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False View on Jesus' View of Divorce
Leonard Swidler, Ph.D., S.T.L., LL.D., LL.D.
"Divorce is not permitted for just any reason (kata pasan aitian), but is permitted, as Moses taught, on the grounds of sexual misconduct (epi porneia), said Jesus." That's summarized from Matthew 19:1-9, with emphases added. Jesus, being a learned and committed rabbi, followed the teaching of the Torah in allowing divorce - on those grounds stated in Deuteronomy 24:1.
Much is made today about Pope Francis "not changing Catholic doctrine," but rather "changing practice" to be more compassionate. This is indeed a huge and beneficial move. In regard to the small though important step of not changing Catholic teaching on divorce/remarriage, but allowing divorced/remarried Catholics to receive Holy Communion, it should, however, be seen as moot.
The claim by Catholic Church leaders is incessantly made that by the command of Jesus, marriage is indissoluble. This claim is based on two Gospel quotations of Jesus that seem to disallow divorce (Mark 10:1-12; Luke 9:51), even though there are two other Jesus quotations that definitely allow it (Matthew 5:32; 19:1-9).
What to do? One clear solution would be to follow the basic principle of Catholic canon law that a permissive law should always be interpreted broadly, and a restrictive law narrowly. Following that legal principle would indicate that the more permissive Jesus saying recorded by Matthew should be followed, and divorce/remarriage allowed, at least for sexual misconduct.
Why, then, did the Western Catholic Church choose to go counter to its own avowed broad permissive legal principle, and the Eastern Orthodox Church choose the permissive understanding? My judgment is that an extreme dualism, which sees "matter as bad and spirit good" (largely brought into Catholicism by its most powerful ancient theologian, St. Augustine) is at the basis of the Catholic negative choice. If one asks what attaches us to (bad) matter, the answer is "pleasure," and the most intense material pleasure is sex - hence misogyny.
What is more important for Christians, however, is to get straight what Jesus' position was on this matter. The answer is that the first Gospel written was what scholars refer to as Matthew's Aramaic Gospel because it was written in Jesus' language, Aramaic. Aramaic Matthew is what Mark apparently had in front of him as a basis for his (Greek) Gospel. The Matthew Gospel we have today is an expanded version written by Matthew in Greek, and hence is the third Gospel written - after Aramaic Matthew and Greek Mark. The Gospels of Luke and John came still later.
Matthew, both Aramaic and Greek, is clearly the most Jewish-knowledgeable of the Gospels and hence gives the fullest information about the divorce debate that is recorded in both Mark and Matthew, Mark being the skimpiest on details and Matthew the fullest.
As intimated in the above opening summary of Matthew's recording of Rabbi Jesus' debate with some (not all!) Pharisees on whether one can divorce or not, there was then a fight among the rabbis. The traditional position handed down for hundreds of years, namely, that divorce because of "sexual misconduct" was permitted, was held by the Rabbi Shammai camp, whereas a new position was promoted by the Rabbi Hillel camp.
A man could divorce his wife kata pasan aitian, "for any reason," according to the Hillel camp. The success of this position was strikingly exemplified a couple of generations later: "The School of Shammai says: 'A man may not divorce his wife unless he has found something indecent. ...' And the School of Hillel says '[he may divorce her] even if she spoiled a dish for him, for it is written, "Because he hath found in her indecency in anything." ' Rabbi Akiba says: 'Even if he found another more beautiful than she . . .' " (Mishnah 1 Git. 9, 10).
Thus it is clear that there has been both massive mistranslation and misunderstanding of what Rabbi Jesus was asked and responded in this debate over divorce. He did not say, "You may not divorce for any reason." He was asked whether he agreed with the newer Hillel-advocated grounds for divorce, namely, kata pasan aitian, "for any reason." He responded, No, you cannot use the Rabbi Hillel "for any reason" grounds for divorce, but need to stick with the traditional, Rabbi Shammai position, namely, epi porneia, "for sexual misconduct."
Why, then, did not Mark record all those details about that rabbinic debate? It has been suggested that because he was writing for Gentiles, he may have thought they would be confused. We will never know for sure.
However, his lack of reporting on the rabbinic debate and Jesus' taking the side of the Rabbi Shammai camp is no reason for rejecting what Matthew in fact recorded and Mark missed. On that procedural principle, we would have to throw out the last three Gospels.
Conclusion: There is no Jesus position advocating the indissolubility of marriage.
Leonard Swidler is a founder and president emeritus of ARCC
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