The previous discussion (start with Part 1) on Old Testament laws and their interpretation helps us understand the commonly held views on divorce and remarriage at the time of Jesus. Before we examine the New Testament, however, it’s important to understand the disagreement between two rabbinical schools regarding the definition of “indecency.”
Recall that the term used in Deuteronomy 24.1, translated “indecency” in the ESV, is more closely translated “a matter of indecency.” This is important because the two main rabbinical schools active at the time of Jesus interpreted this phrase differently. The school of Shammai interpreted this term to refer to one category: some form of sexual immorality. The school of Hillel, however, interpreted it to mean two things: “a matter” and “indecency,” and by the former they meant “any matter” (source/original, source/original, source). Consider this quote from the Mishnah (a written collection of Jewish oral tradition):
The School of Shammai says: A man should not divorce his wife except if he found indecency in her, since it says: For he found in her an indecency of a cause. And the School of Hillel said, Even if she spoiled his dish, since it says: [a] cause.source/original
These two schools looked at the exact same phrase and came up with different interpretations: the school of Shammai saying a husband could only divorce his wife for sexual immorality, and the school of Hillel saying he can divorce her for literally any reason at all.
It’s important to note that the quote above from the Mishnah is not saying that either school allowed divorce only in the case of indecency as in Deuteronomy 24; on the contrary, both schools also allowed for divorce if either party failed to provide for the other as in Exodus 21 (source/original, source/original). The takeaway here is that this particular debate between the two schools recorded in the Mishnah was not meant to be exhaustive, but only concerning the interpretation of the word “indecency.” Another factor to note (as it will become important later), is that rabbis from each school recognized the legality of a divorce granted by the rabbis of the other school, even if they disagreed with the reason for the divorce (source).
The takeaway here is that the topic of divorce was a contested issue in the time of Jesus. Knowing this background information helps us understand the New Testament better when we read that Jesus is asked to weigh in on the debate.
A note on context
Before moving to the teaching of Jesus in the next post, I want to address a response I’ve seen to the use of the background information such as what I’ve included above. There is sometimes a tendency to dismiss background information as “extra-biblical” and therefore either irrelevant or misleading (New Testament example, Old Testament example). The claim by those who dismiss background information like this is that scholars who give a high level of importance to the cultural context of the Old or New Testaments are making a mistake. In the New Testament example I linked to above, John Piper writes, “People who talk this way do not generally see the meaning of the New Testament as clearly as those who focus their attention not in the extra-biblical literature but in the New Testament texts themselves.”
This attitude is alarming. Without understanding the history, politics, religion, and culture of an era, we risk a serious misunderstanding of the texts produced during that era, even if those texts are inspired by God. The advice these detractors give is that when reading the Bible, “stay with what you can see for yourself” instead of interpretations “based more on pagan worldviews than Scripture.” The dismissal of valuable background material is disappointing.
For example, consider this statement: “Joel Osteen is the Jedi knight of televangelists.” In our 21st century western culture, we can understand this sentence because we are familiar with both fictional Jedi knights and real televangelists. Now, fast forward a thousand years into the future, when archeologists unearth a diary with this sentence written on it; would they have any clue what Jedi knights were, or how the society viewed televangelists? They would have no idea whether the statement is flattering or critical without examining the 21st century context in which the statement was written. Piper’s advice to “stay with what you can see for yourself” is not only unhelpful, it’s harmful.
Someone may protest that when we only need to read Bible verses in context with other Bible verses in order to get understanding of the meaning. Yes, reading Bible verses in context is critically important, but we should not stop at Bible verses. Who is this Tammuz mentioned in Ezekiel? Is Nebuchadnezzar important? Why did Joseph want to divorce Mary when they weren’t even married, and why is he called righteous for doing so? What’s so important about Roman citizenship that Paul could claim it and keep from being harmed?
The answers to these questions cannot be found in the texts of the Bible, but they can be found by looking at the context in which the texts were written. And the truth is, we all do this, and we need to do it — even the two authors of the articles I cited which criticized this very process. We should not reject extra-biblical data just because they don’t support our conclusions.