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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