Jesus and Divorce in the First Century – Matthew 19:3-12

Based on Matthew 5:20-21 and 19:3-12, Jesus has more strict view of divorce than other Jewish teachers in the first century. Many Jewish teachers in the first century were open to divorce based on their interpretation of the only relevant text of divorce in the Old Testament, Deuteronomy 24:1-4. In fact, John Meier suggests “how unthinkable such a prohibition was in a society that like all Mediterranean societies) considered divorce, however regrettable or painful in individual instances, so be the natural and necessary course of things” (Marginal Jew, 4:113).

Jesus Divorce

When the Pharisees question Jesus in Matthew 19:3, they ask “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” The key phrase is “for any cause.” Deuteronomy 24:1-4 permits divorce if the wife was caught in a shameful act but defining the phrase “shameful act” is difficult. The noun (עֶרְוָה) often refers to nakedness or genitals. It is the word used 24 times in Leviticus 18:6-19 for sexual misconduct. But the word does not only refer to sexual misconduct. In the immediate context, Deuteronomy 23:14 used the to describe the holiness of the camp. People ought to leave the camp to defecate (and cover it up) so the Lord should not see anything “indecent in the camp.”

In the context of divorce, what constitutes a “shameful act”? Based on a passage in the Mishnah, there were two main views at the time of Jesus. For the rabbi Shammai, a shameful act only refers to adultery (but some Targumim this could be anything sinful). For rabbi Hillel, the shameful act could be anything that offends the husband, including ruining dinner!

The views of the two rabbis appear in the Mishnah:

Giṭ. 9:10 The House of Shammai say, “A man should divorce his wife only because he has found grounds for it in unchastity, “since it is said, Because he has found in her indecency in anything (Dt. 24:).” And the House of Hillel say, “Even if she spoiled his dish, “since it is said, Because he has found in her indecency in anything. R. Aqiba says, “Even if he found someone else prettier than she, “since it is said, and it shall be if she find no favor in his eyes (Dt. 24:1).”

Josephus’s divorce and remarriage seems to reflect Hillel’s view. Later in his life, Josephus was given some land in Judah and divorced his wife because she “no longer pleased with her behavior” (Life, 426). She had three children, but only one survived. He remarried “a wife who had lived at Crete, but a Jewess by birth: a woman she was of eminent parents, and such as were the most illustrious in all the country, and whose character was beyond that of most other women, as her future life did demonstrate” (Life, 427). He had two sons by this second wife. He does not tell us why she no longer pleased him, but based on the description of his second wife, the divorce and remarriage improved his status in the Greco-Roman world.

On divorce, Josephus said:

Antiquities 4.253 He that desires to be divorced from his wife for any cause whatsoever (and many such causes happen among men), let him in writing give assurance that he will never use her as his wife any more; for by this means she may be at liberty to marry another husband, although before this bill of divorce be given, she is not to be permitted so to do; but if she be misused by him also, or if, when he is dead, her first husband would marry her again, it shall not be lawful for her to return to him.

Philo on divorce:

Special Laws, III 30 But if, proceeds the lawgiver, a woman having been divorced from her husband under any pretence whatever, and having married another, has again become a widow, whether her second husband is alive or dead, still she must not return to her former husband, but may be united to any man in the world rather than to him, having violated her former ties which she forgot, and having chosen new allurements in the place of the old ones.

According to the Law, once divorced, a woman could marry another man, but first husband was prohibited from taking her back (Deut 24:1-4). A potential exception to this is David’s remarriage to Michal in 2 Sam 3:13-14. It is possible Michal never consummated the second marriage (she was childless) and the law in Deuteronomy 24:1-4 would not have applied. On the other hand, David seems to have ignored marriage laws on occasion. Jeremiah describes Israel as a divorced wife who has taken other lovers, but now wants to return to her first husband. The Lord states clearly that she is defiled and has no right of return to her first husband.

At the time of Jesus, divorce was widely accepted, although it might have been more practical for the wealthy. The most high-profile divorce during Jesus’s lifetime was Herod Antipas’s divorce in order to marry his sister-in-law. In the first century women were protected from a hasty divorce through a marriage contract that provided a financial penalty of the husband divorced her for anything other than adultery and the return of the woman’s dowry. This might make a hasty divorce a financial disaster for some men! In addition, Jewish women in the first century could initiate the divorce (Herodias, for example). Another factor to consider: marriage was not necessarily about romance and love. For many, marriage was about producing an heir and increasing one’s status in society. If a man married a woman from a prominent family, a hasty divorce might damage his own honor.

Let me conclude with a reflection on John Meier’s warning at the beginning of his section on divorce in the New Testament in The Marginal Jew. My comments above are a historical sketch of attitudes toward divorce for the purpose of better understanding Jesus’s view on divorce in Matthew 19 and not a suggested answer for modern questions about divorce. As Meier says, the “rush to ‘what does this mean for us today?’ often hampers or distorts sober attempts to understand the past. Are we drawing our lessons from a past that really existed or a past we prefer to make up?” (4:75).



Bibliography: John Meier, A Marginal Jew, 4:74-181. Meier has a ten-page endnote (pp 128-39) on divorce in the ancient world conveniently divided into categories; David Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible (Eerdmans, 2002).

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