Marriage and Divorce in the Days of Jesus

Updated: Apr 24, 2020

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?”

“Yes!”

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