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Hyperbole and Divorce in the Sermon on the Mount

The Text: Matthew 5:31–32

“It was also said, Whoever divorces his wife must give her a written notice of divorce. But I tell you, everyone who divorces his wife, except in a case of sexual immorality, causes her to commit adultery. And whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Matthew 5:31–32 CSB).

Matthew 5:17–48 and Exemplary Righteousness

All verses in the Bible must be read in context with an appreciation of the genre and tone of the writing. Jesus’ brief words on divorce in Matthew 5:31–32 are no exception.

Matthew 5:31–32 is part of a larger passage, Matthew 5:17–48, that is included in Jesus’ Sermon on Mount. This passage is an appeal to live by a higher ethical standard than stipulated in the Law of Moses and to live by a higher ethical standard than what the scribes and Pharisees practised:

“For I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20 CSB).

To make his points, Jesus first refers to a Law from the Hebrew Bible or to a rabbinic interpretation of the Law and then gives a short explanation. Jesus often uses the rhetorical device of hyperbole (overstatement or exaggeration) in these explanations.[1] He does this for emphasis as well as to provoke and hold the attention of his audience. In some verses this hyperbole is obvious.


Perhaps the most obvious example of hyperbole is in the verses on adultery.

“You have heard that it was said, Do not commit adultery. But I tell you, everyone who looks at a woman lustfully[2] has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to go into hell [i.e. Gehenna]” (Matt. 5:27–30 CSB).

I know no one who believes Jesus actually meant that people were to gouge out their eye or cut off their hand if they were lusting after someone and sinning. This is evidenced by the fact that most of us still have two eyes and two hands. And how does removing one eye or one hand solve the problem of lust and sin when we have two of each?

Jesus’ words are forceful and provocative. His intention is that his audience think deeply about his words and take them as a serious warning against adultery and its root cause, lust. He wants the problem to be nipped in the bud. His intention is not that people maim themselves.


Jesus’ words on murder and anger in Matthew 5:21–22 also include hyperbole.

“You have heard that it was said to our ancestors, Do not murder, and whoever murders will be subject to judgment. But I tell you, everyone who is angry with his brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Whoever insults his brother or sister, will be subject to the court [of the Sanhedrin]. Whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be subject to hellfire [i.e. the destructive fire of Gehenna]” (Matt. 5:21–22 CSB).

Jesus is trying to shock his audience. Again, he wants them to think through what he is saying and take it seriously. But he did not mean that they, or us, are to believe that we are literally and irreversibly damned if and when we are angry with our brother or sister. Otherwise, we’re all doomed.

Law and Perfection

Right at the start of this passage, Jesus begins with statements that contain hyperbole or overstatements, including this one:

“For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or one stroke of a letter will pass away from the law until all things are accomplished” (Matt. 5:18 CSB).

Turning the other cheek is also an example of hyperbole, as is going an extra mile with a wicked person (Matt. 5:38–42). And Jesus closes this section with more hyperbole.

“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48 CSB).

Jesus cannot have expected his audience to have the same level of moral and ethical perfection as God the Father. Nevertheless, Jesus’ meaning is clear: we are to live by a high standard of righteousness. Perfect righteousness and exemplary moral integrity are the ideal.

So what about Jesus’ words on divorce?

Divorce and Deuteronomy 24:1

After addressing murder-anger and adultery-lust, Jesus brings up divorce. Here are these verses again.

“It was also said, Whoever divorces his wife must give her a written notice of divorce. But I tell you, everyone who divorces his wife, except in a case of sexual immorality, causes her to commit adultery. And whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Matt. 5:31–32 CSB).[3]

Jesus begins by referencing Deuteronomy 24:1. He only speaks one line, but this one line would have reminded his audience of these words:

“If a man marries a woman, but she becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, he may write her a divorce certificate, hand it to her, and send her away from his house” (Deut. 24:1 CSB, italics added).

Divorce was not uncommon among first-century Jews. As discussed in another article (here), some Jews in Jesus’ day had greatly relaxed the meaning of “indecent” in Deuteronomy 24:1 and were allowing men to divorce their wives over trivial matters such as a wife burning the food. But Jesus indicates that Moses’ meaning of “indecent” was sexual immorality.[4] Note that Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:31–32 are not a general discussion on divorce—he does not mention a spouse leaving an abusive marriage, for example—Jesus is focussing only on husbands divorcing their wives for no valid reason.

Jesus’ Rhetoric on Divorce–Adultery

According to the Law of Moses, the certificate of divorce allowed a divorced woman the freedom to marry again. In Jesus’ day also, divorce came with the right to marry another person.[5] But Jesus is saying that a woman divorced by her husband, even if she has a certificate, becomes an adulterer, presumably, when she marries someone else. And the man who marries her also becomes an adulterer, presumably, even if he hasn’t been married before or is a widower. This is provocative teaching; it would have raised eyebrows and elicited a few outbursts of surprise from the original audience.

It’s also confusing if we take it literally. Note however this translation which is credible.

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, causes her to be regarded as an adulteress. And whoever marries the divorced woman is regarded as an adulterer” (Matt. 5:31–32 EHV).[6]

Would a husband who is divorcing his wife over a trivial matter be concerned that Jesus calls his soon-to-be former wife an adulterer? Or that she might be mistaken for an adulterer? (The idea of “not being able to his woman” might wound his male pride, however.) And why does Jesus say nothing at all in Matthew 5:31–32 about the (first) husband remarrying after divorce (cf. Matt. 19:9)?[7] Is Jesus only concerned here with the status of the woman and her second husband as adulterers, or that they may appear to be adulterers?

The logic of Jesus’ statement is not clear but he was not criticising or condemning an innocent wife who had no option but to marry after being divorced by their husband.[8] Perhaps Jesus was being deliberately controversial so that people might ask questions, think about and discuss the injustice of wives being unfairly dumped, and censure those who were divorcing their wives over trivial matters.

Jesus was against divorce. Elsewhere he upholds the lifelong one-flesh unity of husband and wife (Matt. 19:4–6). And in Matthew 5:31–32 he uses strong language and overstatement to send the message that divorce should be avoided. As in the previous verses in Matthew 5:17ff, however, we must not jump to a literal understanding of every aspect of Matthew 5:31–32. Paul did not take these words literally when discussing divorce in 1 Corinthians 7, assuming he knew them.

In Mark’s and Luke’s Gospels, there are other verses that mention divorce and that do not employ hyperbole. These other verses may help us to better understand what Jesus has to say about divorce and about remarriage. (I’ve written about Jesus’ teaching on divorce here.)

Summing Up

According to Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:17–48, getting angry and calling your brother a fool is wrong, looking at someone with lust is wrong, divorcing your wife (except in the case of sexual immorality) is wrong. So is breaking a vow (Matt. 5:33–37), resisting a wicked person (Matt. 5:38–42), and not loving your enemies (Matt. 5:43–47). All these things must be avoided and Jesus uses forceful words to convey the seriousness of these things. Most of us will fail in at least some of these areas, but the church has focussed more on the divorce statements than the others.

Jesus isn’t making new regulations in Matthew 5:17–48, he is asserting ideals. We must understand the principles he teaches here and take them to heart, but we are not necessarily expected to practice them literally or on every occasion. Paul, for example, didn’t turn the other cheek in Acts 23:2–3.

All the principles and ideals given in Scripture must be applied with wisdom, common sense and kindness. This includes Jesus’ words on divorce in Matthew 5 and elsewhere. Righteousness must be balanced, and practised, with mercy (Matt. 5:7).

At the heart of Jesus’ ministry is love for humanity, and sometimes accepting divorce is the merciful and loving thing to do, even when there is no evidence of sexual immorality. And insisting that a person endure a marriage where the other spouse is violent and habitually cruel to their partner or to their children is the opposite of what Jesus wants for his followers. Insisting a spouse stay in a harmful marriage is not an example of high moral or ethical standards or of exemplary righteousness.[9]


[1] Hyperbole is “a figure of speech in which exceptional exaggeration is deliberately used for emphasis rather than deception.” The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. © 2012, Columbia University Press. (Source)
Craig S. Keener writes that the verses on divorce in Matthew 5:31–32 employ “the same teaching technique of rhetorical overstatement that pervade the context (e.g., 5:18–19, 29–30; 6:3) …” Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Scio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 190.

[2] “Everyone who looks at a woman lustfully” may be an inadequate translation of πᾶς ὁ βλέπων γυναῖκα πρὸς τὸ ἐπιθυμῆσαι αὐτὴν in Matthew 5:28). πρὸς τὸ + infinitive denotes purpose, and a better translation may be “everyone who looks at a woman in order to desire/ covet/ lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” There may be a sense of purpose and intention here, rather than accidental looking and lusting.
Furthermore, it is significant that the verb ἐπιθυμήσεις (“desire, covet, lust”) is used (twice) in the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20:17 in the Septuagint. The general sense of this verb, which occurs as an infinitive in Matthew 5:27, is “to set one’s heart upon.”
This verb also occurs in Galatians 5:17 and the cognate noun occurs in Galatians 5:16 and 24:
“I say, then, walk by the Spirit and you will certainly not carry out the desire (ἐπιθυμίαν) of the flesh. The flesh desires (ἐπιθυμεῖ) what is against the Spirit, and the Spirit what is against the flesh; these are opposed to each other, so that you don’t do what you want. … Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires (ταῖς ἐπιθυμίαις)” (Gal 5:16–17, 24; Gal 5:19–23).

[3] The wording here is a bit different from similar verses on divorce in Mark 10:11 and Luke 16:18. Only in Matthew’s Gospel is there an allowance for divorce where there is sexual immorality (Matt. 5:31–32 and 19:9). Some believe this phrase was added by the author of Matthew’s Gospel and was not part of Jesus’ original teaching. If so, this means Jesus gave no provision for divorce in his teaching.

[4] The Greek word here porneia is not the Greek word for adultery (moicheia), so some scholars have suggested all kinds of sexual sins to explain “except for sexual immorality.” However, porneia is sometimes used by Jewish writers to refer to adultery when done by a woman. The word porneia is not used in the other three Gospels or in Paul’s letters when discussing divorce.

[5] Mishnah Gittim 9.3 records that the main part of the document of divorce, the get, includes the words,

“Behold, you are permitted to any man.” Rabbi Judah [135 – 217 CE] says: [he must add] “And this shall be to you from me a writ of divorce and a letter of release and a bill of dismissal, with which you may go and marry any man that you wish.” The body of a writ of emancipation [of a female slave] is: “Behold you are a free woman,” [and] “Behold you belong to yourself.”

In 1 Corinthians 7:15, Paul uses some of this same language. Mishnah Gittim was composed around 190 to 230 CE, but parts of it reflect earlier Jewish traditions and teachings.

[6] It could be that Jesus was saying that if a man divorced his wife he effectively makes her out to be an adulterer. 1 John 1:10 (“we make him out to be a liar”) contains some similar Greek vocabulary and grammar as Matthew 5:32: the verb poieō (“make”) followed by a singular pronoun (“her” and “him”).

[7] Polygamy was rare in the first century and against Roman law. In Jewish law, however, it was permissible for a man to have more than one wife at the same time. So if he divorces a woman and marries another, someone might argue that he still has two wives and has not violated Jewish law. But no law allowed for women to have more than one husband at one time.

[8] Remaining single was not a feasible state for many, but not all, ancient Jewish women as it could be difficult for women to support themselves.

[9] Some Christians focus on the divorce–adultery verses in Matthew 5 without giving equal attention to the other verses in the passage but, according to this passage, lusting after someone and getting divorced both result in adultery.

© Margaret Mowczko 2020
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Further Reading

Chapter 7 of Scot McKnight’s book on the Sermon on the Mount. (Google Books)

Explore more

Jesus’ Teaching on Divorce, Remarriage and Adultery
Paul’s words on divorce, and leaving an abusive marriage
God on Divorce (Malachi 2:16)
A Note on Divorce Terminology in the Bible
Paul, James, and Jesus on “Hell” (Gehenna”)
The Onward, Upward Call – Philippians 3:10–14
Maturity and Perfection – Philippians 3:15–19

In this 10-minute video, Craig Keener speaks about divorce and remarriage, including hyperbole in Matthew 5.

artigos em portugues sobre igualdade entre homens e mulheres no lar e na igreja

46 thoughts on “Hyperbole and Divorce in the Sermon on the Mount

  1. An excellent resource for understanding the context of Jesus’ comments on marriage and divorce are two books by David Instine-Brewer: Divorce And Remarriage In The Bible; and Divorce And Remarriage In The Church.

    I believe his work would have been valuable to this article. You can hear him talking about these works in an interview with Dr. Michael Heiser on the Naked Bible Podcast.

    Another dimension to Jesus’ comments on marriage & divorce has much to to with two camps of social opinion at the time. It becomes clear that when Jesus talks about divorce and when the pharisees question Jesus on the subject, he is aware of and is speaking to the controversy. Read about it in Instine-Brewer’s books.

    1. Hi Terese,

      I’ve written a few articles on divorce and I quote from David Instone Brewer in a couple of them.

      I talk about the opposing interpretations of Deuteronomy 24:1 of the Shammaite Pharisees and Hillelite Pharisees, and more, in this article: https://margmowczko.com/jesus-divorce/

      Unlike the other verses of divorce in the Gospels, the Sermon on the Mount wasn’t primarily addressed to Pharisees; it was addressed to Jesus’ disciples and to the crowd that followed him. In this blog post, I focus on the issue of hyperbole.

  2. You can look at the social history of Jesus’ day as well. Only men can give a rit of divorce, the majority of husbands had the financial power, and he had the right to his children, etc. . . Marriages were arranged and were legal contracts. The first wife’s son’s had more rights than a second wife’s children. So there are a lot of things to think about when getting a divorce and Jesus wanted us to think even more deeply when He demanded justices and mercy— wives are human beings made in God’s image and loved by God just like the husband. Just because you have authority over the household doesn’t mean you should behave like a tyrant. If you really love and honor God then your attitude and actions should reflect this. Joseph is a good example of this towards Mary. >> Alison

    1. Thanks, Alison.

      I agree that it’s important to have an understanding of the customs of divorce in Jesus’ day when interpreting his words.

      I have other articles that discuss some of these customs, as well as the language of divorce, in the first century here.

  3. Yes exactly what you said. And remember the certificate of divorce among the people of Israel back then was given to the wife upon marriage. It was essentially a legal document securing her freedom to remarry rather than be enslaved / indentured after being discarded by her husband. She kept it throughout her marriage. This type of empowerment made Israel stand out among other cultures.

  4. Thanks for bringing up how He used hyperbole. It fits with what I see as His use of the Socratic method, asking and answering questions in a way that stimulates critical thinking. Use of hyperbole supports His masterful way of teaching, which is like surgery for the soul.

    1. Jesus uses lots of hyperbole in the Sermon on the Mount, as well as metaphor. It’s no wonder this sermon has remained popular, as well as controversial, through the centuries.

  5. The idea that Jesus speaks in a way to stimulate questions and critical thinking is interesting to me. I was taught not to question, which is terribly problemaric when what you’re reading doesn’t make sense or is contradictory or seems cruel. I appreciate your willingness to explore these topics. I still don’t know what to believe but I spent a lot of my life believing that God is a monster. When I read articles like this that put things in a different context, it gives more hope.

    1. Hi Crystal.

      Many Jews had, and still have, a very different approach to Scripture than many Christians. They regard Scripture as a starting point and they welcome discussion and debate. Diverse interpretations of Bible passages, as taught by rabbis, are also debated.

      We see Jesus doing this in the Gospels as he discusses Bible passages and hot topics with the scribes and Pharisees.

      I’m glad this gives you hope. 🙂

      1. How did the church go so far off from divorce?

        1. Hi Kevron,

          I once watched a fascinating documentary on the history of marriage in the western world. I think it was a BBC documentary and I wish I could remember its name. The documentary showed, among other things, that the concepts, (1) marriage is inviolably sacred and (2) God does not recognise divorce, are concepts that were not common in the first several centuries of the church. These ideas came later but they have done damage.

          Notwithstanding the beautiful picture of unity between Christ and the Church in Ephesians 5, human beings are more sacred than marriage. And some marriages are diabolical. I’m not sure why the church has put marriage above the safety and well-being of people in many instances.

  6. I loved this, Marg. So helpful. (As always!) One interesting tidbit: I don’t know if you’re aware of how the 2011NIV translates 5:32 based on the fact that moicheuthenai is an aorist passive. Since you’re way more of a Greek NT scholar than I am I thought you might be interested: “But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her a victim of adultery…” If this is accurate, it would mean Jesus was saying that the husband commits adultery against his wife by divorcing her wrongly. This might still seem strange but since divorce was accepted at that time as not a big deal but adultery was a capital crime, Jesus’ focus on adultery would have had more impact.

    1. Thanks, Sarah.

      I remember some intense online discussions about Matthew 5:32 when the NIV 2011 was first published. It just goes to show how difficult it is to precisely understand Jesus’ meaning here.

      If we can see through the hyperbole we can get a sense of what I believe is Jesus’ real intention: Jesus is having a go at the men who are dumping their wives; he is not condemning the divorced women who have no choice but to marry again.

      Because the precise meaning of Jesus’ words are difficult to understand, I’m leaning more on his intention, if that makes sense.

      1. Yes, that makes perfect sense. Jesus’ intention does seem very clear – to confront the men for getting rid of their wives for any and every reason – in spite of the difficulty with translation. I wasn’t aware of the controversy on this verse when the NIV 2011 came out but I can imagine it was fierce. Keep up the good work.

        1. Actually, the discussions around the NIV 2011 and Matthew 5:32 were quite civil, at least the discussions I was watching. The discussions about the NIV 2011 and gender-inclusive language were not as civil or as sensible.

          Thanks. 🙂

          1. Oh – I meant Matthew 5:32, but I didn’t make that clear. Are we talking about the same verse?

          2. Oh sorry, yes, Matthew 5:32. I’m so used to writing about Ephesians 5. I’ll fix that mistake so I don’t confuse anyone else.

  7. Hi Marg, thank you for your recent posting, trusting that you and your family are all well

    I wanted to raise a different issue if I may although it may be outside the boundaries of your site.

    When people say Jesus was human just like me, I wonder if that is strictly accurate. Jesus did get tired, hungry, thirsty, frustrated etc but he also walked on water, and raised the dead. He wasn’t born like me, didn’t inherit a sinful nature, didn’t need to be born again and was part of the Godhead and became the sacrificial lamb to take the sin of the world on himself.

    Could it be that we become like him when we are “born again”? We become filled with the Holy Spirit and connected (reconnected?) with the Trinity. I wonder if the concept of being born again can be misunderstood in that we become “christians” to worship and serve the Lord which of course is true. But perhaps more importantly we become like the Jesus we saw on Earth, and able to dwell in the kingdom heaven here on earth which is already here?
    Being born again isn’t simply becoming a christian but a citizen of heaven?

    Alan UK

    1. Hi Alan,

      I think we are meant to understand that Jesus became fully human and set aside his divine power while on earth (cf. Phil. 2:6-8). And I think we’re meant to understand that his supernatural ability was made possible because of the indwelling Holy Spirit which he had without measure.

      Being born again involves regeneration as our spirit is reborn or renewed by the same Holy Spirit (John 3:5-8).

      Being a Christian, a follower of Christ covers many things. As well as being reborn, followers of Jesus we receive forgiveness of sin, deliverance from darkness and death, justification, sanctification as the Holy Spirit sets us apart as especially belonging to God and begins his work of making us become more and more like Jesus, reconciliation which allows us to come near to God in a close relationship instead of being distant and estranged, adoption as God’s own beloved children, and a wonderful, eternal inheritance. It also gives us heavenly citizenship.

      I don’t think I’ve heard anyone say that being born again simply means that you become a Christian and that it doesn’t involve all these other things, including being a citizen of the kingdom of heaven. It certainly means that we are supposed to become more and more like Jesus (Rom. 8:29; Gal. 4:19; Eph. 4:13, 15; etc).

      Here are two of my favourite verses.

      … He has granted to us His precious and magnificent promises, so that by them you may become partakers of the divine nature … 2 Peter 1:4 NASB

      For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself. Philippians 3:20-21 NASB

  8. Thanks for that Marg

    Many denominations would say Jesus was fully human and fully divine, and Philippians 2 suggests He emptied himself of his heavenly position to dwell among us. Personally, I feel Jesus always remained part of the Trinity because of the continuing indwelling Holy Spirit in him. I’m not sure the Trinity can be separated.

    My thoughts about being born again, becoming a Christian, was that in doing so we become like Jesus and therefore become a citizen of heaven, in fact, we embrace all that Jesus is and grow more and more into that.

    I think my basic thoughts were, Marg, that I’m not like Jesus. Similarly, He is not wholly like me until I become born again.

    Many thanks for your comments very much appreciated

  9. Hi Marg,

    Thank you for this useful article. It makes some good points. However, there are obvious dangers in saying that a specific teaching is hyperbolic. Divorce appears elsewhere in Matthew in chapter 19. Verse 9 is closely parallel to 5:32, although it omits the adultery of the wife on remarriage. It seems that Jesus is being more stringent than his contemporaries. The reaction of the disciples is a clue to this: “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry” (v10). Perhaps they missed the hyperbole.

    On the ‘Matthean exception’, I came across an interesting point in a footnote on this subject a while back (sorry – cannot cite). It stated that at Jesus’ time, capital punishment for adultery was being used less. If adultery were to be punished with the full weight of the OT law, the adulterer would be dead, and the offended party free to remarry. So, it would seem that the exception is only for those offences which would have resulted in the execution of the offender.

    For full disclosure, I married for the first time late in life, to a divorcee for whom the Matthean exception applies.

    1. Thanks, David.

      Stoning adulterers and blasphemers, etc, happened infrequently in the first century, but it seems it did still happen, at least, occasionally. Along similar lines, the bitter water ordeal (for when a husband suspected his wife was unfaithful) was officially “banned” by the Sanhedrin in the first century CE (cf. Num.5:11-31). Roman rule typically did not allow people to execute other people without going through the Roman legal system.

      I discuss Jesus’ words on divorce in Matthew 19:19, and in Mark’s and Luke’s Gospels, in another article. As well as the wording being slightly different, the audience of the Sermon on the Mount and of Matthew 19:19 is different.

    2. I agree with you David, that it is dangerous to treat Jesus’ teaching on divorce, or on any other matter, as hyperbole. I also agree that the disciples did not appear to treat Jesus’s teaching as hyperbole: “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry” (v10).

      More significantly, the apostle Paul also did not treat Jesus’ teaching on divorce as hyperbole. Indeed, Paul’s teaching on divorce parallels Jesus’ teaching exactly. For example: “…by law a married woman remains married as long as her husband lives. But suppose her husband dies. Then the law that joins her to him no longer applies. 3 But suppose that married woman sleeps with another man while her husband is still alive. Then she is called a woman who commits adultery. But suppose her husband dies. Then she is free from that law. She is not guilty of adultery if she marries another man” (Romans 7:2-3).

      I have written a paper that fully explores how Jesus’ teaching on divorce is fully consistent with other scripture and Paul’s teaching in particular. See: https://www.academia.edu/32085622/A_Soteriological_Interpretation_of_the_Matthean_Divorce_Exception_Clauses

      Christians need to heed Jesus’ warning: “And why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you?” (Luke 6:46-49). While I agree with Marg that Jesus’ commands cannot be obeyed in the flesh, they can be in the Spirit. See: https://www.academia.edu/40018092/Lost_Moral_Innocence_-_the_Fall_of_the_Doctrine_of_Original_Sin

      1. Fermin,

        This article is about Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, and especially his words on divorce in this sermon. This is clearly stated. I don’t know how I could have been clearer on this. “Sermon on the Mount” is even in the title.

        This article is not about Jesus’ teaching in general. And I have another article (here) where I discuss Jesus’ teaching on divorce elsewhere in the Gospels.

        I’m surprised that some people really think Jesus was literally telling people to gouge out their eyes or cut off their hands if these body parts were causing them to sin sexually, or that Jesus was telling them they are condemned if they call their brother a fool.

        If we take these verses literally and we turn the other cheek, go the extra mile with a wicked person (a person who has wronged us), and love all our enemies, then by all means take the divorce verses in Matthew 5:31-32 literally. But I don’t see Christians gouging out their eyes, cutting off their hands, turning the other cheek, going the extra mile. And I don’t see Christians, as a whole, loving their enemies.

        As I mention in the article, Paul did not turn the other cheek when slapped in the face. And he made other allowances for divorce, not mentioned by Jesus, when writing to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 7:10-11; 15). Paul does not refer to divorce in Roman 7:2-3, but uses the covenant of marriage as an example of how death releases a person from the law. It would confuse Paul’s point to mention divorce here.

        Jesus and Paul had a high view of the one-flesh marriage union, as do I. We need to keep this in mind. We also need to understand the context of each of the NT passages where divorce is mentioned and understand the issues being addressed. The issue addressed in 1 Corinthians 7 is not the issue being addressed in Romans 7, and neither of Paul’s concerns is the backstory for Jesus’ teaching on divorce in Matthew 5 or in Matthew 19, etc.

        1. Hi Marg, I am aware that your article is not about Jesus’ teaching in general. In the article however, you specifically mention Jesus’ teaching on divorce. I have also read your general article on divorce which I commented on at the time it was published.

          In the current article you state that in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus: “is asserting ideals. We must understand the principles he teaches here and take them to heart, but we are not necessarily expected to practice them literally or on every occasion. Paul, for example, didn’t turn the other cheek”.

          Before I deal with your wider point about whether Christians should take Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount literally, I want to deal with your observation that Paul did not turn the other cheek and that this has some bearing on whether or not Jesus’ words should be taken literally. I don’t think that Paul’s not turning the other cheek invalidates Jesus’ command to do so. To state the obvious, Paul is not Jesus and Jesus did turn the other cheek. In my previous comments I specifically state that: “Jesus’ commands cannot be obeyed in the flesh”.

          The only way any Christian can obey Jesus’s commands is by remaining in His Spirit. This applies to the apostle Paul, the apostle Peter or any other human being. As mentioned in my comments I provide a fuller discussion of this point in the following paper:

          You are correct when you surmise that I don’t agree with your view that Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount whether about anger, lust, divorce etc. are not to be taken literally. However, I do agree with you that His words need to be carefully considered before doing so. In this regard, I note that Jesus’ states that: “if your right eye cause you to stumble”, and “if your right hand cause you to stumble” but we know that neither the right eye or the right hand causes lust. Jesus specifically teaches that evil desires come from a man’s heart not his eyes or hands (Matt 15:19).

          That’s why we need a renewed mind and heart. Christians can access this new mind and heart only in Christ. This is why Jesus taught that Christians must remain in Him. As Jesus expressly taught apart from Him we can do nothing (John 15:5).

          I also disagree with your view that Paul is not referring to divorce in Romans 7:2-3 and that this passage is of no relevance to a wider discussion on divorce. However, a fuller discussion on this point is not appropriate here. If you’re interested in that discussion, you can read my paper on this subject:


          1. ~ Again, this article is specifically on Jesus’ teaching on divorce in the Sermon on the Mount. I’ve made this clear. It’s not about Jesus’ teaching on divorce in other verses in the Gospels.

            ~ My mention of Paul not turning the other cheek is, as you say, an observation. I think it’s an interesting observation. But I do not say that Paul’s example invalidates Jesus’ teaching.

            ~ I have no disagreement with remaining in the Spirit and having a renewed heart and mind. Nevertheless, my discussion in this article is about Jesus’ actual words as recorded in Matthew 5:17-48 and particularly in 5:31-32.

            ~ I’ve said nothing about you personally agreeing or disagreeing with me. On my part, there’s no personal surmising going on.

            ~ Jesus says “everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:28 CSB). We look with our eyes. Without eyes we cannot look at a woman (or man) lustfully and therefore we cannot commit adultery with our hearts. Though, as I say in the article, “how does removing one eye or one hand solve the problem of lust and sin when most have two of each?”

            ~ Paul says nothing about divorce in Romans 7:2-3. He is speaking about marriage and death to make a point about the law. Paul is using an analogy of the permanence of marriage in order to make a certain point unrelated to marriage, an analogy the Roman Christians could relate to. I do not say that these two verses have no relevance to a wider discussion on divorce. In fact, I refer to these two verses when I discuss divorce here.

            Fermin, there are several statements in your comments that do not accurately reflect what I have stated. Please read my actual words more carefully. I don’t want to waste my time defending or explaining ideas that I have not articulated and do not hold. But I will say that it is unwise (or “dangerous”) to take hyperbolic statements literally, “and I think that I also have the Spirit of God.”

  10. Hi Marg

    I recently came across a book entitled The mystery of Julia Episcopa, a fictional historical novel based on Julia from Romans 16.
    I haven’t read it so can’t vouch for its historic authenticity although it has some good reviews. I believe it was printed in 2018
    I just thought it interesting that the writer should find her brief mention in Romans 16 enough to develop a full scale novel around her suggesting she was far more prominent in the early christian movement than the bible suggests


    1. That fact that the story involves the politics of the modern Roman Catholic church and the “venomous Vatican battle for power and supremacy” doesn’t bode well for historic authenticity.

      Also, the Greek grammar of Romans 16:15 indicates that Philologus and Julia are a couple. I think it’s likely they hosted and cared for a housechurch in Rome which could make them episkopoi, overseers who cared for the congregation that used their home as a base. But I can’t see any reason to presume Julia was a noblewoman, especially as she is 25th in a list of 28 Roman Christians. (People of nobility are usually mentioned before others and not near the bottom of a list.) Also, unlike most of the other nine women in Romans 16:1-16, Paul says nothing at all about Julia’s ministry.

      Philologus may be the same man who is mentioned in several surviving inscriptions of the imperial household. See J.B. Lightfoot, Epistle to the Philippians (London and Cambridge: MacMillan, 1869), 175, or here. If so, he and Julia may have been freed slaves. There was a custom of freed slaves taking on the family name of their master or mistress, and Julia is associated with the Julio-Claudian imperial dynasty.

  11. Even though Matthew 19:1–12 is a different context, I cannot help thinking that there is a connection to that text. Jesus is speaking about the same topic, I think, and there may be some background information that is relevant to both.

    I bought Dr Ann Nyland’s The Source New testament. I admit that I am uncertain as too how far I can trust her, because she sometimes says things that I know to be controversial, but she just presents it as fact, without any doubt. But for what it’s worth, I quote something she says in a note to Matthew 19:3:

    «The “Any Matter” is a technical term from jewish divorce law, a form of divorce introduced by the rabbi Hillel. The other type of divorce, divorce on the ground of “General Sexual Immorality”, was available to both men and women, both of whom were able to divorce the partner on the specific grounds based on Exodus 21:1–11. This traditional type of divorce was becoming rarer by the start of the first century, being replaced by the “Any Matter” divorce, which was for men only, and popular as no grounds had to be shown and there was no court case. For an “Any Matter” divorce, the man simply had to write out a certificate of divorce and give it to his wife. By Jesus’ time, the “Any Matter” was the more popular form of divorce, but the rabbis were still arguing about the legalities of it. The disciples of Shammai were particularly opposed to it.»

    If this is right, it throws a lot of light on what Jesus is saying. There were these two options available for divorce, and Jesus – like the disciples of Shammai – is strongly opposed to the «Any Matter» divorce.

    1. Hi Knut,

      Jesus does speak about divorce in both Matthew 5:31-32 and Matthew 19:3-11, and while there are a few similarities between the two texts, there are also a few differences, including the target audience.

      In Matthew 19:3-11, Jesus is responding to some Pharisees who tested him with the question, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” (Matt. 19:3). So the different interpretations of Deuteronomy 24:1ff by the Hillel and Shammai schools of Pharisees, even though they are relevant to Matthew 5, are especially relevant in understanding Matthew 19. So I’ve written about “any matter” divorce in my other article about Jesus’ teaching on divorce.

      In that previous article, I’ve also written about a possible hendiadys which is clearer in Mark’s and Luke’s Gospels than in Matthew’s because of the added phrase in Matthew “except for immorality.” In Mark 10:11-12 and Luke 16:18, “divorces his wife and marries another” may be a hendiadys. If so, Jesus is speaking about divorce and (re)marriage as two components of one course of action: divorcing one person in order to marry someone else. It is this scenario which is tantamount to adultery.

      In this article, however, I really just want to draw attention to the fact that Jesus uses hyperbole in Matt. 5:31-32, so we need to be wary about taking it literally. Accordingly, I don’t think Jesus’ real intention was to brand divorced women as adulterers as per Matthew 5:32. Rather he was indirectly reprimanding husbands who were divorcing their wives over trivial matters, or “any matter.”

      I’m not sure about this, though: “The other type of divorce, divorce on the ground of “General Sexual Immorality”, was available to both men and women, both of whom were able to divorce the partner on the specific grounds based on Exodus 21:1–11.”
      My understanding is that a Jewish woman living in Judea or in a close-knit Jewish community could ask for a divorce but only a husband could legally obtain a divorce for whatever reason.

      On the other hand, both men and women who were Roman citizens or who lived in Roman colonies, whether Jewish or Gentile, could get a divorce easily. We know of some prominent Jewish women who were Roman citizens and who initiated and obtained divorces in the first century CE.

  12. Hi Marg, yes Jesus is a little over the top in some situations, However it is so easy to look at someone in the wrong way and think thing of a sexual nature when you are younger, and i think in some way he was showing this and also the same with murder it is possible to wish someone dead without carrying it out. our constant should tell us what is right and what is wrong if not it is sheered and that is not good. this is another example of just believing in Jesus Christ is not all we have to do to enter the kingdom of heaven, For example the Pharisees were told by Jesus they would not enter the kingdom but he also told the apostles to do all the Pharisees teach, What was they teaching all the laws of Moses, of course all of it does not apply to us today but much of it does, for instance Solomon tells us it is the duty of all men to keep the commandments, Paul also speaks about this in 1st cor again chapter 7 i think it is verse 19, also James tells us if we break one commandment we guilty of them all, Jesus tells the young man if he wants everlasting life keep the commandments, in the book of revelation Jesus is speaking and he again i think this is around chapter 20 not quite sure, but he says blesses are those who believe in me and keep his ( God ) commandments, NKJ these verses are not just for the Jews but we all worship the same God therefor they also apply to us, we all have work to do to live a more Godly life, yes Jesus takes away sin but not if we continue in it, and live our lives just how we want to, ( If we sin we are of the devil ) and the Devil is not going to Heaven. we will make mistakes but we are covered for that but not for wilfully sinning everyday, otherwise Matthew 7 verse 19-20 -21 will kick in.

    1. Hi Leslie,

      Jesus uses hyperbole to emphasise the seriousness of anger, lust, divorce, hatred, etc, not to minimise these attitudes and behaviours or condone them. So I’m not sure I understand your point.

      1. Hi Marg maybe i did not put it very well, i was trying to emphasise what Jesus was saying by saying we can murder someone with what we think or say for instance how often have you heard someone say ( I hope you rot in Hell ) I also heard things of a sexual nature said about a man or woman again we should not even think these thing, and today so often you will hear someone say (o my God) surely this is what Jesus is taking about. Surely this has to do with what he was talking about, He said himself it is not what goes into a man that defiles him but what comes out of his mouth.

  13. Hello, thanks for this article.
    Matt 5:31 makes sense to me as it seems to be placing blame/responsibility on the man for adulterizing the wife he abandons/divorces for no biblical reason. But I don’t get the point of Matt 5:32 as it seems to be penalizing a man for divorcing a woman that was abandoned, divorced, mistreated against her will ?
    Please help me understand

    1. Hi Robert, The aim of the article is to point out that Jesus uses hyperbole in his Sermon on the Mount. We’re not meant to take, or understand, everything he said literally. Jesus’ point is, “Husbands, don’t divorce your wives for frivolous reasons.”

      1. Ok. Thanks a lot. My ex (Christian) divorced me against my will even as I tried to reconcile. I don’t think she committed adultery. I just struggle with people saying God doesn’t see me as divorced and if I ever remarry it would cause me to go to hell as I would be living in constant adultery. It just feels like there is grace missing from that perspective

        1. Hi Robert, have you read some of my other articles on divorce?

          God on Divorce (Malachi 2:16)
          Jesus on Divorce, Remarriage and Adultery
          Paul’s Words on Divorce, and Leaving an Abusive Marriage

          God has a lot more grace and more understanding than many Christians, and he’s not as severe in his attitude to divorce as some Christians, especially towards the wronged person. In the New Testament we are often taught the ideal, but there is also the reality. Compromises happen.

          If your wife has broken her wedding vows and severed the marriage relationship, then, sadly, the marriage no longer exists. It’s over whether. God sees what’s going on. He can see that it’s over. He’s not getting caught up on faulty technicalities.

          It’s sad that people think remarriage after divorce is “hell-worthy” but they ignore numerous other sins.

  14. How can we be certain that Jesus was using hyperbole? If Jesus is God, He never lies and always speaks the truth. If He tells us “But I tell you, everyone who is angry with his brother or sister will be subject to judgement”, surely such people must be subject to judgement?

    Why do you think turning the other cheek or going the extra mile are hyperbole?

    1. Hi Andrew, I explain in the article why we can be sure Jesus is using hyperbole.

      Hyperbole is a rhetorical device, and it would have been understood as such by the original audience. It does not involve lies or deception. See footnote 1.

      I’m not normally a fan of the NLT, but I think it captures Jesus’ meaning of Matthew 5:39-41: “But I say, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also. If you are sued in court and your shirt is taken from you, give your coat, too. If a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile, carry it two miles.”

      These verses also use hyperbole. Jesus’s message in these few verses is that we are to be generous and self-giving in all our dealings with people, and not be stingy, selfish, and focussed on self-preservation. But we don’t necessarily have to turn the other cheek, give up our coat, or walk an extra mile. I’ve never done any of these three things, but I can still be generous and self-giving.

      Paul did not seem to take Jesus’s words literally. Using the same Greek verb for “be angry” that Jesus uses in Matthew 5:22, Paul wrote, “Be angry and do not sin. Don’t let the sun go down on your anger” (Eph. 4:26). Paul does not mention judgement.

      And Paul didn’t turn the other cheek when he was struck in the face (on his mouth to be precise). Instead, he replied with, “God is going to strike you, you whitewashed wall! You are sitting there judging me according to the law, and yet in violation of the law are you ordering me to be struck?” (Acts 23:3).
      (Both Luke 6:29 and Acts 23:3 use the same Greek word for “strike.”) Does his angry outburst mean that Paul has condemned himself? I don’t think so.

    2. Hi Andrew,

      I think we can be sure that Jesus used hyperbole. If not, Luke 14:26 is a distinct problem: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, … [they] cannot be my disciple.” Cults are wont to use a literal understanding of this to nefarious ends.

      However, I would agree that one needs to be careful not to see hyperbole everywhere. In a way it needs to be obvious to avoid the danger of conveniently diluting the challenge of following Jesus.

      For the turning of the cheek and going the extra mile, I am more impressed by the interpretation which draws out how the literal following of these actions subverts the power imbalance.

      If someone, presumably right handed, slaps you on the right cheek, that is done with the back of the hand. The invited slap on the left cheek would need to be done with the palm of the hand, which apparently, is a slap of an equal.

      The obligation imposed was to carry the soldiers pack one mile. If you carried the pack another mile, then the soldier became obliged to you.

      Both of these pay attention to the culture, which was very much an honour/shame society. This is something which those of us in the West are much less aware of.

      1. Thanks, David.

  15. As I think we would agree, it doesn’t make logical sense for Jesus to undermine human welfare in the name of “higher morality”. Unfortunately, most Christian tradition has treated women as lesser beings, despite the Bible’s high words about women. Therefore, the welfare of women has often been ignored.

    When Moses allowed men to divorce their wives, was he indulging men? Or was he trying to protect the innocent party? Why would God have ever allowed the abandoned woman to marry another — except to protect her from an unjust divorce? In turn, the law protected a husband who could not get the death penalty for an adulterous wife.

    When Jesus was talking to the Pharisees, it was in the context of men abandoning faithful wives. Recourse for the innocent is not the focus. In light of your other material, I think this is the conclusion we’ve been drifting toward.

    As we know, Mark 10 says that a man who abandons his wife commits adultery against her. King David, among other great men, was never condemned for having multiple wives. He was condemned for stealing another man’s wife. Therefore, the simple act of abandoning one’s wife is being compared to stealing another’s. The second marriage is simply the motivation.

    According to YLT, the exact language in Mark 10 is this: ” ‘Whoever may put away his wife, and may marry another, doth commit adultery against her; / and if a woman may put away her husband, and is married to another, she committeth adultery.’ ” I believe this is the key to understanding the grammar in Matthew 5.

    In YLT, Matthew 5 is translated like so: ” ‘… whoever may put away his wife, save for the matter of whoredom, doth make her to commit adultery; and whoever may marry her who hath been put away doth commit adultery. …’ ” This translation must be a mistake. Instead, it should say “causes adultery against her” and “her who has put herself away”.

    On the other hand, why would Matthew 5 say “except for adultery” — but not Mark 10? As I think we’ve come to agree, the key must be social context. Mark simply isn’t focused on exceptions to the rule. Matthew is not meant to be a comprehensive list, either; the one exception mentioned comes across as a side note.

    As we’ve been learning, social context is sometimes important to understanding the original language — in addition to recognizing hyperboles plus absolute-sounding statements that are not meant to be true absolutes. After all, we couldn’t even read the original manuscripts without reconstructing the original language. It’s a shame, then, that part of the original language has had to be rediscovered. Here are three sources I have found very useful in my research: (1) http://www.tektonics.org/af/divorceexception.php, (2) http://www.tektonics.org/qt/remarry.php, (3) https://bible.org/series/divorce-and-re-marriage-recovering-biblical-view.

    In Exodus 21, as you’ve discussed elsewhere, even concubines (“amah”) are given special protection from neglectful or abusive men. If a man sold his daughter under the impression that the buyer (or the buyer’s son) would marry her, then if the buyer failed to do so, he was considered to have dealt treacherously with her. In turn, he had to let the father buy her back. Conversely, if a man took a concubine, he was not to diminish her food, clothing, or marital rights. (If he took a second, he might be especially tempted to neglect the first.) If he failed to meet these basic vows, then the bad husband had to let his concubine go free, no strings attached.

    In other words, the Law of Moses already condemns divorce of a faithful wife. As it turns out, Jesus doesn’t say much new. Neither does Paul. And Jesus certainly does not intend to deny women the protections the Law of Moses gave against treacherous husbands. It’s like how the Book of Proverbs has statements that are clearly not absolute, despite the absolute-sounding language.

    As we also know, Exodus 21 protects concubines (same Hebrew word as before) from severe physical abuse. This passage gives two examples of injury that require the husband to let his concubine go. If a concubine is so important, then how much more important a full wife is.

    And, of course, there are various serious sins that, under the Law of Moses, would set a wife free from a wicked husband — because they called for the offender’s execution or exile. I recognize you have made a similar point elsewhere.

    Basically, any sin that could just as well be abandonment — it’s grounds for divorce, as far as I can see.

    1. Thanks, M.W.

  16. Neither Jesus or any New Testament author makes any allowance for polygamy. Jesus and Paul speak about marriage as an exclusive, one-flesh union between a husband and a wife, and they both refer to Genesis 2 (pre-fall) where God makes Adam and Eve (one man and one woman) as containing a foundational principle for marriage.

  17. I am preparing to preach a sermon on divorce at a church and I have found this article and the one it refers to as excellent resources. You clearly did the work to research and to interpret Christ’s teachings in a Biblically consistent manner. Thank you for that!

    1. Thanks, Michael. All the best as you teach on this sensitive topic.

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