Asking All the Wrong Questions about Marriage–Part 1


When God originally joined Adam and Eve, there was no pastor, priest, rabbi, or judge to officiate.  God did the joining even as He does today in God-honoring marriages.  But for the vast majority of human history, marriage didn’t appear to the culture as anything ceremonial.  It was more like common law rather than marriage law.

Safley describes that through the early republican period of Roman law, “marriage was a formless transaction” and “the legal literature discussed no specific religious or secular ceremonies celebrating a marriage.” It is generally agreed that marriage involved a “transfer of authority, manus, over the woman from her parents or guardian to her husband.”  By the late republican period to early imperial period, free marriages which involved mutual consent arose and constituted marriages without manus.

Mutual consent increasingly became important to marriage.  In some areas of the world, this was a solution to marriage by capture (abduction, kidnapping) which was outlawed in 326 A.D. in the lands ruled by Emperor Constantine.  Marriage by capture is now widely considered to be a sex crime.

At the time of Jesus, proper marriages involved a common law arrangement with solemnization through a celebratory wedding feast, appropriate to the family’s social means.  The wedding at Cana recorded in John chapter 2 provides a rare glimpse into the Bible’s record of marriage. 

Generally, Jewish weddings began with consent by the father of the bride who established a bride-price, or later ketubah, resulting in a woman being “pledged to be married.”   The contract drawn up at the betrothal gave the father’s daughter (in pledge) to the groom who will assume responsibility for her.  Commonplace in the Semitic world, the ketubah (from the same root as the word meaning writing) outlined the husband’s obligations to his wife during their marriage.  These days, it resembles a prenuptial agreement in that it also spells out inheritance upon the spouse’s death, child support, and what happens in the event of divorce.

This contract was binding far beyond our present-day engagements, and could only be broken by divorce. 

On the wedding day, (Matthew 25 tells us at midnight) the bridal parties assembled.  Often, the bridegroom’s party was under direction of the best man while the bride—with her party—remained at her father’s house.  The bridegroom fetched his betrothed and proceeded to the bridegroom’s house where the wedding feast was to be held.  The wedding feast might last for a week or more.  On the first night of the wedding feast, the bridal couple retired to the bridal chamber and consummated the marriage by physical union and the best man would collect the signum virginitatis according to the practice reflected in Deuteronomy 22:13-21.  This was marriage at the time of Jesus.

Interestingly, even as of May 2012, there is no such thing as a civil marriage in Israel and there is no government authority to grant marriages.  All authority to perform marriages and issue divorces rests solely within the rabbinate.

All marriages between Jews in Israel are conducted according to Orthodox Jewish practices requiring two witnesses.   Jewish marriages are considered religious and do not conform to civil marriage customs which many secular Israelis will travel out of the country to obtain.  Civil marriages for Jews in other countries may be statistically registered in Israel through the Ministry of the Interior.

The legal contract, the ketubah dating back to 80 BC, exists to protect the bride and was considered a huge step forward for women.  Marriage has sought to uphold the best of biblical values.

Furthermore, Judaism’s lofty view of the institution of marriage is considered one of the key aspects leading to the cultural and religious survival of the Jewish people through generations.  The sanctity of marriage, the stability of the family that comes from common community values, and a religious definition of marriage have played a significant role in successfully preserving the Jewish religious and cultural heritage for thousands of years despite persecution, oppression, and dispersion.

In non-Jewish cultures up to the Middle Ages, marriages continued to be of a common law arrangement, often solemnized through a public acknowledgement of the private promise or verbum.  Ignatius of Antioch instructed Polycarp (around 110 AD) about the duties of husbands and wives, writing, “But it becomes both men and women who marry, to form their union with the approval of the bishop, that their marriage may be according to God, and not after their own lust. Let all things be done to the honour of God.”

What originally was viewed as simple approval became a legitimizing of marriages during the Middle Ages and the definition of marriage began to slowly drift from a religious value and high ideal…to the type of secular legal record we are headed toward today. 

So far, we’ve seen marriage law created to conform marriage to God’s ideal.  As the ketubah (legal contract) arose in Jewish communities, and in the Church, approval was suggested for marriage by Catholic priests– (both the ketubah and approval could be seen as good things)–the shift began to marriage becoming a sanctioned legal entity.  Do you want to learn more about how the private promise became a public document during the Middle Ages and the Reformation? Read about these watershed moments in Asking All the Wrong Questions about Marriage–Part 2.

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Categories Articles, Articles and Devotionals | Tags: | Posted on July 30, 2012

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  1. by Emily ZR

    On July 31, 2012

    Barbara, can you speak a little more about people who desire to adopt or those who choose, as Christians, to not have children but “parent” in other ways, such as teaching, mentoring, service to young people in the church or in medicine, etc.? Do Christian marriages require children? What happens when they don’t have children (whether intentionally or unintentionally)?

  2. by seminarygal

    On July 31, 2012

    Great questions, Emily! While my main point was to show how the law has steadily encroached upon the sacred bond, I know that childless couples (whether by choice or with great sadness) the topic must be handled with sensitivity. First, let me say that the blessing was fertility, the brokenness of the Fall of Man gives us everything else. Infertility–or in my personal background, stillbirth–this brokenness is not a punishment from God. Blame is not helpful among people so it’s better to assign it to the Fall of Man and realize, as I did with my daughter Julia who died in 1998, that we live in a broken world and suffering happens. We worship a God who redeems suffering.

  3. by seminarygal

    On July 31, 2012

    That said, Christian marriages do not require children in order to be fulfilling. I think that’s what the Roman Catholic Church was trying to address. Christian couples can extend the image of God throughout the earth by longevity of days–a long perseverance in the same direction of faith. But you rightly point out that teaching, mentoring–as Paul did with Timothy, for example–these activities offer reproduction of the image of God through witness. It’s how we’re all called to be, whether married or not, and whether any marriages involve children through physical union or through adoption.

  4. by seminarygal

    On July 31, 2012

    Finally, biological reproduction (as a purpose of marriage) is part of the original blessing of God upon Adam and Eve. Childbearing has served through the centuries –and across cultures–as a reason why homosexual encounters were considered unfruitful, without community benefit, producing no social progress, and therefore not enhancing civilization. Sexual relationships between same-sex partners accomplished no social good in a wider community sense. Aside from the biblical view that homosexual relationships are not God’s idea or His ideal, biological reproduction served to future society’s progress in a way that could not be accomplished at all among homosexuals (even today) without veering from biological/sexual faithfulness to one’s partner or the aid/interference of medicine and technology.

  5. by seminarygal

    On August 9, 2012

    As an addendum, it is worth noting that 10 states (plus the District of Columbia) still allow a “common law” form of marriage. The requirements vary from state to state, but generally speaking, the state considered a couple eligible for marriage if the parties were of consenting age, not presently married, and if they fulfilled these general requirements: “a woman and man [were considered] to be married if they lived together for a certain length of time, had sexual intercourse, and held themselves out [to the public] as husband and wife.”

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