Baker Academic

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Questions about Jesus and Divorce - Le Donne

One episode in Mark that has traditionally been viewed by scholars to bespeak the teaching of Jesus (i.e. not invented by the early Church) is this:
1 Jesus then left that place and went into the region of Judea and across the Jordan. Again crowds of people came to him, and as was his custom, he taught them. 2 Some Pharisees came and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” 3 “What did Moses command you?” he replied. 4 They said, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.” 5 “It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,” Jesus replied. 6 “But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’ 7 ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, 8 and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9 Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” 10 When they were in the house again, the disciples asked Jesus about this. 11 He answered,“Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her.12 And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery” (Mark 10:1-12; cf. Matt 19; Luke 16; 1 Cor 7).
For the sake of argument, let's say that Jesus taught something quite similar to this. What's the point? What is Jesus getting at?  It's not like the Pharisees were anti-family.  If anything, Jesus' other sayings about family  lean in this direction (e.g. Mark 10:29-30).

Is the motive to ramp up Scripture's teaching on divorce, or was the aim to undermine Moses' authority (thus the appeal to Genesis rather than a legal text)? What was the Sitz im Leben Jesu? Or, put another way, what made this particular (seemingly unique) teaching meaningful within Jesus' movement?



  1. I'll take a shot.

    Undermining Moses? Yes, a bit. Note how Matthew reworks Mark's story. In Matthew, it's the Pharisees who bring up Moses (19:7), as if Jesus challenged Moses only because the Pharisees forced his hand. But it's not much of an undermining -- for Jesus, the problem lies not with Moses, but with all those hard hearts.

    In his notes on Matthew in the Jewish Annotated New Testament, Aaron Gale wrote that "Jesus' sexual ethics are stricter than found in most other branches of early Judaism." I think I agree. It doesn't appear that Jesus talked about sex very much, but he does mention adultery a lot -- adultery in divorce, adultery in looking at a woman with lust, the "evil and adulterous generation", and so forth.

    I don't recall Jesus ever being critical of a man who abandoned his wife and children (and of course, Jesus said that anyone who left his wife and children for Jesus' name's sake would be rewarded). So I don't think it's so much the separation of husband and wife that troubled Jesus. The problem was remarriage, and the potential there for sexual impropriety. Note that the condemnation is directed not against divorce per se, but divorce followed by remarriage.

    So, I think this teaching was important within Jesus' movement, because a generally stricter sexual ethic was a part of Jesus' movement. I think this fits into the general pattern of the movement's apocalypticism.

  2. I'm going to take a different direction, here. Jesus was being asked to speak into a reigning debate over just what Moses had intended to indicate by this. He does undermine Moses, to an extent, but we shouldn't miss that he undermines Moses . . . with Moses. Genesis was still considered part of the Torah written by Moses. The appeal to Genesis thus establishes Jesus' teaching as equally backed by Moses. Jesus pits one OT/HB text against another in other situations as well. Also, if I'm remembering rightly, the Qumran community had also already connected this Genesis text with the issue of divorce.

    1. Chris, I disagree in part. I don’t think Jesus is using Moses to undermine Moses. I think he’s pitting Moses against God. Jesus acknowledges that Moses permitted divorce, but then argues that this is not what God wants. Jesus states that God created male and female, that God joins husband and wife together as one flesh, but it was Moses (making a concession to the hardness of peoples’ hearts) who wrote the law permitting divorce. God on one side, Moses on the other. And Jesus sides with God.

    2. Your point's well taken, Larry. But do you think a Second Temple Jew would have conceptualized Genesis (or any part of the Torah) as "not Moses," though? I tend to think that the text presents this as one of the reasons that Jesus' response is so clever on his part--it leaves the association with Moses in place.

    3. Chris, I think Jesus’ argument is brilliant. Look at how Jesus begins: he responds to a question with a question: “What did Moses command you?” He doesn’t ask what the law says, or what Torah says. This is as nice a piece of rhetoric (and I don’t mean that in any pejorative sense) as you’re going to find, because it sets a trap: so long as the Pharisees answer the question posed by Jesus, they’ve essentially admitted that the rule they’re following on divorce is man-made.

      Your point is spot-on: all Second Temple Jews would have identified the Torah as from Moses. But Moses has a complex relationship to Torah: Moses is a prophet, and a scribe, and a central Torah character. Jesus is in effect saying that the rules permitting divorce came from Moses as the leader of and legislator for the Exodus community, while the rules prohibiting divorce came from Moses as God’s scribe.

      The Pharisees should have responded that God also gave the Torah rules regarding divorce. Failing to do so, Jesus was free to give priority to the Genesis provisions.

      Once the Pharisees admit that they’re following Moses’ command, all that’s left is for Jesus to deftly handle why Moses’ command is different from God’s. He does this by arguing that Moses permitted divorce because the peoples’ hearts were hard. Let’s put to one side that the argument makes no sense – if peoples’ hearts were hard, then divorce should have been prohibited, lest the hard-hearted Israelites choose divorce in hard-hearted ways. Jesus is in effect saying that he and Moses agreed that God wanted divorce prohibited, so on the surface Jesus is not opposing Moses. Of course, what it boils down to for Jesus is that Moses wrote a law that allowed the Israelites to violate the Seventh Commandment (no adultery), and Jesus is not going to go along with this …

      At the end of the day, this portion of Mark gives us a picture of a great Moses and a Jesus that had surpassed Moses in greatness.

    4. Not so fast my friend. (Shout out to Lee Corso.) When Jesus asks what Moses said, he most certainly does mean Torah. I'm not convinced that the "God not Moses" issue is present here. It is in John 6, but I don't see it here. The precise issue at work is that both of these statements are in Torah.

    5. Larry, I wrote that last response while simultaneously cleaning up supper. After re-reading the text, you may be right. I'll have to give it some more thought.

    6. Chris, the "God not Moses" issue is debatable. But Jesus himself states the "God not humans" issue: "what God has joined together, let no one separate."

      Agreed, "what Moses said" means Torah. But there is Torah and there is Torah. Just because it's in the Torah doesn't mean it's God's law.

      Per Jesus, the rules permitting divorce became rules that "Moses wrote you". With this statement, Jesus identifies the rules permitting divorce as rules that Moses wrote acting as legislator, but not necessarily as God's spokesperson. It's clear from the Torah itself that, in his role as leader of the Exodus community, Moses made mistakes. Evidently, Jesus believes that the rule permitting divorce is one of Moses' mistakes.

      Yes, Moses is associated with the words of Genesis, but in a different way, as scribe and not as lawmaker. Clearly, it's God's command that man and woman be joined as one flesh. Moses "said" Genesis, but not in the same way as he said Deuteronomy 24.

      Trumping all is Jesus' final argument, referring to the Seventh Commandment (no adultery), where Moses isn't even the scribe, but just a messenger.

      So ... when you say that all of Torah is from Moses, I think you're glossing over some important distinctions (they seem important to Jesus).

      I don't see a way around it: Jesus said that Moses made a mistake with he "wrote you" laws permitting divorce. Yes, Jesus makes an excuse for Moses: the law was because of the hardness of the hearts of the people. But I think it's pretty clear from the context that Jesus thinks the hearts of the people are STILL hard, and Jesus chooses not to accommodate that hardness.

      I agree with you that Jesus constructs his argument so that he's arguably on Moses' side (or more accurately, Jesus positions Moses so that Moses stands with Jesus and against the Pharisees). It's a terrific argument, no question about it.

    7. Larry, it's even a little messier than you've suggested. Moses was the scribe for the second set of tablets (Ex. 34.27), but not the first set (Ex. 31.18; 32.15-16). It'd be interesting to pursue whether Jesus is here exploiting the fact that, clearly, Jews considered the law to be from the hand of Moses, as this phrase occurs repeatedly in Torah, but there are traditions within Torah itself that reject this notion.

  3. Well, I am not aware of how this relates to contemporaneous Jewish norms. It does appear to me, though, that often when Jesus thinks he is being tested by the Jews, he becomes somewhat truculent. So I tend to regard his responses to testing differently than how I regard his other "teachings." The disciples have obviously assumed that this saying was as instructive for his followers as any other. I'm not entirely sure that Jesus would think that. In this case, it seems that he points to an impossible standard based on the Genesis account (even his disciples think it is impossible, Mat 19.10) to which the Pharisees have no real response, and so I wonder if that's not the only function of the saying: to stump the chumps.

    However, this particular saying has become particularly dangerous and makes me further wonder about the function of the saying over and against its "meaning." In today's application of the saying, it ends up creating a situation in which one person's maintenance of virtue is dependent upon another person's sin. That is, a typical Church divorce policy will read something like: A divorced person may not marry another person UNLESS the previous partner has broken the intimate bonds of marriage by sexually engaging another person (including getting married to someone else). So, at best, a scenario would be that a divorced Christian husband for example, waits for his former wife to re-marry and start having sex with her new husband. When she does that, she commits adultery, since "she" broke the intimate bonds of the sexual union, and since she has now committed adultery, the former husband can do exactly the same thing, only free of the adulterer label because he waited for his wife to do it first.

  4. I disagree with the idea that Jesus 'undermined Moses'. Most of what's attributed to Moses is actually 'Pharisaical interpretation' (remember that what get get of the practical application of Moses we get through a defective lens - so why believer the object is distorted when it is the lens distorting it).

    What Jesus did was 'manifest' Moses!

    That said, this teaching resonated with the early church because it tied this particular aspect of OT law to behaviour which previous interpretations didn't do. You could say that this teaching was in line with those found in the Gospel on the Mount.

  5. Then there's this take, in which the author suggests that "any cause" was a specific kind of no-fault divorce that was abused...

  6. There are several elements going on here. First, I think Chris Keith is right that this was an on-going debate (generally speaking, but here something else is going on as well). There are mishnaic traditions where the house of Shammai and the house of Hillel consider the matter of divorce. The house of Shammai were more conservative in their view (similar to that of Jesus here) than that of Hillel (note, here, that the two houses stem from a Pharisaic point of view! This, as far as, this debate is concerned is an intra-pharisaic debate. We simply do not know Sadducean point of view, and we can deduce the Essene point of view from the DDS, Josephus, and Philo). Second, the Pharisees here are trying to trap Jesus (probably because they knew Jesus’ view from other contexts, i.e., Sermon on the Mount, etc.). On the one hand, Moses does allow divorce. The question is, if divorce is permissible, is divorce permissible for any and every reason? Note the vagueness of the language of Deut 24.1, for instance, “[if] she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her.” The suggestion, of course, is that if it is permissible, it will be permissible for any and every reason. Of course, there is a push against this, I think from at least a moral point of view if not also from biblical ones. One it seems cannot simply just divorce for any reason, this is grossly unfair to women, and their families, especially in a culture where virginity is so highly valued, and women are largely dependent on men for subsistence. Who will marry her after she has been divorced? Likely, no one. Yet it is mandated in the Torah that one could and can divorce “[if] she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her.” And there’s little in these passages to suggest what the reasons for permissible divorce are. (One also must remember that silences in scripture are just divinely instituted as statements. The silence itself suggest that divorce could be possible for many reasons, so long as they come under “she does not please me, because I find x objectionable about her.”) If Jesus, then, permits divorce, he has to accept that divorce was permissible for any and every reason, and yet if he thinks that divorce is not permissible, he has explain what the tradition allowing divorce is doing in the Torah in the first place. It’s Torah, after all! Thus, the very question is a dilemma. . . . Of course, Jesus masterfully executes his position.

  7. Just a quick point about Keith’s Jesus undermining Moses with Moses. There is no way Jesus or anyone would have thought this as an undermining. It’s simply not. Allowing divorce is always considered conditionally; that is, IF you find your wife unpleasing because of some reason, then you can divorce her. What Jesus’ view does is supplant the very possibility for the conditional to have its way. If the two are made one, and if what is made one should never be separated, then there will never be a case where the unpleasantness of a wife will lead to divorce, because what is made one should not be separated. It is not the case that the law, then, is transgressed, because, the law just never comes into account. And what does not come into account cannot be transgressed.

  8. John, I'm not entirely sure how you know what Jesus was thinking here, but I think this is some wishful thinking on your part. I never said that Jesus himself thought he was undermining Torah. But this is the it or is it not the case that Jesus identifies two contrasting opinions within the Law of Moses, one of which implies that divorce is ok and the other of which implies that it is not?

    1. My apologies, Prof. Keith. I must have misread you.

    2. I wonder if people really recognized the difference in origin, i.e., from God or from Moses, with regard to divorce. (In both Genesis and Deuteronomy the speaker is presumably Moses. It’s definitely not God! [at least not in the proximate sense.] There isn’t a difference in voice.) Obviously theoretically they could have recognized a difference, but I suspect that functionally in first century 2nd Temple Judaism, the ultimate authorship would have been considered God anyway, with regard to the Deuteronomic Divorce Rule (obviously among others).

      The Genesis Divorce Rule and the Deuteronomic Divorce Rule would have both been considered as originating from God even though it was mediated through Moses (that’s how it would appear if common notions of what the Torah was are upheld in this case). The DDR likely would have ultimately been considered God’s concession for “hard-heartedness,” not Moses’ (difference between ultimate cause and proximate cause). The underlying fact, however, worth acknowledging is that both the GDR and the DDR would have been binding! And likely, in Jesus understanding, they fulfilled their job *together.* (I can only conclude this from the fact that elsewhere, Jesus does allow for divorce: Matthew’s parallel; Matt 5:31–32; Jesus tradition: 1 Cor 7:10–11.)

      The statement, then, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you,” does not actually suggest (I think) that the DDR is not binding, or that it shouldn’t be binding. Jesus is likely only explaining why the commandment exists at all if it is the case that the original intention for marriage was to be found in the GDR (as he apparently sees it). When Jesus asks “what did Moses write to you?” I think he quite well expected that the Pharisees really were only aware of the DDR and had that specifically in mind. Larry is right then in saying it was a trap to ask the question. It was a trap I think in response to the trap that Pharisees were originally trying to spring on Jesus (we see this kind of MO [answering a trap with a trap] in other places in the Gospels as well; i.e., Mark 11:27–33).

    3. Prof. Keith, I think you’re right about Genesis 1.27 being in the Qumran literature, but my understanding is that it was not in regards to divorce but to the multiplication of wives (although it’s possible you have another verse in mind):

      Cd 4:19–21 The Shoddy-Wall-Builders who went after “Precept”—Precept is a Raver of whom it says, “they shall surely rave” (Micah 2:6)—they are caught in two: fornication, by taking two wives in their lifetimes, although the principle of creation is “male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:27)

      Thus I don’t think that (or I’m not aware of a precedent) which sets up the GDR prior to Jesus. However, it could have been part of the argumentation of the more “conservative” Pharisees (like that representative of Bet Shammai).

      I suppose then that it all depends what one means by ‘undermining’ with regard to whether Jesus “undermines” the DDR with the GDR. We could use in the loose sense just to mean that the one is to be preferred to the other, without questions of whether it’s legally binding, etc. Or we could use it a strong sense where the one rule actually renders the other invalid.

      I realize, Prof. Keith, that you didn’t *say* that Jesus thought he was undermining the one with the other, but there has to be some plausibility to the idea that he thought he was if, as you see it, he actually was undermining the DDR.

      My point that “there is no way Jesus or anyone else thought” that what they were doing was undermining, besides being an hyperbole, I do think, has supporting evidence. (Also, I do think it is possible to know what someone was thinking by inferring it from the statements that people make: we do this all the time. [I think perhaps, Prof. Keith, you might have questioned my being able to be *certain* that I knew what Jesus was thinking rather than my knowing that he thought something; the two are different]):
      1) This would not have been the first time that Jews had to determine which rule of two or many, when in conflict, was of primary importance. In fact it was likely a part of the culture to consider these things.
      2) When rules were allocated to secondary or so on positions, the Jews likely did not think of the secondary rule or so on as being violated, i.e., ‘undermined’ (at least in one sense).
      3) The way Jesus handles the DDR with the GDR is not unlike how he handles the various laws in chapter 5 of the Sermon on the Mount. (He did not think he ‘undermined’ them there, why would he think so here?)

  9. Both Mt & Mk put this after Jesus left Galilee. Has anyone suggested any connection with Antipas here?

    It's putting a lot on "departed from Galilee" but Mk/Mt may be reflecting a chronological aspect of the political football game going on after JTB's death. In other words, perhaps the Pharisees were trying to get Antipas riled up enough to risk arresting a second prophet (via recall/extradition)... their motivation being, of course, that Jesus was less of a problem to them back in Galilee.

    Like I said, it's putting a lot on that brief bit of text, but "departed from Galilee" happens to be a chronologically particular allusion. Jesus only did that once, with such permanence. I'm supposing Mark's readers (the earlier the better) could reference such context with ease.

    1. This is a good observation, Bill. There's definitely something to the role of John the Baptist's death in the narrativizing of the conflict.

    2. Thanks, Chris. For the record, I'm not saying the episode factually occurred at this precise point, but sometime in this time roughly. Even if the pharisees had no plan (such as I've suggested), the perception of it as such could explain this tradition being tied to a particular time frame.

      At any rate, getting back to Anthony's main line of inquiry: part of Jesus' point seems to be that he isn't afraid to hold a strong line in the face of political threats. He wavered not for Antipas' power nor Moses' authority (h/t Larry, above).

      But for GMark's part, it seems also to contrast with JTB in that Jesus' stance was even stronger but less particular. According to GMark, John didn't criticize the divorce, just the remarriage. So Jesus was more than willing to criticize the Governing power, both absolutely and harshly, but he preferred to do so obliquely.