

The term biblion apostasiou (“certificate of divorce/ dismissal”) occurs in the New Testament and in the Septuagint (the ancient Greek version of the Old Testament). In the New Testament, the term occurs twice, both times in verses that also contain the verb apoluō: see Mark 10:4 and Matthew 19:7-9. Apostasion, which also refers to a certificate of divorce, is used in Matthew 5:31 which contains the verb apoluō.

Apostasion/ apostasiou (“certificate of divorce/ dismissal”) and apoluō are the only Greek words used for “divorce” in the Gospels. Chōrizō is used in Matthew 19:6 and Mark 10:9 where it means “separate”: “what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Chōrizō refers to the fact that a divorced couple is apart, physically separated, in contrast with “joined together.”

My article Jesus on Divorce, Remarriage, and Adultery is here.
My article Hyperbole and Divorce in the Sermon on the Mount is here.

Divorce Terminology in 1 Corinthians 7

Chōrizō and Aphiēmi

Paul does not use apoluō when writing to the Christians in the Roman colony of Corinth. He uses the verb chōrizō (“separate”) in 1 Corinthians 7:10 & 11 for a Christian wife who separates from her Christian husband. He also uses chōrizō in 1 Corinthians 7:15 (twice) for an unbeliever who separates from their Christian spouse.

Paul uses a different verb, aphiēmi (“leave” or, perhaps, “send away”), in 1 Corinthians 7:11 for a Christian husband who must not leave or send away (i.e. divorce) his Christian wife. He uses the same word, aphiēmi, in 1 Corinthians 7:12 for a Christian husband who must not leave or send away his non-Christian wife if she is willing to stay. The word is then used again in 1 Corinthians 7:13 for a Christian wife who must not leave or send away her non-Christian husband if he is willing to stay.

Writing about chōrizō and aphiēmi, David Instone-Brewer cautions,

Differences between these words should not be exaggerated. There may be no significance in their use other than stylistic variation. In English one might use both “divorce” and “dissolution” in the same paragraph without intending any difference in meaning. There were more than fifty words used for “divorce” in Greek marriage and divorce contracts, and it was common to use several in a single document. It is certainly not possible to say that aphiēmi is a legal divorce and chōrizō is just a separation. In Greco-Roman society, separation was a legal divorce, and chōrizō is the most common of the words used for divorce.
David Instone-Brewer,  Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 198-199.

Apoluō, chōrizō, and aphiēmi are all common Greek verbs. They are used in various contexts in the New Testament, many have nothing to do with divorce. But these words in the verses I’ve cited refer to divorce. In Bible times, to intentionally separate from a spouse, or to leave, or send them away, was to end a marriage.

My article Paul’s Words on Divorce, and Leaving an Abusive Marriage is here.
All my articles on 1 Corinthians 7 are here.

Hebrew and Greek Old Testament Terms

Kerithuth, shalach, and exapostellō

Some claim that only the Hebrew word kerithuth means “divorce.” This word is used four times in the Hebrew Bible, always and only when speaking about a “certificate of divorce/ dismissal” (Sepher kerithuth: סֵ֤פֶר כְּרִיתֻת֙) (Deut 24:1. 3: Isa. 50:1; Jer. 3:8). Sepher kerithuth is translated as biblion apostasiou (“certificate of divorce/ dismissal”) in the Septuagint. (See above.)

Shalach, a common Hebrew word that means “send,” refers to divorce in nine Bible verses: Deut. 21:14; 22:19, 29; 24:1, 3, 4; Isa. 50:1b; Jer. 3:1, 8; Mal. 2:16). Shalach is translated as exapostellō (“send away”) in the Septuagint in each of these verses. To send a wife away was to divorce her in Bible times.

Exapostellō is not used in the New Testament in verses about divorce. Greek divorce terminology used by Jewish authors may have changed during the years between the translation of the Septuagint and the writing of the Gospels.

My article on God on Divorce (Malachi 2:16) is here.
My article Malachi 2:16 and the Priest Who Divorced His Wife is here.

A Further Consideration

When considering what the Bible says about divorce, it helps to differentiate between Israelite customs in Old Testament times and early Jewish customs in Jesus’ day, and not confuse either of them with later Jewish customs and traditions that didn’t apply in Bible times.

It is also important to understand that Jewish divorce customs relevant to Jesus’s teaching are different from Roman divorce customs that are more relevant to Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7.

Furthermore, we must understand the varying concerns that are addressed in the few passages about divorce in the Old Testament, in the Gospels, and in 1 Corinthians 7. All these passages address specific audiences and are about specific issues. Little of it is general teaching on divorce. And note that neither God, Jesus, or Paul forbids a spouse from leaving an abusive partner.

© Margaret Mowczko 2018, 2022
All Rights Reserved

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All my articles on divorce are here.
Dr Rachel Aubrey writes about gender and grammatical voice in the Greek words for marriage, divorce, and adultery here.

20 thoughts on “A Note on Divorce Terminology in the Bible

  1. Very clear, thank you.
    The basic problem for English-speaking readers is that our translations use the words ‘divorce’ and ‘separate’ to translate the original words, and the original words do not signify any distinction between these two. But in the Anglo-American legal tradition there is a sharp distinction between ‘divorce’ and ‘separation’. So, readers are unwittingly misled into reading English Bible versions as if the same modern distinction were intended.

    1. Thanks, Andrew. That’s very likely.

      I’ve also seen some argue that unless a certificate of divorce is mentioned in a Bible verse, the issue is wives being “sent away” without this document: the wives are not “officially” divorced and therefore cannot marry someone else. According to this interpretation, the real injustice is wives not being able to remarry and, without the support of a husband, becoming vulnerable to destitution. Sometimes cases from medieval Judaism are cited to support this idea, but I cannot see that this is the situation addressed in the Bible.

    2. Excellent observation, Andrew. Thanks for this clarification and special thanks to you for your book, Men and Women in Christ!

      Great post, Marg (as always)!!

  2. I always appreciate the thoughtfulness and thoroughness of your blogs.

    I wonder if you have considered the similarity of the phrase

    ποιεῖ αὐτὴν μοιχευθῆναι· in Matthew 5:32 and the phrase

    ψεύστην ποιοῦμεν αὐτὸν in 1 John 1:10

    Of course, we cannot make God a liar, but if we claim to have no sin, we make him appear to be a liar (because all have sinned).
    In the same way, if a man sends his wife away without a certificate of divorce, doesn’t he make her appear to be an adulteress?

    Here’s my explanation of the apoluo question. (I think there are several points that might help you “see” this explanation. ) https://www.academia.edu/3622738/What_Jesus_Really_Said_Putting_Away_the_Mistranslations_about_Divorce

    I had a long email conversation with David Instone-Brewer on this question. His final comment was, “Yours is a neat solution, if the facts were on your side.” I find it hard not to see this any other way.

    1. Thanks Dan. I look forward to reading this.

      I’ve written about Matthew 5:31-32 here. My overall argument is that Jesus uses hyperbole and makes shocking statements in the Sermon of the Mount for effect, and we are not meant to take those statements literally.

    2. Dan, I read your paper fairly closely, but can’t see that our view of apoluō is that different. It refers to the termination of a marriage in the pertinent Gospel verses. Whether a certificate is given, or not, doesn’t change the fact that a marriage is over.

      I can’t see that a lack of a certificate is the main issue that Jesus addresses. The conversation in Matthew 19 begins with the Pharisees testing Jesus with the question, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife on any grounds?”

      Are you able to provide citations of early church documents that support Wenham and Heth’s claim about the early church’s view of apoluō? I’d like to see what the original sources say. Just the authors’ names, book number (where applicable), paragraph number, etc, is fine.

      I’m looking at other instances where ποιέω is followed by an accusative personal pronoun. It’s not a rare construction (e.g., Matt. 4:19; 23:15; Mark 10:6).

  3. Thank you, Marg, for looking at the paper. (I don’t believe there have been 14,000 views, so academia.edu’s counting system may have failed this time.)

    I agree that after a divorce, the marriage is ended and, as Reverend Doctor Instone-Brewer is at pains to explain in his great book, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible, once the marriage is over, both parties are free to remarry. However, the crux of my position is that apoluō (sending away) is not a divorce.

    I began looking at this issue almost fifty years ago when I lived in Ecuador as a missionary. I could not understand why or how a person could commit adultery if they were divorced. A light went on for me when I looked at apoluō in Matthew 1:19. Joseph and Mary were not married; how could they divorce? (I know some project backwards and anachronistically that a divorce was needed to break a betrothal. That’s not biblical; it comes from the Gittim dated 200 years after Christ.) But the simple sense of Jesus’ statement that a man may not send his wife away and then remarry until he is no longer married to her. If apoluō means divorce, then Matthew 5:31 is redundant, and those who have taught for years that divorce and remarriage = adultery are right.

    My point on the ποιέω usage in 1John 1 is that the phraseology is similar to “makes her an adulteress” in Matthew 5:32. We do not truly “make God a liar” but if we say we have no sin, he appears to be so. If a man sends his wife away sans divorce, it makes her look like she’s an adulteress in the eyes of the community. This to me is the abuse against women that Jesus (and Malachi, and Ezra, and Moses) were dealing with.

    Sorry to be so longwinded on this. I have seen this scripture used to destroy lives and even churches because of misinterpretation too often.

    God bless your great work, always. Dan

    1. I think I see your point now. Are you saying that Matthew 5:32 could be understood as, “But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her out to be adulterer”?

      The Evangelical Heritage Version has, “But I tell you that whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, causes her to be regarded as an adulteress.”

      No apology is necessary. I’ve also seen the church’s rigid and graceless approach to divorce destroy lives.

      1. Yes! I will look for the Evangelical Heritage Version. I believe that have that last part exactly right.
        I believe you asked me for a comment from the church fathers. I only have this one: In The Loeb Classical Library, “The Apostolic Fathers II” (copyright 1948) There is an explanation on p. 79, especially the footnote. This is in the “Shepherd of Hermas” Mandate iv. section 1, verses 6 – 8, If that is not helpful enough, I will scan or re-type the comments for you. The point is that this church father says that a person who is “put away” (apoluo) may not remarry anyone, but may return to her husband.
        Later I will send you what Spiros Zodhiates explains about apoluo in his book, “May I Divorce and Remarry?” God’s blessings on you today.

      2. Wow! Mandate (Commandment) 4.1.6 is harsh.

        Michael Holmes translates apoluō with “divorce” words in all three occurrences of apoluō in verses 6-7.

        J.B. Lightfoot also translates apoluō with “divorce” words three times in verses 6-7.

        Roberts and Donaldson have “put away” four times in Commandment 4, but they refer to the woman as “the divorced wife” once: “In case, therefore, that the divorced wife may repent, the husband ought not to marry another, when his wife has been put away.”

        Glenn Davis doesn’t use “divorce” words in his translation, but has this note which is all about divorce:

        Compare with: “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” (Matthew 5:32).
        In contrast to the easy access to divorce under the Mosaic Law, and because of the misuse of divorce in that day, Christ repeatedly condemned divorce and emphasized the eternal character of marriage. However, the possibility of divorce on grounds of unchastity, for example, clearly shows that Christ considered that the marriage bond is not absolute; it can be destroyed by sin. In contrast to the position of the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church allows divorce as a corrective measure of compassion when a marriage has unfortunately been broken.

        I really don’t see a considerable difference between “put away” or “divorce” in the Shepherd of Hermas passage or in the Gospel passages. Apoluō refers to the break up of a marriage (or the break up of a betrothal in the case of Joseph and Mary).

        I think “divorce” is an adequate translation of apoluō when a marriage (or betrothal) is ended. “Put away” sounds vague and it’s not language we use today for breakups.

        One church father (who presents severe ideas that Jesus never mentions) isn’t compelling evidence to me. But I have a great deal of respect for Wenham.

  4. Marg,
    I know you are probably very busy and I appreciate your time for this discussion.
    I want to make three comments in response to your last post, and the third one is from the footnote in Loeb’s version of Mandate 4. 1. 6.

    1) IF apoluo does not mean divorce in Matthew 5, I don’t understand how one gets around the text in order to allow a divorced person to remarry.
    32 ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι πᾶς ὁ ἀπολύων τὴν γυναῖκα αὐτοῦ παρεκτὸς λόγου πορνείας ποιεῖ αὐτὴν
    but I say to you (pl.) that anyone divorcing his wife (except for the cause of fornication) makes
    her appear to be [Thank you again for the rendering in the EHV]
    μοιχευθῆναι· καὶ ὃς ἐὰν ἀπολελυμένην γαμήσῃ, μοιχᾶται.
    commiting adultery. And if anyone the divorced person marries, they commit adultery.

    This reading of the passage, taken literally (with apoluo meaning divorce), is what has wreaked havoc in American churches since the mid-19th Century. (I think I located the first American edition of the NT that used the word “divorce” in this verse. Of course, divorce was rampant then, and people would take the train from the East to Indiana and get a quickie divorce. Now they head further west.)
    And I know that many scholars today suggest things like: “porneia” means all kinds of sexual sins which produced the lame translation, “sexual immorality.” Lame because of the relative meaning of “morality” in our culture today.
    Other scholars explain that the principle involved is breaking the covenant of marriage. Of course, they introduce the four A’s as adequate evidence that the covenant is broken: adultery, abuse, alcoholism (or drugs) and abandonment.
    By the way, I totally agree that these are grounds for divorce. And I also believe that whatever the cause, a divorce ends the marriage. It’s not a sin to divorce, any more than it’s a virtue to get legally married.
    But even today, a person needs to get a legal divorce — walking out (or sending your partner away) does not mean they are divorced. (I once had a Christian man come see me when he and his wife were having difficulties — so he moved out — and he wanted to know if it was okay for him to start seeing other women. “You’re still married, man!” I said as calmly as I could.)
    Second, in your quotation above from the Orthodox Church, “In contrast to the easy access to divorce under the Mosaic Law, … .” is not an accurate statement. The main difficulty (and I think this agrees with David I-B’s incredible book) was the financial aspect. The “sending away” without a certificate was much easier — one’s ex-wife could not legally claim the ketubah or the dowry (or “mohar”).
    I am convinced, as I think I mentioned earlier, that the teaching in Deuteronomy 24, Ezra 9, Malachi 2, Matthew 5 (and other gospels), were all part of a consistent message from God in defense of oppressed women. This is why I read the passage in Matthew 5 as a corrective against, and in Maatthew 19 as an attempt of the pharisees to defend, the practice of sending away (as the Roman law permitted) in lieu of a legitimate divorce. It was practice that was motivated by the pernicious greed and selfishness by powerful men. (That explains why the passage about divorce is in Luke 16 where the discussion of the overall context — from Luke 15 to Luke 19 — is about money.)
    Third, you’re right about the harshness of Hermas, but I also thinks he represents how early the misunderstanding about divorce impacted the church. (By the way, have you ever compared Matthew 5:32 in the Vulgate with Erasmus’ Latin version?)
    Here is the footnote in the Loeb version which I mentioned as important:
    This mandate is really explaining the practical problem which arose from the conflict between the Christian precept against divorce (Mark 10, 11 ff.) and the equally early precept against having intercourse with immoral persons. As the inserted clause “except for the cause of fornication” in the Matthew inversion of Mark 10, 11 (Matthew 19, 9; cf. Matthew 5, 32 and Luke 16, 18) shows, the latter precept was regarded as more important and immoral wives were put away, but Hermas and other writers always maintained that this was not strictly divorce, as the innocent party was not free to remarry in order to give the other the opportunity of repenting and of returning. (I believe this is part of the English translation and commentary by Kirsop Lake)

    Finally, another take on apoluo that fits in between what you and I have been saying:
    “It is a recognized principle of linguistics that the sense of the word exists not in the word alone but also in the utterances in which it is embedded. So it is quite unwarranted to argue that because apolyein means “to divorce” (permitting remarriage) in the mouth of the Pharisees, it cannot mean “to separate” (without remarrying) in the mouth of Jesus. It is the context that must decide the nuance in each case. I have already stated my reasons for believing that when Jesus talks of apolyein again, he is talking merely of separation without the right to remarry. This is the only sense that fits the context.

    “But there is a final consideration. Even permissive interpreters who hold that Jesus did allow remarriage after divorce for porneia admit that, according to Jesus, apolyein did not always allow remarriage after divorce. They essentially understand Matthew 19:9 to cover two situations: one, whoever divorces his wife in an non-porneia case and marries another commits adultery; two, whoever divorces his wife in the case of porneia and marries another does not commit adultery.”
    This author, Gordon Wenham, goes on to conclude, “they cannot argue that apolyein always means “divorce with the right to remarry.” (“Remarriage After Divorce in Today’s Church – 3 Views”, pp. 33-36)

    Instone-Brewer also discusses, without mentioning Wenham’s points, illegitimate divorces, especially where the divorce decree was wrongly written.

    A good friend and the professor who taught me early on about textual criticism, wrote me that I could never prove my case (about apoluo) from a linguistic standpoint. I guess he was right. As I said before, my friend, David I-B, did consider my solution a “neat” one. I only ask that people read the pertinent texts as if apoluo meant “send away without a certificate” and see the good sense of that. I don’t think it is harsh to tell a person who is not divorced legally that they cannot marry someone else — yet.

    With much appreciation and even more respect for you work,
    Dan Knight

    1. Thanks, Dan. That Matthew 5:31 has been interpreted badly and misapplied with tragic consequences is not in doubt. However, I can’t see that not using the word “divorce” in this verse changes the meaning appreciably, especially considering first-century customs.

      1. Are you saying that if a married couple separates, but does not divorce, that each partner may marry someone else?
        That is the difference for me in Matt 5:31 between translating apoluo as send away or divorce, then or now.

        1. No, I’m not saying any of that.
          I continue to think over some of the things you’ve said, but as I said at the beginning of this conversation, I believe Jesus uses hyperbole in Matthew 5:31-32.

  5. Marg, I apologize for sounding too argumentative! Also, for not reading your article on hyperbole yet! I meant to do that. My age makes me forgetful and cranky!! Also, I feel like I’ve been burying a lot of people in the last couple of years ever since I retired.
    Again, God’s best blessings on your very worthy work. Thank you.

  6. Considering how few words were used in the Greek and Hebrew languages, compared to English. Why in the world would there be two words for divorce but no word for separation? We’ve been played.

    1. There is no shortage of words in ancient Greek. (See here, for example.)

      And the Hebrew Bible covers a wide time span: vocabulary can change over time. And, apart from language changing, different authors may prefer different words to say essentially the same thing.

      When a man made the decision that he no longer wanted to live as husband and wife with a certain woman, and he separated from his wife, it was divorce. In Israelite and Jewish culture, it was typically a man who initiated and formalised the divorce. In the Roman world, women could much more easily divorce their husbands.

      1. Yes, because there was a huge span of time where wives were basically slaves unless they came from a wealthy family. In the verses where people are labeling others with the adulterer title – if you read the word as separation, not divorce then it makes perfect sense. If you are not divorced and you marry someone else then OF COURSE you are an adulterer. Modern day life is so difficult for women but so easy for men. It’s so wrong!

  7. I want to make some time to read more of your work. I appreciate your perspective. My biggest issue with these words is when Baptists pastors claim someone is an adulterer when they’re not. If a Mama gets a disruptive parent out of the house for the sake of peace – it’s mostly so that her children don’t learn to be like their father in one way or another. Protection of your children or being labeled a nasty name by the church – which would most women choose? Why is that our only choices? God showed me that the Bible has been manipulated. I don’t know about yours buy MY FATHER would never give me such a nasty name unless I was actually an adulterer! In those verses – apoluo or apostasion – or whatever words are claimed to be used mean SEPARATION! Would you please offer your thoughts?

    1. Protecting our children should be a top priority. That some people are narrow-minded and mean spirited and call people names, such as “adulterer,” has little to do with how the Bible is translated.

      And as I said, when a person in the ancient world made the decision to separate from their spouse, and no longer be husband and wife, it was divorce.

      I have no issue with what the Bible says on divorce. What God says in Malachi 2 and what Jesus says in the Gospels was designed to protect women. These words, when properly understood, do not put women down.

      The problem is not the Bible. The problem is ungracious people misunderstanding the Bible.

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