If love has existed as long as time, then it is safe to say that marriage has only been in existence for as long as civilization. It is worth a moment of pause to fully understand where this thing, which has caused such soaring joy and incredible heartache and all the emotions in between, has come from. When thinking about what marriage is, it is important to remember that marriage is an evolutionary institution, being formed and changed along with the needs of society.
In her new novel, Committed, Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the acclaimed Eat, Pray, Love , sets aside an entire chapter to discuss the history of marriage. She takes us back all the way to the seat of civilization when marriage was a form of survival and protection. She contends that the family became the basic unit of all social welfare from which all social needs were derived. “People married in order to expand their numbers of relatives,” says Gilbert, “It was your entire giant extended family operating as a single helpmeet entity in the constant combat of survival.” She goes on to describe how this lead to society’s tribal organization which lead to the kingdoms and dynasties of ancient history whose wars, genocides and conquests we learn about in school. Gilbert explains that the Old Testament was therefore riddled with genealogical conflicts where marriage and the bloodline remained the central themes of the driving conflict in that tale. This all began to change, according to Gilbert, with the introduction of Christianity, which she described, as an apocalyptic religion in its inception, where “early Christians were expecting the End of Days to arrive at any moment, perhaps as early as tomorrow afternoon,” which explains why these Christians were less interested in procreation leading to new Christians and more interested in converting existing people into new Christians. In fact, this lead to a major distinction between the Hebrews and the Christians. Ancient Hebrews understood that marriage was a way to ensure bloodlines, and sex as part of marriage was not forbidden, even enjoying sex in marriage was allowed. “Sex within marriage was not a sin; sex within marriage was…marriage. Sex, after all, was how Jewish babies were made.”
This created significant dissonance between the Old and New Testament. Since Early Christians were more concerned with the end of the world than “launching new dynasties”, and Jesus Christ was the embodiment of purity as well as the ultimate role model, a Christan was meant to live like Christ who was celibate and holy. Sex, therefore was deemed as a vile act. Says Gilbert,
When we speak today, then, about ‘holy wedded matrimony,’
or the ‘sanctity of marriage,’ we would do well to remember
that, for approximately ten centuries, Christianity itself did
not see marriage as being either holy or sanctified. Marriage
was certainly not modeled as the ideal state of moral being.
On the contrary, the early Christian fathers regarded the habit
of marriage as a somewhat repugnant worldly affair that had
everything to do with sex and females and taxes and property,
and nothing to do with higher concerns of divinity.”
It is interesting to think about how contemporary views of marriage seem to rely on biblical arguments, but a peek into the societal views tells us that our modern views hold very little historical accuracy. In fact, St. Jerome created a ranking system of “human holiness” on a 1-100 scale, “with virgins scoring a perfect 100, newly celibate widows and widowers ranking somewhere around 60, and married couples earning the surprisingly unclean score of 30.” Perhaps it would do us all to understand marriage as a matter of love as opposed to a matter of religion. Although this also provides more issues as will be discussed in future weekly articles on the History of Marriage.
Have thoughts or comments about this article? Please share them. What do you think about this view of history and religion? What historical period’s view on marriage would you like to read about?