At the outset of this fine work, Instone-Brewer lays his
cornerstone with the claim. "In the scholarly world there are no
firm conclusions, only theories that are internally coherent and
that fit the facts to a greater or lesser degree" (x). Thus, I.-B.
sets the tone for a thorough investigation of biblical texts,
rabbinic literature, and a multitude of original documents ranging
from ancient Near East marriage contracts to the works of the early
Church Fathers, which shed light on how a first-century reader would
have understood the New Testament teachings on divorce and
remarriage. Most readers today are familiar with the need to place
ancient texts within their cultural milieu in order to understand
such writings. I.-B. demon-strates that as early as the second
century, core assumptions of first-century readers of the Old and
the New Testaments were already lost. Yet, it was within this vacuum
that the early Church Fathers interpreted the words of the Torah and
the Prophets as well as those of Jesus and Paul.
To recover understandings lost for centuries, I.-B. takes his
readers on a journey of discovery. The journey includes travel
through time and space coupled with the opportunity to meet
fascinating personages along the way. This is a deeply and carefully
researched work, as is evidenced by the wide range of materials and
their close examination throughout the book. It is certain to meet
the standards of the most meticulous biblical scholar. At the same
time, I.-B.'s narrative style is so direct and clear and logically
structured that one need not be a biblical scholar to follow and
enjoy his argument. Those for whom the grave matters of divorce and
remarriage are a serious concern, whether for scholarly, pastoral,
or personal reasons, will appreciate I.-B.'s effective argument.
Succinct summaries at the end of each chapter lead seamlessly into
the perspective and argument of the next chapter. In the final
chapter, I.-B. uses a pastoral perspective to success-fully reverse
the institutionalized misunderstandings that, he argues, have
existed from the Christian Church's earliest teachings.
These conclusions are valid, not because of irrefutable proof,
which I.-B. himself has demonstrated is never possible when dealing
with texts that are usually partial as well as few. Rather, I.-B.
convinces us because our jour-ney has been a careful step-by-step
process, beginning with the meaning of the marriage contract in the
ancient Near East milieu as a whole through the Church's
interpretations from the second through the twentieth cen-tury. For
example, through Ezekiel's vivid portrayal of God marrying the
nation of Judah, we learn that the theological meaning of "covenant"
and the civil and religious understandings of "contract" have
similarities but also important differences. I.-B. then demonstrates
that because of the differences, strong parallels that have been
made over the centuries of church teachings become more difficult to
accept and call for reinterpretation.
The core chapter on the teachings of Jesus presents another
example of how I.-B. intertwines cultural perspective and careful
readings of ancient scriptures to lay out a crystal clear
interpretation of what the Gospels reveal about Jesus' vision of
marriage. I.-B. demonstrates three central ideas. (1) Jesus'
teaching about divorce and remarriage can best be inter-preted by
realizing the high value Jesus gave to monogamy and life-long
marriage. (2) Jesus' words need to be understood within the rabbinic
de-bates of his time, especially in the light of the Hillelite
ruling that allowed divorce for any reason. It is clear, I.-B.
holds, that Jesus was opposed to this ruling. (3) Careful
examination of documents that reveal the milieu in which the
community of Jesus' followers lived after his death led to several
practical consequences: Jesus strongly supported monogamy and
life-long marriage; marriage, however, was not compulsory: nor were
there any circumstances that rendered divorce compulsory, although
some circum-stances made it allowable; divorce for "any matter" was
In his conclusion, I.-B. notes several strong parallels between
the first-century Greco-Roman world and our contemporary Western
world. Coupled with his interpretations of the teachings of Jesus,
those parallels led l.-B. to develop a pastoral approach that
emphasizes a need for a strong refocus on the importance of the
marriage vows before marriage, during the wedding celebration, and
in the ongoing support of the Christian com-munity. In addition, he
argues that the Church needs to reemphasize that believers are
called never to break their marriage vows, but that the break-ing of
the vows by a partner who refuses to repent can be valid grounds for
divorce. Generations of men and women have been forced to remain
with abusive spouses. In humility, the Church must acknowledge this
mistake based on false understandings of Scripture.
Jule Dejaeger Ward, De Paul University, Chicago