By the 2nd century AD, knowledge of 1st century language and culture, and critical
facts about Jewish divorce, had gone missing, causing the church to misunderstand
the Bible's teaching. Recent studies and discoveries, however, have given us new,
helpful insights to enable us to understand the statements of Jesus and Paul on divorce
God’s plan from the beginning, according to Genesis 2:24, was for a couple, upon
marrying, to (1) set up new household, and (2) stick together as though one person.
This remains his plan.
The biblical background
Outside Israel in ancient times a man could walk out on his wife and have no further
obligations towards her. He could claim her and the children back at any time. This
made remarriage hard because the new husband could lose all he had worked for if
the previous one claimed her back. But in Israel, Deuteronomy 24:1 gave the woman
a right to a certificate of divorce, which declared her free from such claims and
thus made remarriage a viable option.
Adultery was a capital offence in OT times, but it was not always implemented. Deuteronomy
24 recognised that the marriage had been killed off by the adultery and allowed divorce
rather than capital punishment.
Exodus 21:10-11 extends the grounds for divorce to include abuse and neglect. In
this passage, the married person has the right to expect food, clothes and conjugal
love. True, the context is one of polygamy and slavery, but this is case law, not
statute law, so the principles are more important than the details. The rabbis rightly
argued that if a slave wife had the right of divorce in such circumstances, a free
wife certainly did. And if one of two wives did, so did a single wife. And if a woman
had this right, a man did too.
Jewish wedding vows, based on Deuteronomy 24 and Exodus 21, included four elements.
The couple would:
Feed one another (the man would provide food, the wife would cook it)
Clothe one another (the man would provide material, the woman would sew it)
Exchange conjugal love
These can be summarised as providing material support (food and clothing) and physical
affection (conjugal love). Physical and emotional abuse are simply extreme forms
of neglecting to provide material support or physical affection.
The four grounds for divorce, then, are:
Sexual immorality (adultery)
Failure to provide food
Failure to provide clothing
Failure to provide conjugal love
God is himself a divorcee (Hosea 1-3; Ezekiel 16, 23; Jeremiah 3-4; Isaiah 50), and
these four reasons are all relevant to his divorce of Israel, who broke the covenant.
Marriage is a covenant or contract (the same thing, both Hebrew berit). The only
unbreakable covenant is the New Covenant. Certainly Malachi sees marriage as a breakable
covenant (see also Jeremiah 3:8). God does not criticise the person who divorces
their partner or he would have to criticise himself. He criticises the one who by
breaking the vows makes the marriage intolerable.
Only the victim can initiate divorce proceedings – which is what God did with regard
Some people believe that the NT introduces a much harsher attitude to divorce and
remarriage than that of the OT, but this is a mistake. OT principles carried through
into the NT era. In Matthew 5 Jesus affirmed (and amplified) many OT laws, underscoring
their moral principles. Much modern law is based on the OT (e.g. murder and injury
in Exodus 21) and no-one would think of rejecting it simply because it is not repeated
in the NT. The church should not teach OT morals concerning sex outside marriage
and reject those concerning neglect or abuse within it, which formed grounds for
By AD 30 groundless divorce – for men only – had become very widespread, based on
Rabbi Hillel's interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1. Hillel interpreted this verse
to give two grounds for divorce, a particular and a general. The particular was ‘sexual
immorality’ and the general ‘any cause’, which might be as trivial as the wife’s
burning a meal or beginning to lose her looks.
Rabbi Shammai, by contrast, interpreted Deuteronomy 24:1 as permitting divorce for
sexual immorality alone. And of course he accepted the Exodus 21 grounds, too, since
these were never in dispute.
Hillel’s view quickly prevailed and 'Any Cause' divorce became widespread. ‘Any Cause’
became a common legal term and was used by Philo and Josephus as well as the rabbis.
In ‘Any Cause’ divorce no court evidence was required, so it was in effect groundless
divorce. A man simply had to give his wife the certificate and that was it. Many
women liked this type of divorce as they could still claim their marriage inheritance
(ketubah), which they couldn't if divorced for adultery. Joseph planned to divorce
pregnant Mary this way to spare her the embarrassment of a court hearing (Matthew
In Matthew 19:3 the rabbis asked Jesus his views on 'Any Cause' divorce: 'Is it lawful
to divorce one's wife for "Any Cause"?' They were not asking him about the lawfulness
of divorce in itself – that was clear from the law of Moses. Mark’s account omits
what is to us the key phrase because any 1st century reader would have mentally added
it. It’s like our asking, 'Is it lawful for a 16-year-old to drink?' We mentally
add ‘alcoholic beverages’. Matthew added the key phrase because he wrote a little
later, when the Hillel-Shammai debate had died down somewhat.
In answer, Jesus sided with Shammai. He added that if someone got divorced on 'Any
Cause' grounds they were not in fact properly divorced and if they remarried would
be committing adultery (Matthew 19:9). It is vital to see that Jesus was answering
a specific question about the meaning of Deuteronomy 24, not making a universal statement
about divorce in general.
Between verses 3 and 9 of Matthew 19 Jesus – who shows himself more concerned about
marriage than divorce – underscored some basic principles about marriage. He stressed
especially that monogamy was the biblical ideal from the start, an important reminder
in view of the fact that polygamy was widespread in 1st century Palestine, being
allowed in that country (and only that one) under Roman law. Jesus also pointed out
that Moses didn't command divorce for adultery, he merely allowed it; there was the
preferable option to forgive.
Jesus also said that Moses allowed divorce for hard-heartedness, which means stubbornness,
that is, stubborn persistence in behaviour that gave grounds for divorce. The word
is linked with divorce in Jeremiah 4:4 (LXX), where Jeremiah warned Judah that God
was likely to divorce Judah as he had done Israel, because she was being stubborn
in her spiritual adultery. We should therefore forgive an erring partner as our basic
stance, but may divorce a partner who stubbornly refuses to change their ways – as
God did with Israel.
This conversation made the disciples realise the seriousness of marriage (Matthew
19:10) and caused them to wonder whether its demands were too great. To this Jesus
replied that marriage was optional – a radical statement since Jews viewed it as
compulsory to fulfil God’s command to be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 1:28).
Note also the wording of Matthew 19:6, where the Greek word chorizo, translated ‘separate’,
is a technical term for divorce. Some misquote the verse as ‘What God has joined
together, no-one can separate’ – taking this to teach that marriage cannot be dissolved
and somehow continues in God’s sight, even after the legalities of a divorce. Neither
this nor any other part of the Bible teaches that. The verse says, ‘…let man not
separate.’ In other words, divorce is possible but undesirable.
Elsewhere in their Gospels, Matthew and Luke summarise the divorce debate of Matthew
19 in one sentence and they had to decide which aspect to focus on. They chose the
'Any Cause' aspect, which lay behind almost every divorce at the time. Thus Luke
16:18 and Matthew 5:32 both emphasise that the invalidity of 'Any Cause' divorce
made remarriage adultery.
1 Corinthians 7 is the key passage. Under Roman law, the Emperor Augustus made marriage
compulsory in 18 BC. Paul, however, teaches – like Jesus – that marriage is optional.
This was especially true in view of 'the present distress' (v26) – almost certainly
a reference to the great famine at that time. His language of 'pleasing' one another
(v32-34) summarises the need to provide material support: food and clothing – difficult
in a time of prolonged famine.
Some Corinthians were anti-sex (v1) and one woman had apparently already left her
husband (v10-11). In answer to this, Paul stresses the responsibility of married
people to provide conjugal love (v3-4), talking in the 'slavery' terms which form
the context of Exodus 21:10-11.
Abuse is implied in the law against neglect. If a husband is not allowed to starve
his wife or refuse her money for clothes he is certainly not allowed to beat, rape
or imprison her – and similarly the wife to the husband.
Remedy for the victim was easy under Roman law: 'divorce by separation' - similar
in practice to the Jewish 'Any Cause' walkout. No grounds were needed and the other
partner often became the victim of what could be no more than a whim. Paul says Christians
shouldn't practise this (v10-11) because, biblically, divorce can only be based on
broken vows. In v10, 'not I but the Lord' is almost certainly a reference to Jesus'
rejection of 'Any Cause' divorce.
Those who have already parted using the ‘divorce by separation’ provision of Roman
law (v11) should not view themselves as divorced but remain unmarried and try to
reverse the situation. But a Christian victim of such a divorce should let their
non-Christian partner go (v15).
Some believe that a marriage can only be ended by death, arguing (wrongly) from the
silence in Romans 7:2. But divorce does not enter this picture at all, because the
Law, as husband, would never desert the believer. Nor can one make the point from
1 Corinthians 7:39, which is addressed to widows to free them from the OT law of
levirate marriage (Deuteronomy 25:5-10). Divorce is simply not relevant in either
of these contexts.
It is wrong to advise, say, an abused wife to separate from her husband but to forbid
her to divorce him. Paul says married couples may not separate (1 Corinthians 7:10-11).
They should stay together or, in appropriate circumstances, divorce.
Paul refers to the Exodus 21 grounds for divorce in 1 Corinthians 7: conjugal love
in v3-5 and material support of food and clothing in v32-34. His readers, both Jewish
and Gentile, would have known immediately that this is what he was referring to:
the Jews because of Exodus 21, the Gentiles because the same factors were the basis
of Graeco-Roman law at that period.
In Ephesians 5:28-29 Paul urges the husband to love, nourish (literally ‘feed’) and
cherish (literally ‘keep warm’) his wife – the three obligations mentioned in Exodus
Jesus condemned remarriage only after an invalid divorce. Apart from this, both Jesus
and Paul are silent on the issue. In the 1st century, however, everyone believed
remarriage was permissible – in fact most thought it necessary.
Jewish divorce certificates invariably said, ‘You may marry any Jewish man you wish.’
Paul quotes a Christian version in 1 Corinthians 7:39 in the context of the status
of widows, implying that a widow should have the same right as a divorcee to remarry
whom she wishes, rather than be bound by levirate marriage laws.
‘Not bound’ in 1 Corinthians 7:15 means free to remarry because it was addressed
to people who were already divorced (by Roman divorce-by-separation, which Paul accepted
as valid when a believer was rejected by an unbelieving partner). ‘Not bound’ is
literally ‘not enslaved’ – with obvious echoes of Exodus 21. The grounds for divorce-by-separation
were not legally specified, but Paul looks behind it and sees a form of neglect which,
when the other criteria are met, validates the divorce.
Paul says that Christians who have undergone divorce-by-separation should work at
coming together again (1 Corinthians 7:11). But obviously if the thrown-out party
has remarried that is impossible. The marriage is over and the guilty party is also
free to remarry.
Jesus uses Jewish hyperbole when he says that a person remarrying after an ‘Any Cause’
divorce is committing adultery. In its Matthew 5 context it is one of several such
statements which we should hesitate to take too literally. There, a lustful look
equals adultery, and anger equals murder. Jesus was not implying that these should
be punished as such. Nor is he implying that the remarried ‘Any Cause’ divorcee,
now technically an adulterer, should divorce their current partner and try to remarry
the original one. Two wrongs don’t make a right.
The phrase ‘God has called you to peace’ (1 Corinthians 7:15) echoes the phrase ‘for
the sake of peace’ in Jewish legal rulings. It meant a pragmatic decision in everyone’s
best interests rather than a legalistic imposition of the law, which was not always
possible or appropriate. People who had remarried after divorce-by-separation were
technically adulterers, but there was nothing they could do about it now, so Paul
says the situation should be accepted.