Saturday, January 14, 2006

Jesus and Divorce

Chris Heard discusses Oklahoma Christian University's proposed policy for monitoring the marital status of its faculty. According to Inside Higher Ed:
"Faculty members at the university were recently notified that the university planned to formally state a policy with regard to marriage. A draft of the policy states that divorce or separation without plans for reconciliation would be 'grounds for a review of and possible termination of employment.' People who were already divorced when hired are exempt provided that they disclosed the divorce.

"When a marriage ends, the decision on continuing employment would be based on whether there were 'scriptural grounds' for the divorce. If the administration decides to fire someone for a divorce, the employee would be allowed to appeal to the university’s Board of Trustees, which would designate three trustees to hear the appeal and issue a final decision."
Chris, to an extent, defends the university's policy:
"From OC's institutional perspective, divorcing your spouse is, in fact, related to job performance. For an OC faculty or staff member, 'job performance' is broader than simply teaching, research, committee assignments, administrative duties, and so on. In many faith-based colleges, one's personal conduct is not really private, but is part of a community ethos, and part of one's job at such a place is to contribute in positive ways to that ethos."
My purpose in what follows is not so much to argue against the university's view on the matter, though I certainly think it's odious. I'm interested, rather, in pursuing the relationship between the "community ethos" of Oklahoma Christian University and that of Jesus. Why did the historical Jesus prohibit divorce (Mk 10:2-12/Mt 19:3-9)?

In an apocalyptic context, Jesus' ban involved replacing a Mosaic imperative with an Edenic one. "Insofar as the law contains concessions to the fall, it requires repair. So Jesus forbids divorce." (Dale Allison, Resurrecting Jesus, p 186) But that's the theological justification more than the reason. Why did Jesus have a problem with divorce to begin with? What was divorce doing to people? Most people today think Jesus was teaching about sexual ethics.

Context Group scholars inform us that Jesus wasn't targetting sexual ethics, but rather property rights and the vulnerable. "Jesus' words have a practical meaning in a world where all goods, including women, are limited, and there is an intense competition for them... Women are contested resources, much like sheep, pastures and water, so much so that kidnappings, abductions, elopements...[were] frequent occurrences" (William Herzog, Jesus, Justice, and the Reign of God, p 215). Let's now sketch a brief commentary on the divorce saying of Mk 10:2-12/Mt 19:3-9 in the context of Palestinian village settings. What follows is indebted to the work of Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, as well as other Context Group members.

Mk 10:2/Mt 19:3: Some Pharisees came to Jesus, and to test him they asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?"

Malina and Rohrbaugh make the preliminary point that in ancient Palestine individuals didn't get married or divorced; families did. The wedding between a man and woman "stood for the merger of the larger extended families and symbolized a fusion of honor of both families involved" (Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, p 188). Divorce, likewise, entailed a dissolution of these family ties, creating bad blood and resulting in endless feuding over contested property rights (since marriage initially involved the transfer of property through a bride's dowry). Generally speaking, only men (men's families) could initiate divorce proceedings, though there were exceptions.

Mk 10:3: Jesus asked them, "What did Moses command you?"

When challenged, the honorable man doesn’t answer questions directly, far less protest about the acrimony and feuding which results over contested property rights. He sidesteps the question and claims the higher ground by setting up the Pharisees with his own line of questioning.

(As Malina and Rohrbaugh demonstrate throughout their commentary, Jesus never answers questions posed by rivals. He's a typical macho man, firing back counterquestions, rhetorical evasions, scriptural one-upsmanship, or just plain insults. Honorable men, if they're clever enough, don't allow themselves to be put on the defensive. They go on the offensive by staying on top of their challenger in some way.)

Mk 10:4/Mt 19:7: They said, "Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and divorce her."

The Pharisees appeal to the Torah (Deut 24:1-4), which states that a man may divorce his wife for any reason. Divorce, of course, often left a woman and her family vulnerable.

Mk 10:5-9/Mt 19:4-6,8: But Jesus said to them, "Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation it was not so: 'God made people male and female,' and 'for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother to 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."

Once again, the honorable man doesn't protest about the injustices done to a woman and her family. That's weak, and would have earned him nothing but scorn and derision. So Jesus spars, citing the creation story (Gen 2:24) in opposition to the tradition of Moses. This is a classic example of clever one-upsmanship in challenge-riposte contests. By saying that a man and woman become "one flesh", Jesus implies that marriage is an unseparable "blood" relationship rather than a legal one, and therefore cannot be legally dissolved (see Malina and Rohrbaugh, p 188). He has cleverly shown up the Pharisees and opposed divorce in the interest in community welfare.

Mk 10:10-12/Mt 19:9: Jesus concluded, "I say to you, a man who divorces his wife -- except on grounds of unchastity [Matthew only] -- and marries another woman commits adultery against her, and a woman who divorces her husband and marries another man commits adultery against him [Mark only]."

Divorce was bad enough in village settings, but divorce and remarriage was even worse. Remarriage made reconciliation impossible and feuding everlasting. Jesus thus condemns remarriage as an act of adultery against one's former spouse, whether man or woman. Matthew's exception for the case of a woman's unchastity ("screwing around") may well be historical; in honor-shame cultures a woman's flagrant or repeated sexual misconduct created lethal animosity in village settings, and it would have been foolish, by any standard, to continue recognizing such a marriage (so Herzog, p 215). Mark's particular addition may reflect a more Greco-Roman setting where women initiated divorce proceedings more commonly than in Palestine. In any case, the general conclusion is that Jesus condemns remarriage for the sake of village harmony.

Jesus' prohibition against divorce thus owed to the dual concern over contested property rights and protecting the weak and vulnerable -- as "in normal divorce cases the woman was at risk" (Herzog, p 216). An immediate clarification, however, is in order. That Jesus was trying to protect women (or women's families) doesn't mean that he was espousing egalitarianism, or social equality, as scholars like Dominic Crossan and Elizabeth Fiorenza have claimed. That's a revisionist fantasy -- one which Jack Elliott has demolished in a wonderfully incisive Biblical Theology Bulletin article. Elliott writes as follows:
"In Jesus' saying about divorce, Crossan finds an implication that women were made equal to men. 'What Jesus asserts,' he claims, 'is that women have exactly the same rights as men have in marriage. Adultery can be committed against the wife's rights just as well as against a husband's.' However... Jesus is not asserting equal rights to divorce but prohibiting an action that blocks reconciliation. Divorcing and then marrying another... makes any reconciliation impossible and inevitably would lead to family feuding between the spouses' families... Even in the Greco-Roman world, the legal right of wives as well as husbands to divorce was never taken as indicating a general equality of husbands and wives. Here, as in Palestinian Israel, husbands were superordinate and wives subordinate... Finally, prohibiting divorce protected not only the wives from social shame and exposure to hardship; it also protected the two originating families of the spouses from interfamily conflict and social shame, thus maintaining interfamily integrity, domestic harmony, and the honor of both families."
As Elliott has observed here and elsewhere, the idea of social equality between human beings originated with the 18th-century Enlightenment and was first put into practice (and only imperfectly) with the American and French revolutions. Jesus certainly wasn't born out of time and place. He was a messianic boss who chose twelve male disciples as his closest confidants. What he did do, however, was provide for the weak and vulnerable -- women not least -- and that was one of his genuine aims in banning divorce.

A final note. The tension between the apocalypse and Jesus' concern for problems in the present age is fascinating. If God was about to wipe out the problems related to divorce, why did Jesus worry about the issue? Dale Allison says that apocalyptic thinkers are bundles of contradiction, and he's not joking. In The Apocalyptic Jesus: A Debate, he shows how today's apocalyptics are a lot like Jesus, focusing one minute on eschatological visions and the next on social realities. Christian bookstores, for instance, feature material proclaiming the imminent kingdom and in the same pages deal with long-term issues, such as what the future holds for our children. Or take Rebbe Schneerson: he believed the messiah was soon about to come and solve everything, yet he denounced Palestinian autonomy out of genuine fear that it would lead to a Palestinian state. Perhaps, after all, apocalyptics are not so out of touch with reality.

Returning in epilogue to the situation discussed in Chris' post: I'm not sure what the Jesus who prohibited divorce in order to protect people in agrarian village settings has to do with the community ethos of Oklahoma Christian University. While I can applaud a religious university for holding its faculty members to exemplary communal standards, I don't think an employee's marital status is anyone else's business. If Jesus was motivated to safeguard honor out of sensitivity to the vulnerable, it's ironic that a Christian institution may choose to apply his ban in more insensitive and distasteful ways.

UPDATE: Chris responds: "I'm...not entirely convinced that Jesus' concerns can be limited to the socio-economic realm. There is at least a certain 'metaphysical ring' to 'Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate' that I suspect spills over beyond socio-economics." As I mentioned on Chris' blog, I'm not trying to reduce things to socio-economics, as if that could ever be divorced [pun] from theology in Jesus' world to begin with. I was getting at the roots of Jesus' theology, a theology which was apocalyptic in its appeal to the Edenic ideal (Gen 2:24). Reflecting on what divorce did to people in his world, Jesus surely did come to believe -- theologically, metaphysically -- that "what God has joined together no one should separate". But I seriously doubt he would have ever come to this theology, or objected to divorce at all, had it not been such a problem.


Allison, Dale. Resurrecting Jesus, T&T Clark. 2005.

Elliott, John. "Jesus Was Not an Egalitarian", Biblical Theology Bulletin. 2002.

Herzog, William. Jesus, Justice, and the Reign of God, Westminster John Knox. 2000.

Malina, Bruce & Richard Rohrbaugh. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (Second Edition), Augsburg Fortress. 2003.

Miller, Robert (editor). The Apocalyptic Jesus: A Debate, Polebridge. 2001.


Blogger Richard H. Anderson said...

Mark is guilty of an anachronism as noted by Michael Turton in his Historical Commentary on the Gospel of Mark. Neither Matthew nor Luke have this anachronism.

Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

I'm inclined to agree, as noted above.

Blogger James Crossley said...

I don't think Mark has necessarily done anything anachronistic. There is an early C2 Palestinian document Papyrus Se’elim 13 where it appears that a woman sends a bill of divorce to her husband (David Instone Brewer has discussed this in detail in an article and his very useful book on divorce). There are also examples such as Salome and Costobarus and, though not as explicit, Herodias/Philip/Antipas. I'm not saying that this means Mk 10.12 goes back to Jesus but it is not anachronistic.

Also I am not convinced Mk does absolutely prohibit divorce. I think he assumes that divorce was allowed in cases of sexual immorality like Matthew does. I've given various reasons for this elsewhere (all this is based on what I wrote in The Date of Mark's Gospel) but one key point for me was that when Matthew makes this explicit this isn't enough because straight after the disciples find even this impossible to observe.

Blogger Richard H. Anderson said...

Mark Goodacre mentions the site that discusses the divorce Papyrus
on NTGateway at

but access to the link provided by Goodacre is broken.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mark's link to Brewer works now - it's just sticky so when you hit 'back' it won't move.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the broader implication has been lost. That being that one's personal life can be grounds for job termination. What next, you teenage son got a tattoo, out you go? Oops, unwed daughter got preggers? You're gone! Certainly ones private conduct has implications on the employer; and the employer has a right and responsibility to protect their interets. Someone employed by a Christian university shouldn't expect much sympathy if found marching in a gay pride parade, or supporting satanism; but at what point do we draw the line? Intruding into the private affairs of married couples seems a tad over that line. It runs the risk of contaminating genuine feeling within the marriage for the sake of job promotion. We've too much of that already in US society. I hope the policy meets with the failure it so richly desreves.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a tough one. Trying to figure out what's right and what's wrong can have the effect of a double-edged sword. I spoke with one of my friends, who considers himself to be a real christian and he said that even he has to question whether or not it's right to get a divorce. The suprising part is that he's a San Diego divorce lawyer. I know that's kinda a contridiction but he try's to protect people in situations that are harmful and I'd have to believe that the bible reflects that information too. But maybe I'm wrong, maybe we should just go straight to the word to find an answer. Actually know that I think about it, that is the only answer.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

How does OCU plan to enforce the unchastity exception? Is it in (Matthew) or out (Mark)? Seems like this could be a big deal.

Also, I agree with the commenter who wonders what comes next. Will faculty who fail to pay for their parent's nursing homes go next?

Blogger thubbard29 said...

The KJV uses the term "Put away" rather than divorce. I have seen some discussion on that here: Divorce and putting away background

What are your thoughts?

Blogger jg lenhart said...

Here are some links that give a "blow by blow" account of what is really going on between Jesus and the Pharisees.

Matthew's account:

Mark's account:

When a person realizes that "putting away" and "divorce" are different, you can appreciate how the Pharisees were trying to trap Jesus and Jesus ACTUALLY did answer their questions once the Pharisees committed to their intent.

Jesus wasn't being evasive and not answering the question...He did answer it, just not immediately.

Jesus' thought process was PERFECT...we can learn a lot from it.

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