Translating the condition for divorce in Matthew 19:9

I recently read an exchange on Matthew 19:9 over the permissibly of divorce, though it made no mention of an oddity in the translation of the text. Consider the text with one word left untranslated:

 Whosoever shall put away his wife, except  for πορνείᾳ, (ed. porneia, pronounced “pore – NAY – uh”) and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.

So what’s porneia

The King James and various older translations render the word as “fornication” which, given what we mean by the term, renders the passage ridiculous. Married persons simply can’t fornicate, i.e. engage in intercourse between two unmarried persons. In view of this, some modern translations render the term as “sexual immorality” or just “immorality” (understood in the sexual sense). The translation is in some sense faithful: porneia is a general term that covers any illicit sexual act. But the translation does little to make the sense less ridiculous: if sexual immorality could dissolve a marriage then marriages could be dissolved for a thousand reasons, many of which (like a fleeting sexual fantasy) simply are not things that any reasonable person could see as able to dissolve a marriage. In light of this, some translations render the passage by whatever illicit sexual activity they think could dissolve a marriage, say, adultery. But to do so nullifies the authority of the text, because to translate it in this way means we cannot appeal to 19:9 as justification that adultery could dissolve a marriage. To do so would be question-begging, i.e. we know Christ says that adultery can dissolve a marriage because we translated porneia as “adultery”, because adultery can dissolve marriage.

To preserve the general sense of porneia, we could render it as “sexually illicit”, so that we take Christ as saying “Whosoever shall put his wife away, unless sex [between such persons] is illicit… commits adultery”. The interpretation of the text then becomes a matter of determining what conditions render two persons unable to licitly have sex. A few such conditions are widely agreed upon sc. consanguinity and lack of consent; other are more controversial, like immaturity (which is related to consent) or refusal to procreate.  In other words, Christ is speaking about the conditions of nullity.


  1. March 25, 2013 at 4:56 pm

    “whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.”

    If porneia is simply condition of nullity, then why is it adultery to marry the woman if the purpose of annulment is to determine if or if not there was a marriage. And if there was not a marriage than the the woman who was put away would not be committing adultery by marrying.

    • March 25, 2013 at 6:08 pm

      I have no idea what you are saying. Is that four conditionals in a row?


      I am in fact claiming that, if we translate what Christ is saying into modern legal terms (where there is a sharp distinction between “divorce” and “nullity”) then Christ is saying that divorce is never permissible.

      Said another way, my claim is that the only reasonable translation of porneia is one that involves saying that, if the term applies, that the two persons were never validly married in the first place.

      So are we disagreeing?

  2. MarcAnthony said,

    March 25, 2013 at 6:27 pm

    Excellently reasoned. The most succinct and clear defense of the Catholic position I’ve ever read.

  3. March 25, 2013 at 7:04 pm

    James Chastek,

    It’s simple enough, IF porneia is a reason for nullity, then there can’t be adultery if the girl remarries because she never was married.

    In other words, someone cannot commit adultery by marrying someone who was put away if being put away simply means that a marriage was annulled.

    It can only be adultery if porneia does not mean annulment but instead mean that a woman is married, but is separated from. With putting away meaning separation, not annulment.

    • March 25, 2013 at 9:06 pm

      someone cannot commit adultery by marrying someone who was put away if being put away simply means that a marriage was annulled.

      But I’ve never asserted that antecedent. I’ve never argued that apoluein (to put away/set free/divorce/separate) means nullity. I claim some instances of apoluein involve nullity and others don’t; the former can be permitted and the later can’t be; and the defining note of the former is porneia.

      • March 25, 2013 at 10:37 pm

        James Chastek writes : “In other words, Christ is speaking about the conditions of nullity.”

        It certainly reads like the above is meant to be a summary of your position. In which case,

        If Christ was speaking of conditions of nullity, then why the proscription to marrying a woman who is put away? Other than because of separation?

        If Christ is speaking of nullity, it certainly doesn’t come from the context because of the proscription without qualification.

  4. March 25, 2013 at 7:08 pm

    Christ was giving grounds for separation, He was not giving grounds for annulment. Of course with the annulment scandal where tribunals are nothing more than a fish expedition to come up with a reason, porneia would today more than qualify for annulment, but that is not what Christ meant.

  5. March 26, 2013 at 9:34 am

    I was incorrect. Nullity is a better understanding.

  6. catalexico said,

    March 26, 2013 at 1:56 pm

    What do the Church Fathers say, e.g., what does the Catena Aurea say ?

  7. catalexico said,

    March 30, 2013 at 3:26 am

    A quick check of he Catena Aurea does not seem to support the reading given in the blog. The reading is adultery. One can put away the spouse on those grounds. But there is no divorce, in the sense that the marriage is somehow removed. Neither party may marry again. And by repentance of the sin of adultery, the erring spouse is no longer in adultery and the separation is removed.

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