To live a righteous life within one’s own family can be most challenging. All people have shortcomings, and when righteousness fails repeatedly, relationships and marriages are stressed and sometimes end. It is as true today as it has been throughout history. Divorce and remarriage was debated as much in the first century as it is today, although divorces were not as prevalent then. Jesus addressed the problem by stating that marriage was an institution ordained by God, yet He recognized the challenges men and women may face. While the reasons for a divorce are adultery, leaving the faith (1 Cor. 7:15), and emotional and physical abuse, for the purpose of this study only the issue of adultery as discussed by Jesus and the opinions common in His day are addressed here. But the entire matter must be seen within the context of Second Temple Judaism and God’s Divine Word.
When a young man and woman planned to get married, by either family-arranged or by their own choosing, a marriage contract was prepared. That legal binding contract, a/k/a a katuvah, described the obligations of the bride and bridegroom and, therefore, only a divorce or death could terminate it. There were of three kinds of marriage contracts:
- A Katuvah based on a dowry (the price the bride’s family pays the future husband).
- A Katuvah based on the bride price (the price the bridegroom pays to his bride’s family).
- A Katuvah with both elements of the above but with an emphasis on the bride price.
The Jewish understanding of a home is where a husband, wife, and children lived and it served as a sanctuary. The table served as the altar, where bread was eaten to nurture and sustain the body and where the family prayed and shared biblical stories to nurture and sustain the soul. The husband-father served as priest of the family. It was his responsibility to insure the spiritual well-being of everyone under his care. The family was seen as being so sacred that it was seldom broken. This family unit was such an incredibly strong societal building block that breaking it would cause irreparable harm, not only to the family members, but also to the synagogue and community. Unfortunately, the growing influence of Hellenism and its pagan influences made for a growing divorce rate. Therefore, it was more of an issue in the days of Jesus than it was during the time of Moses (Deut. 24:1-4). In fact, it had become of such great concern that one first century rabbi suggested daughters be educated in this area of law, so they would not be taken advantage of in the event of a divorce in later life. The Mishnah records the following:
Ben Azzai says: A man ought to give his daughter knowledge of the Law so that if she must drink [the bitter water] she may know that the merit [that she has acquired] will hold her punishment in suspense.
Mishnah, Sotah 3.4
In essence, Rabbi ben Azzai said that his daughter should have knowledge of the law so that, if she experiences a divorce, she will not become victimized. However, not all Jewish scholars were in agreement with Rabbi Ben Azzai as reflected in the following two statements.
Rabbi Eleazer said, “Let the words of the Law be burned rather than committed to women.”
“He who instructs his daughter in the Law instructs her in folly.”
Mishnah, Sotah 3.4
The differences between these quotations reflect the various rabbinic theological opinions. Girls were educated in the Galilee area, but not in Jerusalem.
Jesus recognized that due to the sin nature of humanity, divorces would continue but the innocent spouse should not be subjected to condemnation. He, therefore, did not prohibit the practice, but He did set limits on it. He focused his comment on husbands who are supposed to serve as the priest of the home, although they were generally the ones who initiated the breakup. An outlandish case is the account of Herod Antipas and Herodias. However, before going deeper into the issues of marriage and divorce among the Jews, it is important to briefly examine the Greek view of the subject. The primary reason is that when examining the opinions of two leading Jewish schools of theology, the School of Hillel and the School of Shammai, it becomes apparent that both of them may have been influenced by Hellenism.
The view of marriage held by the Greeks, which was adopted by the Romans, was an incredible paradox. In a nutshell, the wife was to be a submissive home-keeper and be sexually pure while the husband had no sexual restrictions. A woman of high respect lived at home, in solitude with a highly limited social life, if any. She was not permitted to be on the street by herself. Her primary responsibility was to raise the children, be the ideal home-maker, and establish security in the home. On the other hand, the husband, had free license to have any relationship (prostitute) outside of marriage that he desired – and as many as he could afford.
The Greeks in Corinth built the temple of Aphrodite and employed a thousand priestesses who were called temple virgins, but in fact, were professional prostitutes and not housewives. When the men of Athens discovered how much money these women generated, they established the temple of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Ironically, the entire structure was funded by revenue generated by prostitution. There was no question asked if a man decided to visit one of these two temples, or any other Greek temple.
Interestingly, in the course of time, a special class of women immerged known as the hetairai. They were the mistresses of significant politicians, philosophers, and businessmen. They established a high class of their own who functioned as a “second wife.” Consequently, in the Greek culture, a social system of relationships outside of marriage was created and considered to be normal and natural. There was nothing a wife could do about her wandering husband, because if she complained, he could simply divorce her. And a divorce did not require any legal action. A husband simply had to acquire two witnesses and tell her that she was dismissed. His only obligation was to return her dowry. The practice of the Greeks concerning marriage and divorce was incredibly similar to the teachings promoted by the School of Hillel. Therefore, it is apparent that Hillel (see below) adapted the Hellenistic model of marriage and wrapped it with Jewish theology and explanations.
Amazingly, centuries earlier, there was a time when Roman life was founded squarely on patria potestas, the father’s power. He had absolute power and authority over all family issues. Yet within this authoritative household, the wife had more freedom than did her Greek counterpart. In the early days of the Roman Republic, divorce was unheard of. In fact, it is said that the first divorce was in 234 B.C. by a Spurius Carvilius, who divorced his wife because she was barren. Prostitutes were held in contempt and the men who visited them were counted among the dishonorable.
Then came the Greeks and, as stated, the Romans adopted their values by the time of Christ. The Roman culture had degenerated to that of the Greeks, and many men and women had serial marriages – one right after another. Note the comments by the following contemporary Roman writers of the time.
- Lucius Annaeus Seneca, a/k/a Seneca the Younger or simply Seneca (ca. 4 B.C. – A.D. 65) was a Roman Philosopher and statesman. He said that some women were married to be divorced while others were divorced to be married.
- Decimus Iuvenalis (ca. A.D. 55-127), more commonly known as Juvenal, writing in the end of the first century (A.D.), spoke of a woman who had eight husbands in five years. He authored sixteen satires in which he ruthlessly criticized the moral vices and corruption of Roman society to the point that his property was seized and he was banished to southern Egypt, possibly to the frontier town of Syene, now Aswan.
- The Roman orator Metillus Numidicus said,
If Romans, it were possible to love without wives, we would be free of trouble; but since it is the law of nature that we can neither live pleasantly with them, nor at all without them, we must take thought for the continuance of the race rather than for our own brief pleasure.
The influences of the Roman and Greek cultures upon the Jewish people and their leaders had a direct effect on issues of marriage and divorce. Into this social quagmire Jesus clearly and lovingly presented the intent of God without excuses or exceptions. The fact that the Jews and Romans were incredibly lax about marriage covenant was directly due to the influence of the Greek culture.
. Mt. 5:32; 19:9; Mk. 10:2-12.
. Based upon numerous verses in light of the marriage covenant promise to care and protect one’s life-long spouse. This subject is discussed in the next section.
. For further study, see David Instone-Brewer. Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002; and Larry R. Helyer. “The Necessity, Problems, and Promise of Second Temple Judaism for Discussions of New Testament Eschatology.” . Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 47:4 (December 2004) 597-616.
. For more details on the katuvah, see 04.03.03 and 04.03.08.
. See also 04.03.03.A.
. The term “bitter water” was a concoction of consecrated water flavored with dirt from an open area of the temple. A woman suspected of adultery was given this bitter water to drink, and if she was guilty, her stomach would rupture and she would be killed. Parry, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Talmud. 82.
. Bracketed clarification by Danby, ed. Mishnah.
. The wide range of rabbinic opinions is evident in various Jewish writings. See 02.02.01.V for more information on this subject.
. Barclay, “Matthew.” 1:153-55.
. Barclay, “Matthew.” 1:156.
. Barclay, “Matthew.” 1:156.
. For further study on the various opinions concerning the status and influence of women in the Second Temple Period, see the excellent work by Tal Ilan, Integrating Women into Second Temple History, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1999. Take note of Chapter 3 on the discussions of two first century historians, Josephus and Nicholaus of Damascus, and their comments about women.
. Barclay, “Matthew.” 1:13.
. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/308974/Juvenal Retrieved July 30, 2013.
. Quoted by Barclay, “Matthew.” 1:156-57.