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.

Musings on Mark: The Markan Jesus on Divorce

“Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her….”
– Jesus


In Mark 10:1-12 we read of an encounter between “some Pharisees” and Jesus over the question of divorce. They ask him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” (10:2, NRSV) to which Jesus replies, “What did Moses command you?” (10:3) They then tell Jesus that Moses said it was permissible to divorce one’s wife if you produce a “certificate of dismissal” (10:4). What did that entail?

Moses and Divorce

Deuteronomy 24:1-4 gives us the answer.

Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house; she then leaves his house and goes off to become another man’s wife. Then suppose the second man dislikes her, writes her a bill of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house (or the second man who married her dies); her first husband, who sent her away, is not permitted to take her again to be his wife after she has been defiled; for that would be abhorrent to the LORD, and you shall not bring guilt on the land that the LORD your God is giving you as a possession.

So if a man found something “objectionable” about his wife, he could then write a certificate of divorce and send her away. But what constitutes objectionable? Simply put, we don’t know.

The “objectionable thing” is vague, and perhaps deliberately so. This law is less interested in the technicalities of the bill of divorce than it is in the correct disposition of the former wife’s sexuality.1

Whatever it was, by the time of Jesus there were some groups who contended a wife who couldn’t cook was one who could be divorced while others claimed that divorce was only permissible on the grounds of sexual immorality.2 

Having been put away by her husband, the woman is free to marry again (24:2). However, if her new husband “dislikes her” then he too can write a bill of divorce and put her away (24:3). But is this woman free to return to her first husband? No, because “she has been defiled” and such an act “would be abhorrent to the LORD” and would “bring guilt on the land” (24:4).

Back to “The Beginning”

Jesus acknowledges the Pharisees’ words about Moses but it isn’t a concession. He tells them that it was “[b]ecause of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you” (10:5). Well what does that mean? A heart that is “hard” refers to a disposition of stubbornness. But how does that fit with regards to Moses and the giving of this law? It seems that Jesus understands Deuteronomy 24:1-4 “as a temporary concession by God to the spiritual weakness of the people.”3 In other words, divorce was permitted but it “was never envisaged in the divine purpose.”4 Instead, God’s design was life-long partnership:

But from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female.” “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate (10:6-9).

Jesus is echoing the words of both the Priestly account of humanity’s creation (Genesis 1:27) and the Yahwist’s account (Genesis 2:24). His appeal to these texts serves his point that “what God has joined together, let no one separate” (10:9). How? Because it was God who made them two separate beings (Genesis 1:27) but then, through the act of marriage and physical consummation, they “become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). And since marriage was God’s idea “from the beginning of creation,” only he can separate the two that have become one.

Divorce and Remarriage

But if this wasn’t obvious from his exchange with the Pharisees, Jesus is even more blunt in private with the disciples (10:10).

Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery (24:11-12).

If you divorce your spouse and marry someone else you have violated the commandment of God (Exodus 20:14). Why? Because the now-divorced couple are still one flesh. Therefore, a remarriage means a union that violates that one flesh. This is in stark contrast with the Deuteronomic law which stated marriage was permissible after divorce.

So 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.


NOTES

1 Douglas A. Knight and Amy-Jill Levine, The Meaning of the Bible: What the Jewish Scriptures and Christian Old Testament Can Teach Us (HarperOne, 2011), 315.

2 Gordon J. Wenham, “Divorce,” in Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan, editors, The Oxford Companion to the Bible (OUP, 1993), 170.

3 John R. Donahue and Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Mark, Sacra Pagina (The Liturgical Press, 2002), 294.

4 R.T. France, The Gospel of Mark, NIGTC (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002), 391.

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.

Was the Apostle Paul a Widower?

The earliest writings in the New Testament came from the pen of Paul, the one-time persecutor of Christians turned zealous Jesus-follower. Paul isn’t always very forthcoming about his life though we do get glimpses here and there. For example, Paul writes,

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless (Philippians 3:4b-6, NRSV).

But we don’t know much about Paul’s personal life, at least not directly. Did he have any siblings? [1] What were his parents like? Did he have children of his own? Was he married?

That last question may have an answer. Denny Burk, an evangelical scholar at Boyce College, recently wrote a blog post on the issue of Paul’s marital status. Burk thinks that Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians offers us a clue.

To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am. But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion. (1 Corinthians 7:8-9, NRSV)

The word in question is what the NRSV and other translations render as “unmarried.” Burk writes,

Some readers interpret the “unmarried” generically as anyone who happens to be unmarried regardless of how they got into that situation (e.g., Ciampa and Rosner). For this reason, they think that the “unmarried” would include both the widowed, the divorced, and those who have never been married. On this view, Paul means to address all Christians who happen to be unmarried.

But Burk doesn’t think that word – ἀγάμοις – refers to just anyone who is unmarried. Instead, he thinks that Paul is speaking to those in Corinth who are widowers. His argument rests on a few pieces of evidence.

  • The Greek word for “widower” is rarely used in ancient Greek and is never used in the Koine period.
  • Furthermore, ἄγαμος is masculine in gender.
  • The reason it may have never been used was due to the connotations of being a “widow,” most of which were negative.
  • Since men who had lost spouses fared far better in society than widows, the term may have gone out of usage.
  • Paul uses the same Greek word – ἄγαμος – to refer to the divorced (7:11) and even sets it in contrast to “virgins” (7:34).
  • So then Paul may be using ἄγαμος to mean “those previously married.”

If ἄγαμος refers to widowers then this changes the meaning of 7:8. Paul wasn’t just saying they should remain “single” as if they had never married but rather that they should never remarry after having lost a spouse, just as he had. Burk writes,

This suggests that Paul is putting himself into the same category that they are. But it is not a category of singleness in general but a category of widowhood in particular. It is for this reason that many interpreters—including myself—believe that these words imply that Paul was previously married.

Now, I’m not totally convinced by this. That ἄγαμος is masculine may not reveal what Burk and others think it does. After all, as he himself pointed out the word is used to refer to women who have separated from their husbands (7:10-11). That it is masculine may or may not be pertinent.

Regardless, this is an interesting possibility and I’d like to see more exegetical work done to make a solid case for it. The more we learn about Paul, the more insight we will have into the man himself, including his time before his apostolic ministry.

ENDNOTES

[1] Paul does mention three people who he calls συγγενής (Romans 16:7, 11), a term which in some contexts can mean physical relatives (Mark 6:4; Acts 10:24) but in others just means something like “compatriot” or “kinsmen.” It is unclear what Paul means in Romans 16:7 and 11 when he employs the term.