Christian Marriage (Henson)/Chapter 1

THE THEORY AND PRACTICE OF THE JEWISH PEOPLE IN THE TIME OF CHRIST

The religion of Christ took its rise in Palestine nearly nineteen hundred years ago, and at the first it clearly stood in the most intimate relation to the established Church of the Jewish people. Fulfillment, not destruction, was the avowed object of the Founder; and, as well by example as by precept, He disallowed the notion that any violent breach with the existing system was contemplated. He claimed to stand in line with the long succession of the Hebrew prophets; His ministry was the completion, and therefore the verification, of theirs. He was an obedient member of the Jewish Church, "born under the law," and He expressly commanded His followers to recognise the official authority of the "Scribes and Pharisees" who "sate in Moses’ seat." To the canonical Scriptures of His nation Christ was accustomed to turn for the sustenance of His own religious life, for the elucidation of His teaching, and for the proof of His claims. From the Founder Himself, therefore, the Christian Church inherited a reverential attitude towards the system of Israel.

It follows that the starting-point of every attempt to appraise the teaching of Christ must be an examination of the doctrine and practice of the Jewish Church to which He belonged. Underlying the Gospels everywhere is the current Judaism of the time; the maxims of Christ pre-suppose both a theology and a morality, and they can only then be justly appreciated when they are considered in connection with the complete mass of ecclesiastical doctrine and practice which they confirmed, or disallowed, or corrected. This general consideration is particularly relevant to a discussion of the Christian doctrine of marriage. We must start by attempting to recover the view of marriage which obtained in Palestine in the time of Christ.

It goes without saying that the Jews based their practice on the Scriptures of the Old Testament, and therein principally on the legislation of the Pentateuch. The legislation was regarded as the work of the Law-giver, Moses, and its character as a gradual modification of existing practice was not recognised. Thus injustice was done to the legislation itself, and a grave difficulty in the development of morals was created.

Viewed historically, the laws contained in the Pentateuch represent a moral advance, for they correct and mitigate a traditional practice which was in many respects barbarous and immoral. So far we may fairly claim that they form part of the great process of education effected through the Prophets, but the fact that that process was gradual and progressive prohibited the competence of those laws for the functions which the Rabbis attributed to them.

There is an old proverb that "the good is enemy of the best," and the history of the Mosaic law provides a striking illustration of its truth. Relatively good the laws were; but they soon fell behind the prophetic conscience, and came to represent an inferior and discarded morality. At the time when Christ fulfilled His ministry there was a wide gulf between the morals of the earlier books of the Old Testament and the accepted moral standard of the Jewish people, but the existence of this gulf was screened by the hedge of superstitious reverence with which the sacred literature was surrounded. The Old Testament was, of course, read in a temper of unquestioning acceptance, and although it was not possible even so to evade the grand and pervading conflict between the primitive ideas illustrated by patriarchal practice, and incorporated in the Mosaic law on the one hand and the prophetic teaching, which from the earliest times attempted the correction of those ideas, on the other, yet the difficulty of reconciling the two was limited to individual thinkers, or gave employment to the speculative casuistry of the Rabbinic schools, rather than disturbed the general mind or affected the general practice.

Probably we may say that the practice was superior to the theory of marriage. Theoretically the Jews, who were the contemporaries of Christ, were polygamists. As disciples of Moses they could be nothing else. The study of their sacred literature confirmed them in a theoretical acceptance of polygamy; and the strong continuous influence of human depravity always secured a certain amount of polygamous practice. Herod the Great had no less than ten wives, and though this was regarded as unusual yet it was admittedly lawful. Indeed, the Rabbis, following their favourite method of giving precise shape to everything, laid it down that eighteen wives were permitted to a king, though to a private man not more than four or five.[1]

The facility of divorce was very great, for the reigning school of casuists gave the widest interpretation to the ambiguous phrase in the book of Deuteronomy, to which all agreed to appeal. When, as we shall see presently, our Lord decided in favour of the more rigorous view, His words caused astonishment and even consternation among His hearers. "If the case of the man is so with his wife," they said, "it is not expedient to marry." We could not have a more impressive indication of the depravation of the theory of marriage in the common view. Of Hillel’s teaching it would hardly be excessive to say in the words of Gibbon that "the most tender of human connections was degraded to a transient society of profit or pleasure."

There existed, however, two powerful influences which tended to correct the practice of religious Jews, and it cannot be doubted that these operated with such effect that the polygamous theory was, in the case of the most part of the people, disregarded, and practically the Jews of Christ’s time were monogamists. In the first place, marriage amongst the Jews had run the same course as among the rest of mankind, and that course had been steadily in the direction of monogamy; the accumulated experience of the race everywhere crystallised itself in a practical acceptance of monogamous marriage. Polygamy was but a survival from a distant and primitive phase of social development, and its disappearance was one of the best-assured consequences of social advance.

"While Hebrew society in Old Testament times represents an advanced stage in the evolutionary scheme, viz. that in which polygyny and paternal government are the dominant forms, the Old Testament literature has nevertheless been largely drawn upon in the discussion, on the ground that it embodies survivals from the diverse customs of prehistoric times."[2]

One conspicuous instance may be noted. It is related in the Gospel that the Sadducees challenged our Lord on that question of what is called Levirate marriage, that is, the marriage of a childless brother’s widow by his next brother. This marriage, illustrated by a repulsive narrative in the book of Genesis, and formally ordered in the book of Deuteronomy, appears to have been theoretically part of the current Jewish law in the time of Christ. The Sadducees professed, perhaps with truth, to adduce an actual case. "There were with us seven brethren." Yet the Levirate law ran so counter to civilised sentiment that even the Rabbis appear to have disputed as to the obligation of the Mosaic rule. It was long the practice of Christian divines to attempt to explain away what they supposed to be a peculiarity of Hebrew law by some special hypothesis. Even writers who, like the present Dean of Lichfield, are aware of the widely-extended character of the practice, yet deem it necessary to argue that "God, Who made the law, might suspend the incestuous character of it," and that it was admitted into the divinely-inspired code "under special and exceptional circumstances, as part of concessive and temporary legislation."[3]

It is not necessary to have recourse to any such expedients when once we remember that the experience of Israel was not other than that of the rest of mankind, that the Levirate-marriage was once common everywhere, and that everywhere for the same reasons it has fallen into disrepute and disuse. The circumstance that the literature of Israel came to have a sacred character, and that a mechanical theory of inspiration clothed that literature with an irrational, because an indiscriminating, sanctity explains the fact that a relic of primitive barbarism survived into the age of civilisation, and drew to itself the anxious regard of civilised and religious men. How barbarous the practice really is becomes apparent when it is considered in the light of the ideas which determined it. Dr. Driver writes:

"The institution of the Levirate-marriage, it is probable, originated in a state of society in which the constituent units were, more largely than with us, not single families, but groups of related families, or joint family groups. In primitive and semi-primitive societies women do not possess independent rights, they are treated as part of the property of the family to which they belong. A married woman, upon the death of her husband, passes consequently, with her children and her late husband's estate, to the new head of the family, who assumes in relation to them the same rights and duties which the husband had: he holds towards them the joint position of guardian and owner; and this brings with it as a corollary the right to treat the widow as his wife. And it is the brother who thus becomes the deceased man's heir, because, from his age and position, he is (as a rule) the person who is best fitted to be the new head of the family and the guardian of its interests and rights."[4]

The Hebrew institution, then is not to be separated from its place in the general history of human civilisation; nor are we under any reasonable necessity to read into it any other notions than those which that place suggests. It emerges in the Old Testament like a piece of the virgin rock which may be seen obtruding even in the busy thorougfares of a modern Scandinavian city. All the evidences of culture and progress are around it, but it tells a story of far-distant days when the red granite stood out bleak and naked to the northern storms. The consecration in Israel of a whole national literature created many moral and social problems when the nation had outgrown its primitive conditions and looked back with perplexity on sacred precedents, which none the less offended the conscience. Polygamy and the Levirate-marriage were instances of such sacred but unsatisfactory precedents.

In the next place, there had been operative in Israel from very early times another influence, that of the prophets, which sometimes as in this case worked in the same direction with the general tendency and sometimes worked in a diverse direction altogether. Now the later prophets were consistently monogamists. Partly, their relatively intense individualism rebelled against the primitive treatment of women as rather chattels than persons; partly their lofty conception of the divine character rendered them increasingly insistent that no conduct could be fitting in man which ran counter to the righteousness of his Creator. The prophets were also poets, and they invested the marriage-relationship with the moral dignity which made it the favourite and most eloquently suggestive symbol of Israel’s relation to Jehovah. And when once they had established that train of religious associations in connection with marriage, polygamy was in every devout Israelite’s mind bound up with polytheism and stricken with the fatal character of apostasy. Jehovah is represented as Israel’s husband; the worship of other gods is a violation of the marriage covenant, devotion to Jehovah alone is as the chastity and faithfulness of a pure wife.

This conception is found in the writings of Hosea, where indeed it appears to have its source in the unhappy domestic experience of the prophet himself. His own wife had proved an adulteress, and his children were born in adultery. The anguish which he had felt opened to him a new and profounder knowledge of the true gravity of the national sin. He discovered the intrinsic force and grandeur of his love for his faithless wife when he learned her falseness, and inevitably he carried into his theology the noblest version he could frame of human character. He could ask with the poet:

"Do I find love so full in my nature, God's ultimate gift,
That I doubt His own love can compete with it? Here the parts shift?
Here, the creature surpass the Creator,—the end, what began?"

and his answer could not be the same. His own love for the shameless Gomer, the daughter of Diblaim, was in its generosity and persistence but a faint picture of the long-suffering and munificent love of Jehovah for His unthankful people. So the prophet wakes his own private disaster an instrument of spiritual witness.

"And the Lord said unto me, Go yet, love a woman beloved of her friend and an adulteress. Even as the Lord loveth the children of Israel, though they turn unto other gods."[5]

A later prophet, the author of the latter part of Isaiah, adopts the same moving and suggestive thought when he thus consoles the captive nation:

"Fear not; for thou shalt not be ashamed: neither be thou confounded; for thou shalt not be put to shame: for thou shalt forget the shame of thy youth, and the reproach of thy widowhood shalt thou remember no more. For thy Maker is thine husband: the Lord of Hosts is his name: and the Holy One of Israel is thy Redeemer: the God of the whole earth shall he be called. For the Lord hath called thee as a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit, even a wife of youth when she is cast off, saith thy God."[6]

And again in another place the prophet writes:

"Thou shalt no more be termed Forsaken: neither shall thy land any more be termed Desolate: but thou shalt be called Hephzi-bah, and thy land Beulah: for the Lord delighteth in thee, and thy land shall be married. For as a young man marrieth a virgin, so shall thy sons marry thee: and as the bridegroom rejoiceth over the bride, so shall thy God rejoice over thee."[7]

The prophet Malachi emphasises the duty of faithfulness to the marriage bond not only by adducing the divine hatred of all treachery, but also by representing that Jehovah Himself is the witness to the marriage covenant. The contempt with which the offerings of the Jews were received had its explanation, according to this prophet, in the moral fault of the worshippers. To their question why their service was unacceptable he answers thus:

"Because the Lord hath been witness between thee and the wife of thy youth, against whom thou hast dealt treacherously, though she is thy companion, and the wife of thy covenant. . . . Therefore take heed to your spirit, and let none deal treacherously against the wife of his youth. For I hate putting away, saith the Lord, the God of Israel, and him that covereth his garment with violence, saith the Lord of Hosts: therefore take heed to your spirit, that ye deal not treacherously."[8]

Malachi, as afterwards our Lord, refers to the narrative of the Creation as proving the duty of marital faithfulness.

When the famous declaration was added to the record in Genesis cannot be determined, but at least we may be sure that it represents a prophetic handling of the primitive material designed to correct current practice in the direction of monogamy. "The primitive Hebrew tradition," observes Bishop Ryle, "is made, through the Divine Spirit, the first step in the stairway of Divine Revelation."[9]

Historically the order of moral attainment was otherwise. Man did not begin with monogamy, but reached that stage of moral advance by a long and gradual progress; but monogamy did represent the true demands of human nature in this particular of sexual intercourse, and therefore was fitly set in the forefront of the prophetic version of human origins as indicating, in advance of the history, the ideal which would determine its course. Read as record of fact, the narrative may be actually, from the point of view of the modern student, grotesque; read as symbolising fundamental truth, it is precious and illuminating still.

No help meet for man can be found in all the circuit of created life outside the sphere of humanity itself. Fundamental equality of nature must condition sexual union, and not less must determine the intimacy and permanence of that union. "The man said, This is now bones of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called woman, because she was taken out of man. Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh." The prophetic teaching, then, had checked, and to a great extent corrected, the tendency of the law and the history to perpetuate, under sacred sanctions, a properly obsolete type of marriage.

It must be added that the circumstances of the nation in the period preceding the advent of Christ had contributed to the same result by bringing the Jews into closer relation with the rest of mankind. The Greeks and Romans were monogamists, and the Jews of the dispersion were, in spite of themselves, compelled to mitigate their provincialism in many respects. The sexual license of the Græco-Roman world was, indeed, truly repugnant to the best instincts of a race which treasured the pure teachings of the prophets, but in the particular matter of polygamy the Jews were probably assisted by the influence of their Gentile neighbours to escape in practice from a vicious theory. Dr. Edersheim writes:

"The readers of the New Testament cannot but feel that the relations there indicated proceed upon the assumption that monogamy was the rule, and polygamy the exception. The permission of polygamy, and the comparative facility of obtaining a divorce, may seem to militate against the fundamental idea of the marriage relation. But against these drawbacks we have to put the two indubitable facts, that generally men were only united in wedlock to one wife, and that Jewish females occupied not only a comparatively but an absolutely high position. The law throughout recognised and protected the rights of women, and discouraged the practice of polygamy. An impartial reader cannot rise from the perusal, not of a few isolated passages, but of the sections of the Mishna bearing upon this subject, without being impressed with this conviction."[10]

It does not appear that Christ ever came into contact with any other marriage law or practice than those which obtained in Palestine, and accordingly He never encountered the gross licence of the Græco-Roman world. Very early in the experience of the Church, however, the practical questions implied in the theory and practice of marriage were raised outside the pale of Judaism, and the Apostles found themselves compelled to apply the principles of the Gospel under novel circumstances. We shall find that this application was by no means easy or altogether successful. For outside the Jewish sphere there were absent the presuppositions of a sound marriage law. Christ could take for granted the prophetic teaching, and He could appeal with the relatively debased standard of Rabbinic morality.

In point of fact there does not appear to have been any great or continued difficulty within the Jewish-Christian churches in securing a satisfactory practice in the matter of marriage; but it was far otherwise in the case of the Gentile churches. When we pass from the Gospels to the Pauline Epistles we are conscious of a great change in the moral atmosphere. Behind our Lord’s teaching there is a moral background essentially Christian; behind the Pauline Epistles there is a background of moral confusion definitely pagan. Accordingly there is a suggestive absence of direct legislation in practical morals in the one case, and an equally suggestive abundance of it in the other.

Our Lord’s pronouncements on the subject of marriage are, indeed, as coming from Him, of supreme importance, but they do not carry the question beyond the point at which the prophet Malachi had left it, and, indeed, there was no need that they should. He adopts the prophetic point of view, adds the sanction of His divine authority to the prophetic teaching, and inaugurates an epoch of moral progress under the control of His Gospel, which, by slow but advancing stages, would raise the institution of marriage to an altitude of purity and moral power which neither the Jewish nation nor the ancient world could imagine.


  1. See Schürer, "Jewish People in Time of Jesus Christ," div. i. vol. i. p. 455 (note)
  2. See Hastings' "Dictionary of the Bible," vol. iii. p. 263.
  3. See Luckock, "History of Marriage," p. 248.
  4. See "Deuteronomy," p. 284 [International Critical Commentary.]
  5. Hosea iii. 1
  6. Isaiah liv. 4-6
  7. Isaiah lxii. 4, 5.
  8. Malachi ii. 14-16
  9. See "Early Narratives of Genesis," p. 29.
  10. See "History of the Jewish Nation," p. 272.