FIRST FORMAL BOOK REVIEW by EMINENT PROFESSOR!
Francis J. Moloney, SDB (DPhil, University of Oxford)
Professor of New Testament, University of Divinity (CTC Melbourne)
“Lowe's argument is a valuable contribution to the debate [on divorce and remarriage]. After synthesising various explanations of the exception and articulating his methodology (chaps. 1-3), the body of the book is a detailed study of Matthew 19:1-12 (chaps. 4-10). It closes with a fine reflection upon marriage as a covenant (chap. 10), and a series of appendices on methodological, pastoral issues, and reflections upon further biblical divorce texts.”
“The exegesis introduces novel elements into the discussion: the close relationship with 18:1-35, and some fine studies of biblical expressions. Lowe rejects the agreement that the use of porneia in Matthew 19:9 refers to the erwat dabar of Deuteronomy 24: 1. The former refers to sexual immorality that is punishable by death while the latter is a lesser matter of some impropriety. The biblical accusation of 'hardheartedness' (sklerokardia; see Matt 19:8) indicated the reason for Israel's being separated from God's designs and promises, and thus is used to describe 'some Pharisees' (Matt 19:1) as hypocrites who reject Jesus' teaching.”
“Once it is accepted that Matthew 19:1-12 comes to us from Jesus, it is impossible to accept that Jesus allowed divorce and remarriage on any grounds (as is evidenced in Paul, Mark, and Luke). What then is the meaning of Matthew's 'deadly exception'? The choice of the word 'deadly' is the key. According to Jewish Law, anyone who commits sexual immorality outside marriage must be executed. Jesus is faithful to that principle, as he is to every detail of the Law (see 5: 17-20). Thus, for Jesus, there are only two ways in which a person can be 'separated' (i.e., divorced): after the death of one's partner, or following the death by execution of a sinful partner. In 19:9 Jesus teaches that death is the only grounds for divorce and remarriage.”
“The close link between Matthew 18 and 19, along with other passages from the First Gospel (e.g., 5:7) softens the blow. Jesus does not call spouses to follow Jewish Law and execute their sinful partners. He teaches that God desires humility (18:1-5), care for the 'little ones' (vv. 6-14), mutual support and correction (vv. 15-20), unending forgiveness (vv. 21-22), exemplified by the way the king deals with his unforgiving servant (vv. 23-35): 'forgive with your whole heart' (v. 35).”
“There can be no divorce in the Christian community. Marriage is a covenant between two imperfect people, and they must do all they can to forgive, even when one of the partners has committed 'sexual immorality' (porneia). Every effort must be made to 'forgive with one's whole heart' (18:35), to be merciful that we may receive mercy (5:7), thus avoiding the death sentence that should take place if the Law is followed to the letter. 'Till death do us part' lies at the heart of a Christian marriage.”
“Matthew 19:9: A Deadly Exception is a fine PhD dissertation. The examining board did well to recommend its publication. May we continue to learn from one another.”
The full BOOK REVIEW is published in the Australasian Catholic Record 98/4 (2021): pages 504-505.
Author’s Note: Moloney was very gracious in reviewing my book! This is despite making clear his own presupposition: “But the exceptions in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 (see Mark 10:11; Luke 16:18) do not reach back to Jesus.” In other words, some uphold a ‘No Divorce, No Remarriage’ position by claiming that Jesus never actually spoke the ‘exception’ clause. As shown in my book, such an approach is unwarranted. The ‘exception’ appears in all the earliest and most reliable Bible manuscripts. Furthermore, Matthew presents the ‘exception’ as the teaching of Jesus – twice (in 5:32 and 19:9) – so if Jesus did not say these words, then Matthew’s integrity is undermined. A ‘deadly exception’ not only supports Jesus’ absolute teaching in Mark 10:11 and Luke 16:18 (marriage is to be ‘Until death do us part’ – by natural or capital means) but supports Matthew’s purpose in showing that God has a right to send away (“divorce”) unfaithful people to destruction, even as he desires mercy.
EXTRA SUPPORTIVE COMMENTS from the BOOK LAUNCH
Another Catholic professor, Matthew C. Ogilvie (School of Philosophy & Theology, University of Notre Dame, WA) offers a different perspective whilst also supporting the ‘No Divorce, No Remarriage’ position. For my BOOK LAUNCH at Vose/Morling Perth (Baptist Seminary), Ogilvie said the following kind words.
“The book is based on David’s outstanding PhD thesis – I would like to congratulate him for both the award of his Doctorate and for the publication of this excellent book. I am certainly not going to summarise it. Because whatever I may say, David says it infinitely better in the book… But I do want to say a bit about why David’s book is so important.”
“David’s book doesn’t present easy options. It is a brave and challenging book. David says that a lot of people have been wrong about the teaching of Jesus. He has challenged the heck out of Christians of all persuasions.”
“This is where David’s book is so important. The book focusses on the question of marriage and divorce. But it has implications about much more than that. The challenge is whether Jesus invites us to take on the easy life promised by a TV evangelist. Or whether he challenges us to take up our cross and follow him?”
“Marriage and family is hard – and Jesus acknowledges that as he tells people that divorce is prohibited for any reason other than the one discussed in David’s most insightful book. But what does the world offer us? It offers easy cohabitation and no-fault divorce. It offers the allure of celebrity marriage. Yes, the world asks us to embrace easy. But I wonder if it has made us happy or fulfilled? Having taught and counselled many university students, and having wandered the wastelands of social media, I most certainly don’t think that the easy way has made people truly happy.”
“Having said that, while reading David’s book, I felt like I had the proverbial angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. And the devil on one shoulder was asking me if David is really up-to-date. Perhaps, the little devil said, David and the church should move with the times and upgrade? The question is whether the teaching of Jesus can be upgraded like an iPhone – and then thrown in the bin when a more attractive model is released. I am convinced that David’s book is not just about the teaching of Jesus on divorce, but it is about the very nature and core of Christianity.”
“I should say something else at this moment. Please do not think that I am aiming any comments about David’s book only at Protestant Christianity. Someone said to me that David’s book proves that Catholics are right about divorce and remarriage.”
“At the surface that may seem so. But as I read David’s book, I wondered to myself, are Catholics right, but for the wrong reasons? Certainly, given the way that annulments are granted inconsistently in the Catholic church, David’s book is challenging to my Church. As I read the book, I wondered if my church (and others) have taken the words of Jesus in a naïve way, and have not done the hard yards of seriously investigating what he really meant. So, what David has done has been to challenge everyone. Are we right on the reading of Jesus? And if so, are we reading Jesus authentically, or with a preconceived agenda?”
“I will say one more thing about the book. I appreciated very much the way that David deals with the Jewish origins and background of the text. People often forget about the importance of our Jewish heritage. I am a little naughty, sometimes, and I ask people - to what religion did Jesus belong. At Notre Dame, the answer is usually that Jesus was Catholic. But there's always up the back a follower of John Calvin or Martin Luther who disputes that. This is all while the Baptist in the front row shakes his head knowing fully which Church Jesus belonged to – he knows that Jesus was baptised, after all, by a Baptist. But the charge above Jesus on the cross was INRI - he was king of the Jews - born a Jew, raised a Jew, died and - I would argue, rose a Jew. Without understanding that, and especially Matthew's Gospel, we don't understand his teaching. There is a sort of anachronistic reading the Bible common to fundamentalism and post-modern literary theory that neglects context and the author's intent. Against those equally wrong trends, David’s book presents a most insightful explanation of what Jesus really meant.”
“To conclude, I think that some of what I have said may have seemed negative – with talk of the way of the cross and life not being easy. Malcolm Fraser’s message ‘Life wasn’t meant to be easy’ was actually a paraphrase of a line from George Bernard Shaw's play Back to Methuselah: ‘Life is not meant to be easy, my child; but take courage: it can be delightful’.”
“Likewise, and with more authority, Jesus knew that he was presenting a hard teaching that not all could accept. But he did also say that it is a teaching that is given – and given I would add by the grace of God. Marrying Fraser and Jesus – marriage wasn’t meant to be easy, but in Christ, it is delightful.”
“And that, I think is the importance of David’s book. It is challenging – intellectually and morally. But what emerges from reading the book is mercy and authentic love – real enduring love based on Jesus Christ and the love of God. David’s book is about truth, but also hope and grace. I was grateful for the chance to read it.”
Author’s Note: I am grateful for the positive comments from these two prominent Catholic scholars, and agree with Ogilvie that the Catholic position of ‘No Divorce, No Remarriage’ has largely been right but not for all the right reasons. Today’s Protestant ‘Majority View’ is deeply flawed. Matthew 19:9 is terribly misused. Nonetheless, Ogilvie sees that my work “has challenged the heck out of Christians of all persuasions” – his own church included!
COMMENTS from OTHER BIBLE SCHOLARS
Revd Dr John Nolland, BSc, ThL, BD, PhD
Tutor in New Testament, Trinity College Bristol, UK (also, former Dean and Vice Principal)
Author of The Gospel of Matthew: A Commentary on the Greek Text. NIGTC. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005
“Certainly a solid piece of work.”
“A strong case for Deuteronomy 24:1 not to be understood in relation to adultery and the like
and therefore for Matthew 19:9 not to be seen as Jesus’ interpretation of the Deuteronomy text.”
The “case for ‘hardness of heart’ being so damning is quite strong.”
Author's Note: Nolland gives qualified support, e.g. the way David handles word meanings “is sometimes a bit rigid and in danger of the illegitimate totality transfer that we are warned against.”
Revd Dr David Wenham, MA, PhD
Former Director of the Gospels Research project - Tyndale House, Cambridge
Former Dean and Vice Principal - Wycliffe Hall, Oxford
Former Vice Principal - Trinity College, Bristol, UK
“A significant contribution to discussion of the very important biblical texts.”
Revd Emeritus Professor William R. G. Loader BA (Auckland) BD (Otago) Dr Theol (Mainz, Germany) FAHA
Emeritus Professor at Murdoch University, Western Australia
Assistant Secretary for International Initiatives of the Society for New Testament Studies coordinating Liaison Committees in Eastern Europe, Latin America & the Caribbean, Africa, & the Asia Pacific to promote NT research
“The thesis of the dissertation is daring, worthy of consideration and supported with substantial arguments.”
Loader “agrees with the author that Matthew 19:9 is not a reinterpretation of 'a matter of indecency' of Deuteronomy 24:1 and has argued accordingly elsewhere and also concurs with the view that the exception clause is referring to sexual immorality and adultery in particular. The arguments for these conclusions are sound.”
“The author makes a connection between Jesus’ prohibition of divorce and its exception, with the teaching about forgiveness in 18:21-35 in order to argue that Matthew assumes forgiveness of this capital crime is possible. Such forgiveness would then remove the ground for divorce and so make the prohibition say that only execution of an unrepentant wife could render remarriage acceptable. That claim of the possibility of divine forgiveness is justified by reference to covenant texts which assume forgiveness and restoration of the divorced kingdoms of Israel.”
“The main contribution of the thesis is to lay out a case for claiming that in Matthew 19:9 Jesus remains strictly within the parameters of the Old Testament Law, in forbidding divorce, except where a woman has been sent off for execution and that otherwise any remarriage would also be adultery and so also warrant execution."
This is a daring thesis and well captured in its title: Matthew 19:9 – a Deadly Exception. To convey Jesus as an advocate of capital punishment when the offer of forgiveness is rejected reflects a willingness to hear what was being said then, however one may want to respond in the present to divorce issues. The author rightly resists the many attempts to water down the prohibition and so serves people well who must therefore be confronted with ethical decisions about whether they consider divorce today as warranted and why.”
Author's Note: Bill Loader agrees with a key element of this thesis that the "sexual immorality" of Matthew 19:9 is not a reinterpretation of “a matter of indecency” of Deuteronomy 24:1, but does not reach the same conclusion. Instead, Loader interprets Matthew 19:9 in keeping with first-century Roman law that mandates divorce for adultery, and in keeping with contemporary Jewish culture that assumes a right to remarry after divorce.
Professor Robert K. McIver
Seminary, Avondale University College, New South Wales
Original research: “It is very difficult to come up with something entirely original in well-studied documents such as the Gospels, and particularly in an area so closely scrutinized as the divorce sayings in the Gospel of Matthew.
But the position taken, if not unique, certainly stands apart from most other studies on these texts.”
Original knowledge that makes a substantial contribution to the field of study: “David has put together an extended defence of a relatively unique position.”
Dr Michael O'Neil
Director Vose Research; Head of Department of Christian Thought & History (at time of this thesis)
Currently: Dean of Campus - Perth Vose, Morling College
“Jesus’ teaching on divorce and remarriage is certainly one of the ‘hard sayings’ found in Scripture, and a message greatly in need of careful hearing in the church today. David Lowe’s exploration of this teaching in Matthew’s Gospel has the merit of taking Jesus’ words very seriously, arguing especially that Jesus’ reference to ‘sexual immorality’ in this passage refers not to Deuteronomy 24:1-4 but to a verse such as Deuteronomy 22:22, with important implications for how Christians and others are to apply his words.”
“While not everyone will agree with his approach or conclusions, his arguments are carefully made and supported. And while scholars will continue to debate the meaning and application of Jesus’ teaching, David Lowe has provided a fresh analysis of this important matter which deserves fair and careful consideration.”
Dr Michael Kok
Dean of Students; New Testament Lecturer at Vose Seminary, Perth, Western Australia (at time of this thesis)
Currently: New Testament Lecturer - Perth Vose, Morling College
“This book vigorously argues for a bold and controversial reading of the exception clause accompanying Jesus’s teachings on marriage and divorce in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9.”