We are studying Jesus' teaching on divorce in two parts. This is the first talk (21 mins).

Click on the arrow to play the podcast, or you can use the "download" icon to download the podcast (if available). You can also right click here, in order to save the audio file and listen later.

Mark 10:2-3, 10-12

  • Jesus is quizzed. Where does he stand on the divorce issue?
  • Mark indicates absolutely no exceptions!
  • Don’t read through filter of other passages (like 1 Cor or Matt). Mark was writing for a Roman audience. It is doubtful they had access to Matthew—if Matthew was even written yet—and the Jewish issues addressed in Matthew would not have been all that relevant to them.
  • Matthew gives more information, alluding to the “any cause” divorces common in the 1st. Notice how Matthew differs from Mark 10:2-12: “I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery” (Matt 19:9).
  • See a parallel in Mark 8:11-12 / Matt 12:39, where Mark indicates to exception, but Matthew does.
  • Just as Mark doesn’t give the whole story, neither does Matthew. We need to get behind the scenes. It’s easy to draw incorrect conclusions if we don’t realize the nature of gospel writing—abbreviation, arrangement, simplification. It won’t do to just quote a passage and claim the Bible "means what it says." Rather, we need to be careful interpreters.
  • It turns out that what appears to be both simple and absolute (Jesus’ words on divorce in Mark 10) turns out to be neither absolute—there are exceptions—nor as simple as we may have thought. Back in those days, there were no law firms such as Jensen Family Law, and that is why topics such as divorces resided in grey areas.

Matt 19:3-11

  • Here’s the backstory Matthew leaves out—as it would have been of little benefit to his readership.
    • House of Shammai (50 BC – AD 30)
      • Limited grounds for divorce to the four in Deut 24 and Exod 21.
      • “The indecency of the matter” (the wording in Deut 24) they took to mean sexual infidelity.
      • Their influence was waning in Jesus’ day, though divorce for broken marriage vows (once the infidelity was proven in court) was still practiced up to 70 AD (when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem, along with its temple).
      • By Jesus’ day, no-fault divorce (“any cause”) was predominant. What’s that?
    • House of Hillel (110 BC – AD 10) – grandfather of Gamaliel, tutor of the apostle Paul.
      • “Any cause” divorce. If your wife burned the dinner, or you no longer found her attractive, you can get a new one.
      • This "no fault" divorce was often considered more righteous than Shammai's stricter ruling, since it brought less shame on the family.
      • It was in the ascendant in Jesus’ day. “Any cause” divorce was the new normal.
    • Listen again to the question: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?” Is the question about legality of divorce? Of course not, since divorce is lawful—it's in the Torah. Or is the question about “divorce… for any cause”? No quote marks in original ancient languages.
      • NET: “For any cause.” NJKV: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?” NASB: “for any reason at all.” NIV: “for any and every reason” (helpfully paraphrased) NLT: “Should a man be allowed to divorce his wife for just any reason?” “Just any reason” shows better understanding of the ancient disagreement than does “for any cause.”
    • Asked where he stands on divorce issue: Liberal, any-cause? or Conservative, grounds-required?
      • Jesus agrees with Shammaites (divorce must have grounds) and repudiates Hillelites.
      • Yet he goes farther, pleading for return to spirit of God’s original plan.
      • “Jesus used the same terminology as the Shammaites, in the same context, at the same period, and in a debate where Shammaites or their rivals the Hillelites were present. We may therefore confidently conclude that… when the Shammaites said ‘except… for a matter of indecency’ in the context of this debate about ‘any matter’ divorces, they meant that Deuteronomy 24:1 allows no type of divorce except that for indecency. They did not mean that Scripture allows no divorce except that for indecency—because they allowed other divorces on the grounds in Exodus 21.” (David Instone-Brewer)
    • Also, in commenting on Deut 24, Jesus is not ruling out remarriage.
      • He does not explicitly state that a person can remarry after divorcing someone for marital unfaithfulness. Perhaps this is because it was assumed.
      • In 1st C Judaism, if a person divorced another person for any reason (Hillel) or only for cause (Shammai), they were allowed to remarry. Shammaites disagreed with Hillelites, but recognized their marriages as valid, even if lamentable.
      • No 1st century Jewish group prohibited remarriage after divorce. In the Roman world, remarriage was mandatory after 18 months; not to remarry was to break the law. Thus it would be quite strange if Jesus and Paul taught against remarriage.
    • Nor is Jesus explicitly ruling out other grounds for divorce.

Keep in mind:

  • The language of Matt 19 is compact and simplified: all grounds v. specific grounds. That is the debate—whether no-fault divorce is allowed, not whether divorce is allowed.
  • Mark 10 and Luke (16:18) are even more compact—no exceptions at all. In the Roman (Mark) and Greek (Luke) worlds, divorce was separation. It was easy and it did not afford protection to the vulnerable. The Jewish world (Matthew) was different.
  • The Bible is easily misunderstood if we fail to take into account the nature of biblical language, or if we don’t read these texts with an understanding of the background situation.

Does this make us uncomfortable: the claim we need history, geography, and language to understand the text?

  • Goal: to understand issues like the original recipients of the Scriptures.
  • There are significant gaps in our knowledge of ancient world. Are we surprised there are some things in the ancient world we don’t understand?
  • Similarly, there are gaps in the theology of the Bible.
    • In Scripture we don’t have a developed theology of the afterlife, or the communion meal, or how often Christians assembled. The Bible has nothing directly to say about marijuana.
    • And there’s no comprehensive doctrine of marriage, divorce, and remarriage—which means we have homework to do if we want to come to informed conclusions.


  • I’m not saying we can’t understand scripture unless we are theologians, or must know the biblical languages, or that the scriptures are generally murky, or self-contradictory.
  • Quite the contrary: We can understand them, some quite easily and quickly, but others only with serious spadework.