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Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: the Social and Literary Context.

By David Instone-Brewer. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002. Pp. xi + 355. $26.

At the outset of this fine work, Instone-Brewer lays his cornerstone with the claim, "In the scholarly world there are no firm conclusions, only theories that are internally coherent and that fit the facts to a greater or lesser degree" (x). Thus, I.-B. sets the tone for a thorough investigation of biblical texts, rabbinic literature, and a multitude of original documents ranging from ancient Near East marriage contracts to the works of the early Church Fathers, which shed light on how a first-century reader would have understood the New Testament teachings on divorce and remarriage. Most readers today are familiar with the need to place ancient texts within their cultural milieu in order to understand such writings. I.-B. demonstrates that as early as the second century, core assumptions of first-century readers of the Old and the New Testaments were already lost. Yet, it was within this vacuum that the early Church Fathers interpreted the words of the Torah and the Prophets as well as those of Jesus and Paul.

To recover understandings lost for centuries, I.-B. takes his readers on a journey of discovery. The journey includes travel through time and space coupled with the opportunity to meet fascinating personages along the way. This is a deeply and carefully researched work, as is evidenced by the wide range of materials and their close examination throughout the book. It is certain to meet the standards of the most meticulous biblical scholar. At the same time, I.-B.'s narrative style is so direct and clear and logically structured that one need not be a biblical scholar to follow and enjoy his argument. Those for whom the grave matters of divorce and remarriage are a serious concern, whether for scholarly, pastoral, or personal reasons, will appreciate I.-B.'s effective argument. Succinct summaries at the end of each chapter lead seamlessly into the perspective and argument of the next chapter. In the final chapter, I.-B. uses a pastoral perspective to successfully reverse the institutionalized misunderstandings that, he argues, have existed from the Christian Church's earliest teachings.

These conclusions are valid, not because of irrefutable proof, which I.-B. himself has demonstrated is never possible when dealing with texts that are usually partial as well as few. Rather, I.-B. convinces us because our journey has been a careful step-by-step process, beginning with the meaning of the marriage contract in the ancient Near East milieu as a whole through the Church's interpretations from the second through the twentieth century. For example, through Ezekiel's vivid portrayal of God marrying the nation of Judah, we learn that the theological meaning of "covenant" and the civil and religious understandings of "contract" have similarities but also important differences. I.-B. then demonstrates that because of the differences, strong parallels that have been made over the centuries of church teachings become more difficult to accept and call for reinterpretation.

The core chapter on the teachings of Jesus presents another example of how I.-B. intertwines cultural perspective and careful readings of ancient scriptures to lay out a crystal clear interpretation of what the Gospels reveal about Jesus' vision of marriage. I.-B. demonstrates three central ideas. (1) Jesus' teaching about divorce and remarriage can best be interpreted by realizing the high value Jesus gave to monogamy and life-long marriage. (2) Jesus' words need to be understood within the rabbinic debates of his time, especially in the light of the Hillelite ruling that allowed divorce for any reason. It is clear, I.-B. holds, that Jesus was opposed to this ruling. (3) Careful examination of documents that reveal the milieu in which the community of Jesus' followers lived after his death led to several practical consequences: Jesus strongly supported monogamy and life-long marriage; marriage, however, was not compulsory; nor were there any circumstances that rendered divorce compulsory, although some circumstances made it allowable; divorce for "any matter" was invalid.

In his conclusion, I.-B. notes several strong parallels between the first-century Greco-Roman world and our contemporary Western world. Coupled with his interpretations of the teachings of Jesus, those parallels led I.-B. to develop a pastoral approach that emphasizes a need for a strong refocus on the importance of the marriage vows before marriage, during the wedding celebration, and in the ongoing support of the Christian community. In addition, he argues that the Church needs to reemphasize that believers are called never to break their marriage vows, but that the breaking of the vows by a partner who refuses to repent can be valid grounds for divorce. Generations of men and women have been forced to remain with abusive spouses. In humility, the Church must acknowledge this mistake based on false understandings of Scripture.

Jule DeJaeger Ward

De Paul University

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Author:Ward, Jule DeJaeger
Publication:Theological Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 2004
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