In conversations, blog posts and books, I’ve noticed a few people making distinctions between certain Greek and Hebrew words used in the Bible in the context of divorce. They claim that only some of these words actually refer to divorce. In this article, I briefly look at the language and context of relevant verses. My claim is that divorce, the end of a marriage, is the meaning regardless of the different words used.
Divorce Terminology in the Gospels
Apoluō and Biblion Apostasiou
The Greek verb apoluō is used in a technical sense to mean “divorce” in the Jewish setting of the Gospels. This verb is usually translated in English New Testaments as “send away,” “put away,” or “divorce” when used in the context of the end of a marriage.
Apoluō occurs, in various forms, three times in Matthew 5:31-32, five times in Matthew 19:3-9, four times in Mark 10:2-12, twice in Luke 16:18, all with the sense of “divorce.” It also occurs in Matthew 1:19 where Joseph plans to end his betrothal to Mary.
The term biblion apostasiou (“certificate of divorce/ dismissal”) occurs in the New Testament and in the Septuagint (the ancient Greek version of the Old Testament). In the New Testament, the term occurs twice, both times in verses that also contain the verb apoluō: see Mark 10:4 and Matthew 19:7-9. Apostasion, which also refers to a certificate of divorce, is used in Matthew 5:31 which contains the verb apoluō.
Apostasion/ apostasiou (“certificate of divorce/ dismissal”) and apoluō are the only Greek words used for “divorce” in the Gospels. Chōrizō is used in Matthew 19:6 and Mark 10:9 where it means “separate”: “what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Chōrizō refers to the fact that a divorced couple is apart, physically separated, in contrast with “joined together.”
Divorce Terminology in 1 Corinthians 7
Chōrizō and Aphiēmi
Paul does not use apoluō when writing to the Christians in the Roman colony of Corinth. He uses the verb chōrizō (“separate”) in 1 Corinthians 7:10 & 11 for a Christian wife who separates from her Christian husband. He also uses chōrizō in 1 Corinthians 7:15 (twice) for an unbeliever who separates from their Christian spouse.
Paul uses a different verb, aphiēmi (“leave” or, perhaps, “send away”), in 1 Corinthians 7:11 for a Christian husband who must not leave or send away (i.e. divorce) his Christian wife. He uses the same word, aphiēmi, in 1 Corinthians 7:12 for a Christian husband who must not leave or send away his non-Christian wife if she is willing to stay. The word is then used again in 1 Corinthians 7:13 for a Christian wife who must not leave or send away her non-Christian husband if he is willing to stay.
Writing about chōrizō and aphiēmi, David Instone-Brewer cautions,
Differences between these words should not be exaggerated. There may be no significance in their use other than stylistic variation. In English one might use both “divorce” and “dissolution” in the same paragraph without intending any difference in meaning. There were more than fifty words used for “divorce” in Greek marriage and divorce contracts, and it was common to use several in a single document. It is certainly not possible to say that aphiēmi is a legal divorce and chōrizō is just a separation. In Greco-Roman society, separation was a legal divorce, and chōrizō is the most common of the words used for divorce.
David Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 198-199.
Apoluō, chōrizō, and aphiēmi are all common Greek verbs. They are used in various contexts in the New Testament, many have nothing to do with divorce. But these words in the verses I’ve cited refer to divorce. In Bible times, to intentionally separate from a spouse, or to leave, or send them away, was to end a marriage.
Hebrew and Greek Old Testament Terms
Kerithuth, shalach, and exapostellō
Some claim that only the Hebrew word kerithuth means “divorce.” This word is used four times in the Hebrew Bible, always and only when speaking about a “certificate of divorce/ dismissal” ( סֵ֤פֶר כְּרִיתֻת֙) (Deut 24:1. 3: Isa. 50:1; Jer. 3:8). Sepher kerithuth is translated as biblion apostasiou (“certificate of divorce/ dismissal”) in the Septuagint. (See above.)
Shalach, a common Hebrew word that means “send,” refers to divorce in nine Bible verses: Deut. 21:14; 22:19, 29; 24:1, 3, 4; Isa. 50:1b; Jer. 3:1, 8; Mal. 2:16). Shalach is translated as exapostellō (“send away”) in the Septuagint in each of these verses. To send a wife away was to divorce her in Bible times.
Exapostellō is not used in the New Testament in verses about divorce. Greek divorce terminology used by Jewish authors may have changed during the years between the translation of the Septuagint and the writing of the Gospels.
A Further Consideration
When considering what the Bible says about divorce, it helps to differentiate between Israelite customs in Old Testament times and early Jewish customs in Jesus’ day, and not confuse either of them with later Jewish customs and traditions that didn’t apply in Bible times.
It is also important to understand that Jewish divorce customs relevant to Jesus’s teaching are different from Roman divorce customs that are more relevant to Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7.
Furthermore, we must understand the varying concerns that are addressed in the few passages about divorce in the Old Testament, in the Gospels, and in 1 Corinthians 7. All these passages address specific audiences and are about specific issues. Little of it is general teaching on divorce. And note that neither God, Jesus, or Paul forbids a spouse from leaving an abusive partner.
© Margaret Mowczko 2018, 2022
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