Bible Commentary: Jesus on divorce and remarriage

Though not ideal, divorce and remarriage are permitted in certain cases according to biblical law and Jewish tradition.

A few days ago I was approached by a Christian widower with a painful story. He had recently met a gracious Christian widow, and their budding friendship seemed blessed by the Lord. Until, that is, he learned that she had been divorced earlier from an abusive husband. As a person who always tried to walk in the obedience of faith, this righteous man felt he could no longer in good conscience pursue the relationship with an eye toward marriage because of Jesus’ warning that, “…a man who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.” (Luke 16:18)
I am reminded of a similar situation many years ago, when my now 35-yearold son was a toddler. Once a week a retired schoolteacher, “Mrs. P,” came to our house to babysit Ben so my wife and I could have an evening out. She was a devout woman who had never remarried after her husband divorced her to run away with another woman more than 50 years before. “I never considered remarrying,” she once told me, “lest I be guilty of adultery.”
She too quoted Luke 16:18.
WHAT ARE WE to make of this perplexing passage? “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery” (ESV). It seems uncharacteristic of Jesus for at least three reasons.
First, it puts Jesus at odds with the Torah, in effect “abolishing” the Torah’s provision for divorce in Deuteronomy 24:1. Though not ideal, divorce and remarriage are permitted in certain cases according to biblical law and Jewish tradition.
Second, such an unconditional indictment, without regard for circumstance or motivation, seems alien to Yeshua’s typical approach to halakhic issues, which emphasized the “spirit” rather than the “letter” of the Law. Indeed, Luke 16:18 appears to contradict Matthew 19:9, in which he makes an exception for divorce (and thereby remarriage).
And finally, this odd saying seems to come “out of the blue,” with no obvious context. It is spliced between a mention of John the Baptist and a parable about a rich man.
Interpreters have long wrestled with this text, but the most coherent explanation has been suggested by David Bivin’s examination of the linguistic and Hebraic backgrounds to Luke 16:18, and Steven Notley’s insights into its historical and contextual setting (See their research at
First, consider the phrase “…and marries another.” The conjunction “and” is kai in Greek; but likely behind the Greek lies the Mishnaic Hebrew of Yeshua’s day. The Hebrew vav (and) has a wider range of meanings than kai, including the “vav of purpose or intention” – an idiomatic usage meaning “in order to” or “so that.” Here is a typical example: “Let my people go so that [literal Hebrew: and] they may serve me in the wilderness” (Exodus 7:16 ESV).
The evidence suggests that Jesus was saying, “The man who divorces his wife in order to marry another commits adultery.” In other words, the two actions are related by intent. But what might occasion such a comment? A clue may be found in Josephus’ history of Herod Antipas and the Gospel account of John the Baptist.
One of Herod’s sons, Antipas, was the ruler of the Galilee at the time of Jesus and John. An illicit romantic entanglement between Antipas and his half-brother’s wife, Herodias, led to them divorcing their spouses in order to marry each other.
The intrepid prophet John called Herod Antipas out for this infidelity: “It is not lawful [i.e., permitted by the Torah] for you to have her” (Matthew 14:4). As a result, John was arrested by the tetrarch and later, at Herodias’ insistence, beheaded (14:9-11).
This appears to be the background behind Jesus’ otherwise perplexing comment. He is not arbitrarily issuing a blanket condemnation of divorce and remarriage, but soundly interpreting the Torah to mean that divorcing one’s spouse with the intent of marrying another, someone you lust after, is equivalent to adultery. He is alluding to Herod Antipas and Herodias, and reaffirming John’s righteous condemnation of their adulterous actions.
Dr. Pryor is founder and president of the Center for Judaic-Christian Studies;