Marriage and First Century Followers of Jesus

Isaiah 43: 14 - 21 1 Corinthians 13: 1 - 13
Sun 19 Jul

Marriage is in the news.  Marriage has been talked about more in the last two years than the last twenty.  Marriage in New Zealand though is statistically on the decline.  It’s been declining for many years.  The sharpest decline is marriages in churches [which probably says more about the public perception of church than the public perception of marriage]. 

Ironically the recent elevation of marriage to newsworthy status has been the result of those excluded from this declining rite wishing to be included, or have the legal permission to be included.  I refer of course to gay and lesbian couples.

The resulting discussion – and ongoing discussion in churches like our own denomination who struggle with such inclusion – means that society, as in past generations, needs to articulate again what it understands marriage to mean, clarifying what is essential in marriage and what is non-essential.

Today, on Bible Sunday, I want to contribute to the marriage discussion by looking at what the Bible says about marriage.

However I don’t want to start at Genesis and work my way through.  Instead I want to talk about the early Christian communities.  It is these communities who shaped the books in the New Testament, between approximately 50 and 130 CE.  And in these communities there were three cultural streams operating: Jewish, Hellenistic, and Roman.[i]

Judaism of course, like religions do, had evolved in its understandings of marriage.  In the intertestamental period, the book of Tobit, gives us a wedding blessing prayer.[ii]  It tells us that marriage was a process that took some time, and involved more than just the couple.  The bride was not asked to consent; rather her father and husband were the key actors.  However the bride was called ‘his beloved’ and it specifically mentions that both husband and wife are to experience the union as a blessing.  There is too a clear link between marriage and procreation.  It was also a legal contract.

It is not difficult, as a number of popular writers do, to read the Hebrew Scriptures and pull out examples of marital relationships and customs quite at odds with normative Western understandings of marriage today.  In the Scriptures marriage was much more about property rights, ensuring paternity of offspring, succession, political alliances and tribal stability than it was about companionship, mutual support and affection.

In biblical times patriarchy was normative.[iii]  The father/patriarch ruled over an extended household including wives and concubines.  Polygamy was also normative.[iv] 

The patriarchs often had sex with multiple women, usually, but not always, for the purpose of procreation.  You might recall the episode when Tamar disguises herself as a prostitute and has sex with Judah her father-in-law.  There is no condemnation of Judah for his choice to sleep with a prostitute, but plenty of condemnation of Tamar.[v]

Wives could "give" their female slaves to their husbands for the purpose of sexual intercourse either as co-wives in polygamous marriages or as concubines[vi] [like Sarah did with Hagar[vii]].  Both of these practices are commonplace in the Bible and not condemned by God.  The notion of consent, particularly for women, in matters of marriage or sexual intercourse is not a relevant moral norm in most of Scripture.

Yet we must also bear in mind Jewish texts, like Tobit and Talmudic 3rd century CE texts, which portray marriage as being about joy and gladness, love and delight, and fellowship.  Jewish understandings on marriage were evolving.

However, as an episode in the gospels reveal[viii], there was debate about legitimate grounds for divorce – with some scholars emphatic about a man’s right to divorce his wife for virtually anything.  A woman couldn’t divorce a man.

It’s also important to remember polygamy continued to be practiced in the first centuries of the Christian era by some who could afford to care for larger households.[ix]  Polygamy is never condemned in the Hebrew or Christian Scriptures.  When reading the mythical accounts of Adam and Eve it is important to realize the ‘two becoming one flesh’[x] was a reference to sexual intercourse, and was never understood as contrary to male dominance, female subservience, and polygamy. 

At the same time Christians from Jewish traditions were fashioning a view of marriage from their vantage point, Hellenistic Christians were also developing an understanding of marriage.  In Hellenism, even more than in Judaism, the central building block of society was the patriarchal family.  The role of women was to ensure the bloodline of their husbands and fathers.

Similarly Roman marriages – in contrast to the mutual loving suggested in Tobit – were understood to be one-sided in their purpose.

The early Christian eschatological worldview [namely that Jesus was literally coming again in their lifetime] led them to imagine a different kind of family from the patriarchal models of Judaism, Hellenism, or Rome.  Family for Christians was found through forming spiritual bonds.  Mothers and fathers were those who nurtured others in faith.

Paul asserts that marriage was set aside for those who were not spiritually strong enough to maintain a celibate life.  Celibacy, he believed, was the ideal – in order that one could be wholeheartedly preparing for Christ’s return.  Paul invites the Church into a way of life where no one is viewed as the property of another, and all live in bonds of mutuality and mutual submission.  Paul’s authentic writings – like most of 1 Corinthians[xi]  - view a husband and wife relationship as being about mutuality not subjection.  His notion of mutuality flows out of his understanding of the body of the Anointed [Christ] as a crucified, slave body.  So domination is an abomination. 

While most Christian communities did not forbid marriage, the values of the patriarchal 1st century Hellenistic world – values about property, life, and family – were turned upside down.  Jesus statements about marriage[xii] stress the priority of allegiance to God’s kin-dom rather than to societal or religious authorities or norms.[xiii] The attitudes and assumptions of Hellenistic life that placed all authority in the hands of a human father rather than a heavenly father were found by the emergent Christian communities to be deeply suspect.  And conversely the early communities’ views regarding patriarchy and celibacy were considered deeply suspect by the Roman authorities.

It must also be remembered that one needed to be a Roman citizen in order to legally marry, and as many of those attracted to the Jesus movement were from the lower and slave classes, marriage was not an option.  Yet neither did the communities want to promote what we might call ‘free love’.

Later, in the late first century and the second century, Christian attitudes towards marriage changed, in two directions.  There was one branch that saw a regeneration of patriarchal values and the adoption of them.  As citizens and aristocrats in Roman society turned to Christianity they wanted and needed their religion and their societal positions to come closer in line.  Christianity started to become more aligned with the practices and values of the Empire. This realignment with Empire fueled the other branch that grew even more deeply suspect of marriage and instead commended lives of abstinence, chastity, and singlehood, and withdrawal from normative familial patterns. 

The authors of the deutero-Pauline scriptural texts [Ephesians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Timothy, 2 Thessalonians, and Titus] – texts written well after Paul was dead – saw the patriarchal ideals of Hellenism as not only appropriate to Christianity, but also as complementary to a now increasingly less apocalyptic and present-focused vision of life in Christ.  The Scriptural teachings about hierarchical understandings of marriage, with the wife subservient to her husband arise, from this period in the apostolic church.

Brandon Scott gives an example of this when he compares Paul’s understanding of the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12 [with all members connected to and dependent on one another, and Christ being the whole body] with the understanding of the author of Ephesians’[xiv] body of Christ imagery [where Christ is the head and the body is the Church[xv]].   

So Ephesians 5 states: ‘Wives be subject to your husband as you are to the Lord’ [v22].  Note Brandon says the change from ‘Christ/Anointed’ to ‘Lord/Master’ is very significant in reasserting a hierarchy in Christian relationships.  It also makes Jesus into a ruler, dominant, in charge.[xvi]  And what the culture has determined is true of a lord/master is considered then true of Jesus, and true of the husband.  Ephesians 5:25 ‘Husbands love your wives just as Christ loved the church’ does not subvert this hierarchical understanding.  While the husband is exhorted to sacrificially care, there is no denying that he is in charge, or ‘the head’ as the text says.  Indeed the text is addressed to men, with women being regulated to impersonal objects [v33].

So, in concluding this brief overview of marriage and the understandings of the early communities that created the Christian Scriptures, by the end of the canonical period values around marriage – fidelity, procreation, and fulfilling a sacred obligation - were significantly in keeping with the familial structure of Roman society.  Yet marriage continued to evolve for church and society, and be shaped and re-shaped through the centuries by culture and experience.  

Isaiah 43:18-19 reminds us that the God of the Bible does new things.  Our ethics and doctrines are not just repetitions of the past.  In each time and culture the Spirit of God moves, advocating for justice, inviting us to think more deeply and compassionately.  What were considered marriage’s unshakeable foundations in the past, like polygamy, male dominance, female compliance [no consent], and procreation, are no longer. 

As for same gender marriage, given that homosexuality is now understood and accepted by the scientific community as a normal sexual orientation [orientation, like right and left handedness, being most probably set with in utero], if gay or lesbian couples wish to have a public marital commitment ceremony then the Church should not discriminate by withholding its blessing.  Just as in the 1st century couples who were slaves should not have been banned from a legal marriage.  A relationship of mutuality, love and self-giving commitment is not the sole preserve of the heterosexual majority.  And the longer the Church denies this the longer its message of love will not heard over the incessant drumbeat of discrimination.

[i] The theological and biblical work of the U.S. Episcopalian Church on marriage is well worth reading, and has been a major source document for this sermon. https://extranet.generalconvention.org/staff/files/download/12485

[ii] Tobit 8:5b-7.

[iii] Note the practice of Levirate marriage [Deut 25:5-10] – whereby a man was to marry his brother’s childless widow – a practice that the Church came to regard as incest – needs to be understood within the parameters of polygamy and patriarchy.

[iv] Polygamous marriages in the Hebrew Bible include Esau, Moses, Jacob, Gideon, David and Solomon who reportedly had 600 wives and 300 concubines!

[v] Genesis 38.

[vi] Concubines were women engaged in sexual relationships with men whom they did not marry.

[vii] Genesis 16:3.

[viii] Matthew 19:3-12, Mark 10:1-12.

[ix] Josephus makes it clear that polygamy was still practiced among the Jews of Jesus’ time.

[x] Genesis 2:24.  In Genesis this verse was not a reference to marriage, although the chapter as a whole emphasises companionship in the relationship.  Jesus though according to Mark 10 uses this verse to argue for the indissolubility of marriage, which the Church has now rejected.

[xi] 1 Corinthians has a number of later editorial insertions from a more conservative perspective.  The clearest example is 1 Cor 14:33b-38, on women being silent in church.  It clearly interrupts a discussion on prophecy [31-33a then 39-40].

[xii] Matthew 19:3-12, Mark 10:1-12.

[xiii] Matthew 10:34-39

[xiv] Ephesians was written either late 1st century or the first quarter of the 2nd century.

[xv] Ephesians 4:15-16.

[xvi] Bernard Brandon Scott The Real Paul: recovering his radical challenge p. 154-5.

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