Pastors who want to think seriously about the vexed issues of
divorce and remarriage will do well to interact with the scholarly
work of David Instone-Brewer. This volume is the full scholarly
exposition of his thesis. This thesis is ground-breaking.
Instone-Brewer's work is strongly dependent on the Greco-Roman
background to the 1s Century AD divorce debates, against which
background he interprets the divorce teachings of Jesus and Paul. He
argues that the key issue in Jesus's divorce sayings was the
validity or otherwise of particular divorces. If a divorce is
invalid (in the sight of God), then any subsequent 'remarriage1 by
either party will be adultery (in the sight of God). The legality
and morality of a remarriage depends upon the validity of the
So the question is, which divorces if any are valid? At the time
of Jesus, as is well-known, the school of the Rabbi Hillel had
introduced easy 'any matter' divorces for men (Matthew 19:3 'for any
and every reason'); these promoted a culture of quick and
religiously respectable divorces (for men). Jesus (shockingly) says
these are invalid, unless there was 'indecency' (porneia) involved
(by which Instone-Brewer, along with many scholars, understands a
broad range of sexual infidelities and indecencies).
More controversially, Instone-Brewer argues that Jesus also
implicitly accepted that persistent and deliberate emotional and
material neglect of a spouse constituted grounds for valid divorce.
He bases this on the rabbinic use of Exodus 21:10f, which argued
that if even a slave-wife must be given 'food, clothing and marital
rights' then a fortiori this obligation rested on all husbands (and,
with certain modifications, on wives). Instone-Brewer admits that to
say that Jesus would have accepted these grounds is an argument from
silence, but argues that since this was the common assumption of all
his contemporaries, Jesus would have had very deliberately to
contradict it had he wished to do so. He suggests also that in 1
Corinthians 7:3-5, 32-35, Paul implicitly teaches the obligations to
provide emotional and material support of a spouse, and thus also
(Instone-Brewer suggests) accepts that the deliberate and persistent
failure to do so are grounds for valid divorce.
Instone-Brewer's thesis cannot be ignored. If it can be
sustained, it has significant implications for church pastoral
practice and discipline.
Christopher Ash Little Shelford