Did the Writer of Mark’s Gospel Make a Historical Blunder Regarding Jewish Divorce Laws?

If the Gospels contain legal and cultural errors of the times, we would be less inclined to think they’re trustworthy. But Mark makes several of these errors, or so the critics argue. One such example is in the area of Jewish divorce. In an article titled “Shredding the Gospels”, one skeptic says that Mark was pulling things out of the air.

In Mark 10:11-12, Jesus forbids divorce: He answered, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.”

Verse 12 implies that Mark believed women had a right to divorce in Jewish law. They did not.

Was Mark culturally ignorant of Jesus’ Times?

What Jewish Law is the critic referring to? Let’s look back at Deuteronomy 24:1-4, which is what the Pharisees are referencing:

“When a man takes a wife and marries her if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house.

Or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the Lord. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance.”

So we see that Moses made room for a man to divorce his wife. But the Law doesn’t say a woman could divorce her husband. So allegedly Mark is a clueless Gentile putting words in Jesus’ mouth. Here’s another critic making this objection:

“This sentence is generally regarded as an addition to Jesus’ teaching that was made to address situations related to the Roman legal practice whereby a woman could initiate divorce proceedings.”

John R.Donahue and Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Mark, vol. 2 (2002), p. 295, note 12.

Now it would be tempting for us to say “OK, so what? Jesus could have said something like this and Mark got the wording mixed up.” But the critics don’t stop there. Matthew uses Mark as a source. But if Matthew was a disciple of Jesus and a local, he would’ve known better and not used such a faulty document. So whoever wrote Matthew, it wasn’t “Matthew”. There’s a lot at stake here.

Note the context

In answering this difficulty, I want you to note the geography here. Mark 10:1 says: “And he left there and went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan, and crowds gathered to him again. And again, as was his custom, he taught them.”

This would be in Perea, smack dab in the jurisdiction of Antipas. Mark 10:2 says “Some Pharisees came and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”

So let’s think about this for a second. The Pharisees were testing him. The NET Bible commentary gives us a little background as to how they were testing him. They write: “it is likely that the Pharisees were hoping he might answer the question of divorce in a way similar to John the Baptist and so suffer the same fate as John, i.e., death at the hands of Herod (cf. 6:17-19).”

So the Pharisees were hoping that Jesus came out strongly against Herod and get himself into hot water. Matthew tells us that Herod was already paranoid over Jesus. He thought he was John the Baptist raised from the dead, and that was the source of his miraculous powers. (Matthew 14:1-2.) And Matthew also tells us that it was Herodias’ cunning that led to John the Baptists’ beheading. (Matt. 14:6-12)

Where is Matthew getting his info?

Let’s take a sidebar for a moment. This passage raises a couple of interesting questions — How would Matthew get all this information? And why is Herod asking his servants information about Jesus? Luke 8:1-3 supplies the answer:

After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their means.

Ah, so this explains how Matthew knew what Herod said in private in various situations. And it explains why he would ask his servants questions about Jesus.

Here is philosopher Lydia McGrew on the value of this undesigned coincidence:

The indirectness of this coincidence is particularly lovely. Only one part of the puzzle is found in each Gospel, and the connection cannot possibly be the result of design. It is beyond belief that Luke would have inserted this casual reference to Chuza in a list unconnected in any other way with Herod or with the beheading of John, in order to provide a convenient explanation for the detail about Herod’s servants mentioned only in Matthew.

This coincidence provides clear evidence of the independence of Matthew and Luke and confirms them both.

Hidden in Plain View, Kindle location 1258

Jesus wasn’t backing down

So John, who baptized Jesus and was Jesus’ cousin according to Luke (Lk 1.41-44), spoke truth to power and it cost him his life. Jesus, being unafraid to die, didn’t back down. When he said “And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery”, his audience would have picked up what he was laying down. This was a not-so-subtle jab at Herodias, who Jesus knew had the Baptist brutally executed.

This wasn’t the first time we read of Jesus being confrontational with Herod and his family in the Gospels. In Luke 13:31-32 we read: “At that time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, “Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.” He replied, “Go tell that fox, ‘I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’

When it came to the most powerful family in Palestine, Jesus took the kid gloves off. While he was no revolutionary and even said the Jews ought to pay their taxes to these corrupt civil authorities, (Mk 12:17) Jesus was also no coward when it came to calling a spade a spade.

Context from a Jewish Historian

Finally, we have a Jewish historian who was familiar with the manners and customs of the Jews of his time — Flavius Josephus. In Antiquities 18.5.4, Josephus writes: “Herodias…took it upon herself to confound the laws of our country and divorced her first husband in order to marry Herod Antipas.”

Suddenly Mark doesn’t look so culturally ignorant, does he? Josephus said she broke the laws of the land. He’s in agreement with what we read in Mark’s Gospel. Herodias may have used Roman law to circumvent Jewish law. But Jesus and John the Baptist weren’t having it. And Josephus didn’t think well of it either, and he is reporting the attitude of the Jews of the time.

There’s a lesson here. We need to check the historical and cultural background for ourselves. We can’t allow scholars to tell us that the Gospel writers were ignorant because of their own bias and historical sloppiness.

As the late apologist and philosopher Norman Geisler said, “All appeals to authority ultimately rest on the evidence that the authority has. The letters after his name don’t mean a thing without the evidence to back up his position.”

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