Divorce and Remarriage in Historical Perspective

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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.

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.[1]

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.

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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.

  • [1] 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.

Comments 2

  1. Hi!
    I have a question. If a woman has divorced her husband (I don’t know the reason), is it ok for her to remarry? If so, on which grounds, having in mind 1 Cor 7:10-11 and Rom 7:2?

    Regards,
    Jonatan

    1. JP Staff Writer

      Dear Jonatan,
      I’m afraid your question is not quite the kind the editors of JP can answer. JP can investigate historical questions, such as “What was Jesus’ view of divorce?” or “How did the author of Matthew resolve questions of divorce?” but deciding hypothetical questions in the abstract would be neither constructive for our readers nor responsible on our part. The kind of question you ask would have to be decided between the actual persons involved according to their individual circumstances, their personal value systems, and their approaches (or non-approaches) to Scripture.

      JP does have one additional article on the issue of divorce from an historical and Jewish perspective:
      David N. Bivin, “‘And’ or ‘In order to’ Remarry

      I also highly recommend the scholarship of Peter J. Tomson on the issue of divorce in the New Testament. See Peter J. Tomson, “Divorce Halakhah in Paul and the Jesus Tradition,” in The New Testament and Rabbinic Literature (ed. Reimund Bieringer, Florentino García Martínez, Didier Pollefeyt and Peter J. Tomson; Leiden: Brill, 2010), 289-332.

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R. Steven Notley

R. Steven Notley

R. Steven Notley is professor of Biblical Studies at the New York City campus of Nyack College. A member and past director of the Jerusalem School of Synoptic Research, Notley earned his Ph.D. in Comparative Religions at the Hebrew University (1993). He studied in Jerusalem…
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