Tag Archives: Hillel

“Hardness of Heart” and Jesus’ Audience, Then and Now (JDR-10)

This post continues my series on Jesus, divorce, and remarriage, which starts with a walk through Matthew 19. Having considered the question Did Jesus believe that marriage is indissoluble? I am now considering a “should” question: Did Jesus believe divorce and remarriage are always wrong? Here are my posts so far:

Jesus on Divorce and Remarriage: Introduction (JDR-1)

Hyper-Literalism, Could vs. Should, and a Guiding Question (JDR-2)

“Cleave” Does Not Imply an Unbreakable Bond (JDR-3)

“One Flesh” Does Not Imply an Unbreakable Bond (JDR-4)

“God Has Joined Together” Does Not Imply an Unbreakable Bond (JDR-5)

Genesis 2:24 as God’s Creation Norm for Marriage (JDR-6)

“Let Not Man Separate” Implies a Breakable Bond (JDR-7)

“Moses Allowed You to Divorce” Suggests a Breakable Bond (JDR-8)

Why Did “Hardness of Heart” Cause God to Allow Divorce? (JDR-9)


Summary of this post:  Jesus accused a specific audience of “hardness of heart”: men who believed they had a right to divorce their wives for virtually any reason—something I’ve never heard any Christian teach. Nearly all Jewish men in Jesus’ day believed this; there is no historical evidence the divorce debate between the “liberal” Hillelites and “conservative” Shammaites had yet begun. Further, Jesus was responding to one particular proof text used by these men—Deuteronomy 24:1. It was the abuse of this text that drew Jesus’ ire, not the proper use of other OT divorce laws designed to protect women. Given this context, we are not justified in saying that everyone who seeks divorce has a hard heart.


Whose Hearts Were Hard?

In my last post I began discussing Jesus’ explanation for why God allowed divorce under the law of Moses: “because of your hardness of heart” (Matt. 19:8). As Israel repeatedly showed hardness of heart, God gave them more laws, including ones about divorce. These laws were both a concession to human weakness and a protection for those with hard-hearted spouses.

In this post I want to be more precise: Whose hearts, specifically, were hard? Whom was Jesus accusing of hardness of heart?

Let me begin answering this question by sharing several bad “translations” of Jesus’ words.

Jesus did not say this: “Because of Israel’s hardness of heart, Moses allowed them to practice divorce.” No, Jesus directed his rebuke directly to the Pharisees in front of him: “Because of your hardness of heart…” Meier notes the force of Jesus’ rebuke:

By claiming that Moses wrote this commandment for “you” (i.e., the Pharisees) to expose “your” hardness of heart, …Jesus implicitly lumps the Pharisees together with the rebellious Israelites of the wilderness generation. The Mosaic Law they presume to cite as experts actually bears witness against them.[1]

Nor did Jesus say this: “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to practice divorce.” That is more general than Jesus’ words. And he certainly did not say this: “Because of the hardness of your wives’ hearts, Moses allowed you to divorce them.”

Rather, Jesus said this: “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives.” In sum, Jesus was addressing his rebuke directly to the persons before him: men who were wrongfully divorcing their wives.[2]

Roberts makes the same point:

The people with hard hearts were those divorcing their wives, which means the callous individuals in question must have been male… Jesus… does not say, “Moses, because of the hardness of their hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives.” Nor does he implicate Israelites in general by saying, “Moses, because of your hardness of heart, permitted those divorces.” As it stands, Jesus’ sentence specifically implicates hardhearted husbands.”[3]

Before we extend Jesus’ rebuke of hardness of heart to everyone considering divorce, we should ask why Jesus accused these husbands of hardness of heart. Why were they divorcing? What did they believe about divorce?

Image from Good News Productions International and College Press Publishing, distributed by FreeBibleimages.

What Did Jesus’ Audience Believe about Divorce?

Jesus’ teachings against divorce were given in a specific historical context. In all four records we have of Jesus teaching on divorce (Matt. 5:31-32; 19:3-12; Mark 10:2-12; Luke 16:18) he was correcting the false teachings of the same group: men who were arguing that God’s law gave them the right to divorce their wives for virtually any reason they might mention.

Most modern writers say that two views on divorce were debated by Jews in Jesus’ day—the view of Rabbi Hillel, a “liberal” who said Deuteronomy 24 gives grounds for “any-cause” divorce (cf. Matt. 19:3) and the view of Rabbi Shammai, a “conservative” who said Deuteronomy permits divorce only on the grounds of adultery.[4] Wenham clarifies that “on the issue of divorce, it was the Hillelites who were upholding tradition, and the Shammaites who were challenging it.” In fact, “to limit the husband’s right to divorce whenever he chose and for any reason was for most Jews a shocking limitation on male freedom.”[5]

Wenham’s clarification is crucial but may not go far enough. It’s possible that the debate between the Hillelites and the Shammaites had not even yet begun in Jesus’ day. Luck observes that “Josephus does not mention the distinction [between Hillel and Shammai], merely stating the position of Hillel as if it were the only position in vogue.”[6] Meier surveys Jewish intertestamental writings on divorce at length and concludes that “the mainline tradition begun in the OT and witnessed in Philo, Josephus, and the School of Hillel” allowed divorce for “practically any reason.”[7] The only known possible exception (besides Jesus) is the Essenes, a mystic Jewish sect, but this is disputed; Meier concludes that “their position on divorce remains a question mark.”[8]

Given this evidence, some of the best-informed scholars warn against assuming Jesus was responding to the Hillel – Shammai divorce debate. Here, for example, is Meier (see footnote for more):

Nowhere in pre-70 Judaism is there any clear attestation of a detailed discussion or debate on which grounds for divorce are deemed sufficient. Therefore, despite the almost universal tendency on the part of NT exegetes to explain Jesus’ prohibition of divorce against the “background” of the debate between the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel, this tendency may actually be a prime example of the anachronistic use of later texts to explain earlier ones. That is, a text written down for the first time at the beginning of the 3d century A.D. (the Mishna) is called upon to elucidate a teaching of Jesus reaching back to the early part of the 1st century A.D.[9]

What does this all mean for our question about Jesus’ original audience? When Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for hardness of heart, he was addressing the sort of man who thought he had a right to divorce a wife if she had burned his supper or even simply if he wanted to replace her with a more beautiful one.

The Abuse of Deuteronomy 24:1 as a Proof Text

Further, in at least three of the four passages where Jesus teaches on divorce,[10] he was directly responding to a badly-distorted interpretation of one particular proof text that men were using to justify their divorces—Deuteronomy 24:1, the only text in the law of Moses to mention a “certificate of divorce.” This is evident, for example, in Matthew 5:31, where Jesus quotes a misinterpretation of that passage: “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.”

The same is true in Matthew 19 and in the parallel account in Mark 10. When Jesus said, “Moses allowed you to divorce your wives” (Matt. 19:8), he was referring most directly to Deuteronomy 24:1, the text just cited by the Pharisees (“Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” Matt. 19:7).

If Jesus meant to comment also on OT laws that directly commanded divorce (Ex. 21:10-11 and Deut. 21:14), then his statement makes best sense as an explanation of why these laws were necessary: Abused wives needed release from hardhearted husbands. Significantly, we have no record of Jesus rebuking wives who asked for divorce certificates to escape abusive or criminally negligent husbands.

In short, it was the abuse of Deuteronomy as a proof text justifying any-cause divorce that drew Jesus’ ire, not the proper use of other OT divorce laws designed to protect women.

Context is King!
Context is king! (Image by svklimkin from Pixabay.)

Applying Jesus’ Warning about “Hardness of Heart” Today

These observations about Jesus’ original audience are rarely considered, but are crucial. If we don’t recognize the original target of Jesus’ warning about hard hearts, then we are likely to misapply his words today.

When Jesus spoke against divorce, he was most certainly not speaking to, say, wives or husbands who were wondering what they should do after their spouses had abused or abandoned them. Nor was he speaking to Mennonites who were arguing over whether only separation is permitted or if sometimes divorce (but never remarriage) might also be okay. He was not speaking even to evangelical scholars who were teaching that there are two clear biblical grounds for both divorce and remarriage (adultery and abandonment)—or perhaps three (adding abuse).

No, every time Jesus rebuked divorce, he was responding to people promoting a teaching that is so egregious that I have never heard it argued today from any Christian leader—not even from those who argue that divorce is okay at will upon mutual consent. Jesus was rebuking the idea that a man has a God-given, biblical right to divorce his wife for anything at all that he might find unsatisfactory about her; all that really matters is that he goes through the correct legal hoops to provide a valid “certificate of divorce.”

Can you imagine any Christian leader making that argument today? No wonder Jesus spoke so harshly! And no wonder we, in very different circumstances, are often confused when we read his words without considering their original context.

What might Jesus say if he spoke directly to conservative Anabaptists today—particularly, say, to those hurting from adulterous or abusive spouses? Yes, I am certain he would still direct us to God’s creation intent for marriage, a beautiful and timeless standard of loving permanence. But I am also certain he would word his message very differently, meeting the very different needs of a very different audience.[11] Is it even possible, perhaps, that Jesus would have some words of warning for those who take his rebuke of hardhearted husbands in the Gospels and use them to judge victims of marital betrayal today, denying them release from abusive marriages?

We must be very careful not to go beyond Jesus’ words, making him say things he never said. For example, consider the following statement from a Rod and Staff tract:

Jesus said, “For the hardness of your heart he wrote you this precept.” All who seek divorce have hard, unbelieving hearts.[12]

Really? Does every person who seeks divorce have a hard, unbelieving heart? What about a wife who is seeking divorce to protect her children from an abusive father and husband? What about God in the OT, who divorced his “wife” Israel for her adulterous idolatry (Jer. 3:1, 8)? No, it is not true that “all who seek divorce have hard, unbelieving hearts.”

The cover of the Rod and Staff tract that says “all who seek divorce have hard, unbelieving hearts.”

Looking Ahead: Jesus’ Words and the New Covenant

But didn’t Jesus inaugurate a new covenant standard of marriage permanence that left no room for either hard hearts or separation of marriages? Coblentz expressed this view eloquently:

Divorce was never sanctioned, but under the Old Covenant God permitted it because of the hard hearts of the people of Israel. God permitted it in anticipation of the New Testament era in which He would require a higher standard of righteousness through the grace and light of His Son… Under the New Covenant, hardhearted husbands and wives can be given new hearts by the transforming power of the Spirit. Jesus the heart-changer has come, and God’s standards for marriage can be restored to His intention “from the beginning.” …In the age of the Spirit, therefore, God commands, “Let not man put asunder.”[13]

There is much to commend in Coblentz’s words, but they may also leave us with some questions. Moses allowed divorce, but “from the beginning it was not so,” Jesus said. What did Jesus mean by this? Was he intending to revoke everything Moses had written permitting divorce? Was he inaugurating new divorce restrictions under a new covenant? Answering these and similar questions will require at least a couple more posts.

Thank you for reading! Please share your insights or questions in the comments below.


If you want to support more writing like this, please leave a gift:


[1] John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Vol. IV, Law and Love (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), 177, n. 141.

[2] Yes, Jesus’ words definitely carry implications for women, too. See, for example, Mark’s record of Jesus’ warning to wives: “if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (Mk. 10:12), a text that may reflect a Greco-Roman audience for Mark’s Gospel, where wives had more freedom to divorce. Yet it remains true that when Jesus explained why the Mosaic divorce allowance was given, he specifically rebuked men, not women.

[3] Barbara Roberts, Not Under Bondage: Biblical Divorce for Abuse, Adultery and Desertion (Ballarat, Victoria, Australia: Maschil Press, 2008), 66.

[4] An accurate description of the views of these two rabbis and their disciples would require several paragraphs correcting common misrepresentations. That is beyond the scope of this post.

[5] Gordon J. Wenham, Jesus, Divorce, and Remarriage: In Their Historical Setting (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2019), 44.

[6] “Josephus does not mention the distinction, merely stating the position of Hillel as if it were the only position in vogue.” William F. Luck, Divorce and Re-Marriage: Recovering the Biblical View, 2nd ed. (Richardson, TX: Biblical Studies Press, 2008), 152.

[7] Meier, ibid., 95.

[8] Meier, ibid., 93.

[9] Full quote from Meier (ibid., 95): “Only when we get to the Mishna do we have, for the first time in Palestinian Judaism, clear documentation of a scholarly dispute over what precisely constitutes sufficient grounds for divorce. As far as datable documents are concerned, this is something startlingly new in Judaism… Nowhere in pre-70 Judaism is there any clear attestation of a detailed discussion or debate on which grounds for divorce are deemed sufficient. Therefore, despite the almost universal tendency on the part of NT exegetes to explain Jesus’ prohibition of divorce against the “background” of the debate between the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel, this tendency may actually be a prime example of the anachronistic use of later texts to explain earlier ones. That is, a text written down for the first time at the beginning of the 3d century A.D. (the Mishna) is called upon to elucidate a teaching of Jesus reaching back to the early part of the 1st century A.D., with written attestation in the 50s by Paul and ca. 70 by Mark. Considering the dearth of any clear attestation of the dispute over the grounds of divorce between the Houses in the pre-70 period, we would do well, at least initially, to explain Jesus’ teaching on divorce solely in light of what is truly prior to and contemporary with the Palestinian Judaism of the early 1st century A.D.”
Similarly, Collins: “Many New Testament scholars capitalize on the disagreement between the school of Shammai and that of Hillel to affirm that the Matthean Jesus sided with the school of Shammai in interpreting Deut 24:1 in a narrow sense, but there is no certainty that the tradition reflected in the Mishnah actually reflects the real halakhic situation before the destruction of the temple… One cannot simply assume that Matthew’s exception clause was formulated within the context of the difference of opinion between the schools of Shammai and Hillel. One cannot, moreover, and without further discussion, simply assume that the tradition in the Mishnah regarding the interpretation of Deut 24:1 reflects the real halakhic situation at the time of Jesus or at the time of the composition of Matthew’s gospel, although this is often presumed to be the case.” Raymond F. Collins, Divorce in the New Testament, Good News Studies, Vol. 38 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1992), 193, 198-99.

[10] Luke 16:18 is unclear. However, given that his teaching in this passage virtually “quotes” his teaching elsewhere, he was probably addressing the same misinterpretation.

[11] Consider how Paul nuanced his message to different audiences in 1 Cor. 7:10-16.

[12] This comes from an anonymous 12-page tract: “Divorce—Is It Lawful?” (Crockett, KY: Rod and Staff, n.d.), 4. Available online: https://www.milestonebooks.com/item/1-3104/

[13] John Coblentz, What the Bible Says About Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage (Harrisonburg, VA: Christian Light Publications, 1992), 21-23.


Save page

Is Marriage Indissoluble? A Look at Two Passages from “Rabbi” Paul

What do we mean when we say that marriage is indissoluble? More importantly, is this an accurate way to express the biblical witness about marriage? I will not answer that second question in this post (does that make my title clickbait?), but I do want to examine two passages from Paul that appear to answer it very clearly.

When people assert that marriage is indissoluble, they generally mean that nothing except death can end a marriage union. Romans 7:1-3 and 1 Corinthians 7:39 are two passages cited most often as evidence for this assertion.

These parallel passages certainly do offer vital biblical evidence that must shape our understandings about divorce and remarriage. I have come to believe, however, that sometimes our thinking and speaking about these passages is not as careful as it should be. In our haste to cite these passages as being “clear,” we may not read them with the diligence that the Scriptures deserve.

Let me start by suggesting that neither passage quite says that only death can end a marriage union. Neither passage says that there is a “marriage bond” that holds every marriage together till death, or that the one-flesh marriage union is a sort of glue that cannot be broken by man. Rather, both passages say something slightly but significantly different. Here is the shorter passage:

A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. Yet in my judgment she is happier if she remains as she is. And I think that I too have the Spirit of God. (1 Cor. 7:39-40)

What does “bound” mean? What sort of reality is implied by words such as “bound” and “free”? If we had only this passage and not the near parallel in Romans 7, we might be able to conclude that the passage is talking about some “marriage bond” or one-flesh union that is indissoluble—some mysterious ontological oneness that is impossible to separate.

But the language of “bound” and “free” is a hint that these passages are talking about different realities. The longer passage makes this clearer:

Or do you not know, brothers—for I am speaking to those who know the law—that the law is binding on a person only as long as he lives? For a married woman is bound by law to her husband, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage. Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress. (Rom. 7:1-3)

How is a married woman bound to her husband? “By law,” Paul says. To understand these passages well, we must remember that we are dealing not with metaphysical realities but with legal codes—with law.

By what means does law bind someone? Here it is instructive to look at how δέω, the Greek word translated “bound” in both Romans 7:2 and 1 Corinthians 7:39, is used elsewhere in the New Testament. Here are a few typical examples: A colt was “bound” most likely with a rope (Matt. 21:2), Peter was “bound” with two chains (Acts 12:6), a woman was “bound” by Satan with sickness (Luke 13:16), and Paul declared that the word of God was not “bound” or prevented by persecution from spreading (2 Tim. 2:9). A wife, however, is not supposed to be bound to a man by a rope, a chain, sickness, or political oppression.

The closest NT parallel to how δέω is used in our two passages is probably found in Jesus’ words in both Matthew 16 and 18:

“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matt. 16:19, emphasis added; cf. Matt. 18:18)

In these passages, “bind” and “loose” are terms “used in rabbinic literature for declaring what is and is not permitted.”1 The way the law binds someone, then, is by declaring what is and is not permitted.

The words for “bind” and “loose” in these Matthew passages are the same words that Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 7:27: “Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife.” He then repeats the same word “bound” a couple paragraphs later in one of our key passages: “A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives.” (1 Cor. 7:39).

Paul, bound, teaching in Rome. Is this the way a wife is “bound” to her husband? (Image from Sweet Publishing / FreeBibleimages.org.)

Paul, trained under the Rabbi Gamaliel, is using the language of rabbis.2 He is not declaring a spiritual or scientific law that describes an unchangeable reality. Rather, he is “declaring what is and is not permitted” under the law, probably referring to the law of Moses.3 Legal rulings are not made against things that are impossible to do. To the contrary, any law, even a divine one, can be broken.

The law typically describes what could but shouldn’t happen and then says what will happen or should happen if what shouldn’t happen does happen. (Read that fast three times in a row!) It is important not to confuse these different dynamics.

The language of “binding” in 1 Corinthians 7 and Romans 7 indicates, first of all, that something could but shouldn’t happen. Paul says that the law does not permit a wife to leave her husband while he is alive. The fact that this law was necessary implies that it is indeed possible for a husband or wife to separate from their spouse. It is possible for them to violate the law that binds them together.

This does not mean, of course, that as soon as a law is broken it has no say over the person who broke it. The Romans passage says one thing that certainly will happen if what shouldn’t happen does happen. Paul says that if a woman breaks the law that binds her to her husband, then “she is called an adulteress” (Rom. 7:3). Who calls her an adulteress? Paul does not explicitly say, but the implication is that it is the law, first of all, who calls such a woman an adulteress. Since her husband is still alive, the law’s requirement that she be faithful to him is still binding on her. This law, still in effect even though broken, labels her an adulteress. This will happen. Humans are free to disregard the law binding husband and wife, but they will also suffer the legal consequences if they do so.

What about the phrase “as long as he is alive” (Rom. 7:2; cf. 1 Cor. 7:39)? This phrase does not address the question of whether or not it is possible for humans to end a marriage. Rather, it describes how long “the law is binding on a person” who is married (Rom. 7:1). At any point before death, a married person can break the law that binds them to their spouse, violating the union that was supposed to last until death. At that point, the law says what will happen: They will stand guilty of adultery.

How should a person guilty of adultery be held accountable? What does the law say should happen next? In neither passage does Paul answer this question. Neither passage says what should be done if a marriage is broken prematurely by sexual unfaithfulness.

We know from Leviticus—“for I,” like Paul, “am speaking to those who know the law” (Rom. 7:1)—that the law of Moses did not simply say, “It is impossible for a woman to separate from her husband.” Nor did it simply say, “A woman must not separate from her husband.” Nor did it simply say, “If a woman unites with a man besides her husband she will be called an adulteress.” No, the law had more to say than what Paul records in either of our passages.

This is what the law of Moses originally taught about adultery: “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death” (Lev. 20:10). Under this law, what should happen after adultery was death, which ended the marriage union and left the violated marriage partner alive and free to remarry. In addition, as Moo reminds us, this same law of Moses also recognized situations when a husband was permitted to divorce his wife and remarry:

Any body of law that Paul may be citing—Roman or OT (cf. Deut. 25:1-4 [sic; should be Deut. 24:1-4])—allows for remarriage on grounds other than the death of the spouse. His readers, who “know the law” (v. 1), would certainly recognize this possibility without it in any way spoiling the effectiveness of Paul’s analogy.4

It is probably significant that in both of these passages Paul refers to how a wife is bound to her husband until he dies. Under the law of Moses (unlike Roman law), a wife, unlike her husband, had no right to initiate divorce. For a husband, his marriage could end not only through the natural death of his wife but also in at least two other ways: 1) his wife could commit adultery and die by capital punishment, or 2) he could divorce his wife if he “found some indecency in her” (Deut. 24:1). In this sense, under the law of Moses a woman was “bound to her husband as long as he lives” in a way that her husband was not bound to her.

Yet, even for the woman, the law of Moses recognized at least two ways that her marriage could end apart from the natural death of her husband: 1) her husband could commit adultery and die by capital punishment, or 2) her husband could divorce her for some offense less than adultery (Deut. 24:1), leaving her free to remarry. The latter scenario, at least, is an exception to Paul’s statement about what the law required for a wife.

Is Paul misrepresenting the law? It is better, I suggest, to conclude that Paul accurately summarizes what the law under normal circumstances required of a wife, without meaning to deny any exceptions implied by specific case laws dealing with special circumstances.5

For Jews in Jesus’ day, legal divorce had largely replaced the death penalty in cases of adultery. It was understood that it was divorce that should happen next after adultery.6 It was also understood that divorce ended the marriage, so that the woman no longer had a husband and the man no longer had a wife. Therefore, in such a situation, the law cited by Paul that bound a wife to her husband was understood to no longer apply, for she was no longer “a wife” (1 Cor. 7:39) or “married woman” (Rom. 7:2). Rather—as had been the case under the Law of Moses after the death penalty—the wronged marriage partner was free to legally remarry.

(There was a severe gender inequity in how this was applied. Men generally were not liable to be charged with adultery, since polygamy was still legal under Jewish law. Thus, it was women who were divorced when suspected of adultery, but men were not. After a divorce adulteresses, like their former husbands, were free to remarry. But there was a stigma in marrying an adulteress and, as a reasonable precaution, adulteresses were not permitted to marry their lovers.7)

Christians today, even more truly than the Jews of Jesus’ day, are no longer bound by law to carry out capital punishment for adultery. We are under Christ’s new covenant. Jesus warned that the provision for divorce found in Deuteronomy 24 was given because of the “hardness of heart” of God’s people (Matt. 19:8), so it is unlikely that he thought this exception still applies under the new covenant—certainly not in the broad way that it was interpreted by many in Jesus’ day.8 But, leaving that question aside, we still have the other “unnatural” way that a woman could find herself released from the law that bound her to her husband: By her husband committing adultery.

What should happen next after a husband or wife commits adultery in our time? Again, neither of the passages we are discussing here answers our question.

In Corinthians 7:39-40 Paul had no reason to answer our question because the main reason that he cites this law about marriage, apparently, is to show that it is lawful for widows to remarry. Since he is discussing widows, the question of adultery is irrelevant. In Romans 7:1-3 Paul had no reason to answer our question because he is introducing the law of marriage primarily to make a similar point, one relevant to his theological argument: just as death ends a marriage and frees one to remarry, so Christians have died to the law so that they can be married to Christ. Again, his focus is on the fact that the law is not binding on a married couple after one of them dies. He is not concerned to detail exactly how the law was binding on a husband or wife whose marriage had been damaged by adultery. He does mention an adulterous wife in passing here (the language may imply she had remarried), but he says nothing about what should happen next.

What should happen to the adulteress? What should the wronged husband do? What were either of them permitted or required to do? Again, neither passage answers such questions.

If you are waiting for me to answer those questions in this post, I will (once again) leave you disappointed. Those are crucial questions, but my purpose here is different. My goal is to invite us think more diligently about these two passages, for they are often cited as being among the most “clear” New Testament passages on divorce and remarriage. I agree that these passages are indeed very clear on what should not happen. But I am proposing here that they say little about what should happen if the law that binds wife and husband together has been violated.

If I were to paraphrase the main point of what Paul is saying in both Romans 7:2-3 and 1 Corinthians 7:39, it might look like this:

The law requires that a woman remain faithful to her husband as long as he lives; after that, she is allowed to remarry any Christian man she wishes. If she unites with another man while her husband is still alive, the law declares that she is an adulterer, but it doesn’t say that about a woman who remarries after her husband is dead.

I have often heard that these two passages from Paul are “clearer” than the exception clauses of Matthew 5:32 and Matthew 19:9 regarding the topics of divorce and remarriage. For the reasons described above, I am not sure this is so.

Specifically, I don’t think these passages are clearer than Jesus’ sayings are regarding the question of whether divorce is permitted in the case of adultery. Unlike Jesus’ exception clauses, these passages from Paul don’t even mention the topic of divorce. (Read them again if that statement surprises you.)

Since they don’t even mention divorce, how can they be clearer than Jesus’ sayings on the topic? How can we use them to cancel out his words?

Before I close, however, let me underscore two things that are indeed clear in both these Pauline passages.

First, God’s intent is that our marriages last for life. This was clear in the law of Moses not only from its prescriptive laws, but also from the creation account that Moses recorded. This is also a consistent message from Christ and the witness of the NT.

Second, God still holds humans accountable today when marriages end before death. Whether or not marriage itself is truly indissoluble (“incapable of being undone”9) may be a question that these specific passages do not answer. But there is no question that married people are bound together by a divine law that is indissoluble (“perpetually binding or obligatory”10). Almost every marriage that ends before death does so because one of the spouses has sinned by breaking God’s law11, and anyone who breaks God’s law should fear being held accountable by him.

Now may that same good God, the God who redeems law-breakers, teach us from the whole biblical witness—not just a couple of the “clearest” passages—how to respond faithfully when unfaithfulness is found in our marriages.


It is a weighty thing to teach on the topic of divorce and remarriage. The cost of broken marriages has been tremendous and is growing.  Many people are confused and looking for true and loving counsel. Sincere Christians have long disagreed on minor and major points of interpretation and practice. My own understanding is still incomplete. For these latter reasons, this topic is even more difficult for me to handle than the series on homosexuality I shared last fall, where my biggest challenge was to present my understandings courageously, compassionately, and clearly.

On the other hand, it is a blessing to be able to ponder this topic at a time when I have no burning personal need to do so, besides a long-standing desire for better understanding of God’s word and will. It is a joy to know he is able to give us whatever understanding we need!

I have been intentionally seeking resources from a variety of perspectives so that my preferences and assumptions have a chance to be tested. My personal preference is usually to consider “small” exegetical questions one at a time (though in context, of course), rather than trying immediately to answer the big theological or practical questions. Hence my last two posts, one on the term “one flesh” and this on two short parallel passages.

I have also been puzzling over Jesus’ use of “one flesh” in Matthew 19 and his central statement there: “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matt. 19:6). I hope to be able to share more here if God entrusts me with more understanding. If not, I won’t!

Meanwhile, you can help in two ways: 1) Pray God will guide me, both in my thinking and in knowing when to write and when to wait. 2) If you read anything here that is contrary to Scripture, please show me from Scripture where I am wrong. I am eager to be increasingly true to Christ and the Scriptures.

Also, if you have a favorite resource that you think is exceptionally helpful for understanding the biblical witness on divorce and remarriage, you are most welcome to mention it, though I cannot commit in advance to giving it the time it may deserve.

Thank you for reading, and please share your insights in the comments below!


If you want to support more writing like this, please leave a gift:

  1. R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 626. Luz agrees: “The primary meaning is ‘forbidding’ and ‘permitting’ with a halakic decision of the rabbis, that is, the interpretation of the law.” See Ulrich Luz, Matthew 8-20: A Commentary on Matthew 8-20, ed. H. Koester (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2001), 365.
  2. Gamaliel was influenced by the famous rabbi Hillel—the one who argued for “any cause” divorce as discussed in Matthew 19, as opposed by Shammai who argued for narrower grounds for divorce. McRay suggests that Paul seems to have been influenced by the Hillel point of view in how he felt free to make legal adjustments for new situations “which the law did not envision,” such as dealing with mixed marriages (1 Cor. 7:12). See John McRay, Paul: His Life and Teaching (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 45.
  3. Most commentators agree that this is the law Paul is referring to, and it makes best sense to me.
  4. Douglas J. Moo, The Letter to the Romans, 2nd ed., NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018), 438, n. 649.
  5. Paul’s approach matches some marriage contracts from near his time. These sometimes stated that a marriage was for life, while nevertheless assuming the possibility of divorce and remarriage. Here, for example, is a translation from a Greek marriage contract from Egypt in 92 BC: “And it shall not be lawful for Philiscus to bring in any other wife but Apollonia, nor to keep a concubine or boy, nor to have children by another woman while Apollonia lives.” Notice how “while Apollonia lives” matches Paul’s language in Romans 7:2: “while he lives.” (David Instone-Brewer, “1 Corinthians 7 in the light of the Graeco-Roman Marriage and Divorce Papyri,” Tyndale Bulletin, 2001, https://www.tyndalearchive.com/Brewer/MarriagePapyri/1Cor_7a.htm Accessed May 28, 2020.)
  6. Roman law required this for its citizens, too; a husband who refused to divorce his adulterous wife was to be punished.
  7. David Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 121-23.
  8. Jesus’ exception clause was likely an allusion to the Shammaite interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1. But he offered an authoritative rewording of the text that narrowed it to allow divorce only on the grounds of sexual immorality, not merely shameful behavior. The way Jesus expressed his exception suggests that he narrowed the exception originally permitted in Deuteronomy 24:1 and thereby disagreed not only with the “liberal” Hillelites but also, to a lesser degree, with the “conservative” Shammaites.
  9. Dictionary.com Unabridged, based on The Random House Unabridged Dictionary, s.v. “Indissoluble,” abridgement of first definition, https://www.dictionary.com/browse/indissoluble
  10. Dictionary.com Unabridged, based on The Random House Unabridged Dictionary, s.v. “Indissoluble,” third definition, https://www.dictionary.com/browse/indissoluble
  11. I say “almost” because some people have been tragically separated from their spouses by events such as war, with no way to know if they are still alive. By far the majority of marriages that end before death do so because one or both of the spouses have been unfaithful to their spouses.

Save page