Musings on Mark: The Markan Jesus on Divorce – Conflict with Matthew

In last week’s installment of “Musings on Mark” we looked at the Markan Jesus’ take on divorce where we concluded that

if we ask the Markan Jesus, “Is divorce permissible?” his answer would be a resounding “No!” Why? Because marriage is a union of one flesh that no one can separate. Not Moses. Not a certificate of divorce. No one. Only God.1

The sternness of Jesus’ position should not be all that unsurprising. After all, the reign of God was coming (Mark 1:15) and remarriage would not only be a distraction from spreading the gospel with the time that is left but also a violation of God’s commandment, thereby putting violators in a rather precarious spot when the Son of Man returns.

But Jesus’ hard line on divorce in Mark is softened in the Matthean redaction of the text (Matthew 19:1-12). The Matthean author places Jesus’ teaching on divorce in a similar geographical setting as the Markan author (i.e. in Judea; Mark 10:1) and it is “some Pharisees” who approach Jesus to question him on divorce (cf. Mark 10:2). But things quickly begin to diverge between the Markan and Matthean narratives.

Grounds for Divorce

Recall that in Mark 10:2 the question that the Pharisees ask is, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” This is a yes or no question and Jesus answers it with a no. But the Matthean text changes it up a bit. The question now from the Pharisees is, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause [kata pasan aitian]?” (Matthew 19:3) We immediately recognize that these Pharisees – or at least some Jews – believed that divorce could be initiated for any reason whatsoever but they want to get Jesus’ take on it “to test him” (19:3).

Jesus’ response to the Pharisees is to quote from Genesis 1:27 and Genesis 2:24 just as he had in the Gospel of Mark. But things are out-of-order a bit because the Markan Jesus initially asks the Pharisees, “What did Moses command you?” (Mark 10:3) That question never comes from the lips of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel. Instead, the words of Jesus in 10:3 and the Pharisees’ response in 10:4 have been combined in the question that the Pharisees ask in Matthew 19:7: “They said to him, ‘Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?'”

The Matthean Jesus initially sounds a lot like the Markan in that he suggests there are no grounds for divorce since God’s design from the beginning was that the union of husband and wife into one flesh could be separated by no one. But with the question from the Pharisees, some cracks begin to appear. As in Mark, Jesus states that the Deuteronomic law (i.e. Deuteronomy 24:1-4) was a concession from Moses because of their hard heartedness and that it “was not so” from the beginning (19:8; cf. Mark 10:5). Instead, Jesus states that “whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity [mē epi porneia], and marries another commits adultery” (19:9).

So if we were to ask the Matthean Jesus, “Is divorce permissible?” his answer would be, “Only on the grounds of porneia.” This Jesus is not the Markan Jesus.

Unsurprising Caveats

But in reality, this should not be all that shocking. In another confrontation with the Pharisees, Jesus is asked to give a “sign from heaven” but tells his opponents that “no sign will be given…except the sign of Jonah” (16:4; cf. 12:39). But the Markan Jesus tells the Pharisees that “no sign will be given” (Mark 8:12) and there is no “sign of Jonah” to be found anywhere.

There is also another issue at work in the Matthean Gospel: the necessity of the law. Had the Matthean Jesus said what the Markan Jesus had he would have been in direct contradiction with the law of Moses. But the Matthean Jesus isn’t a law-breaker. Instead, he places hedges around the law to protect people from violating it (cf. Matthew 5:21-48). The Matthean Jesus had come to fulfill the law, not abolish it (5:17-18).

A Missing Piece and a New One

So the Matthean Jesus has interpreted Moses in such a way that the only grounds for divorce is porneia, a word that basically refers to some kind of sexual immorality. Gone is the private conversation between Jesus and the disciples we find in Mark’s Gospel (Mark 10:10-12) that suggested anyone who remarried after a divorce was committing adultery. Instead, a new private conversation between Jesus and the disciples follows wherein the disciples tell Jesus that if it is the case that the only grounds for divorce is porneia then “it is better not to marry” (Matthew 19:10). Jesus responds with a strange teaching that features eunuchs.

Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can (19:11-12).

What in the world does that mean?

To be honest, I have no idea and it is a topic debated among scholars. Those “who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” may simply refer to people who remain celibate, i.e. practically eunuchs. Or Jesus might be speaking of people who actually emasculate themselves. Whatever the case may be, its relationship to Jesus’ teaching on divorce is not entirely clear.2 

A Conflict on Divorce

It is quite clear that we have a conflict between the Markan Jesus and the Matthean Jesus. In the former, divorce is never permissible since it violates the union of one flesh that God instituted from the beginning. Moses be damned! In the latter, the only cause for divorce is that of porneia, thereby revealing how Jesus understood the law of Moses.

NOTES

1 Amateur Exegete, “Musings on Mark: The Markan Jesus on Divorce” (1.9.19), amateurexegete.com. Accessed 13 January 2019.

2 For a discussion on this text, see R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007), 722-726. France believes that the “this teaching” of 19:11 is a reference to the disciples comment in 19:10. In other words, celibacy is a good option for the sake of the kingdom.

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.

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