Controversy: the gathering storm

This coming Sunday is the 27th in Ordinary Time of Year B. The gospel is taken from Mark 10:2-12 and involves a question about divorce whose real intent is to bring Jesus into conflict with what the Pharisees regard as the clear teaching of Holy Scripture. As typical of this section of the Markan gospel it follows the pattern of public engagement (vv.2-9) followed by a more thorough teaching for the disciples in a private setting (vv.10-12). 

Our Sunday gospel takes the form of a controversy story in which the Pharisees’ intent was clear: they were testing (peirazo) Jesus. When this word is used in Mark, it is either Satan (1:13) or the Pharisees (8:11; 10:2; 12:15) who are “testing/tempting” Jesus. Their question begins, “Is it lawful…?” However, they aren’t really asking Jesus to tell them what the law says. They already know what the law says: “When a man, after marrying a woman and having relations with her, is later displeased with her because he finds in her something indecent, and therefore he writes out a bill of divorce and hands it to her, thus dismissing her from his house” (Deuteronomy 24:1)

It is clear that it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife. However, the law as written did raise an important question: “What constitutes ‘something objectionable’?” There were different answers to that question. R.T. France (The Gospel of Mark, 378-88) has a paragraph full of quotes about the marriage:

While the permitted grounds of divorce were debated in the rabbinic world, the admissibility of divorce (of a wife by her husband, not vice versa: Josephus, Ant. 15.259) as such was not questioned: Dt. 24:1-4 (the only legislation relating specifically to divorce in the torah) was understood to have settled the issue. The more restrictive interpretation of the school of Shammai (only on the basis of ‘unchastity’, m. Git. 9.10) was almost certainly a minority view. More typical, probably, is Ben Sira 25:26: ‘If she does not accept your control, divorce her and send her away’, or Josephus’s laconic comment (Life 426): ‘At this time I divorce my wife, not liking her behavior.’ Josephus paraphrases Dt. 24:1, ‘He who wants to be divorced from the wife who shares his home for whatever cause — and among people many such may arise — …’ (Ant. 4.253), and the school of Hillel allowed this to cover a spoiled meal, or even, so R. Akiba, ‘if he found another fairer than she’ (m. Git. 9:10). 

To our modern mind this seems as though there is a very wide range of understanding. The range may well be due to the root meaning of the Hebrew word, translated “something indecent,” is “nakedness” or “nudity.” This led the School of Shammai, as noted above, to conclude that only adultery was grounds for divorce. A secondary meaning of the Hebrew word is “offensive” or “shameful,” which led the School of Hillel to conclude that anything the wife did that offended the man was grounds for divorce.

It should also be noted that according to Jewish law only the husband could divorce his wife. A wife could not divorce her husband. The divorce proceedings were very simple. The husband would draft a certificate of divorce written on a piece of paper: “She is not my wife and I am not her husband.” Give her the paper and kick her out of the house. They were divorced. It is easy to see how such a process might well cast questions about the understanding of marriage in 1st century Judaism.

Malina & Rohrbaugh (Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, 240) point out that the first century understanding of marriage is quite different than ours today.

“For an understanding of divorce one must understand what marriage meant in a specific culture. Under normal circumstances in the world of Jesus, individuals really did not get married. Families did. One family offered a male, the other a female. Their wedding stood for the wedding of the larger extended families and symbolized the fusion of the honor of both families involved. It would be undertaken with a view to political and/or economic concerns — even when it might be confined to fellow ethnics, as it was in first-century Israel. Divorce, then, would entail the dissolution of these extended family ties. It represented a challenge to the family of the former wife and would likely result in family feuding.”

Given their understanding of marriage as something arranged by parents, divorce was a sin against one’s parents. The divorcing son was dishonoring his parents by undoing the marriage they had arranged. It was the parent’s promise to the wife’s parents that was being broken by the divorce.

In the ancient near east (ANE) family life was often political life. Pheme Perkins cites (642-43) the world of a range of ANE and biblical scholars in to offer another dimension of intrigue, perhaps buried, in the Pharisees’ testing of Jesus – a political edge to it all:

“Essene interpretations of the Law argue for the permanence of marriage. Polemic against the polygamy or divorce and remarriage of the kings of Israel was generalized to apply to members of the sect as well. The Essene argument against divorce appealed to Gen 1:27; 7:9; and Deut 17:17. The political implications, hence the danger to which the Pharisees hoped to expose Jesus, become clearer when one recognizes that the Essene legislation was formulated on the basis of rulings about what it was permissible for a king to do. He was not permitted to have more than one wife. Nor could he divorce his wife to marry another. Viewed in the light of marriages and divorces among members of the Herodian family, as well as the political manipulation of political marriages in Rome, the Pharisees’ question is much more dangerous. Readers of the Gospel did not need to be familiar with the Herodian family history. Mark’s version of John the Baptist’s execution has made it clear that the royal court was sensitive to prophetic criticism of the fact that Herod Antipas had divorced his wife in order to marry his brother’s former wife (6:17–19). The connection between the execution of John the Baptist and this question put to Jesus would be even stronger if the geographical notice in v.1 refers to Herod Antipas’s other territory, Perea. Despite Mark’s assumption that the Baptist was held in Galilee, John was probably arrested while preaching on the east bank of the Jordan in Perea and was confined and executed in the fortress Machaerus, east of the Dead Sea. Mark quotes John the Baptist as saying to the king, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife” (6:18), thus making it clear that the Baptist had made a statement about the Law in this particular case. Although Mark was probably unfamiliar with laws against divorce among the Essenes, he knew that royal marriages and divorces are politically dangerous. Behind the apparently stupid question posed by the Pharisees lurks the execution of John the Baptist, so Jesus answers their question at his own peril.”

The question posed to Jesus is intended as a trap from which the Pharisees will have something with which to charge Jesus before some convening authority.


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