The Grammatical Survey On Matthew 19:9

By Ron Howes

In recent years one of the most interesting approaches to the study of Matthew 19:9, has been an attempt to suggest that the grammar of the compound complex sentence, necessarily infers the right of the guilty party to remarry. In a previous article we reviewed Lewis G. Hale’s arguments in this regard.(1)

Other authors to have made this claim in print are Maurice Estes, in the tract Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage, God’s Answer to Man’s Problem,(2) and Guy Duty (deceased) in the book Divorce and Remarriage, A Christian View, put out by Bethany Fellowship.(3) In my discussions with those of that persuasion over the years it is my opinion that every one holding that the guilty party may remarry has either consciously or subconsciously made this same logical error.

Essentially what they are doing is turning the “except for fornication” phrase into a floating modifier. Note the following excerpt from Duty:

a. Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.

b. Except it be for fornication, whosoever shall put away his wife, and shall marry another, committeth adultery, and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.

c. Whosoever shall put away his wife, and shall marry another, committeth adultery; and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery, except it be for fornication .(4)

Duty summarizes his argument thus:

“This translation gives the true sense of Christ’s divorce law. Jesus said the remarriage of the divorced woman would be adulterous, except for fornication.”(5)

The argument has everything necessary to make good print. It is ingenious, intriguing, and convincing. It lacks only one major element, and that is that it is not true. The authors in question have pitched their tent on unsound soil.

Any freshman in a college English course knows that modifiers may “float”. However, they may only float so far. You will note that we have referred to Matthew 19:9 as a compound, complex sentence. What we mean is that there are really two complete sentences here linked by the conjunction and. Within limits, modifiers may float around in a sentence, as long as they do not become too detached from their object; that which they are modifying. Modifiers, may not, under any circumstances be taken out of the sentence in which they are found. For purposes of a grammatical analysis, Matthew 19:9 is actually two sentences, not one. The use of the conjunction “and” is a literary device to avoid short choppy sentences; very common in spoken communication.

To illustrate our point that indiscriminately moving a modifier around in a sentence is unfair, allow me to do with Acts 2:38, what Duty et. al., have done with Matthew 19:9.

a. Repent ye, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ unto the remission of your sins; and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

b. Repent ye, unto the remission of your sins, and be baptized everyone of you in the name of Jesus Christ; and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

c. Repent ye, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ; and ye shall receive the Holy Spirit, unto the remission of your sins.

The parallel is legitimate and the switching of the modifier around in the sentence an exact duplication of Duty and others’ attempts. Acts 2:38, like Matthew 19:9 is a complex, compound sentence (actually, two sentences linked up by a conjunction for literary or spoken effect). Ond can easily see that the entire meaning and intent of the speaker can be grossly misrepresented by these lame attempts to “float modifiers.” It is an illegitimate way to establish your point.

To bolster our claim that “except for fornication” cannot be moved out of its position in the sentence to modify anything else, we called upon several university English departments for their opinions in our 1979 Truth Magazine article. Subsequent to the printing of that material, I was encou raged by brother O.C. Birdwell and others to expand the survey and publish the results. This we have done.

The legitimacy of a survey of the type we conducted is measured against several criteria. First, does the question the survey asks, fairly represent the issue under discussion? Secondly, do the scholars queried, represent a legitimate source of investigation? Thirdly, were those asked, sufficiently disassociated from the discussion to reply in a nonprejudiced manner? Fourthly, were enough scholars polled so that a true cross-section of opinion devoid of sectional or regional bias, could be attained.

First, our survey question. We asked . . .

“In your scholarly opinion, grammatically speaking, what does the phrase ‘except for fornication’ modify in the compound sentence:

“whosoever shall put away his wife, except for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and he that marrieth her when she is put away committeth adultery.”

Specifically, does the phrase “except for fornication” modify the first clause, the second clause, or both clauses? Also, would you please diagram the sentence, and include any comment you wish to make.”

As you can see, we asked both a specific and a general question, allowing our scholars some latitude in answering rather than just having a “yes” or “no” response. Significantly, most of our scholars responded with just a “yes” or “no” answer.

Second, do the scholars queried represent a legitimate source of investigation? We chose in this poll to question College and University English Departments. A few Greek departments did respond, and some of the English professors addressed themselves to the Greek Text. The text of Matthew 19:9 has been translated so regularly and uniformly for the last 500 years that we decided to survey English departments.

The legitimacy of the Greek text is a subject that has been adequately addressed by other studies. Note the fine work on this question by Mike Willis.(6) The only significant translation in the last 500 years to reject the Westcott and Hort reading is the NIV.

Third, were the responses unbiased? Within limits, we may answer this question yes. Two members of the Lord’s Church were included in our survey. One was a professor at Abilene, and another was a professor at Bowling Green State University of Ohio. The reader may judge from where these are listed in our results tabulation whether their responses unfairly influenced our figures. For the rest,. there is a reasonable mix of religious and nonreligious institutions, with the vast majority being secular institutions.

Fourth, what about regional bias? I do not believe that regional bias is a real factor in this survey. But, to offset that factor we chose to send out our questionnaires at random. The only qualification being that the university or college in question have an accredited English department.

The Results

We sent out 110 of our questionnaires. We received 33 responses of three general categories. Category I were those who believed that “except for fornication” could be used to modify the second clause, thus making the remarriage of the guilty party possible. Category 2 was made up of those who stated their belief that the phrase “except for fornication” did not belong in the text, in agreement with the NIV. Hence, a neutral category. Category 3 was made up of those who responded that the phrase “except for fornication” modified only the first independent clause. Category 4 were responses who declined to state an opinion, or answer the question as put.


In category 1, we received one response from the Humanities department of Grand Canyon College, Phoenix, Arizona.

In category 2, we received two responses. One from Baylor, and one from the University of Utah at Salt Lake.

In category 3, in agreement with our position, we received twenty-four responses from: University of Pennsylvania, Adelphi University, University of Colorado, East Tennessee State, Bemidji State, Brandeis University, Emory University, American International College, Baylor University, Clemson University, Dartmouth College, Drake University, University of Dayton, North Dakota State, University of Evansville, Abilene Christian University, Creighton University, Atlantic Christian College, Calvin College of Grand Rapids, Boston University, Miami of Ohio, Wellesley College, University of Arizona, Northern Arizona University.

In our last category, of those choosing to respond to the questionaire, but giving no opinion, we had five: Department of Greek, Calvin College of Grand Rapids, Purdue University, Bowling Green State of Ohio, University of Masschusettes, University of Kentucky at Lexington.


Reduced to percentages, the opinions of the scholars responding take jon an ominous weight for those who believe that they can “float” the “except for fornication” phrase in Matthew 19:9, to make it appear that Jesus is justifying the remarriage of the guilty party.

Of those choosing to respond, 15 percent had no opinion, whatsoever, or chose not to state it for personal reasons, 6 percent of those responding believed that the phrase “except for fornication” did not belong in the text (what we choose to call the NlVposition); 3 percent believed as do brother Estes, and Mr. Duty and others that you may float the “except for fornication” phrase to justify the remarriage of the guilty party; 73 percent responded that the phrase could not be moved.

Now, let’s interpret the statistics, subtracting those who had no opinion or denied the text, leaves us with 25 responses and the following breakdown. With 24 of 25 expressing an opinion on our question, 96 percent denied the conclusion of Mr. Duty, Lewis Hale, Maurice Estes, and any other who choose to go into print with a conclusion that can only be based on a breaking of the laws of grammar and misapplication of the words of our Lord.

Conclusion and Afterthoughts

I wish that we had the resources to poll not 110 Universities, but 1000. We didn’t, and others may criticise our efforts because of the limited number of responses that we received. Universities do not have to respond to private questionaires, and response is voluntary.

The results however are significant for a couple of reasons. Rather than trying to interpret what a dead scholar meant 150 years ago, we asked a pointed, extremely specific question, to living scholars – most without a biblical orientation. Their nearly unanimous response is a factor that anyone challenging the conclusions of this survey will now have to answer. We invite another survey, by those of the opposition, and look forward to reading the results.

Have we proven anything? Yes, just a minor point of grammar, that should put a wrinkle in the attempt of anyone henceforth to speak as a grammarian on this passage. A copy of this survey can be obtained from the author, at cost of duplication and mailing.


1. “Reviewing Lewis Hale,” Truth Magazine, Volume 23, pg. 792.

2. Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage, Meco Foundation, Cayucos, California, 1980.

3. Divorce and Remarriage, A Christian View, Bethany Fellowship, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 2nd Edition, 1980.

4. Ibid., pg. 50

5. Ibid., pg. 51

6. “Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage (1-3),” Guardian of Truth, Vol. XXIV, Nos. 13-15.

Guardian of Truth XXVII: 18, pp. 555-557
September 15, 1983