John P. Meier, The Marginal Jew,
v.4, ch. 32: Jesus' Teaching on Divorce,
pp 74-181

(Detailed summary)

What did Jesus really say about divorce?


Israel did not invent divorce, but borrowed the practice from its neighbors in the ancient Near East. Both marriage and divorce were family practices that followed immemorial customs, without state intervention. As we are in patriarchal societies, it is the husband who manages decisions on divorce and exercises complete control.

In the Old Testament there is very little information about divorce. First of all, Deuteronomy 24:1-4 only prevents a husband from taking back a wife he had divorced and then remarried. There is Malachi 2:16, whose dominant interpretation at the time of Jesus allowed a man to divorce his wife if he hated her. In short, only a man can divorce his wife, but he must write a certificate of divorce.

In the intertestamental literature, the existence of divorce and the fact that the husband could repudiate his wife for any reason is confirmed.

There are three passages in the New Testament on divorce. First, there is St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians (7:10-11), written around the year 55, where he refers in an exceptional way to the authority and teaching of Jesus to recall the prohibition of divorce for both the man and the woman, even if he himself admits certain exceptions (i.e. in the case of mixed marriages between Christians and non-Christians). Secondly, there is the Q Document (Mt 5:32 || Lk 16:18), which is dated between 50 and 70 and is perhaps the earliest echo of the historical Jesus, where the latter declares that both the first husband and the second husband commit adultery in a case of divorce. Third, we find Mark, whose passage can be divided into two parts. First we have Mark 10:11-12 which, when the evangelist's additions are removed, echoes an oral tradition in which Jesus considers the action of a man repudiating his wife to marry another to be an act of adultery. And we also have Mark 10:1-10, which does not have the same historical value because of the evangelist's extensive editorial work, but some elements of which could be traced back to Jesus, such as v.9 where Jesus forbids divorce as divorce, even if there is no remarriage.

In short, based on the criteria of multiple attestations, discontinuity, embarras and coherence, we can say that Jesus forbade divorce, and that he associated remarriage with adultery.

Jesus' Teaching on Divorce

  1. Introduction: Some Preliminary Clarifications

    1. The practice of divorce is not unique to Israel, but is a widespread phenomenon in the ancient world of the Near East and the Mediterranean.

    2. The practice of divorce existed in the ancient Near East long before the existence of Israel, so that Jewish society rather adopted the customs of its neighbors. Both marriage and divorce were family practices that followed immemorial customs, without state intervention. As we are in patriarchal societies, it is the husband who manages decisions on divorce and exercises complete control.

    3. The purpose of our research is very limited, to examine the teaching of the Jew Jesus as he spoke to other Jews to determine whether or not the practice of divorce in his day was in accordance with the will of God.

    4. In order to carry out our research, we must absolutely eliminate our own questions about the divorce that may bias everything. The search for the past must first be pursued for the past itself, if we are to truly understand that past. And this quest is valid in itself, even if it may not enlighten our present.

    5. We must be especially careful in our research because the issue of divorce is a hotly debated topic and continues to be a divisive issue between Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Decisions about how the Palestinian Jews practiced divorce in Jesus' day and how Jesus responded to it must be based on the available data, not on its impact on Christian marriage today.

  2. Divorce in the Pentateuch

    Marriage is a private contract and does not require a written document. The major reference in the Pentateuch is Deuteronomy 24:1-4, which deals with a very specific case and takes the form of a casuistic law.

    1 IF (protase) a man takes a woman and becomes her husband
    and (if) it happens that, if she finds no favor in his eyes
    because he finds in her a shame of a thing (=something shameful),
    he writes her a certificate of divorce
    and puts it in her hand and sends her from his house,
    2 and (if) she leaves his house and goes her way
    and becomes the wife of another (man),
    and puts it in her hand and sends her from his house
    (or if the second man who took her to be his wife dies),
    4 Then (apodosis) her first husband, who sent her away,
    cannot take her again to be his wife after she was defiled,
    for this is an abomination before Yahweh,
    and you shall not bring sin upon the land
    that Yahweh your God is giving you as an inheritance.
    Let's make some observations:

    • This law has no parallel with the divorce laws of the ancient Near East.

    • The phrase "a shame of a thing" in v. 1 is a puzzle. It is possible that the meaning is intentionally vague in order to give the husband full latitude in his judgment, so that any reason could be given for repudiating a wife.

    • Our passage only wants to limit the power of the husband in a specific and rare case, that of remarrying a wife he has previously repudiated.

    • This limitation on the husband has nothing to do with morality. Rather, it has to do with the fact that the woman married a second time has become taboo for the first husband; she can marry another man, but not the first husband.

    • Apart from this text, there are two other texts that try to limit the power of the husband, first Deut 22:13-19 (a husband who publicly and unjustly accuses his wife of not being a virgin shall be fined and shall not be able to repudiate his wife), then Deut 22:28-29 (a man who takes an unengaged virgin and sleeps with her shall compensate the father, marry the virgin and shall not be able to repudiate her.)

    In short, our data collection on divorce is very thin.

  3. Divorce in the Prophets and Wisdom Literature

    References to divorce are very rare.

    • Divorce is sometimes used metaphorically to speak of God's relationship with his people: Isa 50:1 ("Thus says Yahweh: Where is the letter of divorce from your mother with which I divorced her?" and Jer 3:1-2.8 ("If a man divorces his wife and she leaves him and belongs to another, does he still have the right to return to her?)

    • After the Babylonian exile, the reformer Ezra tries to eliminate the marriage of Jews with foreign women and even encourages divorce in these situations: but this is an exceptional rule in a critical political situation (see Ezra 9-10).

    • More important for us is the text of Malachi 2:10-16. This text presents several difficulties, first of all the problem the prophet is addressing is not clear, but more importantly the Hebrew text of v. 16 seems corrupted. Even the Greek translation of the Septuagint has more than one variant. The variant that seems to circulate among Jewish scribes in the second century BC interprets v. 16 as follows: "If you hate her, then repudiate her." This interpretation is attested to in the early centuries BC in the Hebrew text of Malachi at Qumran and in the Greek tradition and became the dominant tradition as seen in the Vulgate, the Talmud and later Jewish commentators. At the time of Jesus, this was the dominant view.

    The sapiential tradition takes up the same theme in different forms: on the one hand, do not repudiate a good woman for superficial reasons; on the other hand, repudiate an evil woman, especially if she is an adulteress. But in Judaism, the prophetic or sapiential tradition does not have the same force as the laws of the Pentateuch.

    One must be careful to look for data outside of Palestine. For example, marriage contracts from the 5th century BC written in Aramaic were found in Elephantine, Egypt, a Jewish military colony. According to these documents, both the woman and the man could initiate a divorce and the divorce could be accomplished by a public declaration. But Elephantine represents a syncretistic form of Diaspora Judaism. On the contrary, for Palestinian Judaism we can say:

    1. The canonical Jewish scriptures never allow a woman to repudiate her husband;
    2. Before the Book of Tobit (Tob 7:13), there is no mention of a written marriage contract;
    3. In the 1st century CE, a written certificate of divorce was mandatory and was seen as a commandment of Moses.

  4. Intertestamental Period: Philo, Josephus, and Qumran

    1. Philo

      In his book Of Special Laws (3.5 #30-31), Philo of Alexandria comments on Deut 24:1-4. He specifies what is forbidden: a divorced and remarried woman may not return to her first husband. But he also clarifies other things, for example the meaning of the expression "IF he finds in her a shame of a thin": this shame can be anything, including the fact that he has found a more beautiful woman than his wife. Furthermore, he tries to make his Greek audience understand why the divorced and remarried wife and the first husband cannot resume living together: by remarrying, the woman transgresses the long-established limits, while the man shows himself to be effeminate and unworthy of being a man, and both deserve death.

    2. Josephus

      Like Philo, the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus comments on Deut 24:1-4 in his book Jewish Antiquities (4.8.23 #253) and comes to the same conclusion: the first husband cannot take back the wife he has repudiated and who has remarried, and the grounds for a man to repudiate a wife can be anything. On the other hand, he proposes an elaboration on the necessity of producing a certificate of divorce to allow the wife to remarry.

    3. Qumran

      Two major texts touch on the issue of divorce. First, there is the Damascus Document, the rule book of the scattered Essene communities in Palestine, and the Temple Scroll, which gives a description of the temple and the temple city in a utopian future.

      1. The Damascus Document (CD) is set in the context of a polemic with opponents of the Essene movement. Its central point is to condemn polygyny (CD 4:20-21), i.e. the practice of a man having more than one wife at the same time. On the other hand, he does not condemn the act of divorce itself, although his position on a second marriage after a divorce, even when the first wife is dead, is not clear. And when a man wanted to divorce his wife, he had to obtain permission from the Inspector first. This opposition to polygyny is based on three scriptural texts:
        1. Gen 1: 27: "male and female he created them".
        2. Gen 7:9: "a couple entered Noah's ark, a male and a female" (one female for one male)
        3. Deut 17: 17: "Let him (the king) not multiply the number of his wives".

      2. The Temple Scroll (QT) assumes a certain eschatological transformation as it transports us into the future. The text of interest to us is 11QT 57:15-18:
        15 And he (the future king) shall not take a wife from among all (16) the daughters of the nations, but instead from the house of his father he shall take to himself a wife (17) from the family of his father. And he shall not take in addition to her another wife, for (8) she alone shall be with him all the day of her life. And if she dies, he shall take (19) to himslef another (wife) from the house of his father, from his family.

        Thus, the king's only wife must be with him all the days of his life, probably to protect him from sexual misconduct and the danger of harem with pagan women. But it would be a mistake to think that the sect behind the Temple Scroll also wanted to apply this rule to all the people and judge the ability of the ordinary Israelite to divorce and remarry in the future world. On this point two other passages in the document mention divorce and take it for granted: 11QT 54:5-4 (which repeats Num 30:10 on the vows of a widow or divorced woman) and especially 11QT 66:8-11 (which repeats the special case of Deut 22:28-29 where a man who takes an unengaged virgin and sleeps with her must compensate the father, marry the virgin without being able to repudiate her). After all these considerations, it must be added that this document from Qumran cannot be used for our study of Jesus, because it is situated in the utopian world of the future.

  5. A Glance Forward to the Mishna

    Written around 200-220, the Mishna addresses the issue of divorce in its third order on women (nachim), specifically in its tractate Guitine (documents on divorce). In this treatise two rabbinic schools clash in interpreting Deut 24:1, i.e. the famous phrase "in her a shame of a thing." For the house of Shammai, the shame imputed to the woman had to be something shameful, affecting the man's honor for example. For the house of Hillel, this shame could be anything, including overcooking her husband's meal. The Mishna adds the opinion of Rabbi Akiba who believes that a husband finding a more beautiful wife is sufficient grounds for divorce.

    But what is important for our study is to note that the Mishna is the first document to clearly discuss the different grounds for divorce. Thus, for Judaism before the year 70, which covers the period of Jesus, we have no document showing that this kind of discussion existed.

  6. The New Testament Statements on Divorce

    We find five versions of the prohibition of divorce in the New Testament: two in Matthew, one in Mark, one in Luke and one in Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. So, if we think that the historical Jesus forbade divorce, we can ask the question: which of these versions is most likely to be traced back to this historical Jesus? To try to answer this question, we will approach these versions in chronological order: 1 Corinthians, the Q tradition (which includes Matthew and Luke) and finally Mark.

    1. 1 Corinthians 7: 10-11

      This letter of Paul, written about the year 54 or 55, is the earliest document on our discussion of Jesus' teaching on divorce. And since Paul is referring to an earlier tradition, we are taken back to the 50s or 40s, if not to Jesus himself.

      1. The Context

        In this letter, Paul addresses various problems of this community that he founded and formed of Gentiles recently converted to Christianity. And among these converts, there are enthusiastic people who imagine that they are already participating in the life of the angels, having been raised with Christ through their baptism, and therefore believe that sin no longer has a hold on them and that their actions through their earthly bodies no longer have any impact on their salvation; in any case, the end of time is about to come.

        It is in this context that Paul has to answer in ch. 7 a series of questions from the Corinthians submitted in a letter. One of these questions concerns one's present state of life or social condition (i.e. single, married, widowed, uncircumcised, slave, etc.): should one change one's state of life to reflect this new existence in Christ? Paul's general answer is to say: remain as you are. But at the same time he responds as a pastor by putting forward his experience of being human: for example, to the promoters of sexual abstinence he reminds them of the dangers that lurk and that a chaste marriage is better than an unchaste celibacy. And it is here that he addresses the issue of divorce.

      2. A Teaching From Jesus

        What is notorious in Paul's letter when he addresses the issue of divorce in v. 10 is that he changes the basis of his argument: "As for married people, this is what I command, not I, but the Lord." This is all the more surprising because immediately after this question he returns to the usual basis of his argument in v. 12, i.e. his authority as an apostle: "As for the rest, I tell them, not the Lord". It seems, then, that Paul is appealing directly to Jesus' teaching during his public ministry, and we can support this claim with the following arguments.

        1. This way of abruptly changing the basis of argument from "I" to "Lord" and then back to "I", clearly distinguishing which authority is involved, is unique in all Paul's letters.

        2. Paul always claimed to be an apostle, just like Peter, and he never hesitated to remind Christians that he was superior to all the prophets in the community. It would be inconceivable to imagine that by appealing here to the authority of the Lord, he was in fact appealing to a Christian prophet speaking in the name of Christ.

        3. The most plausible explanation for this coincidence, between this text of Paul's and the multiple attestations we have of Jesus' teaching on divorce, is that Paul is intentionally appealing to a prescription of Jesus during his ministry.

        4. This call to a teaching or action of the earthly Jesus is not a unique phenomenon in the first letter to the Corinthians: see 9:14; 11:23-25; 15:3-5.

        Note that by saying that Paul refers to the historical Jesus we are not saying that he is trying to repeat word for word what Jesus may have taught. Rather, he summarizes in his own words the content of Jesus' teaching.

      3. Teaching About Divorce

        Paul's version has two distinct parts to speak alternately of the woman and the man, a structure also found in the Gospels:

        10 a wife should not separate (chorizomai) from her husband --
        11 (but if she does separate,
        she must remain unmarried
        . or be reconciled with (her) husband)
        and a husband should not divorce (aphiemi) his wife.

        The prohibition of divorce applies to both husband and wife. Of course, in 1st century Palestine only the man could repudiate his wife. But let us not forget that we are in Corinth, a Roman colony founded by Julius Caesar in 44 BC, and therefore governed by Roman laws. And according to these laws, a free woman as well as a free man had the right to divorce. Paul uses two different verbs, chorizomai and aphiemi, to refer to the act of divorcing, but both verbs have the same meaning and are used equivalently: the Greek has no specific word for divorce. Thus, Paul understands Jesus' prohibition of divorce as a general and strict requirement, at least with respect to a couple where both parties are baptized (Paul will make a distinction in the case where one party is not a Christian).

    2. The Q Tradition (Mt 5: 32 || Lk 16: 18)

      1. Introduction

        In the synoptic gospels, the prohibition of divorce is found in two different places.

        1. Mark 10:2-12 belongs to the genre of dispute stories as Jesus approaches Judea. This account is absent from Luke, but is taken up by Matthew (Mt 19:3-12) at about the same point.

        2. The prohibition of divorce also appears as a brief word in larger sets: in Matthew (Mt 5:32) it is located in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, in the third of the six antitheses, and in Luke (Lk 16:18) it is part of a cluster of various words on legal and moral issues that are loosely connected.

      2. Mt 5: 32 and Lk 16: 18 as Q Tradition

        Underlined are the identical parts of the sentence and italicized are the different parts.

          Matthew 5: 32 Luke 16: 18
        (1)[a] Everyone who divorces his wife, Everyone who divorces his wife
          except on grounds of "unchastity",  
            and marries another
        (1)[b] causes her to be involved in adultery; commits adultery,
        (2)[a] And whoever marries a divorced woman, and the one who marries a woman divorced by (her) husband
        (2)[b] commits adultery. commits adultery.

        Both versions agree in form and content. They can be divided into two parts, both of which have man as the source of action. In part (1), both Matthew and Luke have the same Greek grammatical structure with a present participle (lit: Everyone divorcing his wife). In part (2), we have the same basic statement: whoever marries a divorced woman... commits adultery.

      3. The primitive Q Form of the Saying

        1. The particularity of Matthew

          Matthew introduces an exception to the prohibition of divorce: except on grounds of "unchastity" (parektos logou porneias). He alone has this clause, which he also repeats in Mt 19:9. We can say that this is most likely an addition to the Q Document by Matthew (or his particular M Document) for the following reasons:

          • Only he has this clause;
          • In the two passages where it has this clause, the insertion weighs down the sentence and makes part 1b cumbersome and obscure;
          • If this clause was part of the original form, it is difficult to understand how Paul, Mark and Luke all ignore it and present the same absolute form of the ban.

          Thus, the clause seems to reflect some particular problems of Matthew's church.

        2. Luke's particularity

          In part (1a) seen above, Luke's text adds this to Matthew's: and marries another. Is this really an addition by Luke to the Q Document text? When we note that Mark 10:11, which speaks of the same subject ("Whoever divorces his wife and marries another"), has the same addition, and that Paul (1 Cor 7:11) explicitly mentions that a divorced woman must not remarry to respect the prohibition, then we must recognize that the bit of Luke's phrase "and marries another" was part of the original source and is not an addition by Luke. Here we have a case of multiple attestation. Furthermore, this bit is essential to the first part, because without a second marriage, there is no adultery. It is not the divorce that is the problem, it is the adultery that follows.

        3. The difference between the formulations of Matthew and Luke

          So it is adultery that is the problem, not divorce. But Matthew and Luke have a different way of presenting adultery. Matthew's wording in 5:32 is a bit twisted in grammar and thought. In part (1b) he writes of the repudiated woman: "causes her to be involved in adultery", rather than: "commits adultery" as in Luke. We can understand the situation of the repudiated woman: how can she ensure her subsistence and save her honor in an androcentric society if not by a second marriage? She is in a way "forced" to commit adultery. Matthew, on the other hand, places the responsibility on the first husband. Basically, Matthew and Luke say the same thing: the second marriage can only be adulterous, because in God's eyes the first marriage is still valid. But Matthew's version is contradicted by those of Luke (16:18), Mark 10:11-12, and even Matthew himself (Mt 19:9) where only the adultery of the man is spoken of, never of the woman. In short, the wording of Mt 5:32 (1b) does not come from the Q Document and probably comes from a Jewish tradition in his church.

        4. The primitive Q form

          The early Q form was probably like this:

          (1)[a] Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another
          (1)[b] commits adultery,
          (2)[a] And the one who (or: whoever) marries a divorced woman
          (2)[b] commits adultery

          Thus we have two well-balanced parts with two actions in the same order, divorce and marry, and the man is the subject of the action and the woman is the object. Some biblical scholars claim that this form, which dates back to the year 50-70, is the oldest we have.

    3. Mark 10: 11-12

      Let's look at the basic structure and content.

      (1)[a] v.11 Whoever divorces his wife and marries another (woman)
      (1)[b] commits adultery against her;
      (2)[a] v.12 And if she, divorcing her husband, marries another (man),
      (2)[b] she commits adultery.

      1. Comparison with the Q Document

        If we compare Mark's formulation with that of the Q Document, we first note a similarity: any combination of divorce and marriage constitutes adultery. But there is a major difference: in Mark the woman has the same rights as the man and can divorce her husband. We are no longer in Palestinian law, but in Greco-Roman law, as we see in Paul's address to the Corinthians, where the woman, like the man, can divorce her spouse. All this supports the idea that Mark wrote his gospel in Rome or in a similar environment.

      2. Mark's additions

        The v.12 focusing on the case of the woman divorcing her husband cannot obviously be traced back to the historical Jesus and would be an addition of Mark himself to his source. The following reasons can be given:

        • How could Jesus evoke an impossible situation (the woman divorcing her husband) in a Palestinian environment?
        • There is no other parallel in the Synoptics;
        • v. 12 is not really parallel to v. 11 and does not form a balanced whole: instead of beginning with an indefinite masculine pronoun (whoever) followed by two definite verbs (divorces, marries), v.12 begins with a conditional protasis (and if) followed by a past participle (lit: having divorced her husband);
        • With v. 11 Jesus answered the objection of the Pharisees, and therefore there is no need for v. 12.
        • V. 12 should also end with the phrase "against him" to be truly parallel to v. 11.

        In v. 11 the expression "against her" is probably also a later Christian addition to the early tradition. For the idea that a husband who divorces his wife in order to marry another commits adultery with his first wife is totally foreign to the Palestinian milieu. For in Judaism the woman is not a subject of right, and adultery can only be committed against another man, especially the former husband of the woman he is marrying; having sexual relations with an unmarried woman, a prostitute for example, does not entail adultery.

      3. Mark's source

        The oral tradition that circulated in the pre-Marcan tradition probably had the following form:

        (1)[a] Whoever divorces his wife and marries another
        (1)[b] commits adultery

    4. Divorce and the Criteria of Historicity

      1. The Criteria of Multiple Attestation of Sources and Forms

        Three streams of early church tradition bear witness to Jesus' teaching on divorce: Paul (1 Cor. 7:10-11) ca. 54-55, the Q Document (ca. 50-70) preserved in Mt 5:32 || Lk 16:18, and the Gospel according to Mark (ca. 70). There is not only a multiplicity of sources, but also of forms: the parenesis of Paul, the isolated words of the Q Document and the dispute in Mark.

      2. The Criteria of Discontinuity and Embarrassement

        1. The criterion of discontinuity applies within the framework of the Judaism of Jesus' time. For the teaching of Jesus went squarely against the laws and accounts of the Jewish Scriptures, the teaching and common practice of the time and the rabbinic movement that followed. Divorce was a widespread social reality and a Jewish man could divorce his wife for any reason. The Law of Moses accepted and regulated divorce by introducing the certificate of divorce. The only restriction on divorce was that a divorced wife could not resume married life with her first husband. Therefore, by totally prohibiting divorce, Jesus was attacking the Law head on and was affirming that what the Law allowed was the sin of adultery, a sin that is mentioned in one of the commandments of the Decalogue.

          The question may be asked: Was Jesus alone in opposing the Torah's teaching on divorce in this way? The answer is: yes. One can of course point to the Damascus Document which regulated the life of the Essenes by explicitly forbidding polygyny (a man married to several wives), which implicitly implied divorce with remarriage as long as the first wife lived. But this document does not directly address divorce and its horizon is limited to the Essenes.

        2. The criterion of embarrassment applies in the context of the early church. The early Christians had to struggle and contort themselves to find ways to apply Jesus' teaching to the concrete lives of Jewish and Gentile Christians. While Paul in his epistles refers to his apostolic authority to teach and exhort the various Christian communities, he suddenly has to change his strategy and appeal to Jesus' teaching when the question of divorce comes up: this gives an idea of the difficulty of this rule. He himself tries to give himself some leeway on the question of mixed marriages, i.e. marriages between Christians and non-Christians, by allowing separation in the case where the non-Christian party does not want to live in peace with the Christian party, followed by the remarriage of the Christian with another Christian. Matthew does the same thing by introducing the exception of "unchastity" (Mt 5:32; 19:9) to solve a problem specific to his community. All this shows that the first ones are confronted with a radical teaching of Jesus which they try as best they can to adapt to their situation. It is hard to see how they could have created such a teaching on divorce from scratch.

      3. Coherence

        In the context of his teaching about the reign of God, Jesus' call to his followers had a radical dimension. His prohibition of divorce may have been based on the faith that the end times would restore the original wholeness and grandeur of God's creation.

    5. The Dispute Story in Mark 10: 2-12

      1. Mark's redactional work

        This text from Mark is only discussed at the end, after having already established the historicity of Jesus' prohibition of divorce, because it presents several difficulties as to its historical value. In fact, we can see the redactional work of the evangelist Mark:

        • The vocabulary and style are Mark's own;
        • We find the very usual structure in which Jesus gives a general teaching to the crowd and then takes up this teaching with his disciples in the form of private instructions;
        • Mark seems to have patched together independent words of Jesus, so that the whole does not constitute a fluid text: the Pharisees ask Jesus a question in v.2, but Jesus will give his answer when he is alone with his disciples in v.11.

      2. The structure of the dispute

        Having emphasized Mark's work in organizing this pericope, the same cannot be said for the details of the dispute: there are various traditions which could predate Mark.

        V.2 The Pharisees ask Jesus a question about divorce ("Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife?"). This question comes out of nowhere, without us knowing why they ask this question. We can only assume that they heard Jesus teach on this issue. And historically, as the Mishna and Tosefta indicate, the Pharisees showed great interest in the issue of divorce and the proper way to write a certificate of divorce.

        V.3 As a good rabbi, Jesus answers with a counterquestion, "What did Moses command you?"

        V.4 The answer of the Pharisees is subtle: instead of speaking of prescription as in Jesus' question, they speak rather of permission, referring to Deut 24:1-4: "Moses permitted (the husband) to write a certificate of divorce and to divorce (his wife)."

        V.5 Jesus goes on the offensive by speaking of their hardness of heart and their refusal to obey God's will expressed in the Torah: "It is because of your hardness of heart that he has written this prescription for you."

        VV.6-8 Jesus gives the exegetical basis for his accusation: Gen 2:24 ("But from the beginning of creation He made them male and female. So a man will leave his father and mother, and the two will become one flesh. So they are no longer two, but one flesh."). For Jesus, the order of creation expressed by Genesis takes precedence over the law of divorce found in Deuteronomy, i.e. Deut 24:1-4.

        V.9 From Genesis Jesus therefore concludes, "What God has joined together, man must not separate (chōrizetō)." The word chōrizetō is the same word Paul uses to talk about divorce in 1 Cor 7:10-16. In essence, this v.9 may be an answer to the Pharisees, for their question was not about remarriage, but simply about divorce.

    6. Conclusions

      Based on the criteria of multiple attestations, discontinuity, embarrassment, and coherence, we can affirm that Jesus forbade the divorce. We can conclude with four other observations as well.

      1. It is very difficult to identify a formulation that would be the original formulation of Jesus, for he would probably have repeated this prohibition several times and in different forms. The oldest text on the subject is probably the Q Document (Mt 5:32 || Lk 16:18).

      2. Mark's text (10:2-12) represents a Christian composition in its present form, but it most likely reflects the type of debate Jesus was engaged in, especially given the Pharisees' interest in the issue of divorce. Thus, Mark's text may be based on the memory of certain historical events. And it is possible that v.9 (what God has joined together, man must not separate) is a historical saying of Jesus, for the following reasons:

        1. The sentence is concise with antithetical parallelism, which would be typical of Jesus;
        2. Apart from the words of the Synoptics that we have identified and the text of Paul, the Christian teachers of the first two generations are silent on the issue of divorce;
        3. This sentence is consistent with the radical orientation of Jesus' teaching on behavior in daily life.

        If we accept the historicity of this v.9, we can observe two things. On the one hand, Jesus forbids divorce, and divorce itself, even if there is no remarriage. On the other hand, there are similarities between this v.9, the Q tradition and what Paul writes in 1 Cor 7: 10-11: we find in the same apodictic style the affirmation that the first marriage always remains valid.

      3. Before the year 70, a man could repudiate his wife for any reason, and debates like those between the house of Hillel and the house of Shammai appeared afterwards.

      4. Jesus' attitude to the Law raises an intriguing question: how can he on the one hand accept the Law with respect as a good Jew, and on the other hand call those who follow the Law on divorce adulterers? We can offer a partial answer here:

        1. It was normal for some Jewish groups to reformulate the Law in the face of new situations, without feeling that they were disrespecting the Law;

        2. Jesus presented himself as the eschatological prophet, committed to the gathering and restoration of Israel as God's people at the end of time, and therefore proposed a consequent behavior.

Next chapter: Does Jesus distance himself from the Mosaic Law by forbidding the oath?

List of all chapters