The Bible uses different words for divorce but they all mean legal divorce. Those who tell you otherwise are mistaken.
Some people say we must pay close attention to the different words the Bible uses for divorce because the words mean different things. These folks say that words like depart/ leave/ put away/ separate do not refer to legal divorce because no divorce certificate was issued, whereas other words refer to a certificate of divorce and only those words refer to real divorce. They say this is the KEY to untangling all the knotty texts about divorce.
This idea is not true. Authors and bloggers who make this argument are promoting an idea that is false. It comes from ignorance and lack of study. Call me blunt if you like, but please listen to what I have to say. For years I have bitten my tongue, trying to be tolerant and patient with folks who promulgate this mistaken idea. But the time has come for me to debunk it fair and square because rather than fading away (as false ideas would, if there were enough good teachers in the church) it is being promoted more widely.
I have to assume that folks who promote this mistaken idea have not read David Instone-Brewer’s work in depth. Most of these advocates are passing on uneducated ideas they have picked up from other uneducated authors.
Dr Instone-Brewer is a Tyndale scholar from Cambridge England. He is a research scholar with linguistic expertise way above most of us. As part of his scholarly career he has studied not only the biblical texts in their original languages but the extra-biblical literature about marriage and divorce from the period in which the Bible was written. He knows far more about the subject of how words were used than most authors and advocates who are writing about domestic abuse these days.
1 Corinthians 7
One of the passages where people focus on the different words is 1 Corinthians 7:10-15. Two different words for divorce are used in that passage: chōrízō (used four times, verses 10, 11a and twice in 15) and aphiēmi (used three times, verses 11b, 12 and 13).
Instone-Brewer says there is NO difference in meaning between the words chōrízō and aphiēmi. Both words meant “divorce” in Greek documents that were written over several centuries around the time of Christ. The words were used interchangeably. They both meant a fully legal divorce.
I expect that the advocates and authors I’m wanting to challenge probably won’t read this post of mine because they’ve already made their minds up. I have the sense that they don’t like me much. Or they can’t be bothered reading my work. I could be wrong, but it seems to me that they are content with their views because they sell their books and get plenty of readers by promulgating their ideas – so they see no need to rethink.
Why do I bother? I am concerned about the promulgation of this false notion because it propels victims of abuse down paths that lead nowhere. Paths that give more confusion to those who are true disciples of our Lord. Paths that go into labyrinthine convolutions that are way too difficult for most victims of abuse to study when they are trying to work out how to get through the minefield.
Victims of spousal abuse are facing multiple dangerous minefields. They are trying to protect themselves and their kids (if they have kids) from the abuser and the abuser-enabling systems of society and church.
For example, would you have the time for complicated word study in Greek and Hebrew when the court is ordering you to give your abuser access to your kids, and you have good reason to believe your ex is abusing your kids? I certainly didn’t, when I was in that situation. And even if I had had the time, I would not have had the emotional energy because I was so traumatised and exhausted.
Part 1 of this series introduced the tangled mess of mistaken notions about what the Bible teaches on divorce. It’s like a knot in which you have to disentangle many different cords before you can get all the passages to line up and harmonise.
The false notion that I’m trying to correct here is the idea that we should pay attention to how the Bible uses different words for divorce because the different words meant different things — that the Bible talks about dismissal/ abandonment/ separation without a divorce certificate which is not really the legal ending of the marriage; and the Bible talks about divorce in which a certificate was issued so it was a legal divorce.
When this false notion is applied to the misbelief that Malachi 2:16 says “God hates divorce,” we get even more confusion. (How many times do I have to keep repeating that the Hebrew in Malachi 2:16 refers to the husband who hates his wife? Click here for explanation of the translation issue in Malachi 2:16.)
And when this false notion is applied to the confrontation between the Pharisees and Jesus (Matthew 19 & Mark 10) where the Pharisees tried to entangle Jesus into saying something self-incriminating about divorce, the confusion intensifies. It doubles down and tangles with the misinterpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1-4.
Side note: I dealt with the misinterpretation of Deuteronomy 24, Matthew 19 and Mark 10 in my book Not Under Bondage, but I know of people who have read my book who still don’t seem to understand what I wrote about those three passages in the Bible. Sigh. Didn’t I articulate my ideas clearly enough? I would truly like feedback on this, as I’m mystified why some advocates who have read my book don’t seem to have grasped the arguments I made in it. They have commended my book, but they keep repeating ideas I debunked in my book. And no; I am not going to name those advocates in this post, but I have no problem if commenters on this post want to name those advocates. I’m rather tired of being shunned as the advocate who is unsafe because she is always calling out other advocates. Someone else can put their head above the parapet for a change! Sorry. Vent over. End of side note.
So… some advocates and book authors are recycling and spreading this notion that “word meanings are the key” into the minds of the multitudes of victims of domestic abuse who are desperately trying to understand what the Bible says about divorce.
I believe that authors and bloggers have grabbed onto this false idea because it seems to fit. They’ve found an idea they can live with, so they stop there. They can live with it because it seems to release many of the chains that bind victims of abuse. It seems to set victims of abuse free from feeling guilty about divorcing their abusers.
But just because a notion seems to fit is not enough.
Just because a notion seems to give liberty and the ethical tick of approval to abuse victims divorcing their abusers, that does not mean the notion is true. For a notion to be true, it needs to fit with reality. And that includes the reality of history. How words were used at the time the author wrote them. It is not enough that a notion fits with one’s gut feeling about justice. It is not enough for a notion to fit with a gut feeling (and let me affirm it is a right gut feeling) that God in His compassion and justice must surely allow victims of abuse to divorce their abusers.
Even though I pretty much despair of influencing the advocates who are promoting this false notion, I will share with you, dear reader, the following quotes from Dr David Instone-Brewer’s scholarly book Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: the Social and Literary Context (Eerdmans Publishing, 2002). (affiliate link*)
In his book, David Instone-Brewer translated 1 Corinthians 7:10-15 this way:–
10 And to the married I command (not I, but the Lord): A wife ought not to separate herself [chorizo] from her husband 11 (and even if she separates herself [chorizo], she ought to remain unmarried, or she ought to be reconciled to her husband); and a husband ought not dismiss [afiemi] his wife.
12 But concerning other matters I say, not the Lord: If any brother has an unbelieving wife, and she is content to live with him, he ought not dismiss [afiemi] her. 13 And a woman who has an unbelieving husband, and he is content to live with her, she ought not dismiss [afiemi] her husband. 14 For the unbelieving husband is sanctified in the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified in the brother: otherwise your children would be unclean; but as it is they are holy. 15 But if the unbeliever separates themself [chorizo], let them separate themself [chorizo]: the brother or sister is not bound in such cases: for God has called us in peace.
He then says:
Both the verbs chorizo and afiemi have the sense of “to divorce” although they have been translated here by “to separate” and “to dismiss,” respectively. Differences between these words should not be exaggerated. There may be no significance in their use other than stylistic variation. In English one might use both “divorce” and “dissolution” in the same paragraph without intending any difference in meaning. There were more than fifty words used for “divorce” in Greek marriage and divorce contracts, and it was common to use several in a single document. It is certainly not possible to say that afiemi is a legal divorce and chorizo is just a separation. In Greco-Roman society, separation was a legal divorce, and chorizo is the most common of the words used for divorce. (198-9, bold emphasis added)
Paul was writing to the Corinthian congregation. Corinth was a Roman colony and was therefore under Greco-Roman law. The believers who lived in Corinth would have understood and been subject to Greco-Roman law. As an educated man who possessed Roman citizenship, Paul would certainly have understood Greco-Roman law.
Instone-Brewer says this about the Greco-Roman law in ancient times:
…if separation has taken place the couple have already completed the divorce procedure, according to Greco-Roman law. Even if the dowry was not returned they were still considered legally divorced, and the wife would have to take her ex-husband to court for the return of the dowry. No rite or document was needed to complete the divorce, so there was nothing more that they needed to do to complete a divorce other than separate. (202, emphasis added)
Let’s review what we’ve learned so far
- In Greek documents that dealt with divorce, chorizo is the most common of the words used for divorce.
- It wrong to say that afiemi is a legal divorce and chorizo is just a separation.
- In Greco-Roman law, separation = divorce. If one party separated with intent to end the marriage, that was a legal divorce. No document was needed to complete the divorce.
Instone-Brewer quotes an intriguing document where a Jewish woman was petitioning a Jewish court to get her dowry returned. She wanted redress for the financial, emotional and physical abuse her husband had done to her. Her husband was called Serapion –
Serapion, having squandered my dowry as he pleased, continually ill-treated me and insulted me, using violence towards me, and depriving me of the necessaries of life. I therefore beg you to order him to be brought before you in order that he may be compelled perforce to pay back my dowry increased by half its amount. (202)
If you go back and look at David Instone-Brewer’s translation of 1 Corinthians 7 which I showed above, you will see that gender has nothing with how afiemi and chorizo are used. The text does not use afiemi only for the man, and chorizo only for the woman.
So this has nothing to do with the traditional Jewish notion that the divorce certificate could only be written by the husband. That notion was and still is prevalent in Judaism, but it came from a legalistic interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1. The Jewish priests and scribes had long insisted that the certificate was THE essential item for a divorce to be legal. And they followed suit with all Ancient Near East societies in saying that only the husband could write the certificate. But that’s just tradition, it is not part of of God’s law. Moses only mentioned the husband writing the certificate in his pre-law-narrative which set the scene for the law in Deuteronomy 24:4. (Later in this series I will be doing a post that goes into this in more detail. In that post I will be amplifying some of what I’ve already said in my book.)
Let’s get back to what Instone-Brewer says.
From the breadth and depth of his scholarship, Dr Instone-Brewer rightly states that Paul would not have been using chorizo to mean “separation but not divorce” as against afiemi to mean “divorce with a certificate”. He says there would have been no point in Paul making that distinction to his Corinthian readers. Let me explain this part of his argument by paraphrasing some of his words from p 202 and elsewhere in his book.
- If a Christian wife divorced her non-Christian Jewish husband because he was ill-treating her, she would be free to remarry under Greco-Roman law.
- No divorce certificate was required.
- The only stipulation Paul put on remarriage was that she should marry a Christian.
- Jewish religious leaders (scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees) all taught that a divorce certificate was essential to make a divorce legal, and the certificate could only be written by the husband.
- So the only people who said there must be a divorce certificate would have been non-Christian Jews who thought they fully understood Mosaic Law and were insisting on adhering to their interpretation of Mosaic Law.
- But here’s the point: A divorced Christian woman in Corinth wouldn’t need to seek a divorce certificate through a Jewish court. Her having no divorce certificate had no bearing on her right to remarry, because she would not be choosing a non-Christian Jew as her second husband.
- And if a divorced Christian woman chose as her second husband an ethnically Jewish man who had converted to Christianity, that man would not require her to possess a divorce certificate from her former husband.
- She would not be stigmatized by the congregation of believers, and she would not be stigmatized by the general community of Corinth.
- The only ones who might stigmatize her for remarrying without a divorce certificate were the die-hard Jews who were clearly resisting the gospel and were enemies of Christ. (Sound familiar?)
May this post help you if you are a victim of domestic abuse struggling to find your way through the thorny tangled hedges of competing teachings and ideas.
Those who say that we need to pay attention to the words the Bible uses for divorce are barking up the wrong tree.
Update naming two authors who claim that word meaning are the key to untangling the scriptures about divorce. – added 2 May 2019
Walter Callison is an author who claims that word meanings are the key to untangling the knotty passages about divorce. Callison’s book Divorce: A Gift of God’s Love (2002) is being recommended by at least one domestic abuse advocate, which saddens me.
I do not recommend his book. I believe Callison is muddled and confused about lots of things. Callison’s book shows no evidence that he has read the extant ancient Jewish and ancient Near East documents which mention divorce. So he is nowhere near the scholarly competence and in-depth knowledge of David Instone-Brewer.
Stephen Gola is another author who claims that word meanings are the key to disentangling the knotty divorce passages. I do not recommend his book Divorce: Gods’ Will? (Divorce Hope 2003). Even though his book argues that abuse is grounds for divorce, he makes many logical and exegetical errors in his argumentation to arrive at that conclusion.
His views on intercultural marriages are very strange, almost racist. And his charismatic approach to ‘soul ties’ lacks understanding of the way the abuser manipulates the victim to brainwash her. He recommends people I would never recommend: Marilyn Hickey, Kenneth Copeland, Joyce Meyer, Focus on the Family.
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This is part 2 of a 4-part series. Other posts in this series.
Part 1 The tangled mess of mistaken notions about what the Bible teaches on divorce
Part 3 Jesus did NOT say “Hardness of heart is grounds for divorce”. Deuteronomy 24 has been greatly misunderstood.
Part 4 The Jewish divorce certificate gave women the right to remarry, but some men use it to rule over women
For further reading