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.
Jewish marriages were different. They had an aspect of legality based upon Jewish, not Roman, law. Jews followed their own religious laws and customs when it came to marriages. Readers familiar with the story of Joseph and Mary already understand that Jewish couples became betrothed and later consummated the marriage by living together. Prior to this the father of the bride negotiated with the groom (or his father) in order to settle on a bride price (if any) and a dowry (if any). A contract called a ketubah was written up, probably by the local scribe, to memorialize these arrangements. Jews considered marriages legally binding. Divorces must be processed according to the terms of the marriage contract ensuring that monies were divided as stipulated. Children would usually go to the father.
In almost all marriages in the Roman Empire, fathers made the marriage arrangements for their sons and daughters often before the children were old enough to care. Marriages were arranged for a variety of reasons, love being among the least likely. The binding of families, important houses, nations, and so forth played a big role in marriage-making. The joining of a poorer family to a richer one, or a propertied family to a landless one, bestowed honor on the inferior family and was therefore considered highly desirable. To make the best match for his daughter, a father worked hard to ensure that she remained virginal and chaste throughout her young life – deflowered young women were not as desirable.
Both Jesus and Paul supported marriage. Jesus came down hard on divorce for his Jewish followers. Divorced women in the Roman Empire were often imperiled. It was a man’s world and a woman without the protection of a man would find life extremely difficult. Fathers took care of their daughters when young, and husbands took up the responsibility after that. A woman alone might not be able to return to her father’s family and might not have brothers to help look after her. A widow’s sons, if any, might not be old enough to support her. According to a Jewish custom, a childless widow might be able to claim the Levirate privilege and marry her husband’s next older brother but how often this actually happened is unknown. Women could not just go out and find employment as might happen today. Jobs were family affairs and excess duties were often handled by slaves. Women could not represent themselves in court. Without a man to represent them, they were cut off from civil remedies for legal infractions. This bit of information helps make sense of one of Jesus’s parables:
“In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” (Luke 18:2-5, NRSV)
The judge refused to hear the widow because he could; there was no man to represent her. Jesus’s teaching on divorce was much stricter than the Pharisees with whom he is often depicted as arguing.
“And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.” His disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” (Matt 19:9-10, NRSV)
“Unchastity” here refers to adultery. Otherwise, Jesus found no reasonable excuse for divorce. His disciples found that teaching hard to swallow since divorce was allowed not only by Torah (Deut 24:1-4) but by the prevailing religious teachers of Jesus’s day (Matt 19:3-8). Jesus’s halakha depended on Genesis and God’s originally making man and woman for each other (Gen 1:27).
Paul, writing primarily to Gentiles, agreed that marriage was good but was more concerned for the holiness of his flock. They could not be holy if they were aflame with passion (1 Cor 7:36). Marriage was the God-given solution to this problem. But for those who could exercise self-control, celibacy was to be preferred so as to focus all one’s energies on preparing oneself for the coming New Age (1 Cor 7:29-32).
Paul took Jesus’s view about divorce (1 Cor 7:10, 27) even extending it to those Gentiles who found themselves in mixed marriages, that is when a new Christ-follower could not encourage their spouse to join in their faith (1 Cor 7:12-17). If the unbelieving spouse wanted out, however, divorce was allowable. Remember that these were illicit marriages. They could be terminated by verbal agreement. But just as a little yeast leavens the entire dough (1 Cor 5:6), a believing spouse, Paul thought, might save their unbelieving partner.
Spouses were not always or primarily separated by divorce however. Mortality rates were high in the first century. Women frequently died in childbirth. Men, who tended to marry later in life than women, died before their wives. It was extremely common for men and women to be married multiple times during their lives. Such a grim reality might help us understand the story of the Samaritan woman who had been married five times (John 4:18). While the number seems excessive, it is totally conceivable in a world full of disease, nearly non-existent medical care, and low life expectancy. That the man she was currently with was not her husband need not lead to the accusation of immorality on her part. She may have been the concubine (not a prostitute) of a man of higher social status (a citizen?) rendering marriage impossible. Even the phrase “the one you have now” need not even refer to a sexual relationship. The Samaritan woman was clearly held in some esteem by her community. The text reports that the people dropped everything to follow her back to Jesus after she suggested that he might be the messiah.
We should always be reminded that the world of the New Testament is not our world. We need to read the New Testament with as much insight into the culture and beliefs of the people who wrote it and about whom it was written. Only that way can we avoid interpreting the text one way when it might in fact have said something quite different.
If you would like to dig deeper into the cultural background of the New Testament, I can recommend two excellent books.
The World of the New Testament: Cultural, Social, and Historical Contexts edited by Joel B. Green and Lee Martin McDonald (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013)
Peoples of the New Testament World: An Illustrated Guide by William A Simmons (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2008)