Sorting through the Variant Perspectives from the Synod on the Family: Lessons from the Early Church (Part One)

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This fresco, from the Catacomb of St. Priscilla in Rome, is one of the earliest representations of marriage from the early Church. To the left of the praying woman (center) is herself and her husband being married by the bishop. To the right is a portrait of herself nursing her child.

Given the ease and frequency of divorce in the world of Jesus, the often superficial motives for divorcing one’s wife, as well as the disastrous and humiliating consequences that a divorce had on a discarded wife, it is no surprise that Jesus condemns divorce so strongly.

Remarkably, after two years of meetings and weeks of behind-the-door discussions, even debates, amid no small amount of disparate viewpoints, the Synod on the Family completed its work with a document that gives Pope Francis what he wanted: an open door to divorced and remarried Catholics.

In the days since, I’ve come across a number of questions both on the web and in person that are similar to the following: “Whatever happened to the Church’s insistent teaching on the indissolubility of marriage?” “Is the Church ‘softening up’ too much?” “Isn’t Pope Francis’ program of mercy stretching the boundaries of two millennia of doctrine and Tradition going all the way back to Jesus?”

Of course, everyone these days has something to say on the topic of the Synod on the Family, and, like everyone else, so do I. In view of the confusion among some in the wake of the Synod, it seems helpful to add my own two cents’ worth, dedicating some blog space to respond in a thoughtful way to these sorts of questions. My response draws from both Scripture and years of  academic work on early Christian families and sexual ethics. Without a doubt, there is much that the early Church still has to teach us on questions about marriage and divorce. This blog, Part One, will look at the context of divorce in the time of Jesus and St. Paul as a way to highlight the freshness of Jesus’s teachings. In Part Two, I will look at how leaders in the early Church not only held onto Jesus’s teaching on marriage and divorce, but actually re-interpreted it, even in ways that were in tension with each other.

The Context for Divorce in the time of Jesus and St. Paul
First of all, it is true that, not only did Jesus himself condemn divorce, he strongly condemned it. In fact, Jesus’s teaching against divorce is something that we find in multiple sources in the New Testament, an indication that his prohibition of divorce was well-known among early Christians. We find it in Mark 10:11-12, twice in Matthew (Mt. 5:31-32; 19:3-9), as well as Luke 16:18. Outside the gospels, Paul, too, repeats Jesus’ teaching, and frames his own prohibition of divorce as a faithful echo to that of Jesus: “it is not I who say so, but the Lord” (1 Cor. 7:10-11).

Judging from the literature of the period, whether Jewish or Gentile, Jesus’s prohibition of divorce was uncommon for his time. Divorce itself, however, in the time of Jesus, was not at all uncommon. Torah permits divorce if the wife displeases her husband in any way (Dt. 24:1-4), although Malachi 2:13-16 insists that God “hates divorce,” and that what a man brings to the altar will not be accepted by God if he is faithless to his wife and divorces her. Malachi hints that often the reasons for divorce would have been pretty flimsy. Between Torah and Malachi, in ancient Jewish society there was a range of perspectives on divorce, with most holding onto Torah’s more lax view. The Mishna, for example, offers three different views permitting divorce and, of the three, only one insists on a serious reason: the School of Sammai permitted a man to divorce his wife only for something serious, such as infidelity; the School of Hillel allowed for divorce if a wife burned her husband’s supper; Rabbi Akiva, on the other hand, permitted divorce if a man found another woman more attractive (Gittin 9:10). Rabbi Akiva’s laxity is not unlike what we see in Greco-Roman writers of the period, such as Juvenal, who wrote

Why does Sertorius burn with love for Bibula? If you shake out the truth, it is the face that he loves, not the wife. Let three wrinkles make their appearance; let her skin become dry and flabby; let her teeth burn black, and her eyes lose their sparkle: then will his freedman give her the order, “Pack up your traps and be off! You’ve become a nuisance. . . Be off and quick about it! There’s a snot-free replacement coming . . . !” (Satire 6:140-149)

Both Juvenal and Rabbi Akiva, although from different parts of the Mediterranean world, offer evidence for the widespread ease and acceptability of a husband divorcing his wife for self-centered reasons. Not mentioned is that, for a wife, the consequences of divorce could be disastrous for a number of reasons. If she had children, a divorced wife could expect no more possibility of having any relationship with them; legally, her children were not hers but her husband’s: she had no right of access to them, no more claim to them, not even for visits. A discarded wife could also be considered “used goods,” a “failure,” a potential “problem” for a second husband and thus unmarriageable. Being divorced and discarded would be a huge source of shame both for her and her family of origin and could potentially put her future and security at great risk. If she had no strong male relatives to protect her, or was without any kind of marketable skills or business acumen, she could end up as a woman on the margins, struggling for survival. Brothels were built to exploit such women.

Although Mark’s gospel, written for Christians in Rome, presumes that a wife might also divorce her husband—which was permissible for a woman in Roman society—both Matthew’s Gospel and 1 Cor. 7:10,39 present the more traditional Jewish prohibition of a wife divorcing her husband. While the context for divorce in Mark 10:11-12 is that of the Roman world of Mark’s audience, Matthew’s context of only a husband divorcing his wife fits the Palestinian Jewish context for Jesus’s own prohibitions against divorce. Unlike Gentile women in the Roman world who could legally divorce their husbands, Palestinian Jewish women could not initiate a divorce.

With this in mind, it becomes clear, then, that Jesus’s prohibition of divorce is directed only at husbands. Indeed, given the ease and frequency of divorce, the superficial motives that a man might have for divorcing his wife, as well as the disastrous and humiliating consequences for a discarded wife, as we have seen above, it is no surprise that Jesus condemns divorce so strongly.

The Re-Definition of Adultery Given by Jesus and Paul
Perhaps because of all that a discarded wife in the Palestinian world of Jesus would have to endure, we see Jesus—the only man in the literary record who dared to defend a woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11)—re-define the meaning of adultery. Before Jesus, whether for Jews or Gentiles, adultery was legally and lopsidedly defined as a wife’s infidelity to her husband, not his infidelity to her. Gentile men would have had any number of sexual partners, both male and female, prior to their marriage around age thirty, considered a good age for men to marry. (Their wife would have been half their age or even younger.) Their multiple sexual relationships would have been culturally considered acceptable as long as these did not include another man’s wife. These same habits of culturally-acceptable promiscuity would have continued during the years of marriage and raising a family. Indeed, every Roman town had a brothel; Roman brothels were not only legal but considered as essential as the town baths, market, or temple. Marriages were arranged for political and economic motives, not for love. The purpose of a wife, after all, was to produce a male heir for a man and his family. Thus, around the ancient world, adultery was defined very narrowly as sexual relations with a married woman. A husband was not so limited in his choices of sexual relationships and had free reign, legally, as long as he did not cavort with another man’s wife.

While Jewish tradition, in contrast to the Gentile world, held to a stricter sexual ethic for husbands, adultery was still just as narrowly understood. True, sexual relationships outside of marriage were forbidden to Jewish husbands, who were not raised in a sexually promiscuous culture like their Gentile counterparts, and, unlike them, were encouraged to marry by age twenty. Nonetheless, it was still culturally acceptable for Jewish men to have eyes for another woman if their wife displeased them in even a small way. This is the context for Jesus’ strong condemnations directed at men with roaming eyes: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ ” (Remember, the legal definition for adultery in Jesus’s world is focused on what a wife does, NOT what her husband does.) “But I say to you,”—note how Jesus is now redefining adultery: “that every man who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Mt. 5:27-28).

In Jesus’s new definition of adultery, two things would have been striking for his hearers: 1) adultery is also what a husband does, not only what a wife does: fidelity is required of both partners, not just a wife; 2) adultery begins with a husband’s roaming eyes. We don’t see anything like this in the literature of the period. On the contrary, everyone else (except for Jesus and, later, Paul) is in agreement that, when it comes to adultery, women are the “problem.” Frequently, for example, writers of the period complain that a wife cannot be trusted to be faithful to her husband. In the context of his own time, then, Jesus’s new definition of adultery is entirely fresh. It also would have been considered quite shocking and even severe by his male listeners.

In the context of his own time, then, Jesus’s new definition of adultery is entirely fresh. It also would have been considered quite shocking and even severe by his male listeners.

In the same way, Paul’s teaching on sexual ethics and marriage in 1 Cor. 5-7 focuses, not on women—culturally viewed around the Mediterranean world as having an inclination, by nature, to infidelity—but on the men. Just as with Jesus’s own teaching on adultery, in 1 Cor. 5-7 it is the men who are the problem, not the women. For Paul’s male readers, cavorting with prostitutes was not a violation of adultery. Prostitutes would have been slaves, women (and men) on the margins of society, not anyone’s wife. A husband’s visits to brothels were culturally and legally permissible; wives were told merely to look the other way and not to expect exclusive fidelity from their husbands. Paul, however, will tolerate none of it. In fact, unlike anyone else in the literary record, in 1 Cor. 7:4 Paul insists that, not only does a husband have authority over his wife’s body—the general expectation—but that a wife, too, has authority over her husband’s body—definitely not the general expectation. The idea of a wife having authority over her husband’s body would have been quite a shock to Paul’s male audience. Nonetheless, Paul’s teachings on marriage and proper sexual relationships for followers of Jesus, while offering greater explanation and detail, are clearly in line with those of Jesus himself.

Looking Ahead to Part Two
While Paul and, later, Mark, Matthew, and Luke, all hold onto Jesus’s teachings on marriage and divorce, as we will see, they each adapt and interpret Jesus’s teachings in ways that make sense for their own communities. In the next blog, we will explore this in greater detail. In fact, not only will we look at how Paul and the evangelists adapt Jesus’s teachings, but how their adaptations are different from each other, agreeing with each other only in regard to the values they uphold, but not the way they apply Jesus’s teaching to their own particular context and situation. To put it another way, even as they each accept and firmly hold onto Jesus’s prohibition of divorce, they do not view that prohibition as absolute.

In other words, they have some fresh lessons to teach us as together, guided by the Spirit of Jesus, we sort through how best to apply Gospel values to the questions of our own age.