Marriage and the Matthean Jesus: A First Response to John Martens

Jesus’ teaching is grace, not legalism: lifelong marriage is possible because husbands and wives live it in Jesus’ power, not their own.

John Martens, a biblical scholar, published a piece online at the Jesuit-run America last Friday on “Jesus’ Teachings on Marriage and Divorce.” The entry is intended as a response to Ross Douthat’s invitation to those who disagree with his understanding of Catholic faith and Catholic synods to engage him theologically. It is heartening to see Martens respond substantively to Douthat when others of standing beclowned themselves by engaging in self-important whinging in letters to the editors of the New York Times or thin-skinned petulancy in playing the “hate” card, for Martens’ piece removes us from the realm of headhunting livelihoods and puts us back in the arena of reasoned theological debate, passionate though it be.

That said, Martens’ piece, while most welcome, falls short. It does perform a valuable service in showing us the problems with Catholic approaches to the Bible today and how that affects Catholic understandings of teaching on marriage, from many lay massgoers to bishops and Cardinals if not the pope.

The fundamental question

Martens’ piece is chock full of details, a miniature tour-de-force of scholarship and theology presenting all sorts of fascinating claims and suggestions rooted in the details of New Testament texts and what scholarship has to say about them. But this is not the best ground on which to engage. Rather, the real battlefield is found in what’s not stated: the modern, historical-critical assumptions driving Martens’ reflections.

For the fundamental question concerns how Catholics should approach the Bible. Should they use a hermeneutic (an interpretive stance) rooted in nineteenth-century liberal Protestantism, or should they employ a hermeneutic consistent with Catholic tradition as expressed in our day by the Second Vatican Council in Dei Verbum, John Paul II’s Catechism, and Benedict XVI’s Verbum Domini?

Martens approach is rooted in the former. Though most modern Catholic biblical scholars believe the Second Vatican Council gave the historical-critical method “the highest stamp of ecclesiastical approval” (in the words of scholar Fr. John Donahue, S.J.), the text of the Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, did not.

Rather, as I argue here at length, Dei Verbum 12 as interpreted by the authoritative Catechism affirms both renewed attention to the letter of Scripture—perhaps informed by modern methods—as well as the spiritual senses God intends the Catholic interpreter to perceive by means of the letter. The Catechism in sections 109-119 reads Dei Verbum 12 as affirming the classic fourfold sense of Scripture—the literal, allegorical, tropological, and anagogical senses.

Further, Dei Verbum, with words quoted by the Catechism, teaches that interpreters are to give serious attention to “the content and unity of the whole of Scripture” as well as “living tradition of the whole Church” along with “the harmony which exists between elements of the faith.” In short, the beloved Second Vatican Council teaches that interpreters are to assume the coherence of Scripture and its coherence with the Catholic Faith.

After the Council, however, most Catholic exegetes outdid themselves in running headlong after their Protestant brothers and sisters in pursuing historical criticism, with its attendant assumptions, methods, and results, thus ignoring the plain sense of the third section of Dei Verbum 12. For this reason, Benedict XVI was compelled to write in Verbum Domini 47, “It is important that the criteria indicated in Number 12 of the Dogmatic Constitution Dei Verbum receive real attention and become the object of deeper study. A notion of scholarly research that would consider itself neutral with regard to Scripture should not be encouraged.”

One of the ancient assumptions of the Catholic Faith is this: when God speaks in Scripture he does so clearly. This principle of perspicuity is theologically cogent and potent, articulated and codified by St. Augustine in De doctrina Christiana and is (as it happens) a Catholic doctrine retained by magisterial Protestants; it’s ecumenical. St. Augustine, like the broader tradition, is not unaware that the Bible often bewilders believers, which is why Augustine and others wrote things like De doctrina Christiana, lengthy texts teaching would-be interpreters how to approach the Bible as the coherent story of salvation history within the framework of a robust Christian culture.

Is that fundamentalism? Martens gently suggests so in employing the word, wondering aloud if Douthat might be just a bit naïve about the difficulties involved in interpreting Scripture’s witness to the words of Jesus on marriage. But Douthat is as guilty of fundamentalism (a term which really should be retired unless one is discussing the nineteenth and twentieth century Protestant reaction to Protestant liberalism) as Martens is of skepticism. Probably much less so, as it happens.

For Martens uses historical-critical methodology to—solecistic neologism alert!—complexify issues ultimately in service not so much of explaining but explaining away the tradition’s authoritative reception of Jesus’ words on marriage. The complexification of the issues, here, as usual, goes hand in hand with the unstated hermeneutic assumption that whatever is not crystal clear in Scripture can be ignored and transgressed; it’s a subtle hermeneutic of antinomianism.

I or anyone trained in biblical criticism could play that game with anyone’s sacred scriptural ox and gore it hip and thigh: Jesus’ words on poverty, the prophets’ words on justice, the implications of the Exodus for liberation, the role of women in the New Testament. My one formal critique of Martens’ piece is this: it would be helpful to see some constructive claims made on the basis of his impressive review of scholarship, but as is often the case with modern critical scholarship, the piece leaves us with more questions than answers.

Jesus and Genesis

Let’s approach some texts, then, with which Martens deals, and get now more into the weeds of exegesis. Martens claims that Mark’s version of Jesus’ words on divorce and remarriage are original, and that “Matthew” (Martens means an anonymous author of what we call the Gospel of Matthew) or his community or both changed it to suit their purposes:

There is no question that Mark has the original statement of Jesus, with Matthew or the Matthean community already offering an “exception” for the case of porneia, itself a much contested word in this context, since moicheia (adultery) could have been used if that is what the author intended.

It’s true that most scholars since the nineteenth century reject longstanding tradition in claiming that Mark, not Matthew, was actually the first Gospel written. But that’s far from certain; it’s a contested claim of scholarship. Even if Mark is the first Gospel written, it’s far from certain that Mark’s form of Jesus’ words on marriage is original. Many, if not most, scholars think that Matthew’s version is closer to what the Jesus of history actually said, as Jesus was Jewish. The version in Matthew presumes a Palestinian setting in which only husbands could initiate divorce, while Mark’s version presumes a setting somewhere in the Gentile world, likely Rome, in which wives also had the prerogative of divorce.

Regardless of any putative reconstruction of the history of the composition of the Gospels and their relationships as sources for one another, the Gospel of Matthew has been the favorite Gospel of the Church, first in rank if not first in history. And so St. Matthew’s treatment of marriage has proven decisive in the Church’s thinking. What, then, does Matthew’s Gospel teach about marriage?

In Matthew 19 Jesus is put to the test by the Pharisees, asking him if it’s lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause. Jews of the day had their opinions, from the strict to the liberal, and Pharisaic opinion was itself divided. The strict opinion was that a man could divorce his wife for grave reasons like adultery. The liberal opinion was more broad-minded, finding a man could divorce his wife if she were a bad cook. The most generous rabbi of all even affirmed divorce in cases in which the man simply found a prettier woman.

Jesus draws them to the plain reading of Genesis 1 and 2, reminding them that God made the human race male and female and so in marriage the two become one flesh, and draws the moral: “What God has joined together, let no one put asunder” (Matt. 19:6).

It may be a fundamentalist reading of Genesis, but it does have the virtue of being dominical. Be that as it may, the Pharisees—fundamentalists like the Jesus of Matthew—are also good readers of the plain sense of Scripture, and so they ask Jesus the obvious question: Why, then, did Moses permit divorce (cf. Deut. 24:1ff)?

Jesus, the Lord, states that the certificate of divorce was a concession to their hard hearts: better to divorce their wives, Moses might have been thinking, who would then have legal standing of some sort than to kill them or to toss them out into the street. But Moses’ day is past, and Jesus, the bringer of the new creation, reminds them of the first creation: “From the beginning it was not so” (Matt. 19:8).

Then he expands the implications of his teaching: “And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery; and he who marries a divorced woman, commits adultery” (Matt. 19). The verse has occasioned no shortage of commentary, in the ancient Church as well as today. Two issues demand comment here.

First, “unchastity” in the “exception clause” above is “porneia” in Greek. Although Martens opines Jesus never really said it, it’s in the text, and so we must deal with it. It can mean simple adultery of whatever flagrance, as in Sirach 23:23, Ezekiel 16:33, and Hosea 2:2, even if (as Martens notes) there is another word for adultery in Greek. It can also mean flagrant sexual misconduct. It can further mean being found unchaste on one’s wedding night—and here in the world of Matthew’s Gospel the exception clause would get St. Joseph off the hook for deciding to divorce Mary by breaking their betrothal (Matt. 1:18-25).

It can also refer to the degrees of forbidden conjugal consanguinity in Leviticus 18: close kin may not engage in sex. Here I agree with Martens in that this may make the most sense within the context of Matthew’s Gospel, given the mission to the pagan nations (Matt. 28:16-20), among whom sex and marriage among the closest of kin was not unknown. Matthew’s Jewish Jesus here would thus be teaching that pagan marriages among close kin run afoul of Leviticus and so could not have been marriages in the first place; for such pagan marriages Jesus effectively issues a standing decree of nullity.

Second, Jesus’ claim that remarriage means adultery assumes the indissoluble nature of the marriage bond. Men may think they’ve divorced their wives and thus are free to remarry, but the bond actually remains. For this reason the early Church (hundreds of years long and millions of square miles broad, of course) generally thought that whatever Jesus meant in the exception clause, living apart as a form of divorce was sometimes warranted for couples who could not live together, but remarriage was absolutely forbidden. This is similar to what later generations would call “separation of bed and board.”

The Bible is very easy to understand. But…

What, then, of the claim that Jesus’ teaching on marriage and divorce in Matthew is so strict? Martens proffers the idea that the Jesus of Matthew (and thus the Gospel’s author himself) expected an imminent end of the world, and thus “for now people will be able to fulfill their vows perfectly, in large part because marriage itself will soon come to an end.” Here we see an older, nineteenth-century German conception of eschatology holding that Jesus and the early Christians expected the imminent end of the world. The implication seems to be that Jesus’ teaching as presented in Matthew’s first-century Gospel is invalidated by the fact that Jesus was wrong about the end of the world and thus irrelevant for today.

Recent developments in Anglo-American scholarship present a different picture, however. The Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright, perhaps the greatest living biblical scholar, has shown that much of the New Testament’s eschatological picture doesn’t involve so much the imminent end of the world in terms of time but rather the presence of the kingdom of God in terms of space as present in the person of Jesus and his Church.

This fits Matthew’s Gospel very well: Far from an absent God who bides his time in heaven until he ends time at the imminent end of days, Matthew’s God is present in Jesus, and so Jesus shall be called Emmanuel, God with us (Matt. 1:23). And far from something ending history at any moment, Matthew’s Jesus proclaims the kingdom of God is present and grows slowly, steadily, like seeds scattered abroad on all types of soil, like weeds and wheat until the harvest, like a mustard seed growing to the greatest of all plants (cf. Matt. 13). Such parables of growth presume a long horizon for salvation history.

What, then, of the radicalism of Matthew’s Jesus on marriage? How can he expect marriages to endure till death do partners part? Is Matthew’s Jesus a raw legalist, telling his followers they can hang on in marriage with white knuckles because the imminent end of all things draws nigh?

No: Jesus expects people to remain married not because the eschaton will soon put an end to their marital misery but because Jesus himself is God with us, from his birth as Emmanuel, through the time of the Church when he is present where two or three are gathered (which certainly includes husbands, wives, and children!), to the time of the end of the age. Jesus is with us always (Matt. 28:20), empowering us to do the radical things he commands, now, in our lives, in history. Jesus’ teaching is grace, not legalism: lifelong marriage is possible because husbands and wives live it in Jesus’ power, not their own.

Historical reconstructions often give us houses of cards. It is not for nothing that the Protestant theologian Martin Kähler complained that nineteenth-century biblical scholarship had given us an ever-changing “Fifth Gospel” produced by a “papacy of sophisticated scholarship.” Again and again Martens sifts the text, affirming that Jesus really said this (There is no question that Mark has the original statement of Jesus) but certainly didn’t say that (e.g., the Matthean exception clause for porneia). But for Christians, it’s the inscripturated Jesus of the text of the Gospels that’s authoritative, not any particular reconstruction of some historical Jesus, of the making of which there is no end.  

And so I’m somewhat sympathetic to the Great Dane, the Dandy of Denmark, the radical Protestant and founder of existentialism, Søren Kierkegaard, who famously pegged us scholars thus:

The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.

Perhaps that’s too simple. Or perhaps modern scholarship has made matters too complex, and we’re really scared of radical fidelity in the areas of money, sex, and power, and hide behind the facades of theories to get off the hook with the living God revealed in Jesus.

It’s true that bad interpretation abounds, at the popular level as well as the academic, but the question concerns what we’re aiming for in interpretation. Most biblical scholarship sees the Bible as a collection of textual artifacts to be used in the service of the historical reconstruction of persons, events, and communities in ancient Israel, later Judaism, and Jesus and earliest Christianity. But that’s not sufficient for approaching the Bible as Scripture, which the Church has told us how to do, in Dei Verbum and the Catechism as well as Verbum Domini.

Taking the Church’s teaching on Scripture seriously means situating historical criticism within a broader theory of Catholic interpretation functioning within the broad boundaries of Catholic faith and practice. For Catholics, the tradition of interpreting Scripture for its four senses, the three spiritual senses of allegory, tropology, and anagogy being rooted in the letter, remains normative, implied in Dei Verbum 12 and codified in the Catechism (109-119). At best, historical criticism is an exercise in prolegomena that helps us establish and understand the letter.

Like scholars as diverse as Brevard Childs (a conservative mainline Protestant), Luke Timothy Johnson (a liberal postliberal Catholic), and Walter Wink (a radical who famously claimed historical scholarship is “bankrupt”), I came to find the assumptions, methods, and results of modern historical-critical scholarship, rooted in the heyday of nineteenth century Protestant liberalism—for all its erudition and accomplishments—to be hoary and shopworn on one hand and lethal to Christian faith on the other, and had to cross the desert of criticism from liberal Protestantism through evangelicalism to the blessed second naïveté of Catholicism to find my own footing. And not merely as an existential matter for the sake of my own faith but as a Christian scholar and teacher whose faith and profession requires seeking the rich, contoured coherence of Scripture within the framework of the Faith, the story of salvation history.

If this be fundamentalism, I’ll own it. I’ll stand with Douthat, Augustine, the Second Vatican Council’s Dei Verbum, the Catechism, and Benedict, and wear the epithet as a badge of honor on the bloody battlefield of scholarship—though being a Duke grad I actually prefer more pacifist metaphors.

And so as generous, learned, and engaging as Martens’ piece was, I have the sense of in cauda venenum where development is concerned. In my second installment, I’ll discuss the relevance of Acts 10-15 for the development of doctrine.

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About Dr. Leroy Huizenga 48 Articles
Dr. Leroy Huizenga is Administrative Chair of Arts and Letters and Professor of Theology at the University of Mary in Bismarck, N.D. Dr. Huizenga has a B.A. in Religion from Jamestown College (N.D.), a Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. in New Testament from Duke University. During his doctoral studies he received a Fulbright Grant to study and teach at Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität in Frankfurt, Germany. After teaching at Wheaton College (Ill.) for five years, Dr. Huizenga was reconciled with the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil of 2011. Dr. Huizenga is the author of The New Isaac: Tradition and Intertextuality in the Gospel of Matthew (Brill, 2012), co-editor of Reading the Bible Intertextually (Baylor, 2009), and is currently writing a major theological commentary on the Gospel of Mark for Bloomsbury T&T Clark’s International Theological Commentary series. A shorter work on the Gospel of Mark keyed to the lectionary for Year B, Loosing the Lion: Proclaiming the Gospel of Mark, was published by Emmaus Road (2017), as was a similar work on the Gospel of Matthew, Behold the Christ: Proclaiming the Gospel of Matthew (Emmaus Road, 2019).