Divorce I: What did Jesus have to say on the subject?
Last week I took a look at what Jesus had to say about adultery. In keeping with Jewish Law and teaching, he regarded it as immoral, but he wasn't particularly concerned to stress the need for moral sexual behaviour, or to draw lines around various kinds of sexual behaviour, laying down the law about exactly what was adultery and what wasn't, what was moral and what was immoral. In general, in fact, whenever he (or an evangelist) mentions adultery he is actually making some other point.
But his comments on divorce have a very different flavour.
Different Views among the Jews
A bit of background: the Mosaic Law does not explicitly permit divorce. Rather, it lays down that in certain circumstances a man is not to divorce his wife, or that a divorced woman is not to remarry. (The question of a wife divorcing her husband never arises.)
By implication, the Law accepts divorce as a social reality; if not necessarily something which advances God's plan for his people, then something which God's plan can at times accommodate.
So the debate in Jesus' time was not about whether divorce and remarriage were acceptable at all, but about when they were acceptable, and when they were not.
There were (at least) three views offered:
These rabbis were the founders and leaders of important schools, and were very influential. (In other contexts, scholars suggest that Jesus adopted some of the teachings of Rabbi Hillel.) In fairness to them, they weren't saying that a man who divorced his wife in any of these circumstances did the right thing. They were merely saying that he could do so; that society could accept that the divorce had happened, and the spouses could remarry.
What had Jesus to say about divorce? He said this:
One thing is pretty clear; Jesus strongly disapproved of divorce. He apparently forbade it completely (Mark and Luke) or almost completely (Matthew).
What is less clear is where he stood in relation to the debate going on within Judaism at the time. There are two possibilities. First, Jesus was challenging the idea that, because the Mosaic Law contemplates divorce in some circumstances, it is sometimes morally acceptable. I haven't quoted it, but you will remember Jesus indicating that the Mosaic dispensation allowed for "hardness of heart", indicating that it was pragmatic, rather than representing the ideal to which we are called.
Alternatively (and this is based very heavily on Matthew's version) Jesus is accepting Rabbi Shammai's position, that divorce is acceptable in cases of grave fault (i.e. a fault which fundamentally subverts the marriage and makes it "unlawful").
The meaning of the "unlawful" exception in Matthew is much debated. In fact, the language is translated very differently in different bibles. The texts I have quoted above are from the New American Bible, chosen for no other reason that that it is readily available online. But, in other translations, the words "unless the marriage is unlawful" are translated in a variety of ways:
"excepting for the cause of fornication" (Douay-Rheims Version)
I'm no Greek scholar, so I can't tell you which of these translations is the most faithful to the Greek original. I have to reckon, though, that the Greek must be sufficiently flexible (or unclear, if you want) that some case can be made for all of these translations.
The Greek word used here is porneia; this word appears elsewhere in the New Testament, especially in the Letters of Paul. I believe nobody knows exactly what it means. It certainly refers to sexual immorality, but not necessarily of any specific kind. (It is often rendered into English as "fornication", as in some translations here. But we usually consider "fornication" to refer to sex between two unmarried people, and in this context it certainly can't mean "fornication" in that sense.)
There seems to be a basic ambiguity in Matthew:
The New International Version seems to lean towards the first of these meanings, the New American Bible and the Jerusalem towards the second, and most of the rest seem to hedge their bets, more or less.
So we're left with three possible positions:
What we don't have – and I'll be coming back to this point later – is anything in any of the gospels which justifies divorce for (non-sexual) domestic violence, mental cruelty, psychological oppression or exploitation, or any of the thousands of other ways in which a spouse can make a marriage a living hell, but which don't involve sex.
And that's a problem for us. Christian theology of marriage sees it as something directed not just towards procreation, but also towards the fostering of a fulfilling and loving relationship, reflecting the relationship between Christ and the Church. We need a theological response to dysfunctional and broken marriages of this kind, and these gospel passages don't seem to offer us a basis for one. It surely can't be the will of God that I stay with my uncontrollably violent husband until he beats me to death, can it? Tomorrow and the next day we'll look a bit further afield in scripture for different approaches to this problem.
What are your thoughts on this commentary? You can contribute to the discussion in our forum.