Friday, April 06, 2007

Where You'd Least Expect to Find It: Instone-Brewer on Divorce in NT

SWNID acquaintance David Instone-Brewer is doubtless the world's leading expert on divorce in Second Temple Judaism and the New Testament. His books Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context (Eerdmans, 2002) and Divorce and Remarriage in the Church: Biblical Solutions for Pastoral Realities (IVP, 2003) have proved to be as cogent and influential as anything ever written on the subject.

Today he can be found on the Wall Street Journal's "OpinionJournal" web site, explaining how it is that American evangelicals are able to support divorced presidential candidates. But it's as good a summary of his first-rate work on the biblical material as one can find. Here's an apt quotation that summarizes most of what we expect gentle readers to care about:

As it happens, new scholarship supports a slightly less strict biblical understanding of divorce than the traditional one. Scrolls found near the Dead Sea, which confirm indications found in ancient Jewish authors like Philo and Josephus, show that the key phrase "any cause" was actually the formal name of a type of divorce. That is, Jesus did not reject divorce for any cause but rather, he rejected the "Any Cause" divorce.

Rabbis at the time disagreed on the validity of "Any Cause" divorce, but thanks to marriage contracts found near the Dead Sea, we know that most allowed divorce based on Exodus 21:10-11. That is, they allowed men and women to divorce partners for physical or emotional neglect, including abuse and abandonment. Jesus said nothing against this, and in First Corinthians 7:15, Paul tells those who are abandoned by their partners that they are "no longer bound."

There is now a growing scholarly consensus among evangelicals on this issue. Even evangelical professors like Craig Keener of Duke University and William Heth at Taylor University, who have each previously published books with more traditional interpretations, now teach differently. Drawing on my own work, "Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible" (Eerdmans, 2002), they conclude that Jesus and Paul would have rejected no-fault divorce and that they would have permitted a wronged partner to initiate a divorce based on the Old Testament grounds of adultery or neglect.

We wholeheartedly commend Dr. Instone-Brewer and WSJ for giving him a platform.


JB in CA said...

If neglect is justification for divorce, why is unchastity (lit., fornication) the only exception Jesus mentions in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9?

Jon A. Alfred E. Michael J. Wile E. SWNID said...

In the context, sexual immorality is typical of the serious "cause" versus the trivial one of "any-cause" divorce. N.B. that Paul extends Jesus' teaching (explicity referring to what he has "from the Lord," that is to say Jesus' teaching, and what he doesn't) in 1 Cor 7.

JB in CA said...

I agree that Paul amplifies Jesus' teaching in 1 Cor. 7, but I'm not convinced he actually extends it to allow Christians to divorce in cases of neglect.

Here's how I read his instructions: (1) a Christian should not divorce his/her Christian spouse (vv. 10 and 11b), (2) if (contrary to this teaching) a Christian wife has already divorced her husband, she should either remain unmarried or be reconciled to him (v. 11a), (3) for the sake of their children and the unbeliever, a Christian should not divorce his/her non-Christian spouse (vv. 12-14), (4) a Christian is free to remarry if his/her non-Christian spouse divorces her/him (v. 15), and (5) a Christian wife is free to remarry a Christian if her spouse dies (v. 39).

Nowhere in this passage does Paul introduce the notion of neglect as an additional justification for divorce. Nor does he even explicitly acknowledge that a Christian may justifiably divorce his/her spouse in cases of fornication. We have to infer that exception to the rule from his appeal to Christ's teaching on the subject (v. 10).

I'm not entirely confident that this interpretation is correct in all its particulars. (For instance, should the Greek terms for "separate" and "divorce" be understood as synonyms, as I've interpreted them, or do they more closely reflect our legal distinction between separation and divorce?) But I am fairly confident that Paul is not here introducing a new concept--the concept of neglect--as an additional justification for divorce. Likewise, I am confident that this interpretation is consistent with the distinction between "any-cause" (i.e., no-fault) and "serious-cause" divorce. The serious cause, for both Jesus (explicitly) and Paul (implicitly), would be fornication.

Having said that, I don't deny that (extreme) neglect may well be a legitimate cause for divorce, according to both Jesus and Paul. But if so, that's because it follows from the meaning of "fornication" in Matt. 5:32 and 19:9. I think there is good reason to believe that Jesus was using the term on those occasions in the metaphorical sense in which the OT writers used it to refer to Israel "forsaking" God (e.g., 2 Chron. 21:10b-11). In that case, his (and, implicitly, Paul's) teaching would allow a Christian to divorce a spouse who was guilty of (extreme) neglect, i.e., of forsaking him/her.