Weddings in the Bible and early Christianity (version 220.127.116.11)
Copyright 1996-2004 Robert Nguyen Cramer
Wedding festivities and ceremonies, as described in the Old Testament and the New Testament, began in the home of the the bride and were concluded at the home of the groom, where the marriage contract was read and blessings were pronounced by parents and friends. Then the marriage couple went to their private room, offered prayers, and sexually consummated their relationship.
First-century Jews and Christians did not hold weddings in synagogues or churches. As was the case with Jewish weddings, ceremonies very likely were performed in the homes of the marriage couples. Those homes sometimes may have been the same homes in which the Christians of that city or town gathered for worship, since all "churches" during the first three centuries of Christianity were house churches. (See "House churches" at http://www.bibletexts.com/glossary/house-churches.htm.)
Kenneth Scott Latourette comments (A History of Christianity, Volumes I, Revised Edition, New York: Harper & Row, 1975, pages 204-205):
Christians were not required to seek the blessing of the Church to give validity to their marriage. However, by the time of Tertullian [160-225 A.D.] it seems to have become customary to have a Christian ceremony in which the Church cemented the marriage, confirmed it with an oblation, and sealed it with a benediction.
A religious wedding ceremony did not begin to be considered as a sacrament until almost three centuries later, and it was not officially recognized as one of the seven sacraments until the Council of Trent, between 1545 and 1563.
Up to the time of Constantine churches were not edifices that were specifically built for Christian worship. They were Christians' houses in which fellow Christians gathered and worshipped -- again, maybe the same houses in which weddings sometimes took place. It was not until the fourth century that Church edifices began to be built -- sponsored by Constantine. The beginning of consideration of the wedding ceremony as a sacramental rite roughly coincided chronologically with the erecting of church edifices, which increasingly replaced houses as the places of worship.
Today the options of where to perform a wedding ceremony are continuing to increase. In America in early the Congregational Church, whose roots were in the Puritan tradition, wedding ceremonies were not conducted in churches. This Puritan tradition rejected sacraments, rites, and ceremonies that arose after Constantine became Emperor of Rome, early in the fourth century. Puritans not only rejected the celebration of Christmas (which was simply a traditional pagan Roman holiday that was reinterpreted to give it Christian significance and justification), but Puritans also rejected conducting weddings in churches. Even today, though the Roman Catholic church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and some other churches consider matrimony as a sacrament, most Protestant denominations do not consider matrimony as a sacrament, even though they hold religious weddings in their church edifices -- and many wedding ceremonies are performed elsewhere.
Harper’s Bible Dictionary
edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)
You are strongly recommended to add to your library the excellent revised edition of Harper's Bible Dictionary titled, The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, Revised Edition [book review], edited by Paul J. Achtemeier, with the Society of Biblical Literature (NY: Harper Collins, 1996). It is currently the best one-volume Bible dictionary in English, and it is available at Border's Books, Christian Science Reading Rooms, http://www.borders.com, or http://www.christianbook.com.
wedding, a ceremony by which a man and a woman enter into matrimony. Within the larger communal transaction known as marriage, a wedding was in biblical times, as it is today, the occasion upon which a woman and a man formally initiated a new household with the blessing of their families. The term itself occurs only once in the OT (Song of Sol. 3:11) and rarely in the NT (Matt. 9:15; Mark 2:19; Luke 5:34; Matt. 22:8-12). Furthermore, wedding customs evolved over the millennium embraced by the biblical witness, and it is therefore impossible to give a definitive description of how a wedding was done in ancient Israel at any specific point in time. However, the evidence warrants certain observations.
No hint is preserved, either in the OT or the NT , that a religious ceremony accompanied the wedding. The occasion was a legal one, and perhaps written contracts were signed, just as written bills of divorce could also be signed (cf. Deut. 24:1-3; Jer. 3:8; Mark 10:4). The still-practiced Jewish custom of beginning a wedding with the writing of a marriage contract can be traced back to the first century b.c. The nuptial celebrations consisted of a procession from the house of the bride to the bridegrooms home (cf. Matt. 25:6; the latter may have been symbolized by a tent; cf. Num. 25:8; 2 Sam. 16:22; Ps. 19:6; Song of Sol. 1:16. The tent is preserved in Judaism and in modern Arab marriage customs in the symbolic canopy of khuppah under which the bride and groom conclude their vows.) Both parties were beautifully dressed and ornamented (Isa. 49:18; Jer. 2:32; Ps. 45:14-15), and the bride wore a veil (Song of Sol. 6:7) which she took off only in the nuptial chamber, a custom that may make intelligible Leahs mistaken identity in Gen. 29:21-25.
The voice of mirth and the voice of gladness (Jer. 16:9), dancing, the pronouncing of blessings (Ruth 4:11-12), and the recitation of love poetry were contributed by the accompanying villagers, family, and friends. The great nuptial poem celebrating erotic love, the Song of Solomon, identified with the occasion of one of his own royal weddings (cf. 3:6-11), is a lovely and extended example of the lush poetry of such occasions. Psalm 45 is another wedding poem in which all of the above mentioned steps are followed by a royal couple. After the procession, a week-long feast took place at the bridegrooms house (Matt. 22:2), or in special cases, even at the brides house (Gen. 29:27; Judg. 14:10-12).
The sexual relationship was consummated on the first night (Gen. 29:23), in the tent (Gen. 24:67) or some other bridal chamber. If the mores of Near Eastern villagers down to the present day are admissible evidence, they support the importance that Deut. 22:13-21 places upon the tokens of virginity. These blood-stained garments of the wedding bed were preserved by the brides parents as evidence should the groom elect later to slander his wife as having played the harlot prior to their marriage. So joyous for the entire community was a wedding and the inauguration of a new family that a newly married groom was free from conscription into the army for one year, to be happy with his wife whom he has taken (Deut. 24:5).
Although Jesus parable of the marriage feast in Matt. 22:1-14 (simply a banquet in Luke 14:16-24) provides hints about Jewish wedding customs late in the biblical period, its real intention is to teach that many are called, but few are chosen. Like the wedding guests who refused to come or who came disrespectfully attired, the kingdom of heaven will exclude those who do not accept and prepare for it. Similarly, the reference to the wedding in Matt. 9:14 (and its parallels in Mark 2:19; Luke 5:34) is used to teach that joy and feasting like that of a wedding would be better responses than fasting to the presence of the Lord in the midst of the human community. A similar affirmation of joy in community is present in the account of Jesus first manifestation of his divine power, at the wedding feast in Cana (John 2:1-11). Finally, in the apocalyptic vision of Rev. 19:6-21, the heavenly banquet set forth for the birds of prey on the day of Gods victory over the powers of evil is described metaphorically as the marriage supper of the Lamb (v. 9).
de Vaux, Roland, O. P. Marriage. In Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions. Translated by John McHugh. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1961. Part I, chap. 2. Patai, Raphael. Sex and the Family in the Bible and the Middle East. New York: Doubleday, 1959.
Paul in the Greco-Roman World: A Handbook
edited by J. Paul Sampley (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2003), "Paul, Marriage, and Divorce," by O. Larry Yarbrough (See also pages 404-422)
...Part 1. Marriage and Divorce in the Roman World. The purpose of Roman marriage was to produce legitimate children -- liberorum quarerundorum causa. This phrase, or one similar to it, shows up in legal documents, in epitaphs, in poetry, and in comedies. Because marriage had such a prominent role in promoting the public good, it was not simply a private affair between a man and woman -- or even between the two households that arranged their marriage. Augustus was among the first to attempt social engineering through legislation designed to reward citizens for marrying and producing children and to punish those who did not... [pages 406-407]
When marriage did take place, engagements and weddings could be very elaborate, with invitations, wedding gowns, rings, veils, vows, a homily, and parties with lots of well-wishers -- just the sort of thing one might see in a wedding today. Other parts of the ritual are not so familiar -- sacrifices, omens, the bride's smearing fat on the door posts of the groom's house, and an elaborately decorated bed in the house's entryway. None of this was necessary, even for a legal marriage. Nor was a "marriage license." A simple declaration of intent to live together as husband and wife was sufficient. And, it was not always clear, even to the couple itself, when the marriage began... [page 409]
Backgrounds of Early Christianity, Second Edition
by Everett Ferguson (Grand Rapids, MI, Eerdmans, 1993, page 68)
Marriage and Family. Jewish marriages according to rabbinic sources show many formal similarities t the Greek and Roman practices. The marriage was a contract between families. It was effected in two stages: the betrothal (or "acquisition" of the bride) and the wedding proper (taking the bride into the husband's home). The betrothal had the legal force of marriage and could be broken only by divorce (cf. Matt. 1:18-19). It was accomplished by the bridegroom paying the bride-price (or part of it) or delivering a deed. The customary written contract (ketubah) included the husband's duties to his wife and the sum due her in the event of a divorce or his death. The bridegroom moving into his father-in-law's house to live with the bride without further ceremony was also recognized but discouraged in rabbinic writings. The wedding ceremony was held under a canopy (huppah). The bride was prepared by bathing, anointing, and clothing with special adornments. She was then escorted from her father's house to the accompaniment of song, dance, musical instruments, and (since usually in the evening) torchlight. The essential element of the wedding was the introduction of the bride into the groom's house, where the the huppah was set up. Seven blessings were pronounced on the couple and the marriage contract was read, followed by seven days of festivity.
Consent to live together constituted marriage in all socieites, and the procreation of children was its explicit object. Marriages were registered in order to make the children legitimate. Girls were normally married young, in their early teens; men much later, Greek men in particular about thirty. Jewish men, however, were expected to marry at eighteen (Aboth 5.21). Jewish religious teachers praised marriage, and it was considered the normal state of human life. Frequent was the saying, "He who has no wife lives without joy, blessing, or good."
The New Bible Dictionary
edited by J.D. Douglas (Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 1962)
The marriage customs of the Bible centre in the two events of betrothal and wedding.
In the Near East betrothal
(Talmudic erusin and qiddusin) is almost as binding as marriage
itself. In the Bible the betrothed woman was sometimes called wife
and was under the same obligation of faithfulness (Gn. 29:21; Dt. 22:23-24;
Mt. 1:18, 20), and the betrothed man was called husband (Joel 1:8;
Mt. 1:19). The Bible does not legislate for broken betrothals, but the Code
of Hammurapi (§§ 159-160) stipulated that if the future husband broke
the engagement the brides father retained the bride-gift; while if the
father changed his mind he repaid double the amount of the gift (see also the
Law codes of Lipit-Ishtar, 29, and Eshnunna, 25). Presumably there was some
formal declaration, but the amount of publicity would depend on the bridegroom.
Thus Joseph wished to dissolve the betrothal to Mary as quietly as possible
Gods love and faithfulness towards his people are pictured in terms of a betrothal in Ho. 2:19-20. The betrothal included the following steps:
(i) Choice of a spouse. Usually the parents of a young man chose his wife and arranged for the marriage, as Hagar did for Ishmael (Gn. 21:21) and Judah for Er (Gn. 38:6). Sometimes the young man did the choosing, and his parents the negotiating, as in the case of Shechem (Gn. 34:4, 8) and Samson (Jdg. 14:2). Rarely did a man marry against the wish of his parents, as did Esau (Gn. 26:34-35). The girl was sometimes asked whether she consented, as in the case of Rebekah (Gn. 24:58). Occasionally the girls parents chose a likely man to be her husband, as did Naomi (Ru. 3:1-2) and Saul (1 Sa.18:21).
(ii) Exchange of gifts. Three types of gifts are associated with betrothal in the Bible:
1. The mohar, translated marriage present in rsv and dowry in av (Gn. 34:12, for Dinah; Ex. 22:17, for a seduced maiden; 1 Sa. 18:25, for Michal). The mohar is implied but not so named in such passages as Gn. 24:53, for Rebekah; 29:18, the 7 years service performed by Jacob for Rachel. Moses keeping of the sheep for his father-in-law may be interpreted in the same way (Ex. 3:1). This was a compensation gift from the bridegroom to the family of the bride, and it sealed the covenant and bound the two families together. Some scholars have considered the mohar to be the price of the bride, but a wife was not bought like a slave.
2. The dowry. This was a gift to the bride or the groom from her father, sometimes consisting of servants (Gn. 24:59, 61, to Rebekah; 29:24, to Leah) or land (Jdg. 1:15, to Achsah; 1 Ki. 9:16, to Pharaohs daughter, the wife of Solomon), or other property (Tobit 8:21, to Tobias).
3. The bridegrooms gift to the bride was sometimes jewelry and clothes, as those brought to Rebekah (Gn. 24:53). Biblical examples of oral contracts are Jacobs offer of 7 years service to Laban (Gn. 29:18) and Shechems promise of gifts to the family of Dinah (Gn. 34:12). In TB [Babylonian Talmud] a contract of betrothal is called setar qiddusin (Moed Katan 18b) or setar erusin (Kiddushin 9a). In the Near East today the contributions of each family are fixed in a written engagement contract.
b. Wedding ceremonies
An important feature of many of these ceremonies was the public acknowledgment of the marital relationship. It is to be understood that not all of the following steps were taken at all weddings.
(i) Garments of bride and groom. The bride sometimes wore embroidered garments (Ps. 45:13-14), jewels (Is. 61:10), a special girdle or attire (Je. 2:32) and a veil (Gn. 24:65). Among the adornments of the groom might be a garland (Is. 61:10). Eph. 5:27; Rev. 19:8; 21:2 refer figuratively to the white garments of the church as the Bride of Christ.
(ii) Bridesmaids and friends. Ps. 45:14 speaks of bridesmaids for a royal bride, and we assume that lesser brides had their bridesmaids also. Certainly the bridegroom had his group of companions (Jdg. 14:11). One of these corresponded to the best man at our weddings, and is called companion in Jdg. 14:20; 15:2, and the friend of the bridegroom in Jn. 3:29. He may be the same as the steward (av governor) of the feast in Jn. 2:8-9.
(iii) The procession. In the evening of the day fixed for the marriage the bridegroom and his friends went in procession to the brides house. The wedding supper could be held there: sometimes circumstances compelled this (Gn. 29:22; Jdg. 14), but it may have been fairly common, since the parable of the Ten Virgins in Mt. 25:1-13 is most easily interpreted of the bridegroom going to the brides house for the supper. One would, however, expect that more usually the bridegroom escorted the bride back to his own or his parents home for the supper, though the only references to this in Scripture are in Ps. 45:14f.; Mt. 22:1-14 (royal weddings), and probably in Jn. 2:9f.
The procession might be accompanied by singing, music and dancing (Je. 7:34; 1 Macc. 9:39), and by lamps if at night (Mt. 25:7).
(iv) The marriage feast. This was usually held at the house of the groom (Mt. 22:1-10; Jn. 2:9) and often at night (Mt. 22:13; 25:6). Many relatives and friends attended; so the wine might well run out (Jn. 2:3). A steward or friend supervised the feast (Jn. 2:9-10). To refuse an invitation to the wedding feast was an insult (Mt. 22:7). The guests were expected to wear festive clothes (Mt. 22:11-12). In special circumstances the feast could be held in the brides home (Gn. 29:22; Tobit 8:19) The glorious gathering of Christ and his saints in heaven is figuratively called the marriage supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:9).
(v) Covering the bride. In two cases in the OT (Ru. 3:9; Ezk. 16:8) the man covers the woman with his skirt, perhaps a sign that he takes her under his protection. D. R. Mace follows J. L. Burckhardt (Notes on the Bedouin, 1830, p. 264) in saying that in Arab weddings this is done by one of the bridegrooms relations. J. Eisler, in Weltenmantel und Himmelszelt, 1910, says that among the bedouin the bridegroom covers the bride with a special cloak, using the words, From now on, nobody but myself shall cover thee. The Bible references suggest that the second custom was followed.
(vi) Blessing. Parents and friends blessed the couple and wished them well (Gn. 24:60; Ru. 4:11; Tobit 7:13).
(vii) Covenant. Another religious element was the covenant of faithfulness which is implied in Pr. 2:17; Ezk. 16:8; Mal. 2:14. According to Tobit 7:14, the father of the bride drew up a written marriage contract, which in the Mishnah is called ketuba.
(viii) Bridechamber. A nuptial chamber was specially prepared (Tobit 7:16). The Heb. name for this room is huppa (Ps. 19:5; Joel 2:16), originally a canopy or tent, and the Gk. word is nymphon (Mk. 2:19). The word huppa is still used among Jews today of the canopy under which the bride and bridegroom sit or stand during the wedding ceremony.
(ix) Consummation. The bride and groom were escorted to this room, often by the parents (Gn. 29:23; Tobit 7:16-17; 8:1). Before coming together, for which the Heb. uses the idiom to know, prayer was offered by husband and wife (Tobit 8:4).
(x) Proof of virginity. A blood-stained cloth or chemise was exhibited as a proof of the brides virginity (Dt. 22:13-21). This custom continues in some places in the Near East.
(xi) Festivities. The wedding festivities continued for a week (Gn. 29:27, Jacob and Leah) or sometimes 2 weeks (Tobit 8:20, Tobias and Sarah). These celebrations were marked by music (Pss. 45; 78:63) and by joking like Samsons riddles (Jdg. 14:12-18). Some interpret Canticles in the light of a custom among Syrian peasants of calling the groom and bride king and queen during the festivities after the wedding and of praising them with songs.
Edited for BibleTexts.com by Robert Nguyen Cramer