Jewish and Christian conceptions, laws, and rituals of marriage offer an interesting case study in the larger ways in which Jews and Christians have both appropriated from and polemicized against each other throughout the ages. Although beginning from the same authoritative text of the Tanakh/“Old Testament,” Jews and Christians soon radically diverged in their approaches to marriage. From then until now, each local community of Jews and Christians has renegotiated its understanding and practice of marriage in conversation with sacred texts, traditions, and each other. Marriage becomes one of many sites at which this negotiation takes place, but with one important difference: since marriage quite physically embodies the issue of borders between religious communities, at various times it has been a site of fierce contestation.
The Tanakh, for the most part, takes marriage for granted. A cryptic line in the story of Adam and Eve (Gen 2:24) explains the origin of marriage in the way in which Eve was created out of Adam; the story nowhere explicitly states that Adam and Eve married, or that marriage is a divinely ordained institution. There is, in fact, little sense throughout the Tanakh that marriage is anything more than a social contract in which God has only a passing interest. For most of the biblical authors, marriage had the goals of regulating sexuality and, to a much more limited degree, the devolution of property. Adultery (defined as sex between a married woman and a man other than her husband; Ex 20:14; Deut 22:22), the sexual activities of priests and their families, and incest (which follows its own definition in Lev 18) were issues in which God took an interest. The possibilities of polygamy, divorce, and remarriage are all assumed. The vast majority of biblical writing about marriage is more descriptive than prescriptive. For example, the story of the marriage between Jacob and Leah (Gen 29) would later be used by Jews to authorize the use of bridal veils. Similarly, the rabbis take the biblical law dealing with divorce and remarriage (Deut 24) as legislating the structure of divorce, in which a man must initiate a divorce with a document of repudiation (sefer keritut, later known as a get), although the biblical clause seems to be more descriptive than prescriptive.
A few biblical texts use marital imagery metaphorically, although they do not suggest that marriage itself was seen as more than a social institution. When following gods other than YHWH, Israel is personified as an “adulteress” (e.g., Jer 2:23-37). Hosea contains the most complex and developed marital metaphor, in which the prophet is himself commanded to marry a prostitute and have children with her (Hos 2), an incident that ends when God ultimately promises to take Israel in marriage in some utopian period and way. Some scholars, following early Jewish and Christian exegetes, have seen the Song of Songs as a metaphor for God’s marriage to Israel or the Church, but there is no explicit sign of this in the Song itself.
The view of marriage in the New Testament is much more conflicted. Jesus is portrayed as regarding marriage more portentously as a divine institution linked to the creation of Adam and Eve (Mt 19:1-11). He therefore, like the Dead Sea Scrolls (Noam 2005), forbids polygamy, divorce, and remarriage (when the spouse is still living). He also offers a more expansive and egalitarian definition of adultery (Mt 5:27-28). At the same time, he seems to downplay the role of any family, since such ties will be quickly irrelevant in the approaching eschaton (Lk 14:26). Paul, who was familiar with Jesus’ view of marriage and who believed at least as strongly that the end of the world was imminent, goes one degree further, urging a celibate life (1 Cor 7). On the other hand, though, the later epistles fully accept both marriage and the traditional hierarchies that constitute it (e.g., Eph 5:22-33).
In Late Antiquity, the formative period of both Judaism and Christianity, Jews and Christians appropriated and shaped these biblical traditions within the context of their Greek and Roman cultures. The classical rabbis, particularly in Roman Palestine, emphasized marriage as the foundation of what Greeks called an oikos, usually translated “house,” a foundational political unit of reproduction, production, and consumption. For at least upper-class Palestinian Jews, marriage was the institution, entirely taken for granted, that would continue the family name and estate. This understanding of marriage was entirely unexceptional in the wider Mediterranean context, and most Christians shared some version of it as well (Satlow 2001, 3-40).
A minority of Christians, however, focused on the ascetical strains in the New Testament and resisted cultural, and often familial, expectations. Christian hagiographical literature records stories of Christians, usually women, sacrificing their lives rather than their virginity for their faith (Cooper 1999). Emerging monasteries, at least a part of whose members came from elite, literate families, created confusion about the transfer of hereditary estates that threatened the customary ways of doing things. Asceticism was not simply a religious act, but a political one as well.
Christian asceticism brought scorn from Greeks, Romans, and Jews. The topic of celibacy seems, in fact, to have been one of the very few areas of contact between Jews and Christians. While Rabbinic literature contains only passing and ambivalent mention of celibacy (bYev 63b; cf. Boyarin 1993, 134-166) and no direct critique of Christians for the practice, an early Christian writer, Aphrahat, states that Jews roundly mocked them (Dem. 18.12; cf. Koltun-Fromm 2010).
There are two other areas of possible contact between Jewish and Christian understandings of marriage in Late Antiquity. Christians who approved of marriage followed the New Testament in forbidding polygamy (monogamy was also the Roman practice) and adding a quasi-sacramental dimension to marriage. Jews in Roman Palestine similarly seemed to have adopted monogamy (of course, they might have already have been overwhelmingly monogamous for centuries before this), although polygamy would not be banned among Ashkenazic Jews until the Middle Ages (Grossman 1988; Gafni 1989; Jacob 1999). In Rabbinic literature there also appear traces of a view of marriage that links it to the metaphor of the relationship between God and Israel, elevating its symbolic value. Jews never abandoned, though, their full acceptance of the possibility of divorce.
In the sixteenth century, Protestants would push back against, and in some cases abandon, the traditional Roman Catholic prohibition against divorce and support of celibacy. Conceptually and theologically (as distinct from politically), this was primarily due to increasing emphasis being placed on individual conscience and autonomy (cf. Witte 2018). For similar reasons, individual “love” was increasingly seen as the glue of marriage. Ultimately, this would drive Protestant and Jewish understandings of marriage closer together. Increasing emphasis on marriage as leading to individual fulfillment, rather than as an institution primarily linked to family preservation or as a sacrament, would lead in our own time to legal and definitional challenges, most prominently with same-sex marriages.
Rabbinic laws around marriage tend mostly to revolve around the legal capacity of partners. They limit potential marital partners based on degree of consanguinity, age, marital status, caste status, and religion/ethnicity. The latter three in particular might require some elaboration. Rabbinic law, following the Tanakh, is very concerned with the possibility of adultery, which then leads it to consider carefully the objective measures of when a marriage begins and ends. Since a defective divorce or mistaken understanding of widowhood (e.g., a solider missing in action) could lead to remarriage and adultery, rabbis have tended to be quite strict about the determination of marital status. Again following the Tanakh, there are special “caste” restrictions as well on the marital choices of Jewish priests (kohanim), a status that is handed down from father to son. Going beyond biblical law, the rabbis also prohibited “intermarriage,” defined as the marriage of a Jew with any non-Jew (Satlow 2001, 133-161).
The rabbis created a legal structure for marriage to determine objectively whether and precisely when a marital bond is formed. While there are a few potential ways to form a marriage, the most common is for a man to give an object of value (today, usually a ring) to a woman with a statement of intent in front of witnesses, and she must accept (mQid 1:1). The entire procedure, known as qiddushin, can take about a minute. The rest of the Jewish marriage ceremony consists of reading a traditional and (today) largely symbolic pre-nuptial agreement (the ketubah) and the recitation of a set of blessings for the new couple. The role of these blessings is, technically, to allow the already married couple to cohabitate.
Christian marriages similarly require objective, legal markers. Since in the Roman Catholic Church marriage is seen as a sacrament, only the words of the participants, mediated by the priest, can formally create a binding marriage. The legal form of Protestant marriages varies widely and can require a clerical officiant or have a radically contractual nature.
Marital status can be important not just for determining when a partner has committed adultery, but also for the status of offspring. Here Jewish and Christian law diverge. In Jewish law, the marital status of one’s parents is irrelevant for one’s status; terms like “born out-of-wedlock” or “bastard,” unlike in most Christian law, are irrelevant. What is highly relevant in Jewish law for personal status is the legal ability of the parents to marry, whether they do so or not (mQid 3:12). The child of an adulteress or an incestual union, in Jewish law, is called a mamzer, a status that gets passed down as a permanent infirmity that prohibits that person from marrying another Jew. Rabbis thus go to great pains to prevent this status, often by finding grounds to annul illegal marriages retroactively (i.e., the marriage was declared to have never existed). Marriage annulment is also available as a tool for Christian clergy, who use it, instead of divorce, to allow couples to separate and remarry.
Intermarriage is a particularly striking site of Jewish-Christian interaction. Prior to the advent of Christianity, Jews began to put heavy emphasis on avoiding marriage to non-Jews (an emphasis that was most likely more than rhetorical, as classical authors commented on it). In the first few centuries of the Christian era, Christians – who were trying to forge their own, new identity distinct from a Jewish one – singled out intermarriage with Jews as particularly egregious, whereas intermarriage with Christians per se (as opposed simply to any non-Jews) was of no particular concern to the rabbis. In recent years, this dynamic has almost flipped. Jewish religious leaders, worried about issues of Jewish identity and continuity, have grappled with intermarriage, sometimes with heavy-handed prohibitions and at other times with strategies of assimilating the intermarried families into the Jewish community.
Both Jewish and Christian leaders have been challenged by the issue of same-sex unions, one that ultimately stems from the same foundational assumption of intermarriage, namely, that the goal of marriage is personal fulfillment and its essential element is love. Neither the Jewish nor the Christian communities have a unified response to this challenge. Some Christian and Jewish groups (e.g., the Roman Catholic Church, Orthodox Jews) have roundly rejected same-sex unions as being against God’s law and a perversion of “marriage.” Others (e.g., the Presbyterian Church in the United States, the Episcopal Church, many Protestants in Germany, and Reform Jews) have fully accepted same-sex “marriage” as equal in all ways to a heterosexual marriage. Other religious groups offer compromise positions, prohibiting same-sex marriage but allowing religious commitment ceremonies. Both Christians and Jews are struggling in the modern period, each with an eye on the other, to square their understanding of marriage as based on love with their commitment to traditional texts.
There are no marriage “officiants” in the Bible. As in the cultures of both the circum-Mediterranean and the ancient Near East, in the first few centuries of this era Jews and Christians saw weddings as opportunities publicly to acknowledge and mark the private, contractual formation of a marriage. There was an expected package of behaviors that normally went along with such weddings, although they varied according to local custom and the class and status of the couples’ families. There may or may not be a brief ceremony in which the couple or their families publicly agreed to the union, followed by a party; the attendees could later serve as witnesses to the union, should the need arise. The new wife might wear a veil and the husband a crown. There may, or may not, be time set aside for the couple to consummate the marriage. As in almost every act of such significance, the divine would be petitioned to show favor on the new couple. There seems to have been no set ritual or liturgy.
As time went on, both Christian and Jewish marriages became more sacralized and ritualized. Christians, whose leaders increasingly saw marriage as a sacrament through Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages, sought to bring weddings under tighter clerical supervision and control. Ambrose and the late 4th-cent. cleric known as Ambrosiaster argued for a distinctly Christian ritual of marriage that requires the blessings of a bishop (Hunter 2009). By the 5th cent., at least in Italy, Christian couples (what percent we do not know) turned to bishops to “officiate” their weddings, and by the 12th cent. Christian weddings were routinely performed in churches. The significance of this shift should not be underestimated, as the rituals intend (successfully or not) to move the meaning of marriage from the family to the institution of the Church.
Jews came to this process of sacralization later and almost certainly in imitation of the Christians among whom they lived. Rabbis began to be seen as desirable, if never legally necessary, officiants at weddings, and used a short liturgy (the “seven blessings”) recorded in the Talmud (bKet 8a-b). Weddings increasingly (but never exclusively) took place in synagogues or their courtyards. They were increasingly ritualized, including especially the practices of a bride circling the groom seven times; a qiddushin ceremony in which the groom gives the bride a ring; the presence of a huppah, a canopy under which the wedding was performed; and the reading of the ketubah. Even the breaking of the glass by the groom, which began as a popular custom opposed by the rabbis, was given new meaning and ritualized as well. Modern Jewish weddings maintain most of these customs, although some denominations have made changes in line with modern sentiments. The custom of the bride circling the groom has become less common and there is increasing popularity of double-ring ceremonies (in which the bride also gives a ring to the groom). The text and form of the ketubah has always been adjusted in line with the larger cultural context (e.g., Friedman 1980), and many modern versions replace the traditional text – which emphasizes financial rights and obligations – with one that focuses on emotional commitment. Since both Jewish and Christian communities are subject to the same modern dynamics that include decreasing membership in religious institutions, it is not surprising to find that Jewish weddings too are increasingly occurring, again, out of synagogues.
Understanding marriage within the context of Jewish-Christian relations today must also take account of a third player, that of secularization with the options that it opens for religious life outside of traditional institutions. While in the past marriage could be a charged site of interaction between Jews and Christians, particularly in matters relating to intermarriage, today in most Western communities those marriages look quite similar, as they both are responding to a much greater force.
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