Jesus and the Pharisees

The definition of marriage is one of the questions at the heart of the debate in contemporary Christianity about whether same-sex marriages should be affirmed by the church. In this debate, you’ll often hear those with more conservative positions on the question argue that same-sex marriage violates the “definition” of marriage given by Jesus, who declared that marriage was between a man and a woman. And so it’s worth looking into the question of whether Jesus did in fact define marriage in any meaningful way, because the answer isn’t as definite as some make it out to be.

What Does the Text Actually Say?

When it comes to the teachings of Jesus on marriage, there are very few texts to point to. We know that Jesus went to a wedding (John 2:1–11), we know that he speaks of whether there will be marriage in the Resurrection (spoilers: there won’t) (Matt 22:23–33; Mark 12:18–27; Luke 20:27–40), and we know that he speaks against divorce (Matt 5:31–32, Matt 19:3–9; Mark 10:2–9, Luke 16:18). In fact, it is in the course of making this final point that he utters the phrase that has been used to defend heterosexual-only marriage.

The passages in which the statements are found are Matthew 19:3–9 and Mark 10:2–10. First, Mark’s version:

And coming up to him, some Pharisees were testing him by asking him if a man was permitted to divorce (lit. “loose away”) his wife. But he answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses permitted writing a divorce certificate and divorcing.” Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardheartedness he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation ‘male and female he created them, for this reason a man will leave his father and mother and will be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh;’ so, they’re no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, let no person separate.

Mark 10:2–9

This is practically identical to the version in Matthew’s gospel:

And some Pharisees came to him, testing him and saying, “Is it permissible for a person to divorce (lit. “loose away”) his wife for any reason?” But he answered and said, “Didn’t you read that from the beginning the Creator ‘male and female created them’?” And he said, “‘For this reason, a person will leave father and mother and will be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ So, they are not two but one flesh. Therefore, what God joined together, let no person separate.” They said to him, “Then why did Moses command to give a divorce certificate and divorce her?” He says to them, “Because of your hardheartedness, Moses permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it wasn’t this way. And I say to you that whoever might divorce his wife not on account of sexual immorality and marries another commits adultery.

Matthew 19:3–9

There are a number of things going on in these passages that need to be acknowledged:

1. Jesus is Answering a Question about Divorce

The entire reason for this exchange is that the Pharisees are trying to test him about divorce. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus had already earlier denounced divorce saying “Anyone who divorces his wife, except on the grounds of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” Jesus’ position on this point is pretty strong and may, as some scholars have noted, be less about the idea of divorce in the abstract and more about the way that some men were casting off their wives when they got older, and marrying younger women, leaving the cast off women without any resources or social safety net. Thus, Jesus is taking a stand on the issue of divorce for the protection of women.

But whatever his reasoning, it may be that the Pharisees were aware of his position on divorce and sought to test him by asking this basic question: “If divorce is so bad, why did Moses say we could issue certificates of divorce for our wives?” Jesus’ response is clear: it’s because you were so hardhearted that Moses allowed you to do this, but this is not how it was supposed to go. A husband and wife were meant to become one flesh and stay together their whole lives, just like it says that husbands and wives do in the scriptures.

2. Jesus Describes, not Prescribes, Marriage

This context is so important. In responding to the question about divorce, Jesus quotes the book of Genesis:

 עַל־כֵּן֙ יַֽעֲזָב־אִ֔ישׁ אֶת־אָבִ֖יו וְאֶת־אִמּ֑וֹ וְדָבַ֣ק בְּאִשְׁתּ֔וֹ וְהָי֖וּ לְבָשָׂ֥ר אֶחָֽד׃

Therefore, a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife and they become one flesh.

Genesis 2:24

Note the verbs in this passage. In the English the verbs are in the present tense (leaves, clings), whereas in the English above for Matthew and Mark, the verbs are in the future tense (will leave, will be joined), as they are in the Greek of the New Testament. But in the Hebrew, the verbs are in the imperfect—meaning that they can be translated as the present, the future, the conditional, and possibly the subjunctive. All of which means that the text is describing the world, not dictating how it should be.

The Book of Genesis is frequently filled with such etiologies, that is, explanations for why things are the way they are. Why do a husband and wife cling to each other and become one flesh? Because they started out as one flesh, and God divided them into two. Makes sense.

And this is where the English translation gets us into trouble, because in so many English translations, Jesus’ words are rendered “A man shall leave his father and mother…” which sounds an awful lot like a command, rather than a description. But that’s not what Jesus is doing here; he is not defining the institution of marriage, he is describing it as it exists: men and women shouldn’t get divorced because they are meant to cling to each other for life, their one flesh reflecting the unity male and female once had.

It is so important to acknowledge that Jesus has not been asked to define marriage, nor has he been asked about marriage in general. He has not been asked a list of questions about the institution of marriage. He has been asked about divorce. That’s it. That’s the list.

These few verses of scripture, recording part of a conversation about whether divorce was in God’s plan or not, cannot bear the weight of dogmatic authority that is placed on them. They do not rise to a “definition” of an institution so complex and meaningful as marriage.

So What Did Jesus Think About Same-Sex Marriage?

I don’t know.

When encountering the biblical text, humility is an absolute necessity. With texts written thousands of years ago, thousands of miles away, in a culture far removed from ours, in a different language, by people of a very different world view and experience, it’s aways tempting to read into the text our sensibilities. It’s always tempting to think we’ve got it all worked out. In the words of Albert Schweitzer, we have the tendency to peer “down the well of history and see [our] own reflection.”

So, the only honest answer I can give to the question of Jesus’ attitude toward same-sex marriage is that I don’t know. Is it possible that he agreed that marriage was one woman and one man? Yes. I’ll even throw the conservatives a bone and say that it might even be probable, given that he was a first century Palestinian Jew, sharing the worldview predominant at the time.

But, despite the presence of same-sex love in the ancient world—after all, it was not unknown in the Greco-Roman world—Jesus never chose to address it. He never stated an opinion that we know of. So, he might have had an opinion like that of conservative Christians. He might have been as world-inverting in his attitudes as he was in everything else and had an opinion closer to that of progressive Christians. But in the end, because he never said anything about it one way or the other, we do not know.

And when we are faced with a landscape of unknowing, it’s a terrible place to try to construct a doctrinal or dogmatic foundation.

What We Do Know

But here’s what we do know.

We know that Jesus preached a gospel of love. We know that he included societal outcasts—prostitutes, tax collectors, wicked people [1]—in his fellowship and even claimed that such people would enter into the Kingdom of God ahead of the chief priests and religious leaders (Matt 21:31). We know that he preached a message that prioritized love and faith over rigid adherence to doctrine and human interpretation. We know that he said the Kingdom of God was a dominion in which glory and power were replaced with humility and service to one another. We know that he emphasized the “weightier matters of the law—justice and mercy and faith.” (Matt 23:23) These are the things we know. He transformed individuals and communities by drawing them inside the circle when society had drawn them out. And what he did talk about matters.

For if there is one thing Jesus did define, it was discipleship: the willingness to take up one’s cross for the sake of the Kingdom, and for the sake of the Messiah we are called to follow. To live out a world-inverting ethic where the first shall be last and the last shall be first.

If we are to be disciples, let us follow our master not by projecting our own certainties about Jesus’ opinions on matters he never discussed, but rather by following him in the areas he did: by living out lives of justice, mercy, faith, and an all-inclusive love in a broken and hurting world.


All translations of scripture are my own unless otherwise noted.

[1] New Testament Scholar E.P. Sanders notes that “sinners” in the New Testament does not mean “ordinary people who try hard but make mistakes and sin” (i.e., regular people), but instead is the same term that is used in the Septuagint to refer to “the wicked,” that is, habitual or unrepentant sinners.

0 thoughts on “Did Jesus “Define” Marriage?

  1. Also, Jesus had the opportunity to declare levirate marriage contrary to God’s will and did not.

  2. This is great, Mark, thanks! And, what’s sorta funny about situation, in a very sad and ironic way, is that as far as I know divorce is totally kosher in the UMC . . .

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