The other day Mike Huckabee was on MSNBC and made the claim that Jesus specifically outlined what marriage looks like. It’s a claim I’ve heard a million times– and perhaps you have as well. However, this claim is not exactly true and is a classic case of attempting to use ancient scriptures to answer modern questions, instead of digging into the context to discover the ancient question they were actually wrestling with at the time.
Such is the case with this claim that Jesus “defined marriage.” The argument is made from selectively quoting and potentially misapplying Jesus when he said in Matthew 19: “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be united to his wife and the two shall become one flesh.” (v.5)
This passage takes much greater shape when we set aside our current cultural debates and peer behind the curtains to see what was actually happening contextually when we see Jesus make this statement.
So, some things we and Mike Huckabee should know about the context:
First, marriage wasn’t defined as “one man one woman” in the Second Temple Period. Polygamy was certainly falling out of practice among commoners, but it still existed. The New Testament never addresses this, though Paul weighs in and states that men with more than one wife should not serve in church leadership. This wasn’t necessarily because of moral objections to the practice (Paul never specifically condemns it, so we can’t say for sure) but was because Paul was deeply concerned that married people wouldn’t have time for both ministry and family (1 Corinthians 7:32-35). Having a large family and multiple wives in addition to church leadership responsibilities would certainly, in Paul’s view, be too much responsibility for one person to manage effectively.
Secondly, we need to understand the cultural debates of Jesus’s time– and the passage in question from Matthew 19 is a very specific answer to a very specific debate: divorce.
Jesus wasn’t the only show in town during this period, and he wasn’t the only one driving conversations. There were actually two competing rabbis who were deeply influential during this period, and they’re critical to understanding what is happening in Matthew 19. The two rabbis were Rabbi Shammai and Rabbi Hellel, and they sparked a number of debates over which they held competing views. One of the issues they strongly disagreed over was the issue of divorce and how to interpret and apply Deuteronomy 24:1, a verse that says a man can divorce his wife if she becomes “displeasing.” The word “displeasing” was the source of this debate: “What does that mean?” the two argued.
Rabbi Shammai held a rigid view of what “displeasing” meant, and argued that the word referred to a serious transgression, such as adultery. Rabbi Hillel on the other hand, argued that displeasing could mean almost anything and is perhaps most well known for the fact that he taught it was permissible to divorce your wife for being a bad cook. Essentially, Rabbi Hillel argued that a man could divorce his wife for “any and every reason” because “displeasing” could mean whatever you wanted it to mean.
Let’s see how that context completely changes how we view Matthew 19:
“Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”
Can you see what’s happening here? They are quoting what Hillel was teaching and asking Jesus if he agreed with him.
The question isn’t, “Jesus, what is the definition of marriage?”
The question isn’t, “Jesus, how should Rome define and regulate marriage?”
This is their question: “Jesus, what do you think about Hillel’s view that a man can divorce his wife for any and every reason?”
Jesus answers and disagrees with Hillel, essentially affirming what Shammai taught: “displeasing” could only mean adultery.
And so, in Matthew 19 we find Jesus weighing into the debate between Hillel and Shammai on divorce, and Jesus answers by reminding them that broken relationships and broken families were never part of the plan, and that this should be permitted in only the most egregious of circumstances.
Looking at the context, we see that Jesus didn’t define marriage– he defined when he thought it was permissible to get a divorce.
In closing, when considering the actual context of this passage and how it is used in our modern cultural debates, I am left with a few questions:
1. Since Jesus took such a hard line on divorce in this passage, shouldn’t we be primarily applying this verse to cases of divorce? With the prevalence of Christian divorce, shouldn’t this verse be a beam-in-the-eye moment where the primary application of the text gives us more than enough to occupy ourselves?
2. Do we even agree with Jesus on this? I know most Christians would say, “Yes, of course I agree with Jesus” but do we functionally agree? Does the average Evangelical church treat people who got divorced and remarried in cases other than adultery as practicing adulterers? Paul says the sexually immoral (includes adulterers) should be put out of the church completely, and that you shouldn’t even share a meal with them (1 Cor 5:11). Is anyone other than the strictest fundamentalist churches actually following that? Do we actually believe those who got divorced and remarried are going to hell? (1 Cor 6:9)
I have to be honest: I don’t know many people or Evangelical churches who functionally agree with Jesus (or Paul) on this. So, why are we okay making concessions on divorce but not other things?
3. Even if Jesus defined marriage as one man and one woman, which he did not, where do we see Jesus telling the Roman government that government policies must be changed to reflect his own teachings? Where in the NT do we see the early church calling on Christians to rise up in rebellion until Roman policies reflected their beliefs? There’s an easy answer: We don’t. Ever.
4. Why are some Christians concerned with the legality of same sex marriage, but completely silent on the legality of getting divorced other than in cases of adultery? Isn’t that hypocrisy?
So no, Mike Huckabee– Jesus didn’t outline the definition of marriage. Nor did he try to take control of the government. He did however, take a hard line on divorce, and I’m pretty sure just applying that to ourselves as a Christian community will give us more than enough to worry about.