The Bible Thinks Genesis 1-3 is Historical

I know many here do not think the early chapters of Genesis are historical and I certainly agree with that assessment but I would like to engage in some scriptural exegesis. I think some people may under-appreciate the ramifications this has for the rest of the Bible and our beliefs. If nothing else, the conservatives seem to appreciate this point a bit more. So I want to put forth a few scriptural thoughts for engagement.

[1] It is likely Paul, a first-century Pharisee, thought of Adam as a real person. There is nothing wrong with this as Paul is a product of his times. However, Paul’s theological arguments in scripture at times appear to presuppose this historicity as well (Rom 5:12-20, see also 1 Cor 15:22,45). In reading the argument of Romans 5, just as Paul thinks sin, death and atonement are real, we may reasonably conclude he thinks the same of Adam and the Garden. He is also contrasting Jesus’ death on the cross with the fall in the Garden, a comparison that makes little sense if both characters are not historical. It is easy to view Adam and Eve as a metaphor for all of us but the nuances of Paul’s theological arguments in Roman’s 5 appear to be lost if we do this. Where did death come from? The fossil record and modern science tells us it certainly existed long before the first humans. Did we really mess up the world, or was it like this all along? There wasn’t much by way of belief in an afterlife in Ancient Judaism before the Babylonian exile. Granted that historical reality, there is no reason to assume Genesis 3:19 means anything other than actual physical death as a result. This would have been the traditional understanding. Is there any reason to interpret Romans 5 differently aside from the fact that that the foundation of Paul’s argument crumbles under the weight of modern science if we don’t do so? Paul does live in a later time period where belief in an afterlife had clearly developed in Judaism but interpreting him as meaning spiritual death reeks of harmonization.

[2] Jesus also referenced the creation story. When responding to a question about divorce, not only did Jesus dare to condemn what the Law explicitly regulates, he did it by referring to God’s creative activity: “in the beginning God made them male and female.” The key phrase here I think that is often overlooked is in the beginning. Jesus didn’t say after 13.7 billion years, at the end of cosmic history, a few seconds before midnight if the history of the universe were condensed into one twenty-four hour day, that God made Adam and Eve. He made them in the beginning just like Genesis says he did. Day six of the first week makes a lot more sense than at the end of history, 13.7 billion years later. Jesus also referenced “the days of Noah” and the flood story (Matthew 24:37-39) along with Cain and Abel, the alleged children of Adam and Eve (Matthew 23:35). We can dismiss it as convention but Jesus also seems to support Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch (John 5:46).

[3] There are several genealogies tracing lineages of Jesus and others all the way back to Adam. This practice appears to presuppose Adam was historical (Luke 3:38, 1 Chronicles 1) considering it would be very difficult to demonstrate the authors thought different of any other names in their lists.

[4] The pseudonymous author of 1 Timothy also tells us Adam was formed first and it was Eve who was deceived (2:13-14). A psalmist probably reiterates Genesis in saying “by the word of the Lord the heavens were made” and that he “gathered the waters of the sea as in a bottle” and as he spoke things came to be (Psalm 33:6-9). Just like the author of Genesis, the rest of scripture, which references or alludes to Genesis 1-11 seems to take it at face value. We don’t see any glimpses of life as "self-organizing” but rather it and the world were created by God’s who was active and involved in the entire process from start to finish. What we see is clear theology on the sovereignty of God.

I’m guessing some might think the creation story is mythological but somehow Adam and Eve are historical in some details . While I think the fundamentalists are completely wrong, it is here they have the leg up. At least they are consistent and stick to their guns rather than deny the majority of the information as mythological but then try to cherry-pick and salvage a few snippets as historical to save the integrity of parts of the New Testament. No good hermeneutic will ever be found for doing this aside from thinking the words of an incarnated Jesus who was clearly not omniscient (who touched his robe, not knowing the day or hour) must be 100% accurate in everything he said.

None of the details in Genesis 1-11 should be taken as historical based on the findings of modern science, a study of comparative literature and the actual contents of the stories which by modern standards, are clearly fictional. Lest we forget, Adam started in a magical garden with a talking serpent, had a wife made from his rib and lived to be 930 years old. Ignorant of “good and evil” he somehow was expected to listen to God despite not knowing any better and incurred a punishment that is excessively exorbitant. At every turn in the story we are faced with perplexing details. How does one possibly go about in filtering a historical Adam out from under this mess? The fundamentalists are correct on one point. We can call the Garden story just that, an inspired mythological creation story, but this has under-emphasized ramifications for how we view the the authority and inspiration of scripture as a whole and the knowledge limits on some issues of our Lord and Savior.

Vinnie

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Why would one? History is science. The real question is how does one possibly go about filtering out an objective atonement.

I wouldn’t but I think the motivation is clearly Jesus referencing them. “Jesus said it” is enough for most Christians. Of course, the assumption is that Jesus actually said what the writer ascribes to him and in that context. Most Christians tend to affirm this as well but in some cases this is a disputable point. But either way, most Christians would feel extremely uncomfortable correcting Jesus on any issue. Its true Jesus was not commenting on creation but rather the issue of divorce. None the less he references a story accepted as true at the time. I don’t think a proper historical-critical method presents us with an omniscient Jesus who knew the story was false but rolled with it anyway to accommodate his hearers. Conservatives are probably correct to reject such liberal back-peddling. His whole life Jesus would have learned about this story most likely accepted it as true like everyone else. His references to the Old Testament give us little reason to think otherwise.

Personally, I think the humanity of Jesus only gets paid lip service in much of the Church but as a Christian I can certainly appreciate those of faith who defer to Lord on this matter. For them, Jesus is a better source of knowledge than man-made science. Its an issue of trusting God over man to them. I think that is a major stumbling block and I don’t think Old Earth creationists and evolutionary creationists (or whatever they deem themselves) address the issue adequately. I do not think bopping young earthers on the head with actual science will be very effective overall until an alternative view of scripture they can accept is presented. Many of them do not have scientific backgrounds. They do have backgrounds in Biblical interpretation, however. They trust the Bible and they trust Jesus. Ergo this thread. I would like to see some rational explanations and diverse points of view on the issue. One thing I feel I have noticed on this forum is that often times we go round and round and round on many issues but a proper exegesis of scripture is often neglected. I think providing an alternative and proper hermenueitc could be a better path. In addition, I think greater focus on the human side of Jesus (doubt in the Garden, passages showing his lack of omniscience or that he actually had to learn) might serve us well.

I am sure the past discussion of this topic will be enlightening, if you wish to search for them. Not a lot has changed.
I do have a better understanding of how Jesus taught, using metaphor and hyperbole in his teaching and his parables. I have no doubt his view of Jonah as well was literary and he recognized the truths within whether it was historical or not. With Adam and Eve, he may well have accepted them as historical, but the point was his teaching about marriage and the relationship of husband and wife, and their historicity was irrelevant. Much like whether the mustard seed is really the smallest seed.

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A fair point. Jesus used metaphor, parables and hyperbole frequently. There is no disputing that. In an oral culture telling stories was the way to go. I read something recent by NT Wright here he pointed out the majority of the Bible (or at least a huge portion) is in fact narrative. Stories are certainly powerful whether true or not. Of course, distinguishing between the details in a parable and an appeal to written sacred scripture is another matter altogether. Jesus did correct some understandings of the Old Testament so the idea of not accepting everything as it was in his day is not completely without merit.

What leads you to the conclusion that his view was literary here?

I agree the point of the story has nothing to do with explaining how the world was created. For most however, that is irrelevant. If the son of God references something as historical even in passing, then the proper response of his followers is to follow His lead and affirm it as historical. I see many people coming up with lots of views on the Bible by accepting the words of various scriptures, even if they aren’t directly about the topic at hand.

But on the flip side, while historicity is not essential to Jesus’ point about marriage, I think accepting Paul’s arguments in Romans 5 does require a literal Adam and Eve. This is a little more troubling.

It is not the smallest seed. Isn’t that issue settled? I mean answers in Genesis think smaller seeds may not have existed at that time given “rapid speciation” but I’m not sure this is a mainstream position. It was most likely the smallest seed Jesus and his audience knew of and again, Jesus was not interested in reproductive morphology, but in explaining how a small kernel of faith can blossom into something huge.

But again, I think this serves to underscore the full humanity of Jesus which means he was a product of his times limited by its language, culture, background knowledge and idioms. But there are many passages and scenes in scripture that probably lead many modern interpreted to think that if Jesus incarnated today instead of 2,000 years ago, he would have obtained a perfect score on his SATs. I think this is a mistaken view but the two natures of Christ makes it easy to emphasize the divine or human side whenever convenient. For me, Jesus was like us in every way but one: sin.

Vinnie

Regarding Jonah, I think in his culture, they were well aware of the way Jonah represented Israel, and how the story was a pointed criticism of how Israel regarded its enemies. Not to mention the satirical way the Ninivites repented with their animals after a five word sermon. The taking of it literally is a modern corruption of the story.

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Mustard seed is relatively large. The description of the plant does not either fit to any of the species in the genus. Matthew 13: “it is larger than the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the sky come and nest in its branches”. A logical conclusion is that the word “mustard” refers to some other plant than the mustards of today.

Decades ago my grandmother came from Israel. She had a souvenir: tiny black seeds. She told that the seeds were from the plant told in the Bible. I don’t know which plant it was but I was told that the seeds were from a small tree (or comparable plant). It is possible that parts of this kind of plant would have been used as spice, like mustards are used.

Edit: the chapter does not tell that the plant was edible, only that “a person took and sowed in his field”. We easily assume that anything sowed in the field must be something edible. It is just an assumption.

I’m going to just focus on the first two items to keep my response manageable.

For both Jesus and Adam, Paul goes beyond the historical man. Jesus Christ is more than a man, and he is referred to in ways that don’t make sense for just a person. Jesus never married; the church is Christ’s bride. Jesus ascended to heaven; Christ lives in us.

So when Paul sums up all of humanity in two figures, they are Adam and Jesus Christ. We are in one or the other – not descended from one or the other. Rather than pointing to Adam being our literal first ancestor, this seems to show that Paul viewed Adam as much more than one man: he is a pattern for all humanity.

Viewing Adam as us would be much easier for Paul than us. Anybody who spoke Hebrew would be hearing the word “humanity” every time Adam’s name was spoken – they’re the same word. For us this seems like a metaphorical addition. For them it was as natural as understanding that Israel was both a nation and a man.

I don’t see how this understanding affects Paul’s theological argument about death. Whether a man or the species, animal death predates Adam. That problem is resolved by looking at what “death” refers to (physical or spiritual, human or creaturely, punctiliar or progressive, a neutral process or a malevolent fiend), not what “Adam” refers to.

Not just “in the beginning,” but “from the beginning of creation” (Mark 10:6)! If creation took six days, which day is the beginning? :wink:

But seriously, look closely at how Jesus doesn’t say “in the beginning.” In both Mark and Matthew 19:4, the preposition is “from” (apo) not “in” (en, as in John 1:1 and the Greek of Genesis 1:1). I don’t think Jesus is talking about some past event. From the beginning – and continuing now – God makes humanity, male and female. This isn’t just about the first couple. This is about all of us. Perhaps Jesus’ insertion of that “from” shows that he reads the creation week as revealing God’s creative activity throughout time, not just the start of it. And if so, he isn’t alone. Psalm 104 and several other passages also restate creation in ongoing terms rather than confined to the first week.

It’s because Jesus sees this as speaking of all of us that he applies it to contemporary life. If we’re just looking for historical detail, why should it be more important that God started a family for Adam by giving him Eve than that God started a family for Jacob by giving him Leah, Rachel, Bilhah and Zilpah? The historical details of Israel’s first parents don’t define Israel the way Adam and Eve define humanity. Because of that, they are relevant to Jesus’ point about divorce. And because the man and woman represent all humanity, and their marriage portrays a universal need for connectedness, they are also relevant to intersex individuals and singles.

The Abel reference is really interesting. First, Cain is not mentioned. Jesus puts his opponents in the place of Cain and all the other murderers: they are the responsible ones. Mentioning Cain would undermine that rhetorical shift. Next, Jesus’ argument depends on Abel’s place in Scripture (at the beginning, in contrast with Zechariah at the end) not his place in history. And the way he calls Abel the first prophet depends on the figure of speech through which Abel’s blood cries out to God. (I went into more detail about this here.)

None of this is a simple recitation of historical events. Jesus is using the details of the story, even the obviously figurative ones, to make his point. The Abel reference is an excellent example of how the New Testament can depend on a literary character as portrayed in Scripture, not the historical person beneath.

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@vinnie. I couldn’t agree more that in Jesus’ and Paul’s epistemologies they unquestionably believed in The Fall® and all else in a complex literal-allegorical-metaphorical way.

As for divorce and remarriage, Jesus was confronting the evil of Jewish men abandoning their wives to deprivation for any, i.e. no good, reason. Not elevating marriage to some meaningless sacrament for all cultures.

Jesus was obviously reaching for the stars over the heads of His contemporaries with His feet firmly in the gutter of their shared culture.

The intellectually proper, sound, honest exegesis can never be done by the religious masses and their leaders. The best that can be hoped for is expressing faith in love. Which is the best. Is the only lens for exegesis. The lens Jesus had. We need to start seeing with it, including His mission; feeding back in to it.

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Jesus (and I would imagine most all the scribes of his time) seemed to be no strangers to literary and figurative narrative; just judging from his use of parables, and his frequent challenging of his disciples to take their focus away from the literally physical things (like yeast or bread or vineyards) toward higher spiritual things (like what the yeast or bread of life represents).

Besides; if we take Jesus use of Jonah as uncharacteristically physical, we are led immediately to physical absurdities that I doubt even fundamentalists today would want to defend: Did Jesus’ body literally spend 3 days in the center (“heart”) of the earth? There may be some who do insist that that actually is the location of literal hell, but I’m guessing they are in a minority at this point. I think most translators would agree that shovels wouldn’t get anybody closer to Hell any more than rocket ships would take you closer to the Kingdom of God. To contort scriptures into these sort of cosmological lessons is to distort and misunderstand the intent even probably in the original context, even though that cultural setting made the conflation of such views much more understandable. Indeed, it is no accident that scribes would make such use of the commonalities so strongly fixed in the cultural mind of the day. Any teacher would be a fool to not make use of such strongly embedded contemporary understandings. An author or scribe won’t just leave such powerful tools on the shelf.

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As I’ve said many times before, I don’t think merely alluding to a culturally shared literary canon counts as establishing that the person believed those literary figures were “historical” or that their stories were “historical facts” in our modern conception. I think that is imposing our own cultural frame and expectations on the text.

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Let me play Devil’s Advocate for a bit. On a logical basis you are correct, an allusion certainly does not necessitate it but aren’t we interested in the most practical reading given the historical context? That is the goal in my mind and sure there were those spouting allegorical interpretations of things but I tend to be sympathetic to the conservatives who share Enn’s view of treating Paul’s references as literal:

“Rather, the issue is what we can reasonably assume of Paul as an ancient person thinking about human (and cosmic) origins. It seems most defensible–least complicated–to see Paul as an ancient person (duh) who simply accepted as a natural course of events that, if all babies (animal or human) came from the union a male and female, then working backwards you’d have to conclude that somewhere back in primordial time God made the first two humans capable of procreation. That is the biblical scenario in Genesis and in antiquity as a whole, and Paul accepted it in due course as a base point for discussion.” P. Enns

I can’t help but think of your comment as modern day back-peddling in the Church. We can’t prove anyone’s beliefs on issues when they don’t state them directly and allow us to question them on it, but what do this do with a lot of other scripture that can be interpreted in a myriad of way? I think we can certainly glean background knowledge at the time and put our authors into a specific context. The simplest solution to me is also born out by over 1800 years of Christian thought which mostly interpreted these account as literal until evolution slowly began to rear its head a few hundred years ago. Not an appeal to popularity but there is nothing in sacred scripture suggesting these accounts are not literal as they have been mostly always viewed by the Church. It is now modern science forcing us to go back and reinterpret scripture. Making a God-breathed document subservient to science is certainly a problem for some.

Why even restrict this to scientific matters? Just as the harder sciences are at odds with Biblical creation narratives and a plethora of verses, softer sciences such as archeology and history produce problems as well. NT Studies also casts significant doubts on the historicity of large portions of the Gospels. I can see how in the minds of many conservatives it is a slippery slope. I suppose a modern day conservative might even wonder why any Christians still believe in something as illogical as the Trinity if we are allowed to be so dismissive with parts of scripture that don’t make much sense.

Vinnie

Practical reading? No, I’m interested in what the original audience would have inferred was the intended meaning. Even if they inferred some kind of “literal” allusion, establishing historical fact was clearly not the intended communicative intent of the passages.

I personally think Enns is being overly simplistic and accepting the imposition of a binary (historical or metaphorical) that doesn’t necessarily apply to the situation.

In linguistics there is an area of discourse analysis focused on information structure that is concerned with separating topics (what we’re talking about) from comments (what I want to tell you about that) and given vs new information, foregrounded vs backgrounded information, presupposed vs asserted information and so on. So for me what is important in the interpretation of the passages is that none of the allusions to OT narratives are appearing as new, foregrounded or asserted information. It’s all just context for what Jesus and Paul were asserting.

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How can a passage that leaves Eve out of the story require a literal Eve? There’s no mention of Eve or a woman. It’s just by one man. To me, that alone is a clue that Adam is functioning as a representative figure here. At the very least Adam represents the first couple, with both of their actions collapsed into his singular act. Better, I think, is to see that he represents humankind. Either way, Adam is more than one historical man.

Wouldn’t they have been familiar with the poppy? Regardless, surely they knew that the mustard plant isn’t a tree or a good nesting site for birds. There seems to be intentional hyperbole on both sides of that illustration. And perhaps the point isn’t that mustard seeds naturally produce a big tree, but that such a surprising result points to some deeper power at work?

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I understand your distinction about the communicative intent of the passage but I guess conservatives might say Romans 5 does in fact depend on a literal reading. Demonstrating that it does is another matter. It makes more sense to me to view Adam as representative of us all since its odd how all this sin and death is caused by one man but that is another issue.

Enter linguistics where I agree it is all just context for what Jesus and Paul were asserting. But I think the conservative objection to this will be strong as well. What we are labeling mere context is the view and beliefs of the incarnate Son of God that many Christians still think must be true in all cases. Maybe not logically strong but in an uncritical alarmist sense anyways. It is hard to shake the view: It was good enough for Jesus, it is good enough for me.

But I agree on the context issue. It’s how I interpret passages about predestination and election. Background knowledge at the time was for a very high and controlling view of God’s sovereignty. Even in the New Testament, I think the context of Mark’s situation just after the Temple’s destruction also drove significant parts of his Gospel narrative and stories, in addition to the author using historical events that occurred 40 years earlier. The context issue can be stretched very far to very local contexts of specific communities.

Re Enns. He mentioned two reasons for this interpretation in his book. One was along the lines of what you are saying where he just wanted to take the worst case scenario for Christian theology and hash it out. But the other was that he just thinks this interpretation is the simplest for what Paul meant and his Jewish audience would have inferred from it. I share his views here, not that ancients understand history and the world the same was as us. But I tend to be on the same side of the fence that if I were to ask Paul if he believed in a real Adam in the past he probably would have said yes. I think Paul just had mistaken knowledge on this point and probably Jesus as well (my reticence on the latter is only as a sign of respect). That is far more likely to me than supposing Paul knew Genesis was a mythological narrative and just used it in a purely literary sense.

I appreciate your thoughts.

Vinnie

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As Ms. Hemphill said, literal and metaphoric.

This vein of thought runs strong in some, and it’s not just limited to Jesus - but all things apostles and early church. I personally know some who have either expressed the views themselves, or observed it within their own church tradition: that if you can find “precedent” for something being approved, then it is approved. E.g. when one community was debating the mechanics of baptism, one of the criteria taken very seriously was: so what did they practice in the early church of the apostles? Sprinkling? Immersion? Can it be a private affair? Should it necessarily be a public declaration? There was sort of an underlying shared assumption that if it could be established that “this is the way it happened in the fledgling church described in the New Testament” - then that must be the right way to do it.

It’s as if they / we want to take a cultural “time-stamp” of an early Christian community, and forever label that one as the archetype of all authentic Christian community practices for all time. Perhaps an understandable outlook because its defense would be: “they were closest to Christ.” But in my opinion it does ignore (or diminish) the ongoing work of Christ’s Spirit ever since.

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Thank you for this post. Its what I was ultimately looking for. because I am dialoguing with many people I am going to just focus on one your two points and come back to the other one later.

I am not so sure your ending follows. You say, “Paul viewed Adam as much more than one man: he is a pattern for all humanity.” I Rather, according to Genesis, Paul and convention at the time, is he not the pattern all humanity followed suit in. We are clearly Adam only because we all sin just like he did. Romans 5:12 Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned— If you treat Adam as non-historical you are left with Paul saying "We are all guilty like Humanity (Adam) because Humanity (we all) sinned like humanity (Adam).

Paul is also constantly referring to “the one man” in chapter 5. I am not sure how this is collectively “all humanity” in Paul’s eyes. Adam is certainly representative of us all only insofar as we all have sinned. Paul’s point is the universality of sin.

I am not sure it would be easier for Paul. For those of us who’ve confidence the story is at odds with modern science and that the Bible is God’s word, this seems to be the escape hatch. In essence, it is for many necessitated by two other a priori views.

For Paul, what other view of human origins was the competing theory? As Peter Enn’s wrote " “Rather, the issue is what we can reasonably assume of Paul as an ancient person thinking about human (and cosmic) origins. It seems most defensible–least complicated–to see Paul as an ancient person (duh) who simply accepted as a natural course of events that, if all babies (animal or human) came from the union a male and female, then working backwards you’d have to conclude that somewhere back in primordial time God made the first two humans capable of procreation. That is the biblical scenario in Genesis and in antiquity as a whole, and Paul accepted it in due course as a base point for discussion.”

To me that is the simplest stance to take. Now we can still try to get meaning out of the story in that sense but for me I feel exegetically we should come to grips with that in our models of inspiration.

Also, I am not sure we should distinguish between types of death for Paul in relation to Adam on this issue. He clearly had no fossil record o evidence of mass extinctions or deaths before Adam and Eve. Paul should clearly not be read as saying “even though there was physical death before Adam, this refers to spiritual death.” I would consider that a text book case of eisegesis despite Paul saying things like people who are are still alive can be dead in sin. Death came as a result of Adam as did hard work, toiling and the pains of childbirth via Eve. Paul’s background knowledge for understanding this is Genesis 3, not the the fossil record.

Thank you for you thoughts. I will consider what you said about Jesus in relation to Adam and Eve and get back to you later.

Vinnie

This is all good and true. But they are also no stranger to a Law given by God and an authoritative set of books they think was written by Moses. While parables, metaphors and figurative language exist in the Hebrew Scriptures, exegetes today are sometimes forced to find them where they have never been and probably should not be forced in based on the findings of modern science.

Interesting point about the “heart of the earth.” For conservatives they will most likely mention it immediately as a metaphor for a bad place. But this makes a good case for not accepting Adam and Eve as historical based merely on Jesus’ reference anymore than we should accept hell is in the center of the earth based on Jesus’ reference. Of course they will say Jesus just meant he was going to a bad place while referencing Adam and Eve as historical.

For me it is just another sign of the limited scientific knowledge of the emptied Son of God who did not know who touched his robe, did not know the day or hour and who had to grow in wisdom over time. He probably thought the sun actually rose or that heaven was up in the clouds or that hell was in the center of the earth. Makes no difference. That is not why Jesus came.

Vinnie

In Matthew the question has “for any reason” but Matthew added that since the text of Mark he copied did not have it. It could have been the sense of the question originally but teachings on divorce also occur in the Sermon on the Mount unconnected to this issue. Not only does he speak against frivolous divorce but is generally opposed to it outside of extreme circumstances. But yes, the Sermon on the Mount as a whole reaches for the star (e.g. it is said do no murder, I say do not even get angry). For some Old Testament passages and common views, Jesus corrects them, in others he builds a fence around them.

Vinnie

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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