Tag Archives: Law of Moses

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

This post continues my series on Jesus, divorce, and remarriage, where I’m examining Jesus’ words beginning with this question: Did Jesus believe that marriage is indissoluble? 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)


Summary of this post: I ask whether Jesus’ statement that “Moses allowed” divorce provides any clues about whether marriage is indissoluble. After showing that Jesus was not pitting Moses against God, I survey what God’s law said about divorce. Some laws narrowly commanded divorce; others narrowly forbade it. Multiple laws assumed divorce and that divorce dissolves a marriage. The famous Deuteronomy 24 passage prohibited a man from remarrying his former wife who had meanwhile been married to another. This passage is joined by others that likewise grouped divorce and death as equally and truly ending marriage. 


Introduction: Was Marriage Indissoluble Under the Law of Moses?

Jesus wrapped up his summary of God’s creation design for marriage in Matthew 19:3-6 with a strong command: “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”

The Pharisees were not satisfied with this response. They countered with a question, alluding again to Deuteronomy 24:1: “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” (Matt. 19:7). Doesn’t this mention of a “certificate of divorce” imply that it is “lawful” (Matt. 19:3) to divorce a wife?

Jesus’ rebuttal focused again on God’s creation design for marriage: “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Matt. 19:8). In other words, yes, it may have been “lawful” under the law of Moses to divorce, but that same law, in its record of the creation, shows that divorce was not part of God’s original and unchanging design. In short, the should of marriage permanence remains clear, despite the certificates of divorce allowed under Moses.[1]

But does Moses’ allowance of divorce indicate anything about whether a marriage could be dissolved by anything other than death? Do the practices of divorce and remarriage under the law of Moses suggest that divorce was always only a legal fiction? Or do they suggest that marriages really could be dissolved, despite God’s creation intent?

As I address these questions in this post, I will focus on the first main clause in Jesus’ sentence: “Moses allowed you to divorce your wives.” From the perspective of what was uppermost in Jesus’ mind, the other two clauses are even more important (“Because of your hardness of heart… but from the beginning it was not so”). I plan to address those clauses directly in a future post or two. First, however, I want to consider what we can learn from Jesus’ acknowledgement that Moses allowed divorce.

So, what does the law of Moses say about divorce? And do its laws about divorce give any indication as to whether marriage is indissoluble or not? Let’s survey some of the most important evidence for clues.

Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law, a 1659 oil-on-canvas painting of the prophet Moses by the Dutch artist Rembrandt.

The Law of Moses: Two Possible Misunderstandings

Two likely  misunderstandings must be cleared up right away. First, Jesus is not pitting Moses against God. Jesus is not saying “God forbade divorce but Moses dishonored God by allowing it anyway.” Jesus is never recorded as speaking negatively of Moses.[2] He believed the law of Moses came from God himself; in fact, in this very conversation with the Pharisees Jesus has already attributed an editorial comment from Moses (“Therefore, what God has joined…”) to God (“he who created them”).[3]

The suggestion that Jesus’ words “Moses allowed” are describing “a merely human deviation from the divine purpose” is “a very modern inference,” as commentator R. T. France noted. Rather, “the laws given by Moses were understood to be the laws of God; ‘Moses’ means the Pentateuch, the God-given body of law which is Israel’s highest authority.”[4] Thus, whatever commands we find in Moses’ law must be seen as coming from God himself.

Second, we should note that the law cited by the Pharisees, which is found in Deuteronomy 24:1-4, is really a law about remarriage, not divorce. This law is essentially a long “if” followed by a short “then” command. A summary version could read, “If a man divorces his wife, she remarries, and her second marriage comes to an end, then the man may not take her back as his wife again.”[5] Thus, Dean Taylor rightly wrote of this passage, “Moses did not institute divorce, he merely regulated against a type of remarriage.”[6] That said, it remains true, as Jesus acknowledged, that this law of Moses did “allow” divorce.

Laws Requiring Divorce

What is less well known is that in some cases the law of Moses actually required divorce. For example, in Exodus 21:11 a master-husband was instructed to give his Hebrew slave-wife her food, clothing, and marital rights, without diminishing them if he took another woman. If he withheld these rights, the law commanded that “she shall go out for nothing” (Ex. 21:11; cf. Ex. 21:26). Similarly, Deuteronomy 21:14 commanded that if a man “no longer delight in” his wife whom he had taken as a captive in war, he must “let her go where she wants” without selling her or treating her as a slave.

Both these passages contain linguistic links to the famous divorce and remarriage passage in Deuteronomy 24:1-4, links suggesting that these passages are talking about full divorce, complete with the right to remarry.[7] They also appear to be talking about real marriage, despite the wife being originally secured by either slavery (temporary indentured servitude of a fellow Hebrew) or captivity (of a foreign enemy). If either of these seems least likely to qualify as real marriage, it would be the captive wife. Yet the Deuteronomy passage says explicitly, “you may… be her husband, and she shall be your wife” (Deut. 21:13). Further, that passage occurs right before a paragraph that demands that unloved “wives” be given equal rights as loved ones, a command that parallels the one in Exodus 21:11.

If a wife taken as a slave or captive had a right to secure a divorce if her husband would not provide for or “delight in” her, then surely a wife gained by more normal means had equal rights or better. Thus, Jews in Jesus’ day applied this passage to all marriages. They “recognized that the obligations of Exodus 21:10-11 could form the basis of a claim for divorce,” and “rabbinic literature preserves detailed discussions concerning the exact limits for gaining a divorce on the grounds” in that passage.[8]

It is worth noting that some of the authors who have been influential for conservative Anabaptists on the topic of divorce (Coblentz, Webb, Wenham, etc.) do not even mention Exodus 21:11 or Deuteronomy 21:14.[9] Several make statements that are clearly false in light of these passages. For example, Cornes wrote the following in his summary of the OT law:

Any individual law which specifically legislates about divorce only limits its availability. The law must therefore be seen as restraining divorce rather than enabling it.[10]

Wenham and Heth likewise exclaimed, “There is, in fact, no legislation respecting grounds for divorce in Old Testament law!”[11]

Kuruvilla, drawing on Cornes, made a similar claim, even extending it to include the entire OT:

Throughout the Old Testament, there is no “enabling legislation” for divorce. Instead, Old Testament laws merely restrict a practice that was already ongoing… Nowhere in the Old Testament are any statements given that “enable” divorce or remarriage.[12]

Contrary to these claims, Exodus and Deuteronomy both clearly command that if a husband refused to care for his (slave or captive) wife, he must grant her the freedom of a divorce. Would God, through Moses, have commanded that wives of abusive husbands be freed to remarry if he thought that their first marriages remained undissolved?

A Jewish wedding. Image used with permission from Good News Productions International and College Press Publishing. Downloaded from FreeBibleImages.org.

Laws Prohibiting Divorce

Other laws provided for women by protecting them from wrongful divorce. For example, what if a husband took a wife, decided he didn’t like her after having sex with her for the first time, and then tried to get rid of her by falsely accussing her of not being a virgin? Such a man was to be whipped and fined, and “he may not divorce her all his days.” He had to provide for her for life, without exception, for he had “brought a bad name upon a virgin of Israel” and put her in danger of wrongful capital punishment (Deut. 22:19). Similarly, the rule for a man who raped an unbetrothed virgin was that he had to marry her and “may not divorce her all his days” (Deut. 22:29).[13]

As far as I can discover, author Rubel Shelly is right in saying that these are “the only two specific situations named in which a man could not divorce his wife” under the law of Moses.[14] And presumably, if a wife in these two situations was later uncared for, she could go to court to sue for either provision or her own right of divorce under the precedent of Exodus 21:11 or Deuteronomy 21:14.

How widely was divorce practiced in OT Israel? Given the pattern of Israel’s other sins, Instone-Brewer is probably right in saying “we must assume that divorce was as prevalent in Israel then as in other ancient Near Eastern societies.”[15] What is clear is that divorce was widely “allowed” under the law of Moses and sometimes even commanded. Was God allowing something that was a legal fiction, or was he allowing (and sometimes commanding) something that was real, even though it fell short of his original design for marriage?

A Law Prohibiting Remarriage

Deuteronomy 24:1-4 supports this picture of easily-available divorce. I’ve already summarized the basic point of the passage, and I’ll reinforce that summary now by emphasizing that the Jews in Jesus’ day entirely missed the point of the passage when they mined it in search of valid grounds for divorce. The passage does not provide grounds for divorce but restrictions against a certain kind of remarriage.

Let me quote the passage in full and then we’ll look for clues about marriage permanence.

When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, 2 and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, 3 and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, 4 then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the Lord. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance. (Deut. 24:1-4)

Some things about this passage remain highly debated among commentators. What is “some indecency”? How, exactly, was the wife “defiled”? Why was it wrong for her former husband to take her again as his wife after she had been defiled? What relevance, if any, does this remarriage prohibition have for us today?

I won’t try to answer those questions now. I will point instead to some clear facts that may be clues about whether marriage is indissoluble. In this passage:

    • A woman who is remarried is called “another man’s wife”—that is, she is now the “wife” of “another man” besides her former husband (v. 2).
    • Her prior husband is called her “former husband” (v. 4), indicating he is no longer her husband.
    • A certificate of divorce is expected for ending a second marriage just as surely as a first marriage, suggesting the second marriage was considered just as real as the first (v. 3).
    • Divorce and death are presented in parallel as equally ending a marriage (v. 3).
    • A woman’s former husband (including her first one) has less right (none!) to claim her as wife than any other man does (v. 4); there is no assumption a first husband has special rights based on a persisting marital union.

Let me get technical for one paragraph. It is worth noting that the Hebrew word (ri’šôn) translated “former” in the phrase “former husband” does not always mean “first” (e.g., Num. 21:26; Ps. 79:8; Is. 42:9). Thus, this law restricts a second husband from remarrying a former wife after she has married a third as surely as it restricts a first husband from remarrying. Therefore, it is not right to say that a first husband is singled out by this law even negatively, by receiving a special prohibition not given to subsequent husbands. (The CSB, NET, NIV, NLT, and multiple other translations are misleading in this regard; KJV, NKJV, NASB, ESV, and others more cautiously read “former.”)

In short, while it is not clear whether the divorces in this passage were legitimate, everything about the passage suggests that divorce was seen as truly ending a marriage—just as truly as by death. Further, remarriage was seen as “putting a seal” on divorce, making any former marriage permanently dissolved.

The persistent widow, from Jesus’ parable (Luke 18:1-8). Used with permission from FreeBibleImages.org.

Laws Grouping the Divorced and the Widowed

Tellingly, several other passages in the law of Moses group divorce and death in a similar way. For example, both widowhood and divorce gave a priest’s daughter equal right to return to her father’s house and eat his priestly food, which she was forbidden to eat while she was married to a layman (Lev. 22:12-13). Similarly, if a married woman made a vow, her husband had a right to make her vow void when he first heard of it. But this law came with an exception: “Any vow of a widow or of a divorced woman, anything by which she has bound herself, shall stand against her” (Num. 30:9). As far as both these laws were concerned, a divorcing husband and a dead husband had equal authority over their former wives—none.

The marriage restrictions for a high priest also group divorce and widowhood together:

A widow, or a divorced woman, or a woman who has been defiled, or a prostitute, these he shall not marry. But he shall take as his wife a virgin of his own people (Lev. 21:14).

The restriction against marrying a widow was a matter of ritualistic cleanliness, not a timeless moral requirement (1 Cor. 7:39).[16] It functioned like other restrictions in this passage, such as the one forbidding the high priest from making himself unclean by caring for the dead bodies of close relatives (Lev. 21:11). Similarly, the NT strongly implies that there is nothing immoral about marrying someone who was formerly sexually immoral (“a woman who has been defiled, or a prostitute”) but who is now “sanctified” (1 Cor. 6:9-11).

Given this context, it appears that the law against priests marrying divorced women (cf. Lev. 21:7) was also a ritualistic restriction, not a moral one. Commentator Wenham suggests this restriction was designed to protect a priest’s reputation and also to ensure his wife’s children were really his own, thus protecting the priestly line.[17]

In fact, divorced and widowed persons were so tightly grouped in Jewish thought that the Hebrew and Greek words translated widow in the Bible were sometimes used to refer to a divorced woman.[18] This broader conception of widowhood in the Hebrew language is found in 2 Samuel 20:3. After David returned to Jerusalem following his defeat of Absalom, he took his ten concubines whom Absalom had defiled and “put them in custody… but did not have relations with them. So they were locked up until the day of their death, living as widows” (NASB).

Similarly, the Greek-speaking Jewish philosopher Philo—during whose lifetime Jesus lived and died—counted a divorced woman as having been widowed in his interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1-4:

If a woman after parting from her husband for any cause whatever marries another and then again becomes a widow [χηρεύσῃ], whether this second husband is alive or dead, she must not return to her first husband.[19]

Philo’s interpretation affirms our observation that divorced and widowed women were treated very similarly under the law of Moses, both classed as being unmarried.

Conclusion: Marriage Was Dissoluble Under the Law of Moses

As far as I know, these are all the passages in the law of Moses that deal explicitly with human divorce.[20] None of these passages give any indication that divorce did not truly end a marriage. Taken together, they strongly indicate that divorce was seen as fully dissolving a marriage. There is no indication that a man who divorced his wife had any special right to take her back again, and he was expressly forbidden from doing so if she had meanwhile been married to someone else.

Yes, every mention of divorce in the law of Moses is in tension with God’s creation design recorded in the first book of Moses. If every Israelite had lived up to God’s design, no marriage would ever have ended in divorce.

However, it is also true that if every human had lived up to God’s design, no marriages would have been dissolved by death, either. (This includes marriages ended by death as punishment for adultery, a topic I hope to address later.[21]) Tragically, both death and divorce are part of human experience post-Eden, and both are pictured in the law of Moses—God’s law—as truly ending marriage.

Was this picture merely an illusory concession to human practices? What did Jesus mean when he said these divorce allowances were given because of “hardness of heart”? And what about his statement that “from the beginning it was not so”? I plan to turn to these questions in my next posts.

Thanks for reading this long post! I invite you to add your insights or questions in the comments below.


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[1] It is a sobering truth that merely living up to a law granted as a concession to human weakness does not ensure one is truly pleasing God.

[2] Even though some of Jesus’ teachings hinted that the law of Moses would come to an end (Matt. 11:13; Mark 7:19; Luke 16:16), he urged people to obey even the details of the law (Matt. 23:23; Luke 11:42) and warned they would be judged by Moses (John 5:45-46; cf. Luke 16:29-31). In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus’ teaching about divorce comes immediately after his statement that “it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the Law to become void” (Luke 16:17).

[3] See Matt. 19:4; cf. Matt. 15:3-6.

[4] R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, New International Commentary on the NT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 719.

[5] The KJV, unfortunately, obscures the flow of thought, but the NKJV, ESV, and most other modern translations make the if-then structure of Moses’ command clear. The moral logic and current relevance of Moses’ prohibition of a husband remarrying his former wife, however, remain highly debated. Since Jesus didn’t address these questions, I won’t address them in this post, either.

[6] Dean Taylor, “One Flesh, One Covenant,” Pt. 2 of “Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage,” The Heartbeat of The Remnant, July/August/September 2007, Ephrata Ministries, p. 5. Available online, accessed 7/14/2022, http://www.ephrataministries.org/pdf/2007-07-one-flesh.pdf.

[7] The Hebrew word translated “let her go” in Deuteronomy 21:14 (šālaḥ) appears again in Deuteronomy 24:1, which describes a husband who divorces his wife and “sends her” out of his house. Likewise, the word translated “shall go out” in Exodus 21:11 (yāṣā’) appears in Deuteronomy 24:1 (24:2 in some translations) in the phrase “she departs out of his house.” This woman then “goes and becomes another man’s wife” (Deut. 24:2). This shared language implies that in all three passages the woman who is sent away is free to remarry, even though two of the passages never explicitly say so.

[8] David Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 102.

[9] Authors who discussed divorce in the OT without mentioning either Exodus 21:11 or Deuteronomy 21:14 include John Coblentz (What the Bible Says about Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage), Finny Kuruvilla (“Until Death Do Us Part”), J. Carl Laney (The Divorce Myth), Joseph A. Webb (Till Death Do Us Part?), Gordon J. Wenham and William E. Heth (Jesus and Divorce) and G. J. Wenham (Jesus, Divorce, and Remarriage: In Their Historical Setting). Andrew Cornes (Divorce and Remarriage: Biblical Principle and Pastoral Practice) discussed only the Deuteronomy passage (p. 137-38). Despite acknowledging it discusses divorce, he surprisingly asserted that it actually discourages divorce. The authors of Divorce and Remarriage: A Permanence View (Wingerd, Elliff, Chrisman, and Burchett) addressed both texts in an appendix (pp. 143-46), but only to explain why they “did not consider” them “relevant to our discussion.” I do not find their reasons compelling.

[10] Andrew Cornes, Divorce and Remarriage: Biblical Principle and Pastoral Practice (Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2002), 176-77.

[11] William E. Heth and Gordan J. Wenham, Jesus and Divorce, updated ed. (Carlisle, England: Paternoster Press, 2002), 107.

[12] Finny Kuruvilla, “Until Death Do Us Part: Is Remarriage Biblically Sanctioned After Divorce?” (essay), (Anchor Cross Publishing, July 13, 2014), 4-5, https://static1.squarespace.com/static/570e3c2f8259b563851efcf8/t/5911288c4402435d4e08c196/1494296716383/essay_remarriage.pdf. The most obvious passage contradicting Kuruvilla’s broader claim is Ezra 10, where Israel divorced their foreign wives in an act of repentance. Nothing in the passage suggests that these marriages were not real, despite being contrary to God’s law. Nor is there any indication that any subsequent marriages would be legal fictions permitted by God even though the first marriages were not truly dissolved. Rather, the passage is best understood as a case where two shoulds conflicted with each other—the should of marital permanence and the should of marrying only within Israel. Both of these could be broken, and in this case Nehemiah ruled that the latter should took precedent over the former. In the language of the passage, to have “broken faith” with God by marrying foreign women was worse than to subsequently break faith with these women by divorcing them, for the latter was required as part of renewing Israel’s “covenant with… God” (Ezra 10:2-3, 10-11).

[13] Her father, however, had legal right to refuse to give his daughter to him in marriage (Ex. 22:17).

[14] Rubel Shelly, Divorce and Remarriage: A Redemptive Theology (Abilene, TX: Leafwood Publishers, 2007), 50.

[15] David Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 23.

[16] This conclusion is reinforced by how Ezekiel repeats these commands in his vision of a renewed priesthood: “They shall not marry a widow or a divorced woman, but only virgins of the offspring of the house of Israel, or a widow who is the widow of a priest” (Ez. 44:22). The final “loophole” in this verse shows that it was not intrinsically wrong for a priest to marry a widow.

[17] Gordan J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus, New International Commentary on the OT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979), 291-92.

[18] The Lexham Bible Dictionary provides this definition for both the Hebrew word (אַלְמָנָה, almanah) and the Greek word (χήρα, chēra): “A woman whose husband has died, or who has been parted in some way from her husband” (M. J. Morris, “Widow,” in The Lexham Bible Dictionary, [Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016].

[19] Philo, On the Special Laws, III.30, from Philo, Vol. VII, Loeb Classical Library, trans. F. H. Colson, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), p. 493. Emphasis added. https://archive.org/details/PhiloSupplement01Genesis/Philo%2007%20Decalogue%2C%20Special%20Laws%20I-III/page/n509/mode/2up.

[20] Other passages in the law of Moses contain information about marriage that have indirect significance to the question of marriage permanence (such as texts implying the legality of polygamy). There are also narrative portions of the books of Moses that are relevant. These include not only Genesis 1 and 2 and other passages reinforcing marriage faithfulness, but also stories such as the account where God encouraged Abraham to heed Sarah’s desire and “cast out” Hagar (Gen. 21:8-14), his slave whom he had taken “as a wife” (Gen. 16:3). Finally, God predicts his own divorce of Israel (“I will forsake them”), for he knows they will “whore after… foreign gods… and break my covenant that I have made with them” (Deut. 31:16-18).

[21] If the passages I have discussed in this post are overwhelmingly focused on protecting wives, the Mosaic laws about adultery focus on protecting husbands from unfaithful wives. If it was evident a wife had committed adultery, both she and her adulterous partner were to be put to death (Lev. 20:10; Deut. 22:22).


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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!


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  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.

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Was Jesus Okay With Homosexuality? (4 of 6)

In this post I want to challenge a popular assumption about Jesus and homosexuality. It is common knowledge that Jesus never mentioned homosexuality. That assertion is technically accurate based on our existing historical sources (though he said many things that were never recorded). Yet, as I explained in the second post in this series, it is a flimsy argument for saying Jesus was okay with homosexual behavior.

In this post I want to go further. I plan to argue here that Jesus’ Jewish listeners did indeed hear him speak against homosexual behavior, even though he may never have explicitly mentioned it.

This is part of a six-part blog series on Jesus and homosexuality:

    1. Introduction, Explanations, and a Summary of this Series
    2. How Should We Interpret Jesus’ Silence About Homosexuality?
    3. Does “Love Your Neighbor” Mean Jesus Affirmed “Gay Love”?
    4. Why It’s Wrong to Say Jesus Said Nothing About Homosexuality
    5. Historical Conclusions: Was Jesus Okay With Homosexuality?
    6. Conclusions for Today: Is Jesus Okay With Homosexuality Now?

We’ve all seen it—that child who insists on interpreting their parents’ instructions as narrowly as possible. Mommy says, “Don’t draw on the wall!” So Daughter writes her name instead. “But Mommy, you didn’t say I can’t write on the wall. You just said I can’t draw on the wall.”

Or Daddy warns his children, “We have company coming in a few hours. Don’t make a mess in the living room!” The children all start heading to their bedrooms to play except for one child. He tells his siblings, “Hey, Daddy didn’t say we can’t play in the living room. He just said ‘don’t make a mess.’ Let’s get our blocks and cars and build a town over there in the corner.”

“I don’t know… I don’t think Daddy will like that,” his siblings protest.

“But we’ll keep it really neat.  There won’t be any mess. We’ll be careful!”

So, the children get out their blocks and toy vehicles and stuffed animals. They carefully arrange an “orderly” town that soon sprawls across the entire room.

Daddy returns moments before the guests arrive, surveys the busy living room with surprise and frustration, and calls his children to attention. “But Daddy, this isn’t a mess! We arranged it very carefully!” his son protests.

What do his siblings immediately say? “It was his idea! We knew you didn’t want us to bring our toys into the living room, but he wouldn’t listen!”

I suggest something similar is happening when we suggest that Jesus said nothing about homosexuality. If Jesus’ original Jewish audience could time-travel and speak with us, they would say, “Of course Jesus spoke against homosexual behavior! We heard him plainly!”

Three Ways Jesus Spoke About Homosexuality

What did Jesus’ Jewish audience hear that we miss? What might we hear, too, if we listen as students of history rather than as combatants in a twenty-first century culture war? What teachings of Jesus might we be interpreting too woodenly? What did Jesus say that communicated his disapproval of homosexual behavior?

I suggest there are at least three ways Jesus referred to homosexual behavior, despite never explicitly naming it. I’ll begin with the most general and move toward the most specific.

First, Jesus taught “You shall not commit adultery.” 

The Gospels record that Jesus explicitly cited this command at least twice (Matt. 5:27; 19:18), besides alluding to it on other occasions (Matt. 15:19; 19:9).  It seems illogical to our minds, trained by Western legal traditions, to think that “do not commit adultery” could also mean “do not commit homosexual acts.” But that is exactly how many ancient Jews thought.

We can perhaps begin to understand this way of thinking if we envision a Russian nesting doll (matryoshka doll), as in the following image.

A rough illustration of how ancient Jews thought of their paradigmatic law code. The more general commands (larger dolls) implied other related and more specific commands (smaller dolls nesting inside the bigger ones). In this way a person could sum up and include many “smaller” commands simply by citing a “bigger” one. (This diagram is adapted from an image by Monika Schröder from Pixabay.)

In Jewish thought, the more general commands of their law (the larger dolls) implied other related and more specific commands (the smaller dolls nesting inside the bigger ones). In this way a person could sum up and include many “smaller” commands simply by citing a “bigger” one.

Let’s consider how “You shall not commit adultery” fits into this picture. This command was part of the Decalogue, or Ten Commandments. As the Encyclopedia Judaica notes, “The Decalogue came to be regarded as a summary of biblical law.”1

If the Ten Commandments were a summary of God’s law, then they could also function as an outline, with each of the Ten Commandments serving as headings for other related commands. This is exactly what happened. “Some [ancient Jewish] sources classify the 613 commandments of the Torah under the the headings of the commandments of the Decalogue.”2

One person who thought this way was Philo, a Jewish philosopher alive at the same time as Jesus. Philo asserted that “under” the commandment “against adulterers… many other commands are conveyed by implication, such as that against seducers, that against practisers of unnatural crimes, that against all who live in debauchery, that against all men who indulge in illicit and incontinent connections.”3

While discussing the Decalogue’s commandment against adultery, Philo specifically mentioned several forms of homosexual activity:

The law commands that the man-woman who adulterates the precious coinage of his nature shall die without redemption… And let the man who is devoted to the love of boys submit to the same punishment, since he pursues that pleasure which is contrary to nature… wasting his power of propagating his species, and moreover, being a guide and teacher of those greatest of all evils, unmanliness and effeminate lust… and last of all, because, like a worthless husbandman, he allows fertile and productive lands to lie fallow.4

There is evidence within the New Testament that Jesus and his apostles shared this approach to interpreting the Law of Moses. Jesus, for example, cited the two great commandments (love of God and love of neighbor) and then said that “all the Law and the Prophets” depend on (hang from, are derived from) “these two commandments” (Matt. 22:40).

Paul similarly suggested the Ten Commandments are encapsulated within the great commandments:

The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up [summarized] in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”(Rom. 13:9).

Jesus seems to have applied this kind of thinking specifically to adultery. For example, Jesus, like some other rabbis of the time, taught a broad definition of adultery that included the attitude of the heart: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:27-28).

Jesus even “expanded” adultery to include actions that were contrary to God’s creation design but which had specifically been given loopholes by the Law of Moses:

Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery” (Matt. 19:8-9).

Under adultery then, Jesus also forbade other sexual sins such as lust and divorce.

If we combine Jesus’ and Paul’s statements, we could say that inside of “Love your neighbor” is found “You shall not commit adultery,” and inside of “You shall not commit adultery” are both “Do not look at a woman with lustful intent” and “Do not divorce”—and, Philo adds, “Do not engage in homosexual behavior.”

Robert Gagnon summarizes this ancient Jewish way of reading “You shall not commit adultery”:

The Decalogue commandment against adultery was treated as a broad rubric prohibiting all forms of sexual practice that deviated from the creation model in Genesis 1-2, including homoerotic intercourse.5

Given this way of thinking about laws, it is likely that ancient Jews would have understood Jesus to be prohibiting all sorts of unlawful sexual activity, including homosexual activity, when he taught “You shall not commit adultery.”

(This way of thinking is radically different from our Western legal tradition. Our legal codes are exhaustive, and any action not explicitly banned remains legal. Ancient law codes were paradigmatic, and people were expected to extrapolate from the examples given to all similar situations. For help in understanding these differences and how they impact the commands we are discussing here, see the appendix at the end of this article.)

Second, Jesus taught against πορνεία (porneia).

This Greek word is found on Jesus’ lips in both Matthew and Mark’s Gospels.6 Jesus listed πορνεῖαι (plural) among the defiling sins that proceed from the human heart:

What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality (Matt. 15:18-19; cf. Mark 7:21)

Πορνεία (porneia) is commonly translated “sexual immorality.” It is a broad term which refers to “every kind of extramarital, unlawful, unnatural sexual intercourse.”7

New Testament scholar James Edwards says that πορνεία “can be found in Greek literature with reference to a variety of illicit sexual practices, including adultery, fornication, prostitution, and homosexuality.”8

When Jesus spoke against πορνεία, he was speaking to Jews, not Greeks.  What kinds of sexual activity would they have considered unlawful or illegitimate? Would Jews have considered homosexual behavior to be πορνεία?

We don’t have to guess. In the Septuagint (the Greek OT translated about 200 B.C.), πορνεία was used “for any sexual practice outside marriage between a man and a woman that is prohibited by the Torah” (Edwards).9 Homosexual activity certainly fits this description. 

Remember the conclusion reached by Fortson and Grams regarding Jewish writings near the time of Jesus:

Jews consistently condemned homosexual practice of any sort… Jews understood the Old Testament to speak against homosexual behavior, and they accepted biblical authority in matters of sexual ethics.10

And remember how Keener summarized Jewish practices from the same period:

Jewish people… unanimously rejected homosexual behavior… Jewish homosexual practice was nearly unknown.11

Given this historical context, Gagnon’s summary is no surprise: “In Jesus’ day, and for many centuries before and thereafter, porneia was universally understood in Judaism to include same-sex intercourse.12 The related verb ἐκπορνεύω13 is even used in the NT to describe what Sodom and Gomorrah did: “indulged in sexual immorality” (Jude 1:7).

What would Jesus’ Jewish listeners say to us today if we suggested he never said anything about homosexual behavior? “Of course he did!” they might respond. “We clearly heard him warn against πορνεία!”

Third, Jesus taught against ἀσέλγεια (aselgeia).

Mark includes this word in his record of Jesus’ teaching about sins that come out of the heart:

From within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality (Mark 7:21-22)

Ἀσέλγεια is sometimes translated “sensuality” (ESV, NASB). But that expression hardly carries the negative connotation in today’s “sexy” world that ἀσέλγεια apparently carried among ancient Jews. “Lewdness” (NIV) or “debauchery” (NET) come closer. While πορνεία was used widely to refer to all kinds of unlawful sexual intercourse, ἀσέλγεια seems to have been used more narrowly to refer to sexual sins that Jews considered especially shameful.

G. Thomas Hobson surveys the usage of the word ἀσέλγεια in classical Greek, pre-New Testament, and post-New Testament contexts in his 2008 journal article “ἀσέλγεια in Mark 7:22.” His findings are worth quoting at length:

It’s a word that Jesus… could easily turn to as a synonym for homosexual activity and other similarly shocking behavior forbidden by the Jewish law… ἀσέλγεια was πορνεία… taken to its most disgusting degree… The term may have been used to refer to what were regarded as the most shameless violations of the sexuality taught in the Torah.

It would appear that the writer of Mark, writing for a general audience, saw a need to spell out an element of Jesus’ teaching that addressed a sexual lifestyle issue among Gentiles, a matter that was less of an issue for Matthew’s predominately Jewish audience.  Furthermore, for some reason, neither πορνεία [“sexual immorality”] nor μοιχεία [“adultery”] specifically addressed the sexual sin he had in mind.  It is likely… that Jesus was speaking of violations of the Torah such as homosexual behavior, incest, or bestiality, rather than comparatively less shocking sins such as adultery and fornication.14

In fact, there is one place in the New Testament (2 Pet. 2:7) where the word ἀσέλγεια is used explicitly to refer to the actions of people who were homosexuals. Hobson again:

Second Peter uses ἀσέλγεια more than any other NT document.  It links ἀσέλγεια explicitly with the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah, picturing Lot (2 Pet 2,7) as “greatly distressed by the licentiousness (ἀσέλγεια) of the wicked” around him. 15

Given this usage of ἀσέλγεια, what might Jesus have meant by the term in Mark 7:22? Hobson once more:

Exactly what did Jesus consider to be “utter shamelessness”?  What did he consider too far “over the line”?  The danger is to impose twenty-first century AD politically correct ideas on Jesus… In context, it is far more likely that Jesus had in mind what his fellow Jews (like the author of 2 Peter) meant when they used the word: images of Sodom and Gomorrah, images of outrageous violation of the one-flesh union of man and woman

If Jesus had wished to speak of homosexual behavior in his list of sins that defile the human heart, to what other word could Mark have turned in his translation?  Παιδεραστία [“paederasty,” from “love-of-boys”] was too narrow a term. Ἀρσενοκοίτης [“man-bedder”] had barely been coined by Paul.  And πορνεία [“sexual immorality”] is too broad a concept, although it is the only word Matthew chooses to use in his version of Jesus’ sin list.  Ἀσέλγεια was an ideal word for identifying both homosexual behavior and other similar sexual sins of which even the Mishnah was reticent to speak any more than was absolutely necessary

The appearance of ἀσέλγεια on the lips of Mark’s Jesus must be accounted for somehow, and it will not do to say that a word of such shock value as ἀσέλγεια was a throw-away detail, or was intended as nothing more than a synonym for πορνεία [“sexual immorality”] or μοιχεία [“adultery”]…  It is argued here that, as he seeks to faithfully communicate Jesus’ teaching, Mark found it necessary to emphasize to his readers that Jesus did explicitly reaffirm the Torah’s prohibition of the most shocking sexual offenses.16

Again, what might Jesus’ Jewish listeners say to us today if they heard us suggest Jesus never said anything about homosexual activity? “Of course he did!” they might respond. “We clearly heard him mention ἀσέλγεια!”

And, of course, it is clear that Jesus’ first followers did indeed understand that homosexual behavior was incompatible with following Jesus. (I’ll share more of that evidence in my final post.)

Conclusion

A primary goal of this blog series is to help us interpret Jesus within his own ancient Jewish historical context. If we read his silence, his speech, and his actions as if he were our next-door neighbor or even a twenty-first century rabbi, we are sure to reach conclusions that are historically invalid at best and dangerously deceptive at worst.

It is frequently claimed that Jesus never mentioned homosexuality. That may be technically true according to our post-Scientific Revolution, post-Enlightenment way of reading science journals and law codes. But it is also very misleading according to ancient Jewish ways of talking about laws and sins.

Jesus’ general language condemning sexual immorality would have been understood by his original listeners to prohibit all mutually-recognized sexual sins—including homosexual activity as surely as bestiality, pedophilia, incest, and many other activities he also “failed” to mention.

Any ancient Jew would have concluded that Jesus did indeed address the topic of homosexual behavior. He did so when he taught about adultery, even more so when he mentioned πορνεία, and especially when he warned about ἀσέλγεια.

Are you able to hear Jesus through ancient Jewish ears? If you have a comment, please leave it below. And thanks for reading! I realize the posts in this series take some time to read and absorb, and I hope you have found the time worthwhile.


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Appendix:
The Implications of Ancient Law Codes

The following is excerpted from “The Paradigmatic Nature of Biblical Law,” an excursus in Douglas Stuart’s commentary on Exodus:17

“Modern societies generally have opted for exhaustive law codes. That is, every action modern society wishes to regulate or prohibit must be specifically mentioned in a separate law… By this approach, all actions are permitted that are not expressly forbidden or regulated. Thus it is not uncommon that criminals in modern Western societies evade prosecution because of a ‘technicality’ or a ‘loophole’ in the law…

“Ancient laws did not work this way. They were paradigmatic, giving models of behaviors and models of prohibitions/punishments relative to those behaviors, but they made no attempt to be exhaustive. Ancient laws gave guiding principles, or samples, rather than complete descriptions of all things regulated. Ancient people were expected to be able to extrapolate from what the sampling of laws did say to the general behavior the laws in their totality pointed toward… Ancient judges were expected to extrapolate from the wording provided in the laws that did exist to all other circumstances and not to be foiled in their jurisprudence by any such concepts as ‘technicalities’ or ‘loopholes’… The Israelites had to learn to see the underlying principles in any law and not let the specifics of the individual casuistic citation mislead them into applying the law too narrowly…

“It is in connection with the paradigmatic nature of Israel’s covenant law that Jesus, following the established tradition in Judaism, could make so sweeping an assertion as that two laws sum up all the rest… Properly understood, two laws do indeed sum up everything in the entire legal corpus of the Old Testament. So do ten laws (the Ten Words/Commandments); so do all six hundred and thirteen… If a reasonable number of comprehensive and comprehensible laws… are provided to a people as paradigms for proper living, there is no excuse for that people to claim ignorance of how to behave or to claim innocence when their sins are found out.

“Most laws are expressed as commands in the masculine singular—the you of the laws is ‘you, a male person’—from a technical, grammatical point of view. But here again the reader/listener would not have the slightest ground to say, ‘It prohibits individual men from doing such and such, but I’m a woman/we’re a group, so the wording of the law exempts me/us.’ Implicit in the wording is the need for paradigmatic extrapolation to all persons, singular or plural, male or female…

“Without an awareness of all six hundred and thirteen commandments and seeing within them the high standards of God’s holiness… a person corrupted by a fallen world does not easily get the point of what the two great commandments are intended to summarize. Once one has learned the breadth and depth of God’s expectations for his holy people, however, the two greatest commandments serve brilliantly as comprehensive reminders of all that is expected of God’s covenant people.”

In his discussion of the Ten Commandments, Stuart applies this understanding to command about adultery:

This commandment does not explicitly condemn premarital sex, postmarital sex (as by a widow or widower), cohabitation without formal marriage, bestiality, or incest, all of which are dealt with elsewhere in various ways; but by implication it certainly does condemn all those practices… Again the principle of law as paradigmatic is essential for appreciating the implications of this command: reasonable and careful extrapolation from the paradigm of the adultery law yields the realization that all sex outside of marriage, whether before, during, after, or instead of a person’s actual legal marriage would be a violation of the divine covenant… The commandment also argues, implicitly, against divorce. If marriage is so important that is must be protected against adulteration—even the sort of adulteration that might occur in brief interludes—it certainly is important enough to protect against dissolution altogether.”18

  1. “Decalogue,” David Kadosh, Encyclopedia Judaica, The Gale Group, 2008, https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/decalogue, accessed August 2, 2019.
  2. David W. Pao and Eckhard J. Schnabel, “Luke,” Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 351.
  3. Philo, The Decalogue, XXXII. (168), http://www.earlyjewishwritings.com/text/philo/book26.html, accessed September 2, 2019.
  4. Philo, The Special Laws, Book 3, VII. (38, 39). English source: http://www.earlyjewishwritings.com/text/philo/book29.html  Greek source: http://khazarzar.skeptik.net/books/philo/specialg.pdf, pp. 82-83, accessed September 2, 2019. Philo’s comment about a “man-woman” seems to be concerned with men who change their appearance and actions to be like women. As for his comment about “the man who is devoted to the love of boys, it is worth noting that Philo does not seem concerned about child abuse or sexual abuse in any modern sense of those terms. Rather, the concerns he mentions are that such unions (1) are “contrary to nature,” (2) contribute to population decline, (3) train boys to be effeminate, and (4) cause women to remain barren. As with other ancient Jewish authors, the question of consensuality apparently was not a prime factor for Philo in evaluating the ethics of homosexual unions; other factors weighed more, and could not be overruled by the presence of consent.
  5. Robert Gagnon, “The Bible and Homosexual Practice: An Overview of Some Issues,” 2003, online article based on an interview with Zenit News Agency, March 21 and 28, 2002, pub. by OrthodoxyToday.org, http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles2/GagnonHomosexuality.php, accessed August 28, 2019.
  6. It is likely that Jesus did much of his teaching in Aramaic, in which case the Gospel writers (or the sources upon which they drew) chose which Greek words to use. Historians generally agree, however, that their translations reliably convey the message of Jesus’ teaching.
  7. See Geoff Ashley’s survey of definitions of πορνεία in “Jesus and Homosexuality,” online article, The Village Church, https://www.tvcresources.net/resource-library/articles/jesus-and-homosexuality, accessed September 2, 2019. Compare also with the usage noted in BAGD (A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, by Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich, and Danker): “of every kind of unlawful sexual intercourse.” Mounce similarly notes that “the word group to which porneia belongs generally relates to any kind of illegitimate sexual intercourse” (Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words).
  8. James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 213.
  9. Ibid.
  10. S. Donald Fortson III and Rollin G. Grams, Unchanging Witness: The Consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Tradition (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2016), 235.
  11. Craig S. Keener, Romans, New Covenant Commentary Series (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2009), Kindle Edition, commentary on Romans 1:24-27.
  12. Gagnon, Ibid.
  13. The relationship between the words can be glimpsed even by someone who dooes not read Greek; compare πορνεία and ἐκπορνεύω, or, in transliteration, porneia and ekporneuo.
  14. G. Thomas Hobson, “ἀσέλγεια in Mark 7:22,” Filologia Neotestamentaria 21 (2008), 65, 67, 70, bold added. See here for the full article: https://www.academia.edu/31907497/ASELGEIA_IN_MARK_7_22. See also this summary by Richard Klaus: “Jesus Did Mention Homosexuality!” online article, White Rose Review, October, 2014, https://whiterosereview.blogspot.com/2014/10/jesus-did-mention-homosexuality.html, accessed September 2, 2019.
  15. Ibid., 68.
  16. Ibid., 72-74, bold added.
  17. Douglas K. Stuart, Exodus, New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2006), 442-444.
  18. Ibid., 464-65, bold added.

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