Jesus said a bit on marriage and adultery and divorce. We read Gospel exchanges, when Jesus was being challenged by religious critics about his word. I would say they were attempting to show him up. I do not find Jesus setting out a systematic prescription on human sexuality, or addressing contemporary issues for 2017. That is not surprising

The first mention of marriage in the Gospels is of one which nearly was cancelled! Mary, future mother of Jesus, had been promised in marriage to Joseph. He, her “intended”, heard that she had been found to be pregnant. Perhaps Mary was starting to “show” after three months away at her cousin’s in an unnamed city down in Judah? I wonder if Joseph’s relatives gave him a report of a great shaming of him and his family? This must have been shocking news and a severe and even frightening jolt. We do not know what support Mary had in Nazareth nor how the fact was communicated. Who listened to Mary’s unlikely account and accepted it? How well was she treated by those around her?  Joseph wanted above all to do the right thing. He was sure he had to divorce Mary (that is the word). She had the appearance of being “unfaithful” or of committing “terrible sexual sin”. Still he was concerned for her - how could he protect her? By acting in secret? God gave him an entirely unexpected and strange answer and the rest was history. Here is a part of the account - (I have made one deletion {} to bring out the sequence): This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about. His mother Mary and Joseph had promised to get married. But before they started to live together, it became clear that she was going to have a baby. {} Her husband Joseph was faithful to the law. But he did not want to put her to shame in public. So he planned to divorce her quietly.
But as Joseph was thinking about this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. The angel said, “Joseph, son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary home as your wife. The baby inside her is from the Holy Spirit. She is going to have a son. You must give him the name Jesus. That’s because he will save his people from their sins”
(Matthew 1:18-21, NIRV). See also Luke 1, or post “Nativity”. {She became pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit.} The account includes cultural artefacts of "betrothal" in arranged marriage, and powerful shame, and Joseph's conviction of having to send Mary away. The Maker's uncomplicated plan was for a man and woman to form a unity and set up a new family - which plan Jesus recalled in rejecting easy come/easy go divorce (see below for citation).

As Jesus puts it
Jesus had timeless words to say about people being treated as people, by people; he challenged also about inner integrity. “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back” (Luke 6:37-38, NRSV). Another passage also seems relevant in our current climate: In everything, do to others what you would want them to do to you. This is what is written in the Law and in the Prophets. (Matthew 7:12, NIRV).

Matthew and Luke have both of the above passages in similar form. (The “Golden Rule” is found in many places, though often in negative form [“do not”].) Are the injunctions hard to understand? Are they extraordinary and peculiar? Are the meanings obscure? Are they to be trusted? Just how seriously are these directions able to be taken today? This is a live question at every point. The alternative is to select out words that support some argument or proposition and erase the rest. Is it good enough to just skip the hard bits? What is the basis or ground(s) for selection? Is the basis valid?

It is evident our Bible has statements which can hardly have been taken literally, and nor can they be today.  Here is an example passage which nevertheless will still have application. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell (Matthew 5:27-30, ESV). Very strong; unthinkable to literally apply in toto. Notice also the gender bias. Actually, I think the male dominance relates to the culture of the time. It is also an instance of Jesus insisting the inner intention is not less significant (personally? to God?) than the outward action. Seeing and appreciating seems to be a normal part of life. Perhaps some thought it was just natural for a man to use a greedy, lustful eye? (That seems to be a contemporary attitude in our day.) Jesus is evaluating purposeful, intentional "looking at"; the word pornographic comes to mind here - it reflects the word for "terrible sexual sin". So, I think we see a clear personal principle which is reinforced by “oriental hyperbole”. It is not for legislation. Law is about regulation of action. Moral attitudes and thinking can not really be legislated. Jesus’ word is for the man to heed himself. (Woman? I suggest women think it over for themselves.) In the above, although they can be distinguished, we see Jesus making sexual thought and physical adultery (internally) equivalent.

Some people had focus on contamination from external (ceremonial) things - perhaps today we would speak of environment. Jesus saw the source elsewhere: For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness (Mark 7:21-22, ESV). A change of heart is what is needed, not legislation. But this advice is for his followers in their own journey. (That word, “heart of man”, is hardly to restrict this truth to the male of the species.)

Jesus addressed "divorce". You have been taught that a man who divorces his wife must write out divorce papers for her. But I tell you not to divorce your wife unless she has committed some terrible sexual sin. If you divorce her, you will cause her to be unfaithful, just as any man who marries her is guilty of taking another man’s wife (Matthew 5:31-32, CEV). This is an awkward passage for us and not one for our society. Nonetheless, it shows Jesus’ intention that the woman should be treated with respect, not simply as disposable property, contrary to contemporary views. The passage marks the first New Testament [NT] use of a word often rendered as “fornication”; here by the phrase ‘terrible sexual sin”. Others translate by “sexual immorality” [see foregoing] or “unchastity” or “unfaithfulness”. What in that day merited such a description and how does the failing/betrayal differ from adultery? Assuredly there is breach of trust which has its genesis somewhere. It looks to me as though there is strong overlap in the use of the terms adultery and unchastity (etc). It is also clear that, whatever the issue, it was between a man and wife, and could give him(!) grounds to take divorce action. So Jesus sees sexual immorality as vindicating, or recognising, death or dissolution of the marriage. That also reminds us of the male dominance of that society in Palestine - men had ready direct access to such divorce; a woman had to gain the support of a court to compel the husband to divorce his wife (Keener).

I think the idea of restriction put on divorce may have been quite confronting to the men. My viewpoint arises from a specific challenge on the sensitive issue, reported similarly in Matthew and Mark. (Most likely, opponents kept tabs on what Jesus taught and anticipated his reply.) We find: Some Pharisees wanted to test Jesus. So they came up to him and asked if it was right for a man to divorce his wife. Jesus asked them, “What does the Law of Moses say about that?”
They answered, “Moses allows a man to write out divorce papers and send his wife away.”
Jesus replied, “Moses gave you this law because you are so heartless. But in the beginning God made a man and a woman. That’s why a man leaves his father and mother and gets married. He becomes like one person with his wife. Then they are no longer two people, but one. And no one should separate a couple that God has joined together.”

When Jesus and his disciples were back in the house, they asked him about what he had said. He told them, “A man who divorces his wife and marries someone else is unfaithful to his wife. A woman who divorces her husband and marries again is also unfaithful” (Mark 10:2-10, CEV). It is quite striking that Jesus attributed the “indecency” provision of Deuteronomy 24 to human (male?) hardness of heart; to a dilution of the original design. Their practice of marriage was not as God intended! (I am not confident Deuteronomy's provision really covered burning the bread!) Jesus' words were troublesome! Note the disciples’ seemingly extreme reaction to this pronouncement - all too hard: Here is what the disciples said to him. “If that’s the way it is between a husband and wife, it is better not to get married.”
Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept the idea of staying single. Only those who have been helped to live without getting married can accept it
(Matthew 19:10-11, NIRV). Perhaps the disciples had not heard the words we find in Matthew chapter 5? Surely Jesus was not saying that singleness was the better option for anyone who could do it?

In another place Jesus answered a “no life after death” objection from other opponents: And Jesus said to them, “The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage, but those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage, for they cannot die anymore, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection. But that the dead are raised, even Moses showed, in the passage about the bush, where he calls the Lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob (Luke 20:34-37, ESV). Jesus’ analysis of the situation fits with a prevailing notion that young men marry and form families as a regular thing. The larger dimension is that marriage does not signify beyond this life.

The issue of ending a marriage came up more than once. It provided a sensitive question to use against Jesus. It incidentally throws light on God's intention.

The marriage of which Jesus speaks is not regulated by our Marriage Act. Quite some time ago I came to the view it would be preferable for all legal marriage contracts to be only in the hands of state celebrants. Christian married relationship is not something to be lightly or unwisely undertaken. Jesus' portrayed God's intention for marriage as a unique bonding of two individuals, assumed to be a woman and a man. That may not be a view held in my society.

The NT period Jewish practice was described as no longer being in line with the Maker’s intention, in that permanence had become impermanence in the eyes of the parties.  Jesus insisted marriage is an “estate”, an almost indissoluble union in which women also have “rights”; there should be equality.  If two really become one, who is there to just dominate? Human frailness sadly means that betrayal is possible. It comes as somewhat of a surprise to read of a woman divorcing her husband. Sounds more like Graeco-Roman culture. Disciples here (presumably males) seem to have considered their current way was better, and the original intention just too hard.

Stronger statement of human equality had to wait for the pioneering writings of Paul, who valued marriage but is cited selectively and may be approved in certain points, but not all. Here, I note his strong and brief contradiction of others on marriage: These people are hypocrites and liars, and their consciences are dead. They will say it is wrong to be married and wrong to eat certain foods. But God created those foods to be eaten with thanks by faithful people who know the truth.  Since everything God created is good, we should not reject any of it but receive it with thanks (1 Timothy 4:2-4, NLT). "Marriage", as they knew it, was (is) God's good creation. Of course, humans unfortunately may subvert any of God's gifts and need forgiveness accordingly. (Elsewhere, Paul answered questions about marriage and added his own advice for a time of grave threat, for example, see 1 Corinthians 4 - 7).

Clearly the topics of marriage and divorce, etc, were live issues in the day. There is a weight of evidence (Keener) for marriage being characterised by the rabbis as normal, or even essential, and having the purpose of fathering children. (The male dominance is apparently in the sources.) If that is so, I wonder if Jesus was seen as a misfit in this regard?

Note: The significant word conveying (above) “illicit intercourse” is translated by various words, such as adultery, fornication, homosexuality, idolatry. This makes for difficulty in these days of “same sex” whatever. The passages come from an era in which cult prostitution (male and female) was common. Male and female slaves were sexually exploited. What was “illicit” at that time? Were followers of Jesus engaged in this practice? Jewish circles probably took a different view to those contemporaries of Graeco-Roman culture. Just the same, the Jews had the tragic and discomforting account of their (venerated?) King David, who reportedly (2 Samuel 11) initiated adulterous sex and then fixed it that the cheated male was deprived of his life as well. Hardly an exemplar!

Perhaps followers of Jesus were caught up in use of cult prostitutes or easy sex regardless of gender or marriage? Or was that a very common temptation constantly paraded before them? Was the issue a live one only for males? I do not think this is clear but certainly early on in the post-resurrection expansion period we find specific injunctions being sent from Jerusalem to other parts of the empire: “And so my (James') judgment is that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead, we should write and tell them to abstain from eating food offered to idols, from sexual immorality, from eating the meat of strangled animals, and from consuming blood. For these laws of Moses have been preached in Jewish synagogues in every city on every Sabbath for many generations” (Acts 15: 19-21, NLT). In the context you can see that the established (Jewish) followers of the Way were giving guidance to those non-Jews following Jesus now wanting to know how they should live. (The same information is repeated twice more in the book.) What about in our day? Abstain from immorality? Abuse, violence, hatred, denigration, rejection do not fit with Jesus (see my introduction). But - is it possible to commit a sin that is sexual as such? Are there no boundaries or restrictions apart from genuine good feelings toward the other (i.e., “love”)? The other proscriptions: Idol blessed food, strangled animals, eating blood, seem to have become archaic. However, those other three would have been vitally important then if there was to be loving “table fellowship” between Jewish followers and non-Jewish followers. And there should have been.

And in 2017 we have a government survey: "same sex marriage", or no? If enough (?) say "yes", the members of parliament are to vote on changing the Act. If adopted, the legal meaning of "marriage" will changed here, as it has in many places, including US, NZ, Canada, United Kingdom. How does this post relate to our survey? Probably the notions above at one time to some extent informed the old legislation of the UK and thus of the (former) colonies like us. I have not researched the details but one thing is clear - the UK ecclesiastical and civil authorities have a bloody history in law creation and enforcement, together and severally. Whatever the case historically, that is not the point I see. Jesus’ words are for personal application; legal questions belong, I think, to “Caesar”.  It is a truism that sincere people can be sincerely wrong. I wonder why Joseph believed he had to send Mary away? (See my Introduction on this.) I suppose Joseph either thought the Bible required it of him or his culture/religion (!) had developed that attitude in him.
(Note: 16,006,180 were sent survey forms; in favour "yes" 7,817,247 or 61.6% of respondents (=49% of survey); 4,873,987 said "no"; 3,278,260 did not respond, the remainder were "informal".)

PS: See also post "Sinner's Friend".

Following is a list of the recognised occurrences of the specific “terrible sexual sin” word (πορνεία, transliterated as porneia). The word can be used metaphorically (especially in Revelation) and it is clear (and unsurprising) that different shades of meaning are involved. You can see I have discussed only some of these.
Matthew 5: 32; 15:19; 19:9
Mark 7:21
John 8:41
Acts 15:20, 29; 21:35
1 Corinthians 5:1; 6:13, 18; 7:2
2 Corinthians 12:21
Galatians 5:19
Ephesians 5:3
Colossians 3:5
1 Thessalonians 4:3
Revelation 2:21; 9:21; 14:18; 17:2, 4; 18:3; 19:2

C.S. Keener, “Adultery, Divorce” in Dictionary of New Testament Background, ed. C.A.Evans & S.E.Porter (Downers Grove, Il: IVP Press, 2000)
ibid “Marriage”
Scripture quotations marked (CEV) are from the Contemporary English Version Copyright © 1991, 1992, 1995 by American Bible Society, Used by Permission.
Scripture quotations marked (ESV) are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations marked (NIRV) are taken from the Holy Bible, NEW INTERNATIONAL READER'S VERSION®.Copyright © 1996, 1998 Biblica. All rights reserved throughout the world. Used by permission of Biblica.
Scripture quotations marked (NLT) are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright ©1996, 2004, 2007, 2013 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations marked (NRSV) are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

I retain in the publishers' text the references to footnotes where they occur. You can check them out by viewing the text on-line. Often they are the same in different translations.
Note: Bible text sourced through or/and

AL 6/5/24

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