Matthew Chapter 19:1-12

So now we start Chapter 19. Once again, we get material from Mark; this time it’s the discussion about divorce.

1 Καὶ ἐγένετο ὅτε ἐτέλεσεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς τοὺς λόγους τούτους, μετῆρεν ἀπὸ τῆς Γαλιλαίας καὶ ἦλθεν εἰς τὰ ὅρια τῆς Ἰουδαίας πέραν τοῦἸορδάνου.

2 καὶ ἠκολούθησαν αὐτῷ ὄχλοι πολλοί, καὶ ἐθεράπευσεν αὐτοὺς ἐκεῖ.

And it happened that Jesus finished these stories, they left from Galilee and they came to the boundaries of Judea on the shore of the Jordan. (2) And the crowds followed him, and he healed them there. 

This is the residual of Mark’s wonder-worker stories. Matthew cannot get rid of them completely, but he can certainly underplay them. A lot. Given that I’m seeing the hand of James–not Jesus–in much of the material that is in Matthew but not Mark, I’m being forced to think very critically about how his earliest followers saw Jesus. Given that so much of Mark up to Chapter 8 deals with the wonders Jesus worked, and only minimally with parables, it’s hard not to conclude that this was a very significant aspect of Jesus’ identity for many early followers. Not all of them, certainly, because we have the Pauline corpus that tells a very different story. 

1 Et factum est, cum consum masset Iesus sermones istos, migravit a Galilaea et venit in fines Iudaeae trans Iordanem.

2 Et secutae sunt eum turbae multae, et curavit eos ibi.

3 Καὶ προσῆλθον αὐτῷ Φαρισαῖοι πειράζοντες αὐτὸν καὶ λέγοντες, Εἰ ἔξεστιν ἀνθρώπῳ ἀπολῦσαι τὴν γυναῖκα αὐτοῦ κατὰ πᾶσαν αἰτίαν;

And came to him Pharisees testing him and saying, “If it is allowed for a man to release his wife for all reasons. 

Here we have the question about divorce. Since there is really nothing here that we didn’t discuss when reading this in Mark, I’m going to withhold comment until the end; with the possible exception of some minor points.

3 Et accesserunt ad eum pharisaei tentantes eum et dicentes: “ Licet homini dimittere uxorem suam quacumque ex causa?”.

4 ὁ δὲ ἀποκριθεὶς εἶπεν, Οὐκ ἀνέγνωτε ὅτι ὁ κτίσας ἀπ’ ἀρχῆς ἄρσεν καὶ θῆλυ ἐποίησεν αὐτούς;

And he answering said, “Are you ignorant that the creation from the beginning male and female he made them?”

4 Qui respondens ait: “ Non legistis quia, qui creavit ab initio, masculum et feminam fecit eos.

5 καὶ εἶπεν, Ενεκα τούτου καταλείψει ἄνθρωπος τὸν πατέρα καὶ τὴν μητέρα καὶ κολληθήσεται τῇ γυναικὶ αὐτοῦ, καὶ ἔσονται οἱ δύο εἰς σάρκα μίαν.

And he said, “Because of this a man leaves behind his father and his mother and becomes joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.

5 et dixit: “Propter hoc dimittet homo patrem et matrem et adhaerebit uxori suae, et erunt duo in carne una?”.

6 ὥστε οὐκέτι εἰσὶν δύο ἀλλὰ σὰρξ μία. ὃ οὖν ὁ θεὸς συνέζευξεν ἄνθρωπος μὴ χωριζέτω.

 

In this way they are not two, but one flesh. Thus, that which God has yoked together man must not separate”.

6 Itaque iam non sunt duo sed una caro. Quod ergo Deus coniunxit, homo non separet ”.

7 λέγουσιν αὐτῷ, Τί οὖν Μωϋσῆς ἐνετείλατο δοῦναι βιβλίον ἀποστασίου καὶ ἀπολῦσαι [αὐτήν];

They said to him, “Why then did Moses command to give a little book of standing away and releasing her?”

“Little book of standing away is a very, very literal translation for what should be called “a writ of divorce”, or something such. 

7 Dicunt illi: “ Quid ergo Moyses mandavit dari libellum repudii et dimittere? ”.

8 λέγει αὐτοῖς ὅτι Μωϋσῆς πρὸς τὴν σκληροκαρδίαν ὑμῶν ἐπέτρεψεν ὑμῖν ἀπολῦσαι τὰς γυναῖκας ὑμῶν, ἀπ’ ἀρχῆς δὲ οὐ γέγονεν οὕτως.

He said to them that “Moses towards the hard-heartedness of you allowed you to release (= divorce) your wives, from the beginning it was not thus.” 

This is put rather differently than the way it was in Mark. There is no real change in the implication, nor does it show any real development of the concept (as far as I can tell at the moment), but seems more like an expression of editorial independence. It does emphasize that it was the allowance of Moses that was the aberration, rather than the norm. As such, Jesus is not changing anything, but restoring the natural order. This may require additional comment below. 

8 Ait illis: “ Moyses ad duritiam cordis vestri permisit vobis dimittere uxores vestras; ab initio autem non sic fuit.

9 λέγω δὲ ὑμῖν ὅτι ὃς ἂν ἀπολύσῃ τὴν γυναῖκα αὐτοῦ μὴ ἐπὶ πορνείᾳ καὶ γαμήσῃ ἄλλην μοιχᾶται.

“I say to you that he who may divorce his wife, unless for fornication (translit = ‘pornia’) and marries another adulterizes”.

“Pornes”, our root of “pornography” in Greek generally refers to prostitution. However, in Christian usage, it comes to be equated with, or used for, any sort of sexual irregularity. Part of the problem is that “prostitution” in English cultural usage is necessarily a bad thing, something that is considered morally reprehensible in all circumstances, and something that is generally banned as criminal behaviour. For many cultures in the ancient world, however, there were often sacred rites connected to what we would call ‘prostitution’. The classic example are those that are called “temple prostitutes”. Far from being sinful behaviour, this was a sacred rite. What we have is the age-old pastoral puritanism reacting against the fertility rituals of the agriculturalists. Among the latter, this sort of sacred sex was not at all unusual, and was certainly not bad. I have resisted translating anything with the “porn-” root as fornication, but there is no doubt that this is what the complex of words based on this root meant for authors of the NT.

Actually, we’re going to go off on something of a tangent in the following verse, so I’ll make my general comments on the divorce decree now.

Since the whole fornication topic is still fresh, let’s discuss this first. If you have ever been through a divorce, or know people who have, you will realize that the real issues of divorce revolve around the property. The concept of fornication, especially by the wife, relate to the knowledge of who the legitimate heir of the property is. In patriarchal societies–most of them in the ‘civilised’ world, especially Greece and Rome and Judea–property was passed from father to son. As such, the father had to be–or wanted to be–damn certain that the son was actually his. In the Middle Ages, this led to the daughters of nobles being socked away in a convent until they were of marriageable age–which generally meant puberty. These poor girls often went straight from the convent to the marriage bed so the nobleman who married them could be certain of her virginity. And this is also the genesis of the custom of a year’s mourning for a woman whose husband died: that way, it was certain that she wasn’t pregnant when the late husband died. Now, men who fornicated could–and often did–produce illegitimate children. In the case of males these could muddy up the lines of inheritance, so the term “bastard” became one of reproach. However, there was not the same level of horror of male fornication that was there was for the wife fornicating. In fact, a queen committing adultery was also committing treason. The idea was she could give birth to a son that would or could be considered legitimate, meaning this son was a rival claimant to the throne on the king’s death. 

So yes, it involves property.

When reading this in Mark, I did not comment on the “restoration” aspect of this passage. It is very important to note that Jesus is not–in his mind, at least–doing anything novel. Rather, he sees this as a restoration of the “natural” way, in which mating was for life. It was only the hard-heartedness of the ancient Israelites that had messed this up. This is a fairly significant change in attitude. First, we need to consider whether this actually dates to Jesus. It’s in Mark, so there’s not a lot of argument that this should be attributed to James. It’s hard to untangle what Paul would have, or did think of this. He wasn’t real keen on marriage, but he wasn’t keen on divorce, either, even as a means to living a celibate life. There is no obvious reason here to believe that it did not come from Jesus. But Paul believed that the end was coming soon, so he saw no reason to consider things like this. His advice was to remain in whatever state you happened to be in, whether single or married. Nor is there is any context, or internal inconsistency to preclude the provenance from Jesus, as there is for more obvious situations that would only have arisen after he died. I cannot think of, or discover, any real objection to attributing this to Jesus. That’s not the same as proving he said it; rather, it’s the argument from either ignorance or silence, which in a case like this are effectively the same thing. We don’t have any evidence one way or the other.

So let’s assume this did come from Jesus; indeed, that it’s such a break with Jewish tradition may be evidence that it did come from Jesus. Why would he make this pronouncement? Why make this break, when he made so few others? I’m not sure I have an answer for this. Offhand, it seems like a puritanical reaction, an attempt to return to a more pure state when the law, or The Law, did not interfere with the natural order. Is this something that came, ultimately, from the Baptist, or from the sort of puritanical minds that created this sort of “pristine-state” thinking? That is a possibility. Really, the more I consider this, the odder it seems. And since many people still point to this passage as an absolute prohibition of divorce, this oddity has real-world implications. 

So, given my lack of imagination on this, I am forced to leave the topic. Perhaps more ideas will have occurred to me by the time I’m writing the summary for this chapter..

9 Dico autem vobis quia quicumque dimiserit uxorem suam, nisi ob fornicationem, et aliam duxerit, moechatur”.

10 λέγουσιν αὐτῷ οἱ μαθηταὶ [αὐτοῦ], Εἰ οὕτως ἐστὶν ἡ αἰτία τοῦ ἀνθρώπου μετὰ τῆς γυναικός, οὐ συμφέρει γαμῆσαι.

His disciples said to him, “If it is thus, the cause of men with his woman, one should refrain to marry”.

Two things. First, this is not a question. The disciples are drawing an inference and stating it. Second, the disciples are presented as intelligent enough to draw this inference. Since this is not in Mark, this seems to be another attempt to rehabilitate the reputation of the disciples. They are not the dullards that we met in Mark.

But the real issue is that it’s very tempting to read this an not see Paul behind this. Let’s face it: Paul was much more concerned about this sort of thing in general, and with sexual morality in particular, that we’ve found in the gospels so far. With the exception of the passages about causing others to stumble, or recommending self-mutilation, Jesus is pretty much silent on sexual morality. So yes, the influence of Paul seems very prominent. 

That leads us to a decision: is it more likely that this came from the influence of Paul, or was it simply something deduced independently? First, let’s specify that this almost certainly does not trace back to Jesus given the oddity of the situation and it not being part of Mark. Second, it is highly unlikely that this one aspect of Pauline teaching entered the stream of general teaching by itself. Most often, when an earlier source influences a later source, there are multiple clues pointing to the earlier source. That we seem to have a one-off would weigh against the inclusion of Paul. But, OTOH, maybe we just haven’t noticed the other instances of influence. This one seems fairly obvious because of the way it’s stated. The question of whether it’s better to marry (than to burn with lust) is couched in language very similar to the way Paul addressed the question, so the possible affiliation is obvious. 

So once again, the evidence is ambiguous. Really, there’s no reason that this could not have been arrived at independently, but the way it’s put makes affiliation seem likely. As a result, I defer judgement, or a final conclusion, for the moment. If I see no other indications of fairly obvious debts to Paul, I will have to infer that this was an independent development. But then, I haven’t considered the possibility that Matthew got this–and this alone–orally, from someone who had been exposed to Paul to some degree. That would account for the way the inference is put in Pauline terms, without requiring that Matthew knew the Pauline corpus in whole, or even in part.

10 Dicunt ei discipuli eius: “ Si ita est causa hominis cum uxore, non expedit nubere ”.

11 ὁ δὲ εἶπεν αὐτοῖς, Οὐ πάντες χωροῦσιν τὸν λόγον [τοῦτον], ἀλλ’ οἷς δέδοται.

He said to them, “Not all ****** [this] idea, but to those (to whom) it is given.”  

I am having trouble rendering <<χωροῦσιν >>. In classical usage, it’s sort of a synonym for “to go”, especially as in “to leave”. Yet my NT dictionary, all my crib translations, and even the Latin render this as “receive”. One thing that disturbs me is that all the commentaries just swallow “to receive” without, well, comment. Here once again I have to question NT scholarship. For all the noise made about going back to the Greek, here is an instance where it appears a lot of translators stopped at the Latin. Realize that the unabridged Liddell & Scott give cites for unusual uses of a given word. For example, I was puzzled by something in Herodotus (I, 31), and lo! there it was, cited in the L&S. And even if we take this as “receive”. the passage then reads “not all receive this, but (‘only’ implied?) those to whom it is given”. That’s basically a contradiction. How can one receive it, unless it has been given? Think of it this way: “not all to whom it is given receive it, but only those to whom it is given”.  The “to whom it is given” is logically necessary if one receives it. Yes, the meaning is “obvious”, but only because we believe it to be so. We’re taking St Jerome’s word for that.

11 Qui dixit eis: “ Non omnes capiunt verbum istud, sed quibus datum est.

12 εἰσὶν γὰρ εὐνοῦχοι οἵτινες ἐκ κοιλίας μητρὸς ἐγεννήθησαν οὕτως, καὶ εἰσὶν εὐνοῦχοι οἵτινες εὐνουχίσθησαν ὑπὸ τῶν ἀνθρώπων, καὶ εἰσὶν εὐνοῦχοι οἵτινες εὐνούχισαν ἑαυτοὺς διὰ τὴν βασιλείαν τῶν οὐρανῶν. ὁ δυνάμενος χωρεῖν χωρείτω.

For there are eunuchs, those from the mother’s womb born this way, and there are eunuchs who were eunuchized by men, and there are eunuchs who eunuchize themselves on account of the kingdom of the heavens. Let the one who is able to receive it, receive it.

Again with the <<χωροῦσιν >> in the last sentence. This time, I just conceded and let the consensus translation stand.

Because, really, the more interesting part of this is the first bit about eunuchs, whether congenital, created, or self-made. The last is interesting: are we to take this literally? Were men literally castrating themselves because of the kingdom of the heavens? I know that one of the patristic thinkers did, but which one I don’t recall. I do recall Norman Cantnor’s assessment: he found sexual continence a problem, so he castrated himself, “an eminently logical solution”. In actuality, the literalness of this is only a problem for fundamentalists; for, if we take this as figurative, what else are we to take as figurative? “I am the vine, you are the branches”?

I think the point here is to go back to our question about “better not to marry”. This whole idea of self-eunuchizing really ties back to that. And both of these are very Pauline in their outlook. Paul spent a lot of time discussing things like this. The fact that we have both the “better not to marry” and this bit makes me lean towards an overall awareness of at least part of the Pauline corpus. Perhaps 1 Corinthians, if not other works. So perhaps our question has been answered, because I believe this is the only–or one of the very few–places in the gospel in which sexual continence is considered necessary for entrance into the kingdom of the heavens; that is, the sole example excluding the passages that recommend self-mutilation. 

12 Sunt enim eunuchi, qui de matris utero sic nati sunt; et sunt eunuchi, qui facti sunt ab hominibus; et sunt eunuchi, qui seipsos castraverunt propter regnum caelorum. Qui potest capere, capiat”.

 

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About James, brother of Jesus

I have a BA from the University of Toronto in Greek and Roman History. For this, I had to learn classical Greek and Latin. In seminar-style classes, we discussed both the meaning of the text and the language. U of T has a great Classics Dept. One of the professors I took a Senior Seminar with is now at Harvard. I started reading the New Testament as a way to brush up on my Greek, and the process grew into this. I plan to comment on as much of the NT as possible, starting with some of Paul's letters. After that, I'll start in on the Gospels, starting with Mark.

Posted on December 25, 2015, in Chapter 19, gospel commentary, gospels, Matthew's Gospel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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