The Sunday gospel lectionary reading for Trinity 18 in Year B is Mark 10.2–16. I think it is impossible to preach on this passage without dealing with the question of the consequences of Jesus’ teaching for our own attitude to and the Church’s practice in relation to divorce and remarriage, and this will make it an unusual Sunday. That reflects the place of this passage in Mark: it is the only time where Mark portrays Jesus as giving specifically ethical teaching, so preaching on this might feel closer to preaching on Paul than preaching on the gospels usually does.
We should note from the outset that, in the ancient world, ‘divorce’ always meant ‘…with the freedom to remarry while the previous partner is still living’, so I will not repeat that assumption at every point.
The passage raises specific questions for us, both in relation to Jesus, the gospels, and contemporary pastoral practice:
- Why did Jesus’ teaching here seem so shocking?
- How do we reconcile the clear difference between the unqualified prohibition on divorce here and the qualified prohibition in the parallel passage in Matthew 19?
- How does Jesus’ draw on Old Testament teaching, and what does that model for us?
- Does the practice of our churches (for me, the Church of England) fit with Jesus’ teaching here, or have we set it aside?
- How does the apparent harshness of Jesus’ demands shape our pastoral practice—in particular, those who have experienced the pain of divorce?
- More generally, can we read this passage and hear Jesus’ teaching faithfully, without allowing our own prior decision to skew our reading? If we either end up with Jesus as a 1950s moralist, or fitting with contemporary culture, that would suggest we have not read well.
None of these questions can be answered without carefully locating Jesus’ teaching within the debates of his day—and, as we shall see, the text itself points us to doing this.
The lectionary selection omits the opening comment of chapter 10 (I know not why) which signals Jesus’ departure from Galilee and his journey southward, though with the crowds still following. It might seem odd to make this detour to the east, but for those wishing to avoid contact with (despised) Samaritans, it would be common to cross the Jordan and head down the Jordan valley, before crossing near Jericho and climbing the Judean hills to reach Jerusalem. Hence, in Mark 10.32, we read that Jesus led the way ‘up to Jerusalem’.
Some early manuscripts omit the opening ‘Some Pharisees came…’ so that those asking the question are unspecified. But the parallel in Matt 19.3 does include a similar phrase, though not in exactly the same wording, so it is unlikely that those manuscripts which do include it simply did so to harmonise the two. The Pharisees have previously challenged Jesus about Jesus’ eating habits (Mark 2.16), his disciples plucking grain on the Sabbath (Mark 2.23–24), and, in a passage with several parallels to this one, on their (non-) habit of hand washing. What is striking here is that, in all these previous examples, Jesus has been more ‘liberal’ than the Pharisees; he rebukes their harshness and fastidiousness, and puts human reality at the centre of his responses. Does he do the opposite here?
The NT has no distinct word for ‘divorce’; as elsewhere, the verb here is ἀπολῦσαι, to release, leave, or send away. It can have a mundane sense, as in Acts 28.25, ‘they began to leave…’ but it can also have a technical, legal sense, to release a prisoner (Mark 15.6), to release from a painful condition (Luke 13.12) or to dissolve a marriage relationship, as here. Paul uses the related verb luo in 1 Cor 7.27, and appears to assume that divorce is perfectly possible, as well as the verb aphiemi early in 1 Cor 7.13.
David Instone-Brewer has written extensively on this, including his Grove booklet on divorce and remarriage. He also has a chapter on this passage in Reading Mark in Context, in which he explores the parallel issues in Second Temple Judaism. He makes a number of vital points.
First, the debate around divorce was particularly intense. David explains in summary the Rabbinic literature from the period: the Mishnah and Tosephta record the oral traditions, many of which go back to the first century, and the Talmuds record these traditions and the debate around them.
The debate about divorce occurs in the largest single part of the oral traditions in the Mishnah—a series of more than six hundred disputes between the schools of Hillel and Shammai, who lived in the first century BC, and whose disciples were amongst the ‘Pharisees’ that we read about in the NT. The School of Hillel was in general the more ‘liberal’ on most matters, and Shammai the stricter. In the first century, the School of Shammai outnumbered that of Hillel, but their uncompromising attitude meant that they were allied with Zealots during the First Jewish War with Rome, and were wiped out with the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. Thus the opinion of the School of Hillel prevailed, and thus came to define the position of Rabbinical Judaism.
The debate about divorce turns on the interpretation of Deut 24.1:
The School of Shammai say, A man should not divorce his wife except that he found in her a thing of indecency, as it is said: For he finds in her an indecent thing [Deut 24.1]. And the School of Hillel say, Even if he spoiled her dish, since it says: For he finds in her an indecent thing [Deut 24.1] (m Git 9.10) (Reading Mark in Context p 152).
The reason for the difference in view arises from the odd wording of Deut 24.1 in Hebrew מָ֤צָא בָהּ֙ עֶרְוַ֣ת דָּבָ֔ר, which says literally ‘he finds in her indecency of a thing’. The Shammaites took this in the sense of both our English translations, and the Greek LXX (εὗρεν ἐν αὐτῇ ἄσχημον πρᾶγμα), to mean she has committed adultery or some other act of sexual impropriety, but the Hillelites decided that the addition of the word davar introduced a separate category, so the text should be understood as ‘adultery, or any other displeasing thing’.
This is particularly significant, since the Hillelites were arguing for a change in divorce practice. Prior to this dispute, both men and women could divorce, but only on specific grounds. One was that of adultery, following Deut 24.1, and the other (for women) was a husband’s failure to provide her with food, clothing, and marital love, based on Exod 21.10–11. Thus we find reference to this in marriage contracts of the time:
According to the law of Moses and the Judeans and I will feed you and clothe you and I will bring you (into my house) by means of your ketuvah and I owe you the sum of 400 denarii…together with the due amount of your food and your clothes and your bed (P Ladin 10, AD 126) (p 153).
Notice that the payment by the husband to his bride was a deposit of guarantee; if he failed to provide for her, and she divorced him, then she retained the ketuvah in compensation. We should also note that the ‘certificate of divorce’ specified in Deut 24 was in the interests of the woman; it required a witness, so the man could not simply abandon her, and allowed her to marry again.
But the Hillelites introduced two changes, firstly making divorce something only men could do, and secondly introducing what we might now call ‘no fault divorce’, in which the marriage could be ended without proof of a serious break-down of relationship. In fact, both men and women in the first century appeared to welcome this—for women, it meant that, in the case of divorce, there did not need to be an intrusive investigation to see whether the grounds for divorce had been met.
Both the Jewish writers Philo (Spec 3.30) and Josephus (Ant 4.253) refer to this practice—and Josephus himself made use of it, divorcing and remarrying twice. And when we read in Matt 1.19 that Joseph intended to divorce Mary ‘quietly’, he was intending to make use of this Hillelite provision.
What does this all mean for our reading of the lectionary passage?
First, given the importance of this debate, and the evidence for it, then we cannot ignore this as background for reading this text.
Secondly, we can see that the Pharisees are not asking ‘Are there any grounds for divorce?’ in a neutral or disinterested way; they are specifically asking Jesus ‘Do you agree with Hillel or Shammai? Do you take the stricter or more lenient view?’ In the parallel in Matt 19.3, they are not asking ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?’ but ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife “for any cause”?’
Thus we see that Jesus’ answer is ‘I agree with the School of Shammai against the School of Hillel’. Where, quite often, Jesus appears to take a more ‘liberal’ approach to the interpretation of Torah, here he appears to take a more ‘strict’ approach, when it comes to matters of marriage and divorce. But he is being quite consistent in his approach to the interpretation of OT texts. Where the Pharisaic debate is on the details of the grammar of a particular verse, Jesus is interpreting OT law details in the light of more fundamental principles—as he does elsewhere. And it turns out that God’s intention of lifelong, faithful, male-female marriage as the basic unit of human society is, in his reading, a pretty fundamental principle. It is this which forms the background to the regulations in Deuteronomy, so they must be read in the light of this.
Jesus’ ruling here is (we see from Matt 19.10) felt to be shocking—and we can see why. Hillelite practice was widespread, since it was so attractive, and so Jesus was, in his declaration, effectively making many existing divorces and remarriages illegitimate. This might even have affected some of the Twelve themselves! And it shows us that Jesus was perfectly capable of challenging the dominant views of the Judaism of his day, so we should not suppose that he was in any sense trapped in his own culture.
But why does Jesus’ teaching here in Mark appear to be more harsh and absolute than Jesus’ teaching in the parallel in Matt 19? Reading the passages side by side, we can see that Matthew’s account fills in details at every point, and Mark’s is highly abbreviated. Both the wording of the question in Matthew, and Jesus’ response including the exception ‘in the case of adultery’, make the connections with the Hillel-Shammai debate even clearer. Perhaps Matthew, writing in a more predominantly Jewish register, is wanting to make the connections clear.
But if Mark was written to a mixed Jewish-Gentile audience in the 60s, before the destruction of the Temple, then the debate was still lively, and the details would not need to be spelled out. If we were to have a discussion ‘Should children under the age of 16 be allowed to drink?’ then we would assume that ‘drink’ meant ‘alcoholic drink’ without the need to specify it. But if someone was reading this from another time or culture, they would think it rather odd that we were debating whether children could drink water! Context matters.
For Matthew, if he is writing after 70, then he would need to make the context more obvious; the dispute was over, since the Shammaites did not survive the destruction of Jerusalem—and ignorance of this debate explains why the Fathers, commenting on this text, are not aware of the context which we now know well.
(We might also note, in passing, that Jesus also prohibits polygamy, which most of those in the land of Israel permitted, but the community at Qumran, and Diaspora Jews did not, not least because Roman law prohibited it. At Qumran, they read Gen 7.9 ‘two by two’ as a reference back to Gen 1.27, so that male and female must be strictly in pairs; in the Diaspora, the LXX includes the word ‘two’ in Gen 2.24 to make this clear in another way. By going ‘back to the beginning’ in talking about male-female marriage, Jesus is agreeing with these readings.)
What are the practical consequences of reading this text in its first-century context in this way?
First, we need to recognise that Jesus is not speaking de novo on divorce and remarriage, or using the creation account to rule out all divorce: he is siding with Shammai in taking the stricter, more demanding position. Shammaites did think divorce was permissible, but only on limited grounds—and initiated by both men and women. I think that the current formal position of the Church of England—that people might remarry after divorce under certain strict conditions, matches this reading, even if actual practice doesn’t.
(We should note that the language of ‘two become one’ does not itself imply the indissolubility of marriage. The idea that there is some kind of ontological fusion, where partners in a marriage lose their individual identity, and become one entity, is unwarranted and pastorally very unhelpful. Jesus does not say that a couple cannot be separated; he says they should not.)
Secondly, if we take the integrity of Jesus’ teaching seriously, then we need to understand this as the best thing for human flourishing, both for individuals and society. It is hard to see how we could then interpret this teaching as justifying, for example, forcing a wife to stay married to an abusive husband, or the social shaming of those who experience divorce. Both of those things are contradicted by the actual regulations in the OT.
Thirdly, if Jesus is telling us that marriage is so important, then we need to recognise the pain and distress when it goes wrong for any reason. Our response should match that of Jesus in John 8.10–11: ‘Does no-one condemn you? Neither do I. Go your way and sin no more.’
Fourthly, if marriage really does matter, then we need to organise our priorities around it, for ourselves and others, not merely penalise those for whom it has gone wrong. If it really does matter, how can we prioritise marriage relationships? One of the greatest forces putting pressure on committed, covenant relationships in Western culture is the move to dual-income couples driven by the consumerist agenda. In our marriage, we have never both worked full time, and for much of our married life we have both worked part time; our marriage and family has been more important than our ‘careers’.
And how can we help people grow in the dispositions, habits and skills that enable life-long relationships to endure?
These kinds of questions surely emerge from Jesus’ teaching here—when we take it in the context of the whole of the gospel.