David Couchman
David Couchman is the Director of Focus and the producer of the 'God: new evidence,' 'God and the Big Bang,' 'After Life?' and 'Jesus Myths' video series. More...

Digital Evangelism blog

A letter of divorce from New Testament times

Archaeology can throw new light on the Bible story, even when it does not directly 'prove' it to be true.

There were two schools of thought about divorce among the Jews of Jesus' day: The school of Rabbi Hillel held that a man could divorce his wife for anything that displeased him - for example, if he did not like her cooking. The school of Rabbi Shammai held that he could only divorce her for committing adultery.

Mark's Gospel, chapter 10, verses 2-9 tells how some Jewish leaders, trying to trap Jesus, asked him whether a man should be allowed to divorce his wife.

Jesus replied by asking what the Jews' great lawgiver, Moses, had said. 'Well, he permitted it,' they replied. 'He said a man merely has to write his wife an official letter of divorce and send her away.' They were citing Deuteronomy 24:1-4

In 1951, a group of Bedouin tribesmen found some scroll manuscripts in a cave in the Wadi Murabba'at (also called Nahal Darga), including just such an official letter of divorce, written in Aramaic (referred to as Mur 20). This divorce certificate can be dated to 71 AD. (See p. 67-69 of 'The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Jewish origins of Christianity', by Carsten Peter Thiede.)

Incidentally, Jesus's reply is that Moses had not commanded divorce, but permitted it under extreme circumstances, because of people's hardness of hearts - that is to say, in some circumstances it might be the lesser of two evils, but it was never less than an evil. Moses did not establish divorce, but regulated what was already being practised. Jesus comes down firmly on the side of Rabbi Shammai. Marriage is a joining of two lives into one, sanctioned by God, and

'Since they are no longer two but one, let no one separate them, for God has joined them together.'

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