The purpose and conclusions of this fine, immensely detailed
study are stated clearly at the outset. The purpose "is to
understand the meaning of the New Testament teaching on divorce and
remarriage as it would have been understood by its original
readers". And the conclusions arc (1) "both Jesus and Paul condemned
divorce without valid grounds and discouraged divorce even for valid
grounds"; (2) "both Jesus and Paul affirmed the Old Testament
grounds for divorce"; (3) "the Old Testament allowed divorce for
adultery and for neglect or abuse"; (4) "both Jesus and Paul
condemned remar-riage after an invalid divorce, but not after a
valid divorce" (ix).
As the author admits, "these conclusions are very different from
the traditional Church interpretation of the New Testament texts". A
compendious exegesis of these, in their Hebrew and Greek contexts,
then follows, while the later chap-ters of the book "trace the
conse-quences of neglecting the cultural background of the text"
(x). The tradition of the Church is said to be "completely
different", and the author's hope for his work is that it "will give
a biblical foundation to Church leaders and individuals who are
seeking to evaluate that tradi-tion for themselves" (xi).
The chapters treat marriage and divorce from various
perspectives: (1) The Ancient Near East: Mar-riage is a Contract;
(2) The Pentateuch: The Divorce Certificate Allows Remarriage; (3)
The Later Prophets; Breaking Marriage Vows is Condemned; (4)
Intertestamental Period; Increasing Rights for Women; (5) Rabbinic
Teaching: Increasing Grounds for Divorce; (6) Jesus' Teaching:
Divorce on Bib-lical Grounds Only; (7) Paul's Teaching: Biblical
Grounds Include Neglect; (8) Marriage Vows: Vows Inherited from the
Bible and Judaism; (9) History of Divorce: Interpretations in Church
History; (10) Modern Reinterpretations: Dif-ferent Ways to
Understand the Bib-lical Text; and (11) Pastoral Con-clusions:
Reversing Institutionalized Misunderstandings.
It is impossible, in a short review, to do justice to the close
arguments and minute details of this work. Jesus' teaching is said
to have become "utterly incompre-hensible" after 70 CE and "Mark's
account could not be understood at all" (139). Because "the NT was
written for first century readers" (294), list century readers are
made to depend on the skills of biblical interpreters in using
standard his-torical-critical methods both to arrive at the
authorial intentions of the biblical writers, and to under-stand the
complex cultural milieux in which they are set.
I.'s own view, based on his detailed investigation of biblical
sources, is that in the contemporary Church divorce should be
"avoided and restricted to biblical grounds". He thinks "Jesus and
Paul affirmed all four OT grounds for divorce and remarriage
[adultery, and neglect of food, clothing, and love] while
emphasizing that divorce should be avoided whenever possible and
that believers should go the extra mile in trying to maintain a
marriage" (299). He raises the question, rather bravely, whether
perhaps "the Holy Spirit would not have allowed the Church to be
confused about such an important matter for so many centuries"
(304), but sides with the biblical scholars in interpreting
scrip-ture directly, rather than through tradition. His pastoral
conclusions and recommendations regarding divorce and remarriage are
sensitive and consistent, and based in part on his own experience as
a Baptist minister.
One must wonder whether any interpretation of the relevant
bib-lical texts can be as convincingly better than any of the others
as this author thinks. The hermeneutic presuppositions on which the
argu-ment is carried forward into post-modernity remain undeveloped.
Nonetheless I think this is an out-standing book, certain to
influence contemporary understanding of the relevant biblical texts,
and making an important contribution of what to do about them.
Adrian Thatcher, Plymouth