As if Jesus’ teaching on divorce is not hard enough, understanding it has been somewhat complicated, paradoxically, by a recent attempt to clarify it! Dr David Instone-Brewer, a senior researcher at Tyndale House in
In the Old Testament, Deuteronomy 24:1 says that a man may divorce his wife ‘for a cause of indecency’. This was the text referred to in Jesus’ discussion with the Pharisees about divorce. Instone-Brewer argues that originally this phrase meant sexual immorality. However, at the time of Jesus, he continues, a new interpretation of the clause was taking it to mean that a man could divorce his wife ‘for any cause’. This was the interpretation favoured by the followers of a Rabbi called Hillel. Others following another Rabbi, Shammai, argued that the phrase was restricted to sexual immorality.
Instone-Brewer argues that by the time of Jesus this new ‘any cause divorce’ had become very popular. The Pharisees in the Gospels are asking Jesus, not about divorce in general, but about what he thought about this new type of divorce. Instone-Brewer’s interpretation is given some weight by the fact that in Matthew 19:3 the Pharisees ask Jesus whether it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause. Instone-Brewer further argues that in Mark’s formulation of the question in Mark 10:2 (‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’) while Mark does not have the words ‘for any cause’ most people at the time would have understood the question that way. In the same way as today when you ask someone if they drink, the question is readily understood to mean, ‘Do you drink alcohol?
Jesus, he concludes, is thus not giving a complete statement about divorce and remarriage, but about the narrower issue of a particular type of divorce that was becoming very popular.
In fact, says Instone-Brewer, in the Old Testament there are two texts governing the grounds for divorce not just one. In addition to Deuteronomy, which is quoted in the discussion between Jesus and the Pharisees, there is also Exodus 21:10f. Deuteronomy allowed divorce for immorality, but Exodus 21:10 allowed divorce on additional grounds: for a failure to provide love, for abuse and for abandonment. Jesus, he says, never revoked this text and these grounds for divorce were accepted by both schools of Pharisees and, more importantly for our purposes, implicitly by Jesus himself. Jesus gets rid of the ‘any cause’ type of divorce, but allows divorce on the four Old Testament grounds of sexual immorality, failure to provide love, abuse, and abandonment. This fits well, he also argues, with Paul allowing a Christian to divorce and remarry if abandoned by an unbelieving partner.
What are we to say about this?
1. If right, it means Biblical teaching becomes what most people think it should be! That is, that marriage is important and should be taken seriously, but that divorce is allowed when there is adultery or serious unreasonable behaviour by one of the partners in the marriage. Jesus thus sounds far more reasonable and less harsh. Rather like an Anglican, in fact.
This, however, should itself urge caution. Is Jesus’ otherwise strict teaching being re-interpreted to soften it? One can applaud the desire to be pastorally sensitive, but we need to be honest about what we are doing. We cannot solve the problem by refusing to admit it exists. We should not be tempted to adopt Instone-Brewer’s approach simply because we like the sound of it.
2. Instone-Brewer effectively sees Matthew as giving the more nuanced account of the discussion between the Pharisees and Jesus rather than Mark. This reverses the normal way of looking at it. As we noted in the previous post, most interpreters would see Mark as being the more accurate and original with Matthew trying to soften what Jesus said. Instone-Brewer may, however, be right and Matthew, because of his Jewishness, might have been in a better position to understand what was really going on.
But this means that whereas in the normal interpretation of the Gospels, Mark records the original and Matthew softens it, on Instone-Brewer’s interpretation, Matthew records the original meaning, if not the original words. Matthew, on this view, is not softening, but explaining. Mark, then, has either misunderstood what Jesus was saying or, as Instone-Brewer believes, has recorded it in such a way that Jesus’ words were misunderstood once read in a non-Jewish setting.
3. So is Instone-Brewer right in his interpretation of the passages in the Gospels? Quite simply, I don’t know! I just do not have the knowledge of the ancient sources to be able to make a judgement. A person who does have such a knowledge is J P Meier. Meier in the fourth volume of his consideration of the Historical Jesus, A Marginal Jew, specifically rejects this reconstruction of Instone-Brewer’s. Meier argues that ‘any cause’ divorces far from being new were the norm in mainstream Judaism and always had been. He also rejects a dispute between two rabbinical schools as being the context for Jesus’ teaching. In the way I lack the detailed knowledge to be able to assess Instone-Brewer’s position, so too I lack the knowledge to be able to asses Meier’s.
But that I think is the problem. As Instone-Brewer readily admits, on his position Jesus has been misunderstood as forbidding all divorce from the very beginning of the Church: as soon as his teaching was taken out of a Palestinian setting, in fact. This means for years the Church has sentenced people to a life of misery, refusing to allow divorce, and causing all sort of guilt and hang-ups, because it believed it was being faithful to Jesus’ teaching and because that seemed to be the obvious way of understanding it. The truth for Instone-Brewer, however, was that Jesus never intended such a blanket restriction on divorce in the first place.
It wasn’t that the Church was being cruel. And nor was it that the Church was being stupid. It just couldn’t have been expected to know that Jesus was only dealing with a question about a specific type of divorce and the interpretation of a specific text. To understand Jesus’ teaching, if Instone-Brewer is right, needed the resources only now available to us through modern scholarship and even then two respected specialists, Instone-Brewer himself and Meier, reach opposite conclusions! If the Bible is so hard to understand on something so basic and important to all our lives, what use is it? If we cannot know for sure what it means on something upon which it appears to speak directly, how on earth can we know what it teaches on issues about which it is less direct?
4. Even if Instone-Brewer is right and the context of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels is a question about ‘any cause’ divorces, Jesus’ reply to the Pharisees does seem to go beyond this question. Jesus, on any understanding, has a very high view of marriage and opposes divorce using very black and white language. Instone-Brewer argues that had Jesus been asked about what happens in cases of abuse and abandonment, he would have allowed divorce. This is an argument from silence and such arguments are always dangerous.
For our purposes, though, this brings us back to the conclusion in the last post. We today still have to answer questions Jesus did not address and we have to do so in a much changed context. If this were not difficult enough, apparently we have to do it without even being sure what Jesus said and meant in the first place!