Friday, 30 November 2012


       The world of Barabbas was forged by centuries of tyranny and repression from foreign powers, fostering a revolutionary spirit among the Palestinian Jews. Back in the 2nd-century BC, under the leadership of Judas Maccabeus and his brothers, the Maccabean revolt led to the overthrow of Seleucid dominance and the restoration of Jewish sovereignty. While their independence was seemingly bolstered by a treaty formed with the Romans in 161 BC, the stage was set for future oppression and subjugation.
      General Pompey, while establishing Syria as a Roman province, was compelled to intervene in the Judean civil war in 63 BC, from which time Judea was regarded as a Roman protectorate. Antipater, a Judaized Idumean loyal to Rome, was set up as Judea’s governor, and in 37 BC his son, Herod the Great, was appointed by the Roman Senate as Judea’s king. After gaining control of the region by force of arms, he reigned as a friend of Rome for over three decades.1 Near the end of Herod’s authoritarian regime a census was ordered by Caesar Augustus (Luke 2:1-2), probably for statistical reasons. The population of this occupied territory had to be calculated to determine the number of troops needed to be stationed there.2
      Jewish resentment and hostility finally reached breaking point in AD 6 when Judea was designated a Roman province and another census was taken for taxation purposes (Acts 5:37; cf. Josephus, Ant. 18.1; 2.1). Evidently the celebrated revolt of Judas Maccabeus was still fresh on their minds, with the ongoing popularity of the name "Judas"3 and the annual observances of Hanukkah and the Day of Nicanor.4 The Zealot movement, inciting rebellion against the Romans and culminating in the Jewish War of AD 66-70, was inevitable. This was the world of Barabbas. And it was within this politically turbulent environment that the conflicting paths of Barabbas and Jesus the Christ intersected.
      The name Barabbas is the Graecized form of the Aramaic Bar-abbâ – a combination of bar ("son of") and abba ("father") – meaning "son of [the] father." There is an interesting variant in the text tradition of Matthew 27:16, wherein some manuscripts read Iēsoun Barabban ("Jesus Barabbas," cf. NRSV). While the name "Jesus" (Heb. "Joshua") was not uncommon among the Jews,5 whether or not it was original to Matthew’s text does not obscure this intriguing comparison. Jesus of Nazareth was clearly the Son of the heavenly Father (John 8:16-29), whereas [Jesus?] Barabbas manifested a very different spiritual paternity (cf. John 8:44).
      Matthew describes Barabbas as a "notable" or "notorious" prisoner (27:16),6 indicative of his well-known status among the Jews, the Romans, or both. John says that he was a lēstēs (18:40), i.e. a violent criminal like "a bandit" or "a robber."7 There were at least two other criminals who had been arrested with him (Luke 23:32-39; John 19:18), also identified as lēstai, "bandits" or "robbers" (Matthew 27:38; Mark 15:27). Seeing that Barabbas and his cohorts were charged not only with murder but also "rebellion" (Mark 15:7; Luke 23:25), it is not insignificant that Josephus employs the term lēstēs with reference to revolutionaries (cf. War 2.13.5-6; Ant. 14.9.2). It would appear that Barabbas and his fellow rebels were Zealots or freedom fighters, engaged in the Jewish resistance against the Romans. This explains why Barabbas seems to have been so popular among the Jews and why it was so easy for them to be persuaded to plead for his release (Matthew 27:20, 21; Mark 15:11; Luke 23:18; John 18:40).
      Prior to Jesus’ arrest, he too had been highly esteemed by the Jerusalem populace. Entering the city with multitudes lining the streets, he was hailed as "King," a direct descendent of the great military hero David, with cries of Hosanna, i.e., "please save" or "save now!" (Matthew 21:1-9; Mark 11:1-11; Luke 19:28-44; John 12:12-19). The Jews had long anticipated a messianic figure to "redeem Israel" from repression (Luke 24:21) and to "restore the kingdom to Israel" (Acts 1:6), supposedly by way of violent opposition (Matthew 11:12; cf. John 6:15). The shouts of "King" during Christ’s triumphal entry were within earshot of the Pharisees (Luke 19:38-39; cf. John 12:19), who went on to accuse Jesus of making this claim himself (Luke 23:2-3; John 19:21), as though he were challenging the authority of the Roman Emperor (John 19:12, 15).
      Shortly before he was lumped together with Barabbas and the other outlaws, the Lord asked his captors, "Have you come out as against a lēstēs ['bandit,' 'robber,' 'revolutionary'] . . .?" (Luke 22:52). Presumably the particular application of this term would depend on whether it was from a Roman or a Jewish perspective. Jesus was accused of sedition, treason, and insurrection (Luke 23:2, 3, 5, 14; John 19:12).8 When Pontius Pilate gave the Jewish crowds the choice of which prisoner to be released – the humble Galilean preacher (Jesus) or the defiant patriotic militant (Barabbas) – their decision was no doubt influenced by their misconceived messianic expectations.9 Consequently, Barabbas’ death sentence was repealed, while the Lord Jesus was condemned to be crucified.
      Before we are too hard on Barabbas, consider the following comparisons and what you and I share in common with him. (1) Barabbas was genuinely guilty, whereas Jesus was entirely innocent (Luke 23:14-19). "There is not a righteous person, not one . . . . for all have sinned and come short of God’s glory" (Romans 3:10, 23). (2) Justice demanded Barabbas’ punishment, but it was Jesus who was treated like a criminal (Mark 15:7, 14). "He made the one not knowing sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become righteousness of God in him" (2 Corinthians 5:21). (3) Barabbas was set free, while Jesus was held captive (Matthew 27:2, 26). "Truly, truly I say to you that everyone committing sin is a slave of sin . . . . If therefore the Son frees you, you will be free indeed" (John 8:34, 36). (4) The center cross was intended for Barabbas, yet Jesus took his place (John 19:18). "But God commends his own love unto us, that while we were still sinners Christ died on our behalf" (Romans 5:8). (5) Barabbas was permitted to live, while Jesus suffered death (Mark 15:15, 37). "But God being rich in mercy, because of his great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in sins, he made us alive with Christ – by grace you have been saved" (Ephesians 2:4-5).
      We are all guilty of sin and well deserving of the just penalty. Instead we have been extended mercy and offered forgiveness because Jesus has taken our place, paying the price for our sins, so that we can live eternally as the redeemed. There is no reliable evidence that Barabbas ever capitalized on the second chance Jesus afforded him. May this be where our commonality with Barabbas ends!
–Kevin L. Moore

       1 See Ancient Terrorists; also R. H. Gundry, A Survey of the NT (3rd ed.) 29-33; L. M. White, From Jesus to Christianity 22-34.
      2 See Luke's Historical Blunder?; also M’Clintock and Strong, Cyclopedia 2:185-86; A. Plummer, The Gospel According to S. Luke 49-52.
      3 Cf. Matthew 10:4; Mark 6:3; Luke 6:16; Acts 5:37; 9:11; 15:22.
      4 Cf. 1 Maccabees 4.36-59; 7.39-50; 2 Maccabees 1.18; 15.1-36; Josephus, Ant. 12.5–13.7; War 1.3-6.
      5 Cf. Acts 13:6; Colossians 4:11; Hebrews 4:8; Josephus, War 6.5.3.
      6 The term used in Matthew 27:16 is episēmos (epi + sēma), descriptive of one who bears a distinctive mark, i.e. "noted" or "eminent" (cf. Romans 16:7). All scripture quotations in English are the author’s own translation.
      7 Cf. Luke 10:30, 36; 2 Corinthians 11:26.
      8 See also Matthew 27:11, 29, 37, 42; Mark 15:2, 9, 12, 18, 26, 32; Luke 23:37, 38; John 18:33, 39; 19:3, 14, 15.
      9 It had become customary during the Passover feast for the Roman procurator in Judea to release to the Jews a prisoner of their choosing (Matthew 27:15; Mark 15:6, 8; Luke 23:17; John 18:39). This was neither a law nor a custom of the Romans or the Jews. While it may have been based on the Jewish tradition of Jubilee (cf. Leviticus 25:10) or perhaps connected to the Passover theme of deliverance (cf. Exodus 12:27), it appears to have been an attempt to placate the Jews in order to deter further civil unrest and maintain some level of peace (cf. Matthew 27:24; Mark 15:15; John 19:8, 12).

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Ancient Terrorists

       In recent years International News has been dominated by the violent turmoil throughout North Africa and the Middle East, particularly in relation to the so-called "Arab Spring." Authoritarian regimes have been challenged and tyrannical dictators have fallen, while others remain defiant and oppressive. One can never underestimate the passion and determination of an oppressed people who long for civil rights and freedom. But rebellion, militancy, and even terrorism are nothing new, especially in the ancient Near East.
      In the 4th century BC, the inhabitants of Judea surrendered to the armies of Alexander the Great and were begrudgingly absorbed into the rapidly expanding Grecian Empire. When Alexander died and his conquests were divided into four smaller kingdoms, the Palestinian Jews were afflicted by the Ptolemies of Egypt to the south and by the Seleucids of Syria to the north. In the 2nd century BC, while Judea was under the control of the Seleucids, the ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes fiercely reacted to an attempted coup by attacking Jerusalem, pillaging the temple, erecting altars to Greek gods, and banning Jewish scriptures, sacrifices, feasts, and circumcision. The corresponding Jewish revolt, led by Judas Maccabeus, finally broke the power of the Seleucids and restored freedom and independence to Judea . . . . for a time.
      Not long after the Jews had wrenched free from Syrian rule, their territory was gradually seized by the growing Roman Empire. Herod the Great was appointed by Rome as king of Judea in 37 BC, and he gained control of the region by force of arms and ruled as a friend of Rome for over three decades. Judea was established as a Roman province in AD 6, a military governor (procurator) was stationed there, and the residents were then required to pay taxes to the Roman government. The Jewish people had gone from an autonomous, self-governing nation to the occupation and control of a foreign power. This is the world that Jesus knew.
      It was in this context that the Zealot movement was born. The Zealots were the ones responsible for instigating the Jewish revolt of AD 66, provoking the brutal response of the Romans that resulted in the demolition of the Jewish temple and the city of Jerusalem in AD 70. Some historians classify the Zealots as a separate Jewish sect, whereas others consider them to have been an extreme wing of the Pharisees. They were zealous for Jewish sovereignty, promoted insurrection and violence against the pagan occupiers, and engaged in assassinations and armed conflict. They typically targeted Romans or representatives of Rome, while the Sicarii, named after the small daggers (sicai) they used, also turned against fellow-Jews suspected as apostates or enemy collaborators.
      With this background in mind, we can more clearly understand the words of Jesus in Matthew 11:12: "And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force" (NKJV). We can also appreciate the dilemma the Pharisees and Herodians attempted to create for the Lord by asking him whether or not it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar (Matthew 22:17). They apparently assumed, in this volatile environment, that whatever answer he gave would have incited the fury of either the Romans or the Zealots against him.
      There are a number of New Testament characters who seem to have been involved in the Zealot movement, including Theudas, Judas of Galilee, and an unnamed Egyptian (Acts 5:36-37; 21:38). Barabbas, the criminal who was pardoned from execution instead of Jesus, appears to have been included among these political extremists, seeing that he and his fellow rebels "had committed murder in the rebellion" (Mark 15:7; cf. Luke 23:19, 25).
      Some of the Zealots even found their way into the Christian movement. One of the Lord’s personal disciples, Simon, is explicitly labeled "the zealot" by Luke (Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13). While Matthew (10:4) and Mark (3:18) use the more obscure term Kananites, which is rendered in many English versions as "Cananite," it is actually derived from a Hebrew word meaning "zealot." Even more information is available on the background of Saul of Tarsus, who maliciously targeted Jewish Christians whom he considered apostates from the Jewish faith (Acts 8:1; 9:1, 21; 22:4-5, 19-20; 26:10; etc.). In the Greek text of Acts 22:3, as Paul recounts his violent past, the noun form is used to identify him as "a zealot" of God. Also, in Galatians 1:14 Paul again employs the noun form to describe his former activity in Judaism as "a zealot."
      From the above information, the following lessons can be learned. Firstly, Jesus transforms individual lives. The apostle Paul, because of his sordid past, regarded himself as less than the least of all the saints (Ephesians 3:8), the chief of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15), and unworthy to be called an apostle (1 Corinthians 15:9). But thanks to the transforming power of Jesus, the former Zealot became an unwavering advocate of the Christian faith. This clearly demonstrates that no one is too bad to be accepted by Christ and changed into something better. It also indicates that no matter where a person might be in his/her spiritual development, with the Lord’s help improvements can be made. It further shows that Christians ought to be careful about prematurely judging one’s potential receptivity (or lack thereof) based upon immediate appearances or lifestyle. After all, it was an ex-terrorist who said, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me" (Philippians 4:13).
      Secondly, Jesus transforms relationships. While the Zealots were vehemently opposed to the Romans and their collaborators, including those who gathered Caesar’s taxes, Jesus brought together Simon the Zealot and Matthew the tax collector, making enemies into brothers. The Lord still has the power to transform strained or broken relationships, whether in the home, in the church, or in the community. The key is learning and heeding his biblical directives, with each person involved recognizing that the process begins with "me" (Romans 12:18).
      Finally, Jesus enables us to harnesses our zeal and focus it in the right direction. Everyone is passionate about something. Intense enthusiasm can either be good or bad, depending on whether or not it is controlled and where it is directed. It is not enough to have "a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge" (Romans 10:2). May the Lord help us to redirect our energies, if necessary, toward eagerly fulfilling his perfect will. From the reflections of a former Zealot, we read: "For I am the least of the apostles, who am not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all, yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me" (1 Corinthians 15:9-10).
--Kevin L. Moore

Related PostBarabbas

Sunday, 18 November 2012

John's Audience

      The Gospel of John was written by a Palestinian Jew, exhibiting detailed knowledge of the topography of Palestine (cf. 1:44; 2:1; 4:5-6, 21; 9:7; 11:18; 18:1) and reflecting personal acquaintance with features of conservative Judaism and Jewish tradition (e.g. 1:19-28; 4:9, 20). He was also accustomed to thinking in Aramaic, as few subordinate clauses appear in the text, Aramaic terms are frequently used (1:42; 5:2; 9:7; etc.), and Old Testament quotations are closer in form to the Hebrew than to the Greek (cf. 12:40; 13:18; 19:37).1
     Nevertheless, John’s Gospel appears to have been written with a Gentile audience in mind, seeing that Jewish conventions are explained presumably for the benefit of those who were unfamiliar with them. Certain feasts are particularly identified as Jewish, i.e., "the Passover, the feast of the Jews" (6:4; 11:55), and "the Tabernacles, the feast of the Jews" (7:2). Jewish customs are noted and clarified, i.e., purification (2:6; cf. 11:55), ethnic exclusivism (4:9), and the Sabbath (19:31). Aramaic words are both transliterated and translated into Greek, i.e., Kēphas (1:42), Bēthzatha (5:2), Silōam (9:7), Gabbatha (19:13), Golgotha (19:17), and rabbouni (20:16). Palestinian geographical features are carefully described, i.e., "Bethany . . . across the Jordan" (1:28), "Cana of Galilee" (2:1, 11; 4:46; 21:2), "Aenon near Salim" (3:23), "Bethany near Jerusalem" (11:18), and "Bethsaida of Galilee" (12:21). The Sea of Galilee is identified as "the Sea of Tiberias" (6:1; 21:1), the name used in the latter part of the first century and employed in Greco-Roman texts.
     It has been suggested that something about the destination of the Fourth Gospel may be indicated by the way John the baptizer is depicted – quite different from the Synoptics. He is presented in the role of the Messiah’s forerunner and thus in a subordinate position. He is not the light but bears witness to the light (1:6-8); he is not the Messiah or Elijah or the Prophet (1:20-21); he is merely the friend of the bridegroom who must decrease while the bridegroom must increase (3:28-30); and Jesus’ testimony is greater than his (5:33-34). This comparative and humbling presentation has sometimes been explained as an awareness of and/or response to a group of followers whose evaluation of John the baptist was exaggerated and misdirected. Interestingly, long after the death of the baptizer, disciples who were loyal to his teachings were reported in Ephesus (Acts 19:1-3). W. J. Harrington notes further that there were disciples of John the baptist in Ephesus as late as the third century (Explaining the Gospels 131).2
     Early and consistent testimony places the Gospel’s provenance in Asia Minor, particularly at Ephesus. The writing was reportedly at the request of area congregations as a summary of the apostle John’s teaching about the life of Jesus to meet needs that had grown up in the church near the close of the first century.3 Accordingly, the Gospel of John is best read and interpreted through the lense of late-first-century Gentile readers.
–Kevin L. Moore

      1 See also Authorship of NT Gospels. Scripture quotations in English are the author’s own translation.
        2 Contra F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts 363 n. 7; Donald Guthrie, NT Introduction 279-80; et al., who dismiss the idea that the Fourth Gospel polemicizes against such a group.
        3 Sources include Clement of Alexandria (cf. Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 6.14), the Muratorian Canon, the Anti-Marcionite Porlogue, Jerome (Comm. Matt. Prol.), Epiphanius of Salamis (Adv. Haer. 41.12), Irenaeus of Lyons (Adv. Haer. 3.1.2), and Eusebius of Caesarea (Eccl. Hist. 3.1.1; 3.24).

Related Posts: Matthew's AudienceMark's Audience, Luke's Audience

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Saturday, 10 November 2012

Luke's Audience

      Luke is the only Gospel writer to have explicitly identified his audience, viz. Theophilus (1:3) to whom the sequel is also addressed (Acts 1:1). The name Theophilus means "lover of God" in Greek, and some have suggested that it may be employed in a fictitious sense, applying to all who love God. However, this is unlikely in view of the appendage kratistos ("most excellent") in Luke 1:3, indicative of one who is an important administrative official, like a magistrate. Luke uses this title on three other occasions (Acts 23:26; 24:3; 26:25), each in reference to someone governing a Roman province.
      The late F. F. Bruce has noted the uncertainty as to whether the title is meant in a technical sense with reference to rank (representing the Roman equestrian order egregious), or simply by way of courtesy (corresponding to the Latin optimus). Bruce has theorized that Theophilus "was a representative member of the intelligent middle-class public at Rome whom Luke wished to win over to a less prejudiced and more favorable opinion of Christianity than that which was current among them" (The Book of Acts 29). It seems implausible, however, that such a large volume of material (25% of the New Testament!) would have been written for a non-Christian official with a realistic expectation of him actually reading it and thereby being influenced by it. The fact that in Luke 1:4 reference is made to peri hōn katēchēthēs logōn ("things concerning which you were taught") is suggestive of someone already informed about the Christian faith.1
      It is not without significance that Luke had close connections with Philippi, having worked with the church there for up to seven years (note the "we" references in Acts 16:10–20:6). Philippi was a Roman military colony whose magistrates were stratēgoi (generals or controllers of police and marshals) (cf. Acts 16:20-22, 35-38).2 Perhaps Theophilus was one of these high-ranking officials who had been converted during Luke’s extended ministry. It is even within the realm of possibility that he was the keeper of the prison who, along with his family, had been taught and baptized by Paul and Silas (Acts 16:27-40) and had since (twelve years later) been appointed to the "most excellent" position of stratēgos. Having reasonably affluent members like this, including Lydia (Acts 16:14-15, 40), would explain how the Philippi church could afford to be so financially generous (Philippians 4:15; cf. 2 Corinthians 8:1-5; 11:9).
      Aramaic expressions and place-names in the other Gospels are generally omitted in Luke (except Luke 16:9, 11, 13), suggesting a readership with a non-Jewish background. Further, the Aramaic designation Akel Dama in Acts 1:19 (alluded to as "their own language") is translated into Greek. Irenaeus affirms that Luke "published" his Gospel (cf. Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 3.24.5-7), employing the standard Greek term ekdosis that denotes the public dissemination of a literary work. Since Luke-Acts was almost certainly meant to be read by a larger audience, the opening address may then serve as a dedication, a convention not uncommon in ancient literary works. Accordingly, Theophilus could have been the patron who provided financial support for Luke’s travels, research, and writing projects.3
      While the Gospel of Luke has been variously classified, it readily fits into the category of ancient Greco-Roman biographies that often included characteristics of other genres.4 Its second volume (Acts) seems to fit best within the genre of Greek historiography. Luke would have been out of place among the Roman historians, who tended to focus on events surrounding a single city or Empire (Rome), or the Jewish historians, who were primarily concerned about the history of one ethno-political group (Israel). Rather, Luke shares much in common with the Greek historians, who often traveled to the places they wrote about, observed the events they recorded, and presented a neutral account of the acts and persons they described (see B. Witherington, Acts of the Apostles 25-36).
      Seeing that the last half of Acts focuses on the ministry of Paul, this might indicate that the intended audience was somehow connected with Paul’s ministry. Acts concludes with a pronouncement that the future of the gospel rests with Gentiles rather than Jews (28:25-28). The account of Paul, Silas, Timothy, and Luke being sent into the province of Macedonia by way of divine prompting (Acts 16:9-10), coupled with Luke’s apparent extensive stay in Macedonia, particularly in the city of Philippi (Acts 16:10–20:6), and the close relationship these Macedonian Christians had with Paul (cf. Acts 16:9–17:14; 20:4; 2 Corinthians 8:1-5; Philippians 1:1-11; 4:10-20), may suggest something about the original destination of Luke-Acts.
       When read from a first-century Greek perspective within a Greco-Roman environment, the writings of Luke are more clearly apprehended. See also Authorship of Luke-Acts and Dating of Luke-Acts.
–Kevin L. Moore

       1 Scripture quotations in English are the author’s own translation. Gregory E. Sterling acknowledges the apologetic nature of Luke-Acts but reasonably contends that it was meant for a Christian audience ("Luke-Acts and Apologetic Historiography," SBL/SP 28 [1989]: 341-42).
      2 Luke’s employment of the titles of magistrates in various Greek cities is always historically accurate: stratēgoi in Philippi (Acts 16:20-38), politarchai in Thessalonica (Acts 17:6), and asiarchai in Ephesus (Acts 19:31).
      3 "Publication in this sense means that the work was intentionally produced for wider distribution and adhered to certain literary conventions. In this regard the address to Theophilus again becomes important, since it was normal to dedicate such works to the patron who paid for the publication, meaning the costs of papyrus, ink, secretaries, and copyists and in many cases support for the author" (L. M. White, From Jesus to Christianity 249).
      4 See R. A. Burridge, What are the Gospels? and C. H. Talbert, What is a Gospel? Although scholars like R. K. Bultmann (History of the Synoptic Tradition [1912]) object to this classification, the arguments are principally based on modern concepts of biography.

Related Posts: Matthew's AudienceMark's Audience, John's Audience

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Thursday, 1 November 2012

Jesus on Divorce and Remarriage: Contextual Insights

       If the Lord’s teaching on divorce and remarriage is removed from its original context, the likelihood of it being misconstrued is greatly enhanced. The scope of the present study is limited to the parallel accounts of Matthew 19:1-10 and Mark 10:1-12.1 Although these passages share much in common, there are obvious differences that must be accounted for as well. Some of the variations may be due to the fact that the initial discourse was in Aramaic, whereas Matthew and Mark have provided independent Greek translations, affecting both arrangement and linguistic expression. The separate reports, while easily harmonized, have also been communicated from different perspectives. Matthew, for example, focuses on Jesus having healed the multitudes (19:2), whereas Mark’s emphasis is on Jesus having taught them (10:1). The particular audience and distinct purposes of each writer are also important factors.
The Geographical and Political Setting:
     Identifying the precise location is complicated by the inclusion of the phrase "across the Jordan" in conjunction with the "borders" or "territory" of Judea (Matthew 19:1; Mark 10:1). Jesus was either at the far eastern boundary of Judea near the district of Perea, or more likely he was beyond Judea’s border in Perea. Either way the location is significant, seeing that Perea was the region governed by Herod Antipas at the time.2 A couple of years earlier John the baptizer had confronted the tetrarch about his unlawful marriage to Herodias, resulting in John’s execution (Matthew 14:3-12; cf. Luke 3:19-20; 9:9). Jesus was well aware of these events (Matthew 14:12), and it was no secret that his attitude toward the malicious ruler was less than sympathetic (Mark 8:15; Luke 13:31-32).3
The Lord’s Immediate Audience:    
     While a sizeable crowd (presumably Jews) may have been listening in the background, the immediate conversation was between Jesus and members of the Pharisee sect (Matthew 19:2-3; Mark 10:1-2). The question of whether or not divorce is "lawful" almost certainly pertains to Jewish marriages under the Law of Moses. The particular concern of "a man" divorcing "his wife" is relevant to the fact that among the Jews only the husband could initiate the divorce (cf. Deuteronomy 24:1-3).
     The participle peirazontes ("testing") reveals a sinister motive behind the query (Matthew 19:3; Mark 10:2). Remembering the geographical setting of this encounter, what better way to "test" Jesus than by publicly asking him a controversial question about divorce in the vicinity of a Roman-appointed Jewish tetrarch who himself was divorced and remarried to a divorced woman?4 In view of what had happened to the last person who dared to challenge the legitimacy of this contestable union (Mark 6:17-29), Jesus is being lured into an incredibly volatile situation.5
     The antagonists focus their attention on Deuteronomy 24:1-4, a passage that assumes the prevalence of divorce at the time of writing (cf. 22:19, 29; Leviticus 21:7, 13, 14). Jesus informs them that the provision of divorce was not a divine injunction but a concession due to sklērokardia (Matthew 19:8; Mark 10:5), "obstinacy" or "hardness of heart." While the certificate of divorce served to protect women from unscrupulous husbands and the precarious charge of adultery, it went far beyond God’s intended purpose.
     Jesus appeals to the writings of Moses too, going all the way back to "the beginning"  (Matthew 19:4; Mark 10:6). He quotes Genesis 1:27 and 2:24 to establish God’s original design of one man and one woman united in marriage as a lifelong, inseparable bond.  
     Although Matthew 19:9 seems to be a continuation of the address to the Pharisees, the corresponding passage in Mark 10:10-11 explicitly states that Jesus had retreated to a house where he responds to the queries of his disciples. The wording of Matthew 19:9 is not definitive as to whom Jesus is specifically speaking, whether the Pharisees of vv. 7-8 or the disciples of v. 10. It could be that the additional information in Mark 10:11 clarifies that the teaching in both passages is directed to the disciples. On the other hand, it is also possible that Matthew records what was spoken to the Pharisees and Mark records what was said to the disciples, in which case the differences are more readily explicable. Either way, the teaching in both passages is unchanged and still needs to be harmonized.
The Reading Audiences of Matthew and Mark:
     The Lord’s directives were prompted by hostile questions within the circle of Judaism, and Matthew’s Gospel was written with a Jewish audience in mind (see Matthew's Audience). In contrast, Mark’s account was recorded for a Roman audience (see Mark's Audience), which helps explain why Mark incorporates into his record certain parts of the Lord’s discourse that are omitted in Matthew, and vice versa.
     The opening question about divorce has the added phrase "for any reason" in Matthew’s version (19:3), which is not included in Mark. These words would make perfect sense to a Jewish readership familiar with the current rabbinical debate over the meaning in Deuteronomy 24:1 of the expressions "no favor" and "some indecency." The school of Shammai insisted that sexual impurity was the necessary prerequisite for divorce, while the school of Hillel maintained that any trivial offense was sufficient grounds. Jewish opinion was heavily divided.
     Jesus affirms that while it is sinful for a man to divorce his wife, it is not adultery; the sin of adultery is added to the sin of divorce if the man goes on to remarry someone else (Matthew 19:9; Mark 10:11). The words "except for sexual immorality" in Matthew’s account (19:9; cf. 5:32) are absent from Mark. The exceptive phrase would have had greater significance to Matthew’s audience, seeing that in Judaism infidelity warranted the death penalty (cf. Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22) and had become a cruel weapon of ruthless men in their mistreatment of women (cf. John 8:3-5). Among the Romans this was already understood as sufficient grounds for divorce.
     Mark’s inclusion of the phrase "against her" (10:11b) is intriguing. Both the Jews and the Romans understood adultery as sexual intercourse with a married woman. Accordingly, when a woman committed adultery it was against her own husband, and when a man committed adultery it was against the woman’s husband. Jesus, however, informs his Jewish listeners, and Mark in turn informs his Roman readers, that from the divine perspective adultery is also committed against the innocent wife.
     Matthew omits the following words that Mark has recorded in 10:12, "and if she, having divorced her husband, marries another, she is committing adultery." Within the context of Judaism, since only the husband could initiate a divorce and not the wife, the applicability of this statement would have been lost among Matthew’s readers. On the other hand, under Roman law the marriage could be terminated by either party, so Mark’s inclusion of the statement is most relevant. But why would the Lord have uttered these words in the first place, seeing that he was conversing with Jewish people about Jewish marriage?
     There are two important factors to remember here. First, in view of the geographical setting where the conversation took place, this could be a subtle allusion to Herodias, who had divorced her first husband under Roman law in order to marry Herod Antipas (Mark 6:17-19). Second, we need to appreciate that Jesus is speaking to his disciples (Mark 10:10) who are soon to be commissioned to take his message to all nations (Matthew 28:18-20; Mark 16:15). If, as some have alleged, the Lord’s teaching on divorce and remarriage is merely "covenant legislation," i.e. restricted to those who are already in a covenant relationship with God, the affirmation in Mark 10:12 is conspicuously out of place and contextually meaningless.
     Lest anyone gets the impression that either Matthew’s audience or Mark’s audience lacked pertinent information, keep in mind that each Gospel was supplementary to the instruction these believers were already receiving through inspired teachers. Since modern-day students of the Bible have access to all the Lord’s teachings on this subject, ignorance is no excuse.
     Jesus did not shy away from controversial issues. He neither sought the approval of his contemporaries, nor did he conform to popular opinion. He afforded equal treatment to men and women alike, and he elevated marriage to its highest dignity. His views on divorce and remarriage challenged the status quo without compromise, and he refused to accept any infringement of God’s marriage law, even if sanctioned by civil and religious authorities.
–Kevin L. Moore

      1 Suffice it to say that the earlier discourses in Matthew 5:31-32 and Luke 16:18 are both in opposition to the lax attitudes of the Jewish scribes and Pharisees toward the divine will (Matthew 5:20; Luke 16:14-15; cf. Matthew 15:1-3). All scripture quotations in English are the author’s own translation.
      2 Following the death of his father Herod the Great, Antipas became tetrarch of the combined territories of Galilee and Perea, reigning from 4 BC to AD 39. His curiosity about Jesus did little to avert his antagonism toward the Lord (Luke 13:31; 23:6-12).
      3 The reading in Mark 8:15 in most Greek manuscripts is "Herod," but the alternate reading "Herodians" occurs in some, alluding to the political supporters of Herod Antipas.
      4 Antipas had divorced his wife Phasaelis, the daughter of the Nabatean king Aretas IV, in order to marry Herodias, who had previously been married to his half-brother Philip I (see Josephus, Ant. 18.5.1, 4).
      5 It is of interest that the political supporters of Herod Antipas were the Herodians, who had formed an alliance with the Pharisees in their mutual plot to destroy Jesus (Mark 3:6). On another occasion the Herodians and the Pharisees attempted to entangle Jesus in his words by asking whether it was "lawful" to pay taxes to Caesar (Matthew 22:15-22; Mark 12:13-17; cf. Luke 20:20-26). The anticipated response had the potential of inciting the wrath of the hostile Zealots, on one hand, or the fury of the Romans, on the other. So when Jesus is cunningly asked whether it is "lawful" for a man to divorce his wife, surely the intent was to bring him into conflict with the Law of Moses and the Jewish populace, on one hand, or with Herod Antipas and Herodias, on the other.

Related Posts: Preventing Divorce, Divorce & Remarriage Part 1, Part 2, Part 3A Closer Look at Pharisaism

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