Re: EI EXESTIN (Mt 19:3)

From: Jeffrey B. Gibson (
Date: Sun Oct 17 1999 - 17:49:37 EDT

Steven Craig Miller wrote:

> To: Jeffrey B. Gibson,
> << EI EXESTIN does indeed mean "is it allowed by Moses/Torah?" (a modern
> equivalent would be "is it constitutional"). But ... the phrase was also
> used to mean "Is it **in your opinion** seemly" >>
> In passing, one might note that the phrase "is it constitutional" does not
> necessarily mean that a particular case is mentioned in the constitution,
> rather it often refers to the rulings of the Supreme Court.
> What do you mean by "seemly"?
> I can see where EI EXESTIN could be translated as "is it lawful" (as the
> NRSV does) or as "is it allowed [by you]." But since the question "is it
> lawful" seems to be a question of jurisprudence, I'm not for sure that
> there is much difference between "is it lawful" and "is it allowed [by
> you]." Are you wanting to suggest something different here with "is
> it **in your opinion** seemly"?

Best way I can answer is to quote what I wrote on the meaning of EXESTIN
in Mk. 10:2
-- which I take to be applicable to Matt 19:3




- 1. the meaning of EXESTIN in Mk 10.2
Most commentators, noting that in Jewish writings EXESTIN (lit., `it is
lawful', `it
is free', `it is permissible') often relates to the will of God and is
used of legal
definitions/1/, think that the term bears a juridical sense in Mk 10.2
and take it to
mean `commanded or forbidden by the Torah'/2/. If this is the case, then
the question
which the Pharisees put to Jesus in Mark's Divorce Question story is
`Does the Law of
Moses allow a man to divorce his wife?'/3/. But that EXESTIN is used in
a juridical
sense in Mk 10.2 seems highly unlikely. For in the first place, `it is
prescribed in
the Mosaic Law' is not the only meaning that EXESTIN bears in Jewish
writings. A
looser meaning of `it is seemly' is attested, for example, in 2 Esdras
4.14; Est.
4.2; 1 Macc. 14.44. It appears with this meaning in Mt. 15.26; 20.25;
Jn. 18.31; Acts
8.37; 22.25 and 2 Cor. 12.4. And notably, it is also used in this
sense by Mark himself, at Mk. 3.4 and 12.14 /4/. Second, the assumption
is used juridically in Mk 10.2 makes the Pharisees' question moot at
best, ridiculous
at worst, and certainly nothing which conceivably represents any kind of
a `test' for
Jesus. For, as is acknowledged by both Jesus and the Pharisees within
the body of the
Divorce Question story (cf. vv. 3-4) the Law, at Deut. 24.1, concedes
legality /5/. Third, on the assumption that EXESTIN is used juridically
in Mk 10.2,
the Pharisees' response to Jesus' counter-question, TI hUMIN EGETEILATO
v. 3), should not be their allusion to Deut. 24.1 (cf. v. 4) but
something like `That
is, more or less, what we asked you'. For on this showing, Jesus'
simply repeats the Pharisees' original question to him /6/. Fourth, if
we assume that
EXESTIN is used juridically in Mk 10.2, then it is difficult to know why
Mark has
Jesus and the Pharisees exchange remarks beyond v. 4 of the Divorce
Question story.
For on the assumption that EXESTIN bears the juridical sense here, then
the story
should have ended with v. 4, since with the Pharisees' response of
`Moses allowed a
man to write a bill of divorcement to put her away', the question which
the Pharisees
purportedly ask in v. 2 is effectively answered and the matter at hand
is settled.
Fifth, the form of the whole Divorce Question story focuses not upon
what is
prescribed by the Law regarding divorce, but upon what Jesus' view of
the matter is,
and, as D.R. Catchpole notes, it is with this fact in mind that the
meaning of
EXESTIN in Mk 10.2 is to be determined /7/. In light of all of this, as
well as given
what I have noted above, I conclude then that EXESTIN in Mk 10.2 bears
its looser,
non-juridical sense. Accordingly, Mk 10.2 is to be rendered `Is it in
your (i.e.,
Jesus') view right that a man should divorce his wife?' and the question
itself is to
be seen as concerned with unveiling not Jesus' knowledge of the Law but
his own
opinion on the legitimacy of divorce.

1. cf. W. Foerster, `EXESTIN, KTL.', TDNT Vol. II (1964), p. 561.
2. Dungan, Sayings of Jesus, p. 111; Lane, Mark, p. 353; Nineham,
Mark, p. 260;
Schmid, Markus, p. 186; Schweizer, Mark, p. 202; Suhl, Die Function, p.
74; Taylor,
Mark, p. 417.
3. Cf. Schweizer, Mark, p. 203; H. Anderson, The Gospel of Mark
(London: Oliphants,
1976), p. 241.
4. Cf. Catchpole, `Synoptic Divorce Material', p. 114.
5. On this, see below, pp. 000-000.
6. Catchpole, `Synoptic Divorce Material', p. 114.
7. Catchpole, `Synoptic Divorce Material', p. 114-15.

Jeffrey B. Gibson
7423 N. Sheridan Road #2A
Chicago, Illinois 60626

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