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to Jesus Traditions: Sources
Sayings on Divorce:
Stages of Transmission
is a history to the synoptic teaching on divorce. We are on more certain
ground when dealing with the latest stage, and somewhat less certain in
trying to discover what it is that Jesus said, and what he meant. It is
possible, though again uncertain, that the teaching on divorce has come
down in a Mark version and in a Q version.
The Mark Version
|3Some Pharisees came
to him, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to
divorce his wife for any cause?”
||2Some Pharisees came,
and to test [Jesus] they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce
|*7They said to him,
“Why then did Moses command us
||3He answered them,
“What did Moses command you?”
|to give a certificate of
dismissal and to divorce her?”
||4They said, “Moses
allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce
said to them, “It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses
allowed you to divorce your wives,
||5But Jesus said to
them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment
from the beginning it was not so. 4He
answered, “Have you not read that the one who
made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ 5and
said, ‘For this reason a man shall
leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two
shall become one flesh’? 6So they are no longer two,
but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one
|| 6But from the beginning
of creation, ‘God made
them male and female.’ 7‘For this reason a man shall
leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 8and
the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but
one flesh. 9Ttherefore what God has joined together, let
no one separate.”
||10Then in the house
the disciples asked him again about this matter.
|9“And I say to you,
whoever divorces his wife, except for
unchastity, and marries another commits
||11He said to them,
“Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery
||12and if she divorces
her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
different order in Matthew
The Q Version
|31It was also said,
“Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of
|32But I say to you
that anyone who divorces his wife,
except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery;
||Anyone who divorces his wife and
marries another commits adultery,
|and whoever marries a divorced
woman commits adultery.
||and whoever marries a woman
divorced from her husband commits adultery.
Several stages are evident, the latest being the versions of Matthew.
The Author of Matthew. The synoptic material on divorce
comes down to us in this gospel as doublets, derived from the sources Mark
and Q. Matthew’s contribution to the history of this teaching is
to add an exceptive clause to both the Mark and Q versions: except
for unchastity (mę epi porneiai), in Matthew
19:9; and except on the ground of unchastity (parektos
logou porneias), in Matthew 5:32. While acknowledging the permanence
of marriage, grounded in the doctrine of creation (Genesis 1:27; 2:24),
this stage of the tradition reflects a time some five or six decades after
the time of Jesus, when the absolute principle of permanence has to be
accommodated to the needs of a community where for understandable reasons
marriages do fail, and where it is therefore necessary to develop case law
to meet these situations in a pastoral way. (It hardly needs to be noted
that church lawyers in later centuries could not resist the impulse to
develop their own case law on the basis of Matthew’s legislation.)
We do not overlook another curiosity of Matthew’s version, namely,
that when a man divorces his wife he causes her to
commit adultery (poiei autęn moicheuthęnai), in
Matthew 5:32; it seems counterintuitive and almost perverse for the woman
who has been offended by being divorced to be labeled forthwith an
Mark and Q. These sources represent a stage where the permanence of
marriage is still absolute, and the remarriage of a divorced person is
considered an adulterous relationship. In the case of Q, it seems
discriminatory that the divorced woman, a victim of the divorce
proceeding, is further penalized by being denied permission to remarry: whoever
marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery (Luke
As for Mark, it is remarkable that we have a case where the
woman divorces her husband: and if she divorces
her husband and marries another, she commits adultery (Mark
10:12); remarkable, because Jewish law made no provision for a
wife to divorce her husband. This text thus seems to presupposes a time when
Christian communities had been established in the Greco-Roman world, where
a wife could divorce her husband—unless we can imagine “liberated”
Christian communities in Jewish territory where this right was already
asserted by some women.
The Period of Oral Transmission. It is difficult to say whether the
peculiar traits of Q and Mark were already formed when the
sayings came to them in the tradition: I am inclined to think that the
answer is affirmative. As for the Genesis texts which are found in
Mark’s version, we need to keep open the possibility that they too
appeared in the course of oral transmission.
The Original Intention and Sayings of Jesus. It hardly needs to be
said that this stage is speculative indeed, and there is always the “peril of
modernizing Jesus.” Nevertheless, having sifted
through the stages in the history of synoptic teaching on divorce, we may
offer these opinions:
• Jesus did affirm
the permanence of marriage. It is possible, though uncertain, that he grounded this position in the
orders of creation.
• It is doubtful whether he formulated rules to
regulate the grounds for divorce, or the remarriage of divorced
persons. He does not seem to have been the rule-making type.
• How Jesus would have dealt with cases of divorce
our synoptic materials do not tell. His disapproval of divorce does not
necessarily imply that he regarded a failed marriage as an unforgivable
sin, beyond repentance and forgiveness.
An “Attitude Lobotomy”
Thomas Friedman offered this essay on the op-ed page of The New York
Times (19 March 2003), on the eve of the invasion of Iraq:
. . . Wars are fought for political ends. Defeating
Saddam is necessary but not sufficient to achieve those ends, which are a
more progressive Iraq and a world with fewer terrorists and terrorist
suppliers dedicated to destroying the U.S., so Americans will feel safer
at home and abroad. We cannot achieve the latter without the former. Which
means we must bear any burden and pay any price to make Iraq into the sort
of state that fair-minded people across the world will see and say:
"You did good. You lived up to America's promise."
To maximize our chances of doing that, we need to
patch things up with the world. Because having more allied support in
rebuilding Iraq will increase the odds that we do it right, and because if
the breach that has been opened between us and our traditional friends
hardens into hostility, we will find it much tougher to manage both Iraq
and all the other threats down the road. That means the Bush team needs
an "attitude lobotomy" — it needs to get off its high
horse and start engaging people on the World Street, listening to what's
bothering them, and also telling them what's bothering us.
Some 35 years ago Israel won a war in Six Days. It saw its victory as
self-legitimating. Its neighbors saw it otherwise, and Israel has been
trapped in the Seventh Day ever since — never quite able to transform
its dramatic victory into a peace that would make Israelis feel more
More than 50 years ago America won a war against European fascism,
which it followed up with a Marshall Plan and nation-building, both a
handout and a hand up — in a way that made Americans welcome across the
world. Today is a D-Day for our generation. May our leaders have the
wisdom of their predecessors from the Greatest Generation.
Regrettably, Friedman does not tell us how such a
lobotomy would be administered.
The Disciple and the World
|Embedded in these spare metaphors is one of the most
central and potentially revolutionary themes in the teaching of Jesus:
the challenge for the followers of Jesus to take seriously Israel’s world
mission, to reach outside the limits of Judaism for the benefit of the
nations. While it leaves us guessing in what respect disciples are the
salt of the earth, we are on firmer ground in understanding the metaphor
of disciples as light of the world: the anonymous prophet writing
in Isaiah 49:6 makes clear the mission of the Servant as “a light
to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
Such a universalism puts Israel to the test: to the extent
that Israel ignores this mission she is as useless as salt without taste,
or a lamp lighted and then hidden under a bushel basket.
|13You are the
salt of the earth;
|The basic metaphor (a)
| but if salt has lost its taste, how can its
saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown
out and trampled under foot.
||Explanation of metaphor (a)
| 14You are the light of the world.
|The basic metaphor (b)
| A city built on a hill cannot be hid.
|A figurative proverb (c) inserted between (b) and its
| 15No one after lighting a lamp puts
it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to
all in the house.
||Explanation of metaphor (b)
| 16In the same way, let your light
shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory
to your Father in heaven.
||An editorial conclusion, by way of admonition
|In this passage we
have metaphors in (a) and (b), and a proverb in (c).
(a) You are the
salt of the earth.
(b) You are the light of the world.
(c) A city built on a hill cannot be hid.
The two metaphors are striking and suggestive. Nevertheless, they
resist easy interpretation, in part because we do not have their original “frames,”
and in part because they are metaphors. A metaphor is more powerful and
open-ended than a simile, but less precise in designating the point of
comparison, as seen in these examples.
Achilles is a lion! (metaphor)
Achilles fights as bravely as a lion. (simile)
The interpreter may wish that instead of a metaphor Jesus had used a
simile: “ ______________ is indispensable for disciples in
the world, as the quality of flavoring food is indispensable for salt.”
Regrettably, it is not obvious how a disciple may be compared with salt.
Our task in understanding “light of the world” is easier, since the
metaphor is already employed by the anonymous prophet of the exile, whose
writings are found in Isaiah 40–55. This prophet, sometimes referred to
as Second Isaiah, describes the
mission of the Lord’s servant:
Isaiah 42:6 I am the LORD, I have called you [my
servant] in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations
. . . .
Isaiah 49:5-6 5And now the LORD says, who
formed me in the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him, and
that Israel might be gathered to him, . . . —6he says,
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the
tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will
give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to
the end of the earth.”
This universal mission
of the Servant of the Lord is by no means a casual after thought of the
prophet’s message, but a mandate following necessarily from monotheism,
another of his major themes. If, as he was the first to proclaim, the LORD
God of Israel is the only God, and if the half-humorous dismissal
of idolatry is to be allowed, then the only conclusion which can be drawn
is that this proclamation has emptied the temples and pantheons of the
world, and the nations have been left god-less—unless the Servant shares
the riches of Israel’s revelation with them.
As noted elsewhere (click on reception),
Israel did affirm monotheism wholeheartedly, but Judaism historically, for
understandable reasons, has preferred a more exclusivist understanding of
its calling as God’s people rather than the universalism of Second
Isaiah. Judaism has preferred not to be understood as a missionary faith.
The implication left by the allusion to a light to the nations
is that Jesus was clearly marking out his position as an affirmation of
universalism, and a rejection of the exclusivism of his day which was, in
effect, hiding the light of the knowledge of the Lord under a bushel
“Salt” and “light” are linked in their present setting by their
applications: the uselessness of salt if it does not flavor food,
and of a lamp if it does not illumine the house. Thus the two metaphors are
yoked in the mind of Matthew (and possibly yoked in their original
We are still left uncertain about the figurative proverb (c), which
Matthew inserts between the metaphor of light (b) and its interpretation:
“A city built on a hill cannot be hid.” It had probably circulated
earlier as an independent unit of tradition, without its original
“frame” or setting. We can only guess that in its original setting it
referred to the self-evident quality of a disciple’s life, as a way of
commending the message of the kingdom. Its present association with the
metaphor of light (b) is probably the work of the author, who saw a
connection between the city which could not be hid and the hiding
of the light.
to Jesus Traditions: Sources
July 14, 2003