Mark 10:1-12 – The Pharisees Test Jesus

Within the narrative of Mark, Jesus now leaves Galilee (Capernaum–the upper purple region on the map) and begins his journey to Jerusalem (10:1, 32). His route takes him into Perea (the lower purple region), the region “beyond the Jordan, on the eastern side of the river.” This is particularly significant since Jesus, though having left Galilee, is still in the jurisdiction of Herod Antipas, the one who beheaded John the Baptist (Mark 6:14-29). John the Baptist was beheaded in Perea. If Jesus had gone to Judea and stayed he would have fallen under the jurisdiction of Pilate and out of the reach of Herod. This geographical note contextualizes the question Jesus is asked.

Apparently in no rush to get to Jerusalem, Jesus stays in Perea for an uncertain amount of time. As in Galilee, so here, his ministry attracts a crowd and he continues his teaching ministry. Some from Perea had earlier travelled to Galilee to hear Jesus (Mark 3:8) which means that Jesus was already known in the region.

Given his geographical location, the Pharisees seized the opportunity to “test” Jesus. The Pharisees and Herodians had a common interest in the demise, even death, of Jesus (Mark 3:6; 12:13). The intent of the question is hostile and was probably an attempt at entrapment. The Pharisees (and probably the Herodians as well) hoped Jesus might say something that would get him into the same trouble that John the Baptist had fallen. The theological question had a political purpose. Divorce was not only a “hot” theological topic debated among the rabbis but its condemnation was also a form of political protest.

Jesus answered their question—“is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”—with a question: “What did Moses command you?” This tactic commits them to an answer before he does. Moses permits divorce, they answer, but only if one provides a certificate of divorce. The Pharisees provided the standard response based on Deuteronomy 24:1-4. But the only command Moses articulated was that man should not remarry the wife he divorced. Deuteronomy 24:1-4 regulates (and thereby permits) divorce but does it in such a way that it protects the woman from ongoing abusive relationships (as would happen if for economic reasons if a woman had to go back to a former husband or, worse, go back and forth between several husbands).

While most think this is the text Jesus had in mind, I think it is more likely that when Jesus asked the question he had in mind Genesis 1-2. The Pharisees answer the question about command with Mosaic permission, but that was not the question. Jesus acknowledges Mosaic permission, “but”—Jesus says—this is not the most pertinent text. The Mosaic imperative, embedded in the Genesis narration of creation, calls husbands and wives to the permanency of their covenant as a mirror image of God’s own life.

Thus, while Moses permitted divorce, God intended union. Jesus draws on Genesis 1:27 and Genesis 2:24. God created two—male and female. The language of “from (apo) the beginning” suggests intentionality and purpose as well as a sense of idealism. Male and female are intentionally diverse but at the same time intended for mutual bonding. The two are to become one; more specifically, “one flesh” which assumes a sexual union. Humanity was created male and female as a bonding mechanism—a mutual attraction to create a oneness that reflects both the diversity and unity of God’s own Triune life.

Jesus concludes (“therefore”) that this union is a permanent one. This is the ideal. No human agenda should disrupt this oneness. God created male and female, and God married or united (“joined together”) them as male and female. This is the divine ideal. It is the intention of creation and it functions as a divine imperative.

As has happened so often in the Gospel of Mark, the disciples inquire further. Jesus’ statement is insufficient or problematic to them. They have questions, and once they are with Jesus privately they ask them.

Privately, Jesus restates the ideal in negative terms. Genesis 1-2 offers a positive model but human brokenness fosters chaos within God’s good creation. While the positive vision of the ideal promotes intimacy and relationship, the negative vision condemns divorce and remarriage. More specifically, Jesus condemns the proactive decision to divorce one and marry another—perhaps even to divorce one in order to marry another. And—uniquely here in Mark among the Gospels—this is true of both men and women.

Whoever divorces their spouse and marries another sins (commits adultery). It is an adulterous act. It adulterates the previous union. Mark states that the adultery is committed against the former spouse (“commits adultery against her”). When anyone divorces and remarries, they sin against the former spouse. In effect, they treat the former spouse as unworthy of union. Adultery is a metaphorical picture of this act of betrayal and disunion. They have adulterated the former union since it cannot be renewed because Deuteronomy 24:1-4 forbids remarriage.

This is where the geographical setting comes into play again. Herodias had divorced her husband Philip in order to marry Herod Antipas—something quite rare for a Jewish woman but not totally unknown. The explicit comment by Jesus—unique to Mark—that even if a woman divorces her husband and marries another she sins is said against the political backdrop of that public scandal which ultimately cost John the Baptist his head. In private Jesus states his disapproval of Herod and Herodias and sides with John the Baptist. Publically, he only offered a positive vision while conceding Moses gave permission for divorce.

While Moses permitted divorce, this was not God’s ideal. Divorce is a divine concession to human frailty, brokenness and weakness. God hates divorce—and so does everyone who has ever experienced one. Yet, though God hates it, God permits it. Jesus does not countermand Moses’ permission.

The divine ideal, however,  is still in play. God yearns for the emotional, spiritual and physical union of husbands and wives that they might experience the joy of intimacy and relationship that mirrors God’s own life. But chaos often reigns; sin often breaks trust; and humans have a tendency to abuse and use each other rather than love each other. God still permits divorce; it is God’s concession—as in the days of Moses, so even now—to the hardness of human hearts and the brokenness of human lives.

Mark has no exception clause as Matthew does (Matthew 19:9). Nor does Mark discuss particular circumstances that might justify divorce as both the Torah (Exodus 21:10-11) and Paul do (1 Corinthians 7:12-15). This is not Mark’s interest. Mark focuses simply on the ideal, the divine intent. Nevertheless, even in stating the ideal, Jesus concedes that divorce is permitted as even Moses legislated. Mark does not deny exceptions or permissions; his purpose is to reinforce the ideal.

Divorce is an ugly reality in human culture. It was pervasive in Jewish and Greco-Roman cultures just as it is in ours. Jesus hates divorce and calls his disciples to embrace the ideal embedded in the creation narratives of Genesis. It is our goal too, though we often fall short.

15 Responses to “Mark 10:1-12 – The Pharisees Test Jesus”

  1.   Terrell Lee Says:

    Good summary. Thanks.

    Is it possible that Mark doesn’t include the exception clause because he was writing Gentiles who might not have known about the rabbinical debate and had no reason to get pulled into it? That is, was this a culturally, theologically sensitive move on Mark’s behalf to not complicate the matter for his readers?

    So, exactly what did Jesus say? Is Mark editing Jesus’ comments? Or, did Matthew edit Jesus’ comments by adding the exception clause?

    I guess we will always struggle with this subject, huh?

    •   John Mark Hickss Says:

      It may seem more likely that Matthew added the exception due to his context and that Mark is the more original version. But it is all guesswork and conjecture.

      It may be that Mark is contextually sensitive to Gentiles here. At the same time, it may be that Mark focused on the ideal without engaging the debate about exceptions for his own purpose of stressing the original divine intent.

      It is difficult (impossible) to get into the head of these writers, is it not? We can only go with the textual affirmations as they come to us in context and within our own horizon.

      •   Terrell Lee Says:

        You are so correct brother. Since Jesus was addressing OT text(s) that go back to “the beginning” or even to the Exodus, which were then followed up by 2,000 years of Christian history, it simply calls for a lot of humility as we interpret and patience as others interpret. Authorial intent is sometimes just too cloudy or too tricky.

        Thanks for your reply.

  2.   Jerry Jones Says:

    1. Does the Hebrew word vav(and) have a wider range of possibilities than does kai (and)? Gen. 14:23; 42:18; Exo. 7:17
    2. In Jesus’ use of vav could he have meant “in order to” rather than “and?” (Message and Chas. B Williams translations)
    3. Does Mark’s use of the subjunctive (minus hina) indicate he meant “in order to” and not just “and” which would speak to the Herodias/Herod situation?
    4. Did the historical Jesus ever say what Mark said about the woman divorcing or is this something Mark added for his Greco/Roman audience?

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      Jerry, I think you and Trevor could answer these questions better than I. You two are writing the book, right? 🙂

      On question 4, I think it is very likely that Jesus said it due to the situation of Herod/Herodias. I think this is the context Mark wants to apply it in though it has ramifications for the larger Greco-Roman contexts. Jewish women divorcing their husbands was not unknown even though it was frowned upon.

      I think “in order to” is a possible translation given the semitic background and the setting of Mark’s text. That the range of vav is broader than kai few would doubt. The key would be whether the context of Mark permits us to read it against that Aramaic background and political setting which would support this reading.

      Thanks for commenting, my friend.

  3.   Jerry Jones Says:

    I understand in “rare” cases Jewish women could divorce, but Torah did not allow for it. Had the historical Jesus said what Mark said he said about women the Jewish audience in Matthew would have accused Jesus of not knowing Torah. In Mark’s audience women could divorce with greater ease (I Cor. 7:10-11). Mark’s reference to the marriage issue comes in the triad of “passion, misunderstanding and teaching on discipleship.” His message to the disciples (not to the Pharisees who asked the question) was: “Disciples do not divorce!” Divorce was a greater problem in the Greco/Roman world than in the Jewish world. Matthew’s use of the marriage/divorce story had a different purpose than Mark had for the story. In Matthew the issue was greatest (18:1; 20:26) as opposed to law keeping (19:3; 17). Luke took the passive of Mark and turned it into a present (16:18). Thanks for your help. I am sure my book will provide all the right answers for the subject of MDR!!!!! (Ha!)

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      I’m not so sure it was as much about Mark’s audience (though it cannot be excluded by any means) as it was about the political situation in Palestine at the time of Jesus. But I don’t know how we would ever really be certain except that both factors were probably involved (Mark’s audience and Jesus’s political context).

  4.   Jerry Jones Says:

    Is it possible to see Matt. 18-20 as a chiasmus?
    18:1-20 Greatest
    18:21-22 Rebuke: Peter
    18:23-35 Parable: Kingdom
    19:1-15 Question: law keeping Pharisees
    19:16-30 Question: law keeping rich man
    20:1-16 Parable: Kingdom
    20:20-24 Rebuke: mother
    20:25-28 Greatest

    Thanks for your help.

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      That is certainly possible, especially if one takes the “five books” approach to Matthew so that Matthew 18-20 hang together as a single unit (e.g., Bacon’s historic suggestion). But this may be dubious on other grounds.

      I’m not sure what is gained by seein this chiastic structure. How does “law-keeping” function as the centerpiece in relation to the question of the “greatest”? How does it illuminate the divorce discussion of Matthew 19?

      It is an interesting proposal but I think to be too strict about it would overextend any theological point one might make on the basis of it.

  5.   Jerry Jones Says:

    I am struggling with understanding why Matthew 19:1-12 is where it is and what function did it serve for Matthew’s purpose in writing the book. I can explain why Mark 10:1-12 is where it is and the function it serves in the point Mark was trying to make with his audience. My chiasmus serves to show law keeping on the part of the Pharisees and the rich man is opposed to real greatness. Jesus had to deal with the “greatness” problem in 23:5-12.

    I believe there is a chiasmus within 18-20 in 18:10-14:
    one of these little ones
    my Father in heaven
    wanders away
    the one that wandered away
    wanders off
    your Father in heaven
    any of these little ones

    There “might” even be another chiasmus in 20:20-24:
    her sons
    she said
    right and left
    drink this cup
    we can
    drink from my cup
    right and left
    heard this
    two brothers

    Does 18:10-14 and 20:20-24 strengthen my case for 18-20?

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      It does. The more one is able to demonstrate literary patterns or the use of rhetorical devices in a text the more strength it gives to the identification of more tenuous examples. If you can make the case that these chiasms function as bookends to this section, then the case is even stronger. But you have studied this more than I have, my friend. I’ve been working in Mark and not Matthew for the past year. Blessings

  6.   Jerry Jones Says:

    Let’s move our conversation to Mark 10:35-41:
    35 James and John A
    they said B
    want me to do for you C
    let one of us sit D
    drink and be baptized E
    we can F
    drink and be baptized E
    sit on right and left D
    not for me to grant placesC
    heard this B
    James and John A

    Mark 10:17-31
    eternal life A
    honor father and mother B
    sell all C
    23-27 D
    we left all C
    mother and father B
    eternal life A

    Assuming Matthew depended on Mark, does not Mark 10:35-41 set the stage for Matthew 20:20-28? Does this mean Matthew chose the same rhetorical device as Mark did to tell the same story?

  7.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    I would not place too much emphasis on interpreting Matthew based on the structure of Mark. I think Matthew has his own structure and rhetorical devices. He may have been dependent upon Mark in this language but perhaps not. There are too many differences as well as similarities between Matthew and Mark in this account.

  8.   Jerry Jones Says:

    Do you think Mark 10:17-31 and 10:35-41 are in the the form of a chiasmus?

    Does Mark 1:1-15 for a chiasmus of gospel, desert, baptism, baptism, desert, gospel?

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      Preaching Mark by Reid (?) from Chalic Press structures the whole book of Mark on chiasmus. I’m not convinced but I don’t doubt that there are uses of it within Mark. You may be right about Mark 10 though I am unconvinced by Mark 1:1-15.

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