Jesus and Divorce: Matthew 19:3-12


by Doug Ward

The Gospels indicate that Jesus of Nazareth, as a respected teacher, often received questions about issues of concern to the Jewish world of his day. For example, some Pharisees once asked him, "Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?" (Mt 19:3)


To understand this question and its motivation, it is helpful to have some background on Jewish marriage and divorce in the first century. The leading grounds for divorce in that culture can be summarized in three categories.1


First, divorces were often sought for unfaithfulness, based on Deuteronomy 24:1. There was a widespread expectation in that society that if a wife was unfaithful, her husband would divorce her. This may explain why Joseph contemplated divorcing Mary when he first learned of her pregnancy (Mt 1:19).


Second, divorces were sometimes sought for infertility. Because the directive to "be fruitful and multiply" (Ge 1:28) was seen as a responsibility for every couple, if a couple failed to have children after trying for ten years or more, the husband might divorce his wife and remarry.


Third, material or emotional neglect might lead to a divorce. These grounds are based on Exodus 21:10-11, which describes a case of a wife who is also a servant, like Abraham's wife Hagar or Jacob's wives Bilhah and Zilpah. Verse 10 states that if her husband "takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, or her marital rights." If he does not provide these things for his servant wife, she is allowed to go free (v 11).


It was reasoned that if a servant wife should be provided with food, clothing, and love, then so should any wife; and if a wife deserved these things, then so did a husband. As a result, marriage contracts and vows included promises by each spouse to provide these things for the other. Jewish courts levied fines, if necessary, to encourage spouses to live up to their marriage contracts. Their goal was to promote repentance and reconciliation, with divorce viewed as a last resort.


A divorce was made official when the husband gave a divorce certificate to his wife. The certificate affirmed that the wife had no further obligation to her husband and stated, "You are free to marry any man you wish." But if her divorce certificate was deemed to be invalid on some technical grounds (which hopefully was a rare occurrence), then a woman who remarried would technically be committing adultery.2


A Question about Deuteronomy 24:1

These three grounds for divorce were accepted and uncontroversial in Jesus' day. But during the generation before Jesus, controversy arose over the interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1, which mentions a husband divorcing his wife "because he has found some indecency in her." The Hebrew phrase that we translate "some indecency" literally means something like "the indecency of a matter."


One prominent group of Pharisees, the School of Hillel, proposed that the phrase referred to two separate grounds for divorce-indecency and "any matter at all." They argued that a husband could divorce his wife if he was displeased with her in any way. Another group of Pharisees, the school of Shammai, disagreed, arguing that the phrase only referred to a "matter of indecency"-i.e., a case of sexual immorality.


Based on Hillel's ruling, a kind of "no fault" divorce quickly became popular. A husband who wanted a divorce but did not want to publicly embarrass his wife could obtain a divorce from a panel of Hillelite judges without having to prove any wrongdoing on the wife's part. The wife kept her dowry, and both partners could remarry. There are references to such divorces in the writings of Philo (Special Laws 3.30) and Josephus (Life 426-27; Ant. 4.253). Joseph seems to have been contemplating such a divorce in Matthew 1:19.


Jesus' Ruling on "Any Cause" Divorce

Given this background, it seems likely that the Pharisees' questions in Matthew 19:3 was about the new "any cause" divorces rather than about divorce in general. Jesus began his response by explaining that God's purpose at creation was for marriages to be monogamous and lifelong. Divorce therefore should be avoided and not entered into lightly (vv 4-6).


When his questioners steered him back toward Deuteronomy 24:1, Jesus replied that divorce was not God's intention-not even in cases of adultery-but was allowed as a last resort in cases where an erring partner hard-heartedly refused to repent (v 8). He added that an "any cause" divorce is invalid, so that it was wrong for the partners to remarry after such a divorce. Jesus agreed with the House of Shammai that Deuteronomy 24:1 refers only to sexual immorality.


Jesus' disciples commented that if marriage is such a serious commitment, then perhaps it would be better not to marry. Jesus responded that marriage is not required of everyone; some disciples might be called to a single life for the sake of the kingdom of God (vv 10-12). Here Jesus implied that divorce on the grounds of infertility was unnecessary. Since marriage is not obligatory, not all are required to carry out Genesis 1:28.


What about divorces due to material or emotional neglect or abuse? Since these divorces were not controversial, it can be argued that the Pharisees' question and Jesus' answer were strictly about "any cause" divorces, not about divorces based on Exodus 21:10. By this reading, Jesus was not saying in Matthew 19:9 that sexual immorality is the only valid grounds for divorce; rather, he was saying that this is the only reason mentioned in Deuteronomy 24:1. Such an interpretation is supported by 1 Corinthians 7:12-15, where Paul rules that if a believer is abandoned by an unbelieving spouse, the divorce is valid and the believer may remarry. The apparent tension between Matthew 19 and 1 Corinthians 7 is resolved when we see these passages in their first-century Jewish context.


1See David Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context, Eerdmans, 2022, Chapter 5.

2This kind of situation is described in Mishnah Gittin 8.5; see Instone-Brewer, pp. 181-184.

Issue 37


File translated from TEX by TTH, version 3.66.
On 19 May 2023, 13:14.