Monday, July 02, 2012

That Would Be An Ecumenical Matter (2)

The Barons compelled John to sign the Magna Charter, which said:
1. That no one was to be put to death, save for some reason - (except the Common People).
2. That everyone should be free - (except the Common People).
3. That everything should be of the same weight and measure throughout the Realm - (except the Common People).
4. That the Courts should be stationary, instead of following a very tiresome medieval official known as the King's Person all over the country.
5. That 'no person should be fined to his utter ruin' - (except the King's Person).
6. That the Barons should not be tried except by a special jury of other Barons who would understand.
Magna Charter was therefore the chief cause of Democracy in England, and thus a Good Thing for everyone (except the Common People).
                                    1066 And All That

What would Jesus have said about gay marriage?

I don't know, and neither does anybody else.

What did Jesus say about marriage?

Jesus said that marriage was absolute and irrevocable; divorce not so much forbidden as logically impossible.

It is (almost inevitably) more complicated than that. What follows is very boring indeed.


A story is told about what happened when a group of Jewish legal experts asked for Jesus’ opinions about marriage. The story can be found (in slightly different forms) in Mark and Matthew's gospels. Most scholars think that Matthew learned it directly from Mark. This is how Mark tells it:

And the Pharisees came to him, and asked him, “Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife?” tempting him.

And he answered and said unto them, “What did Moses command you?” 

And they said, “Moses suffered to write a bill of divorcement, and to put her away.” 

And Jesus answered and said unto them, “For the hardness of your heart he wrote you this precept. But from the beginning of the creation ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife’ ‘And they twain shall be one flesh’. So then they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.”

And in the house his disciples asked him again of the same matter. And he saith unto them, “Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her. And if a woman shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery.”

The lawyers are referring to a passage in Deuteronomy which states that if a man is unhappy with his wife he can dissolve the marriage provided he gives her a written certificate to that effect. She is then free to remarry; but if her original husband changes his mind again, he can’t have her back. It’s this (relatively rare) question about divorcees getting back together that Moses seems to be ruling on. The passage doesn't so much permit divorce as take divorce for granted but forbid men from marrying the same woman twice.

But under what circumstances can the original husband dissolve the marriage? The Deuteronomy text sounds fairly specific: "if it come to pass that she find no favor in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her: then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand...." What does "some uncleanliness" mean? This seems to be the question that the Pharisees are trying to catch Jesus out with. Matthew's version, indeed, says that they asked him “Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?

"Can a man divorce his wife just because he feels like it, or only under certain very specific circumstances?" Faced with a choice between two mutually exclusive alternatives, Jesus naturally chooses the third one. There are no circumstances under which divorce is lawful. Set aside what Deuteronomy says; go right back to the creation of the universe and have a look at how God originally set things up.

Some people talk as if Jesus was a kosher rabbi who just wanted Jews to be better at being Jewish, and that it was nastybad St Paul who invented the idea of Jesus the iconoclast overturning the Jewish Law. But here is Jesus talking about the Torah as if it was a contingent thing which Moses thought up, and appealing to an earlier, divine law against which Moses' teaching could be judged.

As everyone knows, the book of Genesis contains two quite different stories about God making the first humans. In the first story we are told that "God created Man in his own image. In the image of God created he him; male and female created he them". The second version contains a funny story about how, when "Adam" was found to be inadequate by himself, Yahweh "grew" "Eve" out of part of his body. The point is that both versions say that men and women were originally a single creature that somehow got split in two. In the first version, "Adam" is both male and female — either a hermaphrodite, or else a composite being made up of a male half and female half. It's this male-plus-female entity which is said to be the image of God. In the second version, "Eve" was originally part of "Adam's" body -- his rib. When two people fall in love, it's like the two halves getting back together. "Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother and shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh." Jesus wanted this to be taken at face value. "Can't you read?"  he seems to say: "they are no longer two people, but one person. So of course they can't be split apart."

I have in front of me a Christian Union book called "The Message of The Sermon on the Mount". It was written by John Stott, who was much cleverer than me and had studied the Bible for much longer and in much more detail. Talking about this passage, he writes:

"Thus marriage, according to our Lord's exposition of its origins, is a divine institution by which God makes permanently one two people who decisively and publicly leave their parents in order to form a new unit of society and then 'become one flesh'."

But that seems to me like a bland, social-worker-ish gloss on the passage; as if he's trying to translate it into prose before we've understood the poetry. Harold Bloom's speculative reconstruction of the story's source (the lost, hypothetical "book of J") seems to get the point across much better:

Starting with the part taken out of the man, Yahweh shaped the rib into a woman, returned her to the side of the man.

"This one is flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone" said the man. "Woman I call her, out of man she was parted". So a man parts from his mother and father, clings to his wife: they were one flesh.

And look: they are naked, man and woman, untouched by shame, not knowing it. 

So once you are married, you can't be unmarried. A piece of paper saying "I'm no longer married" doesn't make you not married, any more than a piece of paper saying "I don't have a head" means you don't have a head. I don’t see any other way of reading this.

Before moving on, we should probably cast a glance in the direction of the dog which didn't bark. Obviously, we shouldn't attach too much importance to what the text doesn't say. Just because Jesus didn't mention something, that doesn't mean he didn't think it mattered. He might have thought it was so obvious that everyone would take it for granted. But we should at least record in our notebooks then while he is talking about marriage, the one thing that Jesus doesn't refer to, at all, even in passing, is, er, babies 

So: what about the plain passage from Deuteronomy which permits divorce? Ah, says Jesus: Moses only said that as a concession "for the hardness of your hearts" ("because you are so hard to teach"). The more I think about this, the less confident I am that I know what it means. Marriage after divorce is adultery; but Moses (reluctantly, because of the poor raw material he had to work with) permitted remarriage after divorce; so did Moses permit adultery? Are we to imagine him sitting at the foot of Mount Sinai says "Well, the Ten Commandments is more guidelines than rules"? This isn’t the usual Christian line: the usual Christian line is that the Torah added to basic moral laws which everyone agrees with (don't murder, don't steal, don't cheat) a whole lot of extra rules about washing after you’ve eaten shellfish and chopping bits off little boys which only applied to Jews, and which Jesus subsequently lifted. It isn’t usual to say that Moses permitted certain sins but that Jesus revoked the concession. 

I can’t parse it any other way than to say "Jesus seems to acknowledge that there are two kinds of marriage: the really really real marriage in which two human beings merge into a single creature; and a lessor state of living together which can be dissolved through a legal process, but which may be the best that we hard-hearted humans can marriage." It seems to be clear that he is saying that in his kingdom, only really really real marriage is going to be allowed.

According to Matthew, this is what Jesus' disciples took him to mean. "If that's how you understand marriage" they seem to say "Then celibacy is the easier option". ("If the case of the man be so with his wife, it is good not to marry.") Jesus agrees, rather cryptically, that “there be eunuchs that have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake” but adds "All men cannot receive this saying, save they to whom it is given….He that is able to receive it, let him receive it." This has usually been taken to mean something like "Yes, celibacy is better, but I am only advising it, not commanding it." But again, that seems to weaken the force of the original passage. In context, it almost seems to mean the reverse: "Yes, marriage is very difficult: most people will have to take the easier path of celibacy". But isn't it interesting that having said that getting married is like two people becoming one flesh (irrevocably) he says that being celibate is like physically maiming yourself (also irrevocably). You either add a bit to your flesh, or cut a bit of it off. Hermaphrodite or eunuch; your choice.

If I were going to press the text in directions that it probably doesn't want to go, I would wonder out loud whether it was of any significance at all that the this incredibly difficult story, in which Jesus says that Christian marriage is almost impossible and that some of his followers may have to deny or remove the sexual part of their natures altogether, is immediately followed in both Mattew and Mark by the story in which he tells his disciples that if they want to be part of his kingdom they are going to have to become exactly like children.

And now we come to the difficult bit.

The core of the passage is clearly the verse about divorce and adultery. It is quoted in Mark, where it is not part of the discussion with the Pharisees, but an additional teaching Jesus gave the disciples in private. It is buried in a group of miscellaneous sayings towards the end of Luke's gospel, without any surrounding narrative at all. And it is quoted by Matthew twice: once in the Pharisee story, and again in the famous Sermon on the Mount. But where Mark thinks Jesus said:

Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her. And if a woman shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery.

Matthew thinks he said:

Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.

"Except it be for fornication". "Except for marital unfaithfulness" says the New International Version of the Bible. The Good News Bible goes out of its way to be confusing, as usual: "even though she has not been unfaithful", it says. Either way, it's a pretty substantial get-out clause. It almost turns Christian marriage into one of those wild west gunfights where you have to wait for the other fellow to draw first so you can shoot him and claim self-defence. Both man and woman are committed to a life long relationship, but when one sleeps with someone else (a sin) the other becomes free to marry again sinlessly. Which is very hard to reconcile with the rest of the passage. The disciples don’t say “Whew! What common sense and pragmatism: Jesus' version of marriage isn’t so arduous after all.” They say "Jesus is making marriage so hard that spiritual self-castration sounds like a preferable option."

Now, Miss Walker taught me that any differences between the four Gospels came about because, although the four writers were honestly writing what they remembered, different people naturally remember slightly different things. You wouldn't expect my essay about the school trip to St Albans to be exactly the same as Helen's essay about the school trip to St Albans. If we accept this theory, we would have to say that we simply don’t know what Jesus thought about marriage Mark and Luke think he said one thing; Matthew thinks he said something completely different.

Which is why it is easier to accept the view of the majority of scholars that the synoptic gospels are the result of a holy cut-and-paste job. We have to imagine Matthew copying the story of Jesus' discussion with the Pharisees more or less word for word out of Mark's Gospel, coming to the part which says that married people can never be divorced, thinking "Jesus can’t possibly have meant that: he wouldn't have commanded the impossible" and adding a few words of his own so it reflected what Jesus must have really meant. (*)

The existence of this inconsistency — the fact that Matthew is different from Mark and Luke — seems to me to be very nearly the most interesting thing about the whole passage. God makes an absolute rule: no divorce, ever — that's just not how the Universe works. Moses comes along and says "When He said 'no divorce', He meant 'no divorce without the proper paperwork.'" Later, Jesus says "Moses exceeded his authority. In my Kingdom, 'no divorce' is going to mean 'no divorce'." And Matthew writes this down as "'No divorce' means 'no divorce unless your partner is already cheating on you'."

"But Andrew: surely you must mean 'Matthew under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, wrote this down as…' Because obviously, every editorial or scribal change to the text of the Bible up to May 2nd 1611 was directly and infallibly inspired by God, and any change made after May 3rd of that year is the work of PC new agers watering down the Word of God at the behest of the Frankfurt Group...."

Well, yes: obviously that must be what I mean.

But either way, we have to say that someone incorporated lines into the Bible which softened or granted exceptions to what seems to have originally been an absolute rule. Someone thought that there could be, and had to be, some gap between Jesus' concept of eternal marriage and how people could actually live. We have an exception to an absolute rule being introduced into a text which is about Jesus removing an exception which had been introduced into an absolute rule. 

And that's pretty odd.


Astute readers will have spotted several pages ago where I am going with this. The various Druids, Archdruids and former Archdruids who have recently been holding forth about marriage take Jesus at his word when he says that a marriage is something which takes place between a man and a woman, and say that it can't be between a man and a man or a woman and a woman because that's just not how the universe works. But they interpret Jesus with some liberty when he says that marriage is indissoluble -- even though it was the impossibility of divorce that he was actually talking about.

If we take Jesus at his word, we would have to say that we do not have any such institution as marriage in modern Britain. If marriage is the voluntary union of one man with one woman to the exclusion of all others for life then then mere possibility of divorce means that what you are signing up to isn't marriage. It certainly isn't marriage if you get a lawyer to draw up in advance a legal document about who gets the furniture if you decide to break the solemn unbreakable promise you haven't made yet.

This seems to me to be true even if you don't think that it matters one way or the other what Jesus taught about marriage. If you think that that human beings are basically fornicating chimpanzees you might still want to bestow legal and financial advantages, as well as a certain amount of status and respectability, on those chimpanzees who solemnly promise to stay together, come what may, for their whole lives. (In fact, the more strongly you believe that human beings are fornicating chimpanzees, the more reasonable it might be to want social structures in place to encourage life long coupling.) But I don't understand how you can add "But of course, you are completely free to break this solemn promise if you both agree, and then you'll be free to gain the same legal and moral advantages from entering into another promise of life-long fidelity that you don't intended to keep."

According to the Church of England's website Senmatu (current Archbishop of York and next Archbishop of Canterbury) as saying that we shouldn't redefine "marriage" as something which can happen between two men, because:

1: Thats not what the word currently means ("we must not torture language")

2: That's not how it was done years ago ("it's set in tradition and history")

3: That's not how it was done years ago ("very clear social structures that have been in place for a long time")

4: Sometimes bad people have tried to make big changes which haven't worked out too well ("that's what dictator's do")

But surely language, tradition, history and social structures are very much the kind of thing that you would expect governments to make laws about? It's only if you believe that marriage is not a social structure, but something hard-coded into the universe on Day 1 (or at any rate Day 6) that making changes to it becomes an issue. 

If we have accepted that life-long-but-not-really relationships between men and women can, in a manner of speaking, be described as "marriages", it is hard for me to understand why, for some of the Druids, extending the word "marriage" to cover life-long-but-not-really relationships between two men or two women is such a deal-breaker. Particularly when the whole content of the Gospels seems to point to a tension between what is ideal and real and what is possible in practice. "All men cannot receive this saying, save they to whom it is given.... For the hardness of your hearts he wrote you this precept."

I don't know if Jesus literally believed in an hermaphrodite Adam living in a middle eastern oasis about four thousand years in the past. He certainly didn't think that when a man goes to bed with a lady, they literally merge into an hermaphrodite. (And he really, really didn't intend even a small minority of his followers to lop off their own genitals.) But he seems to have taught that human marriage has a magical element to it. Something supernatural happens. It isn't about how we organize society; its about what is really really real. If this is what the various Bishops believe, I wish they would come out and say so in so many words. If it isn't, then I wish they would shut the hell up. 

(*) Scholars think that Matthew and Mark both had access to a lost fifth Gospel called "The Bumper Book of Jesus' Best One-Liners" or "Q" is you are German and humourless. They incorporated the "sayings" of Jesus from "Q" into their re-writes of Mark in different ways. The fact that the "adultery" saying crops up by itself in different contexts in Matthew and Luke suggests that they found it in Q. This is interesting, because it suggests that "If a divorced man remarries, he's committing adultery...." was originally a saying in its own right .... possibly an unexpurgated quote from our Old Friend The Historical Jesus. Is it, indeed possible that the conversation with the Pharisees and the speech about eunuchs were commentaries on the "divorce" saying, made up by first-generation Christians and put into Jesus' mouth in an attempt to clarify what they thought he meant.