Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context

By Heth, William A. | Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, December 2003 | Go to article overview

Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context


Heth, William A., Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society


Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context. By David Instone-Brewcr. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002, xi + 355 pp., $26.00.

Apart from Craig Keener's . . . And Marries Another (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1991), David Instone-Brewer's book is the most paradigm-challenging study of the NT divorce texts that I have encountered. Since the whole book is available at his website (http://www.instone-brewer.com/), my goal here is merely to entice the reader to wrestle with the implications Instone-Brewer's interpretive grid has not only for the immediate topic, but for our approach to other NT subjects as well.

Instone-Brewer's goal is to overturn the highly impractical "traditional Church interpretation" (pp. ix, 304) of the NT divorce texts. This no remarriage, but two-grounds-for-separation view could only have emerged outside the literary and social context of first-century Judaism. Provocatively, Instone-Brewer identifies two additional biblical grounds for divorce based on Exod 21:10-11, a text that states a husband must give a wife food, clothing, and "marital love/duty." Rabbinic sources classified these under two headings: material neglect and emotional neglect (p. 102). Both the rabbis and Paul applied these equally to the wife and the husband (cf. 1 Cor 7:3-5, 32-34), and the three provisions of Exod 21:10-11 "became the basis for the vows in Jewish marriage contracts and in Christian marriage services via the reference in Ephesians 5:28-29" (p. 275). This, to be sure, is the unique contribution of this study. In Instone-Brewer's own words, "The interpretation of [the words in Exod 21:10-11] by first-century Jews is the most important consideration for this present study" (p. 100).

What are Instone-Brewer's working assumptions? First, I believe he would say it is inappropriate merely to do a grammatical-historical exegesis of OT texts and see how exegesis fits hand-in-glove into its NT context (p. x). Intertestamental Jewish interpretive traditions and the Greco-Roman environment must be considered when reading the NT. For example, where Deut 24:1 is concerned, it is impossible to decide what "something indecent" (NIV) referred to originally; all we need to know is how first-century teachers understood it.

Second, just as rabbinic debates were summarized for oral or written transmission, so was Jesus' teaching on divorce. Instone-Brewer illustrates the principles of abbreviation that the rabbis used and how they are paralleled in the longer and shorter reports of Jesus' teaching in the Gospels with a discussion of the various accounts of the Hillelite-Shammaite divorce dispute in the Mishnah (cf. Matthew 19//Mark 10) (p. 162), Sifre (when we unpack Matthew 19//Mark 10 exegesis) (pp. 163-64), and Jerusalem Talmud (cf. Matt 5:31-32; Luke 16:18) (pp. 164-65). To be specific, the phrases "for any matter" (Matt 19:3) and "except for (a matter of) indecency" (Matt 19:9) are omitted from Mark 10:2-12 because they were obvious to the original audience. Matthew added these "phrases that encapsulated the positions of the Hillelites and Shammaites respectively," not because he wanted to soften Jesus' absolute prohibition of divorce (as in the older critical view), but because he could no longer assume his readers would automatically supply what was originally present (p. …

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