Updated: Apr 24
What did it mean to be married in the first century? What happened when unhappy couples wanted to split? Let's take a look at marriage and divorce in the days of Jesus!
This is the third post in our series on How to Live as a Woman in First-Century Israel. This time period can be either alluring or terrifying (depending on your tolerance for political unrest and lack of indoor plumbing). The goal in this series is to take a walk in the shoes of a woman in the days of Jesus. You can read more about our goals and the sources I am utilizing in the introductory post How to Live as a First-Century Woman in Israel.
We've examined Women at Work in the Bible and found women working in places we might not expect. We took a look at How to Manage a Household and delved into the difficulties of preparing everything from scratch. I hope you'll subscribe to the website so that you can catch upcoming lessons where we talk about how to stay clean, what to wear, how women worshipped, what you can buy in the market, childbirth, understanding honor, and so much more.
If you're not planning any time-travel expeditions, I hope this information will help you understand parables and biblical conversations, add historical realism to your biblical fiction, or simply satisfy your curiosity on this incredible time period. Women's issues have been overlooked in history for thousands of years, but recent research and archaeology are throwing open the door to the women of our past.
Ok, let's take a look at what marriage and divorce looked like in the days of Jesus!
What it Means to be Betrothed
Marriage in the first century—as it is in the twenty-first—is a contract. Marriage isn't binding unless someone witnesses spoken vows. There is almost always a written contract to protect the parentage of legitimate children, even way back in the days of Jesus. (1) Wedding records are kept in local synagogues, as are legally binding betrothal agreements.
Nowadays engagements are as simple as a two-sentence conversation:
“Will you marry me?”
In the days of Jesus, betrothals are usually arranged by an agent working on behalf of the parents, and there are many details to be determined. Once an agreement is reached, the couple is legally bound to marry one another. Roman law required the wedding to take place within two years. In Jewish custom it was in about a year. (2) To break off a betrothal is as involved as a divorce. (3)
Dowries, Bride-price, and a Woman's Rights in Marriage
Because the Jewish daughter is leaving her family to build up another household with her skills and future children, a bride-price will sometimes be paid for her by her future husband. (4) In Greek and Roman families, a dowry is more typical, and it is considered the daughter's share of her father's estate. (5)
It is easy for us in the modern-day to picture this as selling daughters off into marriage, but a wife has her rights too.
A wife is entitled to food, clothing, and conjugal rights. (6) That's right, as a first-century wife you have the right to demand adequate sexual relations from your husband to produce an heir. Even if he takes a second wife (uncommon in this time period (1)), he can't deny you your rights. If he does, he violates the marriage agreement, and you can leave him. He will have to pay the settlement that was determined in your betrothal contract.
In your Greek and Roman neighbors, there are different levels of marriage—from religious ceremonies to a woman simply living uninterrupted with a man for a year. It has become common in this Roman era for marriages to be a matter of mutual consent, and a married daughter remains part of her father's family even while living in her husband's home. (1)
Time for the Wedding!
Besides the legal issues of getting married, you can expect to have a party to celebrate the wedding. A week-long feast is planned and the father might invite the whole community to come and celebrate with food and wine. Don't worry about ordering flowers or arranging the seating. As the bride you might have only a day's notice that it is your wedding day, as it is up to the husband to pick the time and arrange the feast. (7)
Since the day you were betrothed, you have been preparing for your wedding by making a wedding dress. If you can afford it, you might want to embroider your dress with gold or silver thread like the Psalmist describes. This is not the time to pride yourself on procrastination. Besides this dress, you will want to prepare the items you'll need for your new home. Because you do not know the day, you must be ready at all times.
When you get the word that your betrothed is coming for you, you must ritually wash in the synagogue mikveh and put on your new clothes. You will adorn yourself with all the family jewelry until you are glittering with finery. If you don't have any jewelry, you can borrow from friends and neighbors. (1)
The Wedding Ceremony
You will be taken to the bridegroom's house by a joyful procession with music and torchlight. In the days long before the first-century, a husband would set up a tent for his new wife and they were officially married when he had brought her into his tent to consummate the marriage. Some sort of huppah will likely be used in your ceremony (a cloth canopy), but whether vows were spoken under it, or if it is a tent where the marriage will be consummated, is unclear. You can count on a husband preparing a place to share with his new bride, whether that is a private bower indoors, a tent outside, or a room set aside from the family.
The ceremony itself will likely include reading the marriage contract, ensuring the bride-price has been paid, and blessings are spoken over the couple. (1)
Where Will the New Couple Live?
The standard practice is that when a woman becomes married she leaves her family and moves into her husband's home. (8) Adult children remain at home as they work in the family business. As a daughter-in-law, you come under your mother-in-law's roof—and under her authority as the matriarch of the household.
As newlyweds you might have a room, or a couple of rooms to start. Later, as you begin to have children, you might move out of the paternal home, but usually not very far away. (9) In the Bible we see Jesus warning about the division between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law, but sons-in-law are not mentioned because you usually wouldn't find them in the family unit. (10) (Peter is an exception to this rule, as we find his mother-in-law living in his home in Matthew 8:14. However, this is Peter and Andrew's home, not Peter's father-in-law's.)
The Importance of Bearing Sons
Something that might surprise you is that the value placed on mother-son relationships is higher than husband-wife relationships.
As a woman, it is important for you to have sons who will support you when your husband dies. You can expect that the bond between you and your son will be close. If you bear a daughter, you will know in the back of your mind that she will move out someday. However, a mother often stays with her son until one of them dies.
The bond between brothers and sisters is also strong. A father is concerned with keeping his daughter's reputation and honor. A brother is someone who takes a sister's side and protects her. A married woman might be closer to her brother than to her husband.
The emotional distance between husbands and wives seems off-putting to us, but it helps keep large families together. Families need to work together to sustain their businesses. We might not appreciate a husband who is a “mama's boy” today, but a mother in the first century is counting on her son to keep her in her old age. She needs him. A new daughter-in-law realizes she comes as an outsider to her new home. You will probably hope to marry someone who lives close to your own family. (11)
Divorce in the First Century
Divorce requires a certificate to officially end the marriage. A woman cannot remarry unless she receives a certificate of divorce. A man can take a new wife while still legally married to the first, but in this era polygamy is not the ideal (1). The grounds for divorce are vague and debated. Some have said that a woman can be divorced for any reason. Others say that adultery is the only acceptable cause for divorce. (12)
Who Could Divorce Who?
In Jewish society, expect some gender bias in divorce. Because a woman cannot enter into contracts, a woman cannot divorce her husband. There is the possibility she can get a male relation or an elder to act for her if she has a good reason. However, a man can bring charges against another man for a liaison with an unmarried girl or a widow.
In Roman and Greek circles, where marriage by mutual consent is typical, divorce is pretty easy and can be instigated by a woman. Oral or written notice can be given by either party of the marriage. In Egypt, a woman can divorce her husband for cheating on her. (1)
Under Augustus, divorce became more complicated, requiring a period of time, witnesses, and a public court.
In any case, if a man is given a dowry for his wife, he must return it to her upon divorce. If the dowry money has been spent, this can be a deterrent against divorce. Alternatively, in the betrothal contract, the family can stipulate a payment due to the woman upon divorce. (2)
Because we find a mix of Jew and Gentiles in the early church, we see New Testament marriage teachings built upon both cultures. Divorce is discouraged. Men are exhorted to love their wives while women are encouraged to respect their husbands—perhaps weak points that commonly surface in this first-century marriage culture. Couples are told to submit to one another. Believers were encouraged to marry fellow believers to keep harmony in the home. When we look at marriage advice in the New Testament, I believe it is important to keep their culture in our minds so that we can get at the heart of the message.
Did you learn anything new about marriage and divorce in the first century? Make sure you subscribe so you don't miss the rest of this series on How to Live as a Woman in First-Century Israel!
1. Backgrounds of Early Christianity by Everett Ferguson pages 74-75
2. Dictionary of New Testament Background edited by Craig E. Evans and Stanley E. Porter page 685
3. Backgrounds of Early Christianity by Everett Ferguson page 74, Matthew 1:18-19
4. Genesis 34:12, 1 Samuel 18:25
5. Backgrounds of Early Christianity by Everett Ferguson page 72-73
6. Dictionary of New Testament Background edited by Craig E. Evans and Stanley E. Porter page 687, Exodus 21:10
7. Dictionary of New Testament Background edited by Craig E. Evans and Stanley E. Porter page 685-686
8. Backgrounds of Early Christianity by Everett Ferguson page 493
9. The New Testament World by Bruce J. Malina page 139
10. Matthew 10:35-36
11. The New Testament World by Bruce J. Malina pages 142-145
12. Backgrounds of Christianity by Everett Ferguson page 518