The Emperor Augustus and “Biblical” Marriage

I have listened to a lot of discussions lately, in which various people say that they are in support of “Biblical Marriage” and that “Marriage is only between one man and one woman.” Hmm. I wonder how much research has been done before these pronouncements were made?

Well, you know what’s coming. So, grab some snacks, gather your friends and family around the computer, and here we go.

The ancient Hebrew people were originally a nomadic herder culture, supporting their livelihood by raiding their neighbors and each other even into the time of the imagined invasion of Canaan and the establishment of what would become their nation. (This is a widely seen model in various other cultures and times). After the period of the Babylonian Captivity, they codified their laws, legends, and experiences into their holy texts, and these writings are still read today.

In this ancient culture, women were seen as just another part of a man’s property; originally the property of her father, she was then transferred as property to her husband. Women had no official say in who their husbands would be. The word for husband was ba’al, which means master. Even in the Ten Commandments, a wife is lumped into the other aspects of a man’s property to not be coveted. (Except in the Catholic/Augustinian tradition, which separates it out, by slipping the requirement of no graven images into the first commandment).

This early Hebrew culture was a polygamous one, which means that a man could have as many wives as he could afford to keep. There are verses in the Old Testament such as Genesis 2:24 describing a man and wife becoming one flesh, but this is dwarfed by the overwhelming descriptions of multiple marriages and the laws in the Covenant Code discussing multiple spouses. It also seems a leap to think of a man and his rape victim becoming one, after he is forced to pay her father 50 shekels and marry her, in Deuteronomy 22:28-29.

As often happened in cultures where women were powerless, there were no sexual restrictions on men except a few religious taboos, such as sex with close relatives, animals, or other men. Sex with servants, slaves, prostitutes, and war captives were not only common but encouraged by the holy texts. Because of the lack of medical tests to confirm paternity, like many cultures wives were forced into total abstinence except with their husbands. Numbers 5:11-31 describes how to get the priests to give your wife an abortion if you think she has been unfaithful.

This is also the origin of why a Jew was only defined as someone having a Jewish mother. All of the illegitimate children created by their husbands did not receive the standard legal protections.

Human nature being what it is, this does not mean that no one married for love, or that some couples fell in love after marriage. There were also fathers who deeply loved their daughters, and made certain that their husbands were good and caring men; watching over their child’s well being the rest of their lives. (This is seen in even the most restrictive cultures today).

Many writers discussing ancient cultures bring up the idea that to husbands, fathers-in-laws, and such a wife was someone who “just” married into a family”. They forget the point that to sons, their mothers WERE family, and sisters typically as well. Love and kinship are much stronger than social dogma.

The majority of Hebrews had only one wife for the same reason that the vast majority of Muslims today also only have one wife; they simply could not afford more.

The Greeks and Romans were unique in the ancient world in only allowing one wife at a time. Among the upper classes, marriage was often for political or economic reasons, and divorces were easy and frequent. Again, the ideas about love matches and loving fathers applied here as well.

The first Emperor, Augustus, alarmed at the declining birthrates among the elite Roman families, in 18 BC instituted a series of reforms to reestablish the mos maiorum; a return to traditional social values still in vogue today with Fundamentalists around the world.

Jesus taught a very conservative view on marriage, relying heavily on the social norm (though not requirement) of a marriage being two people. (He also used marriage metaphors for the relationship between himself and the church). This was a complete contradiction of the laws of Moses, but fully in accord with Roman views in a province added to the Empire in 6 AD.

All of this was almost destroyed by the Apostle Paul after the death of Jesus. Although he did write about the merits of marriage, his views that an unmarried celibate lifestyle was best for all Christians had a powerful influence in the Early Church, and could have lead to the movement dying out in a couple of generations.

It has to be understood that those like Paul believed the Second Coming of Jesus was am imminent event, and things such as building a family were a waste of effort and distraction from God. As the months turned into years, into decades, and into centuries with no coming of Jesus, the church understood that, to survive, it had to have new members, and begrudgingly supported marriage.

For the vast majority of people in the ever increasingly Christianized Empire, and long afterwards, they continued to live their lives as their ancestors did; they married, had children, and carried on without church involvement. For over a thousand years, men and women were married because they SAID they were married, without any priestly blessing or even on holy ground. Marriages ended just as easily, and with the frequency of death, multiple marriages in a lifetime were common.

King Charlemagne in the 9th century had 8 to 10 wives/concubines over the course of his life (often 5 at the same time), and 18 children who inherited. No one in the church complained.

Even priests had wives, mistresses and lovers, and children were frequent. The volumes of church orders to stop this practice shows how ineffective they were. When Rodrigo Borgia became Pope Alexander VI in 1492, he moved his mistress and four children into the Vatican, although he did dump her soon afterwards for a younger woman.

Even during the ultra-conservative reaction know as the Counter Reformation (1545-1563), the Catholic Church condemned the idea that “the marriage state is to be placed above the state of virginity, or of celibacy, and that it is not better and more blessed to remain in virginity, or in celibacy, than to be united in matrimony” only 16 years after they made marriage a sacrament. Celibate single lifestyle was still the ideal.

1563 is also the year where the Catholic Church imposed itself as the sole controller over the entire process of marriage, and other churches followed suit.

An an ironic note, this conservative view of marriage led directly to all of the inheritance troubles suffered by various kingdoms and their nobles. Only children from legitimately married couples could inherit, and the problems of infertile couples and typical low survival rates caused a flurry of religious rewrites to allow these people to have heirs. Henry VIII had to invent his own church to get out of his inheritance troubles!

So, as you can see, “Biblical Marriage” was between a man and his property; as much as he could afford. What people really mean is “Roman Marriage.”

The idea of marriage being only “one man and one woman” is another Roman idea embraced by the Christian Church, and still supported today.

“If we could survive without a wife, citizens of Rome, all of us would do without that nuisance; but since nature has so decreed that we cannot manage comfortably with them, nor live in any way without them, we must plan for our lasting preservation rather than for our temporary pleasure.”

The Emperor Augustus could never have imagined how successful his reforms would become.


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