The History of Marriage

Wasn't always one man and one woman

polygamy03_bThe common and often trotted out claim by the Conservative Religious Right in the United States that same-sex marriage will destroy what they believe to be ‘traditional’ marriage is complete and utter bollocks. Marriage has been defined and redefined over the millennia to fit whatever society needed, and even according to the bible, it has not always been between one man and one woman.

Marriage has been around so long, in fact, that it predates recorded history. Most early marriages have been solely for strategic reasons, which were often arranged, and specifically for familial alliances. This included marriage to someone who is already dead, someone of the same gender, or multiple partners. Throughout history, a majority of these marriages were between first and second cousins.

In fact, polygamy was the common form of marriage up until very recently. This is obvious even in the bible, if one takes the time to actually read it. Solomon, Jacob, and David married many women, and had additional concubines. And there are many instances where a woman had multiple husbands. Procreation was not even the main reason for these marriages, even in the early church. If a wife was barren, there were always other, accepted options. It was the Catholic church that started the trend toward monogamy.

Hector Avalos, Robert R. Cargill and Kenneth Atkinson are educators at Iowa State University, University of Iowa and University of Northern Iowa. They state:

“The debate about marriage equality often centers, however discretely, on an appeal to the Bible. Unfortunately, such appeals often reflect a lack of biblical literacy on the part of those who use that complex collection of texts as an authority to enact modern social policy.”

They further commented that the Bible’s definition of marriage can be confusing and contradictory, a primary example being the bible’s supportive position on polygamy, self-induced castration and celibacy, and practice of wedding rape victims to their rapists.

Here’s a handy graphic on biblical marriage:


In short, biblical marriage an arrangement between a man and the father of a woman, to purchase her, according to Genesis 29:18. It’s a wife giving her maidservant to her husband for sex and kids, according to Genesis 16:2-3, Genesis 30:3, Genesis 30:9, etc. It’s being part of a raiding party and killing the entire family of a young virgin, raping her and taking her for a wife, according to Judges 21:10-14. It’s raping a woman, and then that woman being forced to marry her rapist after compensating her father, according to Deuteronomy 22:28-29. It’s selling your daughter into slavery, according to Exodus 21:7-11, and taking hundreds of women as wives and concubines.

Even after the Catholic Church won out on monogamy, it didn’t mean that monogamous fidelity was the norm. Up until the 1800s, it was still acceptable for a man to have lovers. The only difference was that the offspring had no claim to the property of the father, which actually was worse than before. Marriage being a civil contract is also fairly recent. Basically, if someone said they exchanged vows, they were considered married. No ceremony, no officiant, no paperwork, no witnesses needed. Massachusetts began the civil marriage laws in the mid 1600s, and within 200 years, it was the law of the land.

Same-sex marriages aren’t new, either. Male bonding ceremonies in churches were quite common in the Mediterranean region up until the 1200s, and they were virtually identical to other marriages. These ceremonies were called ‘Spiritual brotherhoods,’ and included marriage prayers, the joining of hands, and a kiss at the end.

According to Boswell:

sergebacchus“One Greek 13th century “Order for Solemnization of Same Sex Union,” having invoked St. Serge and St. Bacchus, called on God to “vouchsafe unto these Thy servants grace to love another and to abide unhated and not cause of scandal all the days of their lives, with the help of the Holy Mother of God and all Thy saints.” The ceremony concludes: “And they shall kiss the Holy Gospel and each other, and it shall be concluded.” Another 14th century Serbian Slavonic “Office of the Same Sex Union,” uniting two men or two women, had the couple having their right hands laid on the Gospel while having a cross placed in their left hands. Having kissed the Gospel, the couple were then required to kiss each other, after which the priest, having raised up the Eucharist, would give them both communion.”

Records of same-sex unions are not hard to find.

From Wikipedia:

“There is history of recorded same-sex unions around the world. Various types of same-sex unions have existed, ranging from informal, unsanctioned relationships to highly ritualized unions.

A same-sex union was known in Ancient Greece and Rome, ancient Mesopotamia, in some regions of China, such as Fujian province, and at certain times in ancient European history.

Same-sex marital practices and rituals were more recognized in Mesopotamia than in ancient Egypt. The Almanac of Incantations contained prayers favoring on an equal basis the love of a man for a woman and of a man for man.

In the southern Chinese province of Fujian, through the Ming dynasty period, females would bind themselves in contracts to younger females in elaborate ceremonies. Males also entered similar arrangements. This type of arrangement was also similar in ancient European history.

An example of egalitarian male domestic partnership from the early Zhou Dynasty period of China is recorded in the story of Pan Zhang & Wang Zhongxian. While the relationship was clearly approved by the wider community, and was compared to heterosexual marriage, it did not involve a religious ceremony binding the couple.”

Thus, whenever you hear a Christian state they embrace biblical marriage, understand that they only embrace a very small part of it, and that part has been defined and redefined many times over the past few centuries or so. Marriage, again, predates Christianity and all religion for that matter. It has not always been between one man and one woman (even in the bible), and has not always been for the sole purpose of procreation.

Marriage was created to fill a societal need, and needs to adapt according to the changing needs of society.

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