A few months ago, the History Channel intermittently aired a six-part series called Bible Secrets Revealed—a title bound to have whet the appetite of Justin Martyr himself. Such an impressive showing of solidarity, buttressed by equally impressive credentials, can often cause one to forget that there are other viable viewpoints available. The purpose of this piece is to address the topic of marriage, which was discussed in the sixth episode of the series, “Sex and the Scriptures,” as it is presented in the New Testament and the early church. There are a few issues that need to be addressed in response to this episode.
First, the issue of polygamy needs to be considered. Although polygamy was tolerated in the Old Testament, it does not necessarily follow that this was the cultural climate during the New Testament era. In fact, the extent of the practice of polygamy in Palestinian Judaism is disputed. Craig Keener contends that, even though polygamy was permitted early on, the overwhelming majority of Jewish men were monogamous.[i] This was especially the case for Palestinian Jews in light of the monogamous pressures applied by Greco-Roman society.[ii] At the very least, it appears that there was no consensus among rabbis concerning polygamy toward the end of the Second Temple period.[iii] There were other sexual practices that were more common than polygamy, but even these were often illegal.[iv] For instance, Augustus passed legislation known as lex Papia Poppaea and lex Julia that sought to strengthen marriage and to weaken practices such as concubinage.[v] This episode seems to suggest that since the Old Testament tolerates polygamy, and the New Testament is largely silent on the matter, the ethics were arbitrarily fabricated at a later point in time. Such an argument from silence is rarely helpful, especially in instances where the surrounding culture was principally intolerant of such practices.
Secondly, Jesus’ view of marriage needs to be nuanced, since this episode did not adequately address this issue. Jesus’ view of marriage in the New Testament is not indifferent; it is perspectival. In Matt 19:6, Jesus clearly advocates the permanence of marriage by quoting Gen 2:24: “So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate” (NET). In Mark 10:6–9, Jesus makes an interesting juxtaposition. By quoting Gen 1:27 in v. 6 and Gen 2:24 in vv. 7–8a, Jesus makes the point that since God created man and woman as a single unit, man should cling to his wife.[vi] In v. 7, Jesus uses the Greek phrase heneken toutou (ἕνεκεν τούτου, “for this reason”), which points to God’s creative act as the reason that man should leave his parents and become one with his wife.[vii] Thus, Jesus taught that marriage is an essential part of God’s creation diktat. He was not ambivalent toward marriage whatsoever. At the same time, however, one cannot neglect the absolute nature of Jesus’ call to discipleship in light of the looming kingdom of God. After all, there will be no marriage in the eternal state (Matt 22:30). Andreas Köstenberger writes: “Marriage, while remaining the foundational divine institution for humanity, is therefore to be viewed not as an end in itself but as properly subordinated to God’s larger salvific purposes.”[viii] This kingdom perspective is further developed by Paul, who does not diminish the embryonic institution of Christian marriage; instead, he also puts it into perspective.
Finally, this episode claims that the institution of Christian marriage as we know it today was not established until the end of the fourth century. This is partially true. The earliest unquestionable evidence of a nuptial blessing is found at this time.[ix] However, we also have evidence of a markedly Christian prototype of marriage dating back as early as the first half of the second century. For instance, Ignatius writes: “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.”[x] Margaret MacDonald argues that the ultimate effect of this expansive role for the bishop is to strengthen the ethic of group endogamy.[xi] These sorts of behavioral ethics are established to insulate a sect from the wider society.[xii] This adoption of behavioral rules would eventually become established giving way to institutionalization. In fact, MacDonald persuasively argues that the “rule-like” statements in Eph 5:22–33; Col 3:18–19; Titus 2:4–6; and 1 Pet 3:1–7 are all evidence of the institutionalization of marriage practices.[xiii] Ergo, the development of the institution of Christian marriage had much more continuity from the first century to the fourth century than this episode revealed.
Altogether, the episode “Sex and the Scriptures” attempted to cover a vast amount of information in a forty-minute time slot. Naturally, such a colossal feat will be reductionistic to an extent. Probably the series could have narrowed the focus and provided a bit more lucidity concerning the progression of the episodes. In an attempt to make scholarship accessible to a popular audience, very capable scholars made some abstruse statements; perhaps that is to be expected. Nevertheless, by failing to convey sufficiently the subtleties of current scholarship, it is difficult to call this series a success—if, indeed, that was its aim.
[i] Craig S. Keener, “Marriage,” in Dictionary of New Testament Background, ed. by Craig A. Evans and Stanley E. Porter (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2000), 683. [ii] Isaiah M. Gafni, “The Institution of Marriage in Rabbinic Times,” in The Jewish Family: Metaphor and Memory, ed. by David Kraemer (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 21. [iii] David W. Chapman, “Marriage and Family in Second Temple Judaism,” in Marriage and Family in the Biblical World, ed. by Ken M. Campbell (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2003), 218. [iv] Craig S. Keener, “Marriage,”683. [v] David G. Hunter, Marriage in the Early Church (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1992), 7. [vi] Adela Yarbro Collins, Mark: A Commentary (Hermeneia; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007), 467. [vii] Ibid. [viii] Andreas J. Köstenberger, “Marriage and Family in the New Testament,” in Marriage and Family in the Biblical World, ed. by Ken M. Campbell (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2003), 247. [ix] David G. Hunter, Marriage in the Early Church, 27. [x] Ign. Pol. 5.1–2. [xi] Margaret Y. MacDonald, “The Ideal of the Christian Couple: Ign. Pol. 5.1–2 Looking Back to Paul,” New Testament Studies 40 (1994): 115. [xii] Bryan R. Wilson, Sects and Society: A Sociological Study of the Elim Tabernacle, Christian Science, and Christadelphians (Berkeley: University of California, 1961), 1. [xiii] Margaret Y. MacDonald, “The Ideal of the Christian Couple,” 117.