The Historical Jesus on Divorce: An Examination of Mark 10:1-12 vis-a-vis Matthew 19:1-12

The historical Jesus almost certainly never made the comments regarding divorce which the author of Matthew says he made. In the following analysis, I will examine Mark’s Jesus and Matthew’s version of Jesus. We will then compare and contrast the two characters, attempting to figure out what the historical Jesus would have really said regarding the problem of divorce. As all scholars know, the quest of the historical Jesus is a very real and perplexing problem in biblical scholarship; many take seriously the problems posed us by having differing accounts of a single personality. In what follows, I will briefly comment on some general themes in Mark and Matthew before diving into the problematic verses.

The Gospel of Mark was written sometime around the “late 60s or just after 70.”[1] Mark was written for Gentiles with the intent to portray “the person and mission of Jesus Christ for Roman Christians undergoing persecution under Nero.”[2] Given this likely context, Mark has a very suffering Son of God, especially beginning in the 8th chapter of the Gospel and onwards. Jesus’ life is best understood as “victory through suffering.”[3] And Christians should learn from Jesus’ example. This, in sum, is the general thrust of Mark’s thesis.

When we come to our pericope (Mk 10:1-12), we find a story regarding Jesus’ encounter with a group of Pharisees questioning his position on divorce. Jesus, coming out of northern Galilee, entering “Judea beyond the Jordan [=Perea],” finds himself surrounded by “crowds” with Pharisees quickly coming to “test” him (v. 1). The Pharisees ask him if it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife. The Pharisees may have asked Jesus this particular question knowing full well that John the Baptist was beheaded on account of denouncing Antipas’ marriage to Herodias. If this is the historical context—which I think it is—then “Jesus is being asked whether Antipas was justified or not in divorcing the daughter of King Aretas to marry Herodias.”[4] Whatever the context, though, the “test” the Pharisees are performing is practical and existentially applicable to every Jew living in the first-century: does Moses allow divorce? For the Pharisees, divorce was a no-brainer: you find it in Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Jesus replies by saying that, in fact, even Moses did not think this was the case; Moses merely allowed it due to their “hardness of heart” (v. 5). Jesus then appeals to Genesis 1:27 and 2:24, saying, “But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female’” and “‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’” (vv. 6-8a). Jesus then adds the additional comment: “So they are no longer two, but one flesh” (v. 8b). After laying out the premises, Jesus reaches his conclusion: “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Jesus essentially gives the Pharisees—and the crowd around him—his answer: No.

After this very dramatic reply, even Jesus’ disciples cannot believe what they just heard. When they reach somebody’s house, a disciple wants to make sure Jesus meant what he, in fact, said. Jesus replies, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (vv. 11-12). The disciples were correct to be worried—for this was a new teaching indeed. During the first-century, the divorce policies were divided essentially into two camps, following two rabbis: Shammai and Hillel. Shammai allowed divorce only on the grounds of unchastity, according to the Mishnah. On the other hand, Hillel allowed divorce for any and every reason—even if a wife burnt a dish![5] Jesus disagrees with these two leading rabbis and says both are wrong: no divorce is permissible. Nada. Never. Ad infinitum.

At verse 12 of chapter 10, Mark concludes Jesus’ lecture on divorce. Immediately after this pericope, Mark has Jesus bless little children. (Continuing the pro-family stance of Jesus.) Writing possibly several decades later, Matthew reworks this Markan tradition of Jesus categorically against divorce and changes things radically.

Matthew wrote his gospel sometime after the year 70, probably between the years 80 and 90.[6] The gospel is 18,300 words (50 percent longer than Mark’s [11,300 words]).[7] Matthew is normally thought to have been written for a very Jewish audience; Jesus is ultimately presented as a type of “new Moses.” The gospel generally tends to follow Mark, so it is inductively thought that Matthew copied Mark and elaborated extensively upon Mark—hence the significantly larger text. Matthew is divided into five sections, mimicking the Jewish Pentateuch.[8] Jesus delivers five “sermons” or “speeches” in Matthew. That is, Matthew typically has Jesus deliver a “sermon,” concluding it with some such phrase as “and it happened when Jesus finished instructing the twelve disciples…” (7:28-29). He does this five times, probably consciously seeing Jesus as a “new Moses.” Our pericope on divorce (following Matthew’s earlier saying on the same subject in 5:31-32) stands as Jesus second statement on divorce, following the so-called “Sermon on the Church” (which is found at 18:1-35). This second statement of Jesus’ on divorce is more elaborate than the first, brief comment found in Matthew 5. In Matthew 19, we find an almost verbatim lifting of Mark 10:1-12, with some very noticeable differences.

Matthew, like Mark, has Jesus (explicitly) leaving Galilee and coming to Judea beyond the Jordan. Large crowds follow him. He is then met by some Pharisees who test him. They ask him if it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason (v. 3). At this point in the text, Matthew adds the phrase “for any reason.” Matthew is probably reflecting Jewish rabbinical tradition at this point—Shammai versus Hillel. This phrase “might serve as a sweeping summary of the Hillelite view, which was probably the more influential among ordinary people.”[9]

Next, Matthew has Jesus quote Genesis 1:27 and 2:24. He reverses Mark’s original order in which Jesus moved from divorce (the negative) to the way God intended marriage to be (the positive). In Matthew, Jesus first begins by dealing with the ideal (the positive), only later moving on to the negative.[10] Also, as evidence that Matthew is indeed following Mark, Mark’s idiosyncratically redundant comment “So they are no longer two, but one flesh” (v. 8b) is repeated in Matthew verse 6. Moreover, in Matthew, the saying regarding a husband leaving his family and clinging to his wife is attributed to God not Adam (as in Genesis 2:24).

Another significant change is going on between Mark and Matthew. In Mark, the Pharisees present the issue of divorce as something Moses “permits”; while Jesus speaks of a “commandment” of Moses. In Matthew, these verbs are reversed: the Pharisees see divorce as a “command,” while Jesus sees divorce as merely being “permitted.”[11] “While the Pharisees refer to Moses’ commandment (ἐνετείλατο), Jesus speaks simply of Moses’ permission (ἐπέτρεψεν)—of a concession in light of the people’s disobedience and ‘hard-heartedness.’”[12] In such a way, Matthew does not have Jesus contradict Moses; rather, the Pharisees, by seeing divorce as a “command,” are the ones contradicting God himself (as seen in Genesis 1:27)!

Some more differences. In Mark, Jesus states that marriage formed a union in which the two became one flesh “from the beginning of creation” (v. 6). Matthew drops the term “of creation” (v. 4) and instead goes with “from the beginning” (a phrase he repeats again in verse 8). Matthew, unlike Mark, also includes the strange sayings of Jesus regarding “eunuchs” (v. 12). In Mark, Jesus allegedly forbids even “wives” to divorce their husbands (vv. 11-12)—a fact that supports the hypothesis that this gospel was written to the Romans; in Rome, it was permissible for a wife to divorce her husband. In Matthew this particular comment of “Jesus” does not appear, as Jesus probably never made it (since he would have been talking to an audience who would not have imagined a wife initiating divorce). Matthew eliminates this (probably) Markan redaction primarily because—for his Jewish audience—the comment would have been meaningless and superfluous. (Despite my observations, some scholars do in fact argue that in Second Temple Judaism [the Elephantine community not being counted] women were allowed to divorce their husbands. However, this is very much disputed.)[13]

Finally, in Matthew, after Jesus is done talking with the Pharisees, the disciples at home conclude that it is better for a man not to marry at all (v. 10). However, this conclusion is not warranted. Had this been the conclusion to Mark’s version of events and sayings, it would have made sense. But something radically different is happening in Matthew: Jesus is not actually forbidding divorce categorically. In fact, Matthew adds the idiosyncratic phrase “except for unchastity” (μὴ ἐπὶ πορνείᾳ)—an “exception clause” which only appears in Matthew’s redaction of Jesus’ sayings on divorce, both here and—with slightly different wording; “except on the account of unchasitity” (παρεκτὸς λόγου πορνείας )—at 5:32. Matthew is certainly the author of this phrase—it only appears in Matthew (twice) and does not feature in Mark, 1 Corinthians 7, or Luke 16:18.

As to why Matthew, in particular, would insert this phrase only seems obvious: the sociological reality of first-century Jewish Christianity was that divorces occurred whether one liked it or not. Jesus notwithstanding.

Matthew probably has other reasons, too. Matthew was certainly written later; probably at a time when the reality of Jesus’ expected sooner-rather-than-later “Second Coming” began to be reinterpreted. People weren’t so sure about an imminent end of the world. This meant that the Christians had to build laws and codes of conduct—not bomb shelters. Matthew’s gospel reflects (almost certainly) this reality. In fact, Matthew’s gospel is the only gospel which explicitly talks about the “church” (ἐκκλησίᾳ) [see 18:17]. This was a gospel written for people who were going to keep living on earth. And on earth there were certain events which occurred commonly. “Divorce was a widespread phenomenon through the ancient Near East and Mediterranean world, just as it is a widespread phenomenon throughout the modern world.”[14]

Jesus’ comments on divorce were spoken to a community which was grounded in the Old Testament—a fact I already briefly touched upon. The Old Testament has very little to say regarding divorce, in fact. A much quoted text by Christian fundamentalists—Malachi 2:16—is actually textually suspect. The text does not say “For I hate divorce”—it only “says” this if reconstructed. In fact, to the utter dismay of fundamentalists, the Qumran community interpreted the text as commanding divorce. Their text—with lacunas—probably read: “[B]ut if you hate [her], send [her] away.”[15]

Contrary to the legalistic and dogmatic stance of the Pharisees, the other much-quoted text (allegedly supporting divorce), Deuteronomy 24:1-4, actually has virtually nothing lucid to say about divorce. Summarizing the Jewish literature thoroughly, Meier concludes, after dealing with Deut. 24:1-4, that “the law codes of the Pentateuch have precious little else to say about divorce.”[16] Deuteronomy 24:1-4 essentially deals with a man taking a wife who ends up having (committing?) “a shame of a thing” (עֶרְוַ֣ת דָּבָ֔ר). This “shame of a thing” has been interpreted to mean, well, anything and everything. The man is instructed to hand her a certificate of divorce. Finally, if she goes away, marries another, gets divorced from the second husband, returns to the first, the first husband is not allowed to take her back. Meier thinks that the phrase “shame of a thing” is “purposefully left vague in order to permit wide latitude for the husband’s judgment within a patriarchal society governed by the codes of honor and shame.”[17]

The historical Jesus almost certainly did not make the “exception clause” statement. Contrary to Matthew, “the historical Jesus was categorically against divorce.”[18] Meier succinctly states: “I think there is sufficient reason for holding that the historical Jesus forbade divorce.”[19] Moreover: “By completely forbidding divorce, Jesus dares to forbid what the Law allows—and not in some minor, obscure halakic observance but in one of the most important legal institutions in society. He dares to say that a man who duly follows the Law in properly divorcing his wife and marrying another woman is in effect committing adultery.”[20] What is significant, however, is that Matthew retains the disciples’ astonishment at Jesus’ “new teaching” on divorce—which he categorically forbade. This reveals an ironic Matthean slip-up; on the one hand, Matthew is editing Jesus, on the other, he is revealing his own editorial hand. Contrary to Matthew, Mark presents us with a more radical Jesus—a Jesus that was crucified by both the Roman elite and the Jewish Sanhedrin. In this particular pericope, Mark is clearly the more original version (excepting his addition relating to Roman divorce law). The theological question for us today is not only “What Would Jesus Do?” but “Do We Agree With What Jesus Really Would Do Anyway?” Are we ready to follow Jesus, the real Jesus?

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev


[1] Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, The Anchor Bible Reference Library (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 164.

[2] James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2002), 10.

[3] Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, 126.

[4] Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, 300.

[5] Ibid., 299.

[6] Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, 217.

[7] Ibid., 171.

[8] See Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, 173.

[9] R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2007), 715-6.

[10] See France, The Gospel of Matthew, 716. He also notes how Matthew does a similar reversal at 15:3-9.

[11] Ulrich Luz, Matthew 8-20: A Commentary, trans. James E. Crouch, Hermenia (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 490.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Adela Yarbro Collins, Mark: A Commentary, Hermenia (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 459-464.

[14] John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, vol. 4: Law and Love, The Anchor Bible Reference Library (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 74.

[15] Ibid., 82.

[16] Ibid., 80.

[17] Ibid., 79.

[18] Eben Scheffler, “(The Markan and Matthean) Jesus’ Appropriation and Criticism of the Torah: The Question of Divorce,” Hervormde Teologies Studies 67/1 (2011): 3.

[19] Meier, A Marginal Jew, 112.

[20] Ibid., 113.


Brown, Raymond E. An Introduction to the New Testament. The Anchor Bible Reference LibraryNew Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.

Collins, Adela Yarbro. Mark: A Commentary. Hermenia. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007.

Edwards, James R. The Gospel According to Mark. Pillar New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2002.

France, R. T. The Gospel of Matthew. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2007.

Luz, Ulrich. Matthew 8-20: A Commentary. Translated by James E. Crouch. Hermenia. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001.

Meier, John P. A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, vol. 4: Law and Love. The Anchor Bible Reference Library. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.

Scheffler, Eben. “(The Markan and Matthean) Jesus’ Appropriation and Criticism of the Torah: The Question of Divorce.” Hervormde Teologies Studies 67/1 (2011): 1-6.

2 thoughts on “The Historical Jesus on Divorce: An Examination of Mark 10:1-12 vis-a-vis Matthew 19:1-12

  1. This is an unusually thorough and insightful exegesis. There’s little doubt that whatever the historical Jesus may have said about divorce, his words were altered, amended, and spun for various reasons by the gospel writers, as is true of most every teaching he tried to impart.

    I think one of the keys to parsing the canonical accounts, teasing the wheat from the chaff, is to hone in on the “character” of Jesus as best we can glean it from reading between the lines. He is a story teller, a picture thinker, a poser of questions, a person who is somewhat Socratic in his approach of trying to elicit thought. He is not prone to issue flat doctrinal statements or provide simplistic, unambiguous answers.

    My take on his take on the divorce issue is that he made a telling and profound OBSERVATION about the nature of marriage as he believed God had envisioned and established it. He opined that Moses had been forced to permit divorce as a practical measure because of our “hardness of heart,” not because it was right. He noted that the meaning of marriage is that people leave their birth families to create new ones, joining together as “one flesh.” He then, not in angry condemnation but rather in a hope, a wish, a prayer, urged that man not separate what God had unified.

    As for those who give up marriage in order to devote themselves wholly to God, he acknowledges this sacrifice in the context of his hyperbolic advice to do whatever is necessary to find the Kingdom, even if that entails cutting off one’s arm or pulling out one’s eye.

    After struggling for decades after college and seminary to recapture something of the historical Jesus from the canonical stories, I wound up writing my own synoptic gospel, available on the Kindle as “Life of Truth: a synoptic gospel.” You can check out the book description and a sample for free on the Amazon Bookstore. Those of you who like to quest around for the authentic Jesus might find my effort interesting and helpful in your own search for the man aptly called “the central figure of the human race.”

    All authentic religion, whether attempting to find God, Jesus, or salvation, is essentially a search, a search that at best APPROACHES truths that are hidden yet in our midst. Again, I thank the author for a nice, succinct bit of Second Testament scholarship.

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