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Did Adultery Mandate Divorce? A Reassessment of Jesus' Divorce Logia

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 December 2014

William R. G. Loader*
Murdoch University, Australia; North West University, South Africa. email:


This paper argues that Matthew's so-called exception clauses to the prohibition of divorce (5.32; 19.9) make explicit what was already implicit in versions without them: that adultery required divorce. While biblical law required death for adulterers or expected it as a result of the ordeal of the suspected wife, the issue of divorce arose where communities no longer had capital rights and where guilt was not in question. Matthew's nativity story, the norms of Greek and Roman culture, notions of the defiled wife (Deut 24.1-4) and the use of Gen 2.24 to indicate permanent joining give plausibility to the thesis.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2015 

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1 In Loader, W., Making Sense of Sex: Attitudes towards Sexuality in Early Jewish and Christian Literature (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013)Google Scholar, I provide a summary of the findings published in the five volumes of my research together with a subject index with an entry for ‘divorce’ to all five volumes: Enoch, Levi, and Jubilees on Sexuality: Attitudes towards Sexuality in the Early Enoch Literature, the Aramaic Levi Document, and the Book of Jubilees (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007)Google Scholar; The Dead Sea Scrolls on Sexuality: Attitudes towards Sexuality in Sectarian and Related Literature at Qumran (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009)Google Scholar; The Pseudepigrapha on Sexuality: Attitudes towards Sexuality in Apocalypses, Testaments, Legends, Wisdom, and Related Literature (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011)Google Scholar; Philo, Josephus, and the Testaments on Sexuality: Attitudes towards Sexuality in the Writings of Philo, Josephus, and the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011)Google Scholar; and The New Testament on Sexuality (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012)Google Scholar.

2 On the death penalty for adultery, see Instone-Brewer, D., Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002) 910Google Scholar; Streete, G. C., The Strange Woman: Power and Sex in the Bible (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1999) 2042Google Scholar; Goodfriend, E. A., ‘Adultery’, ABD, vol. i (New York: Doubleday, 1992) 82–6Google Scholar.

3 The execution of Salome's first husband (J. W. 1.486) and Joseph and Mariamme for adultery by Herod (J. W. 1.443) reflects royal prerogative rather than exercise of biblical law. On this see Loader, New Testament on Sexuality, 4–9; Loader, Philo, Josephus, and the Testaments on Sexuality, 310–15, 350–2.

4 So Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage, 126 n. 156.

5 So Skehan, P. W. and Di Lella, A. A., The Wisdom of Ben Sira (AB 38; New York: Doubleday, 1987) 325Google Scholar. On this, see Balla, I., Ben Sira on Family, Gender, and Sexuality (Deuterocanonical and Cognate Literature Studies 8; Berlin: de Gruyter, 2011)CrossRefGoogle Scholar 122, 135–6.

6 On this, see Lipka, H. B., Sexual Transgression in the Hebrew Bible (HBM 7; Sheffield: Phoenix, 2006) 162–3Google Scholar.

7 Loader, New Testament on Sexuality, 139, 251–2; Nolland, J., The Gospel of Matthew: A Commentary on the Greek Text (NIGTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; Bletchey: Paternoster, 2005)Google Scholar 246. See also Allison, D. C., ‘Divorce, Celibacy, and Joseph (Matt. 1:18–25)’, in Allison, D. C., Studies in Matthew: Interpretation Past and Present (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005) 163–72Google Scholar, 166.

8 See Loader, Pseudepigrapha on Sexuality, 49–51.

9 On adultery mandating divorce in surrounding cultures, see Collins, R. F., Sexual Ethics and the New Testament: Behavior and Belief (New York: Crossroad 2000) 24Google Scholar; and the discussion in Loader, New Testament on Sexuality, 75–82.

10 On this, see Baugh, S. M., ‘Marriage and Family in Ancient Greek Society’, Marriage and Family in the Biblical World (ed. Campbell, K. M.; Downers Grove: IVP, 2003) 103–31Google Scholar, who cites Demosthenes, Against Neaira 87 (116).

11 See Treggiari, S., ‘Marriage and Family in Roman Society’, Marriage and Family in the Biblical World (ed. Campbell, K. M.; Downers Grove: IVP, 2003) 132–82Google Scholar, 165; eadem, Roman Marriage: Iusti Coniuges from the Time of Cicero to the Time of Ulpian (Oxford: Clarendon, 1991)Google Scholar 264.

12 Treggiari, ‘Marriage and Family’, 167–8; Skinner, M. B., Sexuality in Greek and Roman Culture (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005) 207Google Scholar.

13 In Ios. 44 Philo reflects knowledge of the provision in Roman law which allowed the offended husband to kill the adulterer.

14 Bockmuehl, M., Jewish Law in Gentiles Churches: Halakhah and the Beginning of Christian Public Ethics (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000)Google Scholar, who cites t. Sot. 5.9, but also already Prov 18.22a LXX ; Jer 3.1 and Ezek 16.38, 40, as evidence for what he argues became ‘an established exegetical tradition which extended the prohibition of Deut 24.1–4 by gezerah shawa to the cases of impurity incurred by adultery’ (19). Nolland, J., ‘The Gospel Prohibition of Divorce: Tradition History and Meaning’, JSNT 58 (1995) 1935Google Scholar, notes a possible exception in m. Sot. 2.6, which seems to allow a wife back (21). See also Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage, 153, 159.

15 See Loader, Enoch, Levi, and Jubilees on Sexuality, 198.

16 See Loader, New Testament on Sexuality, 7–8.

17 Safrai, Z., ‘Halakhic Observance in the Judaean Desert Documents’, Law in the Documents of the Judaean Desert (ed. Katzoff, R. and Schaps, D.; JSJSup 96; Leiden: Brill, 2005) 205–36Google Scholar, at 217.

18 See Loader, Philo, Josephus, 350–2.

19 Loader, Dead Sea Scrolls on Sexuality, 107–19.

20 See Loader, Pseudepigrapha on Sexuality, 352–7, 408–9.

21 On this, see Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage, who, on the basis of rabbinic tradition reporting Yohannan ben Zakkai's decision to abandon the rite of Bitter Waters after 70 ce, concludes that divorce for adultery would come into effect only thereafter (pp. 94–7), but that confuses doubtful cases with certain ones.

22 See Loader, New Testament on Sexuality, 135–8.

23 On the divorce anecdotes and sayings, see Loader, New Testament on Sexuality, 240–92.

24 Loader, New Testament on Sexuality, 244–50.

25 See the discussion in Jackson, B. S., ‘“Holier than Thou”? Marriage and Divorce in the Scrolls, the New Testament and Early Rabbinic Sources’, Essays on Halakhah in the New Testament (Jewish and Christian Perspectives Series 16; Leiden: Brill, 2008) 167225Google Scholar, esp. 194, 205–7). Similarly Meier, J. P., A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (4 vols.; New York: Doubleday, 1991, 1994, 2001; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009)Google Scholariv.94, 121, 126.

26 See Sigal, P., The Halakhah of Jesus of Nazareth according to the Gospel of Matthew (SBLSBL 18; Atlanta: SBL, 2007) 111–12Google Scholar. See also the discussion in Loader, New Testament on Sexuality, 60–2 on the resistance evident in Mal 2.16 but also Philo (Spec. 3.80) and others against lax divorce practices.

27 On this, see Luz, U., Das Evangelium nach Matthäus (Mt 1–7) (EKK 1/1; Zurich: Benziger; Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener, 2002 2)Google Scholar 362; Davies, W. D. and Allison, D. C., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel according to Saint Matthew (3 vols.; ICC; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1988, 1991, 1997)Google Scholari.531.

28 See the discussion in Loader, New Testament on Sexuality, 245, 284.

29 So Fiedler, P., Das Matthäusevangelium (TKNT 1; Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 2006)Google Scholar 140, 310–1; Saldarini, A. J., Matthew's Christian–Jewish Community (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994) 147–51Google Scholar; Vouga, F., Jésus et la Loi selon la tradition synoptique (Le Monde de la Bible; Genève: Labor et Fides, 1988) 106Google Scholar; Davies and Allison, Matthew, i.530–2.

30 France, R. T., The Gospel of Matthew (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007)Google Scholar 209, 721; Sigal, Halakhah of Jesus, 111–12. As Nolland, Matthew, points out, while the contrast with Deut 24.1 is apparent, especially in 19.9, ‘the very idea of an exception is still a trace of that link’ with Deut 24.1 (p. 775).

31 So Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage, 152–9, 182; Loader, W., Jesus' Attitude towards the Law: A Study of the Gospels (WUNT 2.97; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1997) 225Google Scholar; Gnilka, J., Das Matthäusevangelium (2 vols.; HTKNT 1.1; Freiburg: Herder, 1983, 1986)Google Scholari.169; Hübner, H., Das Gesetz in der synoptischen Tradition (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1986 2) 52–3Google Scholar; cf. Luz, Matthäus, 364–5. Some might want to resist this conclusion on the basis of their hermeneutical stance which in the interests of biblical authority will engage in harmonisation at all costs; others, perhaps, pained by their own personal plights or those of persons they know, will want to rescue at least the modified Matthean revision. Neither approach has a place in the task of historical reconstruction.

32 Hübner, Gesetz, 196.

33 In this I agree with Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage, 153, but he goes much further.

34 Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage, 184.

35 Paul omits πρὸς τὴν γυναῖκα αὐτοῦ (‘to his wife’) as inappropriate to the context. The focus is sexual intercourse and its effect in creating ἓν σῶμα (‘one body’). On this see Loader, W., The Septuagint, Sexuality, and the New Testament: Case Studies on the Impact of the LXX on Philo and the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004) 3942Google Scholar. See also Kirchhoff, R., Die Sünde gegen den eigenen Leib: Studien zu πόρνη und πορνεία in 1 Kor 6,12–20 und dem sozio-kulturellen Kontext der paulinischen Adressaten (SUNT 18; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1994) 160–4Google Scholar.

36 As May, A. S., ‘The Body for the Lord’: Sex and Identity in 1 Corinthians 5–7 (JSNTS 278; London: T&T Clark, 2004) 113Google Scholar, notes, the use of ἄρας (‘take’) in 6.15 may carry the meaning ‘take away’, so already refer to our removing ourselves from our relation to Christ. Cf. Arzt-Grabner, P., Kritzer, R. E., Papathomas, A., Winter, Franz, 1 Korinther (Papyrologische Kommentare zum Neuen Testament 2; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2006) 236Google Scholar, who on the basis of papyri evidence argue for a neutral meaning.

37 May, Body for the Lord, 113.

38 So Külling, H., Ehe und Ehelosigkeit bei Paulus: Eine Auslegung zu 1. Korinther 6,12–7,40 (Zürich: Theologischer Verlag, 2008) 107Google Scholar.

39 May, Body for the Lord, 130; Goulder, M. D., ‘Libertines? (1 Cor. 5–6)’, NovT 41 (1999) 334–48Google Scholar, at 347; Fisk, B. N., ‘ΠΟΡΝΕΥΕΙΝ as Body Violation: The Unique Nature of Sexual Sin in 1 Corinthians 6.18’, NTS 42 (1996) 540–58CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 556; cf. Martin, D. B., The Corinthian Body (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995) 175–8Google Scholar, who takes ‘body’ as referring to the body of Christ.

40 Loader, New Testament on Sexuality, 167–87.

41 See the discussion in Loader, New Testament on Sexuality, 161–6.

42 See my extended discussion of both anecdotes in Loader, New Testament on Sexuality, 270–85.

43 On this, see, for instance, Kirchhoff, Sünde gegen den eigenen Leib, who points to the use of Gen 2.24 in this way in Jub. 3.7; Asen. 20.4; 1 Esdr 4.17b–22; Philo, Q.G. 1.29 and Gen. Rab. 18 (160–4). To these one can add Tob 6.18; 4QMMT B 39–49, 4Q265 ii.12; CD 4.21–5.6; Sib. Or. 1.28–30, 33–4; Philo, Opif. 151–2; Cher. 59–62; T. Reub. 2.9; T. Iss. 6.1; and the extensive discourse on marriage in 4QInstruction based on Genesis 2–3. On this, see Loader, Dead Sea Scrolls on Sexuality, 300–12.

44 On this, see Loader, Septuagint, 79–82.

45 Marcus, J., Mark (2 vols.; AYB 27, 27A; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000, 2009) 712Google Scholar, observes that ‘indissoluble marriage was linked with a “realistic” and almost magical view of the permanent fusion of persons created by sexual congress’. That same view of the permanence created by sexual intercourse grounds the rationale for the understanding that any new liaison severs any previous one and makes divorce mandatory.

46 See my detailed discussion of 1 Cor 7.10–11 in Loader, New Testament on Sexuality, 264–9.