Divorce Context in Jesus’ Day

If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house…

Deuteronomy 24:1, NIV


A puzzle I have not attacked–until now–is over why Matthew is the only Gospel that provides “porneia” as an acceptable reason for divorce whereas the others do not mention it (e.g. Mark 10:2-12 and Luke 16:18).

Compulsory Divorce–

We know that the Jewish leaders did not have the power to condemn people to death under Roman rule. This is especially evident in the Passion narrative where they have to go to Pontius Pilate to obtain the death penalty for Jesus.

Adultery was a capital offense under the Hebrew Scriptures (see Deut. 22:22). Scholars will tell you that the death penalty by New Testament times was replaced by compulsory divorce. That makes sense in light of the lack of power for Jewish leaders to enact the death penalty unilaterally under Roman rule.

This cultural and political reality has direct bearing on the absence of the adultery exception. Let me explain by analogy:

We do not debate whether spousal separation is acceptable if one spouse breaks the civil law and is taken away to jail as a punishment. Such a separation is called compulsory. The spouses do not have a choice in the matter.

Similarly, a spouse who commits adultery would have committed a crime in the eyes of the state–apparently–resulting in divorce. This was not a matter of choice for either spouse. So, it make sense for such a situation not needing to be addressed by Jesus. The set law determined such an outcome.

To divorce was not a debatable matter when it came to adultery. It was assumed. No choice remained. So, it makes sense such a debate is not contained in the writing of Luke or Mark.

Rabbinical Schools–

While I do not take rabbinical schools as authoritative in determining God’s will per Scripture, I do think it is wise to consider the cultural context of Jesus’ teachings. That includes the competing schools of thought in His day. Those happen to be two particular rabbinical schools.

The two main rabbinical schools were debating what “something indecent” meant in Deuteronomy 24:1 as an acceptable cause for divorce. Jesus was clearly called into this debate both in Matthew 19 and Mark 10.

On one hand, the School of Hillel allowed for pretty much any reason for the husband to divorce his wife. This would follow our current legal system that does not really require justification for divorce.

On the other hand, the School of Shammai held the “something indecent” was only referring to sexual immorality. Along these lines, it appears Jesus sided more with the more restrictive view–i.e. the School of Shammai–when saying “porneia” was the only exception–i.e. sexual immorality.

Notice that the debate was not over whether or not an exception existed to obtain a godly divorce. It was a debate over how wide the exception for legitimate grounds was. Even the most restrictive of the two schools accepted adultery as grounds as it was sexual immorality. It makes sense that a settled starting point–i.e. adultery was obvious divorcing grounds–did not make it into the discussion in Mark or Luke.*

Continuity with Old Testament Witness

Another reason–and the most compelling as an evangelical–to read the silence as silence out of settled understanding regarding adultery/sexual immorality as legitimate grounds for divorce comes from the teachings in the Old Testament. God takes adultery seriously enumerating it as a prohibited act in the Ten Commandments.

Divorce does not make that list.

Furthermore, I find it difficult to accept Jeremiah 3:8 where God divorces Israel–even metaphorically–as wrong by later teaching via Jesus. Any such interpretation runs afoul of the belief that the Holy Spirit inspired the totality of Scripture bringing continuity to its teachings.

Since God divorces Israel in Jeremiah 3:8, we have some clear teaching on adultery as grounds for divorce. God cannot sin. Ergo, divorcing someone because he/she committed adultery–as Israel did in Jeremiah 3–cannot be sin.



*I will leave a discussion for why Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 have the exception explicitly for another time. A quick and dirty response is that Matthew was written with a Jewish audience in mind, and so, the author may have wanted to more explicitly lay out Jesus’ position. That’s the quickest explanation with which I agree. More can be said on the matter as well.

4 thoughts on “Divorce Context in Jesus’ Day”

  1. I’m commenting on when you wrote, “A puzzle I have not attacked–until now–is over why Matthew is the only Gospel that provides “porneia” as an acceptable reason for divorce whereas the others do not mention it (e.g. Mark 10:2-12 and Luke 16:18),” Does “porneia” mean pornography? If your spouse has a consistent struggle with porn, is that an acceptable grounds for a divorce?

    1. Bette,

      An argument could be made that it falls under “porneia” as pornography is a word derived in part from that Greek term. But pornography is a modern construct; so, the application is not precisely clear. Obviously, they did not have computers with porn sites going 24/7 in Jesus’ day. Porneia was a general catchall term for sexual immorality–e.g. incest, fornication, adultery, etc. Depending on the extent of the porn addiction, one could argue it as a form of sexual infidelity falling under “porneia.” I would urge discernment and wise counsel on the matter, though.


      1. Thank you for replying. Is it “sexual immorality” in Matthew 5:32 that is the Greek work porneia? And for some reason, your reply was in Spanish that got sent to my email.

        1. That’s strange…it appears as English on the website. Sorry about the language switch in the email.

          Yes, BOTH Mt 5:32 and Mt 19:9 use the term “porneia.”

Comments are closed.