I’ve generally tried to avoid contention in this blog, but writing a dissertation on a contentious topic makes this unavoidable for at least one post! I’ve been looking at divorce and re-marriage in order to shine a light on what this says about the role of scripture & authority in the Anglican church, but have found myself much more drawn into the divorce and re-marriage debate than I expected.
When the Pharisees asked Jesus, “Is it lawful to divorce for any cause?”, there was nothing vague about the wording of their question: they wanted to draw him into an ongoing debate. At the time, there were two rabbinic factions, following teachers from the previous century. Shammai had said that divorce could be allowed only for adultery; Hillel said that it could be for any cause – even if the wife merely spoiled the food. Hence, Jesus was really being asked: who’s right on this issue – Hillel or Shammai?
Jesus avoids the terms of the debate and says they were both wrong, because in the beginning man and wife became ‘one flesh’. Thus, he is effectively saying that there is a sanctity in marriage that neither Hillel nor Shammai were recognising.
In recent times there have been a couple of evangelical authors, namely Craig Keener and David Instone-Brewer, who have argued, strenuously, that conservative Christians have usually understood this wrongly. The early church read Jesus in the gospels as permitting divorce only for adultery and never allowing re-marriage, and they have been followed down the centuries by both conservative Catholics and evangelicals. However, these two authors argue that a first-century audience would have heard Jesus’ words quite differently.
They argue two main points. Firstly, in first-century Israel, divorce implied permission to re-marry, so the idea that you could have one without the other is meaningless. Secondly, they argue that, in practical terms, other grounds for divorce were recognised, such as those of abuse or neglect.
These are good arguments and merit attention – but as I have delved deeper, I have found that they are not as solid as they sound. For example, it is often stated that “Jewish law required divorce certificates to include the freedom to remarry”, and the Mishnah is quoted to back this up. The problem is that the Mishnah was written between one and two centuries after the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD – and the only rabbinic school to survive that disaster was that of Hillel (who promoted the any cause divorce) and not Shammai. It is hard to see how Shammai, permitting divorce only for adultery, would have been quite so free as Hillel in granting the adulterous wife the freedom to marry anyone she liked. Thus the Mishnah, produced by Hillel’s descendants, is not a reliable source of information for the divided world of early first-century Israel.
Secondly, when Jesus refers back to how things were back at the beginning, it was a much weighter statement than is often realised: the rabbis recognised that the earlier the reference, the stronger the argument. Thus, how it was at creation trumps Moses’ law, so that the sanctity of marriage implied by the ‘one flesh’ over-rides the pragmatism of Moses. The exception for adultery arises because it has an altogether different effect on the ‘one flesh’ of marriage than either abuse or neglect, however wrong those two are.
You may at this point be thinking, “But real life is so much more messy!”. This is true – but if we are to understand things from a Christian perspective, we must at least start from an understanding of what Jesus said, and what he meant by what he said.