Deuteronomy 24 On Divorce
Deuteronomy 24:1-4 and the Issue of Divorce
J. Carl Laney
Professor of Biblical Literature
Western Conservative Baptist Seminary, Portland, Oregon
Divorce and remarriage have become regarded by many evangelicals as viable solutions to intolerable marriages. Most of those who seek a biblical basis for this opinion interpret Deuteronomy 24:1–4 as providing grounds for divorce and the right of remarriage in cases of adultery or sexual sin.1 Is there adequate textual evidence for this interpretation? Did Moses affirm the right of divorce for sexual sin? Is the remarriage of a divorced person without moral consequence? What application may Christians make of the legal precepts found in Deuteronomy 24:1–4?
The Background and Context
Not long after the fall, God’s standard of one man married to one woman was violated (Gen 2:24; 4: 19). By the time of Moses, divorce had become a custom even among Israelites (Deut 24:1–4). And so the issue was addressed by Moses. The importance of this Deuteronomy passage in Jewish thinking is seen in the fact that it served as the background for the Pharisees’ comments on divorce when they questioned Jesus (Matt 19:1–12; Mark 10:1–10).
The Book of Deuteronomy gives a restatement of the Mosaic Covenant for the benefit of the second generation of Israelites in the wilderness. Deuteronomy 24:1–4 is part of a larger section that expands and applies the basic stipulations of the covenant (5:6–21 ). As observed by Kaufman,2 the Decalogue seems to provide the basis for the instruction given in Deuteronomy 12–26 . Kaufman suggests the following structure and arrangement:
|3||13: 1–14:27||Name of God|
|9||24: 8–25:4||False charges|
Highlighting the significance of this structure, Kaiser comments that “the entire second discourse of Moses (Deut 5–26) is a single literary unit that convincingly demonstrates that the moral law informs the statutes, judgments…and commands of God.”3 Following this analysis, the text at hand would serve to illuminate and expand the prohibition against theft, in this case, the wrongful and illegal taking of a spouse.4
It is crucial to note that this passage does not institute or allow for divorce with approval. Deuteronomy 24:1–4 merely treats divorce as a practice already existing and known.5 Grammatically the passage is an example of biblical case law in which certain conditions are stated for which a particular command applies. The protasis in verses 1–3 specifies the conditions that must apply before the command in the apodosis in verse 4 is followed. In other words 24:1–4 describes a simple “if…then” situation. The legislation specified in 24:1–4 actually deals with a particular case of remarriage. Grammatically the intent of this law is not to give legal sanction to divorce or to regulate the divorce procedure. The intent of the passage is to prohibit the remarriage of a man to his divorced wife in cases of an intervening marriage by the wife.
Unfortunately the structure of the passage has not always been reflected in the English translations. The King James Version, for example, places the apodosis at the end of verse 1 (“then let him write her a bill of divorcement”). The implication of this translation is that the Law requires that a husband divorce his offending wife. This translation, also found in the American Standard Version (1901) and the English Revised Version, has contributed to the confusion seen in the divorce-remarriage controversy.6
The Circumstances of Divorce (24:1-3)
The first three verses of Deuteronomy 24 describe the situation of a woman who is twice divorced by different men or once divorced and then widowed. It should be carefully noted that divorce is neither commanded nor commended. The circumstances leading to divorce are simply described as a part of the case under consideration. The verses do not indicate that divorce is necessarily sanctioned under such circumstances. As Hurley observes, “Verse 1 does not focus on the grounds for the divorce as such, but rather discusses the first divorce only to set the stage for the following discussion.”7
In this particular case the wife lost favor with her husband because of “some indecency” in her (literally, “nakedness of a thing” or “a naked matter”). The precise meaning of the phrase עֶֶרָוַת דָּבָר is uncertain. Consequently it became the subject of heated rabbinic debates on divorce. The Septuagint’s translation, ἄσχεμον πρα̂γμα (“some unbecoming thing”), is equally obscure.
The phrase may refer to some physical deficiency—such as the inability to bear children. This may be suggested by a possible parallel between Deuteronomy 24:1–4 and an old Assyrian marriage contract.8 The expression appears only once elsewhere in the Hebrew Scriptures, where it serves as a euphemism for excrement (Deut 23:14, Heb 15 ). This suggests that the “indecency” in Deuteronomy 24:1 may refer to some shameful or repulsive act. Isaksson takes it to refer to the wife’s indecent exposure.9 In the first century conservative Rabbi Shammai interpreted the phrase as referring to marital unchastity, while Rabbi Hillel interpreted it more broadly to refer to anything unpleasant (Gittin 9:10).
It seems unlikely that עֶֶרָוַת דָּבָר could refer to adultery since this was punishable by death (Deut 22:22–24; Lev 20:10), not divorce. Murray offers five additional reasons why the “indecency” of Deuteronomy 24:1 cannot refer to adultery.10 He concludes that it must refer to “some indecency or impropriety of behavior” short of illicit sexual intercourse.11 Whatever the precise meaning of עֶֶרְוַת דָּבָר, the grammar makes clear that Moses was describing a case, not prescribing a course of action for dealing with an offensive wife.
The passage describes the actions of a husband in dealing with his offending wife. According to custom the husband wrote out a certificate of divorce and delivered it to the wife. The essential words of this document became fixed in Jewish tradition and are recorded in the Mishnah, “Behold, you are free to marry any man” (Gittin 9:3). The passage then states that the wife left her husband’s home and became another man’s wife. Sometime after the second marriage, the woman was again divorced or widowed (Deut 24:2–3).
The Issue of Case Law
Many expositors have concluded that since Deuteronomy 24:1–3 does not prohibit divorce and remarriage, both are approved by God. This conclusion is inconsistent with the context of the passage (v. 4) and with the nature of biblical case law.
The covenant entered into by God and Israel at Mount Sinai contains the obligations imposed on and accepted by the Israelite people. These covenant stipulations take two basic forms: apodictic and casuistic. Apodictic (derived from the Greek ἀπό, “from,” and δείκνυμι, “to show”) laws are stated in imperative terms such as “you shall not….” Casuistic (derived from the Latin casus, “case”) laws are stated in the form of cases. If certain circumstances occur, a certain law must then apply. The protasis-apodosis sequence (“if…, then…”) is the most frequent indicator of biblical casuistic law. Deuteronomy 24:1–4 is such an example.
Deuteronomy 12–26 contains the detailed stipulations of the covenant. This section elaborates the basic demands of Deuteronomy 5–11 by providing examples and applications in the religious life (12:1–16:17 ), political life (16:18–20:20 ), and social life (chaps. 21–26 ) of the nation. Apart from the case under consideration, Deuteronomy 12–26 contains 31 examples of case law. In 19 of these examples the protasis contains a situation that is either immoral or has some negative connotation.12 The other 12 present situations that appear morally neutral.13
Deuteronomy 25:11–12 is an example of case law in which the protasis contains a situation that is immoral or has negative connotations. A woman who seizes the genitals of a male opponent to help her husband in a struggle shall have her hand cut off. No one would dare suggest that the case being described is presented with approval. Many other similar examples could be cited.
What is the implication for the study of Deuteronomy 24:1–4? Just as legislation on harlotry (23:18 ) in no way authorizes harlotry, so a law on divorce and remarriage is not authorization for them. The presentation of the case does not constitute divine approval of the actions described. The context (including the apodosis) must be considered in order to discern whether the situation is merely being described or whether the actions described have divine sanction.
Too often interpreters have discussed 24:1–4 as if God sanctions divorce and remarriage. The characteristic grammar of biblical case law argues against this. In fact the text itself is far from approving the second marriage, as is evident from verse 4.
The Prohibition against Remarriage (24:4)
The main point of this example of biblical case law appears in the apodosis (the “then” clause) of verse 4 . Here it is clear that the law relates not to the matter of divorce as such, but to a particular case of remarriage. Moses declared that a man may not remarry his former wife if she has in the meantime been married to another man. Even though her second husband should divorce her or die, she must not return to her first husband. The prohibition is supported by an explanation, a reason, and a command. As Kaiser correctly notes, this is “the only regulative statement in this passage.”14
The prohibition against remarriage is elaborated and explained by “since she has been defiled.” The word אֲשֶׁר is used as a conjunction with אַחֲרֵי and could be translated, “after that.” The obvious question is, “After what?” The answer must be found in verses 1–3 , which describe the divorce and remarriage of the woman. It is unlikely that divorce itself would be regarded as defiling, since it violates no command and involves no sexual act. Apparently the second marriage—with its physical union—is viewed as bringing defilement.
The word “defiled” (טמא) is a Hothpa’el, the less common reflexive passive conjugation, and means “to be made unclean.” This stem generally communicates a passive idea (“was defiled”), but can tend toward a reflexive idea (“she defiled herself”), depending on the context. Since it is unclear here who bears the responsibility for the defilement, one could simply translate “she has been defiled.”
The Hebrew word טָמֵא is used of sexual uncleanness (moral violation), religious uncleanness (bloodshed or idolatry), and ceremonial uncleanness (eating unclean foods, touching a dead body). In Leviticus 18:20 and Numbers 5:13–14 it is used of the defilement of adultery. The implication is that a woman’s remarriage after divorce is similar to adultery in that she cohabits with another man.15 Keil and Delitzsch comment:
The second marriage of a woman who had been divorced is designated by Moses a defilement of the woman, primarily no doubt with reference to the fact that the emissio seminis in sexual intercourse rendered unclean, though not merely in the sense of such a defilement as was removed in the evening by simple washing, but a moral defilement, i.e., blemishing, desecration of the sexual communion which was sanctified by marriage.16
The use of טָמֵא in Deuteronomy 24:4 suggests that remarriage following divorce is placed on a par with adultery. The Mosaic perspective is consistent with Jesus’ teaching in Mark 10:11–12, where divorce and remarriage by either husband or wife is regarded as adulterous.
To remarry one’s original husband after an intervening marriage is declared “an abomination before Yahweh.” The word “abomination” (תּרֹעֵבָה) is used of things detestable in either the moral or general sense. Youngblood states that the word includes that which is “aesthetically and morally repulsive.”17 The term is used to describe false gods (Deut 32:16), ritually unclean animals (Deut 14:3), homosexual relations (Lev 18:22), and occultic activities (Deut 18:9–14). The term is used in Leviticus 18:26–30 with reference to numerous previously mentioned aberrations including incest, adultery, child sacrifice, homosexuality, and bestiality.
The reason (“for that is an abomination”) is followed by the command, “You shall not bring sin on the land which Yahweh your God gives you as an inheritance.” To commit the act prohibited in this example of case law amounts to bringing the guilt of sin on Israel’s land. These words bring to mind the warning God gave the Israelites in Leviticus 18:24–25 regarding the wicked ways of Canaan: “Do not defile yourselves by any of these things; for by all these the nations which I am casting out before you have become defiled. For the land has become defiled, therefore I have visited its punishment upon it, so the land has spewed out its inhabitants.”
As the land was “defiled” by the sexual abominations of the Canaanites, so there was danger of similar defilement by the remarriage of a divorced woman to her husband in the case of an intervening marriage. The prohibition was designed to prevent the defilement of the land that God was giving His people as an inheritance.
The Purpose of the Legislation
What did God intend to accomplish by this law? What was its purpose in Israelite society?
To Ensure the Proper Legal Procedure
Based on the faulty translation of the King James Version, some have argued that the purpose of this legislation was to ensure that proper legal procedure was used in the termination of marriage. Atkinson comments, “This would make public the termination of the first marriage, and so promote a sense of social responsibility, and also—and perhaps more importantly—give the divorced woman rights in law, by protecting her against the capital charge of adultery if she remarried.”18 The major oversight by those suggesting this interpretation is the failure to recognize that the procedure described in verses 1–3 is merely descriptive, not prescriptive.
To Discourage Divorce
Murray, among others, has argued that the legislation was designed to discourage divorce.19 As Adams comments, “The whole point of the four verses in question is to forestall hasty action by making it impossible to rectify the situation when divorce and remarriage to another takes place (cf. 1 Cor 7:11).”20 Since there was a good possibility of not being able to remarry his former wife, the husband would be less likely to put his wife away hastily. But one wonders whether this legislation would deter an angry husband.
Craigie follows this viewpoint, but with a slightly different perspective. He suggests that Deuteronomy 24:1–4 applied certain restrictions on divorce to prevent it from becoming “too easy.” If abused, divorce and remarriage “would become a ‘legal’ form of committing adultery.”21
While this view has merit, it has been pointed out by Thompson that the major deterrent to divorce in the biblical period was financial. Usually the husband forfeited the dowry when divorcing his wife and sometimes had to make divorce payments as well.22
To Protect the Second Marriage
In a lecture delivered at the University of Oxford on remarriage in Jewish Law, Yaron suggested that Deuteronomy 24:1–4 was designed to protect the second marriage.23
When the divorcee has married another man, we have before us the possibility of tension within the “triangle” which has come into being. The first husband may wish to get back his wife, having repented of dismissing her, the wife may draw comparisons between her two husbands unfavourable to the second one, and may indulge in overtures disruptive of the second marriage. Or, nothing of the kind may have actually happened, but the second husband may go through agonies of jealousy and apprehension, making life a hell for the wife also. All these possibilities are avoided once the reunion is prevented.24
The explanation seems at first convincing. But the view fails to explain why the rule would apply after the death of the second husband when the second marriage would no longer be in jeopardy.25
To Prevent a Type of Incest
Wenham has noted that the reasons the husband should not take back his former wife—defilement, abomination, and pollution of the land—occur repeatedly in connection with the sexual offenses listed in Leviticus 18 and 20.26
As background for his viewpoint, Wenham argues that marriage establishes a close and lasting “one flesh” (Gen 2:24) relationship that does not terminate with divorce. From a biblical perspective, marital intercourse makes a man and wife as closely related as parents and children. If a man may not marry his sister-in-law because she has in effect become his sister (Lev 18:16; 20:21), may he remarry his former wife?
According to Wenham, Deuteronomy 24:1–4 uses the logic of incest laws to prohibit the restoration of the first marriage. If a divorced couple should come together again after an intervening marriage, it would be as bad as a man marrying his sister. To reconstitute the first marriage would be a “type of incest” which is explicitly prohibited in Leviticus 18:6–18.27 Wenham’s view has support from the greater context of levitical law and has been favorably reviewed.28 This view is an intriguing explanation for the prohibition against remarriage to one’s original partner following divorce.
The major difficulty with this view is that it seems to reach beyond what is clear to the reader. One wonders how many Israelites would have seen the connection between the “one flesh” of the marriage union and the incest laws of Leviticus 18:6–18. Wenham uses the phrase, “type of incest.” Is remarriage to one’s spouse after an intervening marriage actually incest or not? Yet while Wenham’s view seems obscure to the 20th-century interpreter, it may not have been so to those of Moses’ day, whose lives centered around the ceremonial requirements of the Law.
To Protect a Stigmatized Woman
Luck suggests that the passage under consideration “intends to protect a stigmatized woman from further abuse by her offending first husband.”29 According to Luck, Deuteronomy 24:1–4 deals not with an offending wife but with a sinning husband.
The text is trying to convey that the first husband is responsible to come to his senses before the second marriage occurs. That he does not, underlines the offensiveness of the first husband’s character. The man was so hard-hearted that he cast the woman from himself. Then, he was so unrepentant that he allowed her to be sexually coupled to another man. Thus, in a sense, the second marriage did defile the woman, but the fact stands not really against her character but against the character of her treacherous first husband.30
Luck certainly offers a creative approach to an old problem. Yet his view introduces speculation and hypothesis. Though Luck regards the first husband as “hard-hearted” and “unrepentant” the passage does not offer any comment as to the husband’s character.
In his appeal to Jeremiah 3:1 to support his view,31 Luck seems to have missed the point of the prophet. Jeremiah was simply saying that Judah wanted to have it both ways—clinging to harlot lovers and renewing her “marriage” with Yahweh. The question raised by the prophet is, “What right had Judah, frightened by the consequences of her evil deeds, to take the initiative in seeking to return to Yahweh?”32 Jeremiah was making a limited application of Deuteronomy 24:1–4. Judah had not married a particular lover, but, like Gomer, had been unfaithful. Clearly God had not issued a divorce document (cf. Isa 50:1). Therefore the renewal of His covenant (i.e., “marriage”) relationship with Judah would not actually constitute a violation of Deuteronomy 24:1–4.
To Deter Greedy Profit by the First Husband
Westbrook suggests that the key to understanding the purpose of Deuteronomy 24:1–4 “lies in the property aspect of marriage—more exactly, in the financial consequences of its dissolution.”33 Westbrook points out that a legal distinction between two kinds of divorce was recognized in various ancient Near Eastern law codes.
In cases where the wife was guilty of socially recognized misconduct the husband was justified in divorcing her without any financial consequences to himself. This principle applies to the first husband’s divorce mentioned in Deuteronomy 24:1–4, which was for “some indecency.” In all other cases of marital dissolution the wife was entitled to a financial settlement. At the very least, her dowry would be restored. According to Westbrook, this principle applies to the second husband’s divorce mentioned in Deuteronomy 24:3. Here no guilt on the wife’s part is stated or implied; yet the husband “turns against her” or literally “hates her.”34
According to Westbrook, the first husband in Deuteronomy 24:1–4 divorced his wife on the grounds of her “indecency” and thus escaped the normal financial consequences. He paid her no divorce money and probably kept her dowry. Yet she was able to find another husband who provided for her an inheritance (by his death) or a divorce settlement. And now that she was a wealthy widow or divorcee, Westbrook suggests, the first husband would forget his original objections and seek to remarry her. The effect would be that the first husband profited twice—first by rejecting his wife and then by remarrying her. It is this unjust enrichment that the law in Deuteronomy 24:1–4 seeks to prevent.35
Westbrook’s solution fits nicely with Kaufman’s analysis of the structure of Deuteronomic law in that Deuteronomy 24:1–4 falls within the section (23:20–24:7 ) that expands the eighth commandment, “You shall not steal” (5:19 ). And yet the view is based on considerable hypothesis and speculation. His view does not deal adequately with the key terms “abomination” and “sin on the land.” And the view implies that the first divorce and remarriage is presented with approval. This is contrary to a proper understanding of the clause, “since she has been defiled” (24:4).
A Synthetic Approach
In light of the many diverse opinions as to the purpose of the prohibition of remarriage in Deuteronomy 24:1–4, it is wise to avoid dogmatism in reaching a conclusion. It may well be that the text was intended to accomplish at least two things. First, this restriction seems to guard against divorce becoming a legalized form of adultery. Second, the prohibition against remarrying the same woman would also serve as a moderating influence on divorce. Wenham’s analysis contributes to this synthetic view by way of clarification. The laws against incest may serve to explain why the prohibition in Deuteronomy 24:4 was necessary, that is, to avoid bringing the guilt of sin on the land.
Several concluding observations based on this study may help in considering the issues in the divorce-remarriage controversy. First, Deuteronomy 24:1–4 did not institute divorce. The passage simply acknowledges divorce as taking place, and not necessarily with divine approval. Second, though divorce is “permitted” in 24:1–4 in the sense that it is not specifically prohibited by law, divorce was not looked on with favor by the Hebrew Scriptures. The lot of a divorcee was not pleasant (Isa 54:6). Though she was free to remarry, she could not marry a priest (Lev 21:7). This suggests that there was something of a stigma (social or moral) attached to her as a divorced woman. Third, the clause, “since she has been defiled” (Deut 24:4), indicates that some measure of moral defilement was associated with a divorced woman if she remarried. Fourth, 24:1–4 clearly prohibited the remarriage of a divorced woman to her first husband if since the divorce she had been married to another man.
Deuteronomy 24:1–4 was brought to the attention of Jesus by some religious leaders who sought to “test” Him on the subject of divorce and remarriage (Matt 19:1–12). Most of the first-century Jewish teachers believed that Deuteronomy 24:1–4 authorized divorce. They differed only with regard to the legitimate grounds for divorce (Gittin 9:10).
In talking with the Pharisees, Jesus directed their attention to God’s original design for marriage as set forth in Genesis 2:24. Jesus affirmed that man should not separate what God has joined (Matt 19:6). When Jesus’ opponents cited Deuteronomy 24:1–4, which they interpreted as legal authorization for divorce, Jesus did not say Moses commanded divorce. Instead Jesus said Moses permitted it because of the “hardness” of the Israelite hearts. Hurley remarks, “Thus, whereas the Pharisees had taken Moses’ concession of divorce as God’s design, Jesus took it as a regulatory measure to deal with the result of sin.”36 Derrett further observes that where Jewish interpretation went wrong was in “the failure to perceive that the one flesh persists after divorce.”37 Therefore remarriage after divorce brings moral defilement not unlike that of adultery (Matt 19:9).38 Some have questioned the present application of this text to Christians who have been divorced and remarried. Are believers prohibited by Deuteronomy 24:1–4 from remarrying their original spouse in cases where there has been an intervening marriage? One could argue that the concern for “sin on the land” would limit the application of the text to the Jewish people in the land of Israel under the Old Covenant. Yet the issue of the wife being “defiled” and concern to avoid “an abomination before the Lord” would argue against a temporal or limited application. Since there is nothing in the New Testament that modifies or abrogates this clear command, there seems to be no biblical basis for doing away with its present application. According to Deuteronomy 24:1–4, a man may not remarry his divorced wife if she has in the meantime been married to another man.
DIVORCE [Heb kƒrîṯûṯ—‘a cutting off’ (Dt. 24:1, 3; Isa. 50:1; Jer. 3:8), šālaḥ—‘send away’ (Jer. 3:1; Mal. 2:16),gáraš —‘drive out, banish’ (Lev. 21:7, 14; 22:13; Nu. 30:9; Ezk. 44:22); Gk apolýō—‘dismiss, send away’ (Mt. 1:19; 5:31f; 19:3, 8f; Mk. 10:2, 11f; Lk. 16:18), aphíēmi—‘send away,’ ‘leave’ (1 Cor. 7:11–13); AV also DIVORCEMENT, PUT AWAY, LEAVE (1 Cor. 7:13); NEB also PUT AWAY (Jer. 3:1), “have the marriage contract set aside”; CERTIFICATE OF DIVORCE [Gk apostásion—a technical legal term for relinquishing property, giving up one’s claim] (Mt. 5:31; 19:7; Mk. 10:4); AV WRITING OF DIVORCEMENT, BILL OF DIVORCEMENT; NEB NOTE OF DISMISSAL.
In The OT
I. Relation to the Marriage Institution Divorce in the OT can be properly evaluated when the divine and original institution of marriage is taken into account. According to Gen. 1:27f God created man male and female, and blessed them. When the woman, after having been “taken out of man,” was presented to the man, he said, “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh.” For this reason an inviolable union was established which took precedence over every tie of kindred, even the tie existing between parents and children. A man and wife become “one flesh” (Gen. 2:22–24). Love is prominent factor in this divinely ordained institution. “And he loved her (Rebekah)” is said of Isaac (Gen. 24:67); “he loved also Rachel” is written of Jacob (Gen. 29:30); and of Abraham it is recorded that at the death of his wife Sarah he “came to mourn for Sarah, and to weep for her” (Gen. 23:2).
That the divinely ordained marriage institution was regarded as inviolable in the OT itself is borne out by the initial absence of any reference to the possibility of abrogating it, and by the word of the prophet Malachi: “For I hate divorce, says the Lord the God of Israel” (2:16). It is also substantiated by Our Lord’s appeal to the original institution in Mt. 19:3–8. By quoting from the original word in Genesis Jesus made it clear that His position was that of the Torah, namely, that God joined man and wife, and therefore it is not man’s prerogative to break the marriage bond. “From the beginning it was not so.” This teaching of Jesus must be given its full weight in dealing with the OT data. By virtue of His own authority He could add to the Mosaic record at other parts, but this He let stand both for the old economy and for the new. And yet we find that in practice the law of Israel made provision for the dissolution of the marriage bond.
II. OT Practice In the case of adultery the guilty spouse was punished by death: “The adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death” (Lev. 20:10; cf. Dt. 22:23f). (See Adultery.) But while adultery severs the marriage tie, it is not properly divorce as found in the biblical references.
Under certain conditions the separation of man and wife is legalized without civil or ecclesiastical penalties, Recognition of a status quo, however, does not necessarily carry with it divine approval. The crucial question is whether the practice of divorce in the OT had divine sanction. The passage that has been interpreted as lending support to an affirmative answer is Dt. 24:1–4. The phrase particularly involved is Heb wƒḵāṯaḇ lāh sēp̱er kƒrîṯuṯ, translated in the AV “then let him write her a bill of divorcement,” and in the RV “that he shall write her a bill of divorcement”; LXX kaí grápsei autḗ biblíon apostasíou. Syntactically, the waw with kaṯaḇ, “write,” does not require the jussive or the force of command. Full justice is done to the Hebrew construction if it is rendered as indicative (so RSV, NEB; cf. J. Reider, Deuteronomy with Comm. , pp. 220f). The intent of the legislation is to forbid the remarriage of a divorced wife to her former husband after she has married another man who has divorced her or died. The conditioning claused in vv 1–3 — “When a man takes a wife … and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife … and the latter husband dislikes her” — constitute the protasis of which v 4 is the apodosis or conclusion. The whole emphasis falls upon the conclusion, namely, that the divoced woman in view may not remarry her former husband, for such a practice would be an “abomination before the Lord” and would bring guilt upon the land (cf. C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Biblical Comm. on the OT [Engtr 1880], III, 416f; S. R. Driver, ICC on Deuteronomy , p. 269).
Thus the relevant OT data do not provide a basis for regarding divorce as mandatory, nor do they lend divine sanction to the practice. (See LTJM, II, 332–35.) They do recognize, however, the legal existence of the practice, provide protection for the divorced wife, and prohibit remarriage to the former husband under specified conditions. In no case does the evidence indicate that the right of divorce is taken for granted, or that the purpose of the legal formalities is to prevent the abuse of a right (J. Murray, Divorce , pp. 7f). In the code of Hammurabi there is also found regulatory divorce legislation without intimation of any inherent right (ANET, pp. 171f). In the Hebrew theocracy, as in other ancient forms of government, evils were tolerated and regulated. The very sufferance of the practice of divorce emphasizes that it was an evil in itself, because what is inherently right does not have to be tolerated. This is the understanding Our Lord had of the OT enactments on divorce when He said: “For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Mt. 19:8).
III. OT Regulation The ground of divorce under the conditions stipulated in Dt. 24:1 is that the man has found in his wife ‘erwaṯ dāḇar, “an unclean thing.” The word ‘erwaṯ in Lev. 20:18f refers to illicit sexual intercourse, and in Dt. 23:14 (MT 15) it refers to human excrement. It is used in other forms for “nakedness” in Ex. 28:42; 1 S. 20:30; Isa. 47:3; Lam. 1:8; 4:21; Ezk. 16:8, 36f, and for “shame,” referring to Egypt, in Isa. 20:4. However, the words “unclean thing” in Dt. 24:1 cannot mean the adultery or sexual uncleanness of a spouse, because adultery was punishable with death. Neither can they apply to suspected adultery. For such cases there were prescribed procedures (Nu. 5:11–31; Dt. 22:13–21). Just what the phrase denotes cannot be stated with certainty, although it is clear that it is behavior that the husband finds shameful, immodest, or unclean in his wife (E. Neufeld, Ancient Hebrew Marriage Laws , p. 179).
Even though the OT is silent concerning the woman as plaintiff in a divorce proceeding, it does not follow that there was no provision for this. In the code of Hammurabi, a woman is granted permission to leave her husband and go to her father’s house, taking her dowry with her if it was proven she was not a fault (Neufeld, p. 172 § 142; cf. § 149). There is no intimation of any prior proceeding on the part of the husband.
The bill of divorcement (Heb sēp̱er kƒrîṯuṯ) was a legal document certifying a divorce on the grounds specified with no reflection on the wife’s marital faithfulness. It thus afforded protection for the woman’s reputation and guaranteed her freedom to remarry (Murray, p. 9). Other beneficial provisions for the divorced wife and her children were legalized in Bible times; thus the dowry was to be returned and arrangements were made for income for herself and children (Neufeld, p. 172 §§ 131f).
IV. Grounds for Divorce in Nonbiblical Literature To get some idea of the character of the grounds for divorce that were recognized by nations contemporary with the people of Israel we may note the provision in the code of Hammurabi that a man could divorce his wife if she did not bear him children, or if she humiliated her husband by engaging in business that caused her to neglect the home (Neufeld, p. 172).
It is well known that the Talmud devotes a special tractate to the subject of divorce. Here the two schools of interpretation express their opinions. The school of Shammai granted the validity of divorce for unchastity, while the school of Hillel allowed divorce for ill fame, violation of vows made publicly, childlessness, spoiling of food, and the husband’s finding another woman more beautiful (see I. Epstein, The Babylonian Talmud, Gittin [Engtr 1936], pp. 200f, 437). The teaching of the OT cannot be inferred from rabbis. In all the literature of the ancient Near East that bears upon divorce the OT is unique in its lofty views of the marriage bond and in its concern for the rights of the wife in the event of separation.
In the NT
The NT position on divorce has been much debated, and it will very likely continue to be debated, for it is indeed both an important and a complex issue. It is important because the Church has always looked — must always look — to the teaching of Jesus for moral guidance. It is also important, of course, because divorce has always been such a pressing moral issue. It is complex not because the passages are numerous (for they are not) but because it is difficult to assess how the relations of the Gospels to each other and the relationship of Paul and the Gospels to Jesus’ own words are properly allowed to bear on interpretation. Additional complexities are encountered with the meaning of Gk porneía in Matthew’s “exceptive clause” and of Paul’s meaning in the “Pauline privilege.”
The complexities and the significance make it imperative to say at the very beginning that, however the various questions are resolved, the NT honors marriage and shuns divorce. Whenever divorce is easy for us and unaccompanied by mourning and repentance, we follow culture rather than Scripture.
I. Rabbinic Discussion of Dt. 24:1 The complexities and resulting disagreements are by no means new. The rabbis were undoubtedly debating the question of divorce during Jesus’ lifetime. Mishnah Gittin ix.10 preserves something of this debate. The rabbis agreed that Dt. 24:1ff was normative, but they disagreed about its interpretation. Hillel and Shammai disagreed particularly about the meaning of “some indecency” (RSV Heb ‘ erwaṯ daḇār). Hillel said the words quite plainly meant “some unseemly thing” and argued accordingly that a man is licensed to divorce his wife for any “unseemly thing,” including burning the toast. Shammai’s exegesis transposed the words so the he read daḇar ‘erwâ (cf. Gk lógos porneías) and argued accordingly that the only legitimate reason for divorce was adultery. Perhaps it is better to read Heb ‘erwaâ (Gk porneía) as some unlawful sexual conduct, an issue to which Matthew will force a return.
II. Jesus’ Saying Jesus surely encountered and participated in the debate concerning divorce during His lifetime. It would be interesting historically to know exactly what position He took. That is another of the complexities of this issue. The content and intention of Jesus’ “very words” is a difficult issue, and even when that issue is decided, the relevance of these words may be debated. Some scholars seem to take their reconstruction of the teaching of Jesus which stands behind the scriptural texts as the genuinely normative element. But such a substitution of a historical reconstruction for the Scriptures themselves as the Church’s “canon” seems to many — including this writer — to be unwarranted and dangerous. The historical reconstruction can help, however, to identify the intentions of the biblical authors themselves as they use and shape the traditional materials.
The context of the original words of Jesus was very likely an unqualified prohibition of divorce on the basis of the intention of God in creation. Such content has multiple, early, and independent attestation. Paul, the earliest of the witnesses, says explicitly that his concession, the “Pauline privilege,” is not based on a saying of the Lord (1 Cor. 7:12ff). That leaves the “exceptive clause” in Matthew the only exception. Some, however, have suggested that because Matthew’s representation preserves the rabbinic character of the discussion, his account — with the “exceptive clause” — should be taken as closest to the “very words” of Jesus.
The character of the original saying is at least as important as its content. Some have insisted that the saying was a legislative interpretation of the law as it bears on conduct. This is typical of those who take Matthew’s saying as original, somewhat atypical of those who take the original saying to be an absolute prohibition based on the creation account. A number of contrasts to legislation have been suggested. A Jesus’ absolute standard has been characterized as “principle” rather than “precept,” as “prophetic” rather than “legal,” as a “a catechetical ideal” rather than “a casuistic absolute.” The distinction most to be commended is the rabbinic one between Halakah and Haggadah (S. E. Johnson, “Jesus’ Teaching on Divorce,” in B. S. Easton, etal, Five Essays on Marriage ). Halakah is commentary on the laws of the OT It interpreted and applied the law as relevant to conduct. Haggadah is usually commentary on the OT narratives. It intended the religious and moral edification of the people, shaping character and dispositions. Jesus’ original teaching on divorce, where this distinction is used in interpretation, would be Haggadah. Merely eternal observance of the law is put in crisis by Jesus’ announcement of the kingdom; He shifts the focus to the whole person, to character and disposition rather than external conduct, commenting on the narrative of creation to inculcate a readiness not to divorce even when Dt. 24:1ff would license it.
Even among those who agree that the original teaching was legislative there are complicated differences of opinion. Some insist that its rigor as legislation is due to the expectation of the imminent kingdom. One Roman Catholic moralist has argued that Jesus’ saying is an “evangelical counsel” (V. Pospishil, Divorce and Remarriage: Toward a New Catholic Teaching ). But to most who take the saying as legislative, such suggestion and the variety of categories recommended as alternatives to legislation are likely to seem attempts to avoid a costly discipleship with respect to divorce.
III. The NT Passages
A. Mark Mark is the earliest of the Gospels, but neither he nor his gentile audience were very interested in the rabbinic debates or in the rabbinic mode of moral reflection. In Mark’s use of Jesus’ saying on divorce Jesus brushes aside the rabbinic question about the exegesis of Dt. 24:1; indeed, He brushes aside the sacred text itself as a mere concession made by Moses. The Mosaic legislation is tried and found wanting against the standard of the original and ideal law of creation. That quite unrabbinic contrast between the “positive law” and the “natural law” would not be lost on Mark’s readers — Mark has more than one other passage in which Jesus rejects the “positive law” of Moses and the traditions of the scribes for the sake of true religion and reasonable morality. That original and ideal law of creation stands against the freedom of divorce in Roman law as well as in Jewish law, and Mark’s inclusion of women as well as men among the initiators of divorce action may well have the Roman law in view.
If, as suggested above, Jesus’ original saying was a Haggadic commentary on the narrative of the creation of man and woman, then Mark has translated that into a Greek and mode of moral reflection with the narrative passages as the key to the “natural law.” The argument in Mark goes something like this: The primordial will of God, His intention in creation, was expressed in the event, “He made them male and female.” The inference is that the union of marriage is also an act of the creator God — so that they are no longer two but one. The consequent “natural law” is clear and stated by Jesus Himself in the new words of institution, “what God has joined together, let no man put asunder” (Gk mḗchōrisétō, Mk. 10:9). Marriage as created and intended by God transcends and makes relatively inconsequential its human voluntary character.
It might be asked whether Mark intended this “natural law” to be directly legislative or to be continually critical of the hardness of human hearts and the ease of divorce in this age. This is another difficult question. Jesus will brook no departures from the intention of the Creator; He will permit no concessions to the hardness of human hearts. Yet human hearts remain hard, and Jesus was no visionary idealist when it came to the hardness of human hearts. His realism is shown in the following saying in Mark (10:10–12), which assumes divorce even as it proscribes remarriage. There ought to be no divorce, but if there is, there ought to be no remarriage. The point, then, seems less legislative than principial. Mark’s “natural law” seems less a substitute for positive law than a principal of indiscriminate criticism of the culture’s easy acceptance of divorce. But it must be quickly said, of course, that the principal is not honored by words alone. It is honored by the readiness not to divorce even when the “positive law” would allow it. So Mark preserves, in a different idiom, the meaning of the saying of Jesus.
B. Matthew Matthew probably was written after Mark, using Mark as one of its basic sources. In contrast to Mark, however, the author and audience are very interested in the rabbinic discussions and in that mode of argument. Mt. 19:3–12 is only one example of this interest. The rabbinic background and interest of this passage have led some to prefer Matthew’s presentation here as closer than Mark’s to the very situation and words of Jesus. Here Jesus brushes aside neither the rabbinic exegetical discussion nor the text itself. The order of Mark is reversed: Jesus first takes up the texts of Genesis which, significantly, the Pharisees could and should have “read,” and gives the Marcan conclusion, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.” At that point the Pharisees raise the issue of Dt. 24:1. Jesus responds by saying that it is a concession to the hardness of human hearts, but He does not for that reason brush it aside. On the contrary, Matthew with his so-called “concession” (except for unchastity, Gk mḗ epí porneía̧) represents Jesus as taking the stricter side, the side of Shammai, in the rabbinic controversy. Mt. 5:31f has a similar phrase, linguistically even closer to the school of Shammai (Gk parektós lógou porneás; cf. Heb dāḇār ‘erwâ, Shammai’s transposition of the text).
The specific reference of Gk porneía in Matthew’s “concession” is much debated. The focus of the debate is usually Matthew’s intention is preferring Gk porneía to the specific Greek word for adultery, moicheía. J. Bonsirven surveys plausible references to Gk porneía and finally favors a reference to illegal marriages, marriages forbidden by Jewish law. (See, e.g., Lev. 18:6–18). In 1 Cor. 5:11 the word does apparently refer to incest. If this were the specific reference in Matthew, Matthew would be speaking of the nullification of a marriage contract rather than divorce, and the “concession” would be properly understood as a parenthetical “of course, I am speaking of legal marriage here.” such a restricted reference for Gk porneía is unusual, and in our passage makes the point almost too obvious to require special mention. It seems better to take porneía as unlawful sexual intercourse rather than as unlawful marriage. Even so, it may be asked what is meant by “unlawful” here. Some have taken Matthew’s use of Gk porneía rather than Gk moicheía to indicate a specific reference to fornication or premarital sexual intercouse rather than adultery. (See, e.g., E. J. Mally, Jerome Biblical Commentary. Against such an interpretation see B. Malina, NovTest, 14 , 10–17.) Such an interpretation has some apparent support from Matthew’s description of Joseph’s plan to have the marriage contract with Mary, his betrothed, set aside when Mary is found to be pregnant (Mt. 1:19). Sometimes the fact that the OT punishment for adultery is death (e.g., Lev. 20:10; Dt. 22:22) is used in support of such an interpretation. Capital punishment for adultery would, of course, make the permission of divorce superfluous. But the death penalty for adultery was formally dismissed ca a.d. 30 (T.B. Sanhedrin 41a) and probably had been little used for some time before. While Gk porneía can mean “fornication,” it has ordinarily a broader reference. It includes and sometimes explicitly refers to incest, fornication, homosexual behavior, prostitution, and adultery. (For the specific reference to adultery, see Sir. 23:22f) On the basis of this, Matthew’s preference for Gk porneía seems adequately explained in terms of Shammai’s dāḇār ‘erwâ and properly interpreted as the range of unlawful sexual conduct covered by the Heb ‘erwâ, the Gk porneía, or the RSV “unchastity,” which include rather than exclude adultery.
The specific intention of Matthew’s “concession” may also be debated. Many have observed that the sayings on divorce occur in contexts that penetrate the heart and shape character rather than provide moral rules. The interpretations of the contextual material in the Sermon on the Mount and ch 19 (with its sayings about eunuchs and riches) have themselves long and complex histories. But on the basis of these contexts it seems plausible to suggest that even Matthew is interested not so much in directly legislating the external behavior of his community as in forming its dispositions to the intention of the Torah given its strictest interpretation). Plausible as that may be, however, the impression here of Halakah, of legal interpretation of the precepts of Torah to govern external behavior, is unavoidable and probably correct.
Still, to call Matthew’s saying a “concession” seems a misnomer. If, as suggested, neither Jesus’ saying nor Mark’s use of it were intended as legislation but rather as Haggadah and “natural law” respectively, then Matthew’s “concession” does not concede new and previously unheard legal grounds for divorce. He does not concede a laxer legal standard, but applies the Christian stance toward divorce, with its dispositions and intentions not to divorce, to the legal question which his community continues to ask. In the light of the creation texts and Jesus’ use of them, Matthew prefers the stricter interpretation of Dt. 24:1. It is not so much a legal concession as a legal application to the concrete life of his community. It is, incidentally, in terms of this Halakah on Dt. 24:1 that Matthew’s often-overlooked restriction of divorce to males is to be explained and understood.
C. Luke Luke 16:18, like Matthew, mentions nothing about a woman obtaining a divorce. The man is the agent in both Matthew and Luke. This fits traditional Jewish patterns reflected in the use of “to marry” (Gk gámein [active]) for men and “to be given in marriage” (Gk gamízesthai [passive]) for women (cf. Mk. 12:25; Mt. 22:30; Lk. 17:27; 20:35). This agreement between Luke and Matthew may suggest that they had an additional source besides Mark for the saying of Jesus on divorce. But Luke, like Mark, makes no mention of Gk lógos porneías.
D. Paul Like Mark, Paul can use the Genesis texts. In 1 Cor. 6:16 he uses Gen. 2:24 to insist that sexual relations, even with a prostitute, make the two persons “one flesh.” In 1 Corinthians the text functions only polemically against such immorality, but in Eph. 5:31f it is taken to refer to Christ and His church, and that union is itself explicated to fathom and elucidate the meaning of marriage. The Ephesians passage — without mentioning divorce — quite effectively shapes Christian dispositions toward divorce and invites and permits marriage partners to live marriage on the basis of the gospel.
The passage in 1 Cor. 7, in which Paul explicitly deals with divorce, seems prosaic by comparison, but it is quite illuminating. The passage is obviously a response to an inquiry from the Corinthians: “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote.” There were in Corinth some who denied any future resurrection (1 Cor. 15). Paul consistently reminds these enthusiasts of the “not yet” character of our existence against the arrogance of claiming to participate already without remainder in the new age. Among the consequences of that arrogance was an encratism which forbade marriage; for if this is already without remainder the new age, then we are already like the angels. Paul begins by quoting the slogan of these encratists: “It is well for a man not to touch a woman” (7:1). He does not reject the slogan, but qualifies it by reference to the “not yet” character of our existence; “But because of te temptations to immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband” (7:2). Voluntary celibacy is accepted, even welcomed, as a sign of the new age. There has been by the turning of the ages a radical revision of the Jewish attitude toward celibacy, and Paul acknowledges that much truth in the encratism of the Corinthians. But “that much truth” is falsely held. It is only in view of “the present distress” (v 26), in view of the eschatological situation as “between the times,” that our celibacy or our marriage is consecrated to God. Now we are not released from marital responsibilities and our separation — even for prayer — must be by mutual agreement (v 5). The church’s disposition toward divorce is still shaped by the Lord’s saying, to which Paul directly appeals in his advice that women not be divorced (Gk mḗ chōristhḗnai, RSV “not separate”; cf. Mk. 10:9; Mt. 19:6; 1 Cor. 7:15b; the form is passive here, but it is possible to take it in an active sense) and that men not divorce (Gk mḗ aphiénai) their wives. Gk porneía is not mentioned here, but a different problem arises, to which Paul addresses not any word of the Lord but his own judgment (v 12). Paul’s solution has been called “the Pauline privilege.” The problem is not simply one of desertion but much more narrowly whether marriage to an unbeliever may be dissolved. Paul’s answer is that the Christian is not to seek it (and certainly not on the basis of pretensions about being already “angelic”), but, if the initiative comes from the unbelieving partner, then divorce is allowable.
The NT teaching on divorce is difficult and complex. This study, while attmepting to acknowledge some of the difficulties and alternatives, has made the following suggestion: Jesus’ saying was Haggadic, concerned with creating among His followers a readiness not to divorce even when the law permitted it. Mark faithfully rendered Jesus’ saying in a new and greek idiom. Neither Jesus Himself nor Mark was directly legislating, but both weighed, and found wanting, an easy recourse to Jewish or Roman legislation that permitted divorce. Matthew — with dispositions formed ad informed by the statement of Jesus — applied the teaching to the legal question faced by his community. And Paul did the same — quite differently — when confronted with a different sort of case.
Finally, if the question of the meanings of the NT authors then is difficult and complex, the question of how to apply them faithfully today is still more difficult and complex. Although that cannot be the focus of this article, two observations may be allowed. First, we cannot avoid the difficult task of thinking about the concrete cases presented by our communities and situations, and of trying to formulate general rules to cover them. We must address divorce cases out of the same loyalty to the risen Lord and in terms of the same invitation to live marriage on the basis of His grace that marked Matthew and Paul. But we may do injustice to Matthew, Paul, and their Lord if we simply repeat their case-applications to our own situations. Second, we must attempt to form dispositions that are ready not to divorce even when divorce is legally and culturally acceptable — even, indeed, when the rules of Matthew, Paul, or subsequent Christian communities would permit divorce. God calls us to honor marriage and shun divorce. Divorce is always, therefore, an evil; it is never something to be intended as itself the end-in-view. But divorce is sometimes permissible “between the times” for the protection and honoring of marriage itself or of one of the partners in marriage. As killing is sometimes allowable with fear and trembling, as in a just war, so divorce may sometimes be permissible with mourning and repentance.
Bibliography.—J. Bonsirven, Le Divorce dans le NT (1948); R. H. Charles, The Teaching of the NT on Divorce (1921); J. D. M. Derrett, Law in NT (1970), pp. 363; TDNT, I, sv γαμέω, γάμοζ (E. Stauffer); VI, sv πόρνη χτλ. (F. Hauck, S. Schulz).
A. D. Verhey
In its general thinking and practice across the centuries, the Church, especially in the West, has followed the view that the NT does not permit divorce, or divorce with the possibility of remarriage.
I. Early Church In the first two centuries Hermas and Clement of Alexandria seem to reflect the common position. Both allowed for separation but both came out strongly against second marriage. Thus Hermas may put away a wife for adultery but must take her back if she repents (Mand. 4:1:4–8). The question was urgent for Christians in the world of pagan antiquity, since divorce was common. With increasing evangelization male converts in particular tried to maintain the right to end their marriages, but Augustine strongly championed the position of women in opposing remarriage after divorce and bringing husbands under the common rule. The Council of Carthage in 407, which also took a stand against marriage with pagans, plainly disallowed remarriage after divorce (canon 8), and thus stated what became, or continued to be, the Western position. Later the Eastern Church took a less stringent attitude under the Justinian Code (6th cents), although this code maintained strong control over the granting of divorces.
II. Medieval Church New marital problems arose in the West with the conversion of the Celtic and Germanic peoples, whose laws and customs had permitted divorce. At first, concessions were made to pre-Christian practice, but the indissolubility of married was reaffirmed by the early 2nd millennium, especially as the Roman Church came to view marriage as one of the so-called serven sacraments, the union of husband and wife being a sign of the union of Christ and the Church (cf. Peter Lombard Sentences; Thomas Aquinas Summa Contra Gentiles iv.78). Thus Pope Alexander III (1159–1181) would not allow separation, even for the sake of taking vows, unless there had been no consummation and therefore no real marriage. A marriage might be dissolved if consent had previously been given to another, but prior consent to another, like nonconsummation, would really be a ground of nullification, not of divorce. Innocent III in 1199 ruled that the Pauline privilege had to be taken very strictly and would not apply if a believing partner became a heretic and abandoned the other spouse. The Council of Florence (1438–1445) permitted “separation from bed and board,” but gave no permission to contract a second marriage. Summing up the medieval teaching and carrying it over into the modern period, the Council of Trent in its 1563 session adopted the same position and retained the view that there can be no dissolution of a marriage by reason of the heresy of one of the partners. (Cf. New Catholic Encyclopedia, IV, sv “Divorce” [J. M. Egan].)
III. Reformation As may be seen from the ruling of Alexander III, nullification, which left the door open for a new marriage, could still be declared for particular causes. These included such things as bigamy and impotence as well as prior consent to another, but, unless protected by a papal dispensation, marriage within the prohibited degrees (the ground of the nullity suit of Henry VIII against Catharine of Aragon) formed perhaps the most common cause, especially when the degrees were extended to cover not only biological and legal relationships but also spiritual ones, e.g., those contracted in baptism. The loopholes which popes and canonists found allowed for comparatively easy invalidations by the 15th cent, and made marriage itself more difficult.
This stirred up a revolt on the part of the reformers, most of whom pleaded both for simpler conditions of marriage and also for a simpler possibility of dissolution. Luther in his Babylonian Captivity (WA, vi, 553f) sharply attacked the papal control of marriage by means of legislation, dispensation, nullification, and sacramentalization. He himself would accept dissolution on the ground of impotence or ignorance of a previous marriage (WA, vi, 558f). He had no liking for divorce (preferring bigamy in the famous case of Philip of Hesse ), but he would permit in the case of unchastity, with no obstacle to remarriage (WA, vi, 235f). Calvin, in a similar assault on the evils of papal practice, complained that “a man who has put away an adulterous wife is not permitted to take another” (Inst. iv, 19.37). Bacer of Strassburg was ready to extend the grounds for divorce to include cruelty and refusal of conjugal duty. Among the radical reformers, Sattler in 1527 allowed the remarriage of the innocent party in a case of adultery, though this did not go uncontested. Application of the “ban” (excommunication) could mean separation from the erring or unbelieving spouse and this could be carried to the length of divorce, although a ruling in 1571 decided against this. The Anglican reformers ran into problems with the odd matrimonial ventures of Henry VIII, although natural death, execution, and nullification on the grounds of prohibited degrees or nonconsummation made the remarriages possible. They did not, however, carry through any reform or canon law on the issue, so that as late as teh 19th cent a special act of Parlaiment was needed for divorces, and when this was changed a serious rift developed between civil and ecclesiastical law.
IV. Modern Period During the posts-Reformation age few changes took place so long as the Western churches exercised a powerful influence over civil laws and mores. Nullifications might be granted in the Roman Catholic Church, but with consideration restraint. Divorces could take place in the Protestant churches, not only for adultery but also for desertion, as among the New England Puritans; yet few divorces actually took place, and when legislation to make divorce easier was passed in England, the Church, as we have noted, strongly resisted it. The 19th and 20th cents, however, introduced an increasing secularization of society which resulted in a rapid escalation of civil divorce in many Western countries. This brought problems for the Roman Catholic Church. Pius XI, in the encyclical Casti connubii (1930), bravely repeated the principle of Augustine that “the laws of the gospel … abrogated all dispensations.” He argued, then, that an exception “does not depend on the will of man or on any merely human power, but on divine law.” Nevertheless, in answer to popular pressure, a broadening of the grounds of invalidation seriously weakened the force of this statement, since in practice dissolution and remarriage became hardly more difficult than divorce and remarriage in the Protestant churches. These churches in turn found that the wholesale adoption of secular laws and mores by their members were quickly making the exception the rule, notwithstanding the verbal insistence on marital commitment and divine conjoining.
V. Conclusion The situation that developed in the latter part of the 20th cent was no new problem but simply a repetition, in one of its more acute forms, of the Church’s ongoing task is to proclaim and practice biblical marriage in a world of opposing secular ideas and customs. In the past, even—and perhaps especially—in times of the most urgent conflict, as in the first centuries, the Church took up the challenge, resisting conformity to civil patterns and practicing conformity to the NT model plainly set forth by Jesus and Paul. Through every failure and distortion, and in spite of a few concessions, it thus maintained the substance of indissolute Christian marriage, either totally excluding successive marriages during the life of the original partners, or permitting them only as an extreme exception which proves the rule (but does not itself become the rule of establish a qualifying, or competing rule).