McFall’s Translation of Matthew 19:9

This is taken from Appendix B of McFall’s Biblical Teaching on Divorce and Remarriage

An Explanation For The Author’s Literal Translation Of Matthew 19:9

The author’s fairly literal translation of Matthew 19:9 reads: “Now I say to you that who, for example, may have divorced his wife–he may not have divorced her for fornication–and may have married another woman, he becomes adulterous by marrying her.”

The verb “may have divorced” is in the subjunctive mood, which I have conveyed using “may” to capture the idea of possibility. To understand the text one needs to identify the main clause first, which is here stated using the subjunctive mood: “Now I say to you that who, say, may have divorced his wife . . . and may have married another woman, he becomes adulterous.” This is the main clause, and it agrees with Mark 10:12.

Luke states Jesus’ teaching using the indicative mood, His text reads: ‘all [=collectively/sg masc]–the man putting away (pres act ptc) his woman, and marrying a different-woman–he commits adultery against her ['against' his first wife; cf. Mk 10:11]. And all [=collectively/sg masc]–the man marrying her having been previously put away (perf pass ptc acc fem sg) from a man–he commits adultery with her {i.e., with another man’s wife}.’ (Note the use of the parenthetical clause in Luke and Mark by Jesus to explain what He means by “all”.)

What Jesus added in Matthew 19:9 is not an exception to His total ban, but a warning (in the form of a parenthetical clause) to His Jewish audience that divorce for adultery was not permitted by God in the Torah. The Torah demanded the death penalty, not divorce.

Is it possible that Jesus had observed or heard about Jews obtaining a divorce on the grounds of adultery, which was an illegal thing to do? Jesus knew the entire sexual history of the woman at the well (John 4), so maybe He knew that many of His audience had obtained their divorces on allegations of fornication/adultery, which did not amount to being “caught in the act”, but there was the suspicion of unfaithfulness, and this was used by men to divorce their unwanted and unloved wives.

Jesus specifically condemned divorce for adultery in the rider He embedded in His total ban. The rider reads: “he may not have divorced for porneia,” which amounts to a command. (And, by the way, we have no evidence that either Shammai or Hillel or their respective “Houses” ever gave permission to use divorce in place of the death penalty.)

Here is how I go about translating the Greek aorist subjunctive in my Harmony of the four Gospels. I will deal with the two terms “subjunctive” and “aorist” separately, because the verb used in Matthew 19:9 and Mark 10:11-12 is the aorist subjunctive.

First, the “subjunctive” is used for hypothetical, possible, uncertain, doubtful, or non-factual events or actions, by using “can, could, would, might, may, etc.” and the verb is negated with MH (not OU). The subjunctive is generally preceded by the particle AN, as in this instance, which I have translated, as “say” or “suppose,” or “for example”, to bring out the hypothetical situation Jesus is envisaging. (Note that the hypothetical nature is inherent in the verb form itself and not only in a particle used in conjunction with it, such as “if,” or “unless”.)

Second, the term “aorist” refers to an action in its finished (result) form, as opposed to ongoing or incomplete action or state, hence I have used “have” followed by the Past Tense to distinguish the aorist from the Imperfect, Perfect, or Pluperfect tenses. There is nothing in English which corresponds exactly to the aorist, but if one thinks of an action which is completed in the mind of the speaker, even though it may still be in the future or the present, or it happened in the past, this is the essence of the aorist.

It is tenseless, or timeless, which throws the attention on to the verbal result itself as one which is “done and dusted”. The aorist tells us nothing about the nature of the action itself, whether it was durative, punctiliar, drawn out, swift, slow, repeated, a one-off action, etc. The nature of the verbal action and the context will convey this information.

Third, negation in Greek. There are specific rules governing the grammatical use of OU and MH with the different moods in Greek. There is nothing in English which corresponds to these two negatives in Greek, but when used they are a clear indicator which mood is intended to go with it. In the case of Matthew 19:9, the mood is set by the preceding verb, “he may have put away”, which is to be repeated after MH, hence my precise translation. The indicative mood is not an option in this context.

Fourth, negative commands in Greek. In Greek the negative command is made up of MH plus the subjunctive (present or aorist). It is not made up of OU plus the indicative (present or aorist). The subjunctive would normally be in the 2nd pers, “You may not have divorced your wife.” But in a 3rd person situation, as in Matthew 19:9, the negative imperative would still be MH+subjunctive, “He may not have divorced his wife.”

I have brought out the two main elements of the aorist subjunctive, namely, (1) its doubtful or hypothetical nature, by the use of “say . . . may”; and (2) the ‘result’ of the aorist verb by using “have” + past tense. Consequently, the translation reads: “Now I say to you that who, say, may have divorced his wife (not [he may have divorced] for fornication) and may have married another woman, he becomes adulterous.”

Note the repetition of the aorist subjunctive verb in square brackets because of the use of the particular negative form that is used in conjunction with it, i.e., MH. However, if we remove the hypothetical nature of Jesus’ use of the subjunctive mood to frame His teaching, here is a paraphrased version. “Now I declare to you that any person who has divorced his wife (note, he may not divorce for porneia) and has married another woman, he becomes an adulterer.”

This is what Jesus had already stated in Luke 16 and Mark 10, but without the parenthetical reminder that it was against the Law of God to obtain a divorce for adultery.

Matthew’s Gospel, of course, was written for a Jewish audience worldwide. Matthew’s audience would have known that both partners in an adulterous act had to be stoned to death. Even if it is claimed that the Jews could not apply the death penalty for religious matters, which is incorrect, their legal mind would know that an adulterer would be deemed to be dead in the eyes of God and man, and you do not marry a ‘dead’ person. He is cut off from the community.

Second marriages were probably as common in Jesus’ day as they are today. He lived in an adulterous generation, but He did not shrink from calling all second marriages, while both spouses were still alive, adulterous relationships. He suffered the penalty for upsetting the majority, and the same thing will happen to any preacher who follows Jesus’ daring Gospel.

For the majority of Christian leaders the cost of following Jesus is too great, so they say nothing and collect their monthly salary from His Church with no qualms.

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