Author’s note: Friends, today’s lectionary blog is much longer and wider ranging than most of my posts. I had some extra time and also a keen interest in exploring in-depth the topic of divorce in the first century CE, mostly because my parents are divorced and happily remarried. I wanted to get past simplistic interpretations, and I think I’ve been successful in that.
Scholars of Second Temple and early rabbinic Judaism know that Jesus’ teachings on divorce were wildly out of step with mainstream opinion. This is one of the times in Scripture that Jesus is much more stringent than even the most fastidious of his interlocutors. But as is always the case, his teaching is not given merely to condemn but to point to what full life in the kingdom of heaven looks like.
I will offer two interpretations of what Jesus might have been alluding to in his teaching on divorce found in the Gospel of Mark. The difference in interpretation hinges on what exactly the Pharisees were doing when they “tested” Jesus.
The first interpretation understands their test to be a good-faith question about how Jesus would teach in an ongoing discussion of the situations in which divorce was permitted. Decades before Jesus’ incarnation, arguments raged over what instances a man was allowed to divorce his wife. The Mishnah recorded the arguments of Hillel and Shammai, who lived prior to Jesus, and Akiva, who lived after his death and resurrection.
The disciples of Shammai say, “No man shall divorce his wife, unless he found in her unchaste behavior, as it is stated, ‘Because he found in her ‘ervat davar‘ (unchaste behavior) (Deuteronomy 24:1).” The disciples of Hillel say, “Even if she spoiled his food, because it is said, ervat davar.” Rabbi Akivah says, “Even if he found another [woman] prettier than her, as it is stated [ibid.], ‘If it happened that she does not find favor in his eyes’” (M. Gittin 9:10).
The rabbinic argument is over what ervat davar means. The literal translation is “naked doings,” and Shammai understood this literally. The Babylonian Talmud records the Shammai’s description of the sorts of instances in which divorce is allowable: “He sees his wife go out with her hair uncovered and ‘spin cloth’ in the streets with her arms uncovered … and bathe [naked] in the same place as the men” (BT. Gittin 90a-b). To have grounds for divorce, Shammai says a man has to have witnessed or have credible witnesses that attest to his wife being improperly clothed and trying to attract attention or being fully naked in front of other men. The disciples of Hillel held that an insignificant matter such as not cooking well constitutes “naked behavior.”
Jesus responded by essentially siding with Shammai. It’s not here in Mark, but in Matthew 19:9, that he allowed for divorce in cases of promiscuity, exactly in step with Shammai’s ruling. In the Mark text, Jesus simply mourns the situation of divorce. Hard hearts have required the legality of divorce. But that was never the goal. Indeed, Jesus sidesteps issues of Mosaic law entirely and returns all the way to the creation of humans.
In his response in Mark, Jesus cited and spoke about “uniting” language four times. “‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate” (Mark 10:7-9; NIV). Most Christian readers will miss the point of what Jesus is referencing here. Just like in Aristophanes’ speech in Plato’s Symposium, several Jewish accounts of creation hold that the original humans were undifferentiated mixtures of male and female.
This may be a new concept, but it’s the plain reading of the first several chapters of Genesis. The human “ha-adam” (there’s a definite article there—“Adam” is not used as a name until the humans are split) was created male and female. When a human was split in two sides (in Genesis 2:21 the word “tsela” is most often used in the rest of the biblical text to refer to a side of a building, such as the temple. Good Bible translations will have a footnote denoting this if they use “rib” in the text.), all of a sudden, and for the first time, there were separate male and female humans. Adam (the man) notes that he has been stripped of a side of his previously mixed-sex body (and not just a rib) when he exclaims: “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Genesis 2:23; NIV). When God created humans during the first week of creation, they were mixed-sex (Genesis 1:27). In the ongoing work of creation, separated male and female individuals were created by undoing the primordial oneness. Ancient Jewish texts make this point explicitly:
“When the Blessed Holy One created Adam, he created him androgynous, as it is written: He created them male and female and … named them Adam (Genesis Rabbah 8:1).”
“It is written: ‘And God created man in his own image,’ and it is written, ‘Male and female he created them.’ How is this to be understood? In this way: In the beginning it was the intention of God to create two human beings, and in the end only one human being was created” (BT. Ketubot 8a).
Jesus points to marriage and especially marital sexual intercourse as a mystical undoing of the splitting of the primordial human and a reuniting of the two into one. Somehow, marriage returns two humans to the unity of the sixth day of creation that was part of God’s exceedingly good creation. By referencing the two becoming one flesh in his answer to the Pharisees’ question on divorce, Jesus trumps any argument about Mosaic law by describing not just idyllic life in the garden but life at the height of the goodness of the first week of creation.
If the Pharisees were testing Jesus to trap him instead of engaging in a good-faith test about which side of an ongoing rabbinic debate he was on, a second interpretation of what he was saying comes to the fore. This interpretation focuses on the situation in first century Judea. As the passage points out, Jesus has left the Galilee, gone down to Judea and then across the Jordan to reenter the territory of Herod Antipas. This is the Herod (there are so many of them) who had John the Baptizer imprisoned and beheaded because of the prophet’s critique of his divorce and remarriage. The Pharisees, in this interpretation, were daring Jesus to say the same words that had led to his relative’s death. Publicly, Jesus declined to pronounce divorce illegal but pointed out the beauty of poetically and mystically reuniting split humans into one flesh.
Later, when his disciples were alone with him in a house (Mark 10:10) and free of hostile witnesses, they asked Jesus about the issue again. This time Jesus gave a substantially different answer: “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery” (Mark 10:11-12; NIV).
The scholar Brad Young helpfully points out that Greek translations of Jesus’ words miss a crucial implication of the Semitic language (whether Hebrew or Aramaic). In Jesus the Jewish Theologian, Young says the phrase “divorces his wife and marries another” should probably be read as “divorces his wife in order to marry another.” This understanding is bolstered not just by reference to language but also by the divorce documents themselves. The Mishnah specifies that the certificate of divorce that a man must give his wife when he divorces her is a certification that she is available to marry anyone else.
“The body of the certificate of divorce is: ‘You are permitted to [marry] anyone.’ Rabbi Yehudah says, ‘And this that will be yours from me a scroll of divorce and a letter of separation and a document of release, so that you may marry any man that you wish …’” (M. Gittin 9:3, see also 9:1-4; emphasis added).
The permissibility of near-immediate remarriage is the point of the document. But Jesus sided against this notion of divorcing to immediately remarry someone else and called it adultery. Jesus, in this interpretation, says it doesn’t matter if you sign the paperwork—if you leave your spouse because you wish to marry someone else, it is adultery.
It’s impossible to say how revolutionary this was because Jesus didn’t limit his pronouncement to just women. Married men, according to contemporary Jewish law (this has changed in the centuries since for most Jewish communities) were allowed to have multiple wives and concubines. Sleeping with noncultic prostitutes was discouraged but, because of the way in which Judah caused Tamar to carry on his line, wasn’t totally prohibited. Adultery was a sin that only married women who slept with someone other than their husband could commit (and obviously the man she slept with). In Matthew 5:32, the traditional Jewish understanding of adultery is upheld. But here in Mark 10:11, Jesus said that any married man who sleeps with a woman other than his original spouse is committing adultery against his wife! This is a staggering move toward gender equality before the law. By saying this to his disciples, he condemned Herod Antipas’ adultery against not only Herodias’ first husband but also his adultery against his first wife, Phasaelis.
Some interpreters will argue that Jesus was really being one-sided, because woman couldn’t divorce their husbands in this society and men made all the decisions. But the Talmud preserves traditions of rabbis allowing women to sue successfully for divorce in number of instances:
“And these are the defects for which the court forces him to divorce her: One afflicted with boils; or one who has a polyp; or one who works as a gatherer [of dung], or one who works as a melder of copper, or one who works as a tanner of hides, all of whose work involves handling foul-smelling materials. Whether he had these defects before they got married, or whether they developed after they got married, the court forces him to divorce. And with regard to all of these, Rabbi Meir said: Even though he stipulated with her ahead of time that he suffers from this particular ailment, or this is his line of work, she can nevertheless demand a divorce and say: I thought I could accept this issue but now I realize I cannot accept it” (BT. Ketubot 77a).
Rabbi Meir said, a couple decades after Jesus’ ascension, that even if a couple got married knowing that the man was stinky, his wife can divorce him if she can’t put up with it. There were a number of other, more serious instances in which women could sue for divorce, such as when a man chooses not to support his wife financially.
But even by this relatively lenient standard for women’s ability to initiate divorce, Herodias’ divorce was impermissible. She chose not to obtain a Jewish divorce certificate and went through the Roman court. “Herodias took it upon herself to confound the laws of our country and divorced herself from her husband while he was still alive” (Josephus’ Antiquities 18.136.4). She did this specifically to remarry with Herod Antipas. Thus Jesus’ pronouncement of adultery on those who divorce in order to remarry, both men and women, would have landed squarely upon both Herod Antipas and Herodias. This is probably why Jesus’ disciples waited until they were inside, away from the crowd, to ask the clarifying question. If this is interpretation is followed, the Pharisees were indeed testing Jesus to see what he’d say. He gave an acceptable answer publicly, but then a more pointed one privately.
I gave an extra-long teaching this week to point out that even with fairly plain words, there can be many different interpretations (for another excellent treatment, reading some of the same sources slightly differently, see Marg Mowczko’s outstanding blog). I think the point of Jesus describing the one flesh in response to a question about divorce was not to make people who have gone through a very difficult emotional situation feel worse than they already do, but to point to an ideal for those who are still married or thinking of getting married. Jesus certainly didn’t approve of divorce simply to switch or “upgrade” partners. That is legalized adultery, even if you file the correct paperwork. But for folks who have been joyfully remarried after having been divorced because of abuse or a marriage that broke long before papers were filed, I believe Jesus has only grace.
P.S. The Hebrew Bible passage for this week is Job 2:1-10. It’s here because of the disagreement between Job and his wife. One of the greatest crimes against the Bible is when his wife’s words are translated as “curse God and die.” Only four times in the King James Version is the root B/R/K translated as “curse.” They are all in Job (1:5, 1:11, 2:5 and 2:9). The word everywhere else in Scripture and here means “bless.” It makes the conversation between God and the accuser awkward, unless we understand it as sarcasm.
But in 2:9, Job’s wife isn’t advising him to curse God and be killed as a punishment. Rather, she is simply advising him to give up after all his pain, suffering and loss. She wants him to die the way he’s lived his life: righteously. Bless God and die. Job rebukes her not because she wants him to curse God, but because she wants him to quit fighting with God.
The lesson is this: There are lots of reasons why couples fight, for sure. But let’s not let misinterpretation be one of them. Let’s not ascribe to our partners the exact opposite of what their words mean.