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Indissolubility of the Marriage Bond

by Dr Pravin Thevathasan

"What God has joined, let no man put asunder." ( Matthew,19: 6)

When the Pharisees asked Our Lord: "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?" what they were really asking him was whether he followed the School of Shammai or the School of Hillel on this matter. The Mosaic law allowed for divorce if the wife "has not pleased" the husband owing to "some impropriety" (Deuteronomy, 24: 1-4). But what does this mean? According to the School of Hillel, any and every reason justified the giving of a bill of divorce: if the wife lets her husband's food get burned, for example. Rabbi Aciba famously said that divorce could be granted if a man finds another woman more attractive. The School of Shammai applied a more severe interpretation: the impropriety needed to be a sexual offence. However, the offence was well short of adultery: divorce could be granted if a wife went outside with her hair unfastened, if she spun cloth in the streets with armpits uncovered or if she took her bath in an area previously occupied by men.
The Hillel School was the dominant one at the time of Our Lord: the historian Josephus, for example, was allowed to divorce his wife because he was "not content with her nature". Our Lord rejected both Schools: " Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.." The Jews must have asked themselves what kind of man this was who challenged their greatest prophet.

The German Professor of New Testament Exegetics, Peter Ketter, commented on this matter as follows:

"Jesus did not even trouble to ascertain whether his questioners were disciples of Shammai or Hillel.The perfect law of marriage for his kingdom , which he already enunciated in the Sermon on the Mount, he here repeats in the presence of the representatives of the Doctors of the old covenant. In his answer, he raises the question to a much higher plane, by applying to this important aspect of social life, the highest moral criterion, namely, the will of God...let Hillel say what he will, let Shammai contradict him. In the beginning, Another spoke. He must be heard again, for His word alone is decisive. Jesus goes right back to the primeval fount, which springs, not from the swampy soil of easy moods nor from the slime of human passion, but from the pure heights of the eternal light, from God Himself. Back beyond Deuteronomy, the second law, Jesus leads the question to the Book of Origin, to Genesis. There they may read how it was in the beginning, and how it shall be again in the future."

We hear a good deal these days about life-long marriage being an ideal to be aimed at. But Ketter notes that this ideal can only become a reality by means of indissoluble monogamous marriage: " The mere possibility of divorce looses instincts which are destructive instead of constructive, and which estranges rather than unite."

In challenging the Mosaic law, Our Lord is actually bringing it to fulfillment and he is ushering in his Kingdom. We are in the presence of someone greater than Moses.

The Gospels teach clearly on the indissolubility of marriage, as does Paul. What, then, of the famous "exception-clause" found in Matthew 5:31 and 19:9: "Anyone who divorces his wife, except in cases of 'porneia', and marries another commits adultery"?

What does porneia mean? It cannot mean adultery because Matthew has another word for adultery which he has used in that same sentence: moicheia. Ketter has argued that "If Jesus had recognized adultery as a ground for divorce, he would have been introducing something completely new into the Jewish marriage laws... for in Jewish law adultery involved the death penalty, this in itself rendering superfluous the giving of a bill of divorce and putting away. With such an innovation,Jesus would have been going very much below the Jewish marriage code, whereas in all the other instances grouped in that part of the Sermon on the Mount, he went far above it." The story of the woman caught in adultery reminds us that Jesus did not want the restoration of the death penalty. But he certainly wanted us to follow something more perfect than what Hillel or Shammai could ever offer.

Scholars and saints have spilled much ink on this one single word, porneia. Augustine put forward five different interpretations before settling on porneia being serious sexual sins that justify separation but not a second marriage. In a brilliant lecture given thirty years ago, the American moral theologian William Smith argued convincingly that porneia refers to incestuous, hence illicit, marriages as condemned in Leviticus 18:6-18. In which case, the exception clause may prove to be no exception at all.

Our Lord's teaching on this matter is clear: there can be no exception to the rule. The Pharisees and Doctors of the Law wanted to accommodate the teaching on marriage indissolubility to the spirit of their age. They asked for discernment and accompaniment in each particular situation. Not so Our Lord: little wonder, then, that they must have found him rigid and inflexible.

Our Lord said that "the man who infringes even one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be considered the least in the Kingdom of heaven."(Matthew 5:17-19). He condemned those Pharisees who tried to get around the commandments by means of sophistry. The Pharisees may thus be regarded as the liberal Catholics of their day.


Christ and Womankind, Peter Ketter, Burne&Oates, 1937

Copyright ©; Dr Pravin Thevathasan 2017

Version: 22nd March 2017

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