Morality Ch. 12: No-Fault Divorce

Jesus was asked about divorce for “any cause” – a type of no-fault divorce that was new and popular at the time. Jesus rejected it, but he didn’t reject the Old Testament grounds for divorce: adultery, abuse, and abandonment.

I come from Brighton, which in my childhood was a popular destination for illicit lovers going away for a “dirty weekend.” In those days it gave Brighton a rather risqué reputation. It also meant that a large number of private investigators operated in the town, who could be hired to catch adulterers. As a teenager I had a perverse pride when I read yet another newspaper story about a divorce case citing a liaison in Brighton.

Paradoxically, many private investigators were hired by the man they were supposedly investigating. They’d be given the name of a hotel and a room number and be instructed to turn up “unexpectedly” at a certain time. The man would then hire a prostitute to sit in bed with him and call for room service at the prearranged time. When the maid brought the food she would see them both in bed, and the investigator would slip in behind her, armed with a camera.

6-minute summary

This was common because fabricating evidence of your own infidelity was one of the easiest ways you could get a divorce. It was very difficult to obtain one for any reason except adultery, and this scenario provided two witnesses and photographic proof that could be used in the divorce-court case. But in 1969 divorce legislation was revolutionized on both sides of the Atlantic. In the UK, the Divorce Reform Act allowed divorce for anything considered to be “unreasonable behavior” that led to the “irretrievable breakdown” of the marriage. In the US, Ronald Reagan signed a divorce bill that made California the first state to introduce no-fault divorce; this eventually spread to every other state in the nation. Previously, in both countries only the wronged partner could file for a divorce, and it was only allowed for a specific set of grounds; now, even an innocent partner can be divorced against their will, albeit after some delay.

This significant change in divorce legislation was very similar to new legislation that became popular just before the time of Jesus. If we look at Jesus’ teaching on marriage and divorce in context, we can see how best to apply it today.

Marriage as a contract

Every married Jew in Jesus’ day had a marriage contract – some of these have been found in caves around the Dead Sea. These recorded the marriage vows and listed the money that both brought into the household, as well as detailing how much both of them would lose if they didn’t keep their vows. English translations of the Bible tend to use the word “covenant” instead of the word “contract” for the Hebrew word berith (see Prov 2:17; Mal 2:14) because “contract” makes marriage sound too businesslike. However, only one covenant in the Bible has no penalties associated with breaking it – the wonderfully exceptional new covenant that God promises his people (Jer 31:31). All the other covenants in the Bible have stipulations, with penalties if they aren’t carried out, just like modern business contracts. The stipulations in a marriage are the vows, and the penalties are the divorce settlements.

The penalties prescribed for breaking marriage vows were mainly financial. In Jewish marriages just before Jesus’ day, the groom promised that if he broke his vows he would return the dowry money plus a minimum of 200 zuz (about $20,000 in our money), so a poor person couldn’t afford to get divorced. If the bride broke her vows, her husband would retain the dowry when they divorced.

If a marriage vow was broken, it didn’t mean that divorce was compulsory; the wronged partner could decide whether to forgive or to divorce. However, in Jesus’ day, some rabbis were starting to teach that divorce was compulsory for adultery. Jesus reminds them that Moses didn’t “command” divorce; he merely “permitted” it (Matt 19:7-8). Jesus encourages the wronged partner to forgive their spouse for the broken vows, though he doesn’t say how many times.

Many of the prophets envisioned Israel’s relationship with God as a marriage, where God was a jealous and long-suffering husband and Israel was an adulterous wife who worshiped other gods. God eventually decided to “divorce” Israel by sending her into exile and threatened to do the same to the sister nation of Judah. God is therefore described as a divorcé by Jeremiah and Isaiah (Jer 3:8; Isa 50:1).

Malachi recorded that God hates divorce. This doesn’t mean that God hates divorced people; rather, he hates the treachery and breaking of vows that lead to divorce (Mal 2:14-16). In fact, no one knows the pain of divorce more than God himself, who suffered the infidelity of his “wife,” Israel, for hundreds of years.

When Jesus taught about divorce, he reminded his hearers about God’s relationship with Israel by using the word “hardhearted.” This word was invented by the Greek translators of the Old Testament and wasn’t used in everyday Greek, so anyone who used it was quoting an Old Testament text. It occurs only twice in the Old Testament (Deut 10:16; Jer 4:4), and the second instance is in a passage about God’s divorce from Israel (Jer 3-4).

In choosing to use this particular word, Jesus was therefore deliberately reminding his listeners that God didn’t “divorce” Israel until the point when she was sinning “hardheartedly” – that is, stubbornly and continually. His conclusion, then, is clear – we should attempt reconciliation before considering the option of divorce.

In making this point, Jesus actually digressed from the question he’d been asked, because he wanted to talk about marriage, not divorce. He reminded his questioners that marriage was a lifelong commitment by which Adam and Eve could live together forever in perfect harmony. But then sin came along, and Jesus recognized this by saying that God introduced divorce because of “your hardheartedness.” He wasn’t saying that only his contemporaries were sinful – “you” refers to everyone. Human nature is still the same now, and Christians as well as Jews can be hardhearted. Jesus explained that because of our sin, God allows divorce.

But that doesn’t mean divorce should happen. If someone had asked Jesus how many times one should forgive broken vows, he would have said seventy-times-seven times (Matt 18:21-22), because this is how many times God forgave Israel.1 In the end, even that marriage ended, but the divorce itself wasn’t the sin – divorce is always the result of the sinful breaking of marriage vows by one or both partners.

Burned dinner

The problem in Jesus’ day was that many men wanted easy divorces. God’s law allowed a man to divorce his wife if she broke her marriage vows, but some wanted a divorce when there were no valid reasons for it. One group of rabbis (the Hillelites) resolved this “problem” by inventing a new form of easy divorce. We would probably have called it a no-fault divorce, but the term they used was “any cause” because of the Bible text they based it on.

They derived this new type of divorce from Scripture using an ingenious legal maneuver. Everyone agreed that the strange phrase “a cause of nakedness” in Deuteronomy 24:1 meant “adultery.” But the Hillelites argued that the word “nakedness” by itself implies adultery, so the word “cause” must have extra meaning. Moses, they claimed, must therefore have been referring to two grounds for divorce: “a cause” and “nakedness.” They concluded that “nakedness” meant divorce for “adultery,” but “a cause” meant divorce for “any cause” – and thus they created the new law of divorce for any cause.

Actual examples included a single burned meal in one case, and in another a wrinkle on the wife’s face that she didn’t have when her husband married her (Mishnah Gittin 9:10). Divorces such as these were, in effect, what we now call no-fault divorces. This new law was completely different from the Old Testament laws for divorce that the Jews cited in their marriage contracts, which contained marriage vows (based on Exod 21:10-11) that promised a supply of food, clothing, and love, as well as faithfulness (based on Deut 24:1).

By the time of Jesus most Jews had adopted this new law, including the two most prolific Jewish authors of the day, Philo and Josephus. In fact, they both talked about “divorce for any cause” without reference to any other grounds for divorce that existed.2

Although most Jews used and accepted the new any-cause divorce, it was still a topic of heated debate. One group of rabbis in particular, the Shammaites, stood vehemently against it. They said that the words “a cause of nakedness” was a single phrase so it only referred to one ground for divorce. They summarized their position by saying that Deuteronomy 24:1 referred to no ground for divorce “except for sexual immorality” (i.e., adultery). They therefore rejected the Hillelites’ any-cause divorce.

This was the context for asking Jesus: “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” (Matt 19:3 ESV). Jesus answers by agreeing with the Shammaites – that is, defending the traditional interpretation of the text – and he even quotes their slogan that Deuteronomy 24:1 refers to no ground for divorce “except for sexual immorality” (Matt 19:9 ESV).

Most modern readers misunderstand this question. Unless you know about the any-cause divorce, you’d think they are asking Jesus whether he approved of divorce in general. This is understandable, because legal jargon is often confusing. Imagine someone who has never heard of a no-fault divorce who comes across it for the first time. They might imagine that the divorce has happened because one partner is so annoyingly and tediously faultless. When you read legal jargon as plain language, it can be very confusing!

In Jesus’ day, everyone knew this legal jargon because everyone was talking about the new any-cause divorce. It was such a hot topic that Mark didn’t even bother to include these words. He records the question to Jesus as: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” (Mark 10:2). Worded like this, the question is actually nonsense – of course divorce is lawful, because it says so in the law. Imagine someone asking, “Is it lawful for a sixteen-year-old to drink?” This question is equally nonsensical, because without any liquid a person will die. It only makes sense to us because we mentally add the words “any alcohol” – because this is the common question of the day. Similarly, Mark’s readers would mentally add the words “for any cause” – because that’s what everyone was discussing.

However, once the debate was over and the any-cause divorce had become the only type of divorce available, the technical term “any cause” was forgotten very quickly. It’s rather like the English concept of “divorce by co-respondent” that was frequently cited along with lurid details in the popular newspapers of my youth. Nowadays most people have forgotten what it means. It sounds as if you can be divorced for having a pen pal, but actually a “co-respondent” is someone you commit adultery with – look it up in a good dictionary. This was once a commonly known legal term, but it is now as unremembered as “any cause” was by the second century.

How does this apply today?

Is the law about divorce timeless, or does it change with one’s culture? We might conclude that the law changed between the Old and New Testaments, which would suggest that it is not timeless. However, as we have seen above, this is based on a misunderstanding. Jesus affirms divorces based on adultery, and he vehemently criticizes the Hillelites, who wanted to change the interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1.

Faithfulness wasn’t the only marriage vow. As mentioned above, Jews also promised to feed, clothe, and love each other, based on the law of Exodus 21:10-11. This wording gradually morphed into “love, nourish, and cherish” (based on Eph 5:25, 28-29) and then into “love, honor, and cherish.” Those who neglected their spouse could be divorced – male or female – and this included abandonment or abuse, which were regarded as worse cases of neglect. This explains the scriptural basis for Paul’s conclusion that an abandoned spouse is free to remarry (1 Cor 7:15). Unfortunately, both Jews and Christians moved away from this interpretation in the second century when they both forgot the origins and meaning of the any-cause divorce.3

This means that the church was left with an unworkable divorce ethic, where partners were locked into abusive marriages. The UK and US governments have consequently abandoned their Christian foundation and introduced no-fault divorces, which are, in effect, exactly what Jesus was rejecting. He wanted no divorce unless there was a specific ground based on broken marriage vows. Believers should not, of course, break their marriage vows, so in theory a pair of believers would never be divorced.

But in practice, Christians commit adultery, abandon or abuse their spouses, or even get divorced when no vows have been broken. We should take care that the victims of divorce aren’t regarded in the same way as those who break their vows because, after all, God is a divorcé. But also we should not regard divorce as a minor matter, given that Jesus was clearly against the breaking of marriage vows.

1^ 2 Chr 36:20-21—they were exiled for seventy years so the land could catch up on the seventy Sabbath-year rests it should have had, which means that Israel neglected God’s law for the last seventy-times-seven years.
2^ Philo, Special Laws 3.30, trans. C. D. Yonge (; Josephus, Antiquities 4.253 (
3^ For more information on this, see my Divorce and Remarriage in the Church (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), readable at

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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