Maybe I should call this Part 1
, or confess that it is just a rough draft. Either way, here are some notes on what Jesus
had to say about marriage, divorce and re-marriage.
When Jesus had finished saying these things, he left Galilee and went into the region of Judea to the other side of the Jordan. Large crowds followed him, and he healed them there. Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for 'any cause'?"
"Haven't you read," he replied, "that at the beginning the Creator 'made them male and female,E' and said, 'For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh'? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate."
"Why then," they asked, "did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?" Jesus replied, "Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, 'except for indecency', and marries another woman commits adultery." (Matthew 19:1-9)
When our modern versions of the Bible record that Jesus was asked whether it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason they potentially cover-up a vital missing element in the conversation. The Pharisees asked Jesus a specific question about something called 'any-cause' divorce: "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for 'Any Cause'?"
There were two groups of Pharisees who had two different views on divorce: the Hillelites and the Shammaites. They disagreed about the meaning of a phrase in Deuteronomy 24.1, where divorce is allowed for 'a cause of indecency'.
Both groups took the term indecency
to refer to adultery, but the Hillelites argued that the term 'a cause' gave a second reason for divorce. They said that this word (literally 'a thing' or 'a matter') legislated a type of divorce based on any cause from a burnt meal to wrinkly skin. This was referred to as the 'Any Cause' divorce and became hugely popular as there was no need to present any proof in court? the man had to simply hand over a certificate of divorce and the marriage was over!
The Shammaites said that the phrase 'a cause of indecency' did not refer to two types of divorce (adultery and 'Any Cause') because the phrase as a whole means (in their words) ?nothing except for indecency?. Most people, however, preferred the Hillelite interpretation because it provided the men with easy divorces.
Of course, all of that can be easily missed when we turn to the Bible without the benefit of that background. However, there is a major clue that might point the reader in this direction. That is simply that Jesus should have answered the question with, ?Yes, obviously!? If the Pharisees are merely asking if the Jewish law allows divorce, then the answer ? which everyone would have known ? was a clear yes.
The case of the missing backgrounds
Mark?s version (Mk.10.2-12) does not include the slogans, ?for ?Any Cause?? and ?nothing except indecency?. David Instone-Brewer argues that a first century reader would mentally supply these phrases just as a modern reader supplies the phrase ?alcoholic beverages? into the question ?Is it lawful for a 16 year-old to drink?? However, we can reliably assume that the reporter of the account in Mark was aware of the debate, because he adds the explanatory words, ?They were putting him to the test.? (v. 2)
Luke?s version (Lk.16.18) is an even shorter summary and contradict other biblical passages (and early church practice) by allowing no grounds for divorce whatsoever. It is thus important to remember that virtually all divorces were for ?Any Cause?, so that everyone who divorced and wished to remarry could be said to still be married to their former partner.
Matthew provides a shorter account ? only stating Jesus? conclusion ? in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5:31). However, many scholars agree that the so-called sermon is a summary of some of Jesus? major and more substantial teachings. Thus, it would be a mistake to read this shorter account, whilst ignoring the historical background provided by the longer account in chapter 19.
Jesus on Marriage
Even when he is asked about divorce ? in order to show support for one group of Pharisees or the other - Jesus is more interested in talking about marriage, so he starts by teaching that marriage should be monogamous and lifelong (vv.4-6). When he is asked why Moses commanded divorce in the case of adultery, he explains that Moses did not command it, but allowed it -and even then only in cases of un-repentance (?hardheartedness?, vv.7-8), where reconciliation is impossible.
Jesus finally answered their question about ?Any Cause? divorce by quoting the slogan of the Shammaties that the phrase ?a cause of indecency? means ?nothing except indecency?. Thus, anyone who had divorced this way (which now included most of those divorced!) had an invalid divorce and was in effect committing adultery; their previous marriage had not yet ended.
Of course, this does not mean that he expected them to drop their betrothed and go off and find their previous partners. They themselves may have remarried and we assume that all bridges to reconciliation had long burnt. I would argue that this is simply a rhetorical device that Jesus uses to emphasise the inadequacy of ?Any Cause? divorce. That is, an ?Any Cause? divorce invalid.
The Biblical Grounds for Divorce
In the days prior to 'Any Cause' divorce becoming so popular, Jewish lawyers allowed four (sometimes 5) grounds for divorce:
1) Adultery (based on Dt.24.1)
2) neglect of food (based on Ex.21.10f)
3) neglect of clothing (based on Ex.21.10f)
4) neglect of love. (based on Ex.21.10f)
The last three were recognised by all groups within Judaism and actually allowed divorce to be initiated by women as well as men. (In practice they amount to emotional and material support, and it is these that Paul alludes to in 1 Cor. 7, when he reminds the Corinthians that they owe their partners both physical love (vv.3-5) and material support (vv. 33-34).) No one argued about these three grounds, so there was no reason for the Pharisees to question Jesus about them.
I would argue that we need compelling evidence if we are to assume that Jesus rejected these other grounds for divorce. He was asked a specific question about ?Any Cause? divorce, yet used the opportunity to challenge a number of common beliefs about marriage. This would have been the perfect opportunity to question the other grounds for divorce accepted by both Hillelites and Shammaites.
Contrary to how it may appear at first glance, when Jesus denied the validity of all divorces "except for 'Indecency'" this did not imply that 'Indecency' ? meaning adultery - was the only allowable ground. The Shammaites used exactly the same phrase, yet they also allowed other types of divorce. They simply meant that in Deuteronomy 24:1 there is no other ground for divorce being discussed except for 'Indecency'". They clearly did not mean that there is no ground for divorce in all Scripture, except 'Indecency' ? as they themselves allowed others. It is unfathomable that Jesus meant something completely different, when he used the same words in the same context, to the same group of people.
EDIT:I should point out that my views on this topic owe a great deal to the Baptist pastor, historian and ancient languages professor, David Instone-Brewer.
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