Divorce, says Jesus, . . .

In the gospel reading last Sunday, Mark 10: 2-16, Jesus says about marriage, “Let no one separate what God has joined.” I got divorced shortly before I entered the School of Theology. The reading reminded me of my experiences there.

At the SOT I studied scripture under Fr. Ivan Havener, perhaps the most helpful course I had there. Ivan was fully aware that the official Church often teaches nonsense. One day in class he referred disparagingly to bishops in denial of facts.

Ivan’s analysis of Jesus' sayings put into stark relief the distinction between the man Jesus and the myth of Christ. His book, Q: The Sayings of Jesus, informed my God Is Not Three Guys in the Sky. Scripture scholars use a panoply of tools to distinguish authentic sayings of Jesus from inauthentic sayings, those put into his mouth by gospel writers but not said by the man himself. Inauthentic sayings formed after Jesus’ death as a natural process of myth-making ensued, something like the process that created the myth of JFK, but of infinitely greater depth and consequence.

I decided that my final paper for Ivan’s class would be on divorce. Researching Jesus’ authentic sayings, I would show that Jesus did not really condemn divorce; I would show that Church law conflicts with the man Jesus’ statements. But after researching the subject, I had to concede that the historical Jesus must have condemned divorce because it is multiply-attested—in Matthew (5:32 and 19:9), Mark (10:11-12), Luke (16:18), and First Corinthians (7:10-11). It is highly unlikely that all accounts of Jesus speaking out against divorce got it wrong. I was wrong in my expectation.

However, from information supplied by scripture scholars I figured out that the reason for his attitude was divorce practice in his society. Only men could initiate divorce—women were their property—and men could divorce for the flimsiest reasons such as burning food. Divorced women must have lived in exceedingly grim circumstances. I concluded, therefore, that Jesus of Nazareth opposed divorce out of compassion for women. Pope Francis’ embrace of divorced people is right in line with Jesus’ attitude.

While I was studying at the SOT, Ivan died, stunning us all. No one on the faculty was more respected, not even Godfrey Diekmann, one of the periti or experts at Vatican II. I had planned on taking another course from Ivan but was glad of one thing. We grad students had to demonstrate understanding of a language other than English. I had used a German source in my paper for Ivan and fortunately got a signed statement before he died, declaring that I fulfilled the language requirement.

After graduating from the School of Theology I got the paper published in Daughters of Sarah, a Christian feminist magazine.


Anonymous said…
I consider divorce a better alternative than continuing a partnership that is abusive or that is more adversarial than loving.

I take exception to your analysis of Jesus' motivation, though, for three reasons.

First, your claim that only women could initiate divorce seems undercut by the language in the passage you cite from Mark, the earliest Gospel: "11 He answered, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. 12 And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.” This passage suggests that either party could initiate divorce--or, if a woman could not, that she must have been able to prevent it by refusing to consent to it. Otherwise, there would seem to have been no point in addressing each partner as a potential divorcer.

Second, I would not consider the Gospels attributed to Matthew or Luke to be independent attestations increasing the likelihood of truth of Mark's claims about what Jesus said, as their authors drew from the Markan account and reshaped it to their purposes. The Gospel authors were not eyewitnesses to what Jesus said, and did not go about conducting interviews of eyewitnesses. (I imagine you agree with that.) That Paul took a similar stand does not directly substantiate claims about what Jesus might have said during his lifetime, because Paul claimed that what he wrote was directly revealed to him by God and not transmitted to him by men (and he never met the earthbound Jesus). Now, to those who believe that Paul indeed wrote by divine revelation, his writing could corroborate claims of what position Jesus/God took/takes on a matter, but as my next paragraph shows, that does not help your central claim about Jesus's motivation in forbidding divorce.

If Jesus prohibited divorce for the benefit of women who would have a hard time after divorce, why does Matthew 5:32 have him compounding their difficulty by saying, "anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery"? Similarly, the passage you cited from Paul says, "10 To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. 11 But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife." Paul's God insisted that divorced women have no chance of finding happiness with a new partner; she is not given the option of making a clean break by divorcing him and starting anew with some man who might be more open-minded than was the norm.

I know that you don't think that Jesus spoke to Paul after his death, so I'm not sure why you listed him as providing attestation of what Jesus said. Do you believe that he was disingenuous in claiming to believe to be writing only from what God told him directly, and that he was as much a scribe to the reports of his contemporaries?

Finally, just to increase my own knowledge on this issue, what historical record provides information about divorce being available for as trivial a matter as a wife's burning food?
My research unequivocally established that, despite this verse in Mark, Jesus' culture did not grant women the right to divorce.
Biblical scholars consider mention in more than one Synoptic gospel to be independent attestation for the good reason that each one lends his own unique interpretation to the words attributed to Jesus. I found no disagreement among esteemed biblical researchers that the prohibition against divorce is multiply attested.
Regarding Paul, again, each author puts his own stamp on the story. Paul does not have to have heard this directly from Jesus. He does what is claimed universally in phrases like, "God told me . . ." And I believe Paul was a mystic, one in close communication with the Inner Realm.

For my sources, contact me by email at godisnot3guys.com .

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