DAVID INSTONE-BREWER is a Baptist minister and research fellow at
Tyndale House, Cambridge. He interprets the New Testament teach-ing
on divorce and remarriage with a pastoral concern for those facing
marriage breakdown today —- some-thing that is greatly needed,
espe-cially after the General Synod's recent decision.
He argues that the Old Testament allows for divorce on "valid
grounds" such as adultery, abuse and neglect. Both Jesus and Paul
con-demned divorce (and remarriage) without such "valid grounds";
they discouraged divorce even when there were valid grounds, but
allowed for remarriage here.
He demonstrates that the majority of interpretations, throughout
the history of the Church, have not agreed. Also, Jesus's total
rejection of divorce in Mark 10.1-12 appar-ently undermines his
case. In re-sponse, he rightly .argues that scrip-ture must be
understood in its plain sense within its original historical context
— and he tries to reconstruct this for key texts in the Gospels and
After a detailed treatment of marriage in the ancient Near East,
hi the Old Testament, intertestamental sources (including the Dead
Sea Scrolls) and rabbinic material, he argues that first-century
Shammaite courts permitted divorce (and remarriage) only on biblical
grounds of adultery or neglect; while Hillelite courts interpreted
Deuter-onomy 24.1 to allow for "any matter".
Jesus's teaching in Mark 10 and Matthew 19, interpreted in the
light of this debate, agrees with Shammai, declaring Hillel's "any
matter" divorces invalid. Mark's total condemnation of divorce
"makes no sense" in its first-century context: it is an abbreviated
account, using rabbinic methods also found in the Dead Sea Scrolls;
and any first-century Jew would have realised it was "obvious" that
bib-lical exceptions accepted by Sham-mai should be included, as in
Paul also distinguishes valid and invalid divorces in 1
Corinthians 7 —- and thus Instone-Brewer harmon-ises Paul and
Matthew with the historical Jesus, alongside Shammai and the Old
Testament, permitting divorce and remarriage on valid grounds.
Instone-Brewer's tour de force relies heavily on his earlier work
on rabbinic and Dead Sea material (he cites himself more than anyone
else), which has been criticised for assuming that the
Hillel-Shammai debate was like later rabbinic courts. He recognises
that such material is much later — but still suggests that the
Gospel accounts have a legal setting. Thus "Jesus ruled that lust
was equivalent to adultery," he says, while most scholars interpret
Mat-thew 5.28 as hyperbole (like the fol-lowing verses about
plucking out eyes and cutting off hands). Instone-Brewer wants to
apply the "rules of scripture", yet he criticises others for being
Although he concludes that Jesus and Paul allow divorce and
re-marriage on only "valid grounds", when it comes to pastoral
practice, he will remarry everyone because the minister cannot judge
who is guilty.
So, if you want to interpret Jesus and Paul as legislating for us
today, and yet be pastorally con-cerned for divorce and remarriage,
this is probably as good an argu-ment as any other. However, I would
argue that the Gospels do not con-tain "rules", nor was Jesus
legis-lating in a "court". His rigorous teaching on marriage
challenges us with the high ideals of God, as does his other
material on "giving every-thing away" or "turning the other
Meanwhile, greater attention to the biographical character of the
Gospels also demonstrates Jesus's pastoral acceptance of "sinners"
who fail to live up to those ideals.
General Synod's recent decision both to affirm the sanctity of
life-long marriage and to accept divorce and remarriage seems better
to re-flect both biblical teaching and Jesus's gracious welcome to
The Revd Dr Burridge is Dean of King's College, London.