Sacraments


Topic: Christian Polygamy


Question: Why is Christian polygamy a novelty? I think the bible supports it.

Answer:

The key phrase here is "...and marries another." In context (Matt 19:9), what He really said was: "Whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) and marries another, commits adultery." Now, ... A couple things: First of all, this phrase "unless the marriage is unlawful" is also frequently rendered as "except for unchastity" or "fornication being a separate case"; and, despite the common Protestant interpretation, this does not refer to a wife cheating on her husband (as if Jesus permitted divorce because of that), but rather refers to concubinage --to a man keeping a woman without being truly married to her (in which case, it was okay to set her aside). In a 1st Century context, and **especially within the Church**, this is what all subsequent "wives" would be in a polygamous marriage situation. What's more, Jesus' reference to "...and marries another" makes it perfectly clear that the sin of adultery did not take place when a man got rid of his wife (pious Jewish tradition saw no problem with that: e.g. Ezra 10:1-44), but rather the sin comes into being when this man "marries another," thus revealing that Jesus commanded monogamy.

And, again, keeping in mind that Scriptural Greek is much more precise than modern English, look at what the Lord says earlier in this very passage (in Matt 19:4-5), where He quotes the text of Genesis, saying "Have you not read ...'the TWO shall become ONE flesh.' Jesus quotes Genesis, which speaks of "the two" becoming "one," and then adds that no additional human being (no "anthropos") may separate, or come between, these "two." This alone illustrates why (despite the examples of Abraham, Jacob, David, and Solomon, etc.) polygamy was never accepted in the Church. And, atop all this, as I touched on above, polygamy was simply not recognized by imperial Roman law. Rather, in a 1st Century Greco-Roman context (which is clearly the cultural context of 1 Tim 3:2), any woman that a man might keep, in addition to his wife, was seen only as a concubine ...and thus an extra-marital relationship, per Jesus' reference to "unchastity" / "fornication" / "unlawful marriage" in Matt 19:9. ...And thus not something which the Church could permit in any shape or form, let alone in terms of candidates for the episcopate.

Therefore, what God has joined together ***no human being*** ("anthropos" --man or woman) must separate." Here, Jesus clearly defines marriage as a dynamic involving only **two** persons (male and female), and He further says that no "anthropos" --that is, no **additional person** must come between them. Therefore, polygamy is out because a) it would represent such an additional person (adding to "the two"), b) it would create a situation of concubinage, which would be an occassion of "fornication" (and thus "unlawful" and unacceptable to the Church ...which would require the man, per the Lord's own instruction, to set this additional woman aside); and c) Whether the man divorces his first wife or not, he would be committing adultery in the very act of "marrying another." In other words, the second wife would not be recognized by Jesus or the Church as his wife; but, at the very best, as his concubine. And, if this is what Paul wanted to prohibit for bishops in 1 Tim 3, he could easily have said, 'A bishop must not be an adulterer' ...or ...'must not be a keeper of concubines.' By the way, priestly concubinage (that is, priests keeping concubines ...even when they were married men) was a constant problem for the Church well into the High Middle Ages. Yet, in repeatedly condemning this sin, as far as I know, the Church never cited 1 Tim 3:2 ...something it would no doubt have employed if 1 Tim 3 referred to polygamy, rather than to re-marriage.

The ancient Church required pagan converts who came to the Faith with more than one wife to put away one of them in order to enter the Church. First there is 1 Corinth 6:9-10 for starterss. :-) Secondly, the example of OT tradition (e.g. Ezra 10:1-44). Thirdly, have you ever heard of an ancient Christian with more than one wife? :-) Indeed, while I'm sure we could dig something up in the patristic literature whereby a polygamist had to straighten himself out before Baptism, the truth is that the burden of proof lies with you, not me, because unanimous Christian tradition views polygamy as a sin for Christians. So, if you wish to say that it was once (or in certain cases) permitted, then I'm afraid it falls to you to establish this and to prove that universal Tradition incorrect.

A polygomous marriage was never considered a marriage. It was concubinage. Neither 1st Century Judaism nor imperial Roman law recognized additional wives as wives in the true sense of the word. In fact, the only reason that the OT differentiates between "wives" and "concubines" in cases of polygamists like Jacob or Solomon is because their "wives" represented formal or diplomatic covenants with political third parties (e.g. Jacob and Laban / Solomon and the Pharaoh of Egypt), whereas concubines were acquired for romantic reasons alone, and did not involve a formal or diplomatic covenant with a political associate as part of their dowry. As for your impression that separation from additional wives would violate Jesus' prohibition against divorce, I seriously think that you are misapplying the substance of the Lord's teaching in Matt 19 (as clarified above). Again, the Lord speaks of "the two" becoming "one"; and of no additional person violating this two-person intimacy. He also says that "marrying another" results in adultery. So, to set aside a second or third "wife" is not divorce at all, since a) these additional women were never true wives and b) one cannot use the Lord's command to justify an immortal situation.

Look again at Matt 19:9, where Jesus distinguishes between lawful and unlawful marriage (i.e., "shacking up" ;-), and says that "unlawful marriage" does not apply to his prohibition against divorce. In other words, if a man is living with a woman who is not legally his wife, it's okay (according to Jesus) for him to put her away. Now, ... Let's imagine a case in which a 1st Century Roman wishes to enter the Church. Only one problem: He's been living with a woman for over a decade, has children with this woman, and this woman and her children are totally dependent upon this Roman gentleman for their livelihood. Now, ... Would the Church allow him to go on living with this woman after he is Baptized? No, it would not. Rather, as a condition of his Baptism, he would have to withdraw himself from the immoral situation. Now, one might say, the Church would just make him marry her; however, what if this man were married before or, as was the case with St. Augustine and the Carthaginian girl, what if this couple faced one of the many social and legal obstacles which prevented Roman citizens from marrying outside their class, etc. (An example might be the southern United States in the 19th Century, in which a legal marriage between a White aristocrat and a Black woman would simply not be possible). So, as "heartless" as it may sound, the 1st Century Church would have no qualms about breaking up this Roman man's "family" for the sake of righteousness. And the very same would apply to a man with more than one wife, given that these additional "wives" would not be seen as wives at all, but (as with the Roman man) mere concubines.

The fact is that Christianity introduced a revolutionary understanding of marriage, which was something totally different from the pagan or Jewish understanding of marriage. Simply put, for both pagans and Jews, marriage was merely a legal contract --a secular provision to prevent men from fighting over women within a given society (a dynamic which had existed since caveman days). So, for both pagans and Jews, marriage was an institution in which a man literally **owns** his wife as a piece of property; and this property ownership was merely a legal construct, which could be dissolved (or, in a Mid-Eastern context, "added to") at the husband's pleasure.

Yet, when Christianity came into being, things dramatically changed. According to the Church's understanding, marriage was not merely a legal construct, but a mystical and **Sacramental** covenant which reflected the Messianic Wedding between Christ and His Bride, the Church (e.g. Ephesians 5:25-32). Indeed, in Ephes 5:32, Paul speaks of marriage as "a great mystery" (which reflects the unity of Christ and the Church); and here the Greek word used is "Mysterion" --the same word that the Eastern (Greek) Orthodox and Byzantine Catholics used today in place of the Latin word "Sacrament." So, for the early Church, the merely secular and legal institution of marriage was raised to the level of a Divine Sacrament --something which **never** existed before. Indeed, in Ephes 5:24-25, Paul gives a command which was unheard of at the time. :-) After instructing wives to be subordinate to their husbands, he then tells husbands to **love their wives** ...and to do so as Christ loved the Church --in a **sacrificial** sense. And, really, one has to appreciate how odd and revolutionary this was, given that, at the time, a wife was a piece of property. A husband did not need to "love" her at all, but she existed to serve and provide for him, not vise-versa. But, Paul and the Church turn this around. Suddenly, now, marriage is placed on a new, Divine, and Christian level.

Mark BonocoreName
Catholic Apologist
October 26, 2003