Mar 2008 

Dr David Instone-Brewer is a specialist in New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism at Tyndale House, Cambridge. Recently, Andy Cheung spoke with him concerning his work and research, especially the controversy surrounding David's research into biblical grounds for divorce, which featured in Christianity Today and other Christian media outlets in 2007.


Andy Cheung: To those of us interested in Biblical Studies, you are well-known for the work you do at Tyndale House.  Perhaps you could start by telling us a little about Tyndale House and your role there.

David Instone-Brewer: Tyndale house is essentially a library but the emphasis is on a community.  People come and stay here for a couple of weeks or months or years to research PhD or beyond.  The library is arguably the third best in the world for Biblical Studies in which it's very specialised. I'm here half my time as a researcher in Rabbinic Judaism and New Testament, and half my time as a technical officer looking after the computer side of things.

Perhaps you can tell us a bit about yourself - I believe you're a Baptist pastor?

I'm a Baptist pastor in the in the sense that I am seconded into the academic world but I'm not a Baptist pastor in the sense that I have a church that I'm pastoring at present. I am an elder of the Church that I attend but I'm not its pastor. I have a wife and two children. I enjoy computer programming and also low brow movies!

One of the things that you've become fairly well known for is your research on divorce and remarriage.  How did you get interested in this subject?

That happened because of being a pastor.  When I first went into the pastorate I found myself in a position with people who wanted to get married who had been married before and suddenly I had to think about it. I had to look into the subject deeply and was appalled at how much work remained to be done.

Perhaps you could sum up briefly your views on divorce and remarriage?

The key thing is that when Jesus is asked whether it is lawful for a man to divorce for any cause they are actually asking about a particular form of divorce called the "any cause" divorce which was a no-fault divorce invented by the Hillelites. Jesus rejected it but that doesn't mean he rejected the Biblical grounds for divorce.

I suppose the typical Protestant view on divorce is that found in the Westminster Confession.  How would you differ from that?

In Protestant churches there are normally two grounds for divorce: in the case of adultery and if a non-Christian spouse leaves or abandons the marriage. Those are the two grounds mentioned in the New Testament.  The main way in which I would differ are grounds in the Old Testament which include the neglect of food, clothing and love (Ex.21.10-11). I would find affirmation of that in 1 Corinthians 7.

What about remarriage?

The typical Protestant view would allow remarriage after a valid divorce: a valid divorce being one after adultery or abandonment by a non-Christian. I would also say that remarriage is valid after divorce but that a valid divorce is on more grounds than just those two.

Your use of Exodus 21:10 seems to be particularly new in your research.

It hasn't really been dealt with by Christians since Paul of Tarsus!  The exception is an Australian called William Luck who did mention it but didn't go in depth and wasn't really noticed by anybody.

Has your usage of Exodus 21 caused disagreement among other scholars?

That hasn't been picked up as a problem -- once you take on the understanding that Jesus is talking about the "any cause" debate then the whole discussion takes on a different meaning.

What elements of your research have received the most discussion?

The most difficult thing is asking why did the Holy Spirit let us believe the wrong thing for so long.  Why should some scholar delving into Jewish background come up with a different understanding of what Jesus said when for generations we have believed something completely different. That's a very difficult thing to answer.

If divorce is permissible for material or emotional neglect, does this suggest that potentially any marriage partner could find a reason for divorce? Where do you draw the line?

It's very difficult to know how to draw the line. The Rabbis defined things very carefully so they determined how much food and how much clothing was at stake but that isn't the Christian way.

What kind of scenario exists for which a person could divorce and remarry? Would you say that this kind of emotional or material neglect would have to be particularly severe?

I point to what Jesus would say about "hard heartedness".  He points out that you should be forgiving your partner when they break their marriage vows; even when they commit adultery, you should forgive them and not just divorce them. It's the same with neglect of food, clothing and love. So I believe we should be starting with forgiveness to hold the marriage together and not be using these grounds to find a loophole to get out of the marriage.

The term "half-heartedness" is a word used in Jeremiah 4:4 and we see in the Old Testament that God divorced Israel for her hard heartedness but only after her continual unfaithfulness. Divorce comes not after the first fall. So regarding the question at what stage should divorce take place, it's when you just can't stand it any longer -- it's when the marriage is just a complete sham and where if you don't divorce, you're multiplying sin rather than maintaining something good.

You have a section at the back of your book that describes practical issues I believe?

The back of my book contains a set of e-mails.  I receive such e-mails on average once a day asking very practical questions on divorce and remarriage and I just shared some of those e-mails and my replies as an indication of what real life is like.

Is there anything else you would like to tell us about divorce and remarriage?

One thing that sets me apart from virtually everyone who has written on divorce and remarriage is that I've never been divorced!

Finally, on an unrelated theme, perhaps you could tell us a little bit about your forthcoming series, "Traditions of the Rabbis from the Era of the New Testament" (TRENT)

Yes, volume 1 came out a couple of years ago and volume 2a should be available in a couple of months. There should be six volumes in all.

Will there be much on the subject of divorce and remarriage in your book?

I don't think so - the third volume will cover divorce themes but these volumes are for people who want to understand the whole of the Jewish background of the New Testament from the eyes of a Jew.

Thank you David for your time.

The views expressed in this interview do not necessarily reflect the views of the faculty members of the Midlands Bible College. David Instone Brewer's website can be found at Information on the series title Traditions of the Rabbis from the Era of the New Testament (TRENT) can be found at

The Talks with Scholars series is a regular feature at the Midlands Bible College and Divinity School. Visit the interview page for more engaging dicussion and conversation with world class academics.