The legal separation of married partners. In the OT marriage is not regarded as a relationship (such as that of brother and sister) which is in itself by its very nature unbreakable; and divorce and remarriage were permissible under the Mosaic law—though the conditions were weighted in favour of the man (Deut. 24: 1 ff.). In the post‐exilic era Ezra commanded Jewish husbands to divorce wives who were foreigners (Ezra 10: 11). Although the ‘bill of divorcement’ presumably required the presence of an official, it seems that there was also the possibility of purely private proceedings, which is what Joseph contemplated when it was revealed that his fiancée was pregnant (Matt. 1: 19).
The grounds for divorce in NT times were interpreted strictly by rabbis of the school of Shammai and liberally by those who followed Hillel, another well‐known exponent of the Law. The liberal position tolerated divorce for comparatively trivial offences by the wife, whereas Shammai restricted it to proven cases of adultery. Jesus was invited to say where he stood in this controversy and he apparently sides even more harshly than Shammai (Mark 10: 2–12). However, the variations in the traditions in the synoptic gospels indicate that the early Church did not hesitate to adapt remembered sayings of Jesus to meet the changing circumstances and stresses of subsequent Christian generations. The exceptive clause (Matt. 5: 31 and 19: 9) has been open to different interpretations, based on the disputed meaning of ‘unchastity’, so that Jesus' teaching is not so much a rigorous injunction on the lines of Shammai as a more liberal one. For example, ‘unchastity’ has been interpreted by moral theologians as a relationship within the prohibited degrees which rendered a marriage null and void, or an irretrievable breakdown of a relationship which evacuated a marriage of biblical significance (Eph. 5: 25 ff.). Jesus takes the issue back to first principles—God's intentions at the creation (Gen. 2: 24). Paul advises the Corinthians (1 Cor. 7: 12 ff.) that divorce and remarriage are permissible for a Christian if the partner who initiated the divorce was a pagan.