Polygyny in NT Times

Somewhere along the way I kind of picked up the idea that polygamy among Jews had mostly waned and was mostly non-existent by the time of the NT. I knew there was a formal ban much later, but I had it stuck in my head that that was pretty much just a formality. So the following comments from my friend Ben McGuire were of great interest to me, and I share them here by permission:

Polygamy was quite widespread at the time of the New Testament. This doesn’t mean it was exceptionally common, but it was widespread and widely accepted. Under Roman rule, women tended to have a greater degree of freedom with regards to these marriages (as they could file for divorce and such in civil courts – and it seems that at least on the Roman side, women could be represented by women attourneys – something you wouldn’t have seen prior to the Roman occupation in Judah).

For the most part, between the New Testament era and the first ban on polygyny (it was in the 11th century when Rabbenu Gershom issued The Ban – forbidding bigamy and divorcing a wife without her consent), the preferred method of preventing a husband from taking a second wife was to make stipulations against this practice in the ketubah (the marriage contract). And we have plenty of examples of these. There is also a lot of related (and valuable) documentation on this issue found at the Cairo Genizah (but sorting through all of it takes more patience than I have).

Gershom’s Ban was issued in Ashkenaz (11th century Franco-Germany). Later, takkanot would extend the authority of Gershom’s Ban to the point that it was considered just below Moses. Of course, most of the Jews in Islamic territories (where they were often given a high degree of autonomy) were opposed to the Ban for a number of reasons (but the arguments were primarily theological). Those who rejected the Ban most vocally were those of the school of Rabbenu Tam, and the most cited dissensions were those written by Speyer, Worms and Mainz. And the dissensions generally covered two points – the command to multiply and replenish the earth, and the fact that the Law of Moses required polygamy under certain circumstances relative to Levirate marriage.

The Jewish leadership in the early period of U.S. history was made primarily of Sephardic Jews (not Ashkenazic Jews), and so there was a significant amount of polygamy going on in the U.S. in the early years. In the U.S., a decision to ban polygamy occured at a rabbinic conference only as late as 1869 (note that this is when polygamy had begun to be a larger issue due in part to the Mormon question). However, even then, most U.S. Jews as late as the first decade of the 20th century still believed that polygamy was legitimate, and legal and binding.

Levirate marriage really didn’t begin to see a decline until the 13th century (AD), and in the 14th century, Rabbi Asher ben Jehiel ruled that as far as Ashkenazic Jewry was concerned, halitzah was no longer an optional practice in such cases, but a requirement (this is the situation in Israel today, but even modern Jewish courts hold that the brother-in-law is still obligated to the woman in the case of Levirate marriage until halitzah is performed, and she may not remarry until that happens either).

As far as New Testament times, some of the most interesting documents are a series of notes and letters found belonging to Babathah (in the Cave of Letters) dating to the time of the Bar Kochba revolt against Rome (132-135 AD). These documents (and others found by Yadin in the same place) really provide a tremendous amount of insight into the issues surrounding marriages, divorces, polygamy and so on.

Other evidence is more anecdotal (but still quite valuable). Rabbinic discourses (in the Mishnah) contain more than 100 clarifications of the practice of Levirate marriage, for example, most dealing with issues related to polygamy (what happens when sisters marry brothers, for example). It would seem rather absurd to see this volume of speculation based purely on hypotheticals. At the same time, in the period of time leading up to the ban on polygamy, there were attempts to limit the number of wives – primarily based on Deuteronomy 17:17, and the general consensus eventually ends up with the number four being a good number for the number of wives a man should be allowed to marry (following Jacob/Israel of course).

Comments

  1. Kevin,

    My understanding is that Sephardic Jews in Yemen were still practicing polygamy in the 1950’s and 1960’s when most of them moved to Isreal.

    From Wiki

    In the modern day, Rabbinic Judaism has essentially outlawed polygamy. Ashkenazi Jews have followed Rabbenu Gershom’s ban since the 11th century.[18] Some Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews (particularly those from Yemen and Iran) discontinued polygamy much more recently, as they emigrated to countries where it was forbidden. The State of Israel has severely limited the ability for Jews to enter polygamous marriages,[19] but instituted provisions for existing polygamous families immigrating from countries where the practice was legal.

  2. StillConfused says:

    This is quite interesting since I typically associate modern day Jewish folks with small families.

  3. What is halitzah?

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    Chris, see here.

  5. Very interesting post. I didn’t know it persisted in Judaism so long.

  6. Thanks, Kevin. This was a very interesting post. I was under the same mistaken impression as you.

  7. StillConfused

    That’s probably because most of your associations have been with secular Jews.

    Walk the streets of Willamsburg, Crown Heights or Borough Park on a warm Sunday afternoon and you’ll see a large orthodox or hasidic community where family size make the local wards of the church look like Johnny-come-latelies.

  8. Oh, I meant to mention that those are neighborhoods in Brooklyn.

  9. The key to understanding Jewish polygamy is to look at the Jewish population outside of the European Ashkenazi. The Ashkenazi had to assimilate themselves to the culture that they found themselves in. IE a non polygamous one

    The Sephardic Jews in the middle east were surrounded by Muslims who did and currently do practice polygamy. So it should be no surprise that ancient Jewish polygamy customs hung in longer in the Middle east.

    My understanding is that the Sephardic Jews in Isreal now outnumber the Ashkenazi.

    Having lived for a while in Skokie IL I can tell you that Orthodox and Hasidic Jews have very large families. 6-10 kids is quite common.

  10. This is very interesting, but I am not fully persuaded yet. In my reading of this summary, the only evidence offered about polygamy in NT times is the enigmatic sentence that the Bar Kochba letters “provide a tremendous amount of insight into the issues surrounding marriages, divorces, polygamy and so on.” I don’t have access to these letters at home, but what exactly do they say regarding polygamy?

    None of the other NT-era sources testify to contemporary Jewish polygamy that I am aware of (Josephus, NT, Philo, and Greek and Roman accounts of Jews numbering in the dozens) ever mention this practice. Inasmuch as it would have been anomalous in Greek and Roman culture, I suspect that it would have warranted some mention. Maybe it was mentioned more explicitly in something that I’ve missed, but I would still like to see more evidence.

    Now, it is certainly possible that it was practiced by some Jews outside of the time or region of Roman rule, which is in itself interesting, but doesn’t itself constitute evidence for its practice during NT times.

  11. Thank you Kevin for making this information available to us. Very informative. You taught me several new ideas today.

  12. BTW – do you have a link to the ending of American Jewish polygamy in 1869? (Preferably something accessible via JSTOR)

  13. One interesting article I found from a quick JSTOR search was “Polygyny in Jewish Tradition and Practice: New Sources from the Cairo Geniza” by Mordechai Friedman. 1982, Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research

    It mainly deals with the Islamic period and not late antiquity. But it was very interesting.

  14. StillConfused says:

    I read about the Jewish traditions and they seem so odd to me. I wonder if they feel the same way about some of the things that we do. Does the shoe ritual still continue today?

  15. I’ve oftened wondered if Adam was exempt from plural marriage since he would literally be marrying one of his own daughters.

    Does anyone know if his sons entered into plural marriage or if it started with Abraham, Isaac etc?

  16. #15

    Either way his sons would be literally marrying their own sisters, so what difference would it make if they married one or serveral of them?

  17. Genesis 6 is fascinating (Really, Genesis 4-6), since it appears to gloss over all kinds of potential narratives regarding the population of the earth. It’s only if you take the Fall narrative literally that Adam’s sons would have had to marry their sisters.

    That’s not a topic for this thread, though.

  18. Jewish legends about Adam’s first wife Lilith (who wouldn’t partake of the fruit and so he needed a second, more cooperative wife Eve) abound.

    Another factor in Jewish polygamy was the command to procreate, and if a wife was barren after a certain number of years (7 or 10, I recall) then the man was supposed to take a second wife. Think Hannah and Peninah, for example. So it’s possible that Zacharias had another wife besides Elisabeth.

    I’ve heard one scholar speculate that Jesus’ probable polygamy (Marys, Martha?) was a likely contributing cause to the crucifixion, since that was a touchy subject.

  19. Second request for some references for that Jewish polygamy in the US remaining until 1869. I don’t want to repeat it if it isn’t the case. (I’ve been burned that way before)

  20. Ben McGuire says:

    Clark: You can find an article discussing this here:

    http://jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=425&letter=P&search=polygamy

    I suppose if we need to we can dig further into the historical record regarding this conference. For the first part of the existence of the US, of course, there were no Rabbis in the country, and the positions of leadership were held by prominent members of the Jewish community (mostly Sephardic) including, for example, M. Seixas.

    TT asks: “I don’t have access to these letters at home, but what exactly do they say regarding polygamy?”

    First, the Babatha material should not be confused with the Bar Kochba letters. Although they were found in the same place, they are different archives, and were found separately. The Babatha documents relate to a woman named Babatha who was married to her first husband, who died, remarried as the second wife to another man, and several of the documents are related to a lawsuit which she was engaged in to the first wife of her second husband after he passed away. Among other things, there are details about marriage contracts in these documents suggesting that while a first marriage was often done with a Greek contract, since Greco-Roman law did not recognize polyandry, the plural wive’s marriage contracts (at least in the case of Babatha) were done in Aramaic, probably for a number of plausible reasons.

    One of the challenges is simply a lack of consistent records. What we have is generally limited to documents of the sort found in the cave of letters, or of the rabbinic writings, or in other archives (like the Cairo Genizah). There were many rabbis in the second century AD who were polygamous. Justin Martyr would comment on this later in his Dialogus cum Tryphone Iudaeo. And of course, we have extreme examples of polygamy (which aren’t necessarily examples of polygamy) but are nevertheless noteworthy – like, for example, Rabbi Tarfon who betrothed (kidesh – by contract) 300 women. Of course he did so during a period of drought, so as to extend to these women access to the priestly food (Terumah), marital intimacy probably wasn’t his intentions here, and of course Gemara doesn’t tell us whether or not he divorced any of them after the famine was over.

    But, there is a tremendous amount of material in the Mishnah and other Talmudic sources dealing with polygamy and its regulation, and so the presumption ought to be that polygamy was rather common, not that it was rare. Yes, later Jewish aversion to polygamy probably produces a traditional view that is incorrect. Early Christianity wasn’t terribly obsessed with polygamy – rather it was obsessed with divorce. And of course the regular appearance of polygamy related stipulations (either the requirement that there be none, or strict limits as to its practice) is another indicator.

    Finally, for StillConfused, I recommend this link:

    http://www.jewishsf.com/content/2-0-/module/displaystory/story_id/8442/edition_id/160/format/html/displaystory.html

    There has been a fair amount written in this regard, and the social injustices dealing with this issue. While the sandal ceremony must be performed, until it is performed, the widow is considered to be betrothed to her brother-in-law (although not at a level that give him intimate access to her). She cannot remarry until the ceremony is performed. One of the individuals listed at that link – the woman whose husband was killed in the accident, was discussed in a case reported in 1998 in the Spring Newsletter of the International Council of Jewish Women. Since 1998 there have been some significant decisions in favor of Jewish women on these issues, which are documented here:

    http://www.icjw.org/index.asp

  21. StillConfused says:

    I just spoke with the Chairman of the Board of one of my clients. he is Jewish. He disputes that there was polygamy in the US. I didn’t have this information handy to shrae with him but just thought you would like to know that there are Jewish folks who don’t believe there was Jewish polygamy in the states

  22. Ben,
    Thank you very much for your detailed response. I was surprised by the Babatha finds as I did some reading on this today. This is pretty clear evidence.

    I was able to track down the specific ref from Justin, Dial 141:

    “And this one fall of David, in the matter of Uriah’s wife, proves, sirs,” I said, “that the patriarchs had many wives, not to commit fornication, but that a certain dispensation and all mysteries might be accomplished by them; since, if it were allowable to take any wife, or as many wives as one chooses, and how he chooses, which the men of your nation do over all the earth, wherever they sojourn, or wherever they have been sent, taking women under the name of marriage, much more would David have been permitted to do this.”

    Here, Justin seems to indicate that the practice occurs all over the earth. However, he does not indicate how common it was in terms of how many Jews did it, only that it could be found all over. Justin on his own would not constitute, for me, definitive evidence of Jewish practice. I am a minimalist on this issue since I think Justin presents a Judaism that is useful for his apologetic, and not necessarily an informed view on scripture or social practice, despite his claims to the contrary. But, coupled with Babatha, I think there is pretty good evidence to conclude that it did happen at least on occasion.

    As for the Talmudic sources, the only ones I found (online) were from the Bavli, so I am not sure how representative these are of Greco-Roman Jews of the first and second centuries.

    The statement of yours that I take issue with is this: “there is a tremendous amount of material in the Mishnah and other Talmudic sources dealing with polygamy and its regulation, and so the presumption ought to be that polygamy was rather common, not that it was rare.”

    This conclusion that polygamy was “rather common” doesn’t seem to follow. For instance, there is a tremendous amount of material dealing with the regulations around the temple in the Talmud, but we know that there was no temple. Just because the Talmud talks about something, even a lot, doesn’t mean that it happened a lot. I think that this kind of historical work from the Talmud is suspect since it fails to consider that the Talmud is ultimately about Law, not about describing actual practices.

    This is not to say that polygamy did not occur. On the contrary, I think that the Justin quote combined with Babatha is pretty good evidence that this practice occurred during the Greco-Roman period. However, given the thousands of pages we have from this period written by or about Jews, the lack of mention of the practice in any other sources seems to me to indicate that the practice was rather uncommon.

  23. >>Just because the Talmud talks about something, even a lot, doesn’t mean that it happened a lot.

    Definitely a valid point.

  24. Didn’t Herod the Great practice polygamy?

  25. Ben – any sources beyond that 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia?

  26. Kevin Barney says:

    Andrew, yes, Herod was a polygamist (according to Josephus). He had ten wives (not all at once, but certainly more than one at once).

  27. Kevin,
    Are you sure? I can find only very few of the dates of Herod’s marriages. Are you just presuming that he was married to more than one wife at the same time, or is there a specific passage that says so?

  28. found this interesting link that quotes many of the primary sources on this issue:
    http://www.christian-thinktank.com/polygame.html

  29. Kevin Barney says:

    Herod had ten wives and 16 children. He didn’t have all ten at once; there was some sequencing involved, and we don’t know the full details. But they weren’t all sequential; there was certainly some polygamy going on there. (Josephus says that Herod practiced polygamy like the ancients did.)

    Here’s one example of a passage where Josephus talks about Herod’s wives, in Antiquities 17.1.3, from the CCEL site:

    3. Now Herod (1) the king had at this time nine wives; one of them Antipater’s mother, and another the high priest’s daughter, by whom he had a son of his own name. He had also one who was his brother’s daughter, and another his sister’s daughter; which two had no children. One of his wives also was of the Samaritan nation, whose sons were Antipas and Archelaus, and whose daughter was Olympias; which daughter was afterward married to Joseph, the king’s brother’s son; but Archelaus and Antipas were brought up with a certain private man at Rome. Herod had also to wife Cleopatra of Jerusalem, and by her he had his sons Herod and Philip; which last was also brought up at Rome. Pallas also was one of his wives, which bare him his son Phasaelus. And besides these, he had for his wives Phedra and E1pis, by whom he had his daughters Roxana and Salome. As for his elder daughters by the same mother with Alexander and Aristobulus, and whom Pheroras neglected to marry, he gave the one in marriage to Antipater, the king’s sister’s son, and the other to Phasaelus, his brother’s son. And this was the posterity of Herod.

  30. Kevin Barney says:

    Josephus, Antiquities 17.1.3 is one example of a passage where he talks about Herod’s wives:

    3. Now Herod (1) the king had at this time nine wives; one of them Antipater’s mother, and another the high priest’s daughter, by whom he had a son of his own name. He had also one who was his brother’s daughter, and another his sister’s daughter; which two had no children. One of his wives also was of the Samaritan nation, whose sons were Antipas and Archelaus, and whose daughter was Olympias; which daughter was afterward married to Joseph, the king’s brother’s son; but Archelaus and Antipas were brought up with a certain private man at Rome. Herod had also to wife Cleopatra of Jerusalem, and by her he had his sons Herod and Philip; which last was also brought up at Rome. Pallas also was one of his wives, which bare him his son Phasaelus. And besides these, he had for his wives Phedra and E1pis, by whom he had his daughters Roxana and Salome. As for his elder daughters by the same mother with Alexander and Aristobulus, and whom Pheroras neglected to marry, he gave the one in marriage to Antipater, the king’s sister’s son, and the other to Phasaelus, his brother’s son. And this was the posterity of Herod.

  31. Yes Kevin, thanks. The question I had about this passage and others was whether the nine (10 elsewhere) marriages were all at the same time. In some cases, the answer is clearly no because we know that Miriamne I (Antipater’s mother) was executed in 29 BCE. So when he says Herod had 9 wives, he doesn’t necessarily mean at the same time, but total throughout his life.
    Josephus isn’t necessarily interested in recording divorces, but rather establishing genealogies. Here, the primary point of the passage is about the children of the marriages, not the marriages per se. Given that this is not his interest, for me it is unclear if he was married to these women at the same time.

  32. As I read this passage more closely, I realized that the 10th wife was Miriamne I, who was executed. I agree that Josephus does seem to mean that he had all of these nine wives at the same time.

  33. Kevin Barney says:

    Based on the information we have, it appears that Herod had ten wives and 16 children. He did not have all ten wives at the same time, so there was some sequencing involved. But they were not all “one at a time” sequenced, either, so there was also some polygamy involved, especially as you get later down the chain. The precise contours of this are not known.

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