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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Divorce (2)


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DIVORCE.—The teaching of Christ on this subject in the earliest Gospel, that of St. Mark, is clear and decisive. It is given in Mark 10:1; Mark 10:12. The Pharisees came to Him with the question, Is it lawful for a husband to divorce a wife? The Pharisees themselves could have had no doubt upon the point thus broadly stated. Divorce was, as they believed, sanctioned and legalized by Deuteronomy 24:1-2. But they debated about the scope and limits of divorce (cf. Bab. [Note: Babylonian.] Gittin, 90a, where the views of the Schools of Hillel and of Shammai are given. The former allowed divorce for trivial offences, the latter only for immoral conduct). In putting the question to Christ, the Pharisees therefore had an ulterior object. They came, says St. Mark, ‘tempting him,’ knowing probably from previous utterances of His that He would reply in words which would seem directly to challenge the Mosaic Law (cf. His criticism of the distinctions between ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ meats, Mark 7:14-23). Christ answers with the expected reference to the Law, ‘What did Moses command?’ They state the OT position: Moses sanctioned divorce. Notice how nothing is said as to grounds or reasons for divorce. Christ at once makes His position clear. The law upon this point was an accommodation to a rude state of society. But a prior and higher law is to be found in the Creation narrative, ‘Male and female he created them’ (Genesis 1:27 LXX Septuagint), i.e. God created the first pair of human beings of different sexes that they might be united in the marriage bond. Further, it was afterwards said that a man should leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife, and that he and his wife should be one flesh. In other words, married couples were in respect of unity, as the first pair created by God, destined for one another. The marriage bond, therefore, which may be said to have been instituted by God Himself, must be from an ideal standpoint indissoluble. ‘What God joined, let not man sunder.’

In answer to a further question of His disciples, the Lord enforces this solemn pronouncement. A man who puts away his wife and marries another commits adultery. A woman who puts away her husband and marries another commits adultery. Upon this point Christ’s teaching passes beyond the ordinary conditions of Jewish society. No woman could divorce her husband by Jewish law. But that is no reason why the Lord should not have expressed Himself as Mk. records. There were exceptional cases of divorce by women in Palestine (cf. Salome, Josephus Ant. xv. vii. 10: ‘She sent him [Costobar] a bill of divorce, and dissolved her marriage with him, though this was against the Jewish laws’). And there is no reason why He may not have been acquainted with the possibility of divorce by women in the West, or why, even if He had not this in view, He may not have wished to emphasize His point by stating the wrongfulness of divorce, on either side, of the marriage bond.

With this earliest record of Christ’s teaching the fragment in the Third Gospel (Luke 16:18) is in agreement: ‘Every one who puts away his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.’ That is to say, the marriage bond is indissoluble. The husband who divorces his wife and remarries commits adultery. And the man who marries a divorced wife commits adultery, because she is ideally the wife of her still living (first) husband.

In the First Gospel, however, we find this plain and unambiguous teaching, that divorce is inconceivable from an ideal standpoint, modified in a very remarkable way. In Matthew 5:32 occurs a saying parallel in substance to Luke 16:18, but with the notable addition of the words, ‘except for the sake of unchastity’ (παρεκτὸς λόγου πορνείας). Thus modified, the Lord’s teaching becomes similar to that of the stricter school of Jewish interpreters. The supposed sanction of divorce in Deuteronomy 24:1-2 is practically reaffirmed, the clause עָרְוָת דָּבָר, which formed the point at issue in the Jewish schools, being interpreted or paraphrased as παρεκτὸς λόγου πορνεἰας, by which is probably meant any act of illicit sexual intercourse. In other words, Christ here assumes that divorce must follow adultery, and what He is here prohibiting is not such divorce, which He assumes as necessary, but divorce and consequent remarriage on any other grounds. It might further be argued that the words παρεκτὸς λόγου πορνείας affect only the first clause, and that remarriage after divorce even on the ground of adultery is here prohibited. But if this were intended, it would surely have been explicitly expressed and not left to be inferred. And such teaching would seem to be illogical. Because, if adultery be held to have broken the marriage tie so effectually as to justify divorce, it must surely be held to leave the offended husband free to contract a new tie.

In view, therefore, of Mark 10:1-12 and Luke 16:18, it must appear that Matthew 5:32 places the teaching of Christ in a new light. So far as Lk. is concerned, we might, with some difficulty, suppose that the exception ‘save for adultery’ was assumed as a matter so obvious that it needed no explicit expression. But in view of the disputes in the Jewish Schools, this is very unlikely. And Mark 10:1-12, with its criticism of the alleged Mosaic sanction of divorce, leaves no room for doubt that on that occasion at least Christ pronounced marriage to be a divinely instituted ordinance which should under no circumstances be broken by divorce. It would not, of course, be difficult to suppose that on other occasions the Lord Himself modified His teaching. We might suppose that He taught His disciples that, whilst from an ideal standpoint, marriage, for all who wished to discern and to obey the guidance of the Divine will in life, ought to be an indissoluble bond, yet, human nature and society being what they are, divorce was a necessary and expedient consequence of the sin of adultery. But a careful comparison of Matthew 5:32 with Mark 10 and Luke 16 irresistibly suggests the conclusion that the exception in Mt. is due not to Christ Himself, but to the Evangelist, or to the atmosphere of thought which he represents, modifying Christ’s words to bring them into accordance with the necessities of life. This conclusion seems to be confirmed when we compare Matthew 19:1-12 with Mark 10:1 f. It is on many grounds clear that the editor of the First Gospel is here, as elsewhere, re-editing St. Mark (see Expos. Times, Oct. 1903, p. 45, and ‘St. Matthew’ in the Internat. Crit. Com.). Contrast with the logical and consistent argument of Mk. stated above, the account of the First Gospel. The Pharisees are represented as inquiring, ‘Is it lawful for a man to put away a wife on any pretext?’ Christ answers, as in Mk., that marriage from an ideal standpoint is indissoluble. The Pharisees appeal to the Law against this judgment. In reply we should expect the Lord, as in Mk., to state the accommodating and secondary character of the legal sanction of divorce, and to reaffirm the sanctity of marriage. But instead He is represented as affirming that πορνεία constitutes an exception. Thus He tacitly takes sides with the severer school of interpretation of Deuteronomy 24, and acknowledges the permanent validity of that Law thus interpreted in a strict sense, which immediately before He had criticised as an accommodation to a rude state of social life. This inconsistency shows that Mk. is here original, and that κατὰ πᾶσαν αἰτίαν and μὴ ἐπὶ πορνείᾳ. are insertions by the editor of Mt. into Mk.’s narratives, and confirms the otherwise probable conclusion that παρεκτὸς λόγου πορνεἰας in Mark 5:32 is an insertion into the traditional saying more accurately preserved in Luke 16. The motive of these insertions can only be conjectured. But, in view of other features of the First Gospel, it is probable that the editor was a Jewish Christian who has here Judaized Christ’s teaching. Just as he has so arranged Matthew 5:16-20 as to represent Christ’s attitude to the Law to be that of the Rabbinical Jews, who regarded every letter of the Law as permanently valid, so here he has so shaped Christ’s teaching about divorce as to make it consonant with the permanent authority of the Pentateuch, and harmonious with the stricter school of Jewish theologians. To the same strain in the editor’s character, the same Jewish-Christian jealousy for the honour of the Law, and for the privileges of the Jewish people, may perhaps be ascribed the emphasis placed on the prominence of St. Peter (Matthew 10 :2 πρῶτος, Matthew 14:29-31, Matthew 15:16, Matthew 16:17-19, Matthew 17:24-27, Matthew 18:21), and the preservation of such sayings as Matthew 10:5-6; Matthew 10:23. And to the same source may perhaps be attributed the Judaizing of the Lord’s language in such expressions as ‘the kingdom of the heavens,’ and the ‘Father who is in the heavens.’ See, also, artt. Adultery and Marriage.

Literature.—Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible, art. ‘Marriage’; Dykes, Manifesto of the King, 255 ff.; Newman Smyth, Christian Ethics, 410 ff.; Expositor, iv. vii. [1893] 294.

W. C. Allen.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Divorce (2)'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/d/divorce-2.html. 1906-1918.

Lectionary Calendar
Friday, November 27th, 2020
the Week of Christ the King / Proper 29 / Ordinary 34
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