Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible, Part 5 – Jesus and Exodus 21

Start in Part 1 here.

Jesus is recorded in several places in the gospels as weighing in on the subject of divorce as presented in Deuteronomy 24.1. However, he is portrayed as silent on the well-accepted reasons for divorce in Exodus 21. Here is the Exodus passage again:

If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, or her marital rights. And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out for nothing, without payment of money.

Exodus 21.10-11

As I showed in earlier posts in this series, this passage was interpreted by the contemporaries of Jesus as allowing divorce for either the husband or the wife if one did not provide food, clothing or marital rights to the other. Jesus is not recorded as teaching anything on this passage, one way or the other. The question is, Why? The two options we have to consider are:

  • Option 1: Jesus disagreed with the contemporary teaching. His statements as recorded in the gospels were complete and comprehensive, encompassing all his teaching on divorce. His silence on this passage is evidence that he disagreed with it, and the gospel writers saw no reason to point this out.
  • Option 2: Jesus agreed with the contemporary teaching. His silence on this issue is evidence that it was not in dispute, and the gospel writers saw no reason to state this. They instead focused on teachings which were innovative, unpopular, uncommon, or controversial.

I am arguing that of the above choices, Option 2 is correct. I am aware that this is in effect an argument from silence — and yet Option 1 is also an argument from silence! The argument-from-silence argument applies to both options, so let’s look at them more closely.

Perhaps those who hold to Option 1 think that the gospel writers did record every teaching of Jesus on divorce, although there is no indication anywhere that they recorded every teaching of Jesus on any subject (and John 21.25 is evidence to the contrary). Perhaps the proponents of Option 1 hold to the notion that if Jesus is silent on a popularly understood doctrine, he disagrees with it — again, with no indication in the gospels that we should come to this conclusion. Indeed, if we did think this way, then perhaps we should reach the same conclusion about other issues as well. If we conclude that “silence is disagreement,” we can therefore rethink the Christian position on the topics of premarital sex or homosexuality, since Jesus was silent on them as well. (Before you accuse me of making things up or using extreme examples, note that this particular argument from silence has been used, for example here (original) and here (original)).

But we don’t make those conclusions! Instead, we claim that Jesus affirms the prohibitions on premarital sex and homosexuality, even though he makes absolutely no reference to them. It’s arbitrary to claim that Jesus spoke his full mind on divorce and we therefore should not assume he had any other ideas on that subject — whereas on other subjects where he was silent we feel free to fill in the blanks. Option 1 has very little going for it.

On the contrary, we have good reasons to favor Option 2. As I pointed out above, Jesus had no problem correcting flawed conclusions on monogamy, the permanence of marriage, and the value of celibacy, all without being asked. For him to make no attempt to correct false interpretations of Exodus 21 when the Pharisees gave him the perfect opportunity to do so can be easily explained by concluding that Jesus saw no reason to correct their doctrine.

Someone may reject this conclusion, saying that Jesus makes an absolute statement in Matthew 19.9: “And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” Taken by itself, this statement seems to remove all other reasons for divorce, and this is how it has been consistently interpreted by those who are not familiar with the debates of the time.

Consider, however, that the school of Shammai makes exactly the same statement as Jesus does (quoted in the Mishnah in previous posts), but it also allows divorce elsewhere for the reasons listed in Exodus 21 (source/original). Jesus uses the same terminology as that school, in the same context, in the same time period, and in the presence of either that school or their rival. We can conclude, therefore, that he meant just what they meant by these words. And here’s what they meant: this is not an absolute statement, but merely the proper interpretation of Deuteronomy 24.1. It would be a mistake to conclude from this statement that the school of Shammai has only one ground for a valid divorce. In the same way, it would be a mistake to reach that same conclusion with regard to Jesus. To do so would be flying in the face of everything we know about that time, place, and culture.

The interpretation laid out above, plus the six in the previous post, were not unique to Jesus; it’s possible to find other teachers who taught, say, monogamy. However, we know of no group which rejected the grounds for divorce laid out in Exodus 21. Since Jesus was not afraid to tackle controversial issues, and he brought up peripheral issues (monogamy, etc) during the debate on divorce, his silence on a doctrine which would have been completely unique is telling. We can confidently conclude that Jesus allowed (but did not require) divorce for the reasons laid out in Exodus 21, and that the gospels do not reflect everything Jesus believed or taught on the subject of divorce and remarriage.

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