Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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The Historical Jesus

That Jesus said something about divorce is reported in several gospel sources - Mark 10.11-12; in Matthew 19.3-9 (almost certainly using Mark as its source) and 5.32 (using "Q", the source used by both Matthew and Luke, but not by Mark); Luke 16.18 (using "Q"); and 1 Corinthians 7.10-11 (though Paul doesn't refer to Jesus, but seems to make his own personal ruling).

Looking at these it's difficult to be sure about exactly what Jesus said because the accounts differ substantially. We also have to note that Jews allowed divorce, which by law only men could initiate. Therefore, what is in the gospels doesn't seem to be Hebrew law. Rather, it looks as though the ruling given by Mark reflects Roman rules about divorce, not those that would have applied to Jesus and his followers as Jews.

Against historicity:

  • This ruling about divorce seems to reflect the situation of the early Christian community, rather than of Jesus himself. There is much stronger evidence that he stressed the acceptance of people as primary. This would have referred to the hated tax collectors, despised Roman gentiles and the morally corrupt such as prostitutes. It is incongruent to stress acceptance of this sort of low-life and then go on to condemn the divorced.

  • The textual variations suggest a later struggle to adapt a difficult teaching. Changes were made later to reduce the gap between real life and the ideal. Such changes damage claims to be accurate history;

  • The appeal to scripture (Matthew 19.7-8) suggest not the words of Jesus but a Christian use of the Hebrew Scriptures. Putting words into the mouth of Jesus on the basis of "the Scriptures" seems at best strange to us and at worst dishonest. But to the gospel authors such a device was normal.

  • Familiarity with Roman law suggests an early Gentile context for the divorce ruling. If so, this material derives not from Jesus but from the early Church, which would have been concerned with matters affecting non-Jews. Jews would have had the Torah to go by, and so would neither have needed nor heeded a new ruling.

  • It is a puzzle that Jesus takes the position usually promoted by Pharisees, while they are portrayed as questioning him. Something seems to have gone wrong during the transmission of the tradition about divorce.

For historicity:

  • The sources are independent (Mark, Q and Paul) and have differing contexts, indicating some common ground;

  • Jesus' teaching would have been difficult for the early community to follow. When a difficult teaching is retained rather than being changed, it is an indication that it is good history. The temptation would have been to change it if it was difficult to accept.;

  • The status of women is elevated by Jesus' stance. Though it should be noted that this point could also be made about the status of women in the early Christian congregations. Some of these were not Jewish. Women, especially those of higher social status, were accorded more respect and influence in Roman than in Hebrew society. This point could apply equally to material derived from early Christian practice.

All-in-all the conclusion can't be avoided that it's difficult to be certain exactly what Jesus said. While there are points on both the positive and the negative sides, the balance swings to the negative - but not far enough for certainty. All we can be reasonably sure of is that Jesus may have said something about divorce and, if he did, seems to have been quite strongly against it. 

The Church at large applies these sayings of Jesus as though they are his verbatim words. That is, they are given a degree of certainty not supported by the evidence.

In my opinion, the historicity is too uncertain to warrant the moralistic tone displayed by many on this issue, and in particular the stern and uncompromising stance taken by most churches.

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