Is it Better not to Marry? Matthew 19:10-12

After hearing Jesus’s strict view on divorce and remarriage, the disciples ask Jesus if it would be better not to marry at all than risk a divorce (Matt 19:10).


Was this a serious question? “Was this a serious suggestion, or were these words spoken with a wry smile which the printed word cannot convey?” (France, Matthew, 282). For some commentators, this is an unchivalrous, misogynist statement (Nolland, Matthew, 775). Does this question really say, “If women are that much trouble, why not just do without them?”

On the other hand, in the next pericope Jesus will tell a rich man to sell everything and follow him (19:21) and Peter will respond, “we have already left everything!” (19:27). There is a pattern, Jesus makes a statement about the rigor of being a disciple of Jesus and the disciples as a question for clarification, prompting further teaching from Jesus.

Remarkably, Jesus says “not everyone can accept this word” (v. 11). What is the word? It is possible this refers to Jesus’s view of marriage and divorce, but it might refer to the disciples’ statement that it might be better not to marry in the first place. Some of Jesus’s disciples will be “eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven” (v. 12)!

Matthew 19:12 is one of the most difficult lines in the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus says there are three kinds of eunuchs: by birth, those made by man, and those who are made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven. The verb (εὐνουχίζω) does refer to literal castration, whether from birth, accident or to serve a king as a eunuch (maybe Acts 8:27, the Ethiopian eunuch). The word came to be used for a person who was voluntarily celibate (BDAG 3).

But is there enough evidence to say the word was used for a voluntary celibate person in the first century? Some Essenes, perhaps Qumran community seems to have practiced celibacy, but they did not call themselves eunuchs. Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:25-38 says a great deal about the value of remaining unmarried, “because the time is short.” But he also recognizes not everyone can remain unmarried to devote themselves to ministry. He also recognizes this teaching is his own opinion rather than a direct commandment from the Lord (7:25). This verse seems to imply Paul did not know the “eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven” saying from Jesus. If he did, 1 Corinthians 7:25 would be the ideal place to mention it!

In fact, Jewish men were obligated to marry and have children. For example, in the Mishnah, “A man should not give up having sexual relations unless he has children” (m.Yeb. 6:6). There are many cases in which a Jewish man might refrain from sex. In Exodus 19:10-15 the people are to refrain from sex for three days before the Lord revealed himself at Sinai. For some in the Greco-Roman world, sexual abstinence meant the body retained its vital energy (Nolland, Matthew, 780, citing Galen). But the average person would have considered sex a normal part of life, those who refrained were doing so for some reason. In the Law, castration of both humans and animals is forbidden; Leviticus 22:24 may prohibit gelding horses. Josephus states it is forbidden to geld “men or any other animals” (Ant. 4.8:80).

Perhaps another way to understand a “eunuch the sake of the kingdom of heaven” in in the context of Matthew is to take the term as a reference to becoming the lowliest and most hated in society. “In all of ancient society eunuchs were as a whole among the most despised and scorned of human group (Petzke, “εὐνουχίζω,” EDNT 2:81). If this is the case, it is similar to “become like a child” (18:2-5) and may explain the reference to children in the next paragraph (19:13-15).

Jesus taught any sacrifice is worth making for the kingdom, including self-mutilation (18:6-9). If those verses can say “cut your hand off for the kingdom,” then it might not be surprising some would castrate themselves for the kingdom. Just as those verses are considered hyperbole, so too for becoming a eunuch.

Since this line is unique to Matthew, perhaps the “eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven” saying was important to Matthew’s community, like parabolic saying in Matthew 13:52, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”  The true disciple must be willing to give everything he has to obtain this kingdom, because in the final day there will be a judgment that separates the true disciple from the false ones, everyone will be rewarded justly for their discipleship.

What about Moses’s Exception for Divorce? – Matthew 19:7-9

After he makes a clear statement that divorce is not permissible for any reason, the Pharisees sense they have an advantage over Jesus. Even if marriage is part of the created order, Moses mad an exception and  permitted divorce in some cases. Jesus says this exception was granted “because of your hard hearts” (v. 8). Jesus does not quote scripture here but explains why Moses included that exception.

Rings Divorce Passage

The reason for the exception is humans have “hard hearts.” The noun σκληροκαρδία and related terms are common in the Greek Old Testament (Deut 10:16; Jer 4:4; Prov 17:20; Ezek 3:7), usually related to stubbornness of Israel to keep the covenant. It refers to an “an unyielding frame of mind” (BDAG), a mindset that can only be resolved by “circumcising your heart” (Deut 10:17; Jer 4:4). Ezekiel 3:7, “all the house of Israel have a hard forehead and a stubborn heart.”

A spouse may divorce an unfaithful spouse (not just men). Unfaithfulness (πορνεία) is a word which covers a multitude of sins. The noun refers to fornication in general, from the specific act of visiting a prostitute to any sexual union outside of marriage. Robert Gundry says there is “no need to adopt obscure definitions of πορνείας, such as marriage within the forbidden degrees. The specific word for adultery does not appear in the exception phrase simply because a general expression occurs in Deuteronomy” (commenting on the Sermon on the Mount, Gundry, Matthew, 91).

Although the word specifically refers to sexual sin, perhaps “unfaithfulness” is better translation. The “exception” cannot refer only to adultery since a spouse can harm a wife and children in other ways, they are unfaithful to their role as a husband, spiritual leader, etc.  This teaching does not say to a wife who is regularly beaten by her husband, or her children are abused by an evil husband, “you can’t get a divorce, just try to work it out.”

This is an important place to pause and ask if the Mosaic Law is applicable to the church. Paul is clear the Body of Christ is not under the Law, so can’t we ignore all this discussion about how Deuteronomy should be interpreted? In 1 Corinthians 7:10-16, Paul seems to allow divorce in other circumstances (an unbelieving spouse leaving a believing spouse). Does Paul create “wiggle room” for divorce in 1 Corinthians 7:12-16?

Jesus then declares marriage after divorce is adultery (v. 9). This is a very difficult verse in terms modern practice. There are more reasons to get out of a marriage than sexual unfaithfulness. Many modern Christians extend this unfaithfulness to “the wedding vows” in general, so that if a husband is abusive and harms his wife and children, she should get out of the marriage for her own protection. Sometimes divorce is necessary because of medical debt, a couple might divorce to keep one spouse’s medical debt from bankrupting the family! Some older couples are better off living together to not lose social security benefits. These are things Jesus is not talking about in this passage.

On the other hand, contemporary culture has similar easy and legal divorce for any cause so that someone might respond to typical marital difficulties simply by walking away and maybe starting over with someone else. Jesus’s answer would be, understand the spiritual union of marriage in the first place, understand the level of commitment you are making to another person.

An important observation: Jesus is talking to his own followers here, not making a general statement for the entire world. While the created order does favor marriage as a mystical union intended for a lifetime, the church cannot impose that teaching on people who are not Christians!

Jesus is clear: adultery is sin and divorce is not God’s intention for marriage. But there are many sins which the church does not seem to worry as much about, gossip, greed, coveting, etc. There is nothing in the Bible implying a divorce result in a sin that is “more damning” than being a gossip.

The point of this section is less on divorce than on the importance of a right understanding of marriage in the first place. If a couple understands what they are doing when they marry, that God is joining them together as “one flesh,” then the less likely the need for divorce. “Christian ethics in a fallen world will always be subject to such tensions; Sinful situations sometimes make it impossible to implement the ideal, and in such cases we may have to choose between courses none of which leaves room for regret” (France, Matthew, 282).

A Question about Divorce – Matthew 19:3-7

Pharisees come to Jesus with a question about divorce. This is another test from Pharisees, but it may not have malicious intent. They are interested in hearing Jesus’s view on a controversial topic current in the first century: under what circumstances is divorce permissible. Jesus made a statement on divorce in the Sermon on the Mount, perhaps the Pharisees wanted some clarification. As John Meier said, “Jesus’s prohibition of divorce is nothing short of astounding” (Marginal Jew, 4:113) and “the teacher from Nazareth stands alone” (Marginal Jew, 4:116). See this post for Jewish views on Divorce in the first century.

Divorce Rings

Matthew 19-20 builds on the discipleship material in Matthew 18. The teaching in this section focuses on household obligations, beginning with divorce and remarriage. Davies and Allison suggest “19:1–20:28 can in fact be interpreted as a long Haustafel consisting of sayings of Jesus” (Matthew, 3:1). John Nolland calls 19:1-20:16 “Family and Possessions in View of the Kingdom” (Matthew, 763).

Complicating this discussion is the practice of divorce in the Jewish world, the Greco-Roman world, and how the church handled divorce in church history, and (more interesting to the modern reader), how conservative evangelical churches have changed with respect to divorce and remarriage over the last hundred years. Divorce is an intensely person issue since we all have experienced divorce, whether in our own marriage or in our family or close friends.

Jesus responds by grounding the idea of marriage in creation (Matthew 19:4-6). He combines two foundational verses from the creation story. He includes the phrase “from the beginning” as an introduction, then Genesis 1:27 (cf., 5:27), “male and female he created them,” and Genesis 2:4, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”

The main point of these quotations of Genesis is to say, “didn’t God create humans doe monogamous relationships?” If a couple breaks up and them re-marries, is that not adultery? Genesis 2:4 was considered anti-polygamy and anti-divorce (Tosato, “On Genesis 2:24,” CBQ 52 [1990]: 409). Paul quotes the same verse in 1 Corinthians 6:16-17 in his argument against going to prostitutes. Like Paul, Jesus uses the verse to define the ideal marriage.

There are three clauses in the verse which need to be explained. First, the man leaves his parents. In Israelite society, a newly married couple lived with or near the husband’s family. Second, he must hold fast to his wife. The verb κολλάω has a wide range of uses, like the Hebrew דבק the use here has the sense of sticking with someone, or to be devoted to someone. In Romans 12:9 Paul uses the verb, “hate what is evil and hold fast to what is good.” The verb appears in Acts with the connotation of joining or associating with someone (9:26; Paul tried to join the disciples; and 10:28; Jews do not associate with Gentiles). Third, the two become one flesh. “Just as blood relations are one’s flesh and bone … so marriage creates a similar kinship relation between man and wife” (Davies and Allison, Matthew, 3:11).

Jesus’s view is radical, but not too far from Qumran and the Book of Jubilees:

CD 4:19–21 The builders of the wall … will be caught in unchastity twice, by taking two wives in their lifetime whereas the principle of creation is “Male and female created he them”; also, those who entered the ark went into it two by two.

Jubilees 3.7 Therefore a man and woman shall be one. And therefore it shall be that a man will leave his father and his mother and he will join with his wife and they will become one flesh.

With these exceptions, Jesus does indeed have a more conservative opinion on divorce than most Jewish teachers of his day. But should this really surprise Matthew’s readers at this point of the book? Jesus has consistently demanded more from the heart of his true disciples than the Pharisees. Even if Jesus is dismissive the wide variety of traditions the Pharisees developed on purity, handwashing or the Sabbath, when discussing the Law, he has consistently demanded more from his disciples. Do not murder? I tell you don’t even get angry! Do not commit adultery? I tell you do not even lust in your heart!

Before moving on to Moses’s exception in 19:7-19, let me make two observations. First, sometimes divorce is necessary. For example, a woman in an abusive relationship needs to get out of that relationship for her own protection, especially if children are involved. There is nothing here (or anywhere in the Bible) which demands a woman stay faithful to an abusive husband. However, a husband should not divorce his wife if he no longer finds her attractive, and a wife should not divorce her husband if he got fat and lost his hair. There is nothing here about easy divorces for flippant reasons.

Second, Christians need to realize divorce happens. In the context of Matthew 19, being unmerciful is a grievous sin (Matt 18:21-35). In the immediate context of Jesus’s divorce statement in Matthew 5:31-32 is a clear teaching on anger and list that no human can claim to have achieved! If a Christian experiences the pain of a divorce, they are in need of mercy, comfort, support, not condemnation.

Jesus and Divorce in the First Century – Matthew 19:3-12

Based on Matthew 5:20-21 and 19:3-12, Jesus has more strict view of divorce than other Jewish teachers in the first century. Many Jewish teachers in the first century were open to divorce based on their interpretation of the only relevant text of divorce in the Old Testament, Deuteronomy 24:1-4. In fact, John Meier suggests “how unthinkable such a prohibition was in a society that like all Mediterranean societies) considered divorce, however regrettable or painful in individual instances, so be the natural and necessary course of things” (Marginal Jew, 4:113).

Jesus Divorce

When the Pharisees question Jesus in Matthew 19:3, they ask “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” The key phrase is “for any cause.” Deuteronomy 24:1-4 permits divorce if the wife was caught in a shameful act but defining the phrase “shameful act” is difficult. The noun (עֶרְוָה) often refers to nakedness or genitals. It is the word used 24 times in Leviticus 18:6-19 for sexual misconduct. But the word does not only refer to sexual misconduct. In the immediate context, Deuteronomy 23:14 used the to describe the holiness of the camp. People ought to leave the camp to defecate (and cover it up) so the Lord should not see anything “indecent in the camp.”

In the context of divorce, what constitutes a “shameful act”? Based on a passage in the Mishnah, there were two main views at the time of Jesus. For the rabbi Shammai, a shameful act only refers to adultery (but some Targumim this could be anything sinful). For rabbi Hillel, the shameful act could be anything that offends the husband, including ruining dinner!

The views of the two rabbis appear in the Mishnah:

Giṭ. 9:10 The House of Shammai say, “A man should divorce his wife only because he has found grounds for it in unchastity, “since it is said, Because he has found in her indecency in anything (Dt. 24:).” And the House of Hillel say, “Even if she spoiled his dish, “since it is said, Because he has found in her indecency in anything. R. Aqiba says, “Even if he found someone else prettier than she, “since it is said, and it shall be if she find no favor in his eyes (Dt. 24:1).”

Josephus’s divorce and remarriage seems to reflect Hillel’s view. Later in his life, Josephus was given some land in Judah and divorced his wife because she “no longer pleased with her behavior” (Life, 426). She had three children, but only one survived. He remarried “a wife who had lived at Crete, but a Jewess by birth: a woman she was of eminent parents, and such as were the most illustrious in all the country, and whose character was beyond that of most other women, as her future life did demonstrate” (Life, 427). He had two sons by this second wife. He does not tell us why she no longer pleased him, but based on the description of his second wife, the divorce and remarriage improved his status in the Greco-Roman world.

On divorce, Josephus said:

Antiquities 4.253 He that desires to be divorced from his wife for any cause whatsoever (and many such causes happen among men), let him in writing give assurance that he will never use her as his wife any more; for by this means she may be at liberty to marry another husband, although before this bill of divorce be given, she is not to be permitted so to do; but if she be misused by him also, or if, when he is dead, her first husband would marry her again, it shall not be lawful for her to return to him.

Philo on divorce:

Special Laws, III 30 But if, proceeds the lawgiver, a woman having been divorced from her husband under any pretence whatever, and having married another, has again become a widow, whether her second husband is alive or dead, still she must not return to her former husband, but may be united to any man in the world rather than to him, having violated her former ties which she forgot, and having chosen new allurements in the place of the old ones.

According to the Law, once divorced, a woman could marry another man, but first husband was prohibited from taking her back (Deut 24:1-4). A potential exception to this is David’s remarriage to Michal in 2 Sam 3:13-14. It is possible Michal never consummated the second marriage (she was childless) and the law in Deuteronomy 24:1-4 would not have applied. On the other hand, David seems to have ignored marriage laws on occasion. Jeremiah describes Israel as a divorced wife who has taken other lovers, but now wants to return to her first husband. The Lord states clearly that she is defiled and has no right of return to her first husband.

At the time of Jesus, divorce was widely accepted, although it might have been more practical for the wealthy. The most high-profile divorce during Jesus’s lifetime was Herod Antipas’s divorce in order to marry his sister-in-law. In the first century women were protected from a hasty divorce through a marriage contract that provided a financial penalty of the husband divorced her for anything other than adultery and the return of the woman’s dowry. This might make a hasty divorce a financial disaster for some men! In addition, Jewish women in the first century could initiate the divorce (Herodias, for example). Another factor to consider: marriage was not necessarily about romance and love. For many, marriage was about producing an heir and increasing one’s status in society. If a man married a woman from a prominent family, a hasty divorce might damage his own honor.

Let me conclude with a reflection on John Meier’s warning at the beginning of his section on divorce in the New Testament in The Marginal Jew. My comments above are a historical sketch of attitudes toward divorce for the purpose of better understanding Jesus’s view on divorce in Matthew 19 and not a suggested answer for modern questions about divorce. As Meier says, the “rush to ‘what does this mean for us today?’ often hampers or distorts sober attempts to understand the past. Are we drawing our lessons from a past that really existed or a past we prefer to make up?” (4:75).



Bibliography: John Meier, A Marginal Jew, 4:74-181. Meier has a ten-page endnote (pp 128-39) on divorce in the ancient world conveniently divided into categories; David Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible (Eerdmans, 2002).

The Offense of Jesus’s Teaching on Adultery and Oaths

Perhaps an audience of Jewish listeners would have resonated with Jesus’s statements on murder (5:21-26) and adultery (5:27-30). At least in principle everyone can agree that anger and lust are the internal motivations for the external sins of murder and adultery. Even if one is not a follower of Jesus, controlling anger and lust is a positive and healthy goal. Greek philosophy encouraged people to balance their passions and to be in control of their inner thoughts.

But when Jesus taught on divorce and oath-making, he was challenging accepted practices of the Jewish world of the first century. It is likely few people who heard Jesus teach were adulterers and maybe no one was a murderer. But divorce was a far more common issue and everyone has made a promise or two they regretted and would like to have a legal way out of their oath. For some in the original audience, Jesus has moved from preaching to meddling.

After writing over one hundred pages on Jesus’s view of divorce, John Meier comments his prohibition of divorce would have disturbed his otherwise sympathetic listeners (Marginal Jew, 3:182). The same is true for his prohibition of oath-making in Matthew 5:33-37. As Meier points out, no Jewish teaching in the first century completely prohibited making oaths and vows. Even the closest parallel to Jesus, the Essenes, swore vows to obey the rules of the Community. The Pharisees would have reacted strongly to Jesus’s teaching on both divorce and oath-making (Meier, 3:205). Unfortunately we do not have their side of the argument, nor does Jesus explain his rationale for making these sweeping prohibitions.

It would appear the earliest Christians either did not know Jesus’s prohibition on oaths or they interpreted it differently. Paul made oaths in his letters. For example, 1 Corinthians 1:23, God calls on God as a witness, more or less swearing his claims are true by invoking God! Similarly, in Philippians 1:8 he says “with God as my witness.” The book of Acts appears to describe him taking a Nazarite vow (Acts 18:18) and later participating in the conclusion of vows (Acts 21:26). The writer of Hebrews refers to swearing an oath by something greater (6:16). Although the command against oath making was taken literally in the early days of the church, by the Middle Ages “the entire tradition of the major churches has almost uniformly disregarded Matt 5:33-37 and accepted oaths, even if it often did so with a bad conscience” (Matthew 1-7, 267–268).

So Jesus says “do not swear an oath at all” and the rest of church history figures out ways around the command. In his recent commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, Jonathan Pennington says “Jesus is not overturning or abolishing the original commandment. He is not opposed to oath or vow making” (293). Charles Quarles argues Jesus prohibited “misleading oaths” intended to allow a person to break their promise if it was to their advantage (Sermon, 144). For Pennington, oaths and vows can be made only if the disciple of Jesus intends to fulfill them.


These interpretations allow Christians to serve in the military (which demands oaths) or give testimony in court, or even have a mortgage, which is more or less an oath to pay back a loan. Modern society demands oath-making, so we have to find some way to deal with Jesus’s actual words. Modern society demands the possibility of divorce, so we need to find a way around Jesus’s actual words.

But did Jesus intend for his disciples to find ways around his words when modern culture finds them too inconvenient? I would suggest the ideal disciples of Jesus honor marriage in such a way that divorce is not an issue; the idea disciple honors truth to the point there is no need for making an oath. For the ideal disciple of Jesus, all their words are “with God as my witness.”