The Gospel of Mark is known to be kind of weird, weird enough that it appears that Matthew and Luke and even arguably (and much more extremely) John wrote their Gospels for the purpose of correcting or improving Mark. I happen to find it strangely delightful that the Holy Spirit inspired four people to record the same story because each thought that the efforts of the ones who preceded them weren’t good enough, and for the purpose of a full canon they were all correct, even though the God who inspired them was perfectly satisfied with every detail of each book as an individual work. For a really insightful article on this that cleverly compares Mark to Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace, see here.
But back to Mark. His Gospel is all middle—it barely has a beginning and is missing the end. He puts extreme emphasis on Jesus’ miracles, at least in quantity, at the expense of his teaching (see John for the reverse). And sometimes Mark phrases things in a way that just doesn’t sound right. Sometimes it simply isn’t grammatically elegant (Luke in particular likes cleaning up these flubs), but other times the way Mark puts something genuinely alarms orthodox people.
An example of this that struck me lately is in the portion of Mark where Jesus is disputing with the Pharisees about divorce (10:2-12). You might recall that the Pharisees ask Jesus if divorce is permitted under Jewish law, and when Jesus answers by asking them to recite Moses’ teaching, they respond by quoting a portion of Deuteronomy 24:1-4—as Mark records it, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her” (10:4). Then Jesus replies, “He wrote this commandment for you because of your hard hearts. But from the beginning of creation he made them male and female. For this reason a man will leave his father ad mother, and the two will become one flesh. So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate” (vv. 5-9).
The bulk of Jesus’ answer is a quotation of Genesis 1:27; 2:24. But if you look carefully at the beginning of Jesus’ answer, it looks like he’s saying that Moses made humanity male and female. Look at it again. Pharisees: “Moses permitted a man to . . . divorce her.” Jesus: “He wrote this commandment for you because of your hard hearts. But from the beginning of creation he made them male and female.”
Wait a second—Moses made them male and female? Impossible! Heresy, even! This can’t be what Jesus said, and it certainly wasn’t what he meant, so we had better change it. Fortunately, many before us already have, going all the way back to the apostolic generation itself. Matthew rephrased Mark to say that “from the beginning the Creator made them male and female” (Matt. 19:4, my emphasis). Although the oldest and most reliable ancient manuscripts of Mark we possess say that “he made them male and female,” most manuscripts say that “God” did it, the result of Christian copyists who concluded that “he” couldn’t possibly be original, so they changed the text. These later, inferior manuscripts were the basis of the King James Version, which has “God” in Mark 10:6. However, nearly all modern versions, which were translated by scholars working with better manuscripts who know that “God” isn’t original to Mark’s text, put the word there anyway to make the subject of the sentence clear.
But my question is, what if they are “making clear” the wrong subject?
Let’s stop and think about this for a second. Is there anybody who believes that Jesus believed that Moses, a human being himself, created humanity in the beginning of creation, and not God the Father? Does anybody believe that either the Pharisees Jesus was talking to or Mark or Mark’s original readers thought that Jesus believed that? In fact, if you went to a remote tribe in Papua New Guinea that had never heard a word of Scripture in their lives and read this to them, would any of them conclude from this that a human being named Moses created humanity? Of course not; it’s simply absurd. So why is it so important to insert the word “God” in Mark 10:6?
In fact, what if saying “God made them male and female” actually obscures Jesus’ point? What if Jesus was actually trying to say that from the beginning Moses made them male and female, as Mark’s text simply suggests? If Jesus was indeed saying that Moses made them male and female for some strange reason, then the attempts of the church for 2,000 years to make this “clear” has confused what Jesus wants us to hear.
If so, what might Jesus have been communicating to the Pharisees by “he made them male and female”? In short, Jesus isn’t just teaching about divorce. He’s teaching about interpreting Scripture.
“Some Pharisees came . . . to test him” with a question about interpreting and applying Scripture and the tradition of the elders. There are a few things to note about Jesus’ answer to their challenge. First, when asked if divorce is lawful, Jesus cut through tradition and pointed them to Scripture: “What did Moses command you?” not, what did this or that rabbi (or pastor/author/Bible teacher or pope/council/church father) say in his interpretative judgment? This is particularly noteworthy because there was a debate among the Pharisees at that time over what constituted legal grounds for divorce based on the interpretations of two rabbis (Hillel and Shammai). The Pharisees’ debate comes out more in Matthew’s version, where Jesus takes sides in it, but in Mark’s version Jesus ignores that question entirely as well as the rabbis themselves and focuses simply on what the Bible says.
A second thing to note—a lesson I’m trying to learn as a pastor right now—is that he didn’t just give them the answer, but he made them look for the answer themselves.
Third, Jesus challenged the Pharisees’ selective interpretation of Scripture. When Jesus asked them, “What did Moses command you?”, the Pharisees went straight to Deuteronomy 24, which was handy, because it happened to be the text that said what they wanted to hear. Jesus’ response is telling: “He wrote this commandment for you because of your hard hearts. But from the beginning of creation he made them male and female.” The Deuteronomy text is late in the Mosaic corpus. But at the beginning of that corpus, in the account of creation, Moses put man and woman on papyrus (he “made them”) “male and female . . . and the two will become one flesh.” The Pharisees were taking the Deuteronomy text in isolation, out of its setting in the overall Mosaic corpus and the narrative of Scripture as a whole. That’s not a legitimate interpretation, Jesus maintains. You can’t understand what Moses, inspired by God, writes in Deuteronomy apart from what he writes in Genesis. The same Moses who allowed divorce in Deuteronomy portrays husband in wife in Genesis as inseparable. If you make a serious effort to understand Moses, Jesus asserts, you can’t avoid the conclusion that divorce exists in Deuteronomy 24 because the Fall exists in Genesis 3 after the good creation of humanity in Genesis 1-2. And if God’s reign is indeed near, as Jesus relentlessly proclaimed, then preparing for that kingdom means adapting one’s habits in relationship with others to the pure new creation, not complacently accepting the habits of the fallen old one of which divorce, unfaithfulness, and sin-hardened hearts are corrupt features.
What Jesus says in this passage, along with the rest of Scripture, should assuredly form our mindset toward divorce. But it should also form our mindset toward Scripture itself. We, like the Pharisees, can be so accustomed to the teaching we’ve received—even if it’s as recent a vintage as last year’s bestseller—that we can’t keep straight what the biblical text says versus what an interpreter says. We need to be redirected to Scripture supremely.
We also need to be directed to Scripture in total, not just the passages that we’re most comfortable with. We have to take the entire text seriously, neglecting nothing. And though it is almost inevitable (and sometimes desirable) that certain parts of the Bible become keys by which we understand the rest, we must be critical of what we take to be those keys. The Pharisees unthinkingly took Deuteronomy 24:1-4 as one of their keys; Jesus asserted that Genesis 1-2 was the actual key by which Deuteronomy 24 should be understood. We too can pick the wrong interpretive key and not know it and thereby distort our understanding of the whole thing.
Ironically, Jesus’ teaching about Scripture in this particular text is obscured by centuries of Christians doing the very things Jesus rebukes. Rather than looking squarely at what Mark says, we’ve been distracted by what copyists, interpreters, and translators say he said. To be fair, one of those distractions has been Matthew, and as a biblical author it’s crucial that we not neglect what he said either. But we’ve taken Matthew’s version of the story as the interpretive key to Mark such that it has swamped the latter text and substituted a false unison for the harmony of their distinct and complementary voices. Our penchant for using Matthew as a shorthand for Mark prevents us from looking at all of Scripture.
We would be wise to ask God humbly in prayer to correct us when we think we can phrase or organize the Bible better than he can. I hope we keep getting better at receiving what he gave us.