Sunday, September 26, 2021

Legal, Intended, and Permitted

Below is my rough translation and some comments regarding Mark 10:1-12, which is part of the lectionary reading for the 20thSunday after Pentecost. The lectionary also includes vv.13-16, but I see those verses as a separate pericope and will not treat them here. 

I view these conversations between Jesus and the Pharisees, then Jesus and the disciples, as arguments over the nature of interpreting Scripture, namely Deuteronomy 24:1-4. As usual, your comments are welcomed.

Mark 10:1-12
Καὶ ἐκεῖθεν ἀναστὰς ἔρχεται εἰς τὰ ὅρια τῆς Ἰουδαίας [καὶ] πέραν τοῦ Ἰορδάνου, καὶ συμπορεύονται πάλιν ὄχλοι πρὸς αὐτόν, καὶ ὡς εἰώθει πάλιν ἐδίδασκεν αὐτούς. 
And having gone up from there he entered into the region of the Judeans [and] beyond the Jordan, and again crowds gathered to him, and as he had been accustomed again he was teaching them. 
ἀναστὰς: AAPart, nms, ἀνίστημι,1) to cause to rise up, raise up  1a) raise up from laying down  1b) to raise up from the dead
ἔρχεται: PMI 3s, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come  1a) of persons  1a1) to come from one place to another, and used both of  persons arriving and of those returning
συμπορεύονται: PMI 3p, συμπορεύομαι, 1) to go or journey together  2) to come together, to assemble
εἰώθει : PluperfectAI 3s, ἔθω, to be accustomed, to be wont
ἐδίδασκεν: IAI 3s, διδάσκω, 1) to teach
1. The verb ἔθω (accustomed) is used 4x in the NT, twice about Jesus. The other custom attributed to Jesus was the habit of attending the synagogue on the Sabbath (Luke 4:16).  ἔθω, as one might tell from the looks of it, is related to 'ethos,' primarily used to describe customs of the law in the gospels. It allows us to appreciate how some of Jesus' habits were learned from his upbringing, enabling him to do his ministry as a faithful Jew and not always as a contrarian. I say that because I've recently read this powerful essay by Marc Brettler (thanks for the tip, Beverly Gaventa!), and am reminded how important it is for New Testament scholars, interpreters, and proclaimers to push back against anti-Semitic portrayals of Jesus as if his Jewishness were beside the point. 

καὶ προσελθόντες Φαρισαῖοι ἐπηρώτων αὐτὸν εἰ ἔξεστινἀνδρὶ γυναῖκαἀπολῦσαι, πειράζοντες αὐτόν. 
And Pharisees having approached were interrogating him if it is lawful a man to divorce a woman, while testing him. 
προσελθόντες: AAPart npm, προσέρχομαι, 1) to come to, approach  2) draw near to  3) to assent to
ἐπηρώτων: IAI 3p, ἐπερωτάω, 1) to accost one with an enquiry, put a question to, enquiry of,  ask, interrogate  2) to address one with a request or demand  2a) to ask of or demand of one 
ἔξεστιν: PAI 3s, ἔξεστι, 1) it is lawful
ἀπολῦσαι: AAInf, ἀπολύω, 1) to set free  2) to let go, dismiss, (to detain no longer)  … 4) used of divorce, to dismiss from the house, to repudiate.
πειράζοντες: PAPart npm, πειράζω, 1) to try whether a thing can be done  1a) to attempt, endeavor  2) to try, make trial of, test: for the purpose of ascertaining  his quantity, or what he thinks, or how he will behave himself 
1. For the last few weeks I have been interpreting the verb ἐπερωτάω as “interrogate,” rather than as “ask,” in Mark’s gospel, when it is used it often seems to have an edge to it. See below for more information.

 δὲ ἀποκριθεὶς εἶπεν αὐτοῖς,Τί ὑμῖν ἐνετείλατο Μωϋσῆς; 
Yet having answered he said to them, “What did Moses command to you?”
ἀποκριθεὶς: APPart nsm, ἀποκρίνομαι, 1) to give an answer to a question proposed, to answer 
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak  1a) affirm over, maintain
ἐνετείλατο: AMI 3s, ἐντέλλομαι,1) to order, command to be done, enjoin
1. Jesus does not “interrogate” these Pharisees, but also does not simply submit to their interrogation. The old saying that Jesus answers a question with a question is in full bloom here. We might see this as a way of restructuring the question so that it starts on the right foundation. We might see it as an extension of the question, which is premised on what the law says. Or, we might see it as Jesus challenging the balance of power, by turning the interrogation into a debate.  

οἱ δὲ εἶπαν, Ἐπέτρεψεν Μωϋσῆς βιβλίον ἀποστασίου γράψαι καὶἀπολῦσαι. 
Yet they said, “Moses permitted to write a writ of divorce and to divorce.” 
εἶπαν: AAI 3p, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak  1a) affirm over, maintain
Ἐπέτρεψεν: AAI 3s, ἐπιτρέπω, 1) to turn to, transfer, commit, instruct  2) to permit, allow, give leave
γράψαι: AAInf, γράφω, 1) to write, with reference to the form of the letters  … write down, record 
ἀπολῦσαι: AAInf, ἀπολύω, 1) to set free  2) to let go, dismiss, (to detain no longer)  … 4) used of divorce, to dismiss from the house, to repudiate.
1. At this point, the original question posed by the Pharisees has been answered and it is the answer that they knew all along. However, the story continues, indicating that there is a greater point to this story than what the law actually says. 
2. The reference here is to Deuteronomy 24:1-4: Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house; she then leaves his house and goes off to become another man’s wife. Then suppose the second man dislikes her, writes her a bill of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house (or the second man who married her dies);her first husband, who sent her away, is not permitted to take her again to be his wife after she has been defiled; for that would be abhorrent to the Lord, and you shall not bring guilt on the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a possession.
As one can see, the point of this law is not whether or not one can get a divorce. The point is that one cannot re-marry a former spouse who has been married and divorced by someone else along the way. While the passage does not suggest that she – by virtue of having been through a first marriage and divorce – is‘defiled’ to her second husband, it does suggest that by going through the second marriage and divorce she is now defiled for a repeat marriage to her first husband. The matter of “writing a bill of divorce” is taken for granted here as a practice. Perhaps it is this status of “things taken for granted” that the word “permit” signifies (see next note). 
3. I like how the ‘olde English’ versions translate Ἐπέτρεψενas “suffer” – as in “Suffer the little children to come unto me” or “Moses suffered to write a bill of divorcement.” This is not the same word as παθεῖν, as in Mark 8:31 “the Son of Man must suffer.” The KJV translation raises, not a biblical question per se, but an interesting question of whether there is an inherent relationship between ‘permitting’ and ‘suffering.’ Does is suggest that granting permission exacts a cost of some sort by the one permitting? (I think the same kind of issue lies in the relationship between 'forgive' and 'suffer,' but that's for another time.) 

5 δὲ Ἰησοῦς εἶπεν αὐτοῖς, Πρὸς τὴν σκληροκαρδίαν ὑμῶν ἔγραψεν ὑμῖν τὴν 
ἐντολὴν ταύτην. 
Yet Jesus said to them, “To your hardened heart he wrote to you this law.” 
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak  1a) affirm over, maintain
ἔγραψεν: AAI 3s,  γράφω, 1) to write, with reference to the form of the letters  … write down, record 
1. For the Pharisees to recognize that divorce is “permitted” and for Jesus to show that there is context for this permission, suggests that this conversation is about how to interpret Scripture, and not just about whether the law says this or that. This is a much more sophisticated approach to reading Scripture than to repeat II Timothy 3:16 (“All Scripture is inspired by God) as some kind of mechanical event, whereby God dictates every word of Scripture as equally inspired. Jesus suggests a keen interdependence behind this law. The law not only reflects God’s way to God’s people, but it was written with sensitivity to the human situation – in this case, hard-heartedness. This law is not the apodictic law that simply expresses a requirement or prohibition; it is the conditional law that is given ‘by Moses’ in a way that befits human experience, limitations, and sinfulness. 
2. The word for “hard hearted,” σκληροκαρδίαν (sclero-cardia), is familiar to the medical profession, which continue to use these Greek words to describe calcification of the heart. 
3. In the end, the “permission” of Deuteronomy 24 is not a reflection of what God wills as much as it is a concession by Moses to human failings. Is it lawful? Yes, but not in the same way that “Love your neighbor as yourself” is lawful. 
4. I suggest that God’s concessions make up a huge part of the story of the Scriptures. Among the things that God may not have ‘willed’ but conceded because of human need might be the temple, the monarchy, and the sacrificial system. 
5. As my comments suggest, I am not investing too much into the phrase "your hearts," as if Jesus is putting all of the cardio sclerosis onto the Pharisees themselves - no more than I would think "to you" meant that Moses wrote the law specifically for these Pharisees. The Pharisees were not there when Moses wrote this law, so the "you" language seems to be more collective of human experience. 

6ἀπὸ δὲ ἀρχῆς κτίσεως ἄρσεν καὶ θῆλυ ἐποίησεν αὐτούς: 
Yet from the beginning of creation male and female he made them; 
ἐποίησεν: AAI 3s, ποιέω, 1) to make  1a) with the names of things made, to produce, construct,  form, fashion, etc
1. Jesus moves to the second creation story as a way of reaching for something more fundamental than a proviso that is rooted in Moses’ concession human hard-heartedness. 

7ἕνεκεν τούτου καταλείψειἄνθρωπος τὸν πατέρα αὐτοῦ καὶ τὴν μητέρα 
[καὶ προσκολληθήσεται πρὸς τὴν γυναῖκα αὐτοῦ], 
For this a man will leave behind his father and the mother [and will hold fast to his woman.]
καταλείψει: FAI 3s, καταλείπω, 1) to leave behind  1a) to depart from, leave 
προσκολληθήσεται: FPI 3s, cleave, hold fast 
1. The latter [bracketed] portion of this verse is not in many of the earliest manuscripts. 
2. I've always thought this description curiously was reversed in most of the stories, because the woman is the one who would leave her home and be joined with the man and his household. I imagine the actual practice was driven by economics. But, this still strikes me as a curious way for Jesus to portray the act of coupling when it seemed that the customs were different. 
3. It is interesting, isn’t it, that the model for a man leaving his parents to be joined to a woman is Adam and Eve, who had no parents. Hmm… 

8καὶ ἔσονται οἱ δύο εἰς σάρκα μίαν: ὥστε οὐκέτι εἰσὶνδύο ἀλλὰ μία σάρξ. 
and the two will be into one flesh; so they are no longer two but one flesh. 
ἔσονται: FMI 3p, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present 
εἰσὶν: PAI 3p, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present 
1. This verse is about sex, right? The word “flesh” is used twice, two fleshes becoming one flesh and, in the first half of this statement, two will be into one flesh. My sense is that the preposition into indicates that this is talking about copulation. The only reason I find this important to note is that we often romanticize this text to make it “two hearts that beat as one,” or something like. What is at stake in Deut.24 is whether a woman who has been married and divorced, then married and divorced to a second husband, can be re-married to the first husband. The permission to divorce in Deut.24 is a concession to human weakness, not a perfect expression of what God wills. What I don’t know is whether the proviso “she does not please him” in Deut. 24 is an explicit reference to sexual pleasure. If that is the case, the whole notion of desire, boredom, then desire to re-conquer the same woman who has been another man’s woman means that this a law concedes to some forms of human vagary, but not to all of them

9 οὖν  θεὸς συνέζευξεν ἄνθρωπος μὴ χωριζέτω. 
Therefore whom God has joined together no person may separate. 
συνέζευξεν: AAI 3s, συζεύγνυμι, 1) to fasten to one yoke, yoke together  2) to join together unite  2a) of the marriage tie
χωριζέτω: PAImpv 3s, χωρίζω, 1) to separate, divide, part, put asunder, to separate one's self from,  to depart  1a) to leave a husband or wife  1a) of divorce  1b) to depart, go away 
1. I wonder what people hear whenever a pastor says these words at a wedding. This verse – if I am reading the context of Deut.24 correctly – suggests that this is a 3rdperson imperative saying that nobody is allowed to pursue either of the married couple any more as a sexual partner and that neither of the couple is allowed to pursue others as sexual partners, even if they grow bored with one another. 

10Καὶ εἰς τὴν οἰκίαν πάλιν οἱ μαθηταὶ περὶ τούτου ἐπηρώτων αὐτόν. 
And in the house again the disciples interrogated him about this. 
ἐπηρώτων: IAI 3p, ἐπερωτάω, 1) to accost one with an enquiry, put a question to, enquiry of,  ask, interrogate
1. When the Pharisees interrogated Jesus (for “interrogate,” again, see below) they did so in order to test him. Does the word “again” indicate that the disciples, likewise, are testing Jesus in some way? Usually when the disciples 'interrogate' Jesus, it doesn't end well for them. This time it's not so bad, at least until the children come along in vv. 13-16. If one includes that pericope with vv. 1-12, then we would see a pattern that the disciples simply ought not to interrogate Jesus. 

11καὶ λέγειαὐτοῖς, Ὃς ἂν ἀπολύσῃ τὴν γυναῖκα αὐτοῦ καὶ γαμήσῃ ἄλλην 
μοιχᾶται ἐπ' αὐτήν, 
And he says to them, “Whoever might divorce his woman and might marry another is adulterated by/against her.” 
λέγει: PAI 3s, , λέγω, 1) to say, to speak  1a) affirm over, maintain
ἀπολύσῃ: AASubj 3s, ἀπολύω, 1) to set free  2) to let go, dismiss, (to detain no longer)  … 4) used of divorce, to dismiss from the house, to repudiate.
γαμήσῃ: AASubj 3s, γαμέω, 1) to lead in marriage, take to wife  1a) to get married, to marry  1b) to give one's self in marriage  2) to give a daughter in marriage
μοιχᾶται: PPI 3s, μοιχάω to have unlawful intercourse with another's wife, to commit adultery with
1. The verb “adulterate” is in the passive voice - hence 'is adulterated.' Most translations make it an active – indeed a very strongly active – voice, “commits adultery.” But to say, “commits adultery” makes adultery the object of a verb (commits) that is not actually here. I am trying to retain the passive voice, but there is very little company here among other translations.  
2. What is the antecedent to the pronoun ‘her’? Is it ‘his woman’ or ‘another’? Both potential antecedents and the pronoun are feminine singular.
3. The preposition ἐπ'can mean a variety of things, depending on the context. If one chooses ‘by’ or ‘against’ that would sway the meaning of the verse and create its own context. This is a really fine area for translators. 
4. It is interesting to compare these verses with Matthew, because Matthew has Jesus making this argument twice – 5:31-32 and 19:1-12. Matthew adds a provision that one can divorce if there is unfaithfulness involved. If we combine Matthew’s provision with Paul’s arguments over divorce because of one’s spouse not being a believer, it seems to me that the question of divorce was a live one among the early church, not a settled matter. 

12καὶ ἐὰν αὐτὴ ἀπολύσασα τὸν ἄνδρα αὐτῆς γαμήσῃ ἄλλον μοιχᾶται.
And if she having divorced her man might marry another she is adulterated. 
ἀπολύσασα: AAPart nsf, ἀπολύω, 1) to set free  2) to let go, dismiss, (to detain no longer)  … 4) used of divorce, to dismiss from the house, to repudiate. 
γαμήσῃ: AASubj 3s, γαμέω, 1) to lead in marriage, take to wife  1a) to get married, to marry  1b) to give one's self in marriage  2) to give a daughter in marriage
μοιχᾶται: PPI 3s, μοιχάω to have unlawful intercourse with another's wife, to commit adultery with
1. The question arises whether it was even a real option for a woman to divorce a man legally. Part of the answer would like in whether by ‘legal’ one is referring to the Law of Moses or to the Romanic law in force in 1stcentury Palestine. 

Looking at how Mark uses the verb ἐπερωτάω, which could simply mean “to ask” but also carries the connotation of a challenge, I have translated it as “interrogate.” Because it is Mark’s word for confrontational conversations – Jesus and demons, Pharisees and Scribe and Jesus, etc. – I translate it confrontationally – at least in the rough translation. 

And he asked him, What is...
...Pharisees and scribes asked him, Why walk...
...people, his disciples asked him concerning the...
And he asked them, How many...
...hands upon him, he asked him if he... the way he asked his disciples, saying...
And he saith unto them, But...
And they asked him, saying, Why...
And he asked the scribes, What...
And he asked his father, How..., his disciples asked him privately, Why...
...and were afraid to ask him. the house he asked them, What was... him, and asked him, Is it... his disciples asked him again of... him, and asked him, Good Master...
...unto them, I will also ask of you one... resurrection; and they asked him, saying,
...answered them well, asked him, Which is...
...after that durst ask him any question...
...John and Andrew asked him privately,
...the midst, and asked Jesus, saying, Answerest...
...the high priest asked him, and said...
And Pilate asked him, Art thou...
And Pilate asked him again, saying...
...him the centurion, he asked him whether he...

What I don’t and cannot know is whether the “answers” that emerge from an interrogation are different in kind than an answer that might emerge from a question that is genuinely curious or spiritually thirsty. I often see biblical scholars analyze Jesus’ conversations with fencing terms, as a “parry and riposte.” Besides demonstrating that they were schooled in elite settings, I wonder if those terms are always appropriate or if we should stipulate certain types of terms for certain types of questionings. Then we could explore, for example, whether the import of an answer to an “interrogation” carries different weight than an answer to a genuine question. After all, this text has been about how to read the Scriptures, and not confusing a ‘permission’ or ‘concession’ with God’s will. 


  1. My goodness! Thank you for all your insightful comments on this text. I'm having such a hard time with it, and you've at least provided some breathing room as I press forward this week.
    Thank you, as always.

  2. I hope the text breathes new life into your ministry, Fr. George.

  3. Frederick Buechner has a brilliant reflection on this text called The Law of Love in his book Whistling In the Dark. You can find it at

    Also, as someone who has gone through a divorce, the description of the marriage/promise being adulterated is so true. It is a fact, not a condemnation, which I believe anyone who goes through it, experience. Perhaps that is why some religious traditions try to undo the reality of the marriage to avoid the fact of the adulteration. If one is judged by the Mosaic law we all fall short, I’m counting on the ultimate law being the Law of Love and being judged by Love itself. The Gospel is that judgment and mercy are joined as one. Unadulterated!

    1. Thanks for your note, Carol. And for your testimony about the experience of divorce. "Being judged by love itself" is both terrifying and reassuring. Thanks for putting it into perspective here.

  4. I'm struck by the words translated as 'male' and 'female.' Arren - raising and lifting up - seems more towards the function of strength than phallic engorgement. Theyls - giving suck - is partly biological but also has a nurturing quality to it. ISTM that there's a 'from the first of creation' linkage between strength and nurturing that calls for partnership - which may or may not be gender linked.

  5. Also - vs. 7 uses anthropos, not aner - human being leaves mother and father. The addition makes it gender relevant, but the initial part is that of forming a new entity (linked to the larger family but new in itself)?

  6. Mark, I wish you had pushed through all of the assigned reading. The issue of children is core to the concern about remarriage in Deut 24 as it relates to the heritage of the land. To whom does the inheritance of the gift of the land go, the children of the first or the children of the second husband? Sure we can trace DNA now, but not then. Our romanticized culture around pairing devoid of the context of the progeny concerns in the Torah warps our interpretations.

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.


If you want to leave a comment using only your name, please click the name/url option. I don't believe you have to sign in or anything like that by using that option. You may also use the 'anonymous' option if you want. Just be nice.

Blog Archive