Before we can understand the culture and context of marriage and divorce in the first century, we must understand the time(s) leading up to the first century. Marriage, divorce, and remarriage was a common part of the Jewish lifestyle. In the Old Testament, there are several passages that speak of divorce (Ex. 21:10-11; Deut. 21:14; 24:1-4). Even prior to the Law of Moses, Abraham is described as “sending out” his wife Hagar (Gen. 21:10). Jewish tradition says that he also gave her a certificate of divorce (Yalkut Shimeoni Gen. Sec. 95).
The only restrictive passage on divorce in the Old Law is found in Deuteronomy 22:19, 29 which forbids divorce to the man who had shamed his wife by raping her or claiming she was not a virgin. In regards to Deuteronomy 22:19, 29, Instone-Brewer states:
“This is not so much a condemnation of divorce as it is a way of punishing the man for his crime while also providing financial security for the woman who might otherwise find it difficult to marry” (Divorce & Remarriage in the Bible, Instone-Brewer, p. 23).
CERTIFICATE OF DIVORCE
Under the Old Jewish law, only the man had a right to divorce (Rom. 7:1-4). But the woman could not divorce the man. Deuteronomy 24:1-4 teaches that when a woman was divorced, she was to be given a certificate of divorce. Only the woman would need this since the man could marry more than one woman in any case (Gen. 4:19; 16:1-3; 20:3, 17; 29:9-32; 30:1-9, 26; 36:2; Deut. 21:15-17; Judges 8:30-32; 1 Sam. 1:2-3; 2 Chron. 11:21; etc.). Furthermore, the woman could not go back to the husband who divorced her. This was put in place to protect the woman from being passed back and forth, as well as protecting her future rights and assets if the former husband were to claim she was still his wife.
The certificate proved that she had been divorced by her husband and that she could remarry. The divorce certificate intrinsically gave the right to remarry. Historically, the wording of the divorce certificate can be traced as far back as the 5th century BC. The wording reads:
“You are allowed to marry any man you wish” (ibid, p. 29).
In the first century world, remarriage after divorce was a fundamental right and it was often regarded as an obligation (ibid, 299). Biblically and historically speaking, a divorce granted permission for a subsequent marriage (Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship; Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, I. Howard Marshall p. 193). The Jews understood that divorce authorized the right of remarriage (The Gospel of Matthew, R. T. France, p. 212).
THE 1st CENTURY DEBATE: HILLEL VS. SHAMMAI
By the first century, the main dispute in regards to marital teachings concerned an interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1 and the meaning of uncleanness. The dominating two schools of thought came from two rabbis: One named Shammai and the other Hillel. The school of Shammai believed that uncleanness was reserved for a very serious matter such as fornication (and possibly other matters that were deemed “serious”). Whereas, the school of Hillel believed that one could divorce for “any reason” (Mt. 19:3), even if the wife burned a meal (Babylonian Talmud, Talmud Bavli, tractate Gittin, 90).
The Hillelites clearly didn’t invent the “any matter” divorce because it was used in 5th C BCE Elephantine, but it appears they invented the scriptural justification for it and were the leading proponents of it in the first century. According to Instone-Brewer, the Hillelite divorce was known as the “no fault” or “any reason” divorce and was the prevailing interpretation during the first century because you could divorce your spouse for any reason one saw fit.
“It is unlikely that many of the ordinary people chose to follow the Shammaite teaching on divorce….Almost no one who was wanting divorce would choose a Shammaite judge when he knew a Hillelite judge would approve an ‘any matter’ divorce without requiring any evidence…Philo and Josephus assumed that the Hillelite ‘any matter’ divorce was the only type of divorce in use…The vast majority of first century Jewish divorces were ‘any matter’ divorces in the Hillelite court…for practical purposes it could be said that all divorces brought by men against their wives were ‘any matter’ divorces” (Divorce & Remarriage in the Bible, Instone-Brewer, p. 117).
To sum up the above comments, just about every Jewish divorce would have been an “any reason” divorce. Also, for the Jewish culture, it had always been that under the Old Law only the husband could divorce the wife. However, divorce became easier for women in most ancient societies during the centuries leading up to the first century because of the Greco-Roman influence (Mk. 10:12). When it came to the Greek culture, a social revolution had begun that enabled women and men to divorce at will without having to cite any reasons. Marriage was assumed to be a matter of mutual consent, and when that consent had broken down, the marriage would end. As a result, divorce was very common in the Greco-Roman world (ibid, p. 73).
JUST HOW BAD IT REALLY WAS
In John 4, we read about a story of a woman who had already been married five times and was living with a man to whom she wasn’t married. In regards to this situation, The Expositor’s Greek Testament states:
“In Malachi’s time facility for divorce was producing disastrous consequences and probably many women, not only in Samaria but among the poorer Jews, had a similar history to relate.” (Nicol, W. Robertson, M.A., L.L.D. “Commentary on John 4:17″. The Expositor’s Greek Testament.; Lecky’s European Morals for the state of matters in the Roman world).
As prevalent as divorce was among the Jews, it was even worse among the Roman world.
“Virtually every notable Roman of the two centuries on either side of Christ’s birth was divorced and remarried at least once, often to women also previously married” (Exploring the New Testament World, Bell, p.233).”
Jerome mentions a Roman woman who had had twenty-two husbands (Ep. ad, Ageruch, 123.) and Seneca (4 BC. -65 AD.), a first-century Roman philosopher, said:
“…women were married to be divorced and divorced to be married and…women dated the years by the names of their husbands (Barclay, Letters to the Galatians & Ephesians, Westminister Press, pp. 199-200).”
When looking at the teachings of marriage and divorce in the New Testament, we must understand them through the historical background. Knowing the historical context will help us rightfully divide the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15). During the first century, the majority of people saw marriage as only a sham without any real depth of commitment. Most of the Jewish and Roman world would have either been divorced and remarried or married to someone who was.
Divorce for just “any reason” was the prevailing view and divorces were rampant among the Jewish, Gentile, and Roman world. This is the context of the marital teachings in the New Testament. Therefore, our conclusions from the passages in the New Testament concerning marriage and divorce must be viewed through these contextual and historical lenses in order to understand the teachings of Jesus’ and and Paul.
– Kevin Pendergrass
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