When studying the Bible in Jerusalem, one soon becomes aware of how important the issues of language, culture and physical setting are to our reading of the Scriptures. Likewise, the words of Jesus are given clarity by the context of their historical setting.
Recently, while preparing for a lecture on Second Temple period history, I was struck by the similarity of Jesus’ teaching about divorce and remarriage to a well-known event recounted by the first-century Jewish historian, Josephus Flavius. The saying of Jesus in question is found in Luke 16:18:
Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery. The one who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.
Traditionally, these words of Jesus have been interpreted to equate divorce and remarriage with adultery. New Testament scholars have remarked that Jesus’ saying, as it is commonly interpreted, is more stringent than both the biblical presentation (Deut. 24:1-2) and contemporary rabbinic understanding. In Judaism, while peace in the home is of the utmost importance, never is it suggested that in principle divorce and remarriage are adulterous. By divorcing Jesus from his historical and religious context, New Testament scholars have cast him as a first-century rogue. Nevertheless, this perception has more to do with how Jesus’ words have been misinterpreted than with Jesus himself.
|The image at the top of the page shows an Aramaic marriage contract from the ancient Jewish community in Elephantine on the upper Nile in Egypt. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.|
-  This study is dedicated to those who have suffered the agony of divorce. Tragically their pain has been compounded by well-meaning Christians who have distorted both the letter and the spirit of Jesus’ teaching concerning divorce and remarriage. For them, may this article bring a measure of healing. ↩