“Divorce, _Apolyō_, and Matthew 19”Categories: M. W. Bassford, Meditations
A couple of weeks ago, the centuries-long dispute over marriage, divorce, and remarriage popped up on my Facebook feed again. As usual, somebody found a reason why they thought that the restriction of Matthew 19:9 did not apply to Christians today who are divorced for reasons other than a spouse’s adultery.
In this case, the argument centers around the Greek word apolyō, which is rendered as “divorce” in our modern translations of Matthew 19:9. That notwithstanding, proponents of this view claim that apolyō should not be translated as “divorce”. They note that the KJV translates it as “put away” (as indeed it is translated in other contexts in modern translations), and they assert that putting away was an action distinct from divorce. Formal divorce involved the writing of divorce of Deuteronomy 24:1; putting away was just informally kicking your wife to the curb. Thus, Matthew 19:9 does not apply to the formal divorces of our day, and all divorced Christians can remarry without fear.
As appealing as this argument is (Matthew 19:9 certainly is among the hard sayings of Jesus, and life would be easier for all of us if it became a dead letter), there are several problems with it. First, I’m not aware of any evidence that the Jews of Jesus’ day made a distinction between informal putting away and formal divorce. If you’re going to hang your whole argument on the existence of an ancient custom, you probably need to establish that the custom existed first!
Second, this is a the-translators-got-it-wrong argument, and we always should regard those with skepticism. Admittedly, translators and Greek scholars are not perfect, and they sometimes make mistakes in their work with ancient languages. However, if even experts in the field can err, how much more error-prone are non-experts likely to be! If we can’t prove our argument from the Bible without making a significant change in translation, we are staking our souls on the presumption that we are right and hundreds of original-language scholars are wrong. That may represent insight, but it more likely represents self-deception.
Third, the Bible uses apolyō to mean “divorce”, which probably is why all the scholars reached that conclusion in the first place. In Matthew 19:8, Jesus notes, “Moses permitted you to apolyō your wives.” What did Moses permit? Not informally sending wives away, that’s for sure! The only procedure in the Law for separating from one’s spouse is the formal divorce-certificate process of Deuteronomy 24:1, which the Pharisees cite in Matthew 19:7. Thus, Jesus uses apolyō to refer to formal divorce, and we should understand Him as doing so in Matthew 19:9, which is the very next verse.
Matthew 19:9 isn’t anybody’s favorite commandment. However, it is a restriction that God in His wisdom and holiness has bound upon all people. As much sorrow as enforcing it can cause in this life, failure to enforce it will lead to much greater sorrow in the life to come.