David Instone-Brewer is a scholar based in Cambridge who in 2002 wrote a book entitled Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible offering a radical new interpretation of Jesus’ words in Matthew 19. A second, popular-level book, Divorce and Remarriage in the Church: Biblical Solutions for Pastoral Realities was written in 2003. For a summary of his views and something of the controversy it has sparked you can read his Christianity Today article here, a Time Magazine feature here and John Piper’s response here.
In essence, Instone-Brewer’s argument is that although on first reading it looks as if Jesus is setting out his total position on divorce, in telling us of one ground for divorce, porneia, Jesus is in fact not telling us everything he believes on divorce in this one text. Rather, he is, in fact, only giving his interpretation on one particular debate amongst the Pharisees over one aspect of divorce.
The key passage often debated by the Pharisees of Jesus day is Deuteronomy 24:1-4.
If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house,2 and if after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man, 3 and her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, or if he dies, 4 then her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled. That would be detestable in the eyes of the Lord. Do not bring sin upon the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance.
The key phrase is in verse 1: “something indecent” (erwath dabar). The exact meaning of the phrase is difficult to capture, and the Jews argued about it constantly. The phrase is actually used a chapter earlier in Deuteronomy 23:12-14.
You shall have a place outside the camp, and you shall go out to it. And you shall have a trowel with your tools, and when you sit down outside, you shall dig a hole with it and turn back and cover up your excrement. Because the LORD your God walks in the midst of your camp, to deliver you and to give up your enemies before you, therefore your camp must be holy, so that he may not see anything indecent among you and turn away from you
Kevin De Young comments ‘it seems to mean something repulsive, something indecent. But it’s not a precise phrase. Because of this ambiguity, two different rabbinical schools emerged. On one side was the more conservative Shammai school, and on the other, the more liberal Hillel school, both well known around the time of Jesus.‘
And Jewish history records their dispute. For in the Mishnah we read: The School of .Shammai say: A man may not divorce his wife unless he has found unchastity in her, for it is written, Because he hath found in her indecency in anything. And the School of Hillel say: [He may divorce her] even if she spoiled a dish for him, for it is written, Because he hath found in her indecency in anything.
Essentially, in reference to this same verse the Shammai Pharisees emphasized “indecency” whereas the Hillel emphasized “anything.” For the more conservative school of Pharisees only the indecency of adultery justified divorce in Deut. 24v.1 where as for the liberal school of Hillel there was effectively no-fault divorce because this verse allowed a man to divorce his wife for pretty much ‘anything’.
Instone-Brewer argues that once we understand the debate that was raging between the two schools of Pharisees we see that what the Pharisees are doing in Matthew 19 is not asking him to give us his total view on divorce but simply to declare where he stood in relation to the debate over Deut. 24:1. So all we should conclude from Matthew 19 is that Jesus sided with the conservative Pharisees in his interpretation of this verse.
According to Instone-Brewer, when the church thought that Matthew 19v.9 set out Jesus’ thinking on divorce, the church was mistaken. We’ve misunderstood Jesus.
The second argument Instone-Brewer presents is that in the Old Testament law we find another key text for thinking about divorce. A place where Scripture gives further grounds for divorce can be found in Exodus 21:10-11.
If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights. 11 If he does not provide her with these three things, she is to go free, without any payment of money.
Instone-Brewer argues that in the Bible we find four grounds for divorce. Adultery from Deut. 24v.1 but also forms of marital neglect as set out in Exodus 21, namely, a failure of a husband to provide food, clothing and marital rights (sexual intercourse).
We could represent, somewhat simplistically, the following views on divorce at the time of Jesus according to the thesis.
|Liberal Pharisees||Conservative Pharisees||Jesus (according to I-B)|
|Deut 24 ‘Any cause’||Deut 24 – AdulteryExodus 21 – Failure to provide food, clothing or marital rights (sex)||Deut 24 – AdulteryExodus 21 – Failure to provide food, clothing or marital rights (sex)|
The picture Instone-Brewer presents therefore is one in which Jesus believed that which a conservative Jew of his day believed on four grounds for divorce (although he did disagree with them in other respects when it came to divorce and remarriage). Which results in a view of Jesus in which he permits multiple grounds for initiating a righteous divorce; adultery and a failure to fulfil marital obligations of food, clothing or sexual intimacy.
What should we conclude about Instone-Brewer’s thesis? I find it problematic and I will sketch in outline form six reasons as to why I cannot reconcile his view with a reading of the text.
1. An argument from silence. It is as John Piper and others have pointed out an argument from silence. Nowhere does Jesus say anything about further grounds for divorce other than porneia. Instone-Brewer himself says ‘all these arguments suggesting that Jesus allowed other Old Testament grounds for divorce are arguments from silence, and so they must be treated with caution.’
Instone-Brewer argues that was because in Matthew 19 Jesus is answering a specific question about his reading of Deut. 24:1. But in Jesus’ teaching on the sermon on the mount Jesus is not debating with the Pharisees nor answering any of their questions put to him on divorce. He is setting forth his own agenda in putting forth his teaching on divorce and he says, Matthew 5:31-32. If he had thought there were other grounds why would he have not said so here?
In Divorce and Remarriage in the Church Instone-Brewer says that Jesus ‘probably’ believed that Exodus 21 permitted further grounds for divorce. I’m always a little concerned when someone tells me what Jesus was thinking but cannot show me that from Jesus’ own words.
2. Jesus contrasts his own righteousness with that of Pharisees. In the same sermon on the mount Jesus calls his disciples to a higher standard of living than that of the Pharisees. In Matthew 5v.20 he says ‘unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.’ He doesn’t say unless your righteousness surpasses that of some of the Pharisees.
3. Jesus confronts the Pharisees. On a more general point from the gospels, whenever we see Jesus interacting with the views of the Pharisees in the gospel he always, without exception, opposes them. Nowhere do we find him siding with a sub-set of them.
4. The shock of the disciples to Jesus’ teaching. In Matthew 19 Jesus’ teaching prompts a shocked response from his disciples (v.10). After they hear Jesus’ words limiting the grounds of divorce they say to one another ‘if this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.’
Is it really likely that Jesus’ siding with one group of conservative Pharisees over a more liberal group sufficient reason to explain their shock and surprise? Would it be enough for them to have really concluded that it is better not to marry? Surely it is the more natural reading of the text that their surprise is best explained as a response to his prohibition on divorce for any ground other than adultery.
5. His argument has received no support. When we last looked at Instone-Brewer’s thesis as a church back in 2005 it was pointed out that because it was so new it was hard to gauge what response it would receive. A further 9 years on that is not the case. Many have looked carefully at his argument and I haven’t found a single conservative evangelical scholars who has embraced his position. Theologians, with bigger brains than me (!), such as Don Carson, John Piper and Andreas Kostenberger have carefully considered it and rejected it.
6. Our doctrine of Scripture. No-one in the church has ever advocated Instone-Brewer’s interpretation of Jesus’ words in 2000 years of church history and the reason is, according to Instone-Brewer, that we have not understood Jesus’ words in their Jewish context. He argues ‘in some cases we will completely misunderstand the text if we do not know the background’ and he sees Matthew 19 as a clear example of that principle. However, if 2 Timothy 3:16-17 is to be taken seriously then surely we must have reason to believe that Scripture is both sufficient and perspicuous. Extra-biblical material may fill in some detail when it comes to our understanding of Scripture but can it, as Instone-Brewer maintains, change our understanding fundamentally? I suggest that is a step too far.
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