A Certificate of Divorce

Mark 10 on Marriage and Divorce (Part 1 of 3)

Part 1: A Certificate of Divorce
Part 2: And Marries Another
Part 3: From the Beginning of Creation

This is the first of three posts examining what Jesus had to say about marriage and divorce in the tenth chapter of Mark’s gospel.

Mark 10:2-12 consists of two related but distinct thought units related to marriage and divorce. Mark 10:2-9 is Jesus’ public response to some Pharisee’s question on the lawfulness of divorce. In Mark 10:10-12, Jesus responds privately to questions from his disciples on the same subject.

Divorce and Deuteronomy 24

When some Pharisees asked Jesus whether it was permissible for a man to divorce his wife, Jesus replied by asking them what Moses commanded. The Pharisees responded by pointing to their interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1-4: Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.

Jesus asked what Moses commanded; the Pharisees responded with what Moses permitted. That’s not quite the same thing, so perhaps Jesus had something else in mind with his question. We’ll get to that in a later post.

Before Jesus points the Pharisees to a different commandment, he critiques their response. Deuteronomy 24:1-4 is a strange passage that really isn’t about divorce; it’s about a man remarrying a woman he’s previously divorced after she’s been married to somebody else. Jesus, however, accepts the Pharisee’s inference: if a man is going to send his wife away, he must give her a certificate of divorce.

Two Words for Divorce

The English translation obscures the fact that there are two different words for divorce in play in this passage. One word emphasize the act of sending one’s spouse away; the other word speaks to the legal standing or status of a dismissed spouse.

The Greek word apoluo refers to the act of sending the partner away, and is translated that way at the end of verse 4 in most English translations (“and send her away”). At the risk of committing the etymological fallacy, the preposition apo indicates separation (“away from”) and the root verb luo means “to loose”.

Outside of the marriage context, the same verb can mean “send away,” “dismiss from one’s presence,” “release from captivity, bondage or an obligation,” and similar ideas. English divorce idioms capture the basic idea of apoluo: kick him to the curb – cut her loose – show him the door. Apoluo is the verb in verse 2, the end of verse 4, and in verses 11-12. This, in fact, is the word most commonly translated as “divorce” in the New Testament.

The other language related to divorce is found at the beginning of verse 4: biblios apostasiou – usually translated as “certificate of divorce”. It is more literally a “document of standing apart,” (apo – “from” + histemi “stand”), a written declaration that the sent-away spouse is no longer legally bound to her former husband. In effect, it gives the sent-away person the right to remarry, and served as a legal protection for the one sent away.

The Protective Power of The Divorce Certificate

Marriage was (and is), among other things, an economic institution that provides for the needs of the family. Divorce could have a terrible economic impact on a divorced woman and her children. Women kicked out of their homes were especially vulnerable, and the certificate of divorce somewhat mitigated the terrible predicament their former husbands had put them in. How would they live? Remarriage may have been the only honorable way to provide for oneself.

Marriage was also a cultural institution, protecting the family’s honor. How could a sent away spouse protect herself from scandalous accusations if she was innocent of wrongdoing? This was particularly important in an often violent honor-and-shame culture. Again, the certificate of divorce might mitigate the effects of the separation for the spouse on the receiving end.

It is in this context that Jesus says Moses commanded the people to give the dismissed spouse a certificate of divorce. It is because of “your hardness of heart.” A husband looking for an excuse to get rid of his wife has a hard heart, and his wife is the victim. The certificate of divorce provided legal protections for a put-away wife, not a license for a husband to do as he pleases. In other words, the certificate of divorce was for the benefit of the one sent away.

Unilateral Divorce

It is possible to make too much of the difference between apoluo and biblios apostasiou. One may presume that husbands who kicked their wives out of the home also fulfilled the requirement to give them the appropriate paper work. It would not be justified, in my opinion, to conclude that Jesus’ was only condemning the sending away of wives if the husband failed to provide the proper certificate.

The word apoluo does, however, provide us with a significant clue about context. The emphasis is on the action of the one sending the other away. Divorce in the first century Jewish context was a unilateral action taken at the husband’s initiative. There was no legal system that granted divorce. There was no hall of records where marriage licenses were recorded and no family court where divorces were granted. We speak of “seeking a divorce” or “getting a divorce”, but those words don’t really apply in Jesus’ world. The husband simply divorced his wife – he sent her away. If he followed the law, he sent her away with a piece of paper that offered her a minimal measure of protection from the harmful effects of being sent away.

While Moses’ teaching about a certificate of divorce mitigated somewhat the damage caused by divorce, some of Jesus’ contemporaries were using it as a license to wrong their spouses. More about that tomorrow.


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