Christian Divorce from a Jewish Perspective
Michael S. Sayen
I wanted to write a few short paragraphs of what the Bible said about divorce and why this understanding was so hard and challenging for the Gentiles coming to faith in Jesus. Gentiles did not look through the eyes of the Jews but of other Gentiles. Hence, this teaching fell short and did not survive the test of time.
Imagine if you will, the destruction of Israel in 70 AD; the primarily Jewish council in Jerusalem, where James and the elders resided, dismantled and dispersed abroad. Gentile Churches now no longer having a central hub are forced to answer questions on their own. Without having a great understanding of marriage from its Jewish roots divorce and remarriage became a debated subject in the first early years of Christianity.
This writing is from a Jewish perspective using both New and Old Testament Scripture. Documentation shows that the Jewish people had primarily only allowed the man to initiate the divorce since the Torah. They still practice this today in the State of Israel according to Orthodox Jewish Rabbis.
Christian scholars agree up to this point so far. But as I asked the question “why” the Jews only allowed the man to initiate the divorce I was quite surprised with their answer. They gave similar reasons that us Christians use for teaching about headship and submission both in the home and in church leadership. As I looked further this is what I found.
The Jewish leaders believed only the man was allowed to put away his wife was said to be for, “Well…because Deut. 24:1 said so!” When looking deeper in Jewish sources I found that this belief was based off their understanding of Gen. 3:16. That is, the role of woman and the rule of man. The understanding of man’s unilateral divorce really stems from God’s makeup, design and principles of marriage seen all throughout the Torah.
Man typically paid a bridal price for his wife in Scripture. This practice was from the belief that a man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife. The woman did not leave the home. The man had to request a wife from the home of her father which we still practice today. A suitor asks the father for his daughter’s hand in marriage in which, if accepted, eventually walks her down the aisle and symbolically “gives her away.”
Since the woman was designed to originally have a bridal price the Jews believed she was therefore “acquired” by the payment. Although payment was a bilateral transaction between the groom and the bride’s father the contract simultaneously created a “unilateral” marriage covenant between the man and his wife. Scripture says a bridal price was required to pay for the Church, “Which [Jesus] hath purchased with His own blood” Acts 20:28. Since the father had authority over his daughter after he made the contract she legally and culturally could not refuse. The woman was not required to sign the marriage certificate but the father, groom, and two witnesses.
Although payment was traditionally given to the father of the bride the Orthodox Jews accept a gold wedding ring as a form of payment (Rebecca’s gold nose ring) very similar to our engagement ring. Many people believe these principles were the reasons the Church quickly embraced this type of marriage proposal from the man which formally came from possible pagan and Roman practices. Many cultures believed that the bridal price created the rights for a unilateral divorce that could only be initiated by the husband. For, how shall someone who was paid for release the one who paid for her? At this point it is all about authority and not about ownership.
Traditionally, the daughter was not always asked by either the father or the groom for her consent or her hand in marriage. But Scripture suggests the father did ask her prior to the betrothal period. The Jews practice this traditionally by offering the bride a drink of the “wine of acceptance” before the betrothal was considered in effect. Only in rare cases were the daughter’s wishes not respected or considered but it still took a volunteered “acceptance” consummation to begin the marriage.
The Jews and Israel still practices the “unilateral” marriage covenant and call it the Ketubah. Unilateral, meaning oaths and promises were only presented by one side. The woman was not required to make vows of her own; she only had to accept his offer to enter into the marriage covenant. The contents of the marriage covenant were traditionally discussed and agreed by the father of the Bride and groom. The Ketubah was later written in the first century to offer the woman financial security after a divorce in lieu of a large bridal price prior to the marriage.
The unilateral marriage covenant is common for most Jewish marriages today. The Jews have documentation that it has been practiced with very little change for 2,400 years. All in all, these symbols are the foundations and making of a marriage covenant and now the scripture of Deut. 24:1 supported an abolishment. Once the covenant has become obsolete and the woman has been released from her husband she now has freedom to marry another. If a man puts away his wife not according to Deut. 24:1 (sexual immorality) and marries another, he commits adultery against her (Mark 10:11) even if polygamy was allowed (Old Testament).
Jesus paid a bridal price for the church (leaving us an example of a biblical marriage) and offered a unilateral covenant to the Church with one sided promises. Abraham was also offered a unilateral covenant by God (God went between the slain animals- not Abraham). In contrast, Scripture tells us the Jewish leaders went through the slain animals to enter into their “bilateral” covenant with God through Moses. This made the Mosaic Covenant of “Blessings and Cursing” different than Abraham’s. Since our Covenant was one sided all we had to do was accept the covenant through faith to enter in, much like Abraham’s covenant.
Jesus and Paul
The New Testament supports the doctrine that only the man was allowed to initiate the divorce and not the woman. The Jews asked Jesus, according to Deut. 24:1, if it was lawful for a “man” to put away his wife for any reason. Jesus did not answer their question directly but rather that Moses permitted it outside of God’s original design. Later in private, Jesus told His disciples that if the man put away his wife for sexual immorality that he would not be guilty of adultery if he married another. Matthew’s gospel is written primarily to the Jewish audience and this is why the exception clause is mentioned here.
9 �And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality; and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.” 10 His disciples said to Him, “If such is the case of the man with his wife, it is better not to marry.”
The reason Mark has an account of a woman putting away her husband in 10:12 is this book was a letter that was written to Gentiles living in Rome. Because it emphasized that this was a “private” account of Jesus we can understanding the author is speaking directly to the Gentile audience which allowed easy divorces (evident by Harold unlawfully marrying his brother Phillip’s wife and the Samaritan woman having married 5 times).
“10 When they were in the house again, the disciples asked Jesus about this. 11 He answered, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. 12 And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.”
We can also see further evidence that only the man was allowed to initiate the divorce by 1 Cor. 7:10-11. Paul said the departed wife is to “remain unmarried or to be reconciled to her husband.” The reason Paul said a divorced woman is not to marry another man is because the only way for a woman to depart from her husband was to do it outside of scriptural concessions. So, Paul wanted to make this point clear both with the particular Greek word that he chose to use to explain her divorce and the very clear command (giving her only two options) of not allowing her to marry another man.
“10 Now to the married I command, yet not I hut the Lord; A wife is not to depart from her husband 11 But even if she does depart let her remain unmarried or he reconciled to her husband. And a husband is not to divorce his wile.”
Paul spoke about Jesus’ command saying the wife not to depart from her husband and the man is not to divorce his wife in 1 Cor. 7:10-11. Since the woman was not allowed to divorce her husband, according to Scripture, Paul used the very common Greek word “depart” which comes from the same root word used earlier by Jesus when He said, “Do not (separate or depart) what God has joined together.” Since the man was permitted by scripture to put away his wife for porneia and marry another, Paul used a rare and formal Greek word not typically seen in the New Testament. He did this in order to describe a more traditional style Roman divorce in their culture (11 b).
Josephus used both of these Greek words in a story about a couple who divorced. He showed that the “depart” word in Greek meant the general leaving or a more informal type of Greco-Roman divorce, while the “divorce” word similar to Paul’s in 1 Cor. 7:1 lb was used by the Greek speaking Jews who wished to obtain a Get (Writ of Divorcement).
“But some time afterward, when Salome happened to quarrel with Costobarus, she sent him a bill of divorce and dissolved (similar to “divorce” in 1 Cor. 7:11b, 12, 13) her marriage with him, though this was not according to the Jewish laws; for with us it is lawful for a husband to do so; but a wile; if she departs (similar to “departs” in 1 Cor. 7:10, 11a, 15a, 15b) from her husband, cannot of herself be married to another, unless her former husband put her away” ( Josephus Ant. 15.7.10, 259)
Since the man did have allowances for remarriage Paul did not command him to likewise “remain unmarried or to be reconciled” 1 Cor.7:11. Paul latter says a man “loosed” from his previously “bound” wife will not sin if he marries, and if a virgin marries they will not sin (1 Cor. 7:27-28). Paul calls the men in these teachings “unmarried” men (vs. 32) but refers to the unmarried woman as a “virgin” (vs. 34). Paul does not give the loosed or general unmarried women permission to marry again in these later passages (vs. 36-38).
’26 I suppose therefore that this is good because of the present distress�that it is good for a man to remain as he is: 27 Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be loosed Are you loosed from a wife? Do not seek a wife. 28 But even if you do many, you have not sinned; and f a virgin marries, she has not sinned…�
The reason Paul uses the formal Greek word for divorce again in both 1 Cor. 7:12 and verse 13 (evidently the women had an improper understanding of gender equality in this church 1 Cor. 11:216 and 1 Cor. 14:34-36) is that the women obviously must have felt that they had every right to divorce as a man in certain Scriptural mandated situations.
“12 To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. 13 And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him.”
So, when the question about the Law of Ezra 10:3 came up, among these believers, the women thought they could use or were commanded to obey this Law. They thought they were to put away their unbelieving husband, as the men were told to put away their unbelieving wife, in order to keep the seed pure.
’14 For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband; otherwise your children would be unclean, but now they are holy.”
We know this is in reference to Ezra 10:3 because Paul says in 1 Cor.7:14 that the children would otherwise be “unclean” but now they are holy. The believers were later told to separate from the unbelievers and not to be “unequally yoked” together with them 2 Cor. 6. But even with this general understanding (not to touch the unbelievers) already becoming popular in the Corinthian Church, Paul said if the unbeliever wished to stay married than stay married to them since they are now sanctified by the Holy Spirit.
1 Cor. 7:15 “depart” (same word used by Paul in 1 Cor. 7:101 1 a) is in the present tense which demonstrates that the only allowance for a believer to divorce an unbeliever is if the unbeliever has already initiated the divorce according to cultural laws. By Paul using the Greek word “depart” in 1 Cor. 7:15a, he was demonstrating to the believer that he was authorizing the divorce even if it was for unscriptural reasons.
15 But if the unbeliever departs, let him depart; a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases. But God has called us to peace. 16 For how do you know, 0 wife, whether you hill save your husband? Or how do you _know, 0 husband, whether mu will save your wife?”
Paul responds by commanding the believer not to fight or resist the divorce but to give them this unlawful divorce even if previously commanded not too according to the Law (shown in 1 Cor. 7:10-11). This is why Paul said that the believers are no-longer in bondage but rather to be at peace with the unbelievers by honoring their request (1 Cor. 7:15c). The Law was typically referred to as bondage or slavery by Paul (Gal. 4).
Paul did not speak about remarriage in these last few passages because they being familiar with the Scriptures already had only to address the questions of Gentile women divorcing their husbands (1 Cor. 7:11) and those who are married to non-Christians (Ezra 10:3). Besides this, they had no other questions in regards to being “loosed” according to Deut. 24:1 to many again.
Paul ends by giving a logical argument in verse 16 to release them from guilt or compulsion by explaining to the believer that we can never know if holding onto the marriage would ever lead to their spouse being converted. Therefore, God called us believers to be at peace with the unbeliever and let them go. Paul is not giving permission to remarry here.
Reference: Calvin College Computer Science website. The Christian Classic Eternal Library, Chapter 7. How Herod Slew Sohemus And Mariamne And Afterward Alexandra And Costobarus, And Costobarus, And His Most Intimate Friends Friends, And At Last The Sons Of Babbas Also. Retrieved Sept. 23, 2016
The above article, “Christian Divorce from a Jewish Perspective” was written by Michael S. Sayen. The article was excerpted from http://ww.w.ccel.org/ccel/josephusicomplete.ii.x-ciAii.html
The material is copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study or research purposes.
This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”