Rethinking Jesus on Divorce
Vol. 37/No. 2 (1995)
Rethinking Jesus on Divorce
Gary D. Collier
Divorce is one of those rare subjects for which academia has the potential to make a direct and meaningful impact on the real mess of people's lives. Recent academic literature on divorce in biblical texts reflects an awareness of this.(1) Even so, more and more studies are pointing out (quite unintentionally) just how difficult it is for 20th century readers even to understand the received texts on the subject, let alone gain any direction from them. Did Matt 19:1-9 precede or follow Mark 10:1-12? What was Jesus' view of the law in Matthew 5? What doesπορνεια mean in the Matthean texts? Was the "exception clause" original to Jesus or was it later Matthean redaction? And of course many other questions abound. The more that is published the more fractured the topic becomes, and the more hopeless one may feel about whether anything relevant for current questions can be known about the subject.(2)Both scholarly and popular approaches wrestle to fit the pieces together.
Scholars have tended to focus on the individual units of the various texts. They distinguish between two "dominical logia" (sayings of Jesus) on divorce. I will call these "first" and "second" sayings, based on the order of their occurrence in the Mark/Matthew story. Scholars have generally worked through traditional layers more or less as follows:
(1) The "second" saying, Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, occurs as an isolated statement in Luke 16:18 and is mostly paralleled in Matt 5:32. For this reason, the saying is taken to have been originally an individual unit of tradition and is usually assigned to source Q (cf. Luke 16:18; Matt 5:32).
(2) The Q form of the tradition is somewhat different from the form of the same saying found in Mark (10:11-12; cf. 1 Cor 7:10-11). Some scholars think that both the Q form of the saying and the Markan form of the saying "circulated early in the tradition as isolated sayings."(3)
(3) The Markan form of the saying was then picked up (10:11-12) and added to the end of two other items which had been previously connected: (a) a traditional pronouncement story about an encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees (10:2-5), and (b) a concluding statement (the "first") by Jesus, What God has joined together, let not man put asunder (10:6-8).(4)
(4) On this basis, Matthew is said to carry the process even further by depending upon and altering both Mark 10:1-12 (at Matt 19:1-9) and Q (at Matt 5:32).
Based on this kind of "tradition history" approach, the first saying, What God has joined together, let not man put asunder, in the Mark 10/Matt 19 story, is most often taken as now overshadowed by the second saying. The issue now becomes "What constitutes adultery?" As such, the first saying is understood to prohibit divorce (i.e., marriage is indissoluble;(5) divorce does not work),(6) and the second saying prohibits remarriage (as adultery).(7)
Because of this, the second saying has received the greatest amount of attention.(8) Scholars have focused on separating tradition and redaction from the genuine sayings of Jesus and on discovering redactional intent.(9) In effect, where the Gospels have conflated the various early traditions, the scholars have attempted to disentangle them to their "original" state. The major concern then becomes whether it was divorce or remarriage that the historical Jesus and/or the "original tradition" forbade as adultery and whether there were any exceptions.(10)of the second saying alone, aside from the broader context of the accounts as they exist.(11)Decisions on such questions are often made on the basis of the interrelationships and syntax of the various Gospel accounts
More popular approaches, on the other hand, tend to conflate the Gospel texts. As with academic authors, popular authors often proceed on an assumption that our current Gospels are insufficient in the form they have been written and received. But now, the "historical Jesus" is reconstructed, not by way of form and redaction critical methods, but by precritical or noncritical conflations which make all the Gospels say what each Gospel says.
William Luck, for example, has little regard for the more critical approaches and resolves the problem of the relationship between Matthew 19 and Mark 10 simply by devising a conflated reading:
Rather than speculate about traditions with limited memories, we would be well advised to try [to] construct the original from the preserved accounts. In doing so, we should not be deterred by the fact that we do not have a unified written account of the complete dialogue. We have the parts, and, if we respect the integrity of the parts, and try and blend them, presuming the least amount of redaction . . . we may arrive at a conflate reading that is the base common to the "traditions" and perhaps well known to everybody involved.(12)
Based on such a conflated reading, neither Matthew nor Mark is considered for its own sake. Instead, the newly constructed conflated reading is regarded as the original, the real event at the base of the traditions. This becomes the new construct for interpreting the individual elements in each account. Thus, "[t]his running dialogue eliminates the question of whether Jesus brought up Moses or they did. The answer is that both did, though not at the same time."(13)
More is at stake, though, than incidental historical questions. C. E. W. Dorris, for example, does not deal at all with the form of Jesus' statement in Mark 10:11, or with the context of Mark, but merely adds the exception clause from Matt 19:9: And he saith unto them, Whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication(Matt 19:9)and marry another, committeth adultery against her (emphasis, GDC).(14) In this approach, the difference between the texts is not really a difference; it is rather a key feature even for the texts which do not have it.
Although not all popular approaches should be characterized in such blatant ways, the tendency to conflate the various accounts is widespread.(15)
Assessment and Procedure
While there are certainly many differences between scholarly and popular approaches, there are also some curious similarities. For at the heart of both approaches--whether one seeks the "real Jesus" by way of historical-critical methods or by way of noncritical, conflationary methods--there are three very important assumptions which guide how the various divorce texts are treated: (1) the sayings of Jesus constitute his "law" (legislation) on divorce/remarriage; (2) the sayings of Jesus pronounce marriage to be "indissoluble;" (3) the key and dominant part of the tradition is found in the second saying, "Whoever divorces his wife [except forπορνεια and marries another commits adultery." As such, divorce does not work, and remarriage is the main issue.
In the present study, I will do the unthinkable and challenge everybody.(16) In the process, I will offer a different kind of paradigm for reading and applying the various texts on divorce. My thesis is as follows: In both Matthew and Mark on the question of divorce, Jesus presses his followers to read both Scripture and his own words noncasuistically; he instructs them to adopt a hermeneutical and theological perspective which searches for God, not which searches for authorizations or prohibitions. Consequently, what is under attack in the two Gospel accounts is the whole practice of searching for authorization for divorce and remarriage. Jesus himself is crying out, "Look for the heart of God!" He is not attempting to draw distinctions between divorce and remarriage to determine which is worse or to offer new laws as replacements for Deuteronomy. To make this case, I will argue (1) that Jesus directly attacks the Pharisees, not Moses or the law of Moses; (2) that Jesus decries a nomistic/casuistic approach to Deuteronomy 24 (and thus to all Scripture) as if it were intended to provide "authorization" for divorce and remarriage; (3) that the governing item of both Matthew and Mark is What God joined, people are to stop separating and that this concept is based on a midrashic view of Genesis 1 and 2 as providing a kind of "creation covenant"; and (4) that the differences between the accounts help us to apply the story to ever new contexts and situations.(17)
The method of the present study will be a focused literary analysis of the parallel stories in Mark 10 and Matthew 19 and the related account in Matthew 5. Mark and then Matthew will be examined for how the divorce logia function within each context. Mark will be taken first because of its simplicity and straightforwardness. No theory of Gospel dependencies is assumed.(18) Other important matters--relating to Luke, Q, early traditions, or historical-critical questions--will be held for other occasions.
Mark's story on divorce appears in the central section of the Gospel (8:27-10:52) in which several themes are intricately interwoven: conflict (9:14; 10:2), predictions of rejection and death amid conflict (8:31; 9:12, 31; 10:33-34), the private instruction of the disciples in the face of conflict (9:28, 33; 10:10; cf. 4:10; 7:17), and the way of the cross and its high costs (8:34-38; 9:42-50; 10:17-31, 35-45). "Jesus in conflict" is a guiding emphasis in Mark, though no single group is the target of ridicule. Challengers may be demons, Roman or Jewish authorities, Jesus' own family, his disciples, or perhaps even God.(19) In this central section the disciples are in conflict with the scribes over casting out demons (9:14ff.), and the Pharisees are the antagonists against Jesus over divorce (10:2ff.).
Like other similar stories in Mark (cf., 4:10-20; 7:14-23; 9:14-29), this one is divided between what was said publicly and what was said to the disciples privately. "In the house" (10:10), perhaps a Markan stylistic feature,(20) indicates the purpose and function of the story within this section of the narrative: it is another example of Jesus instructing his disciples in the face of conflict, this time over a common practice relating to the interpretation of the law of Moses.
The conflict itself centers around the function and role of Deuteronomy 24 in the divorce debate. When the Pharisees say, "Moses permitted [us] to write a bill of divorce and to divorce" (v. 4), they are looking to Deuteronomy 24 as an authorization for the practice of divorce. Jesus directly challenges this use of Scripture, charging the Pharisees with abusing the law of God. Four items, when taken together, make this conclusion compelling:
(1) Jesus contrasts "you" and "your obstinacy" (vv. 3, 5) with God's creative act (v. 6), setting the entire conflict in the lap of the Pharisees. The conflict is not between Jesus and Moses, or Moses and God; it is between the Pharisees and God.
(2) Jesus conflates Gen 1:27 and 2:24 (vv. 6-8) to directly challenge the Pharisees' abuse of Deuteronomy 24:
But from the beginning of creation, male and female he made them (Gen 1:27). Because of this, a man shall leave his father and mother [and shall be joined to his wife] and the two shall become one flesh (Gen 2:24).(21)
This conflation is now to be read as a single verse. As such, it changes the original force of the phrase, "because of this" (ενεκεν τουτου, v. 7). In Gen 2:24 (LXX) "because of this" directly follows the account of woman being taken out of man and functions to explain that the joining of a man and woman in marriage was a re-uniting, since woman had been taken out of man. In Mark, however, "because of this" refers specifically to God's making man as male and female: Because God made them male and female, the two shall become one flesh. God's creative act itself implies divine purpose and that Deuteronomy 24 could not have been what God originally wanted.
The importance of the conflation can hardly be exaggerated. It has the effect of midrashically identifying a kind of "creation covenant" between God and humankind. Since God acted on behalf of humankind, making them male and female with direct implications about union, then the expected response of humankind is stated: because of this, a man shall leave and be joined to . . . (vv. 7-8). This conflation is a direct slap at any use of Deuteronomy 24 to find divine authorization for divorce.
(3) Jesus points to the creation again in the phrase "what God united." The verb συνεζευξεν ("united") explains the conflation of Gen 1:27 and 2:24. Whereas a man shall cleave to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh, God made it possible when he made (εποιησεν) them male and female. Both words ("made" and "united") are simple aorists,(22) denoting what God did at creation. The Pharisees, in using Scripture to authorize divorce, were using God's own law against his creation.
(4) Finally, Jesus directly confronts the Pharisees' ongoing practice of divorce in the statement, What God united, man is to stop separating. This is the culmination of Jesus' argument against the Pharisees and is his direct answer to their original question, Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife? As such, it is quite the crucial matter. It is often translated as, What God has joined together, let not man put asunder.(23) Then, in light of the second logion in vv. 11-12, the phrase is taken to mean that since only God marries people, human divorce does not really work; the couple is still married in the eyes of God. It is as if the statement reads, "What God joined when these two got married cannot now be broken apart, since they are still married in the eyes of God."(24)
This, however, misses the point. In Mark, Jesus is not addressing whether people can defeat God; he is rather addressing the customary practices of the people, which the Pharisees, in their search for "authorization," encouraged. This practice contradicts the creative act of God. "Man is to stop separating" (ανθρωπος μη χωριζετω) consists of μη with the present imperative and in the current context indicates that the practice of divorce(25) is common and that it should stop, or at the very least, that it should continually be avoided.(26) This is not an abstract philosophical statement about what people should not do, nor about what people cannot do; it is a relevant and real statement about what the Pharisees were doing: using God's law to find legal authorizations to do what God had never wanted: divorce.
In sum, the four items just listed, when taken together, argue forcefully that the focus of this Markan example of "Jesus in conflict" is the Pharisees' abuse not only of God's law, but even more of God's creation covenant: (1) The hardness of your heart; (2) the conflation of Gen 1:27 and 2:24 emphasizing the union which God made at creation; (3) the simple reference that God united man as male and female in his creative act (i.e., showing divine purpose); and (4) the instruction not to be a part of the thriving practice of divorce. All of these elements are aimed at the practice of the Pharisees. According to Jesus, they add insult to God on top of injury to people, using a law which should never have been needed (Deut. 24) to legalize what God had never intended (divorce). Divorce contradicts what God did at creation. It is one thing to see that the law in Deuteronomy 24 makes some provisions about the reality of divorce; it is another to claim that the law authorizes divorce. In effect, Jesus says:
What God did at creation, when he made man as male and female, intending their complete union--you Pharisees stop destroying it. Your use of Deuteronomy 24 to find author-ization for divorce to the neglect of what God has always wanted from the beginning has caused you to miss the point of it all--Genesis and Deuteronomy alike. As a result, you are interfering with the very purpose and creative act of God.(27)
In Mark, this is all the Pharisees get to hear (vv. 2-9). The conflict has been brought to a halt.
In the second block (vv. 10-12) Jesus draws out the implications of his previous statements in a private session with his disciples. As in other similar sections of Mark in which Jesus instructs the disciples privately (cf. 4:10; 7:17; 9:28, 33), the latter section states more fully what was stated incipiently in the former section. He makes the same point to his disciples that he had just made to the Pharisees, only in different words: Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, is guilty of adultery against her; and if a wife marries another man, having divorced her husband, she is guilty of adultery.
Both statements in vv. 11-12 make a single point about the breaking and making of marriages(28) : in view of God's original creation and purpose, such activity is nothing short of adultery. A comparison of the two sections demonstrates that Jesus' statements in vv. 11-12 amount to his own commentary on what had just happened in vv. 2-9.
|Statement to Pharisees (vv. 2-9)||Restatement to Disciples (vv. 11-12)|
|1. Moses permitted us a bill of divorce. (v. 4) because you were obstinate [v. 5]) |
2. Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife? (v. 2)
3. What God united, man is to stop separating (v. 9)
4. Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife? (v. 2); from the beginning, . . . male and female (v. 6)
|1. Whoever divorces his wife/marries another (v. 11), abuse of Dt. 24:1 as authorization to divorce |
2. Whoever divorces/remarries . . . adultery (v. 11)
3. Whoever divorces/remarries . . . adultery (v. 11)
4. Is guilty of adultery (v. 11)
(1) The phrase, whoever divorces his wife and marries another (v. 11), corresponds to v. 4, Moses [in Deuteronomy 24] permitted one to write a bill of divorce. The phrase in v. 11 describes exactly what both the Pharisees and the disciples would have understood from Deuteronomy 24, because the context of that passage assumes that the remarriage of the divorcing parties was imminent. Jesus' statement, then, is tantamount to saying,
Whoever uses Deuteronomy 24 as authorization to go ahead and divorce his wife and marry another has in reality desecrated the law and rejected the original intentions of God who gave the law.
(2) The absolute nature of the statement whoever divorces his wife and marries another is guilty of adultery (v. 11), corresponds to the absolute question in v. 2, which bluntly asks, Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife? Instead of being a "yes" or "no," v. 11 implies: It is not a matter of law, it is a matter of what God has always wanted. So the answer in v. 11 arises from God's original desire at creation. Deuteronomy 24 is not rejected by Jesus; what is rejected is the way the Pharisees use it as authorization for divorce. But when Deuteronomy 24 is compared to Genesis 1-2, it is clear God would never approve of any approach which interprets any law as sanction.(29)
(3) In verse whoever divorces his wife and marries another is guilty of adultery also corresponds to what God united, man is to stop separating (v. 9). Jesus answered the Pharisees (vv. 6-9) and the disciples (vv. 10-12) with these two statements which complement each other. Both statements are absolute, and both are based in Genesis 1-2. To the Pharisees Jesus proclaimed that Moses wrote the commandment, not to make divorce and remarriage legal, but to deal with the reality of the hard-hearted neglect of God's will and indiscriminate divorce and remarriage without deference to the holiness of God and his people. To the disciples Jesus explained that those who use Deuteronomy 24 to authorize divorce fundamentally mis-understand God's action at creation (Genesis 1-2). And the intention of God from the beginning for perfect union between husband and wife is both ab-solute and unchanging.(30)
(4) The phrase is guilty(31)of adultery (v. 11), then, answers the ques-tion in v. 2 (Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?) in terms of Jesus' comment in v. 6 (on Genesis 1-2):From the beginning of creation he made them male and female; that is, marriage is not primarily a matter of law, it is a matter of God's creation and original intent--a matter of his creation covenant with mankind. To violate that covenant is to reject the very action and intention of God in creation. Therefore, what God united at creation, man is to stop putting asunder through divorce. In this context, then, "adultery" must be understood in terms of God's creation covenant, not in terms of the Mosaic law.(32)
In Mark, Jesus' statement about divorce, remarriage, and adultery in vv. 11-12 is a restatement of vv. 2-9 in general and Genesis 1-2 in par-ticular, and agrees with what God united, man is to stop separating (v. 9). As such, the pattern is consistent with previous similar sections in the Gospel of Mark. In this text, the desire of the Pharisees to find authorization in Deuteronomy 24 for a man to divorce his wife and marry another leads Jesus to point to God's implied covenant at creation. What Jesus advocates is a different way of seeing Scripture on this point: not as legislation, but as an expression of the inner heart of God. From that point of view, for marriage, anything which defiles God's original desire of faithful union is adultery. But of course, the Pharisees (the lawyers, the biblical scholars), concerned as they were with the many technicalities of the issue, had trouble seeing this point.
Like Mark, Matthew defies a simple outline, and numerous themes are intertwined throughout the Gospel, including the kingdom of heaven, the person of the Messiah, the nature and cost of discipleship, and conflict with the Pharisees. The Pharisees are targets for Jesus. He brings against them a searing charge of hypocrisy. Throughout the Gospel, the heart, the inward being, and righteousness are set in bold relief against their showiness, hypocrisy, and externalism (cf., 5:20; 12:1-12; 15:1-11; 16:6, 11, 12; and esp. chap. 23). While Mark emphasizes conflict, Matthew more specifically and thematically focuses on conflict with the Pharisees.(33)
Matt 16:13-20:34 specifically deals with the demands or rigid-ness of following Jesus, and the values of the kingdom of heaven are set forth:(34) self-sacrifice and allegiance (16:24-17:13); faith (17:14-21); submission to authority (17:24-27); self-denial and humility (18:1-14); forgiveness and mercy (18:15-35); moral purity (19:1-12); innocence and humility (19:13-15); detachment from possessions (19:16-30); and position and service (20:1-16; 20-28). With the interspersion of Jesus' fate (viz., to suffer, be killed, and be raised: 16:21-23; 17:22-23; 20:17-19) into the demands or values of the kingdom of heaven, the ultimate demand is shown: a willingness on the part of disciples to follow the steps of Jesus even to death. This is a call to total discipleship. Those who understand the demands or values of the kingdom in the context of suffering know what it is to think the things of God. It is in this context of the rigidness of the values of the kingdom that Matt 19:1-9 appears as a call to moral purity in the face of the Pharisees' abuse of the law of Moses.
In Matthew, the confrontation with the Pharisees on the matter of moral purity (divorce) is more pronounced than in Mark.(35) In fact, there are numerous differences of wording, arrangement, and contents between the two accounts. In Matthew, the question is whether divorce is allowed for just any cause. To answer this, Jesus begins with Genesis 1-2, pointing out God's original intent and stating that man is to stop putting asunder what God united. As in Mark, this is the crux of the argument. But in Matthew as contrasted with Mark, the Pharisees now object, "Why, then, did Moses give us Deuteronomy 24?" They are the ones who bring up Deuteronomy 24, and they do it in response to Genesis 1-2. Apparently, for Matthew, their main concern was the proper grounds for divorce (is divorce allowed for just any cause?", as seen in the phrase in Deuteronomy 24:1, a thing of uncleanness in the wife, as a justification for the husband being allowed to hand her a writ of divorce, freeing her to remarry.
This different arrangement of material from Mark impacts the thrust of the story: (1) it causes the Pharisees (unlike in Mark) to overtly and intentionally pit Deuteronomy 24 against God's creative intent in Genesis 1-2; (2) it has Jesus correcting the Pharisees' view that Moses commanded divorce, to the understanding that he only allowed divorce for human obstinacy; (3) it explains why Jesus' own statement, that one who goes ahead and divorces and remarries is guilty of adultery, was made directly to the Pharisees and not just privately to the disciples (as in Mark)--the Pharisees are the ones who raised the issue of Deuteronomy 24; and (4) it offers a plausible explanation for the much celebrated "exception clause."(36) Whatever its force, the clause is best seen as an emphasis of Matthew's Gospel, much the same as the other differences heighten his emphasis, an interpretation for his readers in his argument against the Pharisees. The clause does not, however, detract from the major thrust of the argument, nor does it become the major thrust. In Matthew, the major thrust against divorce is stated even more strongly than in Mark, as is the emphasis against the Pharisees who consciously pit God's law against his creation covenant and thereby use the law to encourage people to divorce. But most of all, (5) Matthew's different arrangement from Mark brings Matt 19:1-9 into a close relationship with Matt 5:27-32, showing that Matthew has worked the theme into its overall structure at a deeper level than Mark (regardless of which was written first) and that he has a more specific point in mind.
Matthew 5 and 19
Matthew characteristically mentions some important sayings of Jesus twice, relating them thematically and structurally.(37) As a result, Matt 5:31-32 and 19:7-9 both follow the same general order and have the same general emphasis:
|Matt 5:31-32||Matt 19:7-9|
|And it was said, "Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a writ of divorce." |
But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the matter of πορνεια, forces her into adultery and whoever marries a divorced woman is guilty of adultery."
|And they said to him, "Why, therefore, did Moses command to give a writ of divorce and to divorce [her]?" He said to them, "Moses, because of your hard hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it has not been this way.|
But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife, except for πορνεια,
and marries another, is guilty of adultery."
It is at once apparent that both texts quote Deuteronomy 24 to address the question of the viability of divorce, and both have Jesus respond firmly against divorce. Not so apparent, however, is the proper interpretation of the larger context of Matt 5:17-48, which deals with Jesus' relationship to the law (and thus, to Deuteronomy). This is an enormous debate, but we may accept Graham Stanton's assessment that, "There is general agreement that 'fulfillment' [in 5:17-20] implies that Jesus modifies in some ways contemporary understandings of the law."(38)
Building on this, I have proposed elsewhere (1) that Matt 5 is the beginning of a sustained argument against the Pharisees which culminates in chapter 23; (2) that Matt 5:17-48 is one of several summaries of Jesus' view of the ten commandments, reinterpreted prophetically (i.e., in the same manner as the OT prophets); and (3) that at issue is a contrast between the hermeneutical and theological perspectives of Jesus and the Pharisees, which cause them to read the same Scriptures in such radically different ways from each other.(39) In Matthew, Jesus does not supplant Deuteronomy; rather, he contrasts his own God-centered perspective on the law with the nomistic disposition of the Pharisees.(40) This is extremely important for understanding the divorce texts in Matthew.
Matthew 5:31-32 in Context
We must note that 5:31-32 occurs in the larger discussion of the prophetic (as against casuistic) reading of the law (5:17-48), and more immediately in a discussion on what (from the prophetic perspective) constitutes adultery (5:27-32). "Adultery" occurs four times in this two-part block, twice in vv. 27-28 and twice in v. 32. Two other items tie the two adultery sections together: the shortened formula, And it was said, and the word "and" () which starts the phrase, showing a connection with the previous section.(41)
This helps to put some of the details of 5:31-32 in context. For example, (1) the "exception clause" in 5:32 is somewhat obscure (as in 19:9), but it is not the primary issue. (2) Furthermore, the stark attitude against divorce is not more rigidly stated than "cut off your hand, pluck out your eye" in vv. 29-30, also speaking of adultery. Thus, as "lust" is characterized as adultery (vv. 27-30), so is any dealing with divorce (v. 32)! Whether a man divorces his wife or marries a divorced woman, he is responsible for adultery.(42) As in Matt 19 and Mark 10, what is called adultery in Matt 5 is far more inclusive than any case of adultery casuistically defined. For Jesus, not only is the physical act of sexual intercourse outside one's own marriage adultery (as per the law), but so are lust (5:27f) and involvement in divorce and remarriage (5:31-32). The common element in all these cases of adultery is the breaking of the purity of marriages. And all of this is aimed squarely at the Pharisees.
When Matt 5:31-32 and 19:1-9 are compared in the overall context of Matthew, it becomes clear that Jesus is not presented as making new laws on the topic (as replacements for Deuteronomy 24), nor are his words to be read as encyclopedia articles (covering all aspects of the topic). Instead, the argument is focused. The main target is the nomistic perspective of the Pharisees. Whereas Matt 5 says, "You have heard that it was said" (v. 27), and then, "It was also said" (v. 31), Matt 19 gives a specific example of it happening: the Pharisees come to Jesus quoting Deut 24:1. Yet it is their own agenda they advocate in doing so, viz., that Deut 24 is to be understood casuistically as "authorizing" divorce. This same issue lies just beneath the surface in Matt 5.
Summary and Theological Implications
The implications of this study are far reaching for some current views on the subject.
First, the two accounts (Matthew and Mark) are aimed at the Pharisees, not at Moses. Especially in Matthew, Jesus is not replacing the law of Moses, but showing how to read it. The Pharisees' abuse of Deut 24:1 to justify divorce is the specific target. Both Gospels emphasize Jesus' conflation of Gen 1:27 and 2:24 as a retort, not to Moses, but to the Pharisees.
Second, the two accounts argue forcefully against approaching Scripture primarily as legislation. The Pharisees would say: "Scripture gives grounds for divorce." Such an approach, both Gospels argue, ignores the larger desires of God's heart. The argument may be paraphrased:
Look at Deut 24 from where God stands. See his original creative action. He made mankind male and female and established their complete union as his ultimate desire for their relationship. The culmination of that divine action is oneness, not brokenness. God gave Deut 24 as a direct result of human obstinacy. Do not now use it against God! Stop looking for divinely approved grounds for divorce. Look instead for the heart of God.
The heart of God is the central focus. As a result, the final statements, Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, etc., are not to be understood "casuistically"--as new laws or commands, as though they are replacements for Deut 24. To read these statements as giving grounds for divorce, or as showing remarriage to be living in adultery, or to say "once married, always married," not only goes well past the point of the context and imports current concerns back into the biblical text, it also reads the statements of Jesus in the same way the Pharisees read the law of Moses.
Third, the central message of the two accounts is: "What God joined, we must stop destroying" (Mark 10:9; Matt 19:6). The uniting of male and female took place at creation and is reenacted in individual marriages. In effect, a marriage relives and reflects the creation event. Divorce and remarriage are not impossible; they are unthinkable! Divorce is never, was never, and never will be the will of God. Whenever divorce occurs it will always be, as it always has been, the result of the hardness of our hearts. Anything short of faithful marriage relationships is a failure before God and, ultimately, a rejection of his creative act. This much is clear and should be our unequivocal message.
Fourth, the distinctive characteristics of each account provide canonical help in applying the texts to current situations. On the one hand, both accounts give a common and clear message against divorce. But on the other hand, seeing that Matthew and Mark each adapted this message for his audience, we will be closing our eyes to their individual messages if we merely conflate them or if we only look at them through a microscope to find various individual units of tradition. More than that, we will continue to deny ourselves the opportunity to learn how to tell the story to our own, or other, contexts. For as these stories were told with different emphases by each author to make different points for each audience, so their continued application to individual cases will vary from one situation to another. The Christian community should not bide casuistic approaches which seek to derive once-for-all laws to apply to any and every case.
We do, of course, want some practical answers about those who do not live up to the ideal. What do we do in real-life situations? Two answers. First, none of these Gospel accounts on divorce deals with that question. This is a very important point because we have traditionally approached these texts as if they gave instructions on what to do when people sin. They do not. Second, if we want to know how to deal with people who do not live up to the ideal--who sin, in other words--we should turn to the multitude of other places in Scripture which teach us how to deal with sinners, keeping in mind the difference between sin and sinners. We must preach perfection, as Jesus did,(43) but we cannot require it any more than he did.(44)
In such an enterprise, the Christian community should struggle to become the healing influence it was meant to be, helping people to build faithful marriages, even when they have fallen short of that ideal. Instead of devising ways to constantly remind people what sinners they have been, we must follow the clear teaching of Scripture to reach out to these people and help them become the people they ought to be, building faithful lives and marriages before God, as he intended from the beginning.
In the final analysis, the issue for Jesus was not whether it was divorce or remarriage that caused adultery, nor even whether authorizations could be found for divorce; it was, rather, what creation reveals about God's desires and intentions for us as males and females. It is here that we will be able to offer hopeful solutions to the plethora of problems that divorce still presents.
1. Among others, see J. Fitzmyer, "The Matthean Divorce Texts and Some New Palestinian Evidence," in Theological Studies 37(1976) 223-26; R. Guelich, "The Sermon on the Mount: A Foundation for Understanding" (Waco: Word, 1982) 247-48; W. Heth and G. Wenham, Jesus and Divorce: The Problem with the Evangelical Consensus (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1984) 200 (although the pastoral concern stated here undermines the thesis of the entire book. Cf. 126, 198-99); and U. Luz, Das Evangelium nach Matthäus (Zurich: B/N, 1985) I:270-79.
2. Cf. Luz, Matthäus (1985) I:73, who says the literature on πορνεια and the exception clause is "unsurveyable." This does not stop the flow of material on the topic, however. See most recently, A. Cornes, Divorce: Biblical Principles and Pastoral Practice (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993).
3. Guelich, Sermon, 199; see also A. Isaksson, Marriage and Ministry in the New Temple (Lund: 1965) 72. Fitzmyer, "Matthean Divorce Texts," 204 sees the Mark and Q sayings as "related." See also R. Bultmann, The History of the Synoptic Tradition, ET by John Marsh (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1963) 132 and 148.
4. Bultmann, Synoptic Tradition, 47-48, says of Mark 10:1-12 that "the artificiality of the composition is as clear as day" and that the present form came about at the literary rather than at the oral stage.
5. J. Dupont, Marriage et divorce dans l'évangile (Belgium: Abbaye de Saint-André, a.s.b.l., 1959) 157; and J. Jeremias, New Testament Theology (London: SCM, 1971) I:225; Guelich, Sermon, 202; Heth/Wenham, Jesus, 198 and 126.
15. E.g., Cornes, Divorce, though more careful to consider differences among the Gospels, still ends up, in effect, harmonizing them. See, for example, 204 and 296. Heth/Wenham, Jesus, are also more careful than many others, but in the final analysis use the Westminster Confession (Chapter 1, section 9: "Interpret Scripture by Scripture") as justification for harmonizing Matthew 5 and 19 in the direction of Mark, Luke, and Paul, solving the huge question of the "exception clause" as related only to grounds for separation, not divorce or remarriage (122f., cf. 117). Many other books, however, are more inclined toward conflating the various accounts: J. Woodruff, The Divorce DilemmaNot Under Bondage (Searcy, AR, 1979), sounds a similar note: "One must not assume that one passage teaches the total truth on a subject unless this passage is the only one in the Bible on this subject" (12). Thus, Gospel texts are used interchangeably. See also O. Hicks, What the Bible Says about Marriage, Divorce, and RemarriageAn In-Depth Study of Marriage and Divorce (rev. ed., Joplin: College Press, 1990). All of these books are addressing perceived problems in both the teaching and application of marriage/divorce theory in the Christian community.(Searcy, AR, 1977), specifically notes that "Matt 19:9 is the text to reckon with in the study of divorce. . . . Actually, there is no need to call for a judgment between Matthew and Mark, for they both reveal parts of the same truth. . . . Though neither Matthew nor Mark is a stereotype of the other, there is agreement between the two," (20-23). J. D. Bales, (Joplin: College Press, 1987) 47-70; and J. Edwards, An In-Depth Study of Marriage and Divorce (rev. ed., Joplin: College Press, 1990). All of these books are addressing perceived problems in both the teaching and application of marriage/divorce theory in the Christian community.
17. This will flatly contradict much current emphasis which, in effect, allows divorce, but enjoins ecclesiastical consequences for remarriage. Even Cornes (who strongly opposes divorce) eventually indicates that in reality divorce is not as bad as remarriage, inasmuch as a divorced couple may remain part of the Christian community--as long as they stay divorced. Remarriage to another partner, however, changes that (Divorce, 235).
19. For a thorough discussion see D. Rhoads and D. Michie, Mark as Story (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982) 73-100; R. Guelich, Mark 1-8:26 vol. 34A in Word Biblical Commentary (ed. D. Hubbard et al.; Dallas: Word, 1989) xxiv.
21. The phrase "and shall be joined to his wife" is missing is some early and important manuscripts. Even so, the sense of the quotation would not be changed since it would obviously still be referring to the husband and wife becoming one flesh, not the son and his mother, or the son and his parents. For a discussion of the problem, see B. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (New York: UBS, 1971) 104f.
22. A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament (Nashville: Broadman, 1934 [hereafter, Robertson]) 845-46, lists this word with others that are to be translated as "perfect tense." Such, of course, is not explicit in the normal aorist, nor does the present context demand such an understanding. But even if this notion were granted, the "continued state" that results does not imply a "once for all" marriage relationship of individual couples. The context is concerned rather with the creation-act itself.
23. See, for example, KJV, ERV, ASV, RSV, NRSV, NIV, NASV, and the Amplified NT. The Living Bible Paraphrase translates, "And no man may divorce what God has joined together," implying the impossibility of divorce. On the other hand, the NEB and TEV translate, "Man must not separate what God has joined together," and the New Jerusalem Bible has, "So then, what God has united, human beings must not divide." While "must not" leaves open the possibility of separating what God joined, the phrase is still seen as a general prohibition against divorce.
25. There has been quite a discussion over the meaning of the two words "separate" and "divorce" in the NT. However, in such contexts, we should not take them as materially different from each other since (1) they were commonly used interchangeably in marriage contracts of the time (Bauer, Arndt, and Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (2d rev. and aug. ed., [Chicago: University of Chicago, 1979] 890 [hereafter, BAG]); (2) they are used interchangeably in 1 Cor 7:12-15; and (3) they occur side by side in Matthew 19 and Mark 10. See also Fitzmyer, "Matthean Divorce Texts," 211-12.
26. Blass, DeBrunner, Funk, A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1961) sections 335f.; Robertson, 852-54. Warnings have come in recent years about over-reading such constructions. See, especially, S. Porter, Verbal Aspects in the Greek of the New Testament with Reference to Tense and Mood in Studies in Biblical Greek, vol. 1 (ed. D. A. Carson; New York: Peter Lang, 1989) 321-63. Even so, it is also a mistake to ignore how such constructions work contextually when attempting to derive meaning. B. Fanning, in a major study on this matter, comments that in specific commands "the present almost always means 'stop doing [this action presently occurring],'" and in general precepts "the present prohibition usually means 'make it your practice not to do'" (Verbal Aspect in New Testament Greek [Oxford: Clarendon, 1990] 337, see also 325-88). Only an examination of the context determines whether a negative command is general or specific, and it is at least arguable that Mark 10:9 is a specific command aimed directly at the Pharisees to "stop being involved in the current practice of divorce." However, even if one regards the command as merely general, it still implies that the practice of divorce is to be continually avoided. It is also important to note that had the text intended to convey that people are incapable of breaking up what God has joined together, it would have used a word which indicated such (e.g., Matt 8:28; 17:16).
27. Contrast this with B. Mack, The Myth of Innocence, (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988) 198, who makes Jesus "override the authority of scripture itself." See also Guelich, Sermon, 180, 210 who has Jesus contradict God.
28. "Against her" and "if a wife marries another man, having divorced her husband, she is guilty of adultery" (both found only in Mark) are best explained as Markan redaction apparently to show that Jesus' teaching applies equally to men and women. "if a wife marries . . ." reads literally "if she marries . . ." (εαν αυτη απολυσασα) but cannot be referring to the woman in the previous phrase who was divorced by her husband, since this woman "divorces her husband" (, an active, not a passive, participle).
30. It is simply intolerable that interpreters sometimes read these statements as being fundamentally different. For example, Cornes sees vv. 6-9 as against divorce, while vv. 11-12 are against remarriage (Divorce, 193.) This destroys the cohesiveness of the pericope in Mark and ignores the Markan tendency to explain the first part of a pericope in the second part, once Jesus and his disciples are alone "in the house" (cf. 4:10; 7:17; 9:28, 33).
31. The translation is guilty of adultery is preferable to commits adultery. Commentators sometimes attempt to read commits as durative, i.e., keeps on committing adultery, giving rise to the concept that second marriages are adulterous by nature. It is not, however, a supposed continual action of the verb that is at issue, but the contents of the verb.Μοιχαται, a present indicative, points out merely that the result is adultery. See C. D. Osburn, "Interpreting Greek Syntax" in Biblical Interpretation: Principles and Practice (Festschrift for Jack P. Lewis; ed. E. F. Kearley, et al.;Grand Rapids: Baker, 1986) 234-43.
32. (1) The Torah used the term "adultery" in the context of marriage to mean sexual relations between a married or betrothed woman and any man other than her husband (Exod 20:14; Lev 20:10; Deut 5:18; et al.). In Mark, however, the statement guilty of adultery against her (επʹ αυτην -i.e., against his wife) is not Mosaic terminology. Here is at least one indication that "adultery" is not being used in the usual sense. "Adultery" is clearly used in the prophets to designate Israel's and Judah's breaking the Mosaic covenant with God in idolatrous worship (Jer 3:8-10; 5:7; 7:9; 23:14; Ezek 23:37). In Mark, "adultery" is used in a similar (though not identical) way to indicate the breaking of the creation covenant with God. But in this case, the word is applied directly to the very action of divorce and remarriage itself. This was quite new. Neither the law of Moses nor the Prophets did this. In the Prophets, it is adulteries (i.e., many acts of breaking the Mosaic covenant) that lead to divorce (God's rejection). (2) But more importantly, the issue in Mark centers around God's creation covenant with mankind, based on the conflation of Gen 1:27 and 2:24, not around legal definitions. Indeed what the Pharisees regarded as legal according to Deuteronomy 24 (viz., divorce with a view to remarrying), Jesus now calls "adultery." This goes far beyond anything the Mosaic law says about adultery, using the term in a prophetic sense.
33. Although Matthew has only one more reference to scribes than Mark (Matt = 20), it has almost three times as many references to the Pharisees (Matt = 29; Mark = 11). Additionally, at least some of the stories in Matthew are told in such a way as to underscore this emphasis against the Pharisees (e.g., Matt 19:1-12). See, for example, the still vital and very influential book by W. D. Davies, The Setting of the Sermon on the Mount (Cambridge: Cambridge, 1964) 256-315, in which he argues that much of Matthew was formulated specifically against Pharisaic Judaism in the last half of the first century ":It is our suggestion that one fruitful way of dealing with the SM [Sermon on the Mount] is to regard it as the Christian answer to Jamnia. Using terms very loosely, the SM is a kind of Christian, Mishnaic counterpart to the formulation taking place there" ( 315).
34. My thanks to Larry Chouinard for bringing some of this to my attention, although he should not be held responsible for my specific development of the ideas here. See also D. Patte, The Gospel According to Matthew: A Structural Commentary on Matthew's Faith (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987) 230-80, who gives a somewhat different sketch of the flow of the chapters, but who nonetheless emphasizes the place of the various pericopae in the overall context of Matthew.
35. The two accounts (Mark 10 and Matt 19) share several items: (1) The question; (2) Deut 24: the Law of Moses; (3) Gen 1-2: the intention of God from the beginning; (4) Jesus' conclusion about divorce; (5) Jesus' statement about adultery. This is Mark's order.
36. The "exception clause" is beyond the scope of this study even though it is both important and quite complex. At least seven major positions have been seriously advocated, and a very lengthy bibliography could be generated on the matter. Interpreters have usually treated the exception clause in Matthew as the crucial matter in understanding Jesus on divorce--more important even than broader literary-contextual matters. As a result, the focus on the exception clause has distracted attention away from the major point of the text; e.g., Heth/Wenham, Jesus, 46 and 112, give two brief sentences to the question of Matt 19:6 (What God has joined together . . .), but numerous references to and long discussions of Matt 19:9 with its exception clause (see esp. 87-94 and 113-37). See also Luz, Matthäus, 273. Against this approach, I would argue the reverse. Interpreters must spend more time with the larger literary issues of these texts, applying the results to our questions about the exception clause. For that reason, I will save any suggestions I might have on how to understand the exception clause till another time.
37. Thus, "Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is near," 3:2 and 4:17; "Ax at the root of the trees," 3:10 and 7:19; "Winnowing fork is in his hand," 3:12 and 25:29; "Cut off your hand," 5:28-30 and 18:8-9; and "Divorce and Adultery," 5:31 and 19:9. This was pointed out by Dupont, Marriage et divorce, 100-102, and cited in Heth/Wenham, Jesus, 49. See Fitzmyer, "Matthean Divorce Texts," 205 n. 31 for a definition of a "doublet"-- items mentioned twice in a document from two sources. The question of original sources, however, has little impact on the question of the final relationship of the two items in the finished product. See also Patte, According to Matthew, 262, for a listing of numerous parallels between the Sermon on the Mount and 19:3-20:16.
38. For an excellent but brief review of the debate, see especially G. Stanton, "The Origin and Purpose of Matthew's Gospel: Matthean Scholarship from 1945 to 1980," in Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt, (New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1985) II 25.3:1934-37. See also K. Snodgrass, "Matthew and the Law" in SBL Seminar Papers, (Atlanta: SP, 1988) 536-54, for a strong defence of a "hermeneutical key" approach to Matthew, much as I argue for in this paper. See also R. Banks, Jesus and the Law in the Synoptic Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1975); Guelich, Sermon; E. P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985); M. Borg, Conflict, Holiness, and Politics in the Teaching of Jesus (New York: Edwin Mellen, 1984); and P. Sigal, The Halakah of Jesus of Nazareth According to the Gospel of Matthew (Lanham MD: UP of America, 1986).
40. There is little question that this topic is a storm-center of discussion. This must not paralyze interpreters, however. I note with interest the position of W. D. Davies and D. Allison, The Gospel According to Saint Matthew in The International Critical Commentary (ed. J. A. Emerton, et al. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1988) I:505-8, which I found after developing my own argument. They argue, among other things, that (1) Jesus contrasts his own view "with the Old Testament itself," not "Jewish interpretations of the OT," (506) although (2) Jesus and the OT "are not contradictory" (507). This leaves the false impression that the only alternatives for Jesus' contrast is with either the law itself or specific halachik interpretations. Davies and Allison eventually offer a third alternative (not called such) which approximates my own argument, viz., it is not Pharisaic interpretations per se that are at issue, but the nomistic perspective from which the interpretations originate. Note especially 508: " . . . although 5:21-48 does not oppose specific interpretations of the law, it does implicitly down-play a casuistic or legalistic approach or attitude. . . . Hence, in order to attain perfect conformity to God's will (5:48), one must be animated by something that cannot be casuistically formulated--things such as 'purity of heart' (5:8) and the thirst for peace (5:9). . . . This is why . . . Jesus is not for Matthew a legislator or rule maker in any usual sense, and why the evangelist has Jesus put so much emphasis upon love of God and love of neighbour, things which are unquantifiable. . . ." See also E. P. Sanders, "Law in Judaism of the NT Period," Anchor Bible Dictionary (ed. D. Freedman; New York: Doubleday, 1992) IV:256: "First-century Judaism did not call on individuals to decide in each encounter what it meant to love the Lord and the neighbor. Rather, certain ways of observing commandments grew over the years and became part of the law itself. Most observant Jews . . . were probably not conscious of living by interpretations of laws, but understood the law in light of interpretation." (See also 256-58 for ways in which specific laws came to be understood.) I suggest that, in Matt 5, Jesus challenged that interpretive framework within which the law was read.
41. Of the identifiable antitheses (are there five or six?) in 5:21-48, whether 5:31-32 on divorce forms a third, separate antithesis or is part of the second antithesis has been debated. See Guelich, Sermon, 176-79 for discussion. Although I regard 5:31-32 as a separate antithesis (making six in all), the second and third antitheses are very closely linked-unlike the others.
42. The form μοιχευθεναι (forces her into adultery) is an aorist passive infinitive (only here in the NT). It is generally translated as a verb which indicates the woman's action, "makes her commit adultery" (KJV, NASV, TEV, and others) or as a verb which indicates her subsequent status, "makes her an adulteress" (RSV, NRSV, ASV, and ERV). The NIV translates "causes her to become an adulteress." R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of Matthew's Gospel (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1961) 232-35, objects to this practice, energetically arguing that it should rather be translated as "has been adulterated," exculpating the wife of any wrongdoing (cf. NEB: involves her in adultery). He further notes: "No attempt is made to prove that the passive forms of this verb have same sense as the active." He is followed in this by Edwards, An In Depth Study, 123-31, who also cites S. Zodhiates, What About Divorce? (Chattanooga: A. M. G.), 130-34. Unfortunately, Zodhiates gives grossly inaccurate information about the occurrences of the passive forms ofμοιχευω in the NT, and Lenski's charge is at least outdated (i.e., perhaps he based his study on lexicons that did not list extra-biblical sources). BAGD, 526, notes numerous instances in which the passive form is common in reference to the adulteress, the one "with whom" adultery is committed. (For an extensive on-line computer discussion between Edwards, me, and a few others on this matter, see the computer archives of the RM-Bible discussion group available through the internet at RM-Bible@bible.acu.edu for the months November and December 1994, under the titles "Matt 5:32," "Divorce," and "Lexicography.") Among other examples, see Sirach 23:23; Philo, Decalogue 124; and Josephus, Antiquities 7:131. In addition to these, see Lev 20:10 and John 8:4 (although John 8:4 could be understood as a middle, this is not the case with Lev 20:10, which tranlsates a Hebrew active). Surely, the problem has been stated correctly by Davies/Allison, Matthew, 528-29: "The unstated assumption is that the woman will remarry." This point is very important, inasmuch as (1) the husband is blamed for putting his wife in that situation; (2) a life of "remaining single" after divorce was not under consideration--at least not in this text; and (3) the point is not "divorce is allowed, but remarriage is adultery"; the point is that divorce in the first place results in adultery. Divorce is clearly presented in these Gospel texts as being against the desire of God. Therefore, any effort to casuistically "authorize" divorce is ludicrous. The current tendency of distinguishing divorce and remarriage, as if they were individual and separate acts, is not the assumption of these Gospel divorce texts. Divorce and remarriage were inseparably related. In fact, the assumption of Deuteronomy 24 was that divorce would be followed by remarriage.
44. The moment we wish to require perfection in adherence to Matt 5:31-32 is the moment we should begin to see gouged-out eyes and severed limbs among those requiring it. Those who are willing to cut out the hearts of others by casuistic approaches to the Gospel divorce texts, should be willing to cut off their own hands by the same approaches. Otherwise, we should learn the way of Jesus. Matt 18:28, 35: But that same servant, as he went out, met one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred days wages. So, he grabbed him by the throat and said, "Pay me what you owe me!" . . . This is how my Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart. On this matter, see Collier, "Jesus as Mentor,"chap. 5 in The Forgotten Treasure, 61-70.
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