In the last episode, we talked about what the Old Testament has to say about marriage. We saw that marriage in Old Testament times was very different from how we think about it today. In this episode, we’ll see what the New Testament has to say about marriage.
As we talked about last week, there is no word for husband or wife in the original language of the Bible. Those words are a product of translation into English. Husband in the New Testament is literally “her man,” and wife is literally “his woman.” That’s the same way it was in the Old Testament. But other than that, marriage is presented very differently in the New Testament than it was in the Old.
In the Old Testament, there are many instances of men having many wives at the same time. There are also concubines, which were women men had sex with and perhaps had children with, but they were not wives.
Polygamy and Concubines in the New Testament
In the New Testament, we no longer see either of those. There are no multiple wives among New Testament figures, and no New Testament figures have concubines. Historians and biblical scholars disagree over the reason for that. Some say having multiple wives and concubines was a product of the time period of the Old Testament, and by the time of the New Testament, things had changed, society had changed, and multiple wives and concubines were no longer socially acceptable. It was no longer an acceptable practice.
Others maintain, though, that among Jews during the New Testament period, some still had multiple wives and concubines, but that the New Testament Scriptures were “sanitized” of any references to that by the institutional church.
Today, it’s impossible to know which is right. We do not know how widespread the practice of having multiple wives and concubines was in the New Testament period. All we can say is that in the Scriptures that have survived and as they were passed down to us, those things don’t appear.
There are only two references to having more than one wife in the New Testament, and both are from the writings of Paul. One is from the book of Titus, the other is from First Timothy. Both say basically the same thing. Anyone who would be what Paul calls “an overseer” of a local group of Christians must be, as most Bibles render it, “the husband of one wife.” In the original Greek of course there’s no word for husband, and this literally reads “one woman’s man.” So, in order to be what Paul calls an “overseer” in a group of Christians, you must be “one woman’s man.”
Husband of One Wife
Some Christians believe that means a man must not have divorced one wife and married another; in other words, if you want to be an overseer in a group of Christians, you can’t be divorced and remarried. Actually, though, that particular construction in Greek does not mean that. That construction means a man who has only one wife as opposed to multiple wives. So, regardless of what some Christians say it means, this passage has nothing to do with being divorced and remarried. It’s a reference to having multiple wives. What we can say about this passage is that the only times the practice of having multiple wives is mentioned in the New Testament, and that’s twice, it is condemned. Interestingly, though, it’s only condemned in the context of it disqualifying you from being what’s called an “overseer” in a group of Christians.
The very fact that this passage is in there indicates that at least some Christians back then did have multiple wives. After all, if no one did it, there would have been no reason to mention it.
And, another interesting thing, from the history of the period after the New Testament, we know that at least in Western Christianity, the practice of having multiple wives, although apparently not common, did continue sporadically until it was officially outlawed by the institutional church in the 9th century. So, for the first 800 years or so of Christianity, at least some Christians did have multiple wives. There’s no way to know how widespread the practice was, though.
What God Has Joined Together
In the Gospels, Jesus recognized marriage. In Matthew chapter 19, some Pharisees came to Jesus asking about divorce. He replied by quoting a passage from Genesis chapter 2, about how a man and woman are joined together and become one flesh. And then Jesus says, “What God has joined together, let not man separate.” You might have heard that at a wedding as “What God has joined together, let no one put asunder.”
That one sentence from Jesus forms the specifically Christian view of marriage. Traditionally, Christians have interpreted that verse to mean that marriage is something done by God. God joins the man and the woman together. That one verse is the basis for what is seen as the “Christian” view of marriage.
This is very different than the Old Testament, where marriage was a secular thing, and God didn’t seem to play a part. But in the New Testament, this one verse from Jesus is traditionally interpreted to mean that marriage is not a secular thing, it is a religious thing, because it is God who joins the man and woman together. It is God who forms the union of marriage.
But even so, in early Christianity, marriage was not considered something you did in a church, and there was no ceremony performed by a religious official. Marriage was still something you did in a civil setting, a secular setting. It would not be until about a thousand years after Jesus that the institutional church in the West took on the role of performing marriages, and that’s when people began getting married in a church.
Some of the Disciples Were Married
We know from several references in the Gospels that at least some of Jesus’ disciples were married. We’re not told anything about their wives or their family life, but it is mentioned, here and there in passing, that some of them were married. We know that at the time Paul wrote at least some of his writings, he was not married, because he says so. Some biblical scholars take the position that Paul never married, but other biblical scholars see evidence in his writings that Paul at one time had been married, but his wife had died. We can never know for sure one way or another.
Was Jesus Married?
Probably the biggest question is about Jesus. Was Jesus married? The Bible doesn’t give any hint one way or the other. Historians tell us that marriage was the normal thing during that time, and that it would have been very unusual for a man not to marry, and so it’s not unreasonable to think that Jesus might have been married. The fact that a wife is not mentioned and plays no part in the Gospels shouldn’t necessarily cause us to reject the possibility that Jesus could have been married. After all, the disciples’ marriages and wives were sort of glossed over and didn’t play a part. And, it’s always possible that Jesus could have been married at some point but that His wife had died, or maybe He was divorced.
We can’t know if Jesus was ever married or not. But for some people, the idea that He might have been is a very disturbing thing. It sort of pulls the rug out from under the image of Jesus that the institutional church has popularized over the years, the image of the effeminate, nonsexual Jesus. And so, although the Bible doesn’t give us any hint as to whether or not Jesus was married, most people prefer to believe He was not, simply because that maintains the image they have been taught of Jesus.
Adultery in the New Testament
In the Old Testament we saw that adultery, which is breaking the sanctity of marriage by having sex with someone else’s husband or wife, was a very serious thing. It’s just as serious in the New Testament. It’s listed several times with various other heinous acts. It’s in the category of things like murder, witchcraft, stealing, idolatry, and hatred. And so the sanctity of a woman being “his woman” and a man being “her man” is something the New Testament takes seriously. Although Jesus declined to stone a woman caught in adultery, it’s obvious that He took adultery very seriously. After all, He told the woman to go and sin no more. He mentioned adultery several times in “short lists” He gave of the commandments of God.
Divorce in the New Testament
In the Old Testament, we saw that divorce was permitted in all but a few cases, and that it was fairly easy for a man to divorce a wife. In the New Testament, that’s not the case, and this comes straight from the mouth of Jesus. In Matthew, the Pharisees came and asked Jesus if it was OK to divorce a wife. Jesus said if you divorce your wife for any reason except that she committed adultery against you, and then you go and marry another woman, you commit adultery. And then if your divorced wife goes out and marries another man, the man commits adultery.
At times in Christianity, this has been interpreted in such a way to prohibit all divorces except in cases of adultery. This is why, in so much of Christianity, divorce has been frowned upon and has been seen as a very serious thing. It is possible to interpret this passage as Jesus saying you cannot divorce a wife or husband for any reason except adultery, and it has often been interpreted that way.
But throughout Christian history, it often has not been interpreted that way. Jesus did say what Matthew reports about divorce, but keep in mind that Jesus said some very troubling things about other things. There are places in the Gospels where He says that if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. If your hand causes you to sin, chop it off. And yet I can’t think of any sane Christian denomination that advocates doing that.
There are places where Jesus says to lend to anyone who wants to borrow from you, regardless of whether or not they can pay you back. But if you did that, and word got around that you were doing it, I don’t care how rich you might be, you’d pretty soon be broke, because you’d be stampeded with people wanting to borrow from you.
Jesus said to turn the other cheek, and yet we know that if we all turned the other cheek, crime would be rampant. If we turned the other cheek as a nation, we wouldn’t last long. The reality is that you can’t survive in the world if you turn the other cheek.
Things like this have traditionally been interpreted as Jesus using exaggeration to get a point across. Jesus didn’t literally mean to lend to everyone who wants to borrow from you regardless of whether or not they can pay you back, He was just trying to encourage a spirit of helping others. He really doesn’t expect us to turn the other cheek if someone breaks in our house and tries to rape our wife, He’s just making a point to discourage unnecessary violence. He really doesn’t want you to chop off your hand if you think it causes you to sin, He’s just making a point about the severity of sin.
Many people place Jesus’ teaching on divorce in this category and say that Jesus is not really prohibiting divorce in all cases except adultery; He just wants you to take divorce very seriously and not look at it as the solution of first resort. And frankly, despite what they might say, this is how most Christians actually interpret what Jesus said about divorce. It’s not that divorce is always wrong except in cases of adultery, it’s just that it’s something that’s not to be taken lightly.
This is born out by looking at divorce statistics. The divorce rate among Christians is basically the same as for non-Christians. Even among Christians whose denominations have traditionally taken a hard line against divorce, like Catholics, the divorce rate is only slightly lower than that of the general society. So obviously, very few in Christianity take Jesus’ teaching on divorce literally.
Sometimes people think they do, but then when one of their children or grandchildren wants a divorce for reasons other than adultery, they change their mind. For that situation only, of course!
Is Marriage Condemned in the New Testament?
Next we need to consider something that can cause a lot of confusion when thinking about marriage. The book of Hebrews says that marriage should be held in honor among all. But in First Corinthians 6, Paul wrote this, “It is good for a man not to marry. But since there is so much immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband. The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. Do not deprive each other except by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. I wish that all men were as I am. But each man has his own gift from God. One has this gift, another has that. Now to the unmarried and the widows I say, it is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.”
Paul seems to be talking against marriage. The only reason he sees for getting married is to satisfy your sexual cravings so you won’t be tempted to adultery, and even then he considers it not the best thing to do. This is the reason some Christians have seen a celibate, unmarried life as the ideal.
But, you get more of a sense of what’s really on Paul’s mind when you read further on in First Corinthians, near the end. Again, Paul is talking about whether or not it’s good to marry, and he says this, “I think then that this is good in view of the present distress.” He then goes on to counsel against marriage if you aren’t already married, and he is doing this “in view of the present distress.”
Remember that the Scriptures, even though they are Scriptures, are still a product of the time period in which they were written, and this was a time when Christians were being persecuted for their faith. It was a time when it was dangerous to be a Christian. In addition, many of the early Christians thought Jesus would return at any moment, and the world would end. That’s the situation Paul speaks of as “the present distress.”
It was under those conditions, times were hard and weren’t getting any better and Jesus might return soon and the whole world would end, that he counseled against marriage. It’s like he was saying, “Under these conditions, why bother?”
Seen in this light, Paul’s statements against marriage are not necessarily against marriage per se; they are against marriage because of the present distress. It’s reasonable to look at Paul’s comments about marriage in this light, because looking at the entire New Testament as a whole, marriage is not condemned, it’s seen in a positive light. And so it’s reasonable to say that Paul sees marriage the way he does because times are bad. You have enough to worry about by trying to stay out of trouble for being a Christian, and Jesus will probably return soon, anyway.
Will We Be Married in Heaven?
There’s one other thing to consider in relation to marriage in the New Testament. In the Gospel of Mark, a group of Sadducees came to Jesus and tried to trick Him with a question. Sadducees were a group of Jews who didn’t believe in any kind of life after death, and they knew Jesus was talking about eternal life, so they tried to trick Him with a complicated question. They described a woman who had had seven husbands and asked whose wife she would be at the resurrection. Jesus said, “When they shall rise from the dead they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels in heaven.”
Many Christians interpret that to mean that in heaven, people won’t be married. And in fact, that is why marriage vows contain the phrase “till death do us part,” or at least used to, because many interpret what Jesus said as meaning that people will no longer be married in heaven, that death dissolves marriage.
That can be troubling to people, especially to people who are in a happy marriage. Does that mean it will all end at death, and you will not have a relationship with your wife or husband in heaven?
I don’t really know what Jesus meant by that. We do know that in heaven things will be much different than on earth, and that we will be much different than on earth. But at the same time, Christians believe that we will still be who we are in heaven, that our identity as individuals will stay with us forever. Part of that belief is that those who were our loved ones on earth will still be our loved ones in heaven. And so while there may not be a thing like earthly marriage in heaven, Christianity maintains that our loved ones will still be part of our lives in heaven.
Summary of Marriage in the New Testament
So that’s marriage in the New Testament. We see that Jesus recognized marriage. He built upon the understanding of marriage from Genesis and indicated it is actually God who forms the marriage union and makes the man and woman one flesh. We see that the New Testament takes this marriage union very seriously. The sanctity of marriage is upheld and adultery is strongly condemned. We see that marriage in the New Testament is seen as between one man and one woman, in contrast to the Old Testament, where some men had many wives. We see that divorce, while not necessarily absolutely prohibited, is seen as something that is not to be taken lightly.
Thinking about marriage in the Bible reminds me about how prayer is treated in the Bible. Prayer is in the Bible, it’s all over the Bible, but prayer is never defined. There’s not a list of beliefs lined out about prayer, it’s just presented as a given.
That’s basically the way the Bible treats marriage. The Bible doesn’t really give a definition of marriage. It doesn’t clearly line out certain beliefs about marriage. It’s just presented as something that’s there, something that’s a given.