The Grammatical Gymnastics of an Advocate for Divorce and Remarriage: Passive Voice

The first argument concerns the “voice” of the verbs in Matthew 5:32, 19:9, and Mark 10:11–12. In grammar the voice of a verb describes the relationship of the action of the verb to the subject of the verb. For example, “John eats an apple” is in the active voice, for John performs the activity of eating (John is the “subject” of the verb “to eat”). On the other hand, “The apple is eaten by John” is in the passive voice, for the subject of the verb (the apple) does not perform the activity of eating. Instead, the activity happens to the subject, for the apple is eaten.  

Our advocate for remarriage writes,

The verbs in Matthew 5 translated “to commit adultery” are passive. The woman put away and the man who marries her are passive. The original husband is the only active agent in the adultery. He commits adultery against them… To say that the woman commits adultery is as false as can be.

If we attempted to translate Matthew 5:32 with passive verbs, it would read something like this: “Everyone putting away his wife [active]…makes her to have adultery committed against her [passive] and if anyone marries [active] the divorced woman he has adultery committed against him [passive].” This would make the remarried woman (32a) and the man who marries her (32b) the victims (rather than the culprits) of adultery. Our advocate for remarriage writes:

God is principally protecting the innocent. The wife who is put away for any reason other than fornication is wronged. God protects those. Adultery is committed against them wrongfully in that the dismissed woman and the man who marries her are made to appear as adulterers.

We should notice that in the mind of our remarriage advocate, the remarrying people (the divorced woman and her second husband) are not adulterers; they only appear so in the eyes of others. Only the divorced woman’s first husband actively commits adultery. If this were true, it would mean that the guilty party in the divorce is an adulterer and it would forbid him from remarrying. It would not forbid, so the argument goes, remarriage to the innocent parties. Sadly, few advocates for remarriage limit remarriage to the innocent party; they allow remarriage for the guilty and the innocent party.

It is true that the divorced woman is wronged, for she was treacherously put away [passive], but how is the second man in the verse [the woman’s second husband] wronged, except that the first man’s act of divorcing his wife opens him and her up to the possibility of committing adultery, which they then commit, if they marry?

Even if we accept that convoluted translation [in the passive voice], none of the three parties (the divorcing husband, the divorced wife, and the remarrying [second] husband) is innocent: at best, the divorcing husband has the greatest guilt, for his actions caused the adultery of the other two parties. But the actions of the other two are also not justified. They may not remarry after the woman’s divorce. Christ calls all subsequent marriages (remarriages) “adultery.”

However, in Greek grammar things become even more complicated for at least two reasons. I include this discussion of the Greek because (1) our advocate for remarriage appeals to the Greek; and (2) I wish to demonstrate that the convoluted translation in the passive voice is not the correct rendering of the original, which is why no major translation uses the passive voice here.

First, in the present tense, which is the case in the texts above, the passive is identical in form to the middle voice. Therefore, most of the sections in Matthew 5:32, 19:9 and Mark 10:11, 12 above could be passives or middles. The middle voice is uncommon in English, but it is quite common in Greek and it can express a wide range of relationships between the subject and the verb (for example, reflexive, reciprocal, and intensive), such that it is not always possible to translate it otherwise than in the active voice in English. One grammar book explains, “This is the self-regarding voice. It usually denotes that the subject is acting upon himself or in some way that concerns himself, but is translated into English by the active voice” (A.W. Argyle, An Introductory Grammar of New Testament Greek [London, UK: Hodder and Stoughton, 1965], p. 78). A reflexive verb in English (middle in Greek) often has the pronoun “himself, itself,” etc. “He washed himself” is the reflexive in English, for example. “He bought a car for himself” is another example.

Second, there are many verbs in biblical Greek where the form is middle, but the meaning is active. These verbs are called “deponent verbs.” The verbs erchomai (I go), dunamai (I am able), and ginomai (I become) are deponent verbs: they cannot be translated into English as middle verbs, but they must be rendered in the active voice. Some verbs are even active in form in one tense, but middle in a different tense. Eimi (I am) is active; esomai (I shall be) is middle. In other words, Greek not uncommonly puts verbs in the form of a certain mood/tense, but the meaning is a different mood/tense. This makes Greek a challenging language to study and to translate.

Therefore, the present middle/passive verbs above in Matthew and Mark could be translated as active verbs, as is the case in most Bible versions. There is no reason why they should be rendered in English as passive or middle verbs: Our remarriage advocate writes,

The passives are God’s Word and must be translated as passive, or, as is sometimes is the case, at least, reflexive middle voice. In no way can these passives be translated as active. God wrote them as passive. Otherwise, He would have used the active.

He sounds pious because he honors the grammar that God inspired, but he is at best simplistic in his understanding of how Greek grammar works. Of course, the translator should try to render the tense, voice, mood, etc. as accurately as he can, but as any translator can tell you, the grammar of one language cannot always be smoothly rendered into another language.

How does this apply to the verses before us?

The Greek verb moichaoo (to commit adultery) appears in the middle/passive form in Matthew and Mark, but a similar verb appears in the active form in Luke. Most Greek lexicons agree that where moichaoo appears in the middle/passive form, the meaning is active. For example, Thayer writes, “moichaoo: to have unlawful intercourse with another’s wife, to commit adultery with… in bibl. Grk. mid. moichoomai, to commit adultery” (Joseph H. Thayer, Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1997], p. 417).

Anglican theologian, Andrew Cornes, agrees, for he writes:

The verb for “commit adultery” (moicheuthenai) is in the passive. Lenski has tried to maintain that this means: “makes her be stigmatized as an adulteress” (when she is really not one), but this suggestion has received almost no support because passive verbs are simply not used in this way. “The idea of merely subjective judgment on the part of others is not inherent in the passive” (Murray, p. 24). Rather, as Arndt and Gingrich point out, the active (moicheuo) is used with a direct object to “commit adultery with” (e.g. in 28). This explains the passive in 32: “makes her to have adultery committed with her.” It is her new husband who is primarily thought of as the one committing adultery: “it may be that in the act of adultery, the woman is considered as more passive than the man” (Murray, p. 22) (Andrew Cornes, Divorce and Remarriage: Biblical Principles and Pastoral Practice [Hodder and Stoughton, 1993], p. 200).

Besides this, in Luke 16:18, where a different but almost identical Greek verb is used (moicheuoo instead of moichaoo), the form and meaning of the verb are active, not passive.

It is, therefore, impossible to maintain the position that Jesus is not calling the remarried persons [the second and subsequent spouses] in Matthew 5:32, 19:9, and Mark 10:11, 12 adulterers or adulteresses. In Matthew 5:32 the one who puts away his wife at the very least exposes her to committing adultery, should she remarry, and the one who marries the divorced woman also commits adultery. It is very clear that, if the second husband commits adultery, the second wife does the same thing, for, just as it takes two to tango, it takes two to commit adultery!

To be continued...


This post was written by Rev. Martyn McGeown, missionary-pastor of the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Northern Ireland stationed in Limerick, Republic of Ireland. If you have any questions or comments, please post them in the comment section on the blog.

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