Scriptural and Early Christian Perspectives on Divorce and Remarriage

Common Questions on Divorce and Remarriage

After looking at what the Scriptures say and what the early Christians believed on divorce and remarriage, people often have further questions. The rest of this article attempts to address the most common questions I have received on this subject.

Jewish Betrothal and the Exception Clause

In an attempt to harmonize Jesus’ marriage teaching on divorce in Matthew 5 with His teaching in Mark and Luke, some people claim the Matthew passage refers to the Jewish betrothal period, rather than to what we would call marriage today.

According to this argument, the Greek word porneia, when used in Matthew 5 and 19, refers specifically to premarital sex, rather than to sexual immorality in general. It is argued that the Gospel account tells of Joseph’s intention to “put away,” or divorce, Mary when he thought she was immoral, even before they were married; thus betrothal in Jewish culture must have been a binding relationship which could be broken only through divorce. Jesus, so the argument goes, was referring to this betrothal period when He mentioned an “exception” for divorce. Matthew, writing primarily to Jews, recorded these words of Jesus; Mark and Luke, who wrote for Gentile readers, left them out, since they were irrelevant to their audience.

Although this theory seems ingenious at first glance, it has several serious flaws. The first is that the Greek word porneia never had a limited meaning at all; it always meant sexual immorality in general. No one in the first century who heard Jesus say, “He who puts away his wife except for porneia . . . .” would have thought He was saying, “except for unchastity during betrothal.”

This is clear in the quotes we looked at from the early Christians. These writers spoke the same Greek as the writers of the Gospels, and none of them ever suggested that Jesus was referring to betrothal in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9. In fact, I don’t think anyone put forth such a theory until the late 19th or early 20th century. It is a very modern interpretation, with no historical support whatsoever, so if it is correct, that means that for 1,800 years the entire church was mistaken about the meaning of Jesus’ words, including personal disciples of the apostles themselves.

Rejecting the interpretation of the Christians who actually lived in the Apostles’ era is historically questionable all by itself; but it’s also extremely inconsistent. The whole betrothal interpretation depends on the idea that Matthew wrote his gospel for a Jewish audience, but the book itself identifies neither its audience nor its author. The only way we know the identity of the author is that the early Christians tell us it was written by Matthew in Hebrew for the Jews and later translated into Greek for the rest of the church. Does it really make sense to accept the early Christians’ testimony regarding the author and audience for the book, but then reject their testimony on what it says?

Furthermore, the claim that parts of the New Testament apply only to certain religious or ethnic groups means adding things to Scripture that are not there. Matthew never says, “Now, the following section is only for Jews,” nor are there statements like that anywhere else in the New Testament. The idea that the New Testament contains a patchwork of teachings intended only for specific groups, so that we must pick and choose which ones apply to us, is supported neither by the words of the New Testament itself nor by the early Christians.

My final objection to the betrothal theory is based on Jesus’ statement that Moses allowed Jewish men to divorce their wives because of the hardness of their hearts. The early Christians seemed to understand Jesus as saying that during the Old Testament era, God permitted divorce, even on grounds other than porneia, because of the hardness of their hearts. However, the betrothal interpretation interprets the passage to say that divorce exclusively for porneia had been permitted in the past, but was now forbidden.

The problem with taking the position that divorce in the case of porneia is always a sign of hard-heartedness is that God describes Himself as divorcing Israel for her unfaithfulness. One example of this is Isaiah 50:1:

“Thus saith the Lord, Where is the bill of your mother’s divorcement, whom I have put away? or which of my creditors is it to whom I have sold you? Behold, for your iniquities have ye sold yourselves, and for your transgressions is your mother put away.”

God makes it quite clear in the Old Testament that His relationship to Israel was not just a betrothal; she was officially married to Him through the Mosaic covenant. If we say divorcing a wife for repeated unfaithfulness is wrong, and that it was permitted for Jewish husbands only because of their hard hearts, aren’t we suggesting that God Himself is a bad example for divorcing Israel on the same grounds?

Resolving Differences in Documents

Although I’ve shown why I do not see the betrothal interpretation as helpful, I have still not explained why Matthew mentions an exception, while Mark and Luke do not. What light do the early Christian writings shed on this discrepancy?

Interestingly, none of the early Christian writers ever talk about this. As we’ve discussed earlier, I believe it’s clear from their writings that the early Christians did allow and even expect a husband to divorce his wife if she was practicing adultery. They seem to have simply taken the exception for granted, considering it to be understood even in Mark and Luke where it was not specified. In fact, some of the early Christian writers did the same thing themselves: in some passages Tertullian says, “Divorce is unlawful. Any second divorce is adultery.” Yet later, in another work, he makes it clear that cases where the wife is unfaithful are exceptions to that rule.

At first, the silence on this matter from the early Christians seems odd, but on second thought, their way of dealing with the differences between the passages on this issue is the natural approach most of us use when faced with two documents discussing the same subject, one more detailed than the other. We automatically give the more detailed writing precedence over the one with fewer details.

In my law practice, if I’m reading two contracts between the same parties involving the same subject matter, but one provides more details than the other, I naturally give credence to the details that are included in the one but omitted from the other, and any court would do the same; it’s simple common sense. To give the abbreviated account precedence over the detailed one would be absurd.

The only real discrepancy between the records of Jesus’ teachings on divorce is that Matthew simply gives a more detailed account than Mark does. On the other hand, Mark mentions some details Matthew leaves out; for example, Mark mentions that the disciples asked Jesus about His words when they went to a house apart from the Pharisees. Does anyone suggest that since this house isn’t mentioned in Matthew, maybe that part didn’t really happen? Of course not. We simply use Mark’s extra detail to fill out Matthew’s account.[‡]

An illustration of how this works is in the differing accounts of Jesus’ Triumphal Entry as recorded in Matthew 21:4–7 and Mark 11:4–7. Matthew records a donkey and a foal, while Mark mentions only the foal. The common-sense interpretation of that difference is that there were two animals, and that Mark mentioned only the one that played a key part in the story. No serious student would attempt to “correct” Matthew’s more-detailed account with Mark’s less-detailed one.Again, harmonizing two accounts in this way is so natural that we do it all the time without thinking about it. There is no reason to treat the accounts of Jesus’ words on divorce and remarriage any differently. If Matthew records a detail Mark omits, we should simply accept it as true, and if Mark records a detail Matthew admits, we should accept that, too.