Tag Archives: josephus

The Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth

A Brief Survey of the Historical Evidence

Christians celebrate the death of Jesus on what is known as Good Friday. It is a rather odd thing to celebrate someone’s death, especially when it was such a brutal and barbaric execution. Some skeptics today have written believers off as sick delusional people. No doubt, it is an old charge. It was even strange to Pliny the Younger who investigated the early church’s worship of the crucified Jesus—those who sang “a hymn to Christ as to a god” (Pliny, Letters 10.96-97).

But for those who are Christians, Good Friday is a time of deep theological reflection. The biblical narrative from creation to fall, from exilic despair to salvific hope, from sinner’s debt to atoning sacrifice, has reached its climax in the life and death of Christ—the true Israelite, the promised Messiah who takes away the sins of the world.

It is a beautiful death because it is the first and only death in the history of mankind that has the power to save—the Creator God becomes human flesh and displays boundless love to his broken creation. The idea of it is too good to be compared to any ancient myth of dying and rising gods, and it is so self-incrementing that any man would or could make it up only to endure the wrath of empire for proclaiming it.

However, the death of Jesus holds no power if he stays dead. That is why the apostle Paul was so adamant about it to the Corinthians who were arguing about the future of those who had died before Christ’s Second Coming (parousia). He writes:

If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins (1 Cor 15:14-17 NIV).

There has been no shortage of books, articles, and journal entries written on the resurrection of Jesus, especially in the last few decades.[1] Dale Allison has stated that the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus is the “prize puzzle of New Testament research.”[2] There are excellent presentations by historical Jesus scholars that have been published in defense of the resurrection—arguments that are concerned with the reliability of the biblical text, the historical possibility of the event, and the reasonability of belief in such a miraculous occurrence.

It is the purpose of this paper to bring out some of the strongest points used in defense of the physical resurrection of the historical Jesus. This paper will persuasively argue on behalf of the following points: (1) the reliability of the NT, eyewitness testimony, and multiple attestation; (2) the empty tomb, resurrection appearances, and the growth of the early church; (3) the philosophical and scientific reasonability of miracles, ancient and modern.

EVIDENCE FOR THE RESURRECTION

Reliability of the NT, Eyewitness Testimony & Multiple Attestation

All four of the Gospels record the death and resurrection of Jesus (Matt 28; Mk 16; Lk 24; Jn 20). However, the inspiration and trustworthiness of the Bible is no longer assumed. Truthfully, the reliability of the Bible has even been heavily attacked since the Enlightenment. While a case could be built for the death and resurrection of Jesus apart from the New Testament sources, the author of this paper is not so willing to give up on the reliability of the NT and the Gospels as historical ancient biographies of Jesus.[3]

Daniel Wallace has recently written, “In Greek alone, there are more than 5,600 manuscripts today… altogether about 20,000 handwritten manuscripts of the NT in various languages.” [4] Even if someone were to destroy all of those manuscripts, the NT could be entirely reconstructed with the one million quotations by the early church fathers![5]

Some critics will respond, what about all those discrepancies? There are certainly textual variants in the many manuscripts we have, but the careful reader should not let the skeptical NT textual critic, Bart Ehrman, convert them to agnosticism just yet.[6] F.F. Bruce has written, “The variant readings about which any doubt remains among textual critics of the New Testament affect no material question of historic fact or of Christian faith and practice.”[7]

In fact, the more historical and textual criticism that is being done on the NT Gospels, the more scholars are recognizing just how meticulous the ancient authors were in their creative retelling of the life of Christ. For instance, Luke, a companion of the apostle Paul, says he consulted with the “eyewitnesses” and “carefully investigated everything from the beginning” (Lk 1:2-3). Luke’s concern to give an “orderly account” of the things that happened in the first half of the century simply can’t be denied if any historian is consistent with their treatment of historical texts.

The apostle Paul passes along an early creedal statement about Jesus:

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born (1 Cor 15:3-8 NIV).

James D.G. Dunn has written that scholars can be “entirely confident” that this tradition was formulated within months of Jesus’ death.[8] So, with the early dating of the Gospels being within approximately 30-40 years of the actual events, the careful oral transmission and tradition between Jesus and the writing of the Gospels, and the multiple eyewitness testimony that Jesus was seen in a resurrected form (something that it seems they had a difficult time finding the words to express), it is fair to say that something out of the ordinary happened.

The majority of scholars agree on some basic events in the life of Jesus. E.P. Sanders has written, “There are no substantial doubts about the general course of Jesus’ life: when and where he lived, approximately when and where he died, and the sort of thing that he did during his public activity …”[9]

No real scholar in the field denies these things. Even the liberal Jesus Seminar scholar, John Dominic Crossan, admits that the crucifixion of Jesus is historical “as sure as anything historical can be.”[10] It is one of the major points of agreement between liberal and conservative Jesus scholars. For any person to deny the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, they must be ignorant of history or purposely distorting the facts. Ancient historians such as Josephus, Tacitus, Lucian, Mara Bar-Serapion, and the Jewish Talmud, mention that Jesus was crucified.[11] Mainstream scholars agree with the biblical text: Jesus really lived, he was crucified, he died, and he was buried in a borrowed tomb. (Mk 15:42-47; Matt 27:57-61; Lk 23:50-54).

Empty Tomb, Resurrection Appearances, & Growth of the Early Church

The empty tomb is recorded and admitted by Christians, enemies of Jesus, and skeptics alike—in ancient and modern times. All four canonical Gospels mention the empty tomb. Paul affirms the empty tomb with the early creed in 1 Cor 15:3-4, and so does Luke in Acts 13:29. While there are scholars today that refuse to acknowledge an empty tomb (e.g. Crossan believes that Jesus’ body was discarded with criminals and eaten by dogs), most scholars recognize the empty tomb as a historical fact.

The empty tomb makes the most historical sense. If the body was not missing, the early Christian message could have been easily stamped out with, “Resurrected? We have his body right here!” The big question is ‘why was it empty?’ The Jewish polemic against the Christian message was that the disciples had stolen the body (Matt 28:11-15; Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho, 108; Tertullian’s On Spectacles, 30). Matthew writes, “And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day” (28:15).

The swoon theory was first proposed in the eighteenth century.[12] This theory claims that Jesus was not really dead after all, but merely slipped into a coma, later to be revived in the cold conditions of the dark tomb. Let there be no mistake. The Romans knew how to kill condemned criminals.[13] While there may have been an occasion where someone escaped the cross (e.g. when Romans fled the scene of battle), the historical evidence in the case of Jesus does not allow for a great escape. The medical evidence indicates a certain death (Jn 19:34).[14]

David Strauss, a nineteenth century liberal scholar, was unconvinced of the swoon theory, saying that a half-dead Jesus would not have convinced his disciples of a glorified resurrection.[15] Strauss points out that you can’t talk about the empty tomb without considering the transformation that took place with the disciples who had previously abandoned Jesus. What else can explain what they claimed they saw, and empowered them to speak the message of the risen Jesus?

According to a small few, the disciples actually had some sort of mass LSD trip, a group hallucination.[16] There are many reasons why this theory doesn’t add up. In short, the disciples claimed to have touched him, ate with him, yet he walked through walls! Also, there has never been one documented account of an entire group of people having the same hallucinations.[17] And the disciples would need to be under a continual psychotic delusion to face martyrdom with non-resistance, declaring that Jesus had been raised from the dead.

Michael Licona writes: “Historians are not chained to using a psychological explanation that is stacked against the supernatural in order to obtain purely natural conclusions in their historical work. They need to go beyond psychological conjectures and employ method carefully.”[18]

Other theories have been proposed: Jesus had a twin brother that dropped in after the crucifixion and appeared to the disciples; the women went to the wrong tomb; and the resurrection was only spiritual. But none of these theories can account for all of the historical evidence, what the disciples believed were resurrection appearances, the teaching of the apostles, and the growth of the early church in the face of intense persecution.

I know in their own terms what they saw was the raised Jesus. That’s what they say and then all the historic evidence we have afterwards attest to their conviction that that’s what they saw. I’m not saying that they really did see the raised Jesus. I wasn’t there. I don’t know what they saw. But I do know that as a historian that they must have seen something.[19]

Whatever they saw, it was enough to change the mind of James, the brother of Jesus, and Saul of Tarsus, a zealous Pharisee and persecutor of the church. James becomes the leader of the Jerusalem church (Acts 15), and he is later martyred for his belief that Jesus had been raised from the dead. What could have happened to prompt the brother of Jesus to become one of the church’s greatest leaders? An encounter with the risen Jesus is the most likely of all possible scenarios.

Saul of Tarsus had a first-hand encounter with the resurrected Christ, while on his way to persecute the church in Damascus, Syria (Acts 9). Something happened to this Saul, student of the great Jewish teacher, Gamiliel (Acts 22:3). He said his transformation from persecutor to apostle was a result of being confronted by the resurrected and glorified Christ. What could change this zealous teacher of the Law? The apostle Paul had met the risen Jesus.

N. T. Wright makes the claim that he knows nothing else that could explain the initial birth and rapid expansion of the early church, except that Jesus was really raised from the dead. Wright states that there are two things “historically secure” about the first Easter: the empty tomb and the meeting with the resurrected Jesus. Nothing in Second-Temple Judaism would have produced such a radical claim that someone (i.e. a crucified Messiah) would be raised to life in the middle of human history.[20] Wright says, “It is therefore historically highly probable that Jesus’ tomb was indeed empty on the third day after his execution, and that the disciples did indeed encounter him giving every appearance of being well and truly alive.”[21]

There is another piece of evidence that adds further weight to the story. Fitting with the principle of embarrassment, the Gospel writers report that it was women who first found the empty tomb and met the risen Jesus (Matt 281-10; Mk 16:1-11; Lk 24:1-11). This is rather peculiar since a woman’s testimony was not even considered as a reliable witness in a first century law court (Josephus, Ant 4.219).

It comes as no surprise that the disciples did not believe their report (Lk 24:11). If they were making up a story about a crucified and resurrected Messiah, especially when the whole idea was foreign to Judaism in the first place, the last thing they would do is have women as the first eyewitnesses to the empty tomb and resurrection. But no attempt is made to gloss over this embarrassing episode.

This bit of the story adds to the historical credibility of the empty tomb. The physical resurrection of Jesus is the best explanation for the empty tomb, as well as the experiences of the disciples, and the rapid growth of the early church in the face of overwhelming opposition from the same world that condemned Jesus.

Limitations of Science & Boundaries of Human Reason

There are certain biases and presuppositions that must be acknowledged on the outset of an investigation into the case for the resurrection. The seventeenth and eighteenth century Enlightenment has conditioned much of the West to separate faith and reason. The church has often been guilty of refusing to take serious the discoveries of science. The sloppy practice of using the Scriptures to attack and defend scientific theories has furthered the idea that faith and reason are at odds with one another.

Of course, there is such a thing as bad science, something that many evolutionary biologists and skeptics of religion today refuse to acknowledge. But who will argue that it was right for the church to denounce Galileo’s heliocentrism—that the earth revolves around the sun? Like many European intellectuals who grew tired of the abuses of the Roman Catholic Church, some modern skeptics and scholars abandon faith altogether, reject any spiritual dimensions to life and the cosmos, only to rely solely upon science as the only infallible guide to epistemology (what we can know and how can we know it). Is this sound?

The thinking of David Hume has left an indelible mark on Western society. Hume rejected the idea of miracles, largely based on his naturalistic perspective that the laws of nature prohibit them from happening. Hume wrote:

The Christian Religion not only was at first attended with miracles, but even at this day cannot be believed by any reasonable person without one. Mere reason is insufficient to convince us of its veracity: And whoever is moved by Faith to assent to it, is conscious of a continued miracle in his own person, which subverts all the principles of his understanding, and gives him a determination to believe what is most contrary to custom and experience.[22]

Would the resurrection of Jesus be a violation of natural laws? Are miracles to be entirely ruled out because Hume concluded that they are contrary to nature and the whole of human experience?

There are currently three main views of natural law: the regularity theory, the nomic necessity theory, and the causal dispositions theory. None of these theories actually allow for miracles to be understood as violations of the laws of nature. Instead, miracles are naturally impossible events that require an unknown or “supernatural” force to interrupt the natural world at a certain time and place.

Naturalism may indicate that dead people stay dead. But if there is a God who created the world, and sent his Son to reveal his divine program, then how can skeptics be so certain that this God wouldn’t raise Jesus from the dead in order to vindicate him and affirm divine revelation? It is just the sort of thing God would do to reveal himself and redeem mankind for a new world—a world that he has not left to simply wind down, grow cold, and become stardust.

William Lane Craig writes:

When a scientific anomaly occurs, it is usually assumed that some unknown natural factors are interfering, so that the law is neither violated nor revised. But suppose the law fails to describe or predict accurately because some supernatural factors are interfering? Clearly the implicit assumption of such laws is that no supernatural factors as well as no natural factors are interfering. Thus, if the law proves inaccurate in a particular case because God is acting, the law is neither violated nor revised. If God brings about some event which a law of nature fails to predict or describe, such an event cannot be characterized as a violation of a law of nature, since the law is valid only under tacit assumption that no supernatural factors come into play in addition to the natural factors.[23]

It is for the reason of “miracles” and the divinity attributed to Jesus that some “historians” find reason not to trust anything the Gospel writers say. They believe the Gospels are tainted with wishful thinking. Therefore, it is hard to determine who the “historical Jesus” really is after all. Crossan has written the following on the possibility of a resurrection miracle: “I do not think this event ever did or could happen… I do not think that anyone, anywhere, at any time brings dead people back to life.”[24]

Historians should not be so quick to dismiss the miraculous as human inventions by lunatic disciples wanting to start their own religion on a failed Messiah.[25] Paul Rhodes Eddy and Gregory Boyd have written:

Most within the guild of historical-critical scholarship identify the historical-critical method with this unequivocal commitment to the presupposition of naturalism. For such scholars, talk about a naturalistic historical-critical method is redundant, and talk about about a historical-critical method that is not unequivocally committed to naturalism is a contradiction in terms.[26]

Eddy and Boyd suggest an alternative method they call an “open historical-critical method” that is not unequivocally committed to naturalism and is open to events that defy natural explanation. The method is “critical” in that it first looks for “natural” causes to bizarre events, but at the same time it is “open” to the appeals of “supernatural” occurrences, not rejecting them on an a priori basis.[27] Scholars must be willing to follow the evidence wherever it leads them.

Other contemporary NT scholars also argue for the historical probability of miracles, thus substantiating the claims of the NT. Craig Evans believes that the same criteria used for supporting the authentic words of Jesus in the Gospels, can also be applied to miracles. The historical criteria are multiple attestation, dissimilarity, and embarrassment.[28]

As already previously argued, all of these can be found in the resurrection story. Craig Keener has arguably written the greatest work on the subject of miracles. In his two-volume work, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts, Keener challenges David Hume’s epistemological skepticism, and presents a monumental case for miraculous phenomena from late antiquity up to contemporary times. He begins by pointing out that all of the many ancient sources acknowledge that Jesus was a worker of miracles. Keener describes the importance of miracles in the Gospels:

Most scholars today working on the subject thus accept the claim that Jesus was a healer and exorcist. The evidence is stronger for this claim than for most other specific historical claims that we could make about Jesus or earliest Christianity. Scholars often note that miracles characterized Jesus’ historical activity no less than his teaching and prophetic activities did. So central are miracle reports to the Gospels that one could remove them only if one regarded the Gospels as preserving barely any genuine information about Jesus.[29]

Keener mentions how Walter Wink, a NT scholar and member of the Jesus Seminar, shifted his “materialistic” assumptions about reality after a divine healing of his own. Wink says, “I have no difficulty believing that Jesus actually healed people, and not just of psychosomatic diseases.” Wink writes that any scholar who would deny the truth of his story because of their worldview, do so “not on historical grounds, but on the basis of their” antisupernaturalistic assumptions.[30]

Therefore, it is important to study the historical Jesus by first discarding of the presupposition that naturalism can fully account for the way things are in the world. As Craig has written, “If we begin by presupposing naturalism, then of course what we wind up with is a purely natural Jesus. This reconstructed, naturalistic Jesus is not based on evidence, but on definition.”[31] So, based on the amount of observable evidence, there is good reason to believe in miracles today.

EVIDENCE THAT DEMANDS A VERDICT

The very laws of nature (as we know them) are continually sustained by God’s power. He has revealed himself in the natural order and in the spiritual order. But more specifically, God’s good will for creation has been made known in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ of Nazareth. And he has displayed his saving power by raising this Jesus from the dead. However, it is right to conclude that no amount of scientific or historical data can conclusively prove that Jesus rose from the dead. Belief in miracles, the resurrection of Jesus particularly, is not born from historical evidence alone. John Meier candidly writes:

Can miracles happen? Do miracles happen? In my view, these wide-ranging questions are legitimate in the arena of philosophy or theology. But they are illegitimate or at least unanswerable in a historical investigation that stubbornly restricts itself to empirical evidence and rational deductions or inferences from such evidence.[32]

C. E. B. Cranfield sums up his survey of the evidence in this way:

A positive proof of its truth is just not to be had by such means. Certainty with regard to it can come to us only by the work of the Holy Spirit making us free to believe. But it seems to me that the evidence available to us—and I have tried now a good many times to weigh it as carefully and honestly and objectively as I can—is such that, though I cannot prove that God raised Jesus from the dead by historical-critical methods, I can believe it without any way violating my intellectual or moral integrity. For myself, I must declare that I do indeed confidently believe it.[33]

Finally, there are at least five established facts in the case for the resurrection. These “minimal facts” are the death of Jesus by crucifixion, the empty tomb, the disciple’s resurrection claims, the conversions of James and Paul, and the rapid growth of the early church in the face of suffering and death. This is compelling evidence for the resurrection of Jesus that every skeptic must confront with historical, logical, and consistent reasons of rebuttal if they wish to challenge mainstream biblical and historical scholarship, or engage in an attack on the gospel of Jesus.

After normal causations are exhausted as an explanation for the resurrection story, the historical evidence points to the “high probability” that Jesus rose from the dead.[34]

D.D. Flowers, 2012.

NOTE: This academic paper was put into a popular three-part post “Why I Believe in the Resurrection of Jesus” here at the blog. There are active links and videos in that series of posts.


[1] A few major scholars such as Dale Allison, Raymond Brown, Peter Carnley, David Catchpole, William Lane Craig, John Dominic Crossan, James D.G. Dunn, Bart Ehrman, Gary Habermas, Gerd Ludemann, Willi Marxsen, Gerald O’Collins, Richard Swinburne, A.J.M. Wedderburn and N.T. Wright have weighed in on the topic.

[2] Dale Allison, Resurrecting Jesus: The Earliest Christian Tradition and Its Interpreters (New York: T&T Clark, 2005), 200.

[3] See Richard Burridge, What are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004). Burridge calls for an understanding of the gospels an ancient biographies.

[4] Daniel B. Wallace, Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament: Manuscript, Patristic, and Apocryphal Evidence (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2011), 28.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Bart Ehrman is a NT textual critic, and former evangelical Christian. See his book, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005). Also, see Nicholas Perrin’s response to Ehrman in his book, Lost in Transmission: What Can We Know About the Words of Jesus (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007).

[7] F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1981), 14-15.

[8] James D. G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered. Christianity in the Making, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 855.

[9] E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (London: Penguin, 1993), 11.

[10] John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Peasant (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992), 145.

[11] Josephus, Antiquities 18.64; Tacitus, Annals 15.44; Lucian of Samosata, The Death of Pererine 11-13; Mara Bar Serapion, BL Add. 14658; and the Talmud, Sanhedrin 43a. The Quran denies that Jesus was crucified on a Roman cross (Surah 4:157-158). This is a rather embarrassing historical blunder on behalf of the Quran. This is not some insignificant textual variant or slight discrepancy in the Islamic text. It is a historical contradiction.

[12] Early proponents were: Karl Friedrich Bahrdt, Karl Venturini, Heinrich Paulus, and Friedrich Schleiermacher. The muslim, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, proposed that Jesus survived the crucifixion in journeyed to India. See his book, Jesus in India (1899).

[13] See the ancient writer, Seneca Moral Epistles 101; and Martin Hengel, Crucifixion, trans. John Bowden (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977), 22-23.

[14] “interpretations based on the assumption that Jesus did not die on the cross appear to be at odds with modern medical knowledge.” The Journal of the American Medical Association “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ” Vol. 255 (March 21, 1986), 1463.

[15] David Strauss, A New Life of Jesus. 2 vols (Edinburgh: Williams & Norgate, 1879).

[16] Oddly enough, Strauss actually popularized this theory. In Strauss’ view, the disciples were tripping with the resurrected Christ! This view is not taken seriously by any scholar or medical expert today. See Jake O’Connell “Jesus’ resurrection and collective hallucinations.” Tyndale Bulletin 60, no. 1 (January 1, 2009): 69-105.

[17] Gary Habermas and Michael Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2004), 105-108.

[18] Michael Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2010), 567-568.

[19] Paula Fredriksen (Boston University) in an interview by Peter Jennings in Search for Jesus (American Broadcasting Corp. [ABC], July 2000).

[20] Douglas W. Kennard, Messiah Jesus: Christology in His Day and Ours (New York: Peter Lang, 2008), 335. Kennard writes: “No O.T. text claims the time of third day resurrection of Messiah, but a sentiment grew among Pharisaic second Temple Judaism that began to see the Biblical text describe the general resurrection and even a Messianic resurrection on the third day.” Also see Wright’s Resurrection of the Son of God, 321-322. It can at least be said that the traumatized disciples were not thinking that Jesus was going to rise from the dead

[21] N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, Vol. 3: Christian Origins and the Question of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 686-687.

[22] David Hume, An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 10.2.101. Hume is saying that it is a miracle that anyone could ever be dumb enough to believe in the Christian faith!

[23] William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth & Apologetics (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008), 262.

[24] Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994), 94-95.

[25] The following contemporary perspectives on miracles take the notion seriously: R. Swinburne, The Concept of Miracle (New York: Macmillan, 1970); F.J. Beckwith, David Hume’s Argument against Miracles: A Critical Analysis (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1989); T.C. Williams, The Idea of the Miraculous: The Challenge to Science and Religion (New York: Macmillan, 1990); J. Houston, Reported Miracles: A Critique of Hume (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994); R.D. Geivett and G.R. Habermas, eds., In Defense of Miracles: A Comprehensive Case for God’s Action in History (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1997); C.S. Keener, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011).

[26] Paul Rhodes Eddy and Gregory Boyd, The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 51-52.

[27] Ibid., 53.

[28] Craig Evans, Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 140.

[29] Craig S. Keener, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 23-24.

[30] Ibid., 103.

[31] Craig, 279.

[32] John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Vol. 2 (New York: Doubleday, 1994), 511. Meier is not saying that miracles are not real events in time and space, nor is he doing “covert” apologetics.

[33] C.E.B. Cranfield, “The Resurrection of Jesus.” The Historical Jesus in Recent Research. eds. James D.G. Dunn and Scot McKnight (Winona Lake: Eisebrauns, 2005), 390-391.

[34] David J. Norman, “Doubt and the resurrection of Jesus.” Theological Studies 69, no. 4 (December 1, 2008): 786-811.


Let No Man Put Asunder

Jesus’ Teaching on Divorce

Jesus’ teaching on divorce appears in the synoptic gospels and Paul.[1] It is because of multiple and abundant attestation that Jesus’ sayings on divorce are considered, even among the most liberal of scholars, to be authentic words of Jesus of Nazareth.[2]

This would usually be reason for a moderate evangelical like myself to celebrate. However, not even evangelicals who pride themselves—rightfully so—on believing in the inspiration of the biblical text, can agree on what Jesus meant by what he said.

The catholic scholar J. P. Meier observes that Jesus’ teaching on divorce, “leads us into a confusing morass of historical, exegetical, and theological problems.”[3] No doubt, a great deal of time and energy has been given to discovering what Jesus really said about divorce and remarriage; in spite of the honest trepidation that can accompany such a hermeneutical endeavor.

The purpose of this paper is to bring some contextual clarity to Jesus’ teaching on divorce through: (1) a brief examination of divorce in the Old Testament and in the literature of the intertestamental period, (2) an appraisal of the legalities of divorce that were seemingly in a state of flux during the Second Temple period leading up to Jesus, (3) an exegesis of the divorce passages found in the synoptic gospels—giving special attention to Matthew 5:27-32; 19:3-9 and the so-called “exception” clauses.

DIVORCE IN THE OLD TESTAMENT

The Law 

Deut 24:1-4 is the only significant law on divorce in the Pentateuch—which accounts for the debate in early Judaism over the meaning of this passage. What constitutes a legal divorce? It was this one long sentence of casuistic law (“if… then”) that the Jewish leaders sought to extrapolate meaning and application. The center of their deliberations was the obscure Hebrew phrase “erwat dabar” (lit. “nakedness of a thing”) which appealed to the ancient honor/shame culture. This phrase was likely intended to be vague so that it would include a range of marital infractions, but not to include adultery.[4]

In the context, the passage is dealing with a specific case of remarriage. J. Carl Laney writes, “Grammatically the intent of the law is not to give legal sanction to divorce or to regulate the divorce procedure. The intent of the passage is to prohibit the remarriage of a man to his divorced wife in cases of an intervening marriage by the wife.”[5]

Christopher Wright says, “The practical effect of this rule is to protect the unfortunate woman from becoming a kind of marital football, passed back and forth between irresponsible men.”[6] It is clear that Moses was not giving a command or even encouraging divorce. He is merely protecting the people and land from defilement (v.4). The only other law mentioning divorce is Lev 21:7, 13-14, indicating a definite stigma that is attached to divorce in the Pentateuch—divorce is merely tolerated.

The Prophets

Deut 24:1-4 can be seen in the message of three prophets. Yahweh pleads through Jeremiah that Israel repent of her “whoring and wickedness” and return to him (3:1-5). “If a man divorces his wife and she goes from him and becomes another man’s wife, will he return to her? Would not such a land be greatly polluted? You have played the whore with many lovers; and would you return to me” (v.1)? What is impossible under the Law is made possible by God’s grace if they choose to repent (4:1-2).

In Isaiah 50:1, the people of Israel have been sent away for their unfaithfulness, but Yahweh is capable of restoring them to himself if they would only repent and believe that he can redeem them.

Yahweh bends over backwards in Hosea 3:1-3 as he suspends the law against remarriage: “Go, love a woman who has a lover and is an adulteress, just as the LORD loves the people of Israel, though they turn to other gods and love raisin cakes” (v.1). In a bizarre set of circumstances, Yahweh seeks to prove through Hosea’s marriage to  the loose woman Gomer that there are no lengths too great that he is not willing to go in order to honor the covenant relationship he made with Israel.

And it is in Malachi that Yahweh denounces the unfaithfulness of men to their young wives (2:14-15). Yahweh declares down through the ages, “I hate divorce” (2:16).

With these sentiments expressed by the Hebrew prophets, how then could there be a debate over divorce in early Judaism? Meier reminds his readers that, “one should remember that prophetic exhortation and condemnation, however fiery, did not possess the same binding force for later Judaism as did the laws of the Pentateuch.”[7] In the day of Jesus, the Law of Moses (i.e. Deut 24:1-4) is front and center in the divorce debate.

THE INTERTESTAMENTAL PERIOD

The Qumran Scrolls

The meticulous study of the Dead Sea Scrolls[8] continues to reveal a wealth of information to biblical scholars working to understand the Second Temple period. The sect that lived at Qumran separated from what they believed to be a corrupted Judaism and settled by the northwest shore of the Dead Sea.[9] They carried on a monastic life as they copied and preserved OT manuscripts, as well as some of the Pseudepigrapha.

The most fascinating find is proving to be the sectarian compositions that describe their communal lifestyle, rituals, theology, and beliefs about a coming eschatological kingdom. The Qumran scrolls give insight into one group that prohibited divorce to some degree.[10]

The Temple Scroll (11Q Temple 57:17-19) sets forth conduct for a future king of Israel that is drawn directly from Deut 17.[11] The text indicates that the sect interpreted the prohibition of polygamy (Deut 17:17) to also include divorce: “And he shall not take in addition to her another wife, for she alone shall be with him all the days of her life; and if she dies, he shall take for himself another (wife).” There is some disagreement among scholars on whether this “utopian” life of a future king would apply to the townsfolk.

11QTemple 66:8-11 repeats the command found in the law of Deut 22:28-29 that a man who seduces a virgin not yet betrothed must marry her and “cannot divorce her as long as he lives.” Is the sect confirming that the law against divorce is only binding under certain circumstances?

In light of 11QTemple 57:17-19, it is possible that “unchastity” mentioned in Damascus Document (CD 4:12b-5:11) includes adultery,[12] polygamy, incest, and divorce. Hans Dieter Betz writes, “There appears to be more agreement that the prohibitions do not merely apply to the king but to the common Jew as well.”[13]

Philo & Josephus

Philo of Alexandria (ca. 20 BC-ca. 50 AD), a Jewish contemporary with Jesus and Paul, is an important witness to Jewish thought and practice during the Second Temple period. As a writer influenced by Hellenism and the allegorical school in Alexandria, Egypt, Philo is often read with a critical eye. However, his commentary on Deut 24:1-4 should not be ignored for those seeking to understand Jewish halakhah (legal rulings).

What insight does Philo give as to the interpretation of the text and the Jewish attitude on divorce in the first century?

In his Special Laws (3:30-31),[14] he introduces the woman who was divorced “under any pretence.” Philo aligns himself with the House of Hillel and their view of an “any-cause” divorce. He gives a plain reading of the Law: a woman divorced from her first husband, having “married another,” must not return to her first husband. He indicates that husband who would take his wife back should “bear the reputation of effeminacy” and should be put to death with his wife.

The Jewish historian and Roman sympathizer, Flavius Josephus (37 AD-ca. 95 AD), also agrees with Philo and the House of Hillel that a husband could divorce his wife for any reason whatsoever.

In Ant 4.8.23 §253, Josephus writes:

He that desires to be divorced from his wife for any cause whatsoever (and many such causes happen among men), let him in writing give assurance that he will never use her as his wife any more; for by this means she may be at liberty to marry another husband, although before this bill of divorce be given, she is not to be permitted so to do; but if she be misused by him also, of if, when he is dead, her first husband would marry her again, it shall not be lawful for her to return to him.[15]

Josephus does appear to focus more on the husband and his actions, where Philo focuses on the wife. Also, Josephus is more concerned about the written certificate of divorce (as a second law) and departs from a plain reading of Deut 24:1-4. Josephus, himself having been married a couple of times (Life 75.415), clearly had embraced the liberal Hillelite interpretation of the OT[16] and had joined the cultural plague of divorce.

Hillel & Shammai 

The divorce practices of the first century have been made known to scholars today by surveying the vast collection of papyri from Egypt—that includes marriage contracts and divorce agreements.[17]

Scholars are recognizing that marriage and divorce underwent a “revolution” during this tumultuous era.[18] The Mishnah[19] has also proven to be most helpful in gaining insight into the background of Jesus’ teachings amid the first century debate.[20]

The Mishnah reveals two rabbinical schools that were in dispute over divorce: the schools of Hillel and Shammai. N. T. Wright says that by the time of Jesus, “It is likely that the two ‘houses’ of Hillel and Shammai already represented two alternative ways of being Pharisees.”[21]

As the reader might expect, their debate centered around the proper interpretation of Deut 24:1-4—what is the meaning of the Hebrew phrase “erwat dabar” and what are legal grounds for divorce?

The two Pharisaic schools are represented in m. Gittin 9.10. The House of Shammai teaches that a man can only divorce his wife for marital unfaithfulness. The House of Hillel say, “Even if she spoiled his (husband’s) dish.”[22] As for Shammai’s teaching, “adultery” is condemned in the OT and is deserving of death (Lev 20:10; Deut 22:22). The woman “caught in adultery” in John 8:1-11 affirms this rule of law.[23]

However, there is some question about how this was being applied in the Roman period of the first century. Early rabbinic sources reflect a “clear desire to circumscribe as far as possible the sphere in which such a severe penalty was to be enforced. A wife whose life was to be spared was certainly to be divorced.”[24] What is clear is that the Jewish world of Jesus was unclear as to how the Law was to be applied to divorce.

THE TEACHINGS OF JESUS

It has been said that the NT Epistles are one-dimensional in their historical and literary context; the gospels, on the other hand, come to the reader from a two or three-dimensional historical context.[25] For example, Paul speaks directly to his audience in his letters, but the gospel writers collected sayings and narratives about Jesus that were preserved by church tradition and then arranged according to their own purposes.

The gospel redactor weaves together each pericope to paint a unique grandiose picture of Jesus to meet the immediate needs of his own local community. There have been efforts to synthesize the gospels into one story, yet the church has continued to recognize each separate literary account as an “inspired and authoritative work of the Holy Spirit.”[26]

Therefore, it is important that the reader pay close attention to the careful construction of each author’s narrative and the intentional placement of Jesus’ discourse on divorce.

The Gospel of Mark (10:1-12)

The large majority of scholars believe that the Gospel of Mark was the first of the synoptic gospels (i.e. Marcan priority), and probably written in the mid- or late 60’s to a predominately gentile audience.[27] Jesus’ block of teaching on divorce is found within a narrative that has been purposely placed in a section on discipleship—with children and the kingdom of God on each side of the divorce pericope.

It would appear that accepting Jesus’ teaching on divorce is a matter of the kingdom. He says, “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it” (10:15).

Since many scholars believe that Matthew relies heavily upon Mark in this narrative, and since this paper thoroughly expounds upon Matthew’s pericope, it is only necessary to briefly point out some of the similarities and differences of Mark to Matthew’s gospel. Both gospels have Jesus entering “Judea beyond the Jordan” (Mk 10:1; Matt 19:1). This would indicate that the teaching happened in the same setting as both writers remember it.

The divorce teaching is prompted by the inquiry of the Pharisees to the question, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife” (Mk 10:2)? Matthew adds, “for any cause” (Matt 19:3).[28] Jesus practically avoids their trap of entering into a debate, and instead points them to God’s original intention for marriage (Mk 10:6; 19:4).

The next part of Jesus’ saying is given only to his disciples “in the house” as a result of their wanting clarification (v.10). Jesus said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (10:11-12).

The most obvious difference between Mark and Matthew is found here in the last two verses.[29] Of all the synoptic gospels, Mark shows the woman to have the same ability to divorce as her husband. Unlike Jewish women in first century Palestine, the women in Mark’s gentile audience have the power to divorce their husbands. Also, Mark does not include the so-called exception clause “except for sexual immorality” (Matt 5:32; 19:9).[30]

Meier captures the blunt force trauma of Jesus’ teaching on divorce:

By completely forbidding divorce, Jesus dares to forbid what the Law allows—and not in some minor, obscure halakic observance but in one of the most important legal institutions in society. He dares to say that a man who duly follows the Law in properly divorcing his wife and marring another woman is in effect committing adultery. When one stops to think what this involves, Jesus’ prohibition of divorce is nothing short of astounding. Jesus presumes to teach that what the Law permits and regulates is actually the sin of adultery.[31]
 

The Gospel of Luke (16:18)

The Gospel of Luke is the longest of all four gospels and is the first volume in his “orderly account” (Luke-Acts) of the life and teachings of Jesus. For those believing in the two-source theory with Marcan priority, both Matthew and Luke used Mark, as well as an unknown “Q” source.[32] It would at first appear that Luke has done a strange thing with the Marcan (and Q?) source of Jesus’ teaching on divorce.

The teaching may at first seem out of place. “The law and the prophets were in effect until John came; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is proclaimed, and everyone tries to enter it by force. But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away, than for one stroke of a letter in the law to be dropped” (16:16-17). Then Jesus says, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and whoever marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery” (v.18).

John Nolland comments on Luke’s thought:

In Luke’s understanding here, the preaching of the good news of the kingdom of God, quite the contrary to offering easy entry into the kingdom, involves an intensification of the demands of the law. The case of divorce is used illustratively… It is clear that in the Lukan understanding the “law and the prophets” are in no sense superseded, but rather added to in the sense of being made yet more rigorous.[33]
 

The Gospel of Matthew (5:27-32; 19:3-9)

The Gospel of Matthew was used more widely in the early church than any of the other gospels.[34] Reasons for its popularity stretch from the ordering of the gospel to its often poetic and memorable phrases.

The dating of Matthew is difficult to know because it depends on many disputed points. If Marcan priority is accepted and the Gospel of Mark was written as late as AD 65, some scholars believe it would have taken ten years for Matthew to produce his own gospel. D.A. Carson says a written source is circulated quickly and Matthew could have written as early as AD 66.[35] Still other scholars have argued for a date some time after the destruction of the Temple in AD 70.

Anthony Saldarini believes the gospel fits the later development of early church Christology, and also matters of Jewish debate.[36] The divorce passages may be an example of that debate.

Matthew was clearly written to a Jewish audience, yet his gospel is at the same time universal in its scope (13:38; 21:33-43; 28:18-20).[37] The “Jewishness” of the gospel can be seen in the extensive use of OT Scriptures and the substitution of “heaven” for God’s name. Matthew is intent on proving that Jesus is the new and greater Moses.[38]

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus sets his teaching alongside the Mosaic Law (5:21, 27, 31, 33, 38, 43).[39] There is a clear emphasis on Jesus’ teaching ministry (5-7)—as it is the largest block to be found in any of the four gospels.

There is no place in the gospel where Matthew plainly states his purpose for writing, but it becomes evident in his particular emphases. Matthew is interested in the church and the needs of the growing Christian-Jewish community. He abridges Mark’s material, likely borrowing from Q as well, and intends to fashion his gospel in a way that is more easily remembered by new believers amidst their Jewish critics.[40]

Saldarini sums up the purpose of Matthew’s gospel:

Matthew does not simply preserve Jewish-Christian traditions which were operative earlier in the century, nor does he effect a synthesis of earlier Jewish with current Christian traditions and customs. The outlook and practice which Matthew promotes in his gospel is thoroughly Jewish and based on the Bible as understood through the teachings of Jesus. Matthew seeks to carry on Jesus’ reform of Judaism and convince his fellow Jews that his understanding of Judaism is God-given (11:25-27) and necessary for Israel and for the gentiles, too.[41]

The Matthean texts will now be examined more critically, as the crux of the debate over Jesus’ teaching on divorce revolves around them.

The first passage for a careful exegesis and examination is found in Matt 5:27-30 NRSV:

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. 

27. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’.”[42] Note: Gk. font not available in blog format.

This verse begins the second antithesis in the Sermon on the Mount.[43] Matthew fashions the discourse to show that Jesus has the authoritative interpretation(s) of Torah.[44] “You have heard that it was said…” is abbreviated from the formula in 5:21. The hearing implies a “chain of verbal communication” that has been passed down in time.[45] It is most likely a reference to the OT itself, since 5:21-48 is dealing with the OT instead of oral law or rabbinic teachings.

The word errethe is the “divine” aorist passive form. In other words, Jesus is using a formula that introduces Torah, not tradition.[46] Jesus recalls for his audience the seventh commandment as found in the LXX Decalogue (Exod 20:14 and Deut 5:18). The use of the imperatival future (moicheuseis) makes the law “You shall not commit adultery” a timeless commandment.

28. “But I (myself) say to you that everyone who looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

Jesus emphatically declares that his words, not the oral traditions of previous rabbis, are the final arbiter of the Law of Moses. He says that adultery begins in the heart of a person who first looks at a woman lustfully.

Daniel Wallace is careful to note that the phrase (everyone who looks at a woman) is a gnomic present participle. It is not a progressive action (e.g. “continually looking”), but rather a general, timeless fact.[47] Therefore, the initial look could very well result in lustful desires of the heart. Regardless of how many looks, it is the sinful thought that Jesus calls “adultery”.

As Davies and Allison point out, “The infinitive after the preposition “pro” represents result and implies that the sin lies not in the entrance of thought but in letting it incite passion.”[48] The aorist infinitive epithumesai is also used in the tenth commandment against “coveting” the wife of your neighbor (Exod 20:17 LXX). Jesus is saying that a real concern for the tenth commandment means a person will root out the evil that first begins in the imagination.

29. “And if your right eye causes you to stumble, tear it out, and throw it from you; for it is better for you that one of your members perish than for your whole body to be cast into Gehenna.”

The use of overstatement is used by Jesus to express the serious nature of sexual sin that must not be handled lightly.[49] A person looks with the eye in lust and then touches with the hand in adultery (v.30). Grant Osborne points out that the “right” side of the body was seen as the more powerful side in antiquity.[50] Jesus says that if lust of the eyes is a problem, it is imperative that a person exele (cut it out!) and bale (throw it away!) in order that they not suffer the violent death of geennan (Gehenna).

The “fire of Gehenna” was mentioned previously (v.22). “Gehenna” refers to the valley south of Jerusalem (gê-hinnõm) that is believed to be the city garbage dump in the first century.[51] It is also known to be the place of child sacrifice to the god Molech (2 Chr 28:3; 33:6). The whole person will suffer the judgment of Gehenna (i.e. “hell”) if the body is given over to sinful desires and passions. Once again, the divine passive (blethe) indicates that it is God who will judge sinners righteously.

30. “And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off, and throw it from you; for it is better for you that one of your members perish than for your whole body to depart into Gehenna.”

Notice the first class conditional sentence (“If your right hand…”). Wallace makes the following comment about this verse and its implications for meaning:

Jesus often put forth a number of challenges to current Jewish orthodoxy, such as that appendages and external things are what defile a person. Reading the text in light of that motif yields the following force: “Ifand let us assume that this is true for argument’s sake-your right hand offends you, then cut it off and throw it from you!” The following line only enforces this interpretation (“For it is better for you that one of your members should perish than that your whole body should be cast into hell”). Jesus thus brings the Pharisees’ view to its logical conclusion. It is as if he said, “If you really believe that your anatomy is the root of sin, then start hacking off some body parts! After all, wouldn’t it be better to be called ‘Lefty’ in heaven than to fry in hell as a whole person?” The condition thus has a provocative power seen in this light.[52]

Matthew purposely places Jesus’ teaching on divorce immediately following this passage on adultery that begins within a person’s thoughts. Jesus moves from adultery beginning in the heart, to a person acting out their sinful desires, to the much-debated issue of divorce. It should be noted that adultery is still the concern in the next two verses.

It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (Matt 5:31-32 NRSV)

31. “And it was said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, give her a certificate of divorce’.”

Davies and Allison state that the verse above is a “legal prescription” that summarizes the procedure in Deut 24:1-4, where the issue of concern is remarriage, not divorce.[53] However, it is important to recall that the raging debate among the rabbis of Jesus’ day was that since Moses allows divorce in Deut 24:1-4, what then are legitimate grounds for divorce?

Once again, the first century rabbinic schools of Hillel and Shammai argued over the minimum requirements that established those grounds (m. Ketub 5:5-8) based on their interpretations of Deut. 24:1.[54]

Daniel Fanous writes, “First-century Judaic thought took a Mosaic prohibition and transformed it into a law allowing divorce. Jesus on the other hand, took the very same prohibition, highlighted and elevated it, and thus created a law prohibiting divorce.”[55]

32. “But I (myself) say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries the divorced woman commits adultery.”

Jesus now returns to his concern over the committing of adultery. Debate looms over the “exception” clause (parektos logou porneia). The phrase logou porneia is not standard Greek wording and it is likely not “natural” Greek.[56] Krister Stendahl writes that the phrase “renders the Hebrew” and shows Matthew’s “dependence upon Jewish terminology.”[57]

The Hebrew phrase erwat dabar (lit. “thing of nakedness”) is translated into the Greek phrase logou porneia in Matt 5:32.[58] Therefore, the phrase is clearly evoking the language of Deut 24:1.[59]

However, in the context of Deuteronomy, erwat dabar cannot refer to any form of sexual immorality. The Law demanded capital punishment for adultery instead of a written “certificate of divorce” (Lev. 18:6-19; 20:11-21). Instead, the near context indicates that the offense is indecent public exposure (Deut 23:13-14). According to the Mosaic Law, a husband was allowed to divorce his wife only if there was found in her some “indecency” that defiled her and made her unclean.[60]

What then does porneia mean? The semanctic range of porneia includes: unlawful sexual intercourse, prostitution, sexual immorality, unchastity, and acts of fornication.[61] The word encapsulates a number of sexual offences and is a “catch-all term” used throughout the NT.[62] In Matt 5:32 porneias is referring to any sexually immoral deed that counts toward an adulterous infraction of the marital covenant. In ancient Palestine only men were allowed to dissolve a marriage contract.[63] That is the reason that Jesus is addressing men in this passage.

Jesus says that those who divorce their wives poiei auten moicheutheai (cause their wives to commit adultery). Not only does the husband make his wife commit adultery, but he also causes the new husband that comes after to do the same and join in on the adulterous affair.

The clause parektos logou porneia (except for sexual immorality) means that of course the husband has not caused his wife to commit adultery if she has already done so on her own accord.[64]

In Matt 19:3-9, Jesus’ teaching is given in the Marcan narrative form (10:2-12). Jesus’ teaching on divorce comes in response to questions from the Pharisees.

Some Pharisees came to him, and to test him they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?’ He answered, ‘Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning “made them male and female”, and said, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh”? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’ They said to him, ‘Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?’ He said to them, ‘It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but at the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.’ (Matt 19:3-9 NRSV)

3-6. “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause” (v.3)? The Pharisees want Jesus to weigh in on the Hillel/Shammai debate. Also, it could be that they have heard that Jesus was opposed to divorce.

How does Jesus respond to the Pharisees desire to have a divine stamp of approval upon divorce? He evokes covenant language of “leave” and “cleave” (Deut 10:20; 11:22; 13:4; 30:20; Josh 22:5; 23:8; Ruth 1:14-16).[65]

Man and woman become a “one flesh” union.[66] This is not merely a sexual union, but a relational union that is created by God. Jesus responds with “what God has joined together, let no one separate” (v.6). According to Jesus, marriage is not a legal contract that can be cancelled by claiming “irreconcilable” differences.

7-9. This prompts another question by the Pharisees: “Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her” (v.7)? Jesus says to them, “It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (emphasis mine). Jesus shifts the focus from divorce itself (Deut 24:1) to the divine intention of marriage (Gen 1:27; 2:4).

N. T. Wright comments on Jesus’ maneuvering the biblical text:

Jesus responds with an assertion which reveals that he stands at a vitally different point in Israel’s story. Deuteronomy, he says, is part of a temporary phase in the purposes of YHWH. It was necessary because of the ambiguous situation, in which Israel was called to be the people of god, but was still a people with hard hearts. Israel cannot be affirmed as she stands. She is still in exile, still hardhearted; but the new day is dawning in which the ‘the Mosaic dispensation is not adequate’, since ‘Jesus expected there to be a better order’. By quoting Genesis 1:27 and 2:4 to undermine Deuteronomy 24:1-3, Jesus was in fact making it clear that the story to which he was obedient was that in which Israel was called by YHWH to restore humankind and the world to his original intention.[67]

“And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery” (v. 9). There is a notable difference in the Greek clause of 19:9. The phrase parektos logou porneia from Matt 5:32 and the verse’s connection to Deut 24:1 is lost.

Instead, the clause in Matt 19:9 is “me epi porneia.” As previously stated, 5:32 simply means that the husband “causes” the wife to commit adultery, parektos logou porneia (except for sexual immorality). If she has already done the deed herself then the husband has not caused it. What about the difference of language and syntax in 19:9—how does it harmonize with 5:32?[68] It is probably best to translate the preposition (epi) as a dative in the temporal: “not during sexual immorality.”

Many scholars prefer to read this Matthean clause as a true exception,[69] saying it is representative of rabbinic halakhah and that Jesus was showing his agreement with Shammai.[70] But if Jesus was agreeing with one known tradition of halakhah, it does not merit the culture shock response of the disciples. They reply, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry” (v.10).

Since Jesus paid no attention to the cultural norm that a husband could not commit adultery against his wife (Matt 19:9; Mk 10:11), it is unlikely that Jesus considered their halakhah demanding divorce for adultery.[71] Jesus instead calls for a higher ethic that is not matched by any known first century halakhah.

Doug Kennard cuts through the great hermeneutical haze that hovers around this oft-debated Matthean text, as he succinctly writes:

Jesus’ ethic on this point of the Law is more restrictive than the Law in its appeal. Therefore, Jesus’ exception clause cannot be softening and expanding the Law’s exception clause. If Jesus is saying that it is acceptable to divorce a wife for her sexual immorality, then He is denying several commands of the Law that required capital punishment (Lev 18:6-19; 20:11-21) and rendering Himself under His own declaration to be the least in the Kingdom and therefore self-contradictory.[72]
 

CONCLUSION—TILL DEATH DO US PART

After examining the historical and cultural context of the synoptic gospels, it is clear that Jesus radically internalizes the Law of Moses and gives his audience the authoritative call to discipleship in the kingdom of heaven.

In an initial reading, and due to the various traditional readings and interpretations of this passage, it may have seemed like Jesus was siding with the conservative Rabbi Shammai—agreeing that adultery is a legitimate reason for divorce. But Jesus has given us a higher ethic that protects women from abuse, places them on equal footing with men,[73] and sets fidelity in the relational union of marriage well within the scope of what it truly means to be faithful to God—actively participating in the work of the kingdom to build up, not to tear down.[74]

The so-called “exception” clause in Matt 5:32 and 19:9 cannot be allowing for the dissolution of a marriage, regardless of the oft-debated meaning of porneia or the slight differences in the syntax of one verse.[75] Matthew does not stand in contradiction to Mark and Luke on Jesus’ teaching concerning marriage, divorce, and remarriage.

The synoptic gospels must certainly be allowed to speak their inspired message to their own respective audiences. And at the same time, the reader must know that suspected contradictions rest with the interpreter, not in the inspired written text. Matthew was very much aware of Mark, even relying upon his gospel in his own composition. Therefore, he would not have deliberately altered the clear teaching of Jesus or softened it to accommodate a culture grown numb from a rampant “easy” divorce.

The Pharisees wanted to talk about divorce, but Jesus wanted to talk about marriage. People that are preoccupied with seeking legitimate grounds for divorce prove themselves to be guilty of the very thing Jesus condemned.[76]

As Richard Hays writes, “Those who trust God as revealed through Jesus will not seek such an escape clause from their marriages.”[77]

Jesus’ teachings are not an “interim ethic” as described by the quester Albert Schweitzer.[78] They are the true “character of kingdom life”[79] to be lived out while praying, “Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:10).

Robert Stein echoes the very heart of Jesus:

The divine intention is a marriage “until death us do part.” A divorce, any divorce, reveals a failure of the divine purpose of marriage. Divorce, for whatever the cause, witnesses to a failure somewhere of what God originally ordained for his creation. The ideal is a lifelong, monogamous marriage that resembles the love affair of Christ and his Church (Eph 5:22-33). To contemplate divorce and in what instances a divorce may be legitimate is to think very differently from the way in which Jesus thought.[80] 

And what were the thoughts of Jesus on divorce? He said, “Therefore what God has joined together, let no man put asunder” (Matt 19:6). He concluded with, “Go… teaching them (all nations) to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt 28:19a,20a).

D.D. Flowers, 2011.


[1] Mark 10:2-12; Luke 16:18; Matthew 5:27-32; 19:3-9; 1 Corinthians 7:10-13.

[2] J. P. Meier begins his investigation of the historical Jesus’ sayings on divorce in his book: A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Vol. 4. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 74. Meier has a “sample” bibliography that covers a vast amount of scholarly books and articles which address marriage, divorce, and remarriage in the ancient Near East.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Meier, 79. The context (Deut 23-24) seems to indicate that erwat dabar refers to public exposure or indecency mentioned in 23:13. Whatever this “nakedness of a thing” is in 24:1, it does not include adultery. Marital unfaithfulness was a capital crime punishable by death (Deut 22:22; Lev 20:10).

[5] J. Carl Laney, “Deuteronomy 24:1-4 and the Issue of Divorce.” Bibliotheca Sacra 149, no. 593 (January 1, 1992): 4.

[6] Christopher Wright, Deuteronomy. New International Biblical Commentary. (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1996), 255.

[7] Meier, 83.

[8] The “Dead Sea Scrolls” describes a vast amount of ancient scrolls discovered from 1947 to 1956 in a variety of different places in Judea. The “Qumran” scrolls refer to those texts found in 11 Qumran caves on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea. See Wise, Abeg, and Cook, The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation. (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 2005), 5.

[9] N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, Vol. 1: Christian Origins and the Question of God. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 203.

[10] Hans Dieter Betz, The Sermon on the Mount: A Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, including the Sermon on the Plain (Matthew 5:3-7:27 and Luke 6:20-49). Hermeneia—A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 1995.), 252; Betz writes: “New documents from the Dead Sea Scrolls have provided additional evidence that prohibition of divorce was not as uncommon by the time of Jesus as scholars had once believed.” Meier writes that, “sweeping statements about divorce being prohibited at Qumran should be avoided” (Marginal Jew, 93). Fair enough.

[11] Wise, Abeg, and Cook, 623.

[12] The following scrolls condemn the practice of adultery: 1QS 1:1-6, CD 2:14-16; 4:12b-5:11.

[13] Betz, 252. Meier writes, “On the question of divorce, the historical Essenes may be more elusive than the historical Jesus. The Essenes did forbid polygyny; their position on divorce remains a question mark” (Marginal Jew, 93.)

[14] C.D. Younge, trans. The Works of Philo. New ed. (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1993), 597.

[15] William Whiston., trans. The Works of Josephus. New ed. (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1987), 120.

[16] David Daube, The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism. (London: University of London Press, 1956 and Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1998), 371.

[17] Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 3d ed. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2003), 134. Ferguson has a discussion of Jewish and Greco-Roman marriage on pgs 72-79.

[18] David Instone-Brewer, “Marriage and Divorce.” The Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism. ed. John J. Collins and Daniel C. Harlow, 916-917. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 916.

[19] The Mishnah is a major source of Jewish religious practice and rabbinic legal reflection. It is an official codification of the oral law. It was codified ca. AD 170. Two types of material appear: halakhah (law) and haggadah (stories).

[20] Meier is skeptical of any pre-70 debate within Judaism. He believes this may be anachronistic of NT scholars to read the Mishna back into Gospels. See his Marginal Jew, 94-95.

[21] Wright, N.T. The New Testament and the People of God, Vol. 1: Christian Origins and the Question of God. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 201. Wright says, “Disputes between the different Pharisaic schools are the stuff of which the Mishnah is made up.”

[22] Darrell L. Bock and Gregory J. Herrick, Jesus in Context: Background Readings for Gospel Study. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 85. After Hillel, Rabbi Aqiba said a man could divorce his wife if he found someone else more attractive! Divorce was out of control in first century Palestine.

[23] There is some question as to the place this passage has in the biblical text. Regardless, the story has all of the historical and biblical signs of a real event in the life of Jesus.

[24] John Nolland, Luke 9:21-18:34. Word Biblical Commentary. (Dallas: Word Books, 1993), 817.

[25] Gordon D. Fee, New Testament Exegesis: A Handbook for Students and Pastors, 3d ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 20.

[26] Mark L. Strauss, Four Portraits, One Jesus: An Introduction to Jesus and the Gospels. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 32.

[27] Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament. (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1997), 111; 163; also Stanton’s The Gospels and Jesus. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 34.

[28] This addition by Matthew is likely due to the “any cause” divorce teaching of the school of Hillel. The Gospel of Matthew has more of a Jewish concern than does the Gospel of Mark.

[29] Meier, 110.

[30] This will be addressed in detail within the section on the Gospel of Matthew.

[31] Meier, 113.

[32] Brown, 116-122. See R.E. Brown’s Introduction to the New Testament for an overview of “Q”.

[33] Nolland, Luke 9:21-18:34. Word Biblical Commentary. (Dallas: Word Books, 1993), 820.

[34] Stanton, 59.

[35] D.A. Carson, “Matthew.” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, Vol. 8. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 20. It may well be that Carson is reticent to accept that Matthew was written later in the 80’s or 90’s, despite convincing arguments from internal evidence, because some “anti-supernatural” critics presuppose that Jesus could not have foretold the events of AD 70. Regardless, the early Markan testimony of Jesus still remains (13:1-2). Therefore, the weight of Jesus’ words regarding the destruction of the temple is not diminished with Matthew writing of a fulfilled prophecy “after-the-fact”.

[36] Anthony J. Saldarini, Matthew’s Christian-Jewish Community. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 4. Saldarini locates the Matthean community in Syria toward the later end of the first century.

[37] Matthew does not hesitate to show Jesus’ appeal to Gentiles (2:1-12) and he is the only Gospel writer to use the word ekklesia “church” (16:18; 18:17). See Saldarini’s discussion (100-107).

[38] Jacob Neusner, Judaism When Christianity Began: A Survey of Belief and Practice. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 24.

[39] This can also be seen in Matthew’s borrowing of phrases from the story of Moses to describe events in Jesus’ life (cf. 2:13, 20-21; 17:2, 5; Exod 2:15; 4:19-20; 34:29; Deut 18:15).

[40] Robert H. Mounce, Matthew. New International Commentary (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1998), 4.

[41] Saldarini, 7.

[42] All of the English translations of the Greek are my own.

[43] John Nolland. The Gospel of Matthew: A Commentary on the Greek Text. The New International Greek Testament Commentary. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 228. The first of six antitheses begins with Jesus internalizing the Law on the matter of anger/murder (see Matt 5:21-26).

[44] Jesus said that did not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets with his teaching (5:19).

[45] Nolland, 229. The “men of old” in 5:21 are the Jewish ancestors of the wilderness generation.

[46] W.D. Davies and Dale Allison. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew, Vol. 1. (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1988), 511.

[47] Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 523, 616.

[48] Davies and Allison, 523.

[49] Robert H. Stein, The Method and Message of Jesus’ Teachings. Rev. ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), 9. Stein makes a distinction between overstatement and hyperbole.

[50] Grant R. Osborne, Matthew. Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 196.

[51] Davies and Allison, 514-515: “without ancient support, although it could be correct.”

[52] Wallace, 693.

[53] Davies and Allison, 527.

[54] Instone-Brewer, 917. As previously mentioned, the rabbinic school of Hillel taught that a man could divorce is wife for any cause (e.g. “Even if she spoiled his dish…” m. Gittin 9.10). The school of Shammai was more conservative and taught that a “cause of indecency” (i.e. adultery) was the only legitimate grounds for divorce.

[55] Daniel Fanous, Taught by God: Making Sense of the Difficult Sayings of Jesus. (Rollinsford, NH: Orthodox Research Institute, 2010), 21; also E. P. Sanders writes, “Moses did not command divorce, he permitted it; and to prohibit what he permitted is by no means the same as to permit what he prohibited” in his book, Jesus and Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), 256.

[56] Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew, 244.

[57] Krister Stendahl, The School of St. Matthew and Its Use of the Old Testament, 2d ed. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1968), 137. An older book that is still worth its salt.

[58] Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew, 245.

[59] Davies and Allison, 528. Matthew’s Jewish audience would immediately recognize this intentional Semitism. It is Matthew’s way of linguistically connecting Jesus’ interpretation to Deut 24:1.

[60] Douglas W. Kennard, Messiah Jesus: Christology in His Day and Ours. (New York: Peter Lang, 2008), 122. Kennard understands Deut 24:1 in light of covenant nomism and the holiness code.

[61] Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Christian Literature, 3d ed., ed. Fredrick W. Danker. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 854; also in Friedrich Hauck and Siegfried Schulz. “porneia” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 6. ed. by Gerhard Kittel, 579-595 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 579; Word meaning abounds! Robert Guelich believes “porneia” refers to an incestuous relationship. See his book, The Sermon on the Mount: A Foundation for Understanding. (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1982), 245. Craig Keener believes this view is much too narrow. See his commentary, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 467; A small number of scholars believe that “porneia” is unfaithfulness during the Jewish betrothal period. See David Jones, “The Betrothal View of Divorce and Remarriage.” Bibliotheca sacra 165, no. 657 (January 1, 2008): 68-85; also Abel Isaksson, Marriage and Ministry in the New Temple. (Lund: C. W. K. Gleerup, 1965). This is a plausible view. However, the exact meaning of “porneia” is not that critical to the claims of this paper, since 5:32 and 19:9 are not seen as escape clauses.

[62] Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament. (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1996), 355. Hays has a nice overview of the way “porneia” is used in the NT on pgs 354-356.

[63] Instone-Brewer, 917. See also, Meier, 74-75; and D. Daube, The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism. London: University of London Press, 1956 and Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1998), 362-372.

[64] This may be an interpretive clause inserted by Matthew for his Christian-Jewish audience. If that is the case, it is a simple clarification on what was already a hard teaching of Jesus to Law-abiding Jews. It may never be known what actually prompted Matthew to include this explanatory clause.

[65] William A. Heth, “Divorce and Remarriage : The Search for an Evangelical Hermeneutic.” Trinity Journal 16, no. 1 (March 1, 1995): 83. For Heth’s full perspective, Heth and G.J. Wenham. Jesus and Divorce: The Problem with the Evangelical Consensus. (Nashville: Nelson, 1985). Heth and Wenham believe adultery allows for divorce, but they do not believe Jesus permitted remarriage. If God has joined husband and wife in a relational (kinship) unity, then only death can destroy that relationship.

[66] Paul uses this language to depict the unity Christ has with the church (Eph 5:22-33).

[67] N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 285.

[68] Some MSS include the phrase “poiei auten moicheuthai” which appears to be an attempt to harmonize 19:9 with 5:32. See Bruce Metzger’s A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2d ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1994), 38.

[69] For a full discussion of views on Matt 5:32 & 19:9, see D.A. Carson’s Matthew, 413-418.

[70] Brad H. Young, Meet the Rabbis: Rabbinic Thought and the Teachings of Jesus. (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 2007), 40; also Markus Ν. A. Bockmuehl, “Matthew 5:32; 19:9 in Light of Pre-Rabbinic Halakhah,” NTS 35 (April 1989): 295. Jesus agrees with Shammai? What about Matt 5:20?

[71] James M. Weibling, “Reconciling Matthew and Mark on Divorce.” Trinity Journal 22, no. 2 (September 1, 2001): 229n.

[72] Kennard, 124. See Matt 5:18-19; Mk 10:11-12; Lk 16-18.

[73] Amy-Jill Levine offers her polemical case against the idea that Jesus was elevating women in his teaching on divorce, in her book, The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus. (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), 139-145.

[74] 2 Cor 5:16-21

[75] “In our judgment, the issue cannot, unfortunately, be resolved on exegetical grounds. Matthew’s words are too cryptic…” Davies and Allison, 529.

[76] John R. W. Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1978), 98.

[77] Hays, 350.

[78] Albert Schweitzer, The Quest for the Historical Jesus. (London: SCM, 1906, 2000 2d ed.), 352.

[79] D.G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered. Christianity in the Making, Vol. 1. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 610. Dunn emphasizes the eschatological “already/not yet” tension of kingdom living.

[80] Robert H. Stein, “Is it Lawful for a Man to Divorce His Wife.” JETS 22, no. 2 (June 1, 1979): 120-121. Also see Stein’s article, “Divorce.” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. ed. Joel B. Green and Scot McKnight, 192-199. (Downers Grove: IVP, 1992). He writes, “It is difficult to counsel a Christian that divorce is an option for them. Clearly the burden of proof weighs heavily on anyone considering divorce, for God hates divorce. Divorce is never good, for it witnesses to a failure of the divine purpose” (p 198).


The Jewish Religious World of Jesus

The Jewish Religious World of Jesus—A Brief Overview

There is a great deal of misunderstanding that often derives from a reading of the New Testament when the modern reader does not consider the religious matrix of the first-century.

Ultimately, proper application to our own situation suffers tremendously.

In the last 20 years, biblical scholars have taken great strides in discovering the world of Second-Temple Judaism. This new wealth of information has made it possible for the church to better understand the religious world of Jesus. Placing Jesus within his own context, helps us to see him in our own.

Scholars are learning that the Jewish Religious landscape was much more multi-faceted than previously imagined.

N.T. Wright has written, “the one thing we can safely say about first-century Judaism is that there is no such thing as first-century Judaism, and that it may be best to speak of ‘Judaisms,’ plural” (Wright, 244).

In the previous two centuries before Jesus, political and religious strife created a tumultuous climate, especially in the region of Palestine.

The successful Maccabean Revolt, and then the people’s utter disgust with the failure of the Hasmonean Dynasty, had largely brought about an apocalyptic worldview, deep longings for a Jewish Messiah to establish the kingdom of God on the earth, and a hope in the imminent restoration of Israel according to God’s covenantal faithfulness.

There were several religious parties and sects that grew up during this period, and they were in full bloom during the ministry of Jesus.

This article will briefly examine what is currently known about those Jewish Religious groups that existed in the time of Jesus, and beckon the reader to consider what Jesus’ relationship was to them.

Pharisees

The Pharisees emerge as the most popular of all religious groups in the first-century. The etymology of the name Pharisee is uncertain, but some scholars believe the name is derived from the Hebrew word parush, which means “separation” or “consecration.”

This religious sect has commonly been labeled as strict legalists who were bent on oppressing people with burdensome rules for their own self-righteous pleasure. But that may not be an entirely accurate portrayal.

Jesus did indeed speak harsh words to these religious leaders, calling them hypocrites and “white washed tombs” (Matt. 23). His words of rebuke were certainly the strongest with the Pharisees.

However, it appears that Jesus may have had more in common with the Pharisees than any other religious group in the first-century.

So, who were these teachers of the law? Who were the “scribes” and Pharisees? And why was Jesus so bothered by this religious group?

The Pharisees were deeply concerned about Torah and they actively sought ways to find fresh interpretions and apply the Scripture to a world on the move. The “scribes” were those specifically trained in interpreting Torah. Although the scribes did not belong to any one specific party, it seems that they resonated with the Pharisees.

The Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the dead and eternal life and punishment. They also were accepting of other more recent theological developments regarding angels and demons. The Pharisees were not only concerned about proper biblical interpretation, but also with proving their covenant faithfulness in ritual purity.

For the most part, the people trusted the guidance of the Pharisees as they influenced the life of the nation at the local level and showed great devotion to God. The Pharisees believed that Torah was for all people, and they made a concerted effort to keep the Law of Moses fresh and alive.

“Woe to you, blind guides!”

Why then does Jesus rebuke the Pharisees throughout the Gospels? It is because the Pharisees believed that rabbinical oral-interpretive traditions (i.e. “traditions of the elders”) were just as authoritative as the Torah itself.

Also, the Pharisaical purity practices led them to erect social distinctions between themselves and fellow Jews. It became rather difficult for Pharisees to maneuver in life after adhering to extra human-laws and traditions.

Jesus simply would not allow the accumulation of the petty Pharisaical traditions deter him from the divine law. Jesus was deeply troubled by the “yeast” of the Pharisees (Matt. 16:12).

It was a disregard for the Pharisaical traditions that placed Jesus at odds with this popular sect. The Pharisees were unwilling to depart from those interpretive traditions that they felt were the greatest display of God’s covenant faithfulness. For this, they sought to trap and kill him.

Had the Pharisees not been so fond of their own teachings, and had instead been open to the teachings of the Galilean rabbi, they may have possibly recognized Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah promised in the Scriptures.

Sadducees

The Sadducees are remembered as the smaller aristocratic party that “combined conservative religious attitudes with power politics” (Ferguson, 519). Unlike the Pharisees, the Sadducees adhered to stricter interpretations, claiming only Torah as authoritative—even rejecting the Prophets and the Writings. They were the Religious Right of Jesus’ day.

What scholars learn about the Sadducees comes mainly from their opponents. The Sadducees are mostly remembered for their denial of the resurrection from the dead (Matt. 22:23). They had no use for the theological developments of the intertestamental period.

Their primary role as a priestly party was controlling the temple ritual. The Sadducees appear to be mostly interested in maintaining the status quo. Where most Jews detested the Roman imperial occupation of Palestine, the Sadducees enjoyed the peace, power, and influence that Rome was able to give them. They preferred the Pax Romana over the peace of Jesus.

They were only interested in serving God in so far as it didn’t require them to give up their secure position of prosperity or progress in their theology. It is worth noting that there is evidence of several Pharisees who followed Jesus, but there is not a single record of a Sadducee convert.

The Sadducees drop off the religious radar soon after the destruction of the temple in AD 70. These conservatives fade with the shifting of their world.

Essenes

The monastic sect that lived at Qumran, which is located on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea, were called the “Essenes.” The Essenes, according to Philo and Josephus, numbered over 4,000 men. This religious group believed they were the rightful heirs of God’s promises.

The Essenes communicated this belief by withdrawing from temple life in Jerusalem, believing the entire religious system was corrupt. They practiced extreme frugality, celibacy, and ritual purity.

Ritual purity was central to the Essene way of life as they began their day with a purification bath before dressing in standard white outer garments.

There were ritual morning prayers, communal meals, and daily agrarian duties. They may have also worked as shepherds, beekeepers, and craftsmen.

The Essenes held an apocalyptic worldview. They believed they were living in the last days and that the prophets pointed to their times. This can be seen throughout Qumran literature. The Essenes were anticipating a conquering Messiah and they believed that they were saving themselves as the faithful keepers of the covenant. All others were just religious pretenders.

They intensely studied and copied the Scriptures. Since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, scholars have learned that the Essene community believed they were “sons of light” and the last remnant of God’s covenant.

Some scholars have suggested that John the Baptist may have emerged from the Qumran community.

Zealots, Sicarii, and Herodians

The Zealots are known as the extreme anti-Roman party with violent tendencies. Scholars point out that it is likely that these revolutionaries only differed from the Pharisees in their willingness to use violent force and sacrifice themselves for the sake of Jewish liberty.

The Zealots held a biblical hermeneutic that encouraged violent revolt against the enemies of God. Josephus has written, they were Jews expressing their conviction: “No lord, but God” (Jospehus, Ant. 18.1.6). Simon the Zealot was one of the Twelve disciples of Jesus (Matt. 10:4).

Another branch of the Zealots were the Sicarii, or “dagger men” (Acts 21:38). These terrorists would mingle among the crowds of people, especially during Jewish festivals, and strike down prominent Roman officials, only to quickly disappear back into the crowd undetected.

These were the men that held Herod’s wilderness compound, Masada, during the Jewish revolt which first began in AD 66. It was in this military fortress that hundreds of Sicarii, along with their families, would take their own lives in order to avoid capture by the Romans in AD 73. The Romans were impressed by the honor and bravery of these freedom fighters.

The Herodians were another political and religious group that carried great influence among the people of Palestine. They are mentioned only three times in the New Testament. As their name suggests, the Herodians were clearly partisan to the Herodian dynasty, but they are still seen joining with the Pharisees in their opposition to Jesus (Mk. 3:6).

This is significant, since the Herodians were politically affiliated with Herod’s house, but religiously and economically in agreement with the Sadducees. The testimony of Matthew and Mark reveal that the Herodians were willing to work alongside their rivals to oppose Jesus of Nazareth.

Samaritans

Samaria was the hill country located between Galilee to the north and Judea to the south. Jesus told a parable of a Good Samaritan who helped a man that was beaten and left for dead on the side of the road (Lk. 10:25-37). Several pious travelers walk right on by the helpless man, but it is the Samaritan that reflects the kingdom of God.

This story cuts to the heart of Jewish prejudices towards this religious and ethnic group. For the religious Jews living in the first-century, it is impossible to miss Jesus’ provocative challenge to reconsider popular opinion about a religious neighbor and fellow keeper of the covenant.

So who were the Samaritans? Why were they disliked among many Jews?

The Samaritans were considered an unclean and illegitimate “half-breed race” that was neither Jew nor Gentile. This was due to their practice of intermarrying with pagans, being descendants of the northern tribes that split from Judah after the time of Solomon, and their establishment of a rival temple on Mt. Gerizim.

The woman at the well discusses this point of contention with Jesus in John 4:1-42. Jesus proposes that the religious feud of temple worship is no longer relevant because the Messiah has come to set the world to rights.

Jesus indicates that God has something else in mind which goes beyond what was being anticipated and practiced by all religious Jews.

What Religious Brand Was Jesus?

It is worthy of careful consideration that Jesus did not entirely agree with any Jewish Religious group of his own day. Jesus rebuked representatives and ideologies from each group in an effort to reform their ideas of covenant faithfulness, ritual purity, and Messianic expectations.

For some of these religious folk, he did affirm that certain points of their theology were correct, still they needed to be refined through his own divine interpretation of Scripture (Jn. 5:39). Jesus claimed to be the only one able to interpret and teach without any blind spots or lapse in judgment.

Jesus refused to affiliate himself with any of the Jewish denominations of his day. He would not allow himself to be pigeonholed, and he was angered by the efforts other Jews made to place God in a box, constrained by their own theological and philosophical paradigms.

No, Jesus kept a healthy distance from these religious groups and he refused to weigh in on the hot political and religious debates of the day.

Jesus turned the tables on his opponents. He shocked his audience by challenging their view of the Father’s love, teaching the inclusion of all those that welcomed him as Messiah, and proclaiming himself savior of the world.

Instead of joining these religious groups, Jesus gave a clear and resounding call, “Come, follow me” (Mk. 1:17). And the invitation still stands today.

Suggested Reading

  • DeSilva, David. An Introduction to the New Testament: Contexts, Methods & Ministry Formation. Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004.
  • Evans, Craig, and Stanley Porter. Dictionary of New Testament Background. Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000.
  • Ferguson, Everett. Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 3rd ed. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2003.
  • VanderKam, James. An Introduction to Early Judaism. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2001.
  • Wright, N.T. The New Testament and the People of God, Vol. 1: Christian Origins and the Question of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992.

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