Marriage in the New Testament

Modern marriages, especially in the West, are usually a legal affair requiring a license, sometimes a blood test, occasionally pre-nuptial agreements, and offering tax considerations. In addition, many times marriages also involve the services of a religious official combining church (or other religious organization) and state in the recognition of an official arrangement. Dissolution of such an arrangement requires more legal representation, court appearances, judgments, payments, and additional involvement by the secular world. Strangely perhaps, religious officials are rarely involved at this stage.

Marriage in the ancient Roman world during the first-century was quite different. It may help to understand passages in the New Testament that speak about marriage and divorce if we understand what marriage looked like back then.

Strikingly, legally-sanctioned marriages were only an option for citizens of the Roman Empire. Needless to say, as a percentage, few inhabitants of the empire were Roman citizens. Most were Italians and others were dignitaries at the highest levels of society. Legal marriages, or what scholars refer to as licit marriages (which are not quite the same thing), involved the recording of the arrangement by a magistrate. The legal documents sometimes specified the ownership of assets brought to the marriage by either party. Occasionally the contract stipulated legal heirs and how inheritances would be portioned out.

What did the non-Roman-citizens do if they wanted to be married? To answer that, we must first differentiate between Jewish residents of the Empire and non-Jewish, or Gentile, residents. Non-citizen Gentiles could enter into illicit marriages and many did. Illicit is not the same thing as illegal. There was nothing criminal or socially immoral about illicit marriages. They were simply not recorded by a magistrate and hardly ever required any paperwork. A couple decided that they wanted to be married and then conducted themselves that way. Society accepted their decision and treated them as a married couple. If they decided to end the relationship, they just ended it. No messy court battles, legal wrangling or other civil involvement was required. How were the children handled? In licit marriages, the children went with the father. In illicit marriages, they went with the mother.

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