Expert Answer Forum

marriage in the Bible QUESTION from Susan Szoke March 1, 1999 Dear John-Paul Ignatius,
In the Old Testament men often had one or more wives (or slept with servants with a wife's blessing). The New Testament seems to present us with a one man/one woman marital union that is already accepted as the norm. About when and how did this change come about? Please note any biblical references you may have. Thank you, Sue Szoke
ANSWER by John-Paul Ignatius on March 5, 1999 Dear Susan:
The short answer is that there was no change – polygamy was never God’s intention. Natural law tells us that marriage is essentially monogamous in nature – that is how God created it. But, in similar manner to divorce, for a time, polygamy was tolerated under Mosaic Law. But as Jesus said of divorce, such a thing was not how it was suppose to be. For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. --Matthew 19:8
As the Attwater Catholic Encyclopedic Dictionary, 3rd Edition (1958) states, In the age of the Jewish patriarchs the state of humanity was such that the prohibition of polygamy was suspended and was tolerated by the Mosaic law.
Further discussion on this I have included excerpts from an article History of Marriage from Catholic Encyclopedia of 1913:
Marriage was intended by the Creator for the propagation of the human race and for the mutual help of husband and wife. The monogamic and indissoluble properties of marriage were for a time dispensed by Divine permission. Thus in the patriarchal times of the Old Testament polygamous marriage was tolerated. The right of dismissal also by the bill of divorce was legal (Deut., xxiv sqq.; Matt., xix, 3-12). Still, marriage never lost its sacred character in the Old Dispensation. It continued a type and figure of marriage in the New Law. Christ revoked the dispensation granted in the Mosaic law. He promulgated the original Divine law of monogamic and indissoluble marriage; in addition, He raised marriage to the dignity of a sacrament (Gen., ii, 24; Matt., xix, 3 sqq.; Luke, xvi, 15 sqq.; Mark, x, 11 sqq.; I Cor., vii, 2 sqq.). If any one should say, matrimony is not truly and properly one of the seven sacraments of the Gospel law, instituted by Christ, but an invention of man, not conferring grace, let him be anathema (Council of Trent, Sess. XXI, can. 1). Under the Christian law, therefore, the marriage contract and the sacrament are inseparable and indivisible; for, in virtue of Christ's legislative act, the consent in marriage produces, besides sanctifying grace, its peculiar sacramental grace. Whenever the marriage contract is duly made, the sacrament is truly effected. That is undoubtedly the case when both parties to marriage are by baptism members of the mystical body of Christ, for This is a great sacrament; but I speak in Christ and in the church (Ephes., v, 32). Hence the moral and canonical aspect of matrimony in the Christian dispensation is necessarily determined by the sacramental character of the marriage contract.
The Church being the Divinely appointed custodian of all sacraments, it belongs to her jurisdiction to interpret and apply the Divine law of marriage. She cannot repeal or change that law. Marriage is, in its essential requirements, ever the same, monogamic and indissoluble. The contract validly made and consummated is dissolved by death alone.
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