The British House of Commons voted to approve same-sex marriage on Tuesday. The issue deeply divides the ruling Conservative Party, as well as the Church of England. The church accepts same-sex civil unions as a legal institution but opposes gay marriage, which church leaders say undermines the sacred place of marriage in society. Was marriage originally a legal or a religious institution?
A legal institution, mostly. Marriage developed independently in hundreds of human civilizations, so it’s difficult to pinpoint history’s first marriage or even the society that first conceived of marriage as an institution. Early Sumerian marriage agreements, which date to the third millennium B.C., are among the oldest records relating to marriage. The couples swore an oath to a series of deities in a small number of agreements, but most of the records contain no mention of gods or religion, suggesting that the Sumerians viewed weddings as legal events. The terms of marriage were decidedly contractual, including specific worldly punishments for cheating. (The penalty for male infidelity was 10 shekels in alimony to the jilted wife. If the wife strayed, she would be strangled and dumped into a river.) There is no indication that someone who violated the marriage agreement suffered the eternal wrath of Shamash and Marduk, or that those deities took a personal interest in strong marriages.
The ancient Hebraic take on marriage is difficult to ascertain. Scholars have argued for years over whether to translate the Old Testament word describing a marriage agreement as “contract,” which is a simple agreement between two parties, or “covenant,” which includes an additional vow to God. One of the difficulties is that the Old Testament uses the same word to describe both God’s relationship with the Israelites and a husband’s promise to his wife. Some ancient Hebrew writers explicitly analogized those two commitments, and, of course, the Ten Commandments mention God’s aversion to adultery. However, like the Sumerian marriage agreements, documents describing ancient Jewish marriages are mostly lists of legal obligations and consequences and rarely contain spiritual language. It’s likely that the idea of marriage as a sacred union involving God developed over time among ancient Jews, but the evidence is open to interpretation.
What about the pre-Christian Greeks, the founders of modern Western society? Some of Plato’s writings cast marriage in a semi-spiritual light. He wrote that, “Love is born into every human being; it calls back the halves of our original nature together; it tries to make one out of two and heal the wound of human nature.” That romantic sentiment echoes the New Testament notion that “two will become one flesh.” But Plato’s general philosophy was practical: Marriage was good for Greek society. He even advised young men to choose a partner based on the interests of the polis, not love or other personal desires. Aristotle had a utilitarian and legal view of marriage as well, writing that marriage “combines the useful with the pleasant.” It appears that marriage was a contractual matter in ancient Greece.
The New Testament injected God into marriages like never before, most obviously by physically placing Jesus at the wedding at Cana, where he blessed the union by turning water into wine. Jesus also said of the sanctity of marriage, “What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.” A small number of Christians moved in the fifth century to describe marriage as a religious rite on a par with baptism, but it wasn’t until the 1200s that marriage had completed its transition from contractual agreement to Christian sacrament.
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Explainer thanks John Witte Jr. of Emory University School of Law, author of From Sacrament to Contract: Marriage, Religion, and Law in the Western Tradition.