Why did Jesus allow divorce when the Law had a death penalty for adultery?


I’m trying to figure out how to reconcile a couple of Jesus’ statements in the Sermon on the Mount.

First Jesus said, “Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:19).

Then He said, “but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the reason of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Matthew 5:32).

In Matthew 5:32 Jesus seems to be saying that it is okay to divorce your wife for the reason of unchastity. However, the Law taught that she must die, “If a man is found lying with a married woman, then both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman, and the woman; thus you shall purge the evil from Israel” (Deuteronomy 22:22).

My question is, how is Jesus not annulling the commandment to kill the adulterer?

Can you help me out with this?


All death penalties required two or more witnesses:

"Whoever kills a person, the murderer shall be put to death on the testimony of witnesses; but one witness is not sufficient testimony against a person for the death penalty" (Numbers 35:30).

"Whoever is deserving of death shall be put to death on the testimony of two or three witnesses; he shall not be put to death on the testimony of one witness" (Deuteronomy 17:6).

The witnesses have to be independent sources. Therefore, it is possible for a husband know his wife is committing adultery, but lack sufficient evidence to have a death penalty invoked by a judge. Also, most married couples, while angry that adultery occurred, would not be willing to testify in a court knowing it would lead to their spouse's death. Joseph illustrated this when he found out that Mary was pregnant. "Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly" (Matthew 1:19). Deuteronomy 22:22 does not necessarily involve a spouse in the discovery of adultery.

Thus, the Old Law allowed for divorce in such cases. "When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some uncleanness in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house, ..." (Deuteronomy 24:1). Jesus' statement clarified that "uncleanness" in this case was referring to sexual uncleanness (or fornication).

Therefore, there was no annulling of a law but clarification of one aspect that was being twisted by Jewish tradition.