Cultural Aspects of Marriage in the Ancient World -- By: Edwin M. Yamauchi

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 135:539 (Jul 1978)
Article: Cultural Aspects of Marriage in the Ancient World
Author: Edwin M. Yamauchi


Cultural Aspects of Marriage in the Ancient World

Edwin M. Yamauchi

[Edwin M. Yamauchi, Professor of History, Miami University, Oxford, Ohio.]

One of the most important and difficult tasks in the interpretation of the Scriptures in general and of the passages that deal with women and marriage in particular, is the need to discern which elements are cultural, temporary, and variable, and which ones are transcultural, timeless, and universal.1

This comparative study focuses on the historical and cultural aspects of betrothal and marriage in the ancient societies which were contemporary with biblical writers, and on the biblical perspective on women and marriage.

Preparations for Marriage

The Age and Consent of the Spouses

In ancient Mesopotamia marriages were arranged by parents. The Code of Eshnunna (no. 27, ca. 1900 B.C.) invalidates a marriage which lacked the permission of the bride’s parents. Old Babylonian texts indicate that the consent of the bride was not necessary.

In Egypt girls were married between the ages of twelve and fourteen, and young men between fourteen and twenty. Judging from the many Egyptian love songs, romantic love played an important role in the choice of life-mates. Legally, however, the bride’s father was the one who drew up the contract with the groom.

In Greece girls were married as early as twelve, but more usually between fourteen and twenty. Men hardly ever married before their service as military ephebes from eighteen to twenty, and usually wed when they were closer to thirty. A woman was always subject to a male κύριος or legal guardian. She was therefore the object of marriage negotiations and her consent was not required. Marriage was viewed as the means for the continuation of families; it was not usually the result of romance. Aristotle spoke of the growth of φιλία (“friendship”) rather than ἔρως (“passionate love”) between husband and wife.

In Rome by the time of Augustus the legal minimum age for marriage for girls was set at twelve, and for boys at fourteen. A study of 145 inscriptions revealed that more than half of the wives, who were mainly from the upper middle class, were married by age fifteen.2 Since dowries were expected, wealthy girls were married earlier than poorer girls. As a girl who was not yet married at nineteen was considered an “old maid,” anxious parents would often increase the dowries and publicize this fact to attract su...

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