Instone-Brewer’s views on divorce compared to mine: Part 1, appreciations & agreements

I have been pretty silent on my view on Instone-Brewer’s work up till now, because compared to most other writers on divorce, he is excellent. So why am I now speaking up? Because one of our readers said —

I am curious as to your views and differences with Instone-Brewer’s book. I felt a lot of his arguments from the NT section were just arguments from silence. His responses seemed to really leave the door wide open as well. I am in agreement with you on the idea of constructive desertion of 1 Cor. 7.

So here are my thoughts about Instone-Brewer’s work on divorce. Part 1 is what appreciate about his work and where I agree with him. In Part 2 I have stated my differences with him.

David Instone-Brewer has two books about divorce and remarriage (link) and the most important one is the scholarly Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible (2002). The second one, Divorce and Remarriage in the Church (2003) is aimed at the average layperson and in its preface Instone-Brewer says: “The readability of this book is due solely to Sheron Rice who edited the book so diligently that she virtually rewrote the whole work and still managed to use most of my  words.”

I read his scholarly book first and studied it repeatedly as I was researching to write Not Under Bondage.

Only later did I read his simple book.  I don’t know what I would have thought if I’d read the simple book first.

My appreciation of Instone-Brewer

In my view, the most valuable thing about Instone-Brewer’s work on divorce is his insight into what Jesus’ audience would have understood by His words on divorce.

This insight came as a result of Instone-Brewer’s extensive reading of extra-biblical literature from the era of the New Testament. Most importantly, his insight has enabled us to understand what the Pharisees meant by the term “divorce for any matter” and what Jesus meant when he said “except for sexual immorality” (Matthew 19) .

Instone-Brewer explains the accepted beliefs, practices and controversies about divorce in Judaism, and in the pagan Roman Empire, during the first century AD. Here are the facts he presents:

  • The people listening to Jesus’ debate with the Pharisees (Matt 19) would have understood the phrase “divorce for any matter” to mean only this:–
    • the kind of divorce that happened when a man divorced his wife using the Hillelite School’s interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1.
  • The term ‘any matter divorce’ had a very specific meaning at the time of Jesus’ ministry.
  • This meaning was so well known it didn’t need to be explained to any of Jesus’ initial audience.
  • The specific meaning of ‘any matter divorce’ got forgotten in the ensuing century when the church became largely composed of gentiles after the Jewish temple had been destroyed by the Romans.
  • Greco-Roman ‘divorce-by-separation’ didn’t require a divorce certificate; it was a no-fault divorce that either sex could put into effect simply by separating with intent to end the marriage. It was common among pagans in the Roman Empire of the first century.
  • The Corinthian church would have understood this; Paul didn’t have to explain it to them.
  • In Judaism, divorce required a divorce certificate and the certificate could only be written by the husband.
  • All Jewish divorce certificates gave the woman the freedom to marry another man. The certificate wording was: “You are free to marry another man.”
  • Around the time of the first century, there were two different schools of Jewish law:
    • the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel.
    • The two camps had different views what rights Deuteronomy 24:1 conferred to men to initiate divorce.
    • But when one camp authorised a husband to divorce his wife on the basis of its interpretation of Deut 24:1, the other camp accepted the divorce as a legal fact.
  • Regardless of which legal school or camp they had allegiance to, the rabbis were in consensus that Exodus 21:10-11 permitted divorce for neglect (physical, emotional or sexual).
  • This was common knowledge among Jews in the first century.
  • While the Mosaic Law did not mention a wife writing a divorce certificate herself, a Jewish wife could apply to the court for a divorce by asking the court to order her husband to write her a divorce certificate.
  • Women could, in this indirect way, initiate divorce.
  • A Jewish court could require a husband to write a divorce certificate, which, once written, would free the appellant wife from a marriage in which she had been mistreated (the divorce grounds being Ex. 21:10-11).

I relied on David Instone-Brewer’s presentation of this cultural / historical background. I am grateful for his scholarship.

But I didn’t always draw the same conclusions he drew from those facts (see part 2)

Instone-Brewer’s ‘arguments from silence’ are based on the things listed in the points above, which were so commonly known and understood in the first century

While some arguments from silence are dubious arguments, Instone-Brewer’s are not.

  • The term ‘divorce for any matter’ had a special meaning which did not need to be explained to first century Jews, so Jesus didn’t explain it. That’s not a flimsy argument from silence: it is actually a robust argument because it finally allows us to make sense of the apparent contradiction between Jesus appearing to allow divorce ‘only for sexual immorality’ and Paul allowing divorce for another ground, desertion by an unbeliever. Instone-Brewer has explained why Jesus’ words meant something different to what we thought they meant.
  • Since Jews believed that divorce was allowed for neglect (Ex 21:10-11), and since pagans in the Roman Empire saw neglect as grounds for divorce, neither Jesus nor Paul had any need to state that neglect was grounds for divorce.
  • Jesus and Paul didn’t have to specifically say “remarriage is allowed after a valid divorce”. Everyone Jesus and Paul were speaking to knew that remarriage was allowed after divorce. So it was needless for Jesus and Paul to say that — almost as pointless as saying “the sky is above and the earth is below”.

My agreement with Instone-Brewer

Although we arrive at our conclusions by slightly different routes, we have broadly similar views regarding valid grounds for divorce.

Instone-Brewer sees four valid grounds for divorce:

  1. adultery
  2. desertion by an unbeliever (by walking out or by telling the believer to leave)
  3. emotional neglect
  4. material neglect

However, on his website summary (link) he gives three grounds—  adultery, abandonment and abuse, which is pretty much what I say.

I think there are three valid grounds for divorce, with the second and third grounds being different types of desertion:

  1. sexual immorality — adultery, addiction to porn, incest, perversions, etc.
  2. simple desertion by a nonbeliever (= the unbeliever walking out or telling the believer to leave)
  3. abuse (= constructive desertion by a nonbeliever) which can take many forms including neglect

Go to Part 2 of this two-part series.


Related posts

The Bible DOES allow divorce for domestic abuse

Isn’t adultery the only ground for divorce?

8 thoughts on “Instone-Brewer’s views on divorce compared to mine: Part 1, appreciations & agreements”

  1. Do you think we are bound when the abusive behavior is tied with a mental issue they can’t help, like Aspergers or bipolar?

    1. No. My father had schizophrenia, and he refused to take his medication. He almost killed my mother by choking her. Another time he held a gun on her. He was mean to my older half-siblings from my mother’s first marriage (she was widowed). To make things worse, he was brought up in a household where women were second class citizens. Compound that belief system with a mental illness, and it’s a recipe for disaster. Thank God, my mother managed to leave him before anyone was hurt or killed.

      1. Hi Silvereyes, welcome to the blog. 🙂

        We always like to encourage new readers to check out our New Users’ Info page as it gives tips for how to guard your safety while commenting on the blog.

        If you want us to change your screen name to something else to better protect your identity, just email The woman behind the curtain: — she will be more than happy to assist. 🙂

  2. Barbara,
    This is extremely clarifying and very well written.
    Thank you!

    Can’t wait for “Part 2”


  3. If people do not understand what “marriage” is, they will not understand what destroys the bonds of marriage, and will not realize that it is not a “writ of divorce” that is what destroys a marriage. This leads to cruelty that, according to Old Testament law, not even cruelly treated slaves were forced to endure

  4. I’ve also come to the conclusion that many Biblical teachings come on essentially three levels:
    1) The natural law as originally ordained by God.
    2) The correct application of that natural law, valid for all.
    3) The interaction between our childishness and hardness of heart and how God deals with that.

    I think there is a lot of confusion on all levels. For example, if we dissect Matthew 19 (4-5, 8), Jesus answers the question from these different perspectives:
    1 and 2) And He answered and said, “Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, (5) and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.”
    3) He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

    The problem here is that Jesus’s specific teaching, answering the Pharisees’ question, within their specific tradition is reinterpreted to be 2) an application of universal truth. This is the same hang-up we have with much of OT law. Theonomists, for example, want to claim that such things as “cities of refuge” are really 2) – generally applicable laws, instead of 3) laws aimed specifically at the Jewish culture. That’s one of the reasons churches get hung up on divorce, because they think Jesus was making a complete analysis of divorce, yet even in that, Paul’s teaching would be contradictory. How can the only reason for divorce be adultery, for reason of the two becoming one flesh, and yet at the same time, it’s okay to remarry if your non-believing spouse divorces you?

Leave a Reply to Gothard Survivor Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.