MDR: Divorce in Biblical times, Part 1

As confused as our understanding of marriage has been, divorce is even more confusing. For example, today, when we say “divorce” we conjure up an image of filing papers in a local court asking a judge to declare a state-granted marriage terminated. But the interesting question is whether this is what the authors of the Bible thought. Clearly, it is not.[1]

In the Old Testament, while marriage goes back to Adam and Eve, no reference to divorce is found until the Law of Moses. In Deuteronomy 24, Moses wrote,

1 If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, 2 and if after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man, 3 and her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, or if he dies, 4 then her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled. That would be detestable in the eyes of the LORD. Do not bring sin upon the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance.

We’ll have occasion to study this passage again. For now, it’s enough to note that the process of ending a marriage was simply for the husband to send his wife from his house. There was no intervention of a judge. No court filing. No civil process at all.

Thus, when “divorce” is mentioned in the context of the Law of Moses, the speaker was thinking in terms of violating the marriage covenant, particularly by sending the wife out of the house. When God says through Malachi, “I hate divorce” (Mal. 2:16), God was not condemning filing court papers — he was condemning violating the marriage covenant so as to end the marriage.

In Greek and Roman society, the law regarding divorce was not greatly different.[2] In the First Century, Roman marriage was a “free marriage” based on mutual consent. Although in earlier years more formal arrangements were recognized, by New Testament times, these had long been forgotten.

Divorce, accordingly, was accomplished by either party’s repudiating the marriage. Under Augustus (emperor at the beginning of the First Century), the divorce need only be announced in the presence of seven witnesses. Thus, as was the case with the Jews, a “divorce” was the act of ending the marriage — not filing a suit in court.

In both cases, the law allowed the wife to remarry. Under the Law of Moses, the wife was given a certificate of divorce by her husband, essentially verifying that she’d been divorced so that she could remarry freely despite not being a virgin. The standard form of certificate explicitly allowed the right to remarry. In fact, the notion of divorce without the right to remarry would have been unthinkable.[3] Of course, husbands were allowed multiple wives, so remarriage was not an issue for them.

Under Augustus, witnesses were required, evidently also to allow the wife to prove her eligibility to remarry.


[1] The following arguments are heavily based on John L. Edwards, An In Depth Study of Marriage & Divorce (hereinafter “Edwards”).

[2] See Pat E. Harrell, Divorce & Remarriage in the Early Church (R. B. Sweet Co., Inc., 1967) (hereinafter “Harrell”); and 5 W. G. Smith, The Catholic Encyclopedia, “Divorce in Civil Jurisprudence” (1909), http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05064a.htm.

[3] Instone-Brewer, pp. 117 ff

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About Jay Guin

I am an elder, a Sunday school teacher, a husband, a father, a grandfather, and a lawyer. I live in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, home of the Alabama Crimson Tide. I’m a member of the University Church of Christ. I grew up in Russellville, Alabama and graduated from David Lipscomb College (now Lipscomb University). I received my law degree from the University of Alabama. I met my wife Denise at Lipscomb, and we have four sons, two of whom are married, and I have a grandson and granddaughter.
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3 Responses to MDR: Divorce in Biblical times, Part 1

  1. During the divorce procedure, the negative feelings that you were previously experiencing in your marriage go haywire! During this, our world appears to collapse and with it our concept of whom we are.

  2. divorce is always not a good news but it maybe necessary if relationships aren't going in the right direction"."

  3. Bible Study says:

    I personally think marriage should be permanant, what God has joined together let not man put asunder.

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