Historical Culture Context

Marriage and Divorce in Jesus' World

In the ancient Mediterranean world, marriages were between families. Each family selected a partner, union with whom was intended to bind the families together, forming a stronger unit.

Just as children cannot choose their parents, so too children in this culture could not choose their marriage partners. God chose one’s parents, and through one’s parents God chose one’s marriage partner. Hence Jesus’ cultural truism about marriage: “What God has joined together, let no one separate” (Mk 10:9).

Even such a brief statement of the nature of Mediterranean marriages makes it evident why divorce would be unacceptable. Divorce is not just the separation of two partners but rather the separation of two families.

In a society driven by the values of honor and shame, the family of the bride will be shamed. The bride’s male relatives in particular will have to bear the shame as well as the responsibility to remedy it. Feuding will result and undoubtedly escalate to bloodshed. This must be avoided at all cost, hence the cultural rule is no divorce.

In his private explanation to the disciples, Jesus adds one complication to the discussion: remarriage. The discussion is not simply about divorce, which though bad enough was permitted by the Law of Moses (see Mk 10:4). The problem hinges on divorce and remarriage (Mk 10:10-11).

Moreover, Mark’s community apparently is familiar with a situation in which the woman or woman’s family can initiate the divorce. This affront to the husband’s family is so shameful that it must necessarily result in feuding.

Within this social system, remarriage necessarily entails adultery. But the situation is drastically different from that supposed in contemporary Western notions of divorce and adultery. In the Middle Eastern world, adultery is the strategy by which one male shames another male, namely the husband of the wife who is a partner in the adultery.

A wife cannot commit adultery. Culturally it is impossible for her to shame a man’s wife. If a husband has relations with any female (even a prostitute) other than his wife, he does not and cannot shame his honorable wife. Only males can be shamed.

What then does it mean when Mark’s Jesus says, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her?” From the Mediterranean cultural perspective, the shame must reflect upon a male, and the males would be the wife’s father, brothers, or other significant men in her family. Because of the inevitable bloodshed, such a situation must be avoided at all costs.

The behaviors prohibited in the Ten Commandments are precisely affronts of males against other males which require vengeance. Hence the basic purpose of the commandments in ancient Israelite society was to head off feuding which led to bloodshed. The idea was to maintain internal societal harmony and stability.


John J. Pilch
 

**From Saint Louis University

Abby Upah