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#100 - Polygamy, bigamy, and adultery
by Robert Nguyen Cramer
This BibleTexts website administrator has very much enjoyed questions and insights that have been emailed to him ever since this site was launched in September of 1996. On this page I share with BibleTexts browsers a few of the questions, insights, and responses, so that we all can further learn from and with each other.
Would you not consider polygamy or bigamy adultery?
Response #100a from BibleTexts.com:
The BibleTexts.com website is not intended to reflect my opinions.* Rather it is primarily intended to explore the original texts and early Christianity. I will say that I do not believe that polygamy or bigamy has any place in modern society.
* BibleTexts.com footnote: Please refer to the "conclusions versus opinions" statement at http://www.bibletexts.com/conclusions-v-opinions.htm.
Though polygamy was considered legitimate and practiced in Judaism until approximately 1000 years after Jesus, the strong Greco-Roman influence of monogamy finally won out as the standard for the developing Western civilization; however, in none of the literature I have researched thusfar is polygamy or bigamy equated with adultery. For example, in Judaism divorce was often difficult to be granted -- and divorce was considered by Jesus as a form of adultery. Polygamy was sometimes employed as a means of getting a new wife without the the difficult step of divorce.
For more information on the biblical teachings regarding polygamy, you can refer to the following resources:
Question/insight #100b from the same reader:
Your research is leaving out some significant facts. Jesus was not saying divorce equals adultery. The point Jesus was making was that man has no power to divorce; therefore, in Matthew 19 he explains that since you have no right to divorce and if you do for any other reason than unfaithfulness (pornea), the divorce is not valid before the eyes of God. Therefore, if the divorce is not valid, you are still cleaved to your wife, and by marrying another you commit adultery by taking a second wife. You see, the first marriage is valid and the second is adultery, which is essentially bigamy. I feel Christ was clear in his teaching on this -- it wasn't divorce he was angry about, but rather he referred to God's original plan of two becoming one and that divorce does not qualify so, another wife is adulterous.
If a man is one flesh with his original wife, he is cleaved to her and no longer two fleshes, just one flesh. Paul speaks later in his letters that the man's body is not his own nor the woman's her own. Thus, if he is stuck to her, he is no longer his own person or flesh. If he marries another and joins her, he literally melds him and the second woman into the first. Now you have three in one because the first is stuck to him. God spoke that two woman in one was evil. Jesus was very clear. Many times he spoke to confound the wise, and the scriptures are to be read by the eyes of the Holy Spirit. This is why Paul always said each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. Three woman cannot all have authority over one man's body.
Also, in a perfect Garden of Eden there would be, as biology shows, a ratio of approximately 50-50, male-female. Actually a slightly higher males, but this is due to female infant not making it. However, I am not refrerring to this world where men die in war or earlier than males which make higher proportions of women. I am talking about Eden where no one was to ever die. By saying polygamy is not a sin you are very wrong. In the Garden of Eden, if a man took more than one wife, clearly some men would not even get one wife at all. God clearly stated in the Garden marriage was meant to be for men. Thus, polygamy is total selfishness and sin. For a man in the garden to take 20 wives would be sin on many levels against the women as well as 20 men who would not get a wife. Plain and simple. You mention that the Bible in the Old testament doesn't speak against it. The point to remember is that these were Jews -- not Christians. Big difference. They were not of Christ or of the Kingdom of God. The world had yet to see the light, and all the Old Testament shows is that it was full of sin, polygamy, and prostitution. (God never condemned prostitution either until after Jesus came.) We are not founding our faith on the Jews, who God called a "stiffneck poeple". We are to be a holy, royal priesthood.
Response #100b from BibleTexts.com:
You wrote, "Jesus was not saying divorce equals adultery." I did not mean to imply that Jesus equated those terms. I did write (and admittedly badly worded), "Divorce was considered by Jesus as a form of adultery." [Unfortunately that first response was written quite hastily and emailed at 1 am in the morning.] What I meant to say was that initiating divorce and then remarrying was considered by Jesus as a form of committing adultery. Actually several years ago I wrote an extensive research document regarding the early Christian teachings on the subject of divorce. You are welcome to read it at:
The earliest recorded quote of Jesus on the subject of marriage and divorce is by Paul, who wrote (1Co 7:10,11, Today's English Version),
A wife must not leave her husband; but if she does, she must remain single or else be reconciled to her husband; and a husband must not divorce his wife.
I believe Paul articulated Jesus' original teachings on the subject. That appears to be the standard that Jesus taught his followers. My 25 years of marriage to my one and only wife attests to my appreciation of that standard. [I also consider my wife to be the one and only true love of my life, and my very dearest friend and companion.]
You wrote, "By saying polygamy is not a sin you are very wrong." I believe you need to re-read my email, because I never said that polygamy is not a sin. I would agree that historically in many if not most cases, "Polygamy is total selfishness and sin," as you pointed out. This is also supported by references I noted in my last email.
There are other times that polygamy was considered an act of mercy. For instance, each of the synoptic gospels portrays Jesus as non-judgmentally describing the scenario of a woman who is widowed, who has no children to care for her, and who is taken in as a wife (or an additional wife) by the brothers of her husband, as each of the former husbands/brothers died off. (See Mar 2:19-25.)
In that time, that form of polygamy would have been a common practice among the people to whom Jesus was speaking. That is not a practice that I would encourage or adopt. I simply was sharing with you some historical information based upon the research that I was doing -- to aid you in research I thought you were doing.
My intent is never to be the authority for answers. I simply honestly share the results my research and allow questioners the opportunity to do follow-up research and to draw their own conclusions. I simply report the data available. Since none of the resources I consulted mentioned when polygamy was no longer practiced by Jewish Christians, I would not invent conclusions that are not supported by the data.
I did not have time to consult my entire 1500 volume biblical research library in my office; however, all of the literature that I had the time to research said that the polygamy within Judaism disappeared approximately 1000 years after Jesus' earthly ministry.
The Old Testament polygamy was never considered be adultery. Though polygamy was still practiced by Jews (and quite possibly by some Jewish Christians) in Jesus' time, polygamy was never specifically denounced in the New Testament. The literature that I consulted noted that it was the influence of Greco-Roman morality that put an end to polygamy in Western civilization. Though the Morman community tried to restore that practice in America, fortunately the US Congress made polygamy illegal.
Response #100c from BibleTexts.com:
I also should note it is not my "research that is leaving out some significant facts," as you stated in your email. The real fact is that in all of the many resources that I had explored up to that point, there was very scanty information on the subject of polygamy.
I would very much like to solidly document the early Christian views on polygamy. Please share with me the book titles and page numbers of the resources that document any information you shared with me regarding early Christian practices. That would be very helpful. Thanks.
As I have mentioned, references to polygamy are very rare in the 1500 volumes of biblical resources in my library; however, I was able to find a few more that are worth noting. They include the following:
Dictionary of the Bible, Second Edition, originally edited by James Hastings, revision edited by Frederick C. Grant and H.H. Rowley, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1965, pages 292 and 624, including the following:
Page 292: Polygamy was in part the cause of the large size of the Hebrew household; in part the cause of it may be found in the insecurity of early times. The idea of the family sometimes had an even wider significance. Polygamy and bigamy were recognized features of the family life. From the Oriental point of view there was nothing immoral in the practice of polygamy. Polygamy was an established and recognized institutions from the earliest times. The gradual evolution in the OT of monogamy as the ideal is therefore of the highest interest. The earliest codes attempt in various ways to regulate the custom of polygamy. Not only Adam but also Noah, the second founder of the human race, represents monogamy, and on that account recommends it as God's ordinance. It is in the line of Cain that bigamy is first represented, as though to emphasize the consequences of the Fall. Hosea and other prophets constantly dwell upon the thought of a monogamous marriage as being a symbol of the union between God and His people; and they denounce idolatry as unfaithfulness to this spiritual marriage-life. Side by side with the growth of the recognition of monogamy as the ideal form of marriage, polygamy was practiced even as late as NT times.
Page 624: Polygamy was not definitely forbidden among the Jews till the time of R. Gershom (c A.D. 1000), and then at first only for France and Germany. In Spain, Italy, and the east it persisted for some time longer, as it does still among the Jews in Mohammedan countries.
The New Bible Dictionary, edited by J.D. Douglas, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1962, page 787.
Page 786-787: Marriage is the state in which men and women can live together in sexual relationship with the approval of their social group. Adultery and fornication are sexual relationships that society does not recognize as constituting marriage. This definition is necessary to show that in the Old Testament polygamy is not sexually immoral, since it constitutes a recognized married state; though it is generally shown to be inexpedient.
Monogamy is implicit in the story of Adam and Eve, since God created only one wife for Adam. Yet polygamy is adopted from the time of Lamech (Gn. iv. 19), and is not forbidden in Scripture. It would seem that God left it to man to discover by experience that His original institution of monogamy was the proper relationshiop. It is shown that polygamy brings trouble, and often results in sin, e.g. Abraham (Gn. xxi); Gideon (Jdg. viii. 29-ix. 57); David (2Sa. xi, xiii); Solomon (1Ki. xi. 1-8). In view of Oriental customs, Heb. Kings are warned against it (Dt. xvii. 17).
Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, by Elaine H. Pagels, NY: Random House, 1988, pages xvii, 13, and 29.
Page xvii: Many Christians of the first four centuries took pride in their sexual restraint; they eschewed polygamy and often divorce as well, which Jewish tradition allowed; and they repudiated extramarital sexual practices commonly accepted among their pagan contemporaries, practices including prostitution and homosexuality.
Page 13: Other Jewish teachers agreed that the purpose of marriage is to increase and multiply; that one must accept whatever facilitates procreation, including divorce and polygamy; and that one must reject whatever hinders procreation; even marriage itself, in the case of an infertile wife. Jesus radically challenged this consensus. Like other Jewish teachers, Jesus, when he speaks about marriage, goes back to the Genesis account of the first marriage; but he reads the same passage very differently than others did. Asked by conservative teachers of the law, the so-called Pharisees, about the legitimate grounds for divorce, Jesus answered that there were none. (See Matthew 19:4-6) This answer shocked his Jewish listeners and, as Matthew tells it, pleased no one. Among Jesus' Jewish contemporaries no one questioned the legitimacy of divorce.
Encyclopedia of Early Christianity, Second Edition (edited by Everett Ferguson (NY: Garland Publishing, 1998), in its article on "Marriage," comments:
Page 721: Marriage. According to Christian teaching, the union of one man and one woman for life for procreation and companionship. The church fathers repeated what Jesus and the apostles taught about the indissubilityof marriage and the mutual obligations of the husband and the wife (Matt. 19:1-12; 1 Cor. 7; Eph. 5:22 ff.).
...The other heresy was that promoting communal sex, which condemned marriage but permitted sexual intercourse. This seems to have been the teaching of the Nicolaitans (Eusebius, H.E., 3.29). Carpacrates and Ephiphanes also taught that wives were to be held in common (Clement of Alexandria, Str. 3.2).
Clement... upheld monogamy strictly as the only legitimate form of marriage, against those adherents of Gnosticism, the Carpocratians, who held their women in common and against pagan immorality in general (Tertullian, Apol. 39.11-13).
Some other works that have references to polygamy are in the following:
An additional relevant resource is my article on "Adultery" at:
Question/insight #100d from the same reader:
I am pasting you some references from a scholar on polygamy in the church from early times. Also, in 1 Timothy Paul* outlines the requirements for elders and deacons which include a husband of but one wife. The important thing to see in this is that at the end of the requirements, Paul says (I Timothy 3: 14, 15): "I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these instructions to you so that if I am delayed, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of truth." He is clearly stating all people in God's house should hold these requirements and this is to be the model of those in God's households. Polygamy has no place.
* BibleTexts.com footnote: Regarding the authorship the Pastoral Epistles, including 1 Timothy, please refer to the conclusions reached by Bible dictionaries and Bible commentaries at http://www.bibletexts.com/glossary/1ti.htm.
We might also point out that the post-NT church was likewise anti-polygamy:
1. Justin Martyr (c.160) rebukes the Jews for allowing polygamy:
Your imprudent and blind masters [i.e., Jewish teachers] even until this time permit each man to have four or five wives. And if anyone sees a beautiful woman and desires to have her, they quote the doings of Jacob. [ANF, vol. 1, p. 266]
2. Irenaeus (c.180) condemns the Gnostics for, among other things, polygamy:
Others, again, following upon Basilides and Carpocrates, have introduced promiscuous intercourse and a plurality of wives... [ANF, vol. 1, p.353]
3. Tertullian (c.207) was also explicit:
Chapter II. Marriage Lawful, But Not Polygamy. We do not indeed forbid the union of man and woman, blest by God as the seminary of the human race, and devised for the replenishment of the earth and the furnishing of the world, and therefore permitted, yet Singly. For Adam was the one husband of Eve, and Eve his one wife, one woman, one rib. (ANF: Tertullian, To His Wife)
4. Methodius (cf.290) was clear on the issue, arguing that it had stopped at the time of the Prophets:
The contracting of marriage with several wives had been done away with from the times of the prophets. For we read, 'Do not go after your lusts, but refrain yourself from your appetites'...And in another place, 'Let your fountain be blessed and rejoice with the wife of thy youth.' This plainly forbids a plurality of wives. [ANF, vol. 6, p.312]
5 The Pseudo-Clementine Literature boasts about how St. Thomas taught the Parthians [i.e., an Iranian culture] to abandon polygamy:
But I shall give a still stronger proof of the matters in hand. For, behold, scarcely seven years have yet passed since the advent of the righteous and true Prophet; and in the course of these, inert of all nations coming to Judaea, and moved both by the signs and miracles Which they saw, and by the grandeur of His doctrine, received His faith; and then going back to their own countries, they rejected the lawless rites of the Gentiles, and their incestuous marriages. In short, among the Parthians -- as Thomas, who is preaching the Gospel amongst them, has written to us-not many now are addicted to polygamy; nor among the Medes do many throw their dead to dogs; nor are the Persians pleased with intercourse with their mothers, or incestuous marriages with their daughters; nor do the Susian women practise the adulteries that were allowed them; nor has Genesis been able to force those into crimes whom the teaching of religion restrained. (ANF 8: "Book IX: Chapter XXIX.-The Gospel More Powerful Than 'Genesis.'"]
6. The Council of Neocaesarea a.d. 315 (circa) refers to a 'purification period' for polygamists. By that time, sinners had to 'sit out' of Church activities until they had demonstrated reformation. If a sin showed up on this list of canons, it was considered a 'bad sin'--and polygamy shows up here:
Ancient Epitome of Canon III. The time (for doing penance and purification) of polygamists is well known. A zeal for penance may shorten it. [ANF]
7. Basil, Archbishop of Caesarea, mentioned it a number of times in his letters, generally concerning the period for exclusion from church for polygamists, calling it 'limited fornication'(!):
IV. In the case of trigamy and polygamy they laid down the same rule, in proportion, as in the case of digamy; namely one year for digamy (some authorities say two years); for trigamy men are separated for three and often for four years; but this is no longer described as marriage at all, but as polygamy; nay rather as limited fornication. It is for this reason that the Lord said to the woman of Samaria, who had five husbands, "he whom thou now hast is not thy husband." He does not reckon those who had exceeded the limits of a second marriage as worthy of the title of husband or wife. In cases of trigamy we have accepted a seclusion of five years, not by the canons, but following the precept of our predecessors. Such offenders ought not to be altogether prohibited from the privileges of the Church; they should be considered deserving of hearing after two or three years, and afterwards of being permitted to stand in their place; but they must be kept from the communion of the good gift, and only restored to t he place of communion after showing some fruit of repentance. [ANF: (Canonica Prima.) To Amphilochius, concerning the Canons. Letter CLXXXVIII written c.347.]
Response #100d from BibleTexts.com:
Thanks so much for the references and texts. I welcome all the documentation that you have...
Now that we are accumulating a body of knowledge on the topic of polygamy, for which I had originally found relatively few resources, I plan to devote a webpage with the accumulated info, so others can benefit from the research that has been done. It's always valuable to have a completely clear and understanding of authentic early Christian practices.
Copyright 1996-2002 Robert Nguyen Cramer