I’ve been corresponding with reader Dan Knight regarding Dan’s intriguing theory for how to read the “divorce” passages in the Gospels. I’ve read extensively on the subject, and I’ve never run into his theory before — and it just might be right. I’m writing to ask the readers whether any one can offer any additional evidence in support of it.
Let me explain. The word translated “put away” in the KJV and “divorce” in some more modern translations is apoluo. Suppose that it doesn’t mean divorce but means to send away or put away — that is, to put out of the house without a certificate of divorce? Now imagine that it was in fact a common practice for Jewish men to put away their wives without a certificate of divorce in order to, for example, avoid having to repay the wife’s dowery?
If that’s true, then Jesus could be read this way —
(Mat 5:31-32 ESV) 31 “It was also said, ‘Whoever [puts away] his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I say to you that everyone who [puts away] his wife [without a certificate of divorce], except on the ground of [pre-marital] sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a [put away] woman commits adultery.
(Mat 19:3-10 ESV) 3 And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to [put away] one’s wife for any cause?”
4 He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, 5 and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”
7 They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?”
8 He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to [put away] your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. 9 And I say to you: whoever [puts away] his wife [without a certificate of divorce], except for [premarital] sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”
10 The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.”
Now I need to explain that under the Law of Moses, if a man took a wife and found her to not be a virgin, he could annul the marriage — because of fornication.
(Deu 22:20-21 ESV) 20 But if the thing is true, that evidence of virginity was not found in the young woman, 21 then they shall bring out the young woman to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her to death with stones, because she has done an outrageous thing in Israel by whoring in her father’s house. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.
She’d have been stoned before the Romans banned capital punishment without Roman approval, but the result was an annulment during the time of Jesus.
There are challenges with this approach, but there is some support for it. For example, the use of apoluo to refer to a putting away distinct from a formal divorce appears consistent with —
(Isa 50:1 ESV) Thus says the LORD: “Where is your mother’s certificate of divorce, with which I sent her away? Or which of my creditors is it to whom I have sold you? Behold, for your iniquities you were sold, and for your transgressions your mother was sent away [but not divorced].
(Mat 1:19 ESV) 19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to [put her away without a divorce] quietly.
Now, the argument for apoluo to mean “divorce” is heavily based on the Jewish Talmud, but this reflects Jewish attitudes from centuries later — where the giving of the certificate was considered so essential that the Talmud insists that Abraham gave Hagar a certificate of divorce even though the Bible says no such thing.
Dan also argues that this is consistent with the reading of some of the early church fathers — which is quite interesting.
So it’s a very intriguing theory. But to make a truly convincing case, it would be helpful to know whether there is any evidence in the literature that Jews had a problem with men sending wives away without a certificate. It’s entirely possible, as Roman law provided for no certificate and a Jew could rationalize that he was just obeying the law of the Empire — while keeping the dowery. But did it happen often enough that Jesus would have felt obliged to address the question?
Does anyone have any help to offer?