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 no longer having a central hub now appear to answer questions on their own. Without a great understanding of marriage from its Jewish roots, divorce and remarriage became a highly 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. 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. In my research, this is what I found.
The reason 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 from 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 bride 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 usually leave the home (Num. 30:9). 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.”
After a man paid the bride price for his wife, 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 bride 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, traditionally there was payment given directly to the father of the bride, the Orthodox Jews accept a gold wedding ring (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 bride price created the rights for a unilateral divorce that only the husband can initiate. For, in theory, how shall someone who paid the bride price be divorced? At this point, it is all about authority and not about ownership.
Traditionally, either the father or the groom did not always ask the daughter for her consent or her hand in marriage. Scripture, on the other hand, suggests the father did ask her prior to the betrothal period. The Jews practice this by offering the bride a drink of the “wine of acceptance.” 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. One side only presented unilateral, meaning oaths and promises. 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 father of the bride and the groom discussed and agreed to the terms of the covenant. The Ketubah in the first century was to offer the woman financial security after a divorce in lieu of a large bride price prior to the marriage.
The unilateral marriage covenant is common for most Jewish marriages today. The Jews have documentation that it had very little changes for 2,400 years. Overall, these symbols are the foundations and making of a marriage covenant but now the scripture of Deut. 24:1 supported an abolishment. Once the covenant has become obsolete, and the woman released from her husband, she now has the freedom to marry another.
Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines. The Scripture does not say it was unlawful or immoral for a man to have more than one wife; although, it does say that it was unlawful for a woman to have more than one husband (Rom. 7:1-4). If women divorce their husband according to Deut. 24:1 than men would not be able to multiply wives the way they did in the Old Testament.
Jesus paid a bride 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 from 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 can 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 written primarily to the Jewish audience is the reason why the exception clause was 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 understand the author is speaking directly to the Gentile audience, which allowed easy divorces (evident by Harold unlawfully marrying Phillip his brother’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.” A woman bound in a way that many thought she was never to marry again (vs. 39). 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 words that he chooses to use 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 but the Lord: A wife is not to depart from her husband. 11 But even if she does depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband. And a husband is not to divorce his wife.”
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. 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 scripture permitted man 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 (11b).
Josephus used both of these Greek words in a story about a couple who divorced. He showed that the “depart” Greek word was to describe a general leaving or a more informal type of Greco-Roman divorce while the “divorce” word similar to Paul’s in 1 Cor. 7:11b 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 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 wife; 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 (similar to “divorce” in 1 Cor. 7:11b, 12, 13).” (Josephus Ant. 15.7.10, 259 emphases added)
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 says the woman is no longer “bound” to her husband when he dies (vs. 39). This is the first occurrences that a woman scripturally loosed from her husband.
“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 marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned…”
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. 11:2-16 and 1 Cor. 14:34-36) because the women 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.”
Therefore, when the question about the Law of Ezra 10:3 came up, among these believers, the women thought they were to obey this Law. They thought they were to put away their unbelieving husband, as the men put away their unbelieving wife. That is, 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. 7:10-11a) 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. Paul using the Greek word “departs” 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, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you 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 (1 Cor. 7:10-11, 12-14). This is why Paul said that the believers are no-longer in bondage but rather to be at peace with the unbelievers by honouring their request (1 Cor. 7:15c). Paul (Gal. 4) typically referred to the Law as bondage or slavery.
Paul did not speak about remarriage in these last few passages because the Church, being familiar with the Law of Moses and Jesus teachings in the Gospel already, only had to address new situations/questions concerning the equality of divorced Gentile women according to Roman law (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.
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 converting their spouse. Therefore, God called us believers to be at peace with the unbeliever and let them go. Paul is not giving his express permission to remarry.
In conclusion: the authority of man, the biblical allowances of polygamy and the general concept of the bride price all point to the woman not being allowed to initiate a divorce by design. Moreover, on the testimony of two or three witnesses every word is established. Amen!
Calvin College Computer Science website. The Christian Classic Eternal Library, CHAPTER 7. HOW HEROD SLEW SOHEMUS AND MARIAMNE AND AFTERWARD ALEXANDRA AND COSTOBARUS, AND HIS MOST INTIMATE FRIENDS, AND AT LAST THE SONS OF BABBAS ALSO. Retrieved Sept. 23, 2016 from http://www.ccel.org/ccel/josephus/complete.ii.xvi.vii.html
Fineman, J. (2016, January). A Jewish Divorce: The Importance of a “Get”. Retrieved from https://theodysseyonline.com/jewish-divorce
Sayen, M.S. (2016, Feb.). Divorce: In the Bible. Saint Paul, MN: Publisher Michael S. Sayen
Sayen, M.S. (2016, May). Remarriage: In the Bible. Saint Paul, MN: Publisher Createspace.com