Divorce and Remarriage
by David Instone-Brewer

"Apart from Craig Keener's '. . . And Marries Another' (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1991), David Instone-Brewer's book is the most paradigm-challenging study of the NT divorce texts that I have encountered."


William A. Heth

Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, December 2003

Full review:

Apart from Craig Keener's . . . And Marries Another (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1991), David Instone-Brewer's book is the most paradigm-challenging study of the NT divorce texts that I have encountered. Since the whole book is available at his website (, my goal here is merely to entice the reader to wrestle with the implications Instone-Brewer's interpretive grid has not only for the immediate topic, but for our approach to other NT subjects as well.

Instone-Brewer's goal is to overturn the highly impractical "traditional Church in-terpretation" (pp. ix, 304) of the NT divorce texts. This no remarriage, but two-grounds-for-separation view could only have emerged outside the literary and social context of first-century Judaism. Provocatively, Instone-Brewer identifies two additional biblical grounds for divorce based on Exod 21:10-11, a text that states a husband must give a wife food, clothing, and "marital love/duty." Rabbinic sources classified these under two headings: material neglect and emotional neglect (p. 102). Both the rabbis and Paul ap-plied these equally to the wife and the husband (cf. I Cor 7:3-5, 32-34), and the three provisions of Exod 21:10-11 "became the basis for the vows in Jewish marriage con-tracts and in Christian marriage services via the reference in Ephesians 5:28-29" (p. 275). This, to be sure, is the unique contribution of this study. In Instone-Brewer's own words, "The interpretation of [the words in Exod 21:10-11] by first-century Jews is the most important consideration for this present study" (p. 100).

What are Instone-Brewer's working assumptions? First, I believe he would say it is inappropriate merely to do a grammatical-historical exegesis of OT texts and see how exegesis fits hand-in-glove into its NT context (p. x). Intertestamental Jewish interpretive traditions and the Greco-Roman environment must be considered when reading the NT. For example, where Deut 24:1 is concerned, it is impossible to decide what "some-thing indecent" (NIV) referred to originally; all we need to know is how first-century teachers understood it.

Second, just as rabbinic debates were summarized for oral or written transmission, so was Jesus' teaching on divorce. Instone-Brewer illustrates the principles of abbre-viation that the rabbis used and how they are paralleled in the longer and shorter re-ports of Jesus' teaching in the Gospels with a discussion of the various accounts of the Hillelite-Shammaite divorce dispute in the Mishnah (cf. Matthew 19//Mark 10) (p. 162), Sifre (when we unpack Matthew 19//Mark 10 exegesis) (pp. 163-64), and Jerusalem Talmud (cf. Matt 5:31-32; Luke 16:18) (pp. 164-65). To be specific, the phrases "for any matter" (Matt 19:3) and "except for (a matter of) indecency" (Matt 19:9) are omitted from Mark 10:2-12 because they were obvious to the original audience. Matthew added these "phrases that encapsulated the positions of the Hillelites and Shammaites respectively," not because he wanted to soften Jesus' absolute prohibition of divorce (as in the older critical view), but because he could no longer assume his readers would automatically supply what was originally present (p. 134).

Most mentally assume exceptions to sayings of Jesus like those found in Matt 5:22 ("without cause") and 5:28 ("except for his wife") (p. 153). When it comes to the core form of Jesus' divorce saying, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adul-tery," the only assumption first-century readers would bring to make sense of it "is to assume that the divorce was invalid" (p. 149). Matthew's addition of "except for (a mat-ter of) indecency" makes this assumption explicit.

Instone-Brewer provides the most satisfactory explanation to date for the two dif-ferent forms of Matthew's exception. Exegetes have long recognized that the phrase in Matt 5:32 is the virtual semantic equivalent of the Shammaites' transposition of the corresponding Hebrew phrase in Dent 24:1 m. Git. 9.10). However, the Shammaitc po-sition was summarized in the rabbinic literature in two similar forms, the second of which is semantically identical with the phrase in Matt 19:9 (Sifre Deut. 269; y. Sota 1.2 [16b])! Was adultery the only ground for divorce allowed by Jesus? Probably not, because the focus of the controversy was the meaning of Deut 24:1. However, the Shammaites also allowed other divorces on the grounds of Exod 21:10-11 (p. 186). and Jesus presumably would, too.

Just as Jesus condemned the no fault Hillelite "any matter" divorce as invalid, 30 Paul condemned the Greco-Roman no fault "divorce by separation" as invalid (1 Cor 7:10-11). In the case of 1 Cor 7:15, rather than technically argue for neglect, Paul gave a pragmatic solution (cf. the rabbinic phrase "God has called us to peace") to a difficult situation. If people had been divorced against their will and could do nothing to reverse it, Paul says they should be regarded as validly divorced and free to remarry (p. 204). Instone-Brewer wants us to know, however, that "Paul did not even mention the use of these obligations as grounds for divorce. Instead, he was keen to emphasize the duty of each partner to fulfill these obligations that had been promised in the marriage vows" (p. 1.97). Neither Jesus nor Paul is a legalist.

Though pastoral advice is limited, here is a plausible defense of four grounds for permitting divorce when (1) marriage vows have been violated, (2) extensive forgive-ness has been extended in view of genuine repentance (Luke 17:3-4), and (3) the vow-breaker stubbornly refuses to repent of their actions. Hosea "showed that God did not end the relationship until it was already totally destroyed" (p. 36). The viability of this new approach depends on whether or not the reader is persuaded that Instone-Brewer's interpretive grid better comprehends all the biblical data than the one they have always brought to these texts. One will have to read the whole to feel the full force of his case.

William A. Heth Taylor University, Upland, IN


Read more reviews...