Is Jesus among the Pharisees? Jesus, divorce, and remarriage in the New Testament

Dictionary definition of divorce
Dictionary definition of divorce

The issues of marriage, divorce, and remarriage have caused much debate within the Christian community and are of significant pastoral weight. Until recently, the locus of this discussion has been on whether and when a divorce between husband and wife is permitted. Of late the discussion has shifted to the very nature of marriage: whether Christian marriage may be redefined to include same-gender relationships.

Many progressive interpreters of Scripture appeal to changing views on divorce as evidence for the ways in which our scriptural understanding may evolve over time. Attitudes certainly shift over time, but whether the shift is meaningfully connected to a shift in interpretive approach or simply ignorance or indifferent to Scripture and tradition is less easy to discern. The vast majority of evangelical Christians–those who profess a high view of Scripture, among other markers–have capitulated to the concept of no-fault divorce and, perhaps more insidiously, have successfully removed the church from speaking into these sorts of issues in the lives of its members. This bracketing, while understandable, also denigrates the theological purpose of the church as a school of virtue in which members are shaped and formed into the likeness of Jesus Christ.

Of course, affirming the authority of Holy Scripture is easy when one understands–or thinks one understands–clearly what the Bible says. However, when the teaching of the Scriptures is more obscure, a diversity of opinions arises and conflict is likely not far behind.

How then do we make sense of what Jesus says about divorce in the Gospels?

A fundamental presupposition to a helpful discussion is that since Jesus spoke and taught in the context of first century Palestine, an understanding of that context is of critical importance to interpreting what Jesus meant.

A discussion of Jesus’ teaching on divorce must focus on the four sections of the Synoptic Gospels that deal with the subject: Matt 5:31ff., 19:3ff.; Mark 10:2-12; Luke 16:18.

These four accounts, episodes if you will, can be synthesized to provide a single coherent and consistent teaching on the subject of divorce that  appeals to the Old Testament.

We can then compare Jesus approach to the Hebrew Scriptures with that of the two, well-documented schools of interpretation found in first century Judaism: the schools of Shammai, and of Hillel. As we compare the different approaches to interpretation both with one another and with that of Jesus, we will be able to delineate the ways in which Jesus’ approach varies from the dominant Jewish approaches of the day.