This is an extension to my series on the biblical perspective of divorce and remarriage. The posts can be found here:
If one is to attempt to reckon with the foremost research and discussion of today on divorce and remarriage in the bible, it requires reading Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context (2002) by David Instone-Brewer. In this book, the author explores the Ancient Near Eastern understanding of marriage and marriage contracts, the allowances for divorce and remarriage within the Pentateuch, and what the Later Prophets say concerning breaking marriage vows. Instone-Brewer then surveys how the increase of women’s rights during the Intertestamental period affected marriage contracts and the rabbinic teaching on grounds for divorce. All of this data set’s up for his analysis of Jesus and Paul’s teachings before he closes with a survey of more modern thought and some pastoral considerations.
There are a number of discussion items that Instone-Brewer advances that are important for setting the contextual scene of marriage and divorce. Some are well argued and some require a bit more nuancing on his part.
1) Ex. 21:10-11, not Dt. 24:1-4, was the standard text for Jewish legislation on divorce. Though indeed there was considerable debate in Jesus’ day concerning the correct interpretation of the Deuteronomy text and its bearing on divorce, most divorce law in the Mishnah rotates around the three categories mentioned in the Exodus text. Food and household provisions, along with marital obligations were basic to marriage, though this was not symmetric between husbands and wives, and the Mishnah required divorce if they were broken.
2) From OT times to Jesus’ day and beyond, Jewish and other ANE divorce certificates always had one important statement written on it: “You are free to marry whomever you desire.” This has been long acknowledged, but Instone-Brewer amasses a considerable amount of evidence for just how ubiquitous it was. Thus there is practically no room for Heth and Wenham’s claim that Jesus made a distinction between the two. This is a place where cultural-historical context indicates that Jesus, and Matthew and Mark, needed to give more explanation if he intended absolutely no remarriage allowed after divorce.
3) The Intertestamental period saw a shift towards increased women’s rights, especially in the Gentile world, resulting in increased property and marital rights. Women in the Greco-Roman world had the same rights to initiate divorce as the husband. Jewish women, at least in Judea, could not initiate divorce but had greater leverage. Within the Jewish Diaspora, there were greater tendencies towards women having same divorce rights. This is contrary to the standard thinking that women could not divorce and were subject to the whims of their husbands. This paints a much fuller picture of marital relationships in the Greco-Roman and Judean world contemporaneous with the NT. Thus my analysis of Mt. 5:32b fits nicely within this framework.
Instone-Brewer does, however, seem to overstate the point, claiming that within the Judean world divorce became more common as both men and women could demand it. Perhaps. The evidence given indicates that it was possible in some locations in the Jewish Diaspora for women to give divorce certificates, and in the wealthy class in Judea it would have been more likely that women could divorce – note the Herodias and Salome incidents. However, Josephus notes that such action by a woman was not in accordance with Jewish Law so some balance is required here.
4) Given the previous point, it was not a given that a divorced woman needed remarry, as is incorrectly assumed in most analyses of Matthew 5:32. Rather, with the money received from the divorce settlement, she could easily do as she wished, including move home, buy property and live self-sustained, conduct her own business, etc.
5) Instone-Brewer argues that the Greek “sexual unfaithfulness” in Mt. 5:32 and 19:9 is best seen as a translation of “some indecency” (literally, “nakedness of a matter” or better, “anything unclean”) in Dt. 24:1. Maybe. But he then goes to argue that Jesus was simply responding to the debate rather than rendering it pointless. Instone-Brewer than adds the inference that Jesus didn’t disagree with the Exodus 21:10-11 provisions since he didn’t argue against them. Again, this misses the point – Jesus surpasses the old covenant.
6) When we get to Paul’s letter to Corinth, Instone-Brewer does argue, successfully in my opinion, that the terminology Paul uses in 1 Cor. 7:10-11 refers to an “any reason” divorce, allowed within Greco-Roman law, where either party could divorce simply by leaving. Again, he goes on to infer that the text should be read simply as denying moral grounds for this certain type of divorce. Again, while this is very important background for keeping a check on going to far in the other direction, this misses the point. Paul’s overall argument is for an attitude check and for living one’s life in accordance with a new set of values.
7) Lastly, Instone-Brewer argues quite persuasively that “not bound” 1 Cor. 7:15 only makes sense if referring to freedom to remarry. Any other reading simply doesn’t make much sense.
The final outcome for Instone-Brewer is that the “biblical grounds for divorce are all failures to keep the marriage vows – that is, promises of faithfulness and provision of food, clothing, and love. The latter three may be generalized as material and emotional support. Physical and emotional abuse are extreme failures of material and emotional support.” This doesn’t mean we as Christians take this in a legalistic sense else we act like the Pharisees. Rather, the NT takes a pragmatic approach and Christians are to forgive when the partner is repentant.
Despite an excellent and very useful array of cultural-historical data and analysis, in the end Instone-Brewer misses the mark because he, like Heth and Wenham, reads the bible through a lens of codified ethics. For example, in his survey of the Later Prophets he finds that a “stubbornness” is found in Israel that warrants Yahweh’s divorce of Israel. In his hermeneutics, this directly translates to human divorces finding an acceptable place at a spouse’s stubbornness. But in his analysis, he fails to reckon with the significance of the overarching discourse of the redemptive historical framework that such language is set in the Later Prophets. And just because God unfortunately finds warrant for divorce with a sinful humanity, does that mean that we too can find warrant?
This culminates in his NT analysis of Jesus’ sayings in flattening out Jesus’ responses to the Pharisees to simply be within the realm of Pharisaic debate. In actuality, Jesus’ response cuts much deeper to a new set of demands, going to the very heart, mind, and will of a person. Because of Instone-Brewer's “legalistic” framework, his advice is easily open to abuse where any shortcomings in any of his categories may justify divorce. Ciampa and Rosner offer very sage counter-advice: “Wives and husbands are not well served by either overly lax or overly restrictive interpretations of biblical teachings on divorce and remarriage, and it is incumbent upon Christian leaders to provide counsel that takes seriously both God’s commitment to the preservation of marriage wherever possible and his commitment to the protection of the vulnerable…” Instone-Brewer fails to account for new covenant demands.
Divorce and Remarriage is one of a broader host of issues discussed in God, Marriage, and Family (2006) by Andreas Köstenberger. This book is more positively about defining family and how a family should function rather than how to mitigate severe disfuntionality. Köstenberger is fairly middle-of-the-road conservative Christian with perhaps a slight bent more towards conservative. There are times where he seems to want the standard conservative answer at the expense of subtle logical contradiction rather than stake out something new that might be a better balance. Nevertheless, I was pleased to find this was less than a How-To manual and more of a balanced, common sense, biblical approach to many of the family issues that are explored.
In chapter 11, Köstenberger spends all of 16 pages exploring the various points of discussion concerning divorce and remarriage in the bible. Jesus’ contemporaries wrongly took Dt. 24:1-4 as prescriptive rather than descriptive, as only regulating divorce rather than directly allowing divorce. The disciples’ reaction in Matthew 19:10 demonstrates that Jesus’ teaching indeed was more strict than most, including the conservative rabbinic school of Shammai, but this hardly necessitates that Jesus did not allow any divorce whatsoever. Köstenberger also sees Rom. 7:1-4 as not exhaustive prescription for divorce and remarriage but rather a general principle illustrative of deeper truths of the atonement. In 1 Cor. 7:15, “not bound” is similar to “not bound” in v. 39 (despite different Greek words) and so allows remarriage in its specific case and Köstenberger feels that “those who take 1 Cor. 7.15 to permit remarriage should not be ostracized if they get remarried after prolonged failed attempts at reconciliation.” Then, in a footnote (that is of similar substance to his blog post here), Köstenberger spends another two pages engaging and critiquing a Christianity Today article by Instone-Brewer and a critique of Instone-Brewer by John Piper.
I find little disagreement with Köstenberger’s criticism of Piper, who I find more and more to be a bit too much on the side of reactionary, a little too suspicious of historical analysis (though often with good warrant), and a little lacking on solid exegesis; though, this doesn’t lessen my respect for him and the enormous amount of good that his ministry has done. I find Köstenberger’s criticism of Instone-Brewer a bit mixed however. He agrees with Instone-Brewer that Jesus merely rejects the Pharisaical interpretation of Dt. 24:1-4 yet finds his claim that since Jesus didn’t contradict Ex. 21:10-11, then he must have accepted it. Köstenberger is quite right to question Instone-Brewer’s “argument from silence”. However, Instone-Brewer has very well argued for the importance of Ex. 21:10-11 in Jewish Law. If Jesus is merely rejecting the Pharisaical interpretation of Dt. 24:1-4, as Köstenberger concedes, then it’s a rather strong (not weak) argument from silence. Moreover, I find Köstenberger falling into the same path as Instone-Brewer at taking the bible on a purely deontological level, assuming that our ethical lead is merely a comprehensive set of rules given by Jesus and the apostles. If this is the case, then why doesn’t Jesus contradict Ex. 21:10-11 Law? If he doesn’t, then why can’t it still stand? We are on firmer ground to see Jesus sweeping away the entire “hard-heartedness” stance of the Law with new transcendent demands of perfection; demands that may have a strange and unfulfilled dimension in this fallen age but that stand straight and clear in a perfect world, the age to come. Good thing God has given his Spirit to guide and direct us!
 “Greco-Roman” is in contrast with the Greek world where, with a few exceptions, women were accorded a much lower place in society.
 For an excellent analysis of women and marital relationships in NT times, see Lynn Cohick, Women in the World of the Earliest Christians: Illuminating Ancient Ways of Life (2009).
 Jewish Antiquities 15.259
 This causes the common interpretation that the husband causes the woman to commit adultery because she is forced to marry another man.
 That that was the law doesn’t necessarily mean that divorce rates were unusually high. See Lynn Cohick’s book referenced above: various cultural values within the Greco-Roman world generally kept a fairly good check on divorce.
 Perhaps better put as “deontological”.
 Instone-Brewer consciously distances himself from being legalistic and suggests a “pragmatic” approach. However, I’d suggest that his hermeneutic tends towards a sort of legalism where we need simply only determine the “laundry list” of what’s acceptable. This seems to be partly due to his flattening of the text onto its historical context at many junctures and missing the nature of Jesus’ radical demands.
 Roy Ciampa and Brian Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians, pp. 293-4 n. 115
 http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/taste-see-articles/tragically-widening-the-grounds-of-legitimate-divorce. See also Piper’s outline of his position of no remarriage allowed: http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/articles/divorce-remarriage-a-position-paper.
 This does not mean Jesus does not require radical living in this age. At stake is the welfare of the oppressed.