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Bible Studies/Divorce according to Jesus


QUESTION: Hello, I have a question that no one seems able to answer. Remarriage for someone who has been divorced is adultery, but what about the case that the ex spouse has passed away? Is the surviving spouse still an adulterer if he or she remarries? Thank you.

ANSWER: Jesus does not say anything against widowed persons marrying again, and widows and widowers remarrying was assumed to be normal practice both in the OT and Jewish culture at the time of Jesus. I think one could say with some confidence that he did not have any objection to this practice. We have a record of his stricter standards around divorce, so if he had taught similarly about remarriage after a spouse dies, I think we would have ended up with some record of that teaching in the Gospels.

In further answer to your question I would say that Paul, who is familiar with and follows Jesus' strictures about remarriage (1 Cor. 7:10-11), does not appear to regard all remarriage as adultery. For example, if a person has an unbelieving spouse and the unbelieving spouse leaves (i.e. initiates a divorce), then the Christian believer is "not bound in such circumstances" (1 Cor. 7:15). By this I think he means they are not bound by the principle he has just been talking about--the principle that estranged spouses who are believers are either to reconcile or remain single (1 Cor. 7:10-11). It seems very unlikely that he simply means to say that they are no longer bound by the marriage itself, which would be pointless--that is too obvious even to mention. He has already just said that the marriage has been disbanded against the will of the believer by the spouse who has left, so it's obvious that the believing spouse is not bound to a marriage that no longer exists.

As for widows--and presumably widowers, who are less common in Paul's day, they are, he says, free to remarry, as long as they marry a fellow believer (1 Cor. 7:8, 39). Paul thinks that since the time that remains until the Lord Jesus comes again is short, the best course of action for all single people--unmarried, divorced, and widowed--is to remain single, so they can devote their entire attention to the Lord's service, and not be distracted by domestic matters (1 Cor. 7:8-9, 25-40).

Now in one case, the OT Law actually commands remarriage after the death of a spouse. The principle of so-called "levirate marriage" orders the marriage of a widow. See Deuteronomy 25:5-6, which obligates a brother to marry the widow of his childless deceased brother. The firstborn male child of the surviving brother is then to have the rights as the heir of the deceased brother (see also similarly Genesis 38:8).

One situation that Paul does not seem to anticipate is where two people marry as Christians, but one of them leaves the faith and becomes an unbeliever. Does Paul's instruction for believing spouses apply to the believer whose spouse has renounced the faith and divorced him or her, or does his instruction for the spouses of unbelievers apply in such a case? I suspect, but I don't know for sure, that Paul would have treated this case like being widowed or divorced by an unbelieving spouse. I think he would have said that it was permissible to marry a believer, but that he didn't recommend it unless celibacy itself proved to be an intolerable distraction (vv. 8-9).

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QUESTION: There are verses claiming that a widow may remarry and verses stating that a divorcee remarrying is adultery. I have been told that Romans 7:2 and 1 Cor. 7:39 apply, but both of those verses are speaking of a married woman, not a divorced woman.
According to 1 Corinthians 7:11, it seems that divorce is not desired, but if it happens the divorcee must remain unmarried or reconcile. This verse is confusing to me, because it tells her to remain unmarried, but when speaking of reconciliation it still calls the male her "husband". How can both be true? Looking into the Greek, I found that "agamos" is used to describe the unmarried. The word only translates to mean unmarried: someone without a spouse. The word husband used in this verse uses the Greek word "andra" and can either mean husband, or simply refer to a male. If this translation best describes the word intended, then the woman in 7:11 is in fact how can Romans 7:2 or 1 Cor. 7:39 be referring to her? If she is unmarried (agamos) by divorce, then she has no husband. So the question still stands, can a divorcee whose ex spouse has died remarry? Looking at Mark 10:11, it would seem so, seeing as the adultery is said to be against the living spouse and there are verses stating that marriage ends at death. However, upon reading Gill's Commentary, he explaines that the phrase "against her" was not in the early Syriac and Persic versions of The Bible. Does that mean this phrase does not belong and was later placed in The Bible? Jesus' Words claim that marriage after divorce is adultery. Does this include marriage after an ex spouse has died?According to the following site, it is adultery anytime a divorcee remarries: I have only seen two websites claim this, the other being, however, this site seems like a cult to me.
Can you shed some light on this please? I am not trying to argue at all, please don't think that. I'm just hoping for some clarification to give my friend in this troubling matter. Thank you very much for your reply.

The way I read 1 Cor. 7:11 is this: If a Christian couple divorces--or if a Christian marriage partner chooses to leave the relationship, the couple or the partner who leaves faces exactly two choices: (1) permanently end the relationship and remain unmarried (after the divorce if there is a formal way to do this in one's culture), or (2) reconcile. Paul is not implying that moving out and living separately from your spouse automatically puts you in unmarried status. He's saying that, if you (as a woman or a man) have stepped away from your house-sharing and sexual relationship with your spouse because you can't handle living with the person, then you either leave the relationship permanently (formal or informal divorce) and remain unmarried, or go back to the relationship and try again. You don't get to shop around until you find someone you can live with. Marriage is for life.

That does indeed bring up the question of an estranged spouse dying. I think Paul would have said that the principle that surviving spouses are permitted (if not encouraged) to marry again holds true whether one has been in an active or an inactive relationship with the spouse who has died. Paul even uses this principle to illustrate the believer's relationship with the Law in Rom. 7:2-3.

Speaking theologically, rather than strictly exegetically, it would be arbitrary and cruel on God's part to put extra strictures on a surviving spouse who (1) gave in good faith all they knew how to give in a married relationship and the relationship failed, (2) held out for reconciliation as best they could, and (3) remained in a state of chaste celibacy during the period following the breakup. If a person's estranged or divorced spouse dies, the person is widowed, and is no longer bound to their marriage commitment to the deceased spouse any more than they would have been if they had been in successful relationship at the time of their spouse's death.

Once again, Paul would have encouraged the surviving spouse--estranged or not--to remain single, not because it would be unlawful to marry, but because it would be distracting from the Lord's work to marry. One of my fondest mentors was a Christian man whose believing wife divorced him. He owned up to his part in the failure of the relationship, and he and his ex-wife eventually reconciled as friends. He even cared for her on her deathbed, and he never remarried--not because he couldn't but because he was following Paul's advice.

As for the correct text of Mk 10:11, normal text-critical principles dictate that the text originally included the words "against her." Because Mt. 5:32, Mt. 19:9, and Lk. 16:8 have the saying without those words, a scribe might be tempted to leave them out to make Mk. 10:11 match the three other instances of the saying. But the only Greek uncial ms that leaves the words out is W, the Freer Gospel. It may well be that Peter, Mark's mentor, heard Jesus teach about divorce many times, and that Jesus expressed his teaching about this subject in slightly different ways from time to time and from place to place. There is nothing implausible about the idea that Peter simply passed on the saying in the form that he best remembered it.

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J. Webb Mealy


Qualified to answer questions about the New Testament, including ones that require expert knowledge of Greek, New Testament History, and New Testament Theology. Particular area of expertise is New Testament eschatology (teachings on the end of the world), the Book of Revelation, and the Gospel and epistles of John. Questions about English translations--how they are arrived at, whether they are accurate, and whether there are alternative possibilities. Textual criticism.


Have taught the Bible and New Testament to lay people for 20 years. Translator of the Spoken English New Testament (, author of After the Thousand Years: Resurrection and Judgment in Revelation 20 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1992). Senior Biblical Studies Editor, Sheffield Academic Press, 1990-1995.

Instructor, Seminary of the Street, Oakland, CA

See my online publication,, which gives an easy-to-understand but thorough introduction to the Christian Good News. See, home of the Spoken English New Testament, the most accurate available translation of the New Testament into natural contemporary English.

PhD, Biblical Studies, Sheffield, UK MA (Honors), Humanities, Western Kentucky University, Bowling Green, KY BA (Cum Laude), Religious Studies/New Testament, Westmont College, Santa Barbara, CA

Awards and Honors
Research Paper, "Tracing the Rise of Modalism in Rome," named best graduate paper of the year, Western Kentucky University, 1981

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