In this comprehensive study David Instone-Brewer has made a
significant contribution to the study of some of the most pertinent
biblical materials dealing with divorce and remar-riage. At the same
time, he demonstrates a methodology of study that would he quite
helpful in the consideration of many questions that puzzle or
disturb contemporary read-ers of the Bible. Divorce and Remarriage
in the Bible is not a quick read, but it is informative and
The heart of the study is located in Chapters Five-Seven. Chapter
Five provides a most important review of Rabbinic Teaching on the
topic. The rabbinic discussions of the first century C.E. provide
the context in which Jesus and Paul shared their views on divorce
and remarriage. A review of the rabbinic materials reveals
clearly-agreed upon reasons for divorce based on scriptural texts.
And further, it i.s also clear lhat remarriage was permitted for
such "valid" divorces.
But there was a substantial debate between two groups of
Pharisees, the followers of Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai, prior to
the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. The disciples of Rabbi
Hillel and the courts over which they had jurisdiction, allowed what
were called "any matter" di-vorces. In these cases, no cause was
required proven in order for a divorce to he granted. These "any
matter" di-vorces were much like contemporary "no fault" divorces.
Rabbi Shammai and his school interpreted the text on which "any
matter" divorces were based (Deuteronomy 24:1) more narrowly as
indicating that adultery was the issue. Eventu-ally, after the
destruction of Jerusalem, the Shammaites ceased to have any power
and thus their interpretation fell out of the discussion.
With this basic insight well-demonstrated and docu-mented
Instone-Brewer turns to the teaching of Jesus (Chap-ter Six) and
Paul (Chapter Seven). The church lost the Jewish context of the
discussion in the years following the destruction of Jerusalem and
the expansion of the church into ihe Gentile world. What appears to
be a clear-cut an-nouncement on the part of Jesus that there is no
justifica-tion for divorce (Mark 10), except for adultery (Matthew
19), proves unlikely. More likely in the social context of Jesus'
day was that he was making a negative judgment on the "any matter"
divorces granted by the Hillelites and thereby siding with the
Shammaites. If this is true, Jesus then believed that the "any
matter" divorces were invalid and thus remarriage became an occasion
for adultery. Paul following Jesus, according to Instone Brewer,
used the same basic line of interpretation.
In each case, however, Jesus and Paul were addressing particular
situations faced by their immediate audiences They assumed that
their audience knew the agreed upon teaching and thus left such
things unspoken. Jesus, particu-larly, was criticizing one debated
view of his contemporar-ies, and should be so heard. Unfortunately,
the teaching of Jesus and Paul on the matter of divorce and
remarriage were taken out of their original context with negative
con-sequences for proper understanding.
In this brief review the complexity and clarity of the arguments
presented by Instone-Brewer cannot by ad-equately presented. If
indeed he is correct in his reading of the social and literary
contexts of Jesus and Paul, then centuries of teaching on the matter
of divorce and remar-riage in the church need critical review. Some
crucial as-pects of the claimed biblical basis for much church
doctrine and practice are probably wrong. Instone-Brewer calls for a
reexamination of the biblical witness, and offers practical pastoral
advice on some of the ways divorce and remarriage should be
approached in light of these new insights.
Parallel in importance, at least in this reviewer's opin-ion, is
the contribution Instone-Brewer makes in terms of methodology. He
demonstrates by his careful examination of rabbinic teaching just
how crucial it is to read ancient documents with as full an
understanding of the social con-text as possible. He offers specific
guidelines for how this should be done. The bottom line is that
modern interpreters must first seek with all diligence to determine
how ordi-nary persons in the culture in which a text was first
written understood it. This may seem obvious, but the necessary
effort to gain such information is all too often lacking.
This volume is "thick," Some of the discussion is a little
tedious. The footnotes are copious. But the issues considered are
important and deserve the careful attention given. There arc helpful
indices (a rarity these days!) and an expansive bibliography. If a
thoughtful reexamination of the biblical teachings on divorce and
remarriage is sought, this offering by David Instone-Brewer is well
W. Eugene March, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary,