“Loving Divorce”: Born on the Battlefield

When you enter into a marriage, you don’t do so expecting it to end. But sad as it is (“Even God sheds tears when anyone divorces his wife,” says the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 22a), it happens. And when it happens to a Jewish couple, the Bible requires the husband to provide his wife with a “bill of divorcement” (Deut. 24:1).

In my first historical novel, The Scroll, published by Menorah Books, the title and starring role were given to such a document—in this case a real bill of divorce, found in a cave in a place called Wadi Murabba‘at in the Judean Desert in the 1950s, but actually written at the desert fortress of Masada, where my novel begins. As a tour educator, I’ve taken thousands of people to Masada, where I tell the story of a band of rebels who held out against the Romans and eventually took their own lives. When I tell people that two women of Masada, and five children, survived according to the Jewish historian Josephus, they inevitably ask: What happened to them? With the help of that ancient divorce document, The Scroll offers an answer.

The divorce document from Wadi Murabba’at in the Judean Desert. Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

What’s the Connection between Divorce and Love, David and Goliath

I imagined that on that barren mountaintop, surrounded by enemies, the husband, whom the real document names as Joseph son of Naqsan, gave his wife, named Miriam daughter of Jonathan, a divorce of a very special kind—out of love. Joseph, I imagined, was about to go to war, and offered his wife what is known as a “conditional divorce” so she could go on with her life in case he didn’t return.

One Talmudic reference says this custom comes from the Bible, when the young shepherd David is told by his father to bring food to his brothers who are fighting the Philistines: “And to thy brethren shalt thou bring greetings, and take their pledge (1 Sam 17:17–18).  The meaning of the Hebrew word for “their pledge”—arvutam—gets lost in some translations, where it boils down in some cases to Yishai simply asking David to find out how his other sons are faring.  But in reality “their pledge” was much more. The Talmud says the meaning was: “things which are pledged between him and her,” in other words—their marriage vows. David, according to the sages, was to bring back word that his brothers were freeing their wives from their marriage vows if they did not return from battle but could not be confirmed dead.

The Valley of Elah, where David fought Goliath. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Thus came the Talmudic dictum: “Everyone who goes out into the war of the House of David, writes for his wife a conditional divorce” (Ketubboth 9b). It’s understandable that the sages would look to that story, in which the Israelites quake in fear at the giant Goliath. Certainly, many never expected to survive the day, and thought about the wives and children they left behind. (Although hope springs eternal, it seems: Even as they were quaking, dismayed, terrified and fleeing, as the text tells us, they were telling each other that anyone who defeated the giant would earn himself a princess for a wife and financial benefits for his family.)

In Judaism, dissolution of a marriage under such circumstances is a hot issue to this day. The sanctity of the marriage vows dictates that a woman whose husband’s whereabouts are unknown for any reason is still “bound” to him unless definitive proof is shown that he won’t return. In fact, Prof.  Dror Fixler of Bar-Ilan University (who in addition to being an Orthodox rabbi is also a physicist) tells us in an article he wrote on the subject[1] that the great medieval Jewish teacher Maimonides instructed husbands not to act as the “evil ones” who “bind” their wives to them forever even if their whereabouts in the fog of war might never be known.

But what happens if the husband eventually does turn up? Since this was a “divorce given out of love”—a phrase coined by the 20th century Rabbi Yitzhak Yaakov Weiss in discussing this very subject—can they simply resume their lives together? Another medieval sage, Rabbi Moses Isserles had a solution: They would have to get married again. (And that has its own problems if the missing husband is a Cohen, a member of the priestly class, for example, who is forbidden to marry a divorcee!). I raised that complication in one dramatic twist in the plot of The Scroll, in a way that reverberates through its fictional generations.

Another proposal was that a rabbinic court hold on to the document, and give it to the wife in case the husband did not return after a specified period. That was suggested by Rabbi Isaac Herzog, chief Ashkenazi rabbi of Palestine and of Israel after Independence—whose life spanned two world wars and who certainly saw his share of such cases.

Indeed, the issue is still with us. Rabbi Fixler wrote that during the Second Lebanon War in 2006 a soldier asked him about obtaining such a document. Yet seemingly no such thing was to be found in the Israeli army’s archives. But, as Fixler reveals, something called IDF Manpower Directorate Form 821 is exactly that. Fixler concludes (as the Israeli army’s first chief rabbi, Shlomo Goren, did), that this type of document would not be widely accepted. Moreover it would be detrimental to morale. For those reasons it is apparently not made available to IDF soldiers.

What touches me most about the concept of “conditional divorce” is that this issue, with its deep Hebraic roots, like some equally controversial issues that I raise in The Scroll, is still with us. It shows us the living nature of our ancient biblical tradition and its millennia-long impact.

Cover of The Scroll, featuring the entrance to the cave where the divorce document was found, overlaid by a photo of the original document.


Divorce and Remarriage in Historical Perspective

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.

Some preliminary comments are necessary in order to bring the original thrust of Jesus’ statement into focus. In two recently published studies, attention was given to the idiomatic sense of the conjunction “and” in our verse. David Bivin and Brad Young, through different means, arrived at the same conclusion: the conjunction was intended to express purpose.[2]

Bivin noted that the Hebrew conjunction, whose sense may lie behind the Greek καί (kai “and”), possesses a wider range of meaning, including one of purpose.[3] Thus, here, and in others sayings in the Gospels, we witness Hebraic influence upon the Greek text. Listen, for instance, to Jesus’ charge to a lawyer, “Do this and (i.e., in order to) live!” (Luke 10:28). Likewise, in the verse under investigation, we should read, “He who divorces his wife in order to marry another commits adultery.”

Additionally, commentators have remarked on the haphazard placement of the divorce saying in Luke following Jesus’ confession about John the Baptist, “The law and the prophets were until John…” (Luke 16:16). While the sequential ordering of the Gospel material is not always important in determining its interpretation, in this instance, the context of our saying in Luke’s Gospel is central to its meaning. The parallel confession about John in Matthew (Matt. 11:11-14) occurs in a fuller historical narrative. At the time, John was imprisoned for speaking out against Herod Antipas (Matt. 11:2; 14:1-12). Josephus provides additional details which explain the reason for John’s criticism:

The tetrarch Herod Antipas had taken the daughter of Aretas, king of Petra, as his wife and had now been married to her for a long time. When starting out for Rome, he lodged with his half-brother Herod, who was born of a different mother, namely, the daughter of Simon the high priest. Falling in love with Herodias, the wife of this half-brother—she was a daughter of their brother Aristobulus and sister to Agrippa the Great—Antipas brazenly broached to her the subject of marriage. She accepted and pledged herself to make the transfer to him (i.e., divorce her husband and marry Antipas) as soon as he returned from Rome. It was stipulated that he must oust the daughter of Aretas. (Antiquities 18.109-110)

What is immediately apparent is how closely the story matches Jesus’ words about divorce and remarriage. Antipas’ visit to his half-brother apparently was the beginning of an adulterous affair with his sister-in-law.[4] They were guilty of divorcing their spouses in order to marry each other. The divorce proceedings were simply an attempt to legitimize their adultery.

Can it be a coincidence that Jesus’ critical statement about setting aside one’s spouse in order to marry another comes at the same time as John’s imprisonment for speaking out against Antipas’ marital infidelity? Our suggested historical context for the saying also helps to clarify Mark’s version (Mark 10:11-12) of the saying in which Jesus speaks about “a woman who divorces her husband.” In Jewish tradition, a woman cannot unilaterally dissolve the marriage. The procedure must be executed with the husband’s approval. We have only two recorded exceptions in the Second Temple period in which the woman appears to have initiated the divorce. One of those is the case of Herodias and her husband.

What is the significance of our suggested historical saying for Jesus’ utterance on divorce and remarriage? First, it sheds light on other passages in the New Testament and the writings of Josephus. We now understand why Antipas thought Jesus was John the Baptist. Jesus had taken up John’s line of criticism against the tetrarch. As a result, Antipas thought John had risen from the dead (Matt. 14:1-2; Luke 9:19) and he was seeking to arrest him (Luke 13:31-33). In the words of Professor David Flusser, “Antipas had killed John once, and he was willing to do it again!”

Josephus records that the people saw the destruction of Antipas’ army by his former father-in-law, the Nabatean king Aretas, as divine vengeance for what Antipas had done to John Antiquities 18.116). In this instance, the Gospel account illumines the connection between the armed conflict with Aretas and the death of John. Both resulted from Antipas’ marital infidelity and divorcing his Nabatean wife. When viewed together—Josephus’ narrative, the Gospel account of the imprisonment of John and Jesus’ statement concerning divorce and remarriage form complementary fragments in a mosaic of betrayal and tragedy.

Recognition of the historical context for Jesus’ saying also sets limits for its interpretation and application. Jesus was not equating divorce with adultery. Even less was he suggesting that remarriage is adulterous. His saying does not contradict the Jewish understanding of the sanctity of marriage, but neither does it make marriage insoluble. Jesus addresses a specific and public case in which both parties were guilty of divorcing their spouses in order to marry each other.

We can now hear the question which brought forth Jesus’ forceful response: “John the Baptist was murdered because he dared to speak out about Antipas’ adultery. What do you have to say?” Without fear Jesus responded, “The one (i.e., Antipas) who has divorced his wife in order to marry another (i.e., Herodias) is guilty of adultery. Moreover, the one (i.e., Antipas) who has married the woman (i.e., Herodias) who is divorced from her husband is guilty of adultery.” In other words, Antipas is doubly guilty of adultery.

Jesus’ scathing rebuke did not escape Antipas’ attention. He sought to capture Jesus. When the Pharisees warned Jesus of Antipas’ plot, he remarked, “Go and tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course. Nevertheless, I must go on my way today and tomorrow and the day following; for it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem'” (Luke 13:32-33). Indeed, it was not until that fateful Passover morning in Jerusalem that Jesus and Antipas met face to face. “When Herod saw Jesus, he was very glad, for he had long desired to see him” (Luke 23:8a). Herod questioned Jesus, but he refused to answer. Jesus had responded to the questions of Pilate, the brutal Roman prefect, but to this Jewish ruler who had shown no limits in his treachery, Jesus refused to utter a single word. If ever silence was deafening, it was in Jesus’ muted reply to Antipas—the adulterer.

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.
  • [2] Brad H. Young, Jesus the Jewish Theologian (Peabody, Ma.: Hendrickson, 1995), 113-118; David Bivin, “‘And’ or ‘In order to’ Remarry,” Jerusalem Perspective 50 (Jan.-Mar. 1996): 10-17, 35-38.
  • [3] David Bivin, “‘And’ or ‘In order to’ Remarry,” 12. See also R. Brown, S. R. Driver, C. Briggs, Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (London: Oxford University Press, 1907), 254 §3. In post-Biblical Hebrew we hear, “He who begins to wish that his wife will die and [i.e., in order that] he will inherit her property, or that she will die and [i.e., in order that] he will marry her sister…” (t. Sotah 5:10).
  • [4] Herodias was married to Antipas’ half-brother, known simply as Herod (Antiq. 18:109). According to Mark 6:17 Herodias was married to Herod Philip. However, in the best manuscript readings of Luke 3:19 and Matt. 14:3, her husband is unnamed. Josephus relates that it was Herodias’ daughter, Salome, who married Philip. See David Flusser, “A New Portrait of Salome,” Jerusalem Perspective 55 (Apr.-Jun. 1998): 18-19, note 3.

Were Women Segregated in the Ancient Synagogue?

Did women play a passive role in the synagogue congregations of antiquity? Were they separated from male members of the congregation during prayer and study, as is the case today? According to Professor Shmuel Safrai, the answer to both questions is a resounding “No.”

When discussing the form and character of the synagogue, one should consider data from the land of Israel along with data from the Diaspora; there is no justification for treating them separately. The sources we will consider here pertain to synagogues in Jerusalem before the destruction of the Second Temple, throughout the land of Israel during the period of the Mishnah and Talmud, and in the Jewish Diaspora in Egypt, Syria and Greece.

The sources reveal that women regularly attended the synagogue and took part in its services, listening to sermons and to the reading of the Torah. Women also studied in the bet midrash (study hall).

A Woman’s Obligation

Prayer was a religious obligation not just of men, but also of women:

Women, slaves and minors are exempt from recitation of the Shema and from putting on phylacteries, but are not exempt from praying [the Eighteen Benedictions], affixing a mezuzah [to the doorpost of their house], or saying the blessing after meals.[1]

Women, like men, were obligated to pray the “Eighteen Benedictions” prayer daily. Rabban Gamaliel said: “One must say the ‘Eighteen’ every day.”[2] Although it was usual to pray the Eighteen Benedictions in an assembly of the congregation, women—and men—were permitted to pray them privately.

When this prayer was recited publicly—in the synagogue, for instance—ten individuals were necessary to create a religious quorum. It is important to note that women could be counted as part of the ten. The idea that ten males are required for this quorum is not found in Jewish sources until at least 500 C.E.[3]

Women Frequented the Synagogue

There are many stories in rabbinic literature about women going to synagogue. Note, for instance, this halachah, which implies that it was as natural for women to go to the synagogue as to the bathhouse:

An Israelite may put meat on the coals [to cook] and let a Gentile come and turn it until he [the Israelite] returns from the synagogue or study hall without having to worry [that the meat will become prohibited]. An [Israelite] woman may put a pot on a stove and let a Gentile woman come and stir it until she [the Israelite woman] returns from the bathhouse or the synagogue without having to worry [that the contents of the pot will become prohibited].[4]

Another relevant halachah is transmitted in the name of Rabbi Simlai:

In a village, all of whose residents are priests, when they pronounce the priestly blessing [in the synagogue], whom do they bless? Their brothers in the north, their brothers in the south, their brothers in the east, their brothers in the west. And who responds “Amen”? The women and children.[5]

In ruling that in the synagogue of a village of priests, women and children are permitted to say “Amen” in response to the priestly blessing, Rabbi Simlai obviously was making the assumption that the women were in attendance.

Greater Attendance on the Sabbath

Especially on the Sabbath, women and children went to synagogue:

It is right to translate for the general public and the women and children every Torah portion and the reading from the Prophets. That is why it was ruled: “On the Sabbath the people come [to the synagogue] early and leave late.” They come early in order to recite the Shema at sunrise like the strictly observant, and leave late in order to hear the commentary on the Torah portion. On festivals, however, the people come late because they [the women] have to prepare the festive meal [eaten after families return home from the synagogue].[6]

For testimony from the Jewish Diaspora, one could mention the journeys of Paul as related in the book of Acts. Luke informs us that on a number of occasions Paul met women in synagogues. When Paul reached Philippi on the Macedonian border, he went out of the town on the Sabbath to “a [Jewish] place of prayer” by the river and there spoke to the women (Acts 16:13). Here the writer emphasizes the presence of women because he intends to tell later about the Christian baptism of Lydia the God-fearer. Similarly, when Paul came to Thessalonica, important women were drawn to his teaching (Acts 17:4).

According to one source, even young girls attended synagogue services:

Young Israelite girls would go to the synagogues to gain a reward for those who brought them and to gain a reward for themselves.[7]

Daily Attendance

Some traditions depict women attending the synagogue every day.

It is told of one woman who grew very old and came before Rabbi Yose ben Halafta and said to him: “Rabbi I have grown too old, and now my life is one of disgrace since I cannot taste any food or drink, and I wish to be relieved of this world.”
He said to her: “What commandment do you take care to observe every day?”
She said to him: “I take care that, every day, even if I have something very important to do, I leave it until later and get up early to go to the synagogue.“[8]

Elsewhere, we read about a widow who had a synagogue in her neighborhood, but who walked some distance every day to pray in Rabbi Yohanan’s study hall [where services were conducted]:

He [Rabbi Yohanan] said to her: “My daughter, don’t you have a synagogue in your own neighborhood?”
She said to him: “Teacher, don’t I receive a reward for my steps [i.e., for the extra distance I walk]?”[9]

Rabbi Yohanan is surprised that the woman attends a synagogue outside her own neighborhood; he is not surprised by her synagogue attendance.

Women Came to Learn

There is a story[10] about a woman who went to synagogue every Friday night to hear Rabbi Meir teach Torah: “Rabbi Meir would go to teach in the synagogue of Hammath [near Tiberias] every Sabbath eve, and [there][11] one woman would go to hear his teaching.”[12]

The Midrash to Deuteronomy 29:10-11 informs us that women customarily went to the bet midrash (lit., “house of study,” but used here in its wider sense as a synonym for “synagogue”) even though they did not always understand the words of the teacher. On the text, “You stand here today…your children and your wives,” Midrash ha-Gadol comments: “Even though they may not be thoroughly trained [thus not able to argue halachic points], your wives come to receive a reward.” From this comment we may assume that men and women participated in synagogue study sessions and synagogue services, which also included teaching.

On the text, “More blessed than the women in the tent” (Jdg. 5:24), the Targum adds: “She [Yael] will be blessed like one of the women who serve [i.e., study] in the study halls.”[13] This statement indicates that women were present in synagogue study halls. It is significant that “service in the study hall” is one of the conditions for acceptance as a haver (member).[14]

Halachah Assumes Women’s Attendance

baraita in Tractate Niddah presupposes that women were present with men in the synagogue: “She may not come to the Temple [in her days of menstruation]; likewise, it is not permitted for her to enter the study hall or synagogue.”[15] Elsewhere, this prohibition is repeated: “She is not permitted to enter the synagogue until she immerses herself [following the end of her menstrual period].”[16]

Although this halachah is especially strict;[17] apparently, its observance was widespread. For example, the author of the Syriac Didascalia (sixth cent. C.E.) chastened the Jewish-Christian women of his community because they did not go to church during their menstrual period.[18] My point is this: Although Jewish women did not attend synagogue services or study sessions while they were menstruating; ordinarily, they participated just as fully as the men.

The Geonim, heads of the talmudic academies in Babylonia from the seventh to eleventh centuries C.E., received many queries about women’s attendance at synagogue. Their view, with few exceptions, was that women should attend synagogue.[19] The language of the responsa (see JP Glossary) suggests that women went to the synagogue. Here, for example, are the words of the Gaon Sherira (tenth cent. C.E.):

There are women who refrain from going to the synagogue [during their menses], but they should not refrain because there is no valid reason for doing so. If [they refrain] because they think the synagogue is like the Temple, then why, after immersing themselves, do they not go? If [they refrain] because they have not made atonement [by offering a sacrifice in the Temple]…then they would never be able to go until, in some future day, they brought a sacrifice to the rebuilt Temple. If, on the other hand, they [the synagogues] are not like the Temple, then they should go. After all, we are all ritually unclean due to contact with the dead, contact with creeping things, or to pollution [through contact with semen as a result of sexual intercourse or nocturnal emissions], yet we go.[20]

There is another halachic source that takes for granted the presence of women in the synagogue. The source discusses the case of a jealous husband (see Num. 5:14) who forbids his wife to go to synagogue.

Rabbi Yose [320-350 C.E.] asked: “Can a husband be jealous of a hundred men?” Rabbi Yose son of Rabbi Bun said: “If he [the husband] ordered her not to go to the synagogue, then she goes with him.”[21]

This discussion is an attempt to clarify to what degree a man may limit his wife’s synagogue attendance. Rabbi Yose argues that it would be ridiculous for a husband to claim that his wife is giving or receiving affection from every male in the congregation; therefore, the husband is not permitted to limit his wife’s synagogue attendance. Rabbi Yose son of Rabbi Bun agrees, but he rules that a husband can forbid his wife to go alone to the synagogue. If women did not attend synagogue, or, if they attended but were secluded and kept from the gaze of men, the husband would have no cause for apprehension and this discussion would be pointless.

A Special Section for Women?

Where did women sit in the synagogue and study hall? Did they sit in a special women’s section (ezrat nashim), separated from the men by a partition (mehitsah)? Or was the women’s section a gallery such as we find in synagogues built in recent centuries?

In 1884 Leopold Loew published an article in which he argued that there is no evidence for the separation of the sexes in ancient synagogues of the land of Israel.[22] He claimed that the first reference to a mehitsah is connected with the Babylonian amora Abaye (fourth cent. C.E.) in the Babylonian Talmud.[23] Loew pointed out that this is the only literary evidence for the separation of men and women by a divider and it is unrelated to the synagogue. The source relates that at a certain assembly of men and women the sage Abaye set up a row of pitchers and the sage Rava set up a row of reeds. This would seem to refer to a temporary divider—probably a partition erected during a banquet or similar gathering—not to a permanent structure. Rashi (eleventh cent.) expresses hesitancy regarding the meaning of the passage. He comments: “A place for groups of men and women for a sermon or a wedding ceremony.”

Loew’s suggestion has not been accepted by most scholars. They have rejected it for several reasons.[24] However, there is justification for reexamining Loew’s suggestion, not only on the basis of literary sources, but also on the basis of archaeological excavation of synagogues during the last decades, both in the land of Israel and the Jewish Diaspora.

The Women’s Court

Scholars have also sought to prove the existence of an ezrat nashim in the ancient synagogue from the existence of a court in the Temple called Ezrat Nashim (Women’s Court), and from the existence of a gallery, along three of the court’s sides, built specially for women. From this gallery women watched the annual Water Drawing Celebration that took place in the Women’s Court during the nights[25] of Sukkot (the Feast of Tabernacles): the women were separated from the men during these festivities.[26]

Here we need to clarify the question of the Women’s Court. The sages viewed Jerusalem as divided into three levels of holiness, and drew a parallel between the Tabernacle and the Temple:

Just as there were three camps in the wilderness: the camp of the Shechinah, the camp of the Levites and the camp of the Israelites; so there are three camps in Jerusalem: from the entrance to Jerusalem to the entrance to the Temple Mount—the camp of the Israelites; from the entrance to the Temple Mount to Nicanor’s Gate—the camp of the Levites; from Nicanor’s Gate to the interior [of the Temple]—the camp of the Shechinah.[27]

Note that the Women’s Court is given no special status, and no distinction is made between men and women regarding admittance to the camps, or areas, of Jerusalem.[28] The Mishnah lists ten degrees of sanctity within the land of Israel, the fourth of which is the Women’s Court.[29] The sanctity of the Women’s Court derived from the regulation that no tevul yom (literally, “immersed on that day”) was to enter it. Tevul yom refers to a person who has incurred one of the uncleannesses for which Scripture ordains “he shall be unclean until evening,” has immersed him or herself in a mikveh, and now awaits the day’s end to be ritually pure.[30] The Torah did not prohibit a tevul yom from entering the camp of the Levites; this Temple stricture was a later, further precaution instituted by the sages.[31] Moreover, the Women’s Court was one of the Temple’s later architectural developments and has no halachic status.[32]

In rabbinic literature we find no distinctions between men and women regarding the areas of the Temple to which they had access such as we find between pure and impure persons, laypersons and priests, blemished and unblemished priests.[33] Like men, women offered their sacrifices at the altar in the Priests’ Court, passing through the Israelites’ Court (the men’s court) to reach the altar. A baraita says: “A woman was not seen in the [Priests’] Court unless she was bringing a sacrifice.”[34] From this it is evident that when women offered their sacrifices in the Temple, they did enter the Priests’ Court. If, for instance, a woman offered a wave offering such as first fruits, she went up to the altar, waved the offering, and placed it beside the altar.[35] Similarly, a Sotah (a woman suspected of adultery by her husband, Num. 5:11-31), whose sacrifice also required waving, entered the Priests’ Court to do so. The Nazirite’s sacrifice was also waved in the Priests’ Court (Num. 6:1-21), and rabbinic literature discusses theoretical and actual cases of women who were Nazirites.[36]

Usually, however, women did not enter the Priests’ Court and would only approach the gate between the Women’s Court and the Israelites’ Court. Josephus states explicitly that women were not allowed to enter the Israelites’ Court,[37] but it appears that Josephus is describing the ordinary situation, since his statement is confuted by tannaic traditions which report that women did enter the Israelites’ Court as they made their way to the Priests’ Court.[38]

Nor was the Women’s Court used exclusively by women. Laymen and priests who came to the Temple passed through the Women’s Court on their way to the interior courts—Josephus relates that those who were ritually clean passed through the Women’s Court together with their wives.[39] In the Women’s Court’s four corners were four chambers that were directly connected with the Temple services and used by those who came to offer sacrifices. For instance, in the southeastern corner was the Nazirites’ Chamber, used by both men and women. In another chamber were to be found the musical instruments of the Levites.[40] All the special, public ceremonies that developed in the Second Temple period took place in the Women’s Court: it was there on the Day of Atonement that the high priest read the Torah before the people,[41] and there, every seven years, they held the Hakhel, the assembly during the Feast of Tabernacles of “men, women, children and aliens” for the public reading of Torah (Deut. 31:10-13).[42]

The Great Enactment

The Water Drawing Celebration deserves special consideration because during these festivities men and women were separated. The festivities were held in the Women’s Court, which was illuminated by four huge oil lamps. Dancing and singing went on all night, while on the fifteen steps leading from the Women’s Court to the Israelites’ Court, the Levites played various musical instruments.[43] In the Mishnah we read: “Originally, it [the Women’s Court] was smooth, but [later the Court] was surrounded by a gallery so that the women could see from above and the men from below but there would be no intermingling.”[44] However, the Mishnah as well as the baraitot of Tractate Sukkah make it clear that this separation occurred only during the Water Drawing Celebration: “At the conclusion of the first festival day of Tabernacles, they [the priests and Levites] descended [the fifteen steps that led from the Israelites’ Court] to the Women’s Court where they made a great enactment.“[45] Both Talmuds and Tosefta explain that the “great enactment” was the ruling that men and women were to be separated during the Water Drawing Celebration.[46]

It is difficult to know how this enactment was carried out. Was a temporary structure erected each year—which is hard to imagine—or was a permanent gallery built?[47] At any rate, it is clear that the separation was in force only during the Water Drawing Celebration when dancing continued all night. Both the Jerusalem Talmud and the Babylonian Talmud, attempting to find scriptural basis for this custom, deduce it from the verse that commands separation at a future time of mourning:

If, in the future [the time alluded to in the prooftext, Zech. 12:12], when they will be engaged in mourning and the evil inclination will have no power over them [i.e., at such a time, a lapse in sexual conduct is less likely], the Torah [i.e., Zech. 12:12, in the statement “with their wives by themselves”] nevertheless says, “Men by themselves and women by themselves”; how much more so now [during the Water Drawing Celebration, a time when there is a much greater possibility of sexual misconduct] when they are engaged in celebrating and the evil inclination holds sway over them.[48]

However, as already mentioned, throughout the rest of the year men and women intermingled in the Women’s Court.

Massacre in Alexandria

There is another source frequently cited in scholarly literature as proof that in the ancient synagogue there existed an ezrat nashim—a baraita in the Jerusalem Talmud that recounts the massacre of the Jews of Alexandria by the wicked Roman emperor Trajan:

And the [Roman] legions surrounded them and killed them. He [Trajan] said to their wives: “If you obey the legions, I will not kill you.” They said to him:”What you have done below, do [also] above.”[49]

Scholars have supposed this massacre took place in a synagogue: the men, gathered on the ground floor, were killed first, and then the women in the women’s balcony. As proof that the incident took place in a synagogue, they quote the beginning of the story: “He came and found them engaged in studying the Torah verse, ‘The LORD will bring a nation upon you from afar, from the ends of the earth… [Deut. 28:49].’”[50] However, there is no need to suppose that the massacre took place in a synagogue. The later addition of Scripture verses to historical accounts is typical of aggadic literature. Here, a verse was added to the massacre story to teach that the massacre was decreed by God.

A different version of the Alexandrian massacre tradition appears twice in Lamentations Rabbah: “They said to him: ‘Do below what you have done above.’” In other words, Trajan had first killed the men, who were above, and then the women, who were below.[51] Furthermore, at this point, the text of the Jerusalem Talmud may be corrupt: the writer of Me’or Eynayim (sixteenth cent. C.E.) quotes the tradition about Trajan from the Jerusalem Talmud, but in the following language: “What you have done above, do below.”[52]

Thus, it appears that the reality of the Alexandrian massacre tradition is of fortress walls on which defenders were standing and fighting. First, the Roman forces scaled the walls and killed the defenders. Then they went down inside the fortress and massacred the women.

Philo and the Therapeutae

Scholarly literature often represents Philo as saying that Moses ordered the separation of men and women in the synagogue.[53] No such statement is to be found in extant texts of Philo, although he deals several times with the subject of synagogues, and even discusses the attendance of women at synagogues. His opinion is that women should go to the synagogue when the marketplace is empty so they will not be exposed to the market’s carnival-like atmosphere—women had to pass through the marketplace on their way to synagogue—but he never mentions a requirement of separation of the sexes.[54]

In describing the Therapeutae, Philo notes that when they partook of their common meals in their sanctuary, the men sat on the right and the women on the left and there was a partition between them.[55] However, one should not generalize from the Therapeutae sect about the situation in the synagogue. Indeed, one might even infer that Philo’s emphasis on the Therapeutae’s segregation of men and women implies there was no such segregation in the synagogue.

Synagogue Ruins

Isometric drawing of the fourth-century C.E. Khirbet Shema' synagogue (showing traffic patterns). Notice the stairs leading from the synagogue's central hall to a balcony, the roof-like structure facing the two rows of columns. The excavators found little evidence for the balcony entrance opposite the stairway. From Eric M. Meyers, A. Thomas Kraabel and James F. Strange, Ancient Synagogue Excavations at Khirbet Shema', Upper Galilee, Israel 1970-1972 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1976), 59, Figure 3.10.
Isometric drawing of the fourth-century C.E. Khirbet Shema’ synagogue (showing traffic patterns). Notice the stairs leading from the synagogue’s central hall to a balcony, the roof-like structure facing the two rows of columns. The excavators found little evidence for the balcony entrance opposite the stairway. From Eric M. Meyers, A. Thomas Kraabel and James F. Strange, Ancient Synagogue Excavations at Khirbet Shema’, Upper Galilee, Israel 1970-1972 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1976), 59, Figure 3.10.

Archaeological excavations have revealed that a number of ancient synagogues had balconies, for example, the synagogues of Capernaum, Chorazin, Hammath and Beth Alpha. Some scholars have concluded that these balconies were used as women’s galleries.[56] Scholars, perhaps influenced by modern Jewish custom, drew this conclusion based on the assumption that the balconies fulfilled the same function as the gallery in the Women’s Court of the Temple. But the existence of balconies in ancient synagogues does not necessarily mean the balconies were intended for women. Rabbinic sources mention various functions for synagogue balconies and upper rooms, but there is never a connection made between these structures and women.[57] Moreover, in some of the synagogues that have balconies, the stairway leading to the balcony originates in the central hall of the synagogue. (This is true of the Khirbet Shema synagogue, for instance.) To reach the staircase, a woman would have had to intermingle with the men in the central hall, a contradiction to the theory that men and women did not mix in the synagogue.

Clerestory reconstruction drawing of the fourth-century C.E. Khirbet Shema' synagogue and "North Building" (to the synagogue's right). From Eric M. Meyers, A. Thomas Kraabel, and James F. Strange, Ancient Excavations at Khirbet Shema', Upper Galilee, Israel 1970-1972 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1976), 66 Figure 3.11.
Clerestory reconstruction drawing of the fourth-century C.E. Khirbet Shema’ synagogue and “North Building” (to the synagogue’s right). From Eric M. Meyers, A. Thomas Kraabel, and James F. Strange, Ancient Excavations at Khirbet Shema’, Upper Galilee, Israel 1970-1972 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1976), 66 Figure 3.11.

Many ancient synagogues did not even have a second room or a balcony where women could be isolated—for example, the mid-third-century C.E. Dura-Europos synagogue. Dura-Europos, located in the Syrian desert on the west bank of the Euphrates River, midway between modern Aleppo and Baghdad, was a caravan stop and military fortress. Astride the ancient highway between the great centers of Jewish culture and population in Babylonia and the land of Israel, it was only natural for Dura-Europos to have a Jewish colony.

The Dura-Europos synagogue was the largest room (interior dimensions: 13.65 m. x 7.68 m.) of a complex of rooms and courtyard. Built into its interior walls and floor was a plastered bench that completely encircled the hall. The bench was interrupted only by the hall’s two entrances, both on its eastern side. The main entrance was in the center of the eastern wall, and a smaller entrance was located at the hall’s southeastern corner. About a decade before the synagogue was destroyed, a second tier was added above the floor-level bench, increasing the hall’s seating capacity from 65 to 124.

Reconstruction plans of the mid-third-century C.E. synagogue at Dura-Europos (upper drawing) and the earlier synagogue (lower drawing) discovered underneath it. From Carl H. Kraeling, The Excavations at Dura-Europos: The Synagogue (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1956), Plans VI and VIII.2.
Reconstruction plans of the mid-third-century C.E. synagogue at Dura-Europos (upper drawing) and the earlier synagogue (lower drawing) discovered underneath it. From Carl H. Kraeling, The Excavations at Dura-Europos: The Synagogue (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1956), Plans VI and VIII.2.

There is little to indicate the synagogue had a women’s gallery: the hall has no partitions; there are no dividers along the benches; there are no balconies; there were no rooms adjoining the hall. Nevertheless, Carl H. Kraeling, who wrote the synagogue excavation report, concluded that the southern entrance of the synagogue had been the women’s entrance and that the benches along the hall’s southern wall had been reserved for women.[58] He reached this conclusion because the benches along the southern wall, in contrast to the benches along the other three walls, have intermediate steps to the upper tier—presumably to allow easier access for the women—and because the benches closest to the southern entrance, those along the southern wall and those between the two entrances, have no raised footrests—presumably omitted in the women’s section for the sake of modesty.

Beneath the synagogue, remains of an earlier synagogue (165-200 C.E.) were uncovered. Apparently, this earlier synagogue also had no interior divisions. To the left of the main entrance, just outside the earlier synagogue’s southern entrance, there is a rectangular room (Room 7).[59] Kraeling designated this room a women’s gallery, concluding that at first the Jews of Dura-Europos were conservative like their brethren in the land of Israel, but later when they built the new synagogue, they were more liberal and allowed the women to sit inside the synagogue in a designated area.

There is no basis to assume that Room 7 is a women’s gallery. If that room was indeed a women’s gallery, why did it disappear when the synagogue was rebuilt? One must assume that this room was only an annex, like those that have been found in other ancient synagogues. Moreover, there is no basis to assume that the southern-wall benches of the new synagogue were reserved for women. Architectural features to facilitate ascent to the upper tier of benches are found throughout the hall, and even next to the ark. In addition, the benches between the two entrances have no raised footrests, yet also have no intermediate steps leading to the upper tier.

Fresco from the west wall of the Dura-Europos synagogue.
Fresco from the west wall of the Dura-Europos synagogue.

One cannot doubt the Jewishness of the Dura-Europos community: the synagogue’s frescoes contain traditional Jewish themes, and the Jewish quarter adjoining the synagogue was built in conformity to the halachot of eruv hatserot (see JP Glossary), the regulations for creating common courtyards—yet this synagogue has no dividers or partitions.

Synagogue Inscriptions

Much may be learned from the scores of synagogue inscriptions that have come to light. These have been found on synagogue entrances, gates and mosaic floors, and in synagogue courtyards, guest houses and ritual baths. Some inscriptions even list the synagogue’s architectural components. If a women’s gallery had existed, the writer of a synagogue inscription might easily have mentioned it; however, no inscription has come to light that mentions a women’s gallery.

I will mention only three synagogue inscriptions, one from Jerusalem dating from the Second Temple period, and two from the Diaspora dating from a later period.

The Theodotos inscription was found in Jerusalem and dates from the end of the first century B.C.E. The inscription, written in Greek, reads:

Theodotos, son of Vettenus…built this synagogue for the reading of Torah and for instruction in the commandments, and [he also built] the guest house with its rooms and water installations as lodging for needy [pilgrims] from the Diaspora.[60]

The Theodotos inscription, a dedication from a first-century B.C.E. synagogue in Jerusalem. (Photo by David Harris.)
The Theodotos inscription, a dedication from a first-century B.C.E. synagogue in Jerusalem. (Photo by David Harris.)

A Greek inscription on a column from the third-century C.E. synagogue at Stobi (on the border between Macedonia and Greece, near the modern town of Bitolj [Monastir], Yugoslavia) reads:

He [Claudius Tiberius Polycharmos] built the rooms of this holy place and the hall with its rectangular portico.[61]

In the continuation of the inscription “upper rooms” are mentioned.

A Greek inscription from the fourth-century C.E. synagogue in Sida in Asia Minor mentions a benefactor who “covered the synagogue’s benches with marble, and had two pillars and two seven-branched candelabra made.”[62]

Ancient Churches

The earliest churches have no structures that indicate a separation between men and women.[63] If women were segregated in the ancient synagogue, it is unlikely that Christians, who received their institution of the church from the Jews, would have eliminated this segregation at such an early stage. In this instance, it is likely that Jewish practice determined Christian practice.

In one of the golden-throated orator John Chrysostom’s sermons he disparaged the synagogue as a disgraceful place in which men and women intermingle.[64] Chrysostom’s intent was to ridicule the Jews and, no doubt, he exaggerated immensely, but it is difficult to imagine there would have been any point to his attacks if Jewish women had indeed sat in a special gallery or behind a permanent partition?

Unconvincing Evidence

The evidence put forward to argue that the sexes were segregated in the ancient synagogue is not convincing. While rabbinic sources spell out regulations down to the smallest details of the synagogue’s construction, seating arrangements and order of service, these sources make no mention of a special women’s section or a separating partition.[65] That women were obligated to pray and definitely went to the synagogue, yet rabbinic literature never mentions a women’s gallery, strongly argues against its existence.

The assumption the balconies found in some ancient synagogues are women’s galleries is unsupported. Furthermore, many ancient synagogues had neither a balcony nor a second room. Early churches, patterned after the synagogue model, likewise have no structures that indicate a physical separation of the sexes. Synagogue inscriptions, while sometimes mentioning various architectural elements of synagogues, never refer to a women’s gallery.

The earliest clear-cut evidence for separation of men and women in the synagogue and synagogue study hall is found in the midrash Pirke Mashiah (Chapters of the Messiah) in its description of the redemption.[66] This midrash, which almost certainly dates from the Arab period, describes the enormous bet midrash of the future. While the women stand behind a divider made of reeds, God himself teaches Torah and Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel explains God’s teaching to the people. We can assume that this description reflects current practice in the local synagogues and study halls with which the author was acquainted. The author of Pirke Mashiah lived in a Muslim land, and local Jewish custom had likely been influenced by its environment: Muslim practice was—and still is—to separate men and women in the mosque.


In the Second Temple period, women were religiously the equals of men: ancient Jewish sources from the land of Israel and from the Diaspora show that women frequented the synagogue and studied in the bet midrash (study hall). Women could be members of the quorum of ten needed to pray the “Eighteen Benedictions,” a central prayer of the daily synagogue liturgy; and, like men, women were permitted to say “Amen” in response to the priestly blessing.

There is no real evidence for the assumption that the sexes were segregated in the ancient synagogue. Women did not sit, as they do in today’s synagogues, in a special women’s gallery, or in a special women’s section separated from the men by a partition. The balconies found in the ruins of ancient synagogues are not necessarily women’s galleries. The existence of a Temple court called the Women’s Court also provides no support for the assumption that women were relegated to a balcony or special section of the synagogue. Women were not confined to the Women’s Court, nor was it exclusively for women. In it, women and men—both laymen and priests—mingled freely.

It is true that women were eventually required to watch the annual Water Drawing Celebration festivities from a special gallery above the floor of the Women’s Court. However, this separation was very brief: it was in force only for five or six nights of the year.[67] Therefore, the separation of men and women during the Water Drawing Celebration cannot be proof that there was a women’s section in the early synagogue.

  • [1] Mishnah, Berachot 3:3. Women were also obligated to listen to the reading of the scroll of Esther at Purim (Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 4a; Arachin 3a).
  • [2] Mishnah, Berachot 4:3.
  • [3] See Shmuel Safrai, “The Place of Women in First-century Synagogues,” Jerusalem Perspective 40 (Sept./Oct. 1993): 3.
  • [4]baraita found in the Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 38b-39a.
  • [5] Jerusalem Talmud, Berachot 9d (end of chpt. 5); cf. Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 38b.
  • [6] Tractate Soferim 18:6.
  • [7] Tractate Soferim, end of chpt. 18.
  • [8] Yalkut Shim’oni, Ekev, remez 871 (Midrash Yelamdenu, an early rabbinic collection, is cited as the source); Yalkut Mishle 943; Sefer ha-Likutim V, 131a (ed. L. Greenhut, 1901). See Buber’s introduction to Midrash Proverbs, p. 32.
  • [9] Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 22a.
  • [10] Jerusalem Talmud, Sotah 16d (chpt. 1); Leviticus Rabbah 9:9; Numbers Rabbah 9:20; Deuteronomy Rabbah 5:15.
  • [11] Midrash ha-Gadol on Numbers (ed. Fisch, p. 122) adds taman (there).
  • [12] Literally, “go to hear his voice.” The Midrash ha-Gadol adds darish, i.e., “go to hear his voice preaching.”
  • [13] Evidently, women were not present in the study halls in Babylonia as they were in the land of Israel and in the Hellenistic Diaspora. See Babylonian Talmud, Moed Katan 18a.
  • [14] Mishnah, Demai 2:3.
  • [15] Ch. M. Horowitz, Niddah (Frankfurt, 1890), 30-33.
  • [16] Ibid., 48.
  • [17] This baraita seems severe, but many strict halachot no doubt had their origins in ancient traditions, traces of which have survived in tannaic literature. See Saul Lieberman’s comments on Sefer Metivot pertaining to purification after childbirth in B. M. Lewin’s edition (1934), 115ff.
  • [18] Achelis-Flemming, Die Syrische Didascalia (1908), 141; Harnack-Golhardt, Texte und Untersuchungen 25 (1904). Cf. Arthur Marmorstein, “Spuren Karäischen Einfluses in der gaonäischen Halacha,” Schwartz Festschrift (Vienna, 1917), 460; idem, “Judaism and Christianity,” Hebrew Union College Annual 10 (1935): 230.
  • [19] Only the Gaon Zemah forbade menstruating women from entering the synagogue. Cf. Otsar ha-Geonim, Berachot, pp. 48-49.
  • [20] Sefer Kol Bo, “Laws of the Niddah.”
  • [21] Jerusalem Talmud, Sotah 16c (chpt. 1).
  • [22] Leopold Loew, “Der Synagogale Ritus,” Monatschrift für Geschichte und Wissenschaft des Judentums 33 (1884): 364-374; later republished in Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Immanuel Loew (1898), 4:55-71.
  • [23] Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 81a.
  • [24] See Emil Schürer, Geschichte des jüdischen Volkes im Zeitalter Jesu Christi II4 (1901-1911), 527; cf. revised English version of Schürer’s work, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ (175 B.C.-A.D. 135), ed. Geza Vermes, Fergus Millar and Matthew Black (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1979), 2:447-448, note 98; Jean Juster, Les Juifs dans l’Empire romain (1914), 1:458; Samuel Krauss, Synagogale Altertümer (1922), 357; idem, The History of Synagogues in Israel (1955), 339; Solomon Schechter, Studies in Judaism (1920), 1:313-326; E. L. Sukenik, Ancient Synagogues in Palestine and Greece (1934), 48; but cf. I. L. Elbogen, Der jüdische Gottesdienst (1931), 466-469.
  • [25] The festivities of the Water Drawing Celebration took place every night of the Feast of Sukkot excluding Sabbath and festival day itself, six nights if the first day of Sukkot fell on a Sabbath, five nights if it did not (Mishnah, Sukkah 5:1).
  • [26] Tosefta, Sukkah 4:1; Jerusalem Talmud, Sukkah 55b (chpt. 5); Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 51b.
  • [27] Tosefta, Kelim Bava Kamma 1:12; Sifre Numbers, Naso 1; to 5:2 (ed. Horovitz, p. 4); Babylonian Talmud, Zevahim 116b; Numbers Rabbah 7:8.
  • [28] Cf. Shmuel Safrai, “The Role of Women in the Temple,” Jerusalem Perspective 21 (Jul./Aug. 1989): 5-6.
  • [29] Mishnah, Kelim 1:6-9: “There are ten levels of sanctity: the land of Israel is holier than any other land…the walled cities [of the land of Israel] are even holier…[the area] within the walls [of Jerusalem] is even holier…the Temple Mount is even holier…the rampart [which surrounds the wall of the three inner courts] is even holier…the Women’s Court is even holier…the Israelites’ Court is even holier…the Priests’ Court is even holier…the area between the porch and the altar is even holier…the sanctuary is even holier…the Holy of Holy is even holier.”
  • [30] Mishnah, Kelim 1:8.
  • [31] Babylonian Talmud, Pesahim 92b; Yevamot 7b; Zevahim 32b; cf. Jerusalem Talmud, Eruvin 22c (chpt. 5).
  • [32] Cf. Adolf Büchler, “The Fore-court of Women and the Brass Gate in the Temple of Jerusalem,” Jewish Quarterly Review 10 (1898): 667-718. Büchler suggests that the Women’s Court was created only in the last days of the Second Temple, but his arguments are unconvincing. Nevertheless, he is surely right in asserting that the Women’s Court was not one of the most ancient parts of the Temple.
  • [33] The anonymous sage who is quoted by Rabbi Joseph Ashkenazi (16th cent. C.E.) was right: “I have not found a text that says the Israelites’ Court is holier than the Women’s Court because women do not enter it. One may conclude, therefore, that women were not prohibited [from entering the Israelites’ Court]” (Melechet Shlomoh on Mishnah, Kelim 1:8).
  • [34] Tosefta, Arachin 2:1.
  • [35] Mishnah, Bikkurim 1:5; 3:6.
  • [36] Cf. Tosafot on Kiddushin 52b, to the paragraph, “Ve-chi ishah ba-’azarah, minayin?”
  • [37] Antiquities 15:419; War 5:199, 227.
  • [38] Büchler erred in accepting Josephus’ description. Cf. Büchler, op. cit., 697, note 1.
  • [39] Antiquities 15:418.
  • [40] Mishnah, Middot 2:5-6.
  • [41] Mishnah, Yoma 7:1; Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 69b.
  • [42] Mishnah, Sotah 7:8; Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 41b.
  • [43] Mishnah, Sukkah 5:1-4.
  • [44] Mishnah, Middot 2:5.
  • [45] Mishnah, Sukkah 5:2.
  • [46] Jerusalem Talmud, Sukkah 55b (chpt. 5); Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 51b; Tosefta, Sukkah 4:1.
  • [47] Cf. Rashi’s commentary on this passage (Sukkah 51b), and Ch. Albeck’s commentary on the Mishnah (Sukkah 5:2).
  • [48] Jerusalem Talmud, Sukkah 55b (chpt. 5); Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 51b.
  • [49] Jerusalem Talmud, Sukkah 55b (chpt. 5).
  • [50] Meir Ish Shalom was the first to make this suggestion (see Bet Talmud 4:200; cf. Sukenik, loc. cit.).
  • [51] Lamentations Rabbah, chpt. 1 (ed. Buber, p. 83); chpt. 4 (ed. Buber, p. 152).
  • [52] Ed. D. Kassel, p. 181.
  • [53] Based on Eusebius’ Praeparatio Evangelica 12:8. The source of this misunderstanding is apparently Juster (Les Juifs dans l’Empire romain, 1:458), from whom it has been copied by several other scholars.
  • [54] The Special Laws 3:171 (cf. Against Flaccus 89). See I. Heinemann, Philons griechische und jüdische Bildung (1932, repr. 1962), 234, and F. H. Colson’s note to 7:640 in the Loeb Classical Library edition of Philo. Philo also discusses matters pertaining to synagogues in his work Every Good Man Is Free, but without mentioning a women’s gallery.
  • [55] The Contemplative Life 69, 32.
  • [56] Cf. H. Kohl and C. Watzinger, Antike Synagogen in Galilaea (1916, repr. 1973), 35, plate II; Sukenik, loc. cit.; Sukenik, The Ancient Synagogue of Beth Alpha (Jerusalem, 1932), 15.
  • [57] Cf., for example, Jerusalem Talmud, Berachot 5d (end of chpt. 2); Shabbat 3a (chpt. 2); Babylonian Talmud, Hullin 92a.
  • [58] Cf. Carl H. Kraeling, The Excavations at Dura-Europos: The Synagogue (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1956), 8:16, 23.
  • [59] Ibid., plan VIII and p. 31.
  • [60] This inscription was published several times. See J.-B. Frey, Corpus Inscriptionum Iudaicarum (1952), inscription 1404, 2:332-335. Cf. also Moshe Schwabe, Sefer Yerushalaim (1956), 1:362-365 (Hebrew).
  • [61] Frey, Corpus Inscriptionum Iudaicarum (1936), inscription 694, 1:504-507. See Frey for a list of articles that discuss this inscription.
  • [62] Frey, inscription 781, 2:38-39. See Frey for a list of articles that discuss this inscription.
  • [63] Michael Rostovtzeff, Dura-Europos and its Art (1938), 100-134; John Winter Crowfoot, Early Churches in Palestine (1941), 1-8.
  • [64] Chrysostom, Orations against the Jews (Adversus Judaeos) I, 2.
  • [65] Cf. Tosefta, Megillah, chpt. 3; Tractate Soferim; Mishneh TorahTefillah, chpt. 11.
  • [66] Bet ha-Midrash (1855), 3:75.
  • [67] See footnote 25.

“And” or “In order to” Remarry

Revised: 4-Sep-2012

In the whole of Luke’s gospel, there is just one context in which the verbs “divorce” and “marry” appear together. That passage—only one verse—ought to contribute to a correct understanding of Jesus’ attitude toward divorce and remarriage; however, there exists no scholarly consensus on the passage’s meaning.

Any man who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and a man who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery. (Luke 16:18)

In the first half of Luke 16:18, Jesus appears to teach that a man who has divorced his wife should not remarry.[1]  In the verse’s second half, Jesus seems to say that no man should marry a divorced woman. Does this simplistic interpretation of a difficult verse do justice to Jesus’ approach to Torah?

Luke 16:18 is very “Semitic,” that is, it is full of Semitic idioms, an indication that Jesus may have uttered the saying in Hebrew or Aramaic. Many scholars in Israel have learned that the most effective way to approach a passage from the synoptic gospels is, first, to put its Greek text into Hebrew, then, study the resultant Hebrew reconstruction in light of first-century Jewish exegesis.[2]

Nuances of Hebrew “And”

While the English word “and” can mean “also,” “as well as,” or can be used like a comma to connect words, phrases and sentences, the Hebrew -ו (vav, and) can do the work of “but,” “or,” “so,” “then,” “because,” “therefore,” “namely,” “since,” “while,” “on the contrary,” and more. Hebrew frequently uses vav where English would use no word at all, and in such cases the best translation is simply to drop the “and” entirely. In many instances, to translate vav as “and” would obscure the vav‘s true meaning.

Greek καί (kai, and), like English “and,” does not have the wide range of meaning possessed by Hebrew vav.[3]  Old Testament commentators and translators are well aware of the many idiomatic usages of vav, but their New Testament counterparts have only begun to examine the kais of the gospels. Obviously, Jewish thought heavily influences the gospels, and if, as well, Jesus uttered his sayings in Hebrew, an English translation that did not take this Hebraic background into account would fall short. Translating every kai literally as “and” may be as inaccurate as translating every vav in the Hebrew Scriptures as “and.”

Concordia Maritale (marital bliss and harmony) symbolized in a ketubbah from Rome, 1797.
[Photo courtesy of The Jewish National and University Library.]

The “And” of Purpose

“In order to, in order that, so that” is another meaning of vav (and). Linguists refer to this vav as the “and of purpose or intention.”[4]  It occurs frequently in biblical Hebrew, for example: “Let my people go, and [i.e., so that] they may worship me in the wilderness” (Exod. 7:16).[5]

Apparently, contrary to normal Greek usage, Greek’s kai (and) in the sense of “to, in order to” occurs in the synoptic gospels. An example of this usage may exist in Luke 16:18a: “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery.”[6]

The meaning “in order to” fits Luke 16:18a better than simple “and.” The Greek text[7]  reverts easily and smoothly to beautiful Hebrew: כָּל הַמְּגָרֵשׁ אֶת אִשְׁתּוֹ וְנוֹשֵׂא אַחֶרֶת מְנָאֵף (kol hamegaresh et ishto venose aheret, mena’ef, Anyone who divorces his wife and marries [i.e., in order to marry] another [f.] is committing adultery).[8]

Vav (and) in the sense of “in order to” is also attested in Mishnaic or Middle Hebrew, the Hebrew that many scholars in Israel believe Jesus spoke. See, for example: “He who begins to wish that his wife will die and [i.e., in order that] he will inherit her property, or that she will die and [i.e., in order that] he will marry her sister….” (Tosefta, Sotah 5:10).[9]

The Jewish Background

The background to Jesus’ saying seems to be a debate between the schools of Shammai and Hillel concerning the grounds for divorce. The debate revolves around the interpretation of an expression found in Deuteronomy 24:1: “After a man has taken a wife and consummated the marriage, if she ceases to please him because he has found an indecency of thing in her, then he shall write her a bill of divorce, hand it to her and send her away from his house.”

The expression עֶרְוַת דָּבָר (ervat davar), literally, “indecency of thing,” is obscure. Consequently, it lends itself to various interpretations, as the rabbinic debate shows:

The school of Shammai says: “A man may not divorce his wife unless he has found a thing of indecency in her, for it is written, ‘because he has found an indecency of thing in her.'” But the school of Hillel says: “[He may divorce her] even if she ruined a dish of food [she prepared for him], for it is written, ‘because he has found an indecency of thing in her.'” Rabbi Akiva says: “Even if he found another more beautiful than she, for it is written, ‘if she ceases to please him.'” (Mishnah, Gittin 9:10)

Wedding ceremony, Germany. Detail of an engraving from J. Ch. G. Bodenschatz, Kirchliche Verfassung der heutigen Juden, 1748.
[Photo courtesy of The Israel Museum.]
According to Shammai’s interpretation, the emphasis should be on the word “indecency” in the phrase “indecency of thing.” Therefore, reversing the order of the words, he interprets the phrase as “a thing of indecency,”[10]  that is, “something indecent.” In his view, marital infidelity is the only grounds for divorce. According to Hillel, however, the emphasis should be on the word, “thing.” In Hillel’s view, a husband may divorce his wife for anything, for instance, for any imperfection or for any act that is offensive to him. He is permitted to divorce her even for burning his toast. Rabbi Akiva agrees that it is the husband’s right to divorce his wife for any cause, illustrating his point with an extreme example: A husband may divorce his wife even if he finds another woman who is more pleasing to him.[11]

A key link to Jesus’ saying is the word “another” in Akiva’s statement: “Even if he found אַחֶרֶת (aheret, another [f.]) more beautiful than she.” Jesus’ use of this word in a divorce context makes it likely that he was attacking the view espoused by Rabbi Akiva. (Although Akiva lived approximately one hundred years after Jesus, Luke 16:18a suggests that Akiva’s view existed in Jesus’ day.) Here, Jesus gives a legal opinion. Siding with Shammai, he rules that there is only one cause for divorce—marital unfaithfulness.[12]

Luke 16:18b and “Translation-ease”

From internal and external evidence, many scholars of the Jerusalem School of Synoptic Research have reached the conclusion that the earliest stratum of the synoptic gospel tradition was communicated in Hebrew; therefore, when evaluating gospel passages, they apply, among others, the test of “translation-ease,” the ease with which one is able to translate a passage to Hebrew. If a passage translates easily to Hebrew, they tend to assume it belongs to the earliest stratum of the text; if not, they suspect it may have been added, or modified, by a Greek hand during or after the text’s translation to Greek. The beautiful Greek of Luke’s prologue (Luke 1:1-4), for instance, testifies that the prologue is a later addition to the gospel narrative.

The first half of Luke 16:18 translates easily into Hebrew; but its second half (literally, “and the one, a woman having been dismissed from a husband, marrying, commits adultery”) is difficult to put into Hebrew. Since the verse’s second half does not pass the “translation-ease” test, one might suspect that it was not originally part of Jesus’ saying; on the other hand, it contains a Matthean-Lukan minor agreement: Matthew and Luke (Matt 5:32b; Luke 16:18b) agree against Mark (Mark 10:12) to use the word ἀπολελυμένην (apolelymenen, having been dismissed).[13] Minor agreements are a strong indication of originality;[14]  therefore, it is likely that initially the saying did have two parts, and that Luke or the author of the second of Luke’s two sources, modified the saying’s second part.

A Hebraic Doublet

If we assume this saying had two parts, there is a strong possibility that the second part was the second component of a Hebrew doublet. Though superfluous to the Greek ear, repetition of words, phrases, sentences, and even stories, is characteristic of Hebrew. Parallelism—expressing the same thought in two or more different, though synonymic, ways—for instance, is the hallmark of Hebrew poetry. When teaching, Jesus frequently employed doublets (e.g., “tax collectors and sinners”; Matt 11:19, Luke 7:34) and parallelisms (e.g., “Do not travel Gentile roads, and do not enter Samaritan cities” [Matt 10:5], where “travel” is parallel to “enter,” and “Gentile roads” is parallel to “Samaritan cities”).[15]

Early second-century A.D. ketubbah from the “archives” of Babata, discovered in a cave in the vicinity of the Dead Sea.
[Photo courtesy of The Shrine of the Book, Israel Museum.]
If we reconstruct Luke 16:18b, staying as close to the Greek text as the Hebrew language will allow, we get: וְהַנּוֹשֵׂא אֶת הָאִשָּׁה הַמְּגֹרֶשֶׁת מְנָדאֵף (vehanose et ha’ishah hamegoreshet mena’ef, and he who marries the divorced woman commits adultery). An idiomatic translation would yield: “Furthermore, he who marries that divorced woman is committing adultery.”[16]

A Further Warning

Based on Luke 16:18, we can suppose that Jesus, like Shammai, holds that adultery is the only grounds for divorce; and therefore, that Jesus views the bill of divorce given by a husband who intends to marry another woman as being invalid from the outset. Thus, subsequent marriages contracted by the husband or wife are null and void, and any children produced by such marriages are illegitimate. Since future marriages of such a wife have no validity, anyone who marries her will be entering into an adulterous relationship.[17]  Should the divorced wife and her second husband learn of the first husband’s real motive for divorcing her, they would be obligated to separate immediately.[18]

The second part of Jesus’ saying is not addressed to the man who might marry a wife sinfully divorced—the man would not contract the marriage if he were aware of the true reason for the divorce; rather, it is a strengthening of the warning given in the doublet’s first part. “Realize the far-reaching consequences of your sinful act,” Jesus warns the husband contemplating divorce. “Not only will you yourself commit adultery, you will cause your wife and her second husband to live in adultery.” Through marriage, a man and his wife become one flesh (Matt 19:4-6). Should they divorce for reasons other than marital infidelity, any subsequent relationship into which they entered would be adulterous.

New and Old

Both parts of Luke 16:18 are exegetical innovations, that is, they are new interpretations of Scripture. The sages believed that the Torah was a bottomless well: one could dig deeper and deeper, ever gaining new insights inherent in the Torah given to Moses at Sinai. Jesus spoke of this when he said: “Every scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a landlord who brings out of his storeroom new treasures [i.e., innovative interpretations of his own] as well as old [i.e., what he has learned from his teachers]” (Matt 13:52).

The first part of Luke 16:18 is an innovation: Jesus rules that divorcing one’s wife in order to marry another is adultery. This statement goes beyond the formulations that Jesus had heard from his teachers. His interpretation “establishes or strengthens” the Torah (Matt 5:17), that is, his innovation reinforces and clarifies the Torah. The second part of the verse is also an innovation, and more startling[19]  than the first: the husband who divorces his wife to marry another will not only himself break the seventh of the Ten Commandments, he may cause others to break it.[20]

Grounds for Divorce

Viewed from a Hebraic and Jewish perspective, Luke 16:18 does not address the question of whether divorce is ever permissible. Surely Jesus believed that a husband is permitted to divorce his wife if she is engaged in an adulterous relationship.[21]  Nor does Luke 16:18 deal with the permissibility of remarriage after divorce. Jesus probably believed, as did his contemporaries, that both marriage partners, having terminated a marriage with a legally binding bill of divorce, were permitted to remarry.

The church in Corinth wrote to Paul asking for his rulings on several issues relating to marriage. One of these issues was what a follower of Jesus should do about an unbelieving mate whom he or she had married before becoming a believer.[22]  Paul’s response: “If the unbelieving marriage partner is determined to separate, let him or her do so. The believing man or woman is not bound in such cases. God has called us to live lives of peace” (1 Cor. 7:15). In other words, if the unbelieving spouse cannot live with his or her marriage partner’s new beliefs, the believing spouse should not attempt, by legal or other means, to prevent the unbelieving partner from separating. By “not bound,” Paul also means, presumably, that the believing partner is free to remarry.

The sages legislated additional grounds for divorce,[23]  for example, infertility. They ruled that if a man had been married for ten years and still had no children, he was not exempt from the commandment to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28). He was obligated to divorce his wife and marry another woman in an attempt to father children.[24]

A Context for Luke 16:18?

In Luke’s arrangement, there is no context for Luke 16:18, the last in a series of three contextless sayings. In Matthew’s gospel, each of these sayings has its own context, perhaps indicating that Luke or the author of one of Luke’s sources has joined these sayings after separating them from their contexts. Does the story in Matthew 19:3-9 (parallel to Mark 10:2-12) provide the original context for Luke 16:18? Since Luke seems to preserve Jesus’ saying better than Matthew, perhaps Luke 16:18 should be inserted into Matthew’s context as a replacement for Matthew 19:9. Though conjectural, I suggest the following reconstruction:

And Pharisees approached him and tested him, saying, “May a man divorce his wife for any reason?” He answered and said, “Have you not read that he who created them, from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Thus it is that a man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife, and the two become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined, let no one separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce and to divorce?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. But I say to you, anyone who divorces his wife to marry another is committing adultery; furthermore, he who marries that divorced woman is committing adultery.”

What Would Jesus Do?

What would Jesus have said to a man who had divorced, or was about to divorce, his wife in order to marry another? We can suppose that, since he abhorred divorce,[25]  he would have spoken sternly to the man. He would have told him (paraphrasing Luke 16:18): “It is detestable for you to divorce the ‘wife of your youth,’ the one who has shared your life and stood by you for years, in order to marry a younger, more physically attractive woman. In addition, your sin may cause others to enter adulterous relationships.”

However, Jesus would have tempered his stern rebuke with compassion. He would have tried to restore the marriage. If neither the man nor his wife had yet contracted another marriage, he would have urged the man to repent and be reconciled to his wife. If the man showed a readiness to repent, before concluding the conversation, Jesus probably would have said to the man, as he did to the woman caught in adultery, “Go and sin no more.”[26]


This article illustrates how important rabbinic literature can be for gaining a perspective that allows accurate interpretation of gospel texts. The article also shows that the synoptic gospels’ Hebraic background can often provide the necessary clues for understanding Jesus’ words. Furthermore, the article demonstrates that even the most insignificant grammatical feature of Hebrew—in this case, one nuance of a one-letter word—can be important for understanding the words of Jesus.

The “and” in Luke 16:18a is probably the Semitic “and of purpose.” This idiom together with, in the same context, the word “another” strengthen the likelihood that the background to Jesus’ statement is a rabbinic debate on the meaning of ervat davar (indecency of thing) in Deuteronomy 24:1. Like Shammai, Jesus interprets the expression as “a thing of indecency,” that is, marital infidelity, strongly opposing Hillel’s interpretation, which allows a man to divorce his wife “for any cause.”

We can easily reconstruct Luke 16:18a, but Luke 16:18b is difficult. Apparently, Luke 16:18b has suffered considerably during its transmission in Greek; however, one can conjecture its original wording: “A man commits adultery if he marries a woman whose husband has divorced her in order to marry another.” Luke 16:18b, just five words in Hebrew, comprise a devastatingly clear restatement of Shammai’s position on the grounds for divorce. They also are a brilliant piece of exegesis.

Many a faithful Christian woman has been discarded by a husband who has found “another more beautiful than she.” Though innocent, she has suffered humiliation and public ostracism. Because of her understanding of Scripture, she may have remained single the rest of her life, considering it a sin to remarry. Jesus’ words should act as a warning: a husband who divorces his wife “to marry another” sets in motion a chain of disasters—in his life and the lives of many others.

This article is lovingly dedicated to the memory of my grandmother, Gladys Rose, née Guffy (1897-1976). The photograph was taken in November 1917, at the time of her wedding. In 1926, she fled from her husband, returning to the home of her parents in Cleveland, Oklahoma, where she raised her three children. In 1928 she was granted a divorce. A devout Christian, she believed that it would be a sin for her to remarry while her husband was still living. He remarried three times, but she remained single for the rest of her life, never even dating again. – DB


After completing my article, I had the good fortune to meet John Nolland at Trinity College, Bristol, U.K., and he called my attention to his article, “The Gospel Prohibition of Divorce: Tradition, History and Meaning,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 58 (1995). In his article (p. 33) he suggested that the subject of Mark 10:11-12 and parallels is divorce for the sake of remarriage. He asserted that the Greek church fathers often understood καί (kai, and) in the phrase “and marries another” (Matt 19:9; Mark 10:11; Luke 16:18) as denoting purpose; however, he gave no examples of this usage. Instead, he referred the reader to A.-L. Descamps (“Les textes évangéliques sur le mariage,” Revue théologique de Louvain 9 [1978]: 259-286; 11 [1980]: 5-50; 16: note 37). Descamps, too, provided no examples from the church fathers, referring the reader to A. Houssiau, (Le lien conjugal dans l’Église ancienne in Mélanges Andrieu-Guitrancourt [Paris, 1973], 571).

Later, I read Nolland’s magnificent commentary on Luke (Luke [WBC 35A-35C; Dallas: Word Books, 1989-1993]). In it (on pp. 821-822) he wrote:

Whereas the subject of the related tradition in Mark 10:2-9 is divorce, the subject here is divorce and remarriage. Indeed it is very likely that the subject here is divorce for the sake of remarriage. It can only be the existence of the Matthean exception clauses that, situated as they are between the verbs that express the two actions, has stood in the way of an adequate consideration of this understanding of the text (Descamps, RTL 11 [1980], 16, n. 37, has noted that among the Greek Fathers the linking καί [lit. ‘and’] was often understood in a final sense [that is as denoting purpose: so, ‘dismisses…in order to marry’])…. At the very least we may say that the divorce is no more than the logically necessary antecedent to the remarriage, and since the focus of the saying is upon the remarriage, it is most natural to take the sense as ‘divorces in order to.’

Professor Nolland suggested the interpretation of Luke 16:18 that I suggested in my article, “‘And’ or ‘In order to’ Remarry” JerPers 50 (Jan.-Mar. 1996): 10-17, 35-38 (later expanded to the present online article), that is, that Jesus’ words were directed against divorce for the sake of remarriage, divorce in order to marry a paramour. Nolland assumes the idiomatic καί in the sense of “in order to” has Greek origins while I assume it is a Hebraism. In his commentary, as in his article (both of which predate my article, but which were unknown to me when I prepared my article in 1995), Nolland provides support for his assertion that Jesus’ intent was divorce for the sake of remarriage by referring the reader to Descamps. Without examples in the Greek Church Fathers of καί denoting purpose, it is difficult to assume a Greek usage. It seems more probable that we have another example of the numerous Hebraisms displayed in Greek texts of the synoptic gospels, in this case, a clause beginning with “and” denoting purpose or intention. By back-translating the Greek of Luke 16:18 to Hebrew, the saying becomes idiomatic Hebrew and makes sense in its first-century Jewish cultural setting.


by Judy Maxwell

Because my church in Gloucester [U.K.] opposed my call to serve as a missionary in Ecuador with Wycliffe on grounds of pre-conversion sin, I believed that a broken marriage, whoever was at fault, was an unforgivable sin. Therefore, I was constantly trying to prove myself, working ceaselessly to gain acceptance with God and man.

I can identify with your grandmother’s belief that it would be a sin to remarry and her consequent lifestyle. I did not desire to do so, but only to know I was forgiven by God, and that Calvary was sufficient.

In the course of time, my Heavenly Father used the love of a few hand-picked people, especially our “Wycliffe gang,” my extended family, to start the healing in my heart from the condemnation I had felt as a divorced believer. Your article, “‘And’ or ‘In order to’ Remarry” completed that healing. As a result, I wrote the poem, “Washed, Sanctified, Justified.”

Washed, Sanctified, Justified

“To Him who loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood, and has made us kings and priests to His God and Father, to Him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.” (Revelation 1:5b; NKJV)

Father, before I was even conceived
You knew me. You chose me to be conformed
to the image of Your beloved Son
You longed for me. Yet, dead in sins that barred
me from Your presence, shut out, my life marred,
I strayed like a lost sheep outside the fold.

Father, before I knew You, I did so
many things to grieve You, yet You loved me.
You drew me into Your presence, this one
who had rebelled against You, sunk so low…
In compassion You longed to relieve me,
Gave Your only-begotten Son to save me.

And yet some, disregarding Calvary,
still kept my broken marriage forever set
in stone, as though my Lord could not erase
this single sin but gave to me alone
a slate that was not clean. In agony,
I searched His word again: His truth sets free!

Washed, sanctified, justified, I stand before
our Lord, my Glory and the Lifter of my head:
accepted in the Beloved—no more,
no less a saint than any He has cleansed—
redeemed, now white as snow. Yes! Freed from dread
and qualified to serve the God I love.

© Judy Maxwell, 2006.

Comment from Douglas Hadfield (Helmdon, Northamptonshire, England ) that was published in the “Readers’ Perspective” column of Jerusalem Perspective 52 (Jul.-Sept. 1997): 7.

I was very impressed by your article about divorce [David Bivin, “‘And’ or ‘In order to’ Remarry,” Jerusalem Perspective 50 (Jan.-Mar. 1996): 10-17, 35-38], and the various meanings of vav [and]. My Greek lexicon confirms that Greek καί [kai, and], unlike Hebrew vav [and], cannot be the “and of purpose or intention.”

On the other hand, the English word “and” can have more meanings than kai. In particular, it can be “introducing a consequence, actual or predicted” (The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 1947). Of the two examples of this usage given by the dictionary, one is from Lk. 10:28: “This do, and thou shalt live,” which is clearly a quotation from one of the examples you give from the Hebrew Scriptures: “Do this and [i.e., so that] you may live” (Gen. 42:18).

The editor of the dictionary, knowing that the English “and” could introduce a consequence, evidently recognized the “and” of Lk. 10:28 as a good example of the usage. He may or may not have known that the English “and” was a straightforward translation from the Greek kai, which does not imply a consequence. He is unlikely to have recognized that the Greek word was an overly literal translation of vav, and that the Hebrew word implies not only a consequence, but even the intention of such a consequence.

  • [1] Thus, apparently, Jesus would not consider a man an adulterer if he divorced his wife but did not remarry.
  • [2] The conclusions presented in this article grew out of a study of the nuances of the Hebrew word -ו (vav, and) that I carried out in the mid-1980s. I found that many of these Hebraic nuances were displayed in the Gospels by καί (kai, and), vav‘s Greek equivalent. The results of this study were initially published in 1987 (David Bivin, “The Hebrew Connection: Vav,” Dispatch from Jerusalem [1st Quarter, 1987]: 7), then revised and republished in 1989 (idem, [“Hebrew Nuggets” series,] “Lesson 17: ‘Vav [Part 1],'” Jerusalem Perspective 17 [Feb. 1989]: 3; “Lesson 18: ‘Vav [Part 2],'” Jerusalem Perspective 18 [Mar. 1989]: 3).
  • [3] The Greek word καί (kai) can mean “and,” “also,” “even,” “just,” “as,” and in certain expressions, “or.” See Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, revised and augmented by Henry Stuart Jones with Roderick McKenzie (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968), 857-858. Grammars and lexicons of New Testament Greek can be misleading since, often, the only support they provide for a particular nuance of kai is a citation from the synoptic gospels. Such citations may merely reflect the synoptic gospels’ Semitic background.
  • [4] See Francis Brown, with the cooperation of S. R. Driver and Charles Briggs, The New Brown-Driver-Briggs-Gesenius Hebrew and English Lexicon (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1979; reprint of Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament [London: Oxford University Press, 1907]), 254, §3. The best categorization of the nuances of vav (with biblical examples of each) is found in A New Concordance of the Bible, ed. Abraham Even-Shoshan (Jerusalem: Kiryath Sepher, 1987), 317 (Hebrew).
  • [5] Other examples are: “…I will not accept so much as a thread or the thong of a sandal belonging to you, and [i.e., so that] you will not be able to say, ‘It is I who made Abram rich'” (Gen. 14:23); “Do this and [i.e., so that] you may live” (Gen. 42:18); “They [Aaron and his sons] shall wash [their hands and feet] in water and [i.e., so that] they will not die” (Exod. 30:21).
  • [6] For more than a decade, I assumed that no scholar before me had noticed this Semitic nuance of καί (kai, and). Neither standard English commentaries on Luke (e.g., The Anchor Bible [Doubleday]; The International Critical Commentary [T. & T. Clark]; The New International Greek Testament Commentary [Eerdmans]) nor the modern English translations I checked mention it. However, unique discoveries are extremely rare in the field of gospel scholarship: a legion of brilliant scholars have carefully combed the gospels. Indeed, as I prepared this article for publication, I came across a New Testament version whose translator had recognized the idiom: The New Testament: A Private Translation in the Language of the People by Charles B. Williams (Chicago: Moody Press, 1958). Williams’ translation of Luke 16:18a reads: “Any man who divorces his wife to marry another woman commits adultery.”

    Williams added a footnote to the word “to” of his translation: “And, in Aramaic source, expressing purpose.” Since Williams may have gotten his insight from a reference work he used, it is likely that at least one other scholar has noticed this interesting feature of Luke 16:18a. In any case, Williams’ translation is remarkable considering the lack of attention the idiom has received. As to Williams’ reference to Aramaic, it must be pointed out that the idiom also exists in Hebrew.

  • [7] Including the opening πᾶς ὁ (pas ho, anyone or everyone who…), the equivalent of Hebrew -כָּל הַ or -כָּל שֶׁ (kol ha- or kol she, anyone, or everyone, who…), so typical of rabbinic sayings. Compare, for example, these sayings from the Mishnah: “Anyone who delves into four things—What is above; What is below; What was formerly; What will be hereafter—it were better for him if he had not come into the world” (Hagigah 2:1); “Anyone who forgets one word of what he has learned is worthy of death” (Avot 3:9); “Anyone who profanes the name of Heaven in secret will be requited openly” (Avot 4:4); “Anyone who honors the Torah is himself honored by others” (Avot 4:6); and “Anyone who fulfills the Torah in poverty will in the end fulfill it in wealth” (Avot 4:9).

    The pas ho construction is as frequent in the gospels as in rabbinic literature. For example: “anyone who is angry with his brother” (Matt 5:22); “anyone who looks at a woman lustfully” (Matt 5:28); “everyone who hears these words of mine” (Matt 7:26); “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled” (Luke 14:11); and “everyone who falls on that stone” (Luke 20:18).

    Notice that πᾶς ὁ ἀπολύων (pas ho apoly’on, anyone divorcing, anyone who divorces), is a Matthean-Lukan minor agreement against Mark ( Matt 5:32a; Mark 10:11; Luke 16:18a). Mark gives ὃς ἂν ἀπολύσῃ (hos an apolyse, whoever if he shall divorce…).

  • [8] For examples of the expression הַמְּגָרֵשׁ אֶת אִשְׁתּוֹ (hamegaresh et ishto…, the [man] who divorces his wife…), see Mishnah, Gittin 8:9 and 9:1.
  • [9] This example was called to my attention by Joseph Frankovic.
  • [10] The phrase דְּבַר עֶרְוָה (devar ervah; a thing of indecency) occurs a second time in the Mishnah, in Yevamot 3:5.
  • [11] Joseph Frankovic pointed out to me that Saul Lieberman has suggested a possible reason for Rabbi Akiva’s stance. In Lieberman’s comment on Tosefta, Sotah 5:10 (“[A man who marries an unsuitable woman not only violates five commandments,] but also causes propagation and procreation to cease from the earth”), he explains:

    In Avot de-Rabbi Natan, version A, chpt. 3 [ed. Schechter, p. 8a]; parallel to version B, chpt. 4 [ed. Schechter, p. 8b])…it is because he [the husband] hates her that he wishes she were dead, and as a result he causes propagation and procreation to cease from the earth. It appears that this was the reason Rabbi Akiva permitted a man to divorce his wife if he found another more beautiful than she, since, in Akiva’s opinion it is better for him to divorce her than for him to keep her and be beset constantly by the thought: “I wish she were dead.” See Derek Eretz Rabbah, chpt 11 [ed. Higger, p. 313]. (Tosefta Ki-fshutah: A Comprehensive Commentary on the Tosefta [New York: The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1973], p. 663 [to lines 83-84] [Hebrew])

    The Derek Eretz Rabbah passage, to which Lieberman refers, reads:

    Ben Azzai says, “He who hates his wife is a murderer, for it is said, ‘And invents charges against her’ [Deut. 22:14], and in the end he may hire false witnesses to testify against her and have her brought hastily to the place of stoning.”

  • [12] Shmuel Safrai has informed me that in several instances Jesus’ halachot, or rulings, follow those of Shammai rather than Hillel. Further, where the status of women is at issue, Jesus’ halachot, like Shammai’s, always strengthen the woman’s position. See J. N. Epstein’s discussion of Mark 7:11-12 (= Matt 15:5) and Matt 23:16-18 in his Introduction to Tannaitic Literature: Mishna, Tosephta and Halakhic Midrashim (Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, and Tel Aviv: Dvir, 1957), 377-378 (Hebrew).

    It is frequently assumed that Jesus was closer in outlook to Hillel than to Shammai. That is not true, as Jesus’ halachah on divorce shows. According to Safrai, Jews in the Galilee usually followed the halachot of Shammai (private communication), which often were stricter than those of Hillel. Since Jesus was a Galilean, we should not be surprised that he gave rulings that agree with the opinions of Shammai.

  • [13] Ἀπολελυμένην is the feminine singular accusative of the perfect middle participle of the verb ἀπολῦσαι.
  • [14] See JP Glossary for a definition of the term “minor agreements.” On the minor agreements’ importance, see Robert L. Lindsey, A Hebrew Translation of the Gospel of Mark (2nd ed.; Jerusalem: Dugith, 1973), xv, 14-19; Lindsey, The Jesus Sources: Understanding the Gospels (Tulsa, OK: HaKesher, 1990), 60-65; and Lindsey, “An Introduction to Synoptic Studies,” Subheading: “Laying the Groundwork.”

    In addition to the minor agreement, Matthew and Luke also agree against Mark on the general content of the saying’s second half: “And he who marries a divorced woman commits adultery” against “And if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

  • [15] Other examples of Hebrew-style doublets in the synoptic gospels are: “eating and drinking…a glutton and a drunkard” (Matt 11:19; Luke 7:34); “the wise and understanding” (Luke 10:21); “prophets and apostles” (Luke 11:49); and “kings and governors” (Luke 21:12).

    Other examples of the synoptic gospels’ many parallelisms are: “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out…. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off” (Matt 5:29-30); “Love you enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:44); “He makes his sun shine on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt 5:45); “Ask and it will be given you; seek and you will find” (Matt 7:7; Luke 11:9); “A disciple is not above his teacher, and a slave is not above his master” (Matt 10:24-25); “We piped for you, but you would not dance; we wailed, but you would not mourn” (Matt 11:17; Luke 7:32); “My yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matt 11:30); “Figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush” (Luke 6:44); “Whoever tries to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it” (Luke 17:32); and “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, but whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matt 23:12).

  • [16] In middle (post-biblical) Hebrew, the article is often employed to specify the person previously mentioned. In this reconstruction, “the divorced woman,” would mean “that divorced woman,” the woman divorced in that way. The brilliant English translator Richard Francis Weymouth apparently sensed this, and so translated Luke 16:18 as: “Every man who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery; and he who marries her when so divorced from her husband commits adultery” (The New Testament in Modern Speech).

    The phrase ἀπὸ ἀνδρός (apo andros, from her husband) was probably necessary in Greek to clarify the word ἀπολελυμένην (apolelymenen, [a woman] having been dismissed, or discharged), which may not have been clear to Greek readers; however, although the expression does appear once in biblical Hebrew (אִשָּׁה גְּרוּשָׁה מֵאִישָׁהּ, ishah gerushah me’ishah, a woman divorced from her husband; Lev. 21:7), “from her husband” was unnecessary in post-biblical Hebrew because the root g-r-sh had become a technical term.

  • [17] This and the two preceding sentences express Shmuel Safrai’s understanding of Luke 16:18b (private communication).
  • [18] Their situation would be similar to the situation of a wife and her second husband, who married assuming that her first husband was dead:

    The case of a woman whose husband traveled to a country beyond the sea, who, after being told, “Your husband is dead,” remarried and then her first husband returned—she must leave them both. [If she wishes to marry again,] she must receive a bill of divorce from both. She can present no claims against either for her marriage settlement…or alimony… A child fathered by either husband [including the first if he resumed living with her] is a bastard…. (Mishnah, Yevamot 10:1)

    This is Safrai’s suggestion (private communication). There is another possible interpretation of Luke 16:18b, assuming Luke 16:18 was originally a Hebraic doublet. Jesus may have said: “Any man who divorces his wife and marries another is committing adultery, and any woman who divorces her husband and marries another is committing adultery.” Support for this reconstruction comes from a rabbinic saying, quoted above in part:

    He who begins to wish that his wife will die and [i.e., in order that] he will inherit her property, or that she will die and [i.e., in order that] he will marry her sister, his wife will outlive him [literally, in the end she will bury him]; likewise, she who begins to wish that her husband will die and [i.e., in order that] she will be married to another, her husband will outlive her [literally, in the end he will bury her]. (Tosefta, Sotah 5:10)

    Joseph Frankovic pointed out to me the importance of this rabbinic saying as evidence that Jesus’ saying might be a Hebraic doublet. In Avot de-Rabbi Natan there is a variant of the Tosefta saying:

    He [Rabbi Akiva] also said: “He who begins to wish that his wife will die and [i.e., in order that] he will inherit her property, or that she will die and [i.e., in order that] he will marry her sister, and he who begins to wish that his brother will die and [i.e., in order that] he will marry his wife, they will outlive him [literally, in the end they will bury him during their lifetimes].” About such a man Scripture says, “Whoever digs a pit will fall into it, and whoever breaks through a fence will be bitten by a snake” [Eccl. 10:8]. (Avot de-Rabbi Natan, version A, chpt. 3 [ed. Schechter, p. 8a])

    The above saying from Tosefta is a typical Hebraic doublet: “He who wishes his wife were dead…, and she who wishes her husband were dead….” The saying’s second half is a warning to wives. They fall prey to the same sins to which husbands are prone—in this case, wishing for a spouse’s death. Like the sins mentioned in Matt 5:21-22 and Matt 5:27-28, this sin is not an act, but a wicked thought. In Jesus’ approach to Torah, a “light” commandment is just as important as a “heavy” commandment (Matt 5:19)—to avoid murder, one must not be angry with one’s brother; to avoid adultery, one must not look lustfully at another man’s wife.

    The rabbinic saying’s structure suggests that Jesus’ saying may have been a Hebraic doublet, too. Jesus’ saying may contain a “vav of purpose,” indicating that he was referring to a husband who divorces his wife for the purpose of marrying another woman. Here, also, along with an intent to acquire property, the husband’s motive is to marry another. Notice that ותינשא לאחר (vetinase le’akher, and she will be married to another) occurs in the second half of the rabbinic saying (Tosefta, Sotah 5:10). This is the feminine form of the expression (“marry another”) found in Jesus’ saying. The word אַחֵר (akher, another) is the masculine form of אַחֶרֶת (akheret), the word Jesus probably used. The same Hebrew expression appears in a Dead Sea scroll: “He shall not take in addition to her another wife, for she alone shall be with him all the days of her life; and if she dies, he shall marry another from his father’s house, from his clan” (11QTemple 57, 18-19).

    According to Jewish halachah, a woman cannot divorce her husband; the husband alone can declare a divorce. However, she can scheme to end a marriage relationship in order to marry another. There are two examples of Jewish women contemporary with Jesus who initiated divorce. Marital unfaithfulness, divorce and remarriage, permeated the royal house of King Herod. Josephus mentions two women members of the Herodian family who initiated divorce. The first is Herodias, who deserted her first husband, Herod (son of Herod the Great and Mariamme II), to marry his half-brother, Antipas (son of Herod the Great and Malthace the Samaritan), with whom she had fallen in love:

    They [Herod and Herodias] had a daughter Salome, after whose birth Herodias, taking it into her head to flout the way of our fathers, married Herod [Antipas], her husband’s brother by the same father, who was tetrarch of Galilee; to do this she parted from a living husband. (Antiq. 18:136 [ Loeb Classical Library]; cf. 18:109ff.)

    Salome, Herod the Great’s sister, also initiated her divorce:

    Some time afterwards Salome had occasion to quarrel with Costobarus [governor of Idumea] and soon sent him a document dissolving their marriage, which was not in accordance with Jewish law. For it is (only) the man who is permitted by us to do this, and not even a divorced woman may marry again on her own initiative unless her former husband consents. Salome, however, did not choose to follow her country’s law but acted on her own authority and repudiated her marriage…. (Antiq. 15:259-260 [ Loeb Classical Library])

    Therefore, in line with this alternate interpretation, we may paraphrase Luke 16:18b as follows: “Any woman who causes her husband to divorce her—for instance, by feigning she no longer is attracted to him—in order to marry another man, is committing adultery.” Though possible, this interpretation of Luke 16:18b is less plausible than Safrai’s interpretation since the participants in an early first-century rabbinic debate would probably not speak of a wife divorcing her husband.

    Brad H. Young suggests a third interpretation of Luke 16:18b (Jesus the Jewish Theologian [Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995], 114-115). Young notes that in Jewish halachah a woman who is divorced because of an adulterous relationship is not permitted to marry her paramour (Mishnah, Sotah 5:1); therefore, Luke 16:18b (“he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery”) could mean, “he who marries a woman who obtained a divorce merely for the sake of her second marriage commits adultery.” In this interpretation, however, Jesus’ statement would not be an exegetical innovation.

  • [19] Safrai points out that an innovation, or its most powerful formulation, usually comes at the end of a sage’s teaching (private communication).
  • [20] Safrai believes that Shammai would have been very impressed had he heard Jesus’ statement, and would have remarked: “Yes, that’s right! That is the logical extension of my ruling that a man may not divorce his wife unless he has found ‘a thing of indecency’ in her” (private communication).
  • [21] Scripture records that even God himself issued a bill of divorce on the grounds of adultery (Jer. 3:8; Isa. 50:1).
  • [22] Although not stated explicitly in 1 Cor. 7:15, we may assume that Paul is relating to members of the community who married before becoming believers. This assumption is supported by other statements of the apostle, such as his rule that if a woman’s husband dies, she is permitted to remarry, “but he [her second husband] must belong to the Lord” (1 Cor. 7:39). Paul forbade the Corinthians to “be unequally yoked with unbelievers” (2 Cor. 6:14), perhaps referring to marriage with an unbeliever. Thus, The New English Bible translates: “Do not unite yourselves with unbelievers; they are no fit mates for you.”
  • [23] See Israel Abrahams, Studies in Pharisaism and the Gospels (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1917, 1924; reprinted in one volume by Ktav Publishing House, New York, 1967), 1:76-77. See also the entry “Divorce” in Encyclopaedia Judaica (Jerusalem: Keter, 1972), 6:126-129. For an excellent introduction to the subject of divorce, see Michael Hilton with Gordian Marshall, The Gospels and Rabbinic Judaism: A Study Guide (Hoboken, NJ: Ktav, and New York: Anti-Defamation League B’nai B’rith, 1988), 119-135.
  • [24] The halachah, which is found in the Mishnah (Yevamot 6:6; cf. Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 64a), states:

    No man may neglect the commandment “Be fruitful and multiply” [Gen. 1:28] unless he already has children: according to the school of Shammai, two sons; according to the school of Hillel, a son and a daughter, as it is written, “Male and female created he them” [Gen. 5:2]. If a man married a woman and lived with her for ten years, but she bore no children, he may not neglect [any longer the commandment to beget children. He must take another wife]. Upon being divorced by her first husband, she may be married to another man, and [if she bore no children] this second husband may live with her for [a maximum of] ten years. If she miscarried, [the ten years] is calculated from the time of the miscarriage. The obligation to “be fruitful and multiply” is incumbent on the man, not the woman. Rabbi Yohanan ben Beroka, however, ruled: “[On them both.] Of them both it is written, ‘And God blessed them and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply.”‘”

    If the barren wife said, “Let Heaven judge between me and you,” that is, if she did not want to leave her husband, the sages advised, “Let them make a way of request between them” (Tosefta, Sotah 5:12), in other words, let the couple turn to God in prayer.

    The sages were extremely practical and were not above counseling a childless couple to create for themselves an atmosphere of intimacy; therefore, they sometimes made this additional suggestion: “Have an intimate meal together” (Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim 42d, chpt. 11, halachah 13). There is an exquisite story in the Midrash about a sage who offered that advice.

    There was a woman in Sidon who lived ten years with her husband without having children. The couple went to Rabbi Shim’on ben Yochai [c. 150 A.D.] and told him they wanted to be divorced. He said to them: “I implore you, just as you were joined together with feasting, do not separate without a festive meal.” They accepted his advice. They held their own private celebration, enjoying a lavish meal and drinking freely. When the husband was in a good mood, he said to his wife: “My daughter, choose any precious object from my house you wish and take it with you to your father’s house.” What did the wife do? As soon as he was asleep, she motioned to her slaves and handmaidens to pick him up and carry him on his bed to her father’s house. In the middle of the night, when the effects of the wine had worn off, he awoke. He said [to his wife]: “My daughter, where am I?” “You are in my father’s house,” she replied. “What am I doing in your father’s house?” he said. She answered: “Didn’t you tell me last night, ‘Choose any precious object from my house you wish and take it with you to your father’s house’? There is nothing in the world more precious to me than you.”

    The couple returned to Rabbi Shim’on ben Yochai. He stood and prayed for them, and subsequently the woman became pregnant. (Song of Songs Rabbah 1:4, §2; to 1:4)

    Shmuel Safrai called to my attention the rabbinic passages above: the halachah in the Mishnah, the statement in Tosefta, the reference to the Jerusalem Talmud, and the story from the Midrash. I am responsible for the translation of these passages.

  • [25] Notice that God detests a husband who divorces “the wife of your marriage covenant”:

    You also do this: You cover the LORD’s altar with tears. You weep and moan because he no longer pays attention to your oblations or accepts what you offer. You ask, “Why?” It is because the LORD is a witness between you and the wife of your youth, whom you have betrayed, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant…. Do not betray the wife of your youth. “I detest divorce,” says the LORD, the God of Israel…. (Mal. 2:13-16)

    Compare the warnings in Prov. 5:1-23 and Prov. 6:20-7:27 to flee the adulteress. Notice especially the reference to “the wife of your youth” in Prov. 5:18. Cf. Isa. 54:6, “Like a wife deserted and dejected, like a wife of youth who has been rejected.”

  • [26] John 7: 11. The best manuscripts of John’s gospel do not have 7:53-8:11. In members of manuscript family 13 (mss. 13, 69, 124, etc.), this passage appears after Luke 21:38. Robert L. Lindsey, noting the passage’s Lukan vocabulary, believes that, originally, it was located between Luke 19:46 and Luke 19:47 ((Jesus, Rabbi and Lord: A Lifetime’s Search for the Meaning of Jesus’ Words, 154-158).

The Kingdom of God: God’s Power Among Believers

The terms “Kingdom of God” and “Kingdom of Heaven” are not found in the Hebrew Scriptures, but apparently were developed later by the Pharisees. In the Second Temple period the commandment against taking the LORD’s name in vain was so strictly interpreted that people used euphemisms to avoid unintentionally misusing his name. Jesus would have followed the same practice—to do otherwise would have shocked his listeners.[1]

The “Kingdom of Heaven” is the מַלְכוּת שָׁמַיִם (malchūt shāmayim) spoken of by the sages, and “Heaven” here is simply a synonym for “God”—much as we use “Heaven” today, for instance, when we exclaim, “Thank Heaven!” The terms “Kingdom of God” and “Kingdom of Heaven,” therefore, are interchangeable. Jesus did not speak of two divine kingdoms, but only one.

What Is This Kingdom?

An important key to understanding Jesus’ use of “Kingdom of God” is how the sages used it. With the sages it was a spiritual term meaning the rule of God over a person who keeps or begins to keep the written and oral commandments. This is illustrated by a statement of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korhah:

Why is “Hear, O Israel” [Deut. 6:4-9] recited before “If, then, you obey the commandments” [Deut. 11:13-21] in the daily prayers? To indicate that one should accept first the kingdom of Heaven, and only afterwards the yoke of the commandments. (Mishnah, Berachot 2:2)

The sages felt that when a person confessed, “The LORD is our God, the LORD alone,” indicating his or her intention to keep the Torah, that person came under God’s rule and authority, and thus came into the Kingdom of God. Having accepted God’s authority over him or her, the person was able to begin keeping the commandments.

A Shepherd removes a temporary stone barrier from a sheepfold to let his flock out to graze. Illustrator: Phil Crossman.
A shepherd removes a temporary stone barrier from a sheepfold to let his flock out to graze. Illustrator: Phil Crossman.

Jesus spoke of the Kingdom with the same understanding in Matthew 7:21: “Not everyone who says ‘Lord, Lord’ to me will come into the Kingdom of Heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” The emphasis is on the importance of keeping God’s commandments, but Jesus’ use of “Kingdom of Heaven” is the same as Yehoshua ben Korhah’s in the passage above. Both of these sages spoke of God’s kingdom being rooted in the confession of his authority and the doing of his will.

According to Jesus’ definition, this kingdom is limited: only those who follow him are included. The Kingdom should not be confused with God’s providential rule: “Heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool” (Isa. 66:1); in this general sense, the LORD is king of the universe. Neither should it be viewed as an earthly political movement, out to rule by cross and sword or to ordain Christian leaders to govern a largely unconverted world.

Understanding what the Kingdom is should clear up confusion about the period of time to which it refers. The Kingdom of God appears whenever individuals take upon themselves the rule of God. When Matthew 7:21 is translated back into Hebrew, one recognizes its proverbial form in which there is no real future tense. The saying should be understood: “Not everyone who says ‘Lord, Lord’ to me comes into the Kingdom of Heaven….” The second part of the verse likewise reflects the idea of present time: “but he who is doing the will of my Father….”

Matthew 6:10 makes the same point: “Your Kingdom come, your will be done in heaven and on earth.” The phrases are synonymous: people come into the kingdom when they accept God’s authority and begin to do his will.

Jesus’ Movement

The Kingdom of God is the movement led by Jesus. He primarily used “Kingdom of God” to describe the body of his followers among whom God was present in power. The following examples characterize the Kingdom as an expanding movement made up of Jesus’ followers.

In the story of the Beelzebul controversy (Luke 11:14-26), people in the crowd accuse Jesus of casting out evil spirits with the aid of Satan. Jesus points out that it would not be sensible to think of the demons as being divided against each other under Satan’s rule. Jesus casts out demons through God’s power and, thus, demonstrates that the Kingdom of God has manifested itself to those who have seen what has happened: “If I cast out demons by the finger of God, then the Kingdom of God has come upon you” (vs. 20).[2]

When Jesus cast out an evil spirit by God’s power, God took charge; he was in authority over Satan at that moment. The people who saw the miracle had not necessarily submitted to God’s rule, but they saw God at work just the same.

In the story of the rich man in Matthew 19, Mark 10 and Luke 18, Jesus challenges the man to sell all he has, give it to the poor and “come, follow me.” The man turns away and Jesus says, “How difficult it is for a rich man to come into the Kingdom of Heaven!” To join the movement Jesus is leading, one submits to his authority and thereby comes into the Kingdom of God.

When Peter asked what it meant that he and the other disciples had “left all” and followed Jesus, Jesus replied, “There is no one who has left home…for the sake of the Kingdom of God who will not receive more in this life—and in the world to come, eternal life.” Being a part of the Kingdom of God was literally to follow Jesus, to take up one’s cross and follow him, to join his divine movement. It was to be a part of others who together would be blessed in the Kingdom of God in its earthly manifestation and, in the world beyond, would inherit eternal life.

Illustrator: Phil Crossman.
“The breaker will go up before them; they will burst through the gate and go out.” (Mic. 2:13) Illustrator: Phil Crossman.

In the context of the parable of the two sons, Jesus says: “The tax collectors and prostitutes are coming into the Kingdom of God ahead of you, for John has come in the way of righteousness and you have not believed him, but the tax collectors and prostitutes have believed him” (Matt. 21:31-32). Jesus was speaking of individuals, tax collectors and prostitutes, becoming part of a group—the Kingdom of God.

Jesus honored John the Baptist as the last great prophet of old: “Among those born of women, no one has lived who is greater than John the Baptist” (Matt. 11:11-14). However, Jesus added that “the smallest in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than John.” It was possible to speak of the greatest or smallest in the Kingdom, because it is a movement made up of individuals.

In Matthew 11:12 Jesus says: “From the days of John the Baptist until now the Kingdom of Heaven has been breaking forth….” This passage is an oblique reference to Micah 2:13, where the Messiah “breaks down [the makeshift stone corral wall to let out the sheep in the morning]. They pass through the gate with their king before them and the LORD at their head….” Jesus’ reference to the Kingdom “breaking forth” characterized the movement as a large and expanding group, of which he was the “breaker” or shepherd, the king and even the LORD.

Sheepfold near Michmash. Photo courtesy of Todd Bolen.
Sheepfold near Michmash. Photo courtesy of Todd Bolen.

The Kingdom Is Near

Some passages that seem to prove that Jesus referred to a future earthly kingdom should be considered in their Hebraic context. In Luke 10:8-9 we read that Jesus sent his disciples out to preach and teach, and instructed them that when they entered a village or town, they were to eat and drink in the homes that accepted them. Upon healing the sick they were to say, “The Kingdom of God has come near to you.”

In the Greek text the phrase “has come near you” appears to be a reference to time. However, translated into Hebrew it becomes קָרְבָה אֲלֵיכֶם (qārvāh ’alēchem), and in such a context it should be understood not in the sense of time but of space. This is an idiom that connotes physical intimacy and is even used seven times in the Hebrew Scriptures as a euphemism for sexual intercourse (Gen. 20:4; Lev. 18:6, 14; 20:16; Deut. 22:14; Isa. 8:3; Ezek. 18:6).

God’s rule is demonstrated when a miracle of healing occurs as much as when a demon is cast out. When the disciples exclaimed, “The Kingdom of God has come near,” they were interpreting the healing as the immediacy of God’s presence in power. In effect, the Kingdom was not near but already present. Their Hebrew declaration meant, “God has taken charge here.”

C. H. Dodd, who wrote the influential The Parables of the Kingdom in 1935, argued for this interpretation of the passage. Had he believed that the Gospel texts strongly reflect a Hebrew original, he might have achieved more success with his theology of “realized eschatology.” The failure of many scholars to understand Jesus’ use of the expression “Kingdom of God” or “Kingdom of Heaven” lies largely in their failure to take seriously the highly Hebraic character of a great deal of the Gospels.

Much of the material in the Synoptic Gospels seems to be translated from Hebrew. We must attempt to discover the underlying Hebrew original, comparing rabbinic usage when possible. In the case of “Kingdom of God,” we find that the overwhelming majority of Gospel texts uses this term to describe an expanding community of believers led by Jesus, through whom God manifests his power and blessing.


Sidebar by Shmuel Safrai

The expression מַלְכוּת שָׁמַיִם (malchūt shāmayim, “Kingdom of Heaven”) appears only in rabbinic literature and the Gospels. It does not appear in the Scriptures, the literature created by the Essenes (the Dead Sea Scrolls), or in the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha. This is important and often overlooked by scholars.

The world of Jesus is a world in common with the sages, not with the Essenes or the apocalyptists. In addition to malchut shamayim, there are many other terms that are unique to Jesus and the sages, such as מָשָׁל (māshāl, “parable”)—in the Bible mashal refers to a proverb and not to the entire story-parables told by Jesus and the sages of his day—and תְּשׁוּבָה (teshūvāh, “repentance”). The word teshuvah is not found, for example, in the Scriptures, in Philo or in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The sages’ view was that to ensure that the observance of the mitsvot (commandments) would not be mechanical, one should first commit oneself to the Kingdom of Heaven before beginning to observe God’s commandments. This was the view of Yehoshua ben Korhah (Mishnah, Berachot 2:2). This committing oneself to the Kingdom of Heaven is formalized by one’s confession of the Shema, the declaration that there is but one God, but its practical expression is in the observance of the commandments. In effect, the moment a person did a good deed—that is, the will of God—at that moment he came into the Kingdom of Heaven.

There is a final redemption or completion of the Kingdom, but both Jesus and the sages generally viewed the Kingdom in a more practical, everyday way: doing the will of God. They would have viewed the final redemption in a fashion similar to the well-known rabbinic saying found in the Mishnah: “It is not your part to finish the task, yet neither are you free to desist from it” (Mishnah, Avot 2:16).

There is a story in rabbinic literature that helps illustrate the first-century Jewish understanding of the Kingdom of Heaven and also supports Dr. Lindsey’s position:

A bridegroom is exempt from reciting the Shema on the first night of his marriage…. When Rabban Gamaliel married he recited the Shema on the first night. His disciples said to him: “Master, didn’t you teach us that a bridegroom is exempt from reciting the Shema on the first night?”

“I will not listen to you,” he replied, “so as to cast off from myself the Kingdom of Heaven even for a moment.” (Mishnah, Berachot 2:5)

The ruling that a bridegroom is exempt from reciting the Shema on the first night of his marriage is not found in the Written Torah, but it is part of the Oral Torah. One was permitted, as it were, to put aside the Kingdom temporarily. Gamaliel, however, refused to forget about the Kingdom even for a few moments.

Shepherd guards the gate of the sheepfold
Shepherd guards the gate of the sheepfold. Photo courtesy of Todd Bolen.

To download a free PDF version of the Jerusalem Perspective issue in which this article originally appeared, click here.


Naming John the Baptist

…and she [Elizabeth] gave birth to a son…. On the eighth day when they came to circumcise the child they were going to name him after his father, but his mother interrupted, “No, his name will be John.” They said to her, “None of your relatives has that name.” Then they made signs to his father to find out what he wished to name him. He asked for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s astonishment he wrote, “His name is John.” (Luke 1:57-63)

The naming of a child at his circumcision ceremony, as presented in Luke 1, is also mentioned in Luke 2:21 regarding the naming of Jesus. In fact, naming a child during the circumcision ceremony is still accepted Jewish practice. The naming rite includes a prayer for the child’s well-being:

May this little one, [the child’s name], be great. Just as he has entered into the covenant of circumcision, may he also enter into the Torah, the marriage canopy, and into good deeds.

Apparently this prayer is quite ancient since part of it is found in the Samaritan ritual as well.

Earliest Reference

Nevertheless, the first reference in Jewish literature to the custom of naming a child at his circumcision is found in Pirke de-Rabbi Eliezer, a late rabbinic work dating to the beginning of the seventh century C.E.:

The parents of Moses saw that his appearance was like that of an angel of God. They circumcised him on the eighth day and called him Yekutiel. (Chapter 48)

Yekutiel, a compound of yekuti, apparently from the root יקה (yakah, to obey), and the word אֵל (el), means “obedient to God.” Yekutiel is found in 1 Chronicles 4:18, and according to both the midrash (rabbinic homilies on the Bible) and targum (Aramaic translations of Scripture) of this verse, it refers to Moses. He was named Yekutiel because he looked like an angel, an obedient servant of God.

Reading the Torah

There is another instance in which the gospel of Luke documents a Jewish practice before it appears in Jewish literature. Many early Jewish sources mention that the Torah was read in the synagogue on the Sabbath. None of them, however, mentions that a portion of the Prophets was read after the reading of the Torah. The Mishnah does mention the reading of the Torah and the Prophets, but does not attribute it specifically to the Second Temple period:

He who reads from the Torah may not read less than three verses… [in reading] from the Prophets….” (m. Megillah 4:4)

The Jewish custom was, and still is, to read the Torah and the Prophets on the Sabbath in the synagogue. Seven men each read a portion of a designated passage from the Torah, the seventh reading a shorter passage than the others and then a passage from the Prophets. It is the greater honor to be asked to read last.

The tradition about which passages from the Prophets were to be read and in what order apparently was still very fluid in the time of Jesus. Unlike when reading the Torah publicly, when reading the Prophets one could combine various passages and even insert one’s own comments—in short, develop a sermon while reading the portion from the Prophets.

Based on rabbinic sources alone, it would be impossible to determine that a portion of the Prophets was indeed read in the synagogue after the reading of the Torah. Luke 4:16-17, however, states that Jesus arrived at the synagogue in Nazareth on the Sabbath, read from the Torah and afterwards read a portion from a scroll of the Prophet Isaiah. Thus, Luke clearly indicates that as early as the first century C.E. a portion of the Prophets was read in the synagogue after the reading of the Torah.

It may not be immediately clear to many Christian readers that the story of Jesus’ visit to the synagogue in Luke 4:16-17 refers to reading from the Torah. However, the two Greek words translated “he stood up to read” strongly suggest that Jesus had read a portion from the Torah before reading from the scroll of Isaiah. One does not stand up in order to read the Prophets. Even the last of the seven readers does not stand up to read the Prophets, but stands up to read the Torah and goes on to read from the Prophets.

Father’s Namesake

Luke notes that the neighbors and relatives of Zechariah and Elizabeth wished to call the baby Zechariah after his father. According to Jewish tradition today, a child is not named after his father unless the father is no longer living. However, during the first centuries C.E. this apparently was not the case, and there are a number of recorded instances in which a child was named after his father while the father was still alive.

One such instance is found in Tosefta, Niddah 5:15, where Rabbi Hananiah son of Hananiah is mentioned. Both father and son appear together before Rabban Gamaliel. Another example is that of Ananus son of Ananus, the Sadducean high priest. According to Josephus, Ananus the younger “convened the judges of the Sanhedrin and brought before them James, the brother of Jesus who is called the Christ, and certain others. He accused them of having transgressed the Torah and delivered them up to be stoned” (Antiq. 20:200). Ananus’ father, the Annas of the New Testament, was still alive at the time.

Ultimately it was the parents’ prerogative to select a name for their child, as the following tradition indicates:

A man is given three names: the one given him by his father and mother, the one given him by other people [his nickname], and the one which Heaven predestines for him. (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:3)

The Birth of St John the Baptist Luca Signorelli 1485-90.

It is possible that this midrash on Ecclesiastes is reflected in the naming of John, where one finds reference to the parents, the people, and the angel (or, Heaven) each giving a name to the child.

Communal Participation

It was common for neighbors and relatives to take part in the week-long festivities which preceded the naming of a child. Tannaic tradition (pre-230 C.E.) mentions such gatherings taking place each evening at the parents’ home during the week following the birth of either son or daughter, but especially following the birth of a son:

This is what havurot [benevolent societies] used to do in Jerusalem—some visited families in mourning, others visited families who were having a wedding feast, and others visited families who were celebrating a birth…. (Tractate Semahot 12:5)

In each of these situations, a family faced a heavy financial burden in providing food and drink for their visiting guests. The havurot never came to a home empty-handed, but brought “wine, lentils, oil….”

Another tradition states: [If there should be a conflict between attending the celebrations following] the birth of a daughter and [those following] the birth of a son—the birth of a son takes precedence. (Mechilta, Ahriti d’Avel, ed. Higger, p. 231)

The traditions regarding the havurot of Jerusalem, like other traditions pertaining to customs of the inhabitants of Jerusalem, date from the period before the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E.

Post-Temple Period

Among the religious decrees that befell Israel after the Temple’s destruction or after the Bar-Kochva Revolt (132-135 C.E.), the sages enumerated the following:

It was decreed upon the world, which presently is desolate, that one should neither marry, have children nor hold the celebrations connected with the birth of a child. (Tosefta, Sotah 15:10)

Some sources refer to the various acts of subterfuge undertaken during the period of persecution that followed the Bar-Kochva Revolt in order to announce clandestine celebrations:

The light of a lamp in Beror Hayil—the birth of a child. (Jerusalem Talmud, Ketubot 25c)

In other words, in Beror Hayil, a village about eight and a half miles southeast of Ashkelon, parents of a newborn baby put a lamp on the window sill as a sign that there had been a birth and that friends and relatives should secretly assemble to celebrate.


For a free PDF download of the Jerusalem Perspective issue in which this article originally appeared, click here.


First-century Discipleship

Revised: 28-Oct-2016

The call to be a sage’s disciple in first-century Israel often meant leaving relatives and friends and traveling the country under austere conditions. It also meant total commitment. A prospective disciple first had to be sure his priorities were in order.

Consider the words of the man who said to Jesus, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me go back and say good-bye to my family” (Luke 9:61). Jesus’ reply shows that only those who were prepared to commit themselves totally to him would be welcome: “No one who puts his hand to the plow and then looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

This is emphasized in Jesus’ response to another man who offered to follow him, but only after “burying his father.” “Let the dead bury their dead,” Jesus told him (Luke 9:60; Matt 8:22).

Apparently, Jesus’ replies were directed towards persons whom he had invited to leave home and serve a full-time apprenticeship with him. This form of discipleship was a unique feature of ancient Jewish society.


According to Mishnah, Peah 1:1, a person “benefits from the interest” in this world from certain things such as honoring one’s father and mother, while “the principal” remains for him in the world to come. “But,” the passage goes on, “the study of Torah is equal to them all.” Jesus said something similar: as important as honoring one’s parents is, leaving home to study Torah with him is even more important.

To the rich man mentioned in Luke 18, the call to follow Jesus meant giving up all his wealth. The price was too high for him and he did not become one of Jesus’ disciples. Peter reminded Jesus that he and the others who had accepted Jesus’ call were different: “We have left everything to follow you.”

“Amen!” said Jesus—in other words, “Yes, you have done that and it is commendable.” Jesus went on to promise that anyone who had made the sacrifice of total commitment for the sake of the kingdom of God would receive something of much greater value than what he had given up, and, in addition, eternal life in the world to come (Luke 18:28-30).


Jesus did not want his prospective disciples to have any false expectations and he frequently stressed the need to count the cost before making a commitment to him:

Which of you, if he wanted to build a tower, would not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he had enough money to complete it? …likewise, any of you who is not ready to leave all his possessions cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:28-33)

Jesus was clear about the degree of commitment that was required of a disciple:

If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters, and himself as well, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26-27)

In this context, the word “hate” does not carry the meaning it normally has in English usage, but seems to be used in a Hebraic sense. In Hebrew, “hate” can also mean “love less” or “put in second place.” For example, Genesis 29:31 states that Leah was “hated,” but the context indicates that Leah was not unloved, but rather loved less than Jacob’s other wife Rachel. Note that the preceding verse specifically says that Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah.

“Foxes have holes…” (Luke 9:58).
(Illustration by Liz McLeod)

A second illustration of this particular Hebraic shade of meaning of the word “hate” is found in Deuteronomy 21:15: “If a man has two wives, one loved and the other hated….” Here too, the context shows that the “hated” wife is only second in affection and not really hated in the English sense of the word. Likewise, in Jesus’ statement, he is saying that whoever does not love him more than his own family or even his own self cannot be his disciple.

Jesus also alluded to the rigors of the peripatetic life of a sage when he said, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9:57-58). The burden Jesus’ disciples had to bear was a heavy one, but not unlike what disciples of other first-century sages had to bear, and would not have been considered extreme by the standards of first-century Jewish society.

Another hardship a disciple could face was being away from his wife. Disciples commonly were single, but since marriage took place at a relatively early age (usually by eighteen according to the Mishnah [m. Avot 5:21]), many disciples had a wife and children. For example, the mother-in-law of one of Jesus’ disciples is mentioned in Luke 4:38. If married, a man needed the permission of his wife to leave home for longer than thirty days to study with a sage (m. Ketuvot 5:6).

Like a Father

Despite the many hardships, nothing compared with the exhilaration of following and learning from a great sage, and being in the circle of his disciples. A special relationship developed between sage and disciple in which the sage became like a father (see my “Call No Man ‘Father'”). In fact, he was more than a father and was to be honored above the disciple’s own father, as this passage from the Mishnah indicates:

When one is searching for the lost property both of his father and of his teacher, his teacher’s loss takes precedence over that of his father since his father brought him only into the life of this world, whereas his teacher, who taught him wisdom [i.e., Torah], has brought him into the life of the World to Come. But if his father is no less a scholar than his teacher, then his father’s loss takes precedence…. If his father and his teacher are in captivity, he must first ransom his teacher, and only afterwards his father—unless his father is himself a scholar and then he must first ransom his father. (m. Bab. Metz. 2:11)

If the thought that someone could ransom his teacher before his own father seems shocking, it is only because we do not understand the tremendous love and respect that disciples, and the community at large, had for their sages.

Similarly, Jesus’ not allowing a prospective disciple to say good-bye to his family before setting out to follow him may seem cruel. However, Jesus’ first-century contemporaries would have seen this as quite reasonable and normal. What Jesus meant would have been perfectly clear to them when he said, “No one can be my disciple who does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters.”

Was Jesus a Confirmed Bachelor?

Revised: September 19, 2012

On September 5, 2012, a photo was released by Harvard University which shows a fourth-century papyrus fragment. Divinity professor, Karen L. King, says the fragment is the only existing ancient text that quotes Jesus explicitly referring to having a wife. King says the text contains a dialogue in which Jesus refers to “my wife” and says the fragment of Coptic script is likely a translation of a gospel written in Greek in the second century.

The eight fragmentary lines of Coptic text have been translated to read in English:
1) “not [to] me. My mother gave to me li[fe] … ”
2) The disciples said to Jesus, “
3) deny. Mary is worthy of it
4) ” Jesus said to them, “My wife
5) she will be able to be my disciple
6) Let wicked people swell up
7) As for me, I dwell with her in order to
8) an image

Below, drawing upon personal conversations with Hebrew University professor Shmuel Safrai, David Bivin examines the cultural status of first-century, Jewish bachelor sages like Jesus.

Sources: CNN | NY Times | Jer. Post | Fox News | Smithsonian

AP Photo/Harvard University, Karen L. King

The commandment “Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28) has always been strongly emphasized in Judaism, both today and in the first century. It is therefore surprising that Jesus, who in every other way observed the commandments, did not marry—at least the New Testament gives no indication that he had a wife or children. On the other hand, it is not explicitly stated in the gospels that Jesus was not married. As Hilton and Marshall point out, the silence of the gospels might suggest that Jesus was married. A Jew reading the gospels might assume that Jesus was married. If Jesus had not been married, his unusual status probably would have been mentioned in the gospels (Michael Hilton with Gordian Marshall, The Gospels and Rabbinic Judaism: A Study Guide [Hoboken, NJ: Ktav, 1988], 135).

The First Commandment

The sages taught that one should perpetuate the human race by marrying. It was considered especially significant that the commandment “Be fruitful and multiply” is chronologically the first in the Pentateuch. The school of Hillel ruled that to fulfill this commandment a man must have at least one son and one daughter:

No man may neglect the commandment “Be fruitful and multiply” unless he already has children: according to the school of Shammai, two sons; according to the school of Hillel, a son and a daughter, as it is written, “Male and female created he them” [Gen. 5:2]. (Mishnah, Yevamot, 6:6; cf. Babylonian Talmud, Yemavot, 64a)

Would the members of first-century Jewish society have respected an unmarried 30-year-old teacher? Would his teaching have been given a hearing? At the urging of my colleague, Dwight Pryor, I asked Professor Shmuel Safrai for his opinion. At the time (1987), Safrai, a specialist in Jewish literature and history of the Second Temple period and one of my teachers during the 1960s, was Professor Emeritus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

A Bachelor Sage

This Sept. 5, 2012 photo released by Harvard University shows a fourth-century fragment of papyrus that divinity professor Karen L. King says is the only existing ancient text that quotes Jesus explicitly referring to having a wife. King, an expert in the history of Christianity, says the text contains a dialogue in which Jesus refers to “my wife,” whom he identified as Mary. King says the fragment of Coptic script is a copy of a gospel, probably written in Greek in the second century.
(AP Photo/Harvard University, Karen L. King)

According to Safrai, a bachelor sage functioning within Jewish society of the first century was not as abnormal as it might first appear. Sages often spent many years far from home, first as students and then as itinerant teachers. It was not uncommon for such men to marry in their late thirties or forties. Just as some students today wait to marry until they finish their education, so there were disciples and even sages who postponed marriage until later in life.

One such sage was Rabban Gamaliel (end of first century A.D.), the grandson of Rabban Gamaliel the Elder, the apostle Paul’s teacher (Acts 22:3; cf. 5:34). As the following story shows, the younger Gamaliel was already a sage and already had disciples before he married:

A bridegroom is exempt from reciting the Shema on the first night of his marriage…. When Rabban Gamaliel married he recited the Shema on the first night. His disciples said to him: “Master, didn’t you teach us that a bridegroom is exempt from reciting the Shema on the first night?”

“I will not listen to you,” he replied, “so as to cast off from myself the kingdom of Heaven even for a moment.” (Mishnah, Berachot 2:5)

Enamored with Torah

Another unmarried sage was Shim’on ben Azzai. He lived in the generation immediately after the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. It is related of him that in his teaching he so strongly emphasized the importance of the commandment to marry, his colleagues expressed their amazement that he did not do so himself. His answer:

מה אעשה? חשקה נפשי בתורה. יתקיים עולם באחרים

What shall I do? I am enamored with Torah. Others can enable the world to continue to exist. (Tosefta, Yevamot 8:7 [ed. Lieberman, p. 26]; compare the parallel in the Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 63b)

So we see that it would have been possible for Jesus to have been accepted as a teacher in first-century Jewish society despite the fact that he was not married.

Although Shim’on ben Azzai was not married, he did not endorse the unmarried state. He may have married later in life. Jesus was probably not a confirmed bachelor either. He was still relatively young when he was crucified, and his death may have come before he had a chance to marry.