Divorce in the New Testament

It is commonly taught that remarriage after divorce is adultery (unless your ex dies) because of what Jesus says in Matt 5:32, Matt 19:9, Mark 10:11, and Luke 16:18. In addition, Paul repeats it in Romans 7:3 and 1 Corinthians 7:10-11. Others may say Jesus contradicts the Torah when he denounces divorce because the Torah allows it (Deut 24:1-4, and Ex 21:10-12). God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16), yet he divorced Israel in the Babylonian exile (Jeremiah 3:8)? How do we resolve this?

Jesus doesn’t contradict the Torah which allows for divorce, but only explains or corrects reinterpretations of the Law by the Pharisees. Jesus’s main critique of the Pharisees was that they were substituting God’s law with man-made traditions (Matt 15:1-9). The Pharisees were scapegoating laws in the old testament by reinterpreting certain verses. For example, they interpreted Deut 24:1 to allow for “any cause” divorce or adding “hate you enemies” to love your neighbor in Lev 19:18. Jesus of course corrected them in Matt chapter 5:31-32 & 5:43-48, as well Matt ch. 19, Luke 10:25-37.

Jesus affirms the law of divorce in Deuteronomy 24:1-4. The Pharisees came up with ‘any cause’ divorce, to allow them to divorce for any reason. The Torah only allows divorce for “uncleanness” or indecency, which likely refers to some kind of wickedness like badmouthing, attempting to poison her husband, committing adultery, etc (Deut 24:1), and abuse of a spouse via neglect of food, clothing, and sex (Ex 21:10-11). There is one case in which the Torah forbids divorce which is if the marriage is the result of pre-marital sex (Deut 22:28-29). Jesus corrected them in Matthew 19:8, by saying that the law of Moses allowed divorce because of the hard hearts of Israel. Then he references Deut 24:1 correctly by saying you can divorce your wives for “any uncleanness” (adultery), rather than “any cause”. Jesus was NOT saying that those who divorce their spouses because of adultery are hardhearted. Adultery was a legitimate reason to divorce because the marriage covenant was already broken and Jesus confirms this in Matthew 5:32, and Matthew 19:9. The Pharisees were altering Deut 24:1, to be used for any reason. And they wrote their alternative versions down in the Talmud.

The Talmud on divorce:
“…And Beit Hillel says: He may divorce her even due to a minor issue, e.g., because she burned or over-salted his dish, as it is stated: “Because he has found some unseemly matter in her,” meaning that he found any type of shortcoming in her.
Rabbi Akiva says: He may divorce her even if he found another woman who is better looking than her and wishes to marry her, as it is stated in that verse: “And it comes to pass, if she finds no favor in his eyes.” (Talmud: ‘Gittin,’ 9:10)

Jesus calls out the scapegoating of adultery (suggested by Rabbi Akiva) by saying that it counts as adultery if you lust after another woman in your heart (Matt 5:27- 30). Therefore, it still counts as adultery even if a man gets a divorce and then remarries a new woman because the reason why the man got the divorce was driven by lust in his heart not because his spouse broke the covenant. In Malachi 2:13-16, God said he hates divorce, and this was in the context of what the men of Judah were doing in the post-exile era. They were divorcing their Jewish wives and abandoning them for Gentile idol worshipers (probably shrine prostitutes). This is what angered God, he hates the actions of covenant breakers who bastardized divorce laws to abandon their wives. This reflects the teachings of Rabbi Akiva in the Talmud (Gittin 9:10), who said men can divorce their wives if he finds a better-looking woman. Jesus’ response to this of course was that they were committing adultery in their hearts.

People often interpret Matthew 19:8 to mean that remarriage after divorce is perpetual adultery and that it was only allowed in the Old Testament because Moses invented it. First thing is that Deuteronomy 24:2 says that a divorced woman is free to marry another man. God wrote the law, so he invented the divorce allowance, and Moses simply passed it on to the Israelites. Moses was just the messenger and everything in the Torah is God’s teaching and instruction. God himself actually says he “divorced” the northern tribes of Israel in Jeremiah 3:8, so if he can do it then, that shows it was allowed under certain conditions. Throughout the warnings of the pre-exile prophet books, God uses the analogy of marriage for his relationship with Israel and since they committed adultery (idolatry) he divorced (exiled) them. Of course, later on, God reconciled with Israel, just like Hosea and his cheating wife Gomer in Hosea ch. 1-3. God uses Hosea’s marriage as an analogy for the exile and restoration in his marriage with Israel. The Torah is God’s word to the people of Israel, which includes Moses because he is just another Israelite. It was God that gave the Torah to Moses, and even Jesus said that all of the Torah is the word of God. Jesus even confirmed that the miracles of the old testament that Israelites often attributed to Moses, like the raining quail and manna from the sky, were done by God and not Moses in John 6:30-33.

Furthermore, Moses’ words are from God, Moses didn’t come up with the laws himself. Therefore the Torah is God’s instructions on things like divorce, which allows for divorce and remarriage in the case of adultery in Deut 24:1-4 and neglect of food, clothing, and sex (in Ex 21:10-11). The proper use of divorce is confirmed by Jesus in Matthew 5:32, and Matt 19:9. The hard-heartedness Jesus references in Matt 19:8 alludes to both the reason people are allowed to divorce (like adultery and neglect) and reveals the reason the Jewish leaders want to change God’s law. The goal is to prevent it but because humans commit sin it is allowed, this allowance never goes away because none of God’s laws passes away. Jesus said he has not come to abolish the law but fulfill it (Matt 5:17), and he fulfilled it by giving us the Holy Spirit who will circumcise our hearts so that we can be righteous. The Jewish leaders had a bunch of traditions in the 1st century that either never came from the Torah, or were altered versions of what the Torah said. You can see some of those traditions continued today, written in the Talmud. Jesus was against the Talmud which is a bunch of traditions that Pharisees came up with that in many cases contradicts the old testament.

Lastly, the gospels often use Moses’ name and the pronoun “you” (referring to the 1st century Israelites), interchangeably when Jesus was quoting the story of the burning bush to the Sadducees. Mark 12:26 and Luke 20:37 say that the book of Moses shows that God was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But Matthew 22:31 says that it was spoken unto YOU by GOD, saying that God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This shows that while the gospel writers used different words, the meaning is consistent in the context because the “you” (used in Matthew 22:31) is referring to the Sadducees who had questioned Jesus on the subject of the resurrection. So when Jesus said in Matthew 19:8, “Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives”, it can be exchanged with, “God, because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives”.

Paul’s comments on adultery regarding a divorced woman getting remarried in Rom 7:3 have to be contextualized. First, in the context of the first 6 verses of that chapter, he uses marriage as a comparison to bondage to the law, by saying that a woman is bound to her husband when he is living but free when her husband dies. Likewise, he says in verse 4 that we died to the power of the law when we “died with Christ” aka baptism. He continues his teaching about sin nature and freedom from the curse of the law because we are free from sin nature until verse 6. This verse isn’t about marriage customs, it’s about freedom from the curse of the law.

In the grander scope, Paul’s letters were primarily written to Jews and Gentiles in European cities, so he addressed them with the Roman laws and customs that affected them both. This letter was written to the church in Rome, so Roman laws would have been familiar to them. The Roman Marriage Law (Lex Papia Poppaea) had punishments like banishment and even death (for women) in the case of adultery, but their rules on divorce were more lenient. A person could simply leave for any reason and say they are done and it counted as a divorce. However in the bible people had to sign a divorce certificate and it was only biblically allowed under certain conditions (Deut 24:1, Ex 21:10-11). This means that Paul was contrasting the Bible’s definition of divorce to the Roman Law’s requirements for divorce which were very relaxed like the Talmudic system for divorce, which Jesus denounced as heresy. The only serious aspect of divorce in Roman law was that a man was required to divorce an adulterous wife. Since the casual divorce system used by the Talmud and thus the Roman Law was denounced by Jesus, Paul aimed to teach them the biblical restrictions on divorce. His comments on divorce taken into that context would have suggested that remarriage is not a sin but rather the divorce has to be a legitimate divorce, otherwise, it doesn’t count and the woman would commit adultery. Jesus alludes to this in Mark 10:10-12, because he was addressing illegitimate (Talmudic) divorce among the Jews. Mark 10 is the same conversation as Matthew 19, and Matthew’s version makes it clear that the Pharisees ask if a man can divorce his wife for “any cause” (Matt 19:3).

In the old testament, it was expected that divorcees got remarried (Deut 24:2). Furthermore, remarriage was required by Roman law six months after a divorce, and 1 year after being widowed. Therefore, it was expected that everyone got married and remarried for reproductive purposes because of the command to be fruitful and multiply in Gen 1:28 and Gen 9:1. Celibacy (or unicity) was frowned upon in Jewish culture. Castration (or injury to male genitals) is recognized as uncleanness and that got a person cut off from the community Deut 23:1. Likewise in Roman Law, celibacy was punishable with banishment, this is one of many issues that would have put Paul (who was celibate) at odds with both Romans and Jews. Therefore, the idea of a healthy young fertile woman just wasting away because she was divorced would have been frowned upon.

Back then the Israelites had a different obligation, they were to inherit the land and preserve the bloodline until the Messiah comes because through Abraham’s seed all nations will be blessed (Gen 12:1-3). So it makes sense that they should make babies by any means necessary. However, in the new covenant, we don’t have to make physical babies to get more people into the Kingdom. We are to teach all nations (Matt 18:28) so that they can be BORN AGAIN, which is the spiritual birth that is necessary to be a citizen in the Kingdom (John 3:1-8). So celibacy is fine and even encouraged by Paul (1 Cor 7:1-7) since he is a eunuch. One eunuch can make more covenant people at a faster rate by preaching the gospel than Jews (or anyone else) can reproduce.

In conclusion, divorce is not a sin if it is done within the biblical requirements (Deut 24:1, Ex 21:10-11). Those passages about a woman committing adultery if they remarry are not in line with Jewish and Roman cultural expectations and the bible itself says that divorced women can remarry in Deut 24:2. Celibacy was only allowed in the new covenant (in Christianity), so culturally no Jew or Roman at that time would have expected women to stay celibate until their ex-husband died. Reconciliation was encouraged over remarriage in the case of divorce (1 Cor 7:10-11), but Paul a former Pharisee, would have taken the Torah into account in his letters. In addition, a man could not remarry his wife if she had already been married and divorced afterward (Deut 24:4). Also in 1 Corinthians 7:12-16, Paul elaborates on an unbalanced married where one spouse is a believer and the other one isn’t. He encourages the believer to stay married but if the unbeliever wants a divorce, then the believer is to let it happen. In that case, it would fit in the category of neglect from Exodus 21:10-11, which is a valid reason for divorce since the believer was abandoned and therefore the believer is allowed to be remarried.

Even if a person got an illegitimate divorce for a lame reason that didn’t involve adultery or abuse/neglect, they would be forgiven if they repented for it according to 1 John 1:9. Then if remarrying afterward they should dedicate themselves to doing the new marriage right and only divorcing if there is a legitimate biblical reason this time. Furthermore, if a person got an illegitimate divorced and remarried before they even became a Christian, then when they get saved their sins would be forgiven. This is a part of the covenant package for them to have eternal life. So any form of adultery from before a person receives Jesus should not count against them especially if their old spouse won’t take them back anyway. It would be ideal according to Paul in 1 Cor 7:10-11, for them to reconcile, however, a person can’t reconcile if their ex, moved on and got remarried or moved away to an unknown place. This would leave them free to remarry because reconciliation is not an option. Especially if the ex already remarried/divorced again, because there is no reconciliation if the ex has been remarried (Deut 24:4).

Pulpit Commentary on Luke 16:18:
“The teaching of the rabbis in the time of our Lord on the question of the marriage was exceedingly lax and tended to grave immorality in the family life. In the late unlawful marriage of Herod Antipas with Herodias, in which so many sacred and family ties were rudely torn asunder, no rabbi or doctor in Israel but one had raised his voice in indignant protest, and that one was the friend and connection of Jesus of Nazareth, the prophet John the Baptist. Divorce for the most trivial causes was sanctioned by the rabbis, and even such men as Hillel, the grandfather of that Gamaliel whom tradition speaks of as the rabbi whose lectures were listened to by the Boy Jesus, taught that a man might divorce his wife if in the cooking she burnt his dinner or even over-salted his soup (see Talmud, treatise ‘Gittin,’ 9:10).”

Read More of this commentary here

Beit Hillel from that Talmud segment aka Hillel the Elder was the grandfather of Gamaliel. Gamaliel is mentioned in Acts 5:34-40, and he is the teacher of Paul the Apostle according to Acts 22:3.
Talmud reference – Talmud: ‘Gittin,’ 9:10

Interview with Tyndale House Publishing on ‘any cause’ divorce

Ancient Rome – Women and Divorce

Playmobile gospel slide shows on the subject:
Jesus on Divorce Matt 19:1-12, Mark 10:1-12, & Luke 16:18

Four Biblical Reasons for Divorce (Play Mobile Slideshow)

Moses got all of the Law including Divorce from God

Ancient Roman Divorce