Jesus' teachings on Divorce

Generally speaking, much of the church has misunderstood Jesus’ statements on divorce, and the church has typically increased, rather than relieved, the suffering and scandal of Christians who have left abusive marriages. This is not right.

If we want to genuinely understand Jesus’ teachings on divorce, particularly his teaching in response to the question posed to him by the Pharisees, we need to have some understanding of the issues concerning divorce that the Jews of Jesus’ day were discussing.

Herod Antipas and Herodias

The Pharisees were testing Jesus with their question about divorce (Matt. 19:3; Mark 10:2). They may have been trying to trick Jesus into saying something scathing about Herod Antipas (ruler of Galilee) and his new wife Herodias. The couple had recently divorced their previous partners so that they could marry each other, and they were the ‘talk of town’.

John the Baptist was executed because of his vocal criticism about their divorces and subsequent marriage (Mark 6:17ff NIV cf. Luke 3:19-20). Were the Pharisees hoping Jesus could be got rid of in the same way?

The example of Herod Antipas and Herodias could well be the context for Jesus’ teaching on divorce which can be paraphrased as: “you must not divorce your spouse so that you can marry someone else, as that is tantamount to adultery” (cf. Mark 10:11-12; Luke 16:18; Matt. 5:31-32 NIV; Matt. 19:9).

Similarly, the immediate context of Malachi 2:16 NIV, in the Old Testament, “suggests that the divorce in view is that of one Jewish person by another in order to undertake subsequent marriages.”[1]

Shammai and Hillel

But there was more behind the Pharisees’ question. The Pharisees were currently engaged in a debate about the legitimate grounds for divorce in light of Deuteronomy 24:1.[2]

The Rabbinic document Mishnah Gittin gives us insight into the opposing views on divorce of the Shammaite Pharisees and Hillelite Pharisees in the first and early second centuries.[3] (Shammai (50 BCE–30 CE) and Hillel (110 BCE–7 CE) were highly influential Jewish scholars.)

The School of Shammai says: “A man may not divorce his wife unless he has found unchastity in her”, for it is written, “Because he has found in her indecency in anything” (Deut. 24:1). The School of Hillel says: “Even if she spoiled a dish for him”, for it is written, “Because he has found in her indecency in anything”. Rabbi Akiva says: “Even if he found another fairer than she”, for it is written, “And it shall be if she find no favour in his eyes” (Deut. 24:1).
Mishnah Gittin 9.10 [4]

The School of  Shammai rightly focused on the word “indecency” in Deuteronomy 24:1. The school of Hillel unjustly focused on the word “anything”. Some wives were unfairly treated and seriously disadvantaged by divorce for any reason, one reason even being that a husband “found another fairer than she”.[5]

The Pharisees’ debate was unfairly focused on the husbands’ rights. The well-being of wives does not seem to have been a consideration. Yet, while the law was unfairly biased towards husbands, wives could seek a divorce. David Instone-Brewer summarises the situation in first-century CE Judaism:

Only a man could enact a divorce, but this did not mean that women could not initiate a divorce . . . The principles that divorce could be enacted only by a man was based on the law that said that a man should write out the get or “divorce certificate” (Deut. 24:1). This resulted in the principles that a man had to enter into divorce voluntarily, but a woman could be divorced against her will . . .[6]

The Pharisees may have wanted to get into a debate with Jesus on one of their pet topics, but Jesus succinctly answered their question and took the conversation in a different direction, all the way back to creation.

Jesus and Moses

A further possibility is that the Pharisees’ asked their question hoping that they would trick Jesus into speaking against the law of Moses, in particular Deuteronomy 24:1, and thus discredit him. If this was their hope, they would have been disappointed as Jesus immediately quotes from Genesis in his reply. (The book of Genesis is traditionally thought to have been written by Moses.)

In Matthew 19:4-6 Jesus tells the Pharisees,

Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate (Matt. 19:4-6; cf. Gen 1:27; 2:24; 5:2).

In Genesis 2:18-25 we are given a glimpse at God’s ideal model for marriage: one man and one woman, perfectly suited to one another, joined in an intimate and exclusive, mutual and safe, life-long partnership. This is what husbands and wives should aspire to. Sadly, however, many marriages do not live up to this ideal.

When a bride and groom make their wedding vows, today, they make a covenant upheld by certain promises, such as, to love, honour, cherish, etc. But some people, even professing Christians, habitually break these promises. A few even do the opposite of love, honour, and cherish.

When a spouse consistently and repeatedly breaks the wedding vows he or she has made, the marriage covenant breaks and the one-flesh union fractures, and this may lead to divorce. It is important to note, however, that a legal divorce usually occurs long after the marriage covenant has already been broken.

Divorce and Adultery

In his comments on divorce given to the Pharisees, Jesus specifically addressed the Pharisees’ debate on divorce (Matt.19:3-9; Mark 10:2-12). His comments were not meant to be a comprehensive statement on divorce, or a comprehensive statement of all the permissible reasons for divorce. Rather, Jesus correctly interprets Deuteronomy 24:1, he reminds the Pharisees of the ideal in marriage, and he explains that divorcing one person in order to marry another person is immoral and adulterous.

Importantly, it is plausible, even probable, that all of Jesus’ statements about adultery, in respect to divorce and remarriage, were given in the context of someone divorcing one person with the express aim of marrying another particular person (Matt. 5:31-32 NIV; 19:9; Mark 10:11-12; Luke 16:18).  If so, it means that someone who divorces their spouse because of betrayal or abuse, but later finds a new partner and marries, is NOT committing adultery.

Divorce and our Duty of Care

Jesus’ reply to the Pharisees had the potential to protect married women. Jesus would not have wanted wives to be divorced and dumped by their husbands for no real reason. As mentioned in my previous article, a divorced woman could be very vulnerable in Bible times.

The Bible expresses a clear mandate that we are to protect vulnerable people from injustice. A faulty understanding of Jesus’ teaching on divorce cannot be used to overturn this basic principle. We completely miss the point of Jesus’ remarks to the Pharisees, and elsewhere, if we insist a spouse remain with an abusive partner in a harmful marriage. Instead, we are to provide consolation, care and support.

More information about domestic abuse and divorce from an evangelical Christian perspective on A Cry for Justice.


Endnotes

[1] Note 24 on Malachi 2 in the NET Bible here.

[2] Deuteronomy 24:1-4 “is directly concerned only with forbidding a divorced man from remarrying his former wife, and indirectly with checking hasty divorces, by demanding sufficient cause and certain legal formalities. Divorce itself is taken for granted and tolerated as an existing custom whose potential evils this law seeks to lessen . . . By New Testament times Jewish opinion differed concerning what was sufficient ground for divorce; cf. Matt 19:3.” Footnote on Deuteronomy 24, from The New American Bible, Revised Edition (NABRE) here.

[3] The Mishnah was written around 200 CE, but refers to some Jewish traditions before that time which were passed on orally.

[4] Hyam Maccoby, Early Rabbinic Writings, Book 3 of Cambridge Commentaries on Writing of the Jewish and Christian World 200BC to AD200 (Cambridge University Press, 1988, digital version 2008)
Mishnah Gittin 9:10 can be read online here.

[5] Rabbi Akiva (50-137) lived a little after Jesus’ time on earth, but his idea, that a husband could legitimately divorce his wife just to marry someone prettier, could be an echo of earlier rabbinic ideas.

[6] David Instone Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 85-86.
However, Jewish women who were Roman citizens could enact a divorce under Roman law. For example, Salome I (Herod the Great’s sister) and Herodias issued the writ of divorce and divorced their husbands. More on this here.

Image

The Pharisees and the Sadducees Come to Tempt Jesus, by James Tissot (1886-1894) (Wikimedia Commons)


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