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Jesus' Teaching on Divorce (Mark 10:1-12)

Analysis and Commentary


Jesus Teaches

Jesus Teaches

    1 And he arose from thence, and cometh into the coasts of Judaea by the farther side of Jordan: and the people resort unto him again; and, as he was wont, he taught them again. 2 And the Pharisees came to him, and asked him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife? tempting him. 3 And he answered and said unto them, What did Moses command you? 4 And they said, Moses suffered to write a bill of divorcement, and to put her away. 5 And Jesus answered and said unto them, For the hardness of your heart he wrote you this precept.
    6 But from the beginning of the creation God made them male and female. 7 For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife; 8 And they twain shall be one flesh: so then they are no more twain, but one flesh. 9 What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder. 10 And in the house his disciples asked him again of the same matter. 11 And he saith unto them, Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her. 12 And if a woman shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery.
    Compare: Matthew 19:1-12; Luke 16:18

Jesus Tempted by Pharisees

Jesus travels from Galilee, the center of his ministry, to Jerusalem, where he was destined to be executed. His first stop is the “coasts of Judea,” sometimes translated as “the region of Judea.” This means that he went from Galilee south into Judea, a region under the control of Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great.

We aren’t informed of exactly where he is, but traveled via the “farther side of the Jordan,” which probably means the eastern side of the Jordan through Perea (literally: “beyond” as in “beyond the Jordan”) and then crossed to the west into Judea. These are areas under Gentile rather than Jewish control.

Why did he not go directly through Samaria? He may have wanted to avoid Samaria and the Samaritans, but Perea was under the control of Herod Antipas — in fact, Herod may have had John the Baptist beheaded at the Perean fortress of Machaerus.

As is usually the case, Jesus is accosted by large crowds — it’s not clear if they want to hear him teach, to watch him perform miracles, or both. As far as we know, though, all he does is teach. This brings out the Pharisees who want to challenge Jesus and undermine his popularity. Perhaps the confrontation is supposed to help explain why Jesus stayed away from the Judean population centers for so long.

In this case, they “tempt” him by trying to get him to contradict Jewish law on marriage and divorce, an issue which apparently divided the Pharisees themselves. Moses taught that divorce was permitted; Jesus argues, though, that it is only permitted because the Jews’ hearts were “hard” and nothing better would have worked.

Jesus on Divorce

Jesus says that hearts should be soft enough for new regulations. It isn’t said why this would be so and Jesus’ constant refrain about how unbelief causes him problems doesn’t allow the reader to have much confidence in the idea that conditions are right for a change.

According to Jesus, divorce isn’t permitted under any circumstances whatsoever because God intended marriage to be permanent. In the parallel passage in Matthew, Jesus says “Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery.” (Mt.19:9) So which is it — no divorce under any circumstances or no divorce except in the case of “fornication”?

What about polygamy? Multiple wives — not to mention concubines — were common in the Old Testament, but Jesus’ words reject it. There is some evidence of polygamy being tolerated even in the early Christian church. Bishops, for example, were forbidden from having more than one wife and this may have been an indication that some people did not so limit themselves:

    A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife... (1 Tim.3:2)
    If any be blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly. For a bishop must be blameless. (Titus 1:6-7)

Perhaps this is supposed to prevent divorced and remarried people from becoming bishop and that is the usual interpretation (ignored in contemporary churches which allow divorce and remarriage at all levels of the clergy).

Both men and women had the right to initiate divorce at this time here and Jesus’ prohibition falls more heavily on women than men. Women had fewer rights than men, but where the right to divorce has existed women have had the ability to escape arranged, abusive, and intolerable marriages which were more a prison than a relationship.

Now, Jesus would take even that away. Regardless of how violent, abusive, or dangerous a man was, it would be a sin for a woman to leave and try to find happiness and fulfillment elsewhere with another man. Why? Because that’s what God wants — no further rationale is necessary. In traditional, orthodox Christianity, this is considered reasonable.

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