Women and Divorce in the Time of Jesus

And he said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” (Mark 10:11-12)

Jesus says this after the Pharisees ask him if it is lawful to divorce one’s wife.  Moses allowed for divorce, but Jesus points out that Moses permitted divorce because of the hardness of their hearts, but it is not supposed to be this way.  Some have pointed out that Jesus, or the author attributing the words to him, must have made a mistake here, because women at the time could not divorce their husbands.  Only men could divorce women.  However, Jesus’ words here would have had relevance.  First, remember what John the Baptist got arrested for:

For Herod had seized John and bound him and put him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because John had been saying to him, “It is not lawful for you to have her.” (Matt. 14:3-4)

For it was Herod who had sent and seized John and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because he had married her. For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” (Mark 6:17-18)

But Herod the tetrarch, who had been reproved by him for Herodias, his brother’s wife, and for all the evil things that Herod had done,  this to them all, that he locked up John in prison. (Luke 3:19-20)

Herod Antipas, one of Herod the Great’s sons and ruler of the area that Jesus was raised in, had married Herodias, a Jewish woman.  She was able to marry Antipas because she divorced her previous husband, Philip, the brother of Antipas and ruler of the region north-east of the sea of Galilee.  This happened some time before A.D. 30.  Josephus says this as well,

But Herodias, their sister, was married to Herod [Philip], the son of Herod the Great, who was born of Mariamne, the daughter of Simon the high priest, who had a daughter, Salome; after whose birth Herodias took upon her to confound the laws of our country, and divorced herself from her husband while he was alive, and was married to Herod [Antipas]. . . (Antiquities of the Jews, 18.5)

The reason that John said it is not lawful to marry her is because according to the Jewish laws of Levirate marriage, a man is obligated to marry his deceased brother’s wife, but Philip was still alive.

Interestingly, Marcus Felix, a procurator mentioned in Acts 23-24, was also married to a Jewish woman, Drusilla, who had divorced her husband in order to marry Felix.

While Felix was procurator of Judea, he saw this Drusilla, and fell in love with her; for she did indeed exceed all other women in beauty; and he sent to her a person whose name was Simon one of his friends; a Jew he was, and by birth a Cypriot, and one who pretended to be a magician, and endeavored to persuade her to forsake her present husband, and marry him; and promised, that if she would not refuse him, he would make her a happy woman. Accordingly she acted ill, and because she was desirous to avoid her sister Bernice’s envy, for she was very ill treated by her on account of her beauty, was prevailed upon to transgress the laws of her forefathers, and to marry Felix. . . (Antiquities of the Jews, 20.7)

It seems that it did happen amongst higher-class Jews in that time, even if it was rare.


Jeffers, James S. The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era: Exploring the Background of Early Christianity. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1999. Print.

This entry was posted in Apologetics, Church History, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Women and Divorce in the Time of Jesus

  1. Pingback: Paul on Women | Into the Harvest

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