NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Verses 5-6: And God said, “That is why a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife. And the two people will become one. So they are no longer two, but one. God has joined them together, so no one should separate them.”
Our Master uses an interesting play on words in verse 6 to describe what it means for a man and his wife to be joined together. The Greek word syzeugnymi used here by Matthew means to be “yoked together.” In other words, they work together as a team to raise and support each other and their children. We make the same comparison today when we call married people “a couple.” In those day, this usually meant that the wife took care of the home and the man took care of the crops and animals. But both were instrumental in accomplishing a mutual goal. It is in this context that we should examine all ensuing teachings on the subject of divorce.
The apostle Paul does not say much about divorce. But he claims that his view is the same as that of our Lord when he says: “I have a command for those who are married. Actually, it is not from me; it is what the Lord commanded. A wife should not leave her husband. But if a wife does leave, she should remain single or get back together with her husband. And a husband should not divorce his wife.”1 Then Paul continues by giving his own personal opinion on divorce: “The advice I have for the others is from me. The Lord did not give us any teaching about this. If you have a wife who is not a believer, you should not divorce her if she is willing to continue living with you. And if you have a husband who is not a believer, you should not divorce him if he is willing to continue living with you.”2 However, Paul goes on to say that if the unbelieving partner is unwilling to stay with the believer, let them go. The believing spouse is not obligated to remain married under those circumstances and continue to live in disharmony.3
Some of the writings by early church scholars suggest that their concern was with the actions of the husband’s actions, not the wife’s. But by 177 AD, early church scholar Athenagoras had this to say: “A person should either remain as he was born, or be content with one marriage; for a second marriage is only to cover up adultery. ‘For whoever puts away his wife,’ says He, ‘and marries another, commits adultery;’ not permitting a man to send her away whose virginity he has brought to an end, nor to marry again. For he who deprives himself of his first wife, even though she be dead, is a cloaked adulterer, resisting the hand of God, because in the beginning God made one man and one woman, and dissolving the strictest union of flesh with flesh, formed for the intercourse of the race.”4
Then around 180 AD, Theophilus of Antioch mentions divorce in his treatment of Christian chastity, but quotes our Lord’s words verbatim and gives no further explanation as to his or the Church’s stand on the subject.5 A few years later in his writings against heresies, Irenaeus speaks about how divorce can sometimes be a disciplinary matter, in which he sides with the apostle Paul, allowing for divorce under certain circumstances involving faith.6 And by the beginning of 200 AD, Clement of Alexandria gives his view on divorce and remarriage. In one place he quotes our Lord’s words on divorce and then adds what Moses had to say about divorce being a pretext to adultery unless it is based on immorality. For if a divorce is given for any other cause and then the divorced individual remarries, they thereby commit adultery.7
Later on in the same work, Clement addresses what our Lord said about those who choose not to marry in order to devote more time to the Kingdom of God. But he acknowledges, that this question was related to another question involving the possibility of a man remarrying if he has put away his wife because of her adultery.8 Finally, Clement touches on those who decide not to marry, but become attracted to another person and how they should deal with it. But again he quotes the Scripture where Jesus says that those who are married should not seek a divorce.9
We also find by examining the writings or church scholars Origen, Chrysostom, Jerome, and others, that by the 6th century AD the church had more or less come to the conclusion that divorce can only be on the grounds of adultery, and remarriage is frowned upon just in case the adulterer repents and the two can become one again. One exemption to remarriage involves the dissolution of the first marriage through annulment when no intimacy is achieved to consummate the marriage. So more or less, early church teachers felt no urgency or permission to go against what was recorded in the Gospels on Jesus’ teaching concerning divorce. So this then brings us back to looking at what Jesus really said on this subject. This seems to be the aim of the Pharisees.
Verse 7: The Pharisees then asked Him, “Then why did Moses give a command allowing a man to divorce his wife by writing a certificate of divorce?”
Having failed to trap Jesus with their loaded question, the Pharisees now decide to pit the words of Jesus against the words of Moses. That way, they could use His disrespect for the great prophet and law giver as a reason to turn His followers against Him and thereby put an end to His influence and ministry. The Pharisees were referring to what Moses said about the dissolution of a marriage: “A man might marry a woman, and then find some secret thing about her that he does not like. If that man is not pleased with her, he must write the divorce papers and give them to her. Then he must send her from his house. When she has left his house, she may go and become another man’s wife.”10
In Jeremiah, God describes for the prophet His relationship with Israel who forsook Him for other gods. God said: “Israel was unfaithful, and she knew why I sent her away. Israel knew that I divorced her because she committed the sin of adultery.”11 But by the time we get to the end of the prophet era, God expresses Himself this way on the subject of divorce, “God wants husbands and wives to become one body and one spirit. Why? So that they would have legitimate children and protect that spiritual unity. Don’t cheat on your wife. She has been your wife from the time you were young. The Lord, the God of Israel, says, “I hate divorce, and I hate the cruel things that men do. So protect your spiritual unity. Don’t cheat on your wife.”12
This was some 400 years before God sent His Son to earth to explain things more clearly. So Jesus tells the Pharisees that divorce was not something God instituted on His own, but it was something God allowed because men’s hearts had become so calloused that forcing people to stay together under such circumstances brought on more suffering than it was worth. Jesus says, this was not what God had planned, but it is what was brought on by man’s fallen condition once he left the Garden of Eden. But now the Word had become flesh, and He was about to put His stamp on the subject. Under the New Covenant there would be new rules to follow.
The was brought on by the fact that by Jesus’ day, divorce had become a convenient way for any man to get rid of his wife based solely on his word. According to Jewish sources, the dissolution of marriage had its origin in the Jewish laws on divorce, as found in the constitution of the patriarchal family. The fundamental principle of its government was the absolute authority of the oldest male ascendant; hence the husband, as the head of the family, divorced the wife at his pleasure. The manner in which Hagar was dismissed by Abraham illustrates the exercise of this authority.13
This ancient right of the husband to divorce his wife at his pleasure is the central thought in the entire system of Jewish divorce law. It was not set aside by the Rabbis, though its severity was tempered by numerous restrictive measures. It was not until the eleventh century AD that the absolute right of the husband to divorce his wife at will was formally abolished. During the days when commentary on Scripture was being collected in the Jewish Mishnah, the theory of the law that the husband could divorce his wife at will was challenged by the school of Shammai, a Jewish scholar who was a contemporary of Jesus. He interpreted the text of Deuteronomy 24:1 in such a manner as to reach the conclusion that the husband could not divorce his wife except for cause, and that cause must be sexual misconduct.
Here is what it says: “The School of Shammai teaches: A man may not divorce his wife unless he found her guilty of an unseemly moral matter, for it is written: ‘And it will be that she does not find favor in his eyes because he discovers an unseemly, moral matter in her – then he should write her a bill of divorce and place it in her hand, thereby sending her away from his household.”14 And the earlier Jerusalem Talmud adds, “The School of Shammai says, ‘A man should divorce his wife only if he discovered in her in the act of adultery.‘”15
Nevertheless, it goes on to say, “For lo it has been taught on the authority of the house of Shammai, ‘I know as the grounds for divorce only the case of the woman who goes forth [from marriage] by reason of having committed adultery’,”16 but continues, “A further point is made by Rabbi Mana: “The husband has the right to divorce the wife on account of ugly matters, short of proof of adultery, only when the matter is confirmed through witnesses.”17 The school of Hillel, however, maintains that: “even if she spoiled his soup, he may divorce her,” or “Even is she spoiled his dish, since it is said, ‘Because he found in her indecency in anything’.18”19 The opinion of the school of Hillel prevailed during the time of Jesus.
It appears that Flavius Josephus held this same opinion, “He that desires to be divorced from his wife for any cause whatsoever, (and many such causes happen among men,) let him in writing give assurance that he will never use her as his wife anymore; for by this means she may be at liberty to marry another husband, although before this bill of divorce be given, she is not to be permitted so to do: but if she be misused by him also, or if, when he is dead, her first husband would marry her again, it shall not be lawful for her to return to him.”20 Jesus seems to have held the view of the school of Shammai.21
One factor that did not seem to be contested is what Jeremiah taught, “If a man divorces his wife and she goes and marries someone else, the first husband cannot take her back. If he did, it would make the land unclean.”22 Jesus’ disciples were standing around listening to this dialogue between their Master and the Pharisees. It sounded so complicated, that they had to find out what Jesus was trying to say.
11 Corinthians 7:10-11
2 Ibid. 7:12-13
3 Ibid. 7:15
4 Athenagoras, Plea for the Christian: Ch. 23.
5 Theophilus to Autolycus: Bk. 3, Ch. 13
6 Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, Bk. IV, Ch. 15:2
7 Clement of Alexandria: Stromata, On Marriage, Bk. III, Ch. 6:47
8 Ibid., Ch. 6:50
9 Ibid. Ch. 15:97
10 Deuteronomy 24:1-2
11 Jeremiah 3:8
12 Malachi 2:15-16
13 Genesis 21:9-14
14 Mishnah, op. cit. Third Division: Nashim, Tractate Gittin, Ch. 9:10
15 Jerusalem Talmud, op. cit. Third Division: Sotah, Ch. 1:1, [I:2 E]
16 Ibid., [I:2 I]
17 Ibid., [I:2 J]
18 Deuteronomy 24:1
19 Jerusalem Talmud, op. cit. Third Division: Gittin, Ch. 8:9, [I:1 F]
20 Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Bk. 4, Ch. 8
21 Matthew 19:3-9
22 Jeremiah 3:1