Taken from the book "The Ten
Commandments" by William Barclay
Published in 1973
JEWISH MARRIAGE IN THE FIRST CENTURY A.-D.
To a Jew marriage was a sacred obligation. God had said: "Be
fruitful and multiply" (Genesis 1:28). It was to be inhabited
that God formed the earth (Isaiah 45:18). It was not good for man
to be alone (Genesis 2:18). No man may abstain from keeping the
law: "Be fruitful and multiply." For Shammai (one of the two
Pharisee leading men who had their "school" of theology at the
time of Jesus - Keith Hunt) this meant that a man must have at
least two sons; for Hillel (the other "school" leader of the
Pharisees, in opposition to Shammai - Keith Hunt) it meant that a
man must have a son and a daughter, for male and female created
he them (Yebamoth 6.6). Since man is made in the image of God
(Genesis 1:26, 27), not to marry is to diminish the likeness of
God in the world (Genesis R. 17.2). Simon ben Azzai said that a
man who did not marry was like a man who shed blood, for he had
as good as slain his own posterity (Yebamoth 63 b). A man who has
no wife is without good, without a helper, without joy, without a
blessing, without atonement, even without welfare and without
life (Yebamoth 62 b). He is not even a whole man, for Scripture
said he blessed them, and called their name Man (Genesis 5:1, 2).
Not only must a man marry, but he must marry YOUNG.
Eighteen was a age for marriage, and to remain unmarried after
twenty was a sin. "Up to the age of twenty the Holy One, blessed
be he, watches for a man to marry, and curses him if he fails to
do so by then" (Kiddushin 29).
Eric Heaton points out in "Life in Old Testament Times" (p. 70)
that it has been reckoned that on the average a man could expect
to be a father at nineteen, a grandfather at thirty-eight, and a
great-grandfather at fifty-seven. So binding was the obligation
of marriage that a man might even sell a scroll of the law to
raise money in order to marry (Megillah 27 a).
For only one reason was it right to POSTPONE marriage - in order
to study the law, and to concentrate on being a student if it. "A
man should pursue his studies and then marry, but, if he cannot
get along without a wife, he may marry first and study
afterwards" (Yoma 72 b; Menahoth 110 a; Kiddushin 29. b). The
Jewish Sages were not by any means blind or indifferent to the
economic realities and necessities, when they urged early
marriage. They urged a wise prudence in marriage. Arguing. from
Deuteronomy 20:5-7, they held that a man should first build a
house, then plant a vineyard,and after that marry (Sotah 44 a).
The same Simon ben Azzai, who said that the man who did not marry
slew his posterity, himself never married. When it was said to
him that his preaching and practice did not match, his defense
was to say: "What can I do? I am in love with the Law. The
population of the world can be kept up by others"
(Yehamoth 63 b).
For a girl there was no other career but marriage. She could be
married as early as twelve and a half; and, as Daniel Rops has
pointed out, there is a distinct possibility and even probability
that Mary, he mother of our Lord was no more than fourteen years
old when she bore him. Daughters were in fact not wanted, for
they could be nothing but a worry when it came to finding a
husband for them. Leviticus 19:29, "Do not profane your daughter
by making her a harlot," applies, so they said, to him who delays
in arranging a marriage for his daughter, when she has reached a
suitable age. So much was it a parental duty to find a husband
for a daughter that the later law ,said: "When a daughter is an
adult, free your slave and give him to her rather than let her
remain longer unmarried" (Pesahim 113 a).
The Talmud has a passage on the worries of the man with
daughters: "It is written, a daughter is a vain treasure to her
father. From anxiety about her he does not sleep at night; during
her early years, lest she be seduced; in her adolescence, lest
she go astray; in her marriageable years, lest she does not find
a husband; when she is married, lest she is childless; and when
she is old, lest she practice witchcraft" (Sanhedrin 100 b). At
every stage the daughter brought anxiety. "The Lord bless you and
keep you" (Numbers 6:24) was expounded - Bless you with sons and
keep you from daughters, for they need careful guarding (Numbers
It was held that God sits in heaven arranging marriages, and that
forty days before the formation of the child a heavenly voice
announces, "This child is to marry so and so's daughter"
(Sotah 2 a).
Theoretically, even in New Testament times, polygamy was
perfectly legal, as of course it was actually practiced in the
time of the patriarchs. Deuteronomy 21:15 assumes it, for it
begins, "If a man has two wives . . ." So it is laid down: "A man
may marry as many wives as he chooses" (Yebamoth 65 a). Another
passage limits the number to four (Yebamoth 44 a); the High
Priest was limited to one wife (Yoma 13 a); and it was laid down
that, if a man took an additional wife, he must give his present
wife a divorce, if she asked for it (Yebamoth 65 a). But there is
little doubt that all this in New Testament times as purely
theoretical and that monogamy was the rule.
For the most part marriages were arranged either by the parents
or by professional matchmakers. Ideally, it was held that
marriage was much too serious a thing to be left to the emotions
of young people. A girl might be engaged when she was a baby, but
she did have the power of refusing to go on to betrothal when she
reached the age of twelve and a day, and came of age.
It was often said that love comes after marriage, and not before.
Esau, for instance, followed his own wishes and brought distress
to his parents (Genesis 26:34,35). As for a son, the father was
advised to have him married "while your hand is still upon his
neck" (Kiddushin 30 a), that is, when he is still under control.
But quite clearly in a matter of the heart, however carefully it
is tried to arrange things, romance will keep breaking in. "If a
man marries a woman for her money" it was said, "he will have
disreputable children" (Kiddushin 70 a). The songs in the Song
of Solomon are not the songs of a couple who were doing no more
than ratify a prearranged contract. There is one passage in the
Mishnah (Taanith 4.8) which paints an attractive picture of what
happened on the fifteenth day of the month Ab: "The sons of
Jerusalem used to go out in white garments that were borrowed, so
as not to put to shame anyone who did not possess his own. The
daughters of Jerusalem would go and dance in the vineyards
crying: 'Young man, raise your eyes and see whom you will choose
for your wife. Pay not attention to beauty, but rather to
family.'" Even then careful prudence was insisted on: "Hesitate
in selecting a wife" (Yebamoth 63 a), and it was family which was
stressed again and again.
Nothing could be more practical than the advice that the Talmud
gives to those about to marry. A man was advised always to
descend a step in the social scale in choosing a wife, for to
choose a wife from a higher step in the social scale could lead
only to trouble (Yebamoth 63 a).
Difference in age was deprecated. "Go marry one who is about your
own age, and do not introduce strife into our house" (Yebamoth
101 b). A tall man should not marry a tall woman lest they have
lanky children: a short man should not marry a short woman lest
they have dwarfish children. A fair man should not marry a fair
woman lest the children be excessively fair; nor a dark man marry
a dark woman lest the children be excessively swarthy (Beth. 45
b). A man is advised to marry the daughter of a wise man and not
of an ignorant man. In the first case, should he die or be
exiled, the children will be wise, buy in the other case, they
too will be ignorant (Pes. 49 a).
In Judaism the relationship between husband and wife had a very
high ideal. A man's home, it is said, is his wife (Yoma 1, 1x).
The whole of the preciousness of home is concentrated in the
perfect relationship between man and wife. The word for marriage
is "kiddushin," which means consecration, sanctification,
And it is so called because "the husband prohibits his wife to
the whole world, like an object which is dedicated to the
sanctuary" (Kiddishin 2 b).
There is the ideal PURITY. "Immorality in the house is like a
worm in vegetables" (Sotah 3 b).
"When husband and wife are faithful the Shechinah (the glory of
God) is with them; when they are not worthy fire consumes them"
(Sotah 17 a).
There is the ideal honor. The good man is the man "who loves his
wife more than himself, who honors her more than himself, who
leads his sons and daughters in the right path, and arranges for
their marriage soon after puberty." It is to him that the text
refers: "You will know that your tent is safe" (Job 5:24; Yeban-
oth 62 b).
There is the ideal of considerateness. Consult and consult
considerately. There was a proverb,"If your wife is short, bend
down and whisper to her" (Baba Metzia 59 a). "Beware of vexing
your wife, for tears are ever ready to flow" (Baba Metzia 5 a).
There is the ideal of love "When a man's first wife dies during
his lifetime, it is a if the Temple had been destroyed in his
lifetime. The world becomes dark for him" (Sanhedrin 22, a)
The Jew had a high ideal of the physical relationship between
husband and wife. These are associated in the birth of every
human being God, father and mother (Kiddushin 30 b). It was the
Jewish belief that every act of conception was the work of the
Holy Spirit of God. Here too considerateness was urged. They
quoted the Song of Songs 4:16: "Let my beloved come to his
garden," and they said, "The Torah teaches gentleness. The
bridegroom should not enter the marriage chamber until the bride
gives him leave" (Pesachim 17 b). With a curiously modern touch
they lay down certain laws for contraception. Three classes of
women should use an absorbent: a minor, lest pregnancy prove
fatal; a pregnant woman, lest abortion result; a nursing mother,
lest she become pregnant again, and prematurely wean the child so
that it may die (Yebamoth 12 b).
The ideal was the love that issues in care and consideration
between husband and wife in all things.
The Jews had a fixed belief that every man had two natures, the
good nature which draws him upwards, and the evil nature which
drags him down. And they, had the idea that in marriage, when it
is right, even the evil nature turns to good. "But for his
passions man would not build a house, nor marry a wife, nor beget
children" (Rabba 9).
But for all this high ideal Judaism did not idealize women. It
was laid down that a man must not covet his neighbors wife, or
his manservant, or his maidservant, or his ox, or his ass, or
anything that is his neighbor's (Exodus 20:17; Deuteronomy 5:21).
On the basis of this it was argued that women and wives are
included among the things, and that therefore woman is to be
regarded as a chattel. Women did not eat with men; they only
stood and served. In the Temple and the Synagogue they were
separated from men. Windows were very often grilled so that women
might not be seen, and we frequently read of the lattice behind
which the woman was concealed (Judges 5:28; Song of Songs 2:9)...
Legally a woman was a minor, not a responsible person. A husband
could repudiate an agreement which she made. She was not eligible
to give evidence at law. Perhaps the hardest thing was that she
could not inherit from her father or from her husband, and this
explains why in Scripture the widow is always the symbol of
poverty and helplessness.
In religious matters a woman was excused from all commandments
which begin "Thou shalt," and from all which have to be done at a
fixed and definite time (Kiddushin 1.7). She did not need to
recite the Shema, or to wear fringes or phylacteries, or to go to
Jerusalem for the compulsory Feasts, Pentecost, Passover and
Tabernacles. A woman had to know the table blessings; she had to
recite the Eighteen Prayers, the Shemoneh Esreh; she had to see
to the Mezuzah on the doorpost; she had to light the Sabbath lamp
- that was and is one of her special duties; she had to see to
the "challah," the offering of kneaded dough that had to be made
from every baking. In the Temple she could not ordinarily go
beyond the Court of the Women, and in the Synagogue she could not
be one of the quorum of ten which was necessary to hold a
Synagogue service, although theoretically she might be one of the
seven people called up to share in the reading of the lesson from
the Law (Tos. Megillah 4.11; Megillah 23 a).
A woman was exempt from the stud of the Law. This
is the reason for Jewish prayer which is so often unfairly
quoted, "I thank thee that thou hast not made me a Gentile, a
slave, or a woman" (Menaboth 43 b). The real meaning of the
thanksgiving is that the man thanks God that he is not exempt
from the study of the Law as a woman is. It is rather love of the
Law than contempt for women that inspired this prayer.
It is nevertheless true that women were not educated other than
in domestic tasks "It is the way of a woman to remain at home,
and for a man to go into the marketplace and learn intelligence
from other men" (Genesis R. 18.1). On rare occasions educated
women were found. For instance, in the house of Rabbi Judah the
Patriarch even the maids knew biblical Hebrew and could enlighten
scholars on the meaning of words (Rosh-Hashanah 26 b; Megillah 18
a; Nazir 3 a). There is only one famous Jewish woman scholar in
the Rabbinic Law, Beruriah, the daughter of Rabbi Channa ben
Teradion, and the wife of one of the greatest of the rabbis,
Rabbi Meir. On the whole the higher education of women was
regarded with horror. To a learned woman who asked him a question
about the golden calf, Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus answered: "A
woman has no learning except about the spindle" (Yoma 66 b; Jer.
Sotah 19 a). "Let the words of the Law be, burned rather than
taught to a woman" (Jer. Sotah 19 a). One who teaches his
daughter the Law is as if he taught her lechery (Sotah 3.4). The
Talmud objects to a pious fool, a shrewd rascal and a
she-Pharisee (Sotah 3.4). The talkative and the inquisitive widow
and the virgin who wastes her time in long prayers are heartily
disliked (Sotah 22 a).
The rabbis often spoke cynically about women. "Women," said
Hillel, "foster prejudices" (Sayings of the Fathers 2.7). Women
are light-minded (Shabbath 33 b).
But at the same time they could say: "God endowed woman with more
intelligence than man" (Nid 45 b).
The shrewish wife was hated. A man with a bad wife will never
have to go to hell because he has been through his purgatory on
earth (Erub. 41 a). Among those whose life is not life is the man
who is ruled by his wife (Baba Metzia 75 b).
Women were notoriously talkative. God gave ten measures of words
for the whole of humanity, and woman seized upon nine of them.
Any wound, says Ben Sirach, but not a wound of the heart! Any
wickedness, but not the wickedness of a wife (Ecclesiasticus
Woman's love for adornments is noted. The things that a woman
longs for are adornments (Kethuboth 59 a), and the adornments are
listed as treating the eyes with kohl, curling the hair into
ringlets and rouging the face and the desire is just as great at
six or sixteen or sixty! (Moed Katan 9 b).
Sometimes the Talmud can speak almost with ferocity about the
qualities of women. "Four qualities are ascribed to women; they
are gluttonous, listeners at doors, lazy and jealous. They are
also querulous and garrulous" (Genesis R. 45.57). The final
complaint is that women are often involved in witchcraft. "Women
are addicted to witchcraft" (Yoma 83 b). "The more women, the
more witchcraft" (Sayings of the Fathers 2.8). "The majority of
women are inclined to witchcraft" (Sanhedrin 67 a). And it is a
witch (the feminine form) who is to be put to death (Exodus
In view of the verdicts passed on women in certain of the
rabbinic writing, ot will not be surprising that there were
those who looked with suspicion on ordinary social intercourse
with women. A strict rabbi would not be seen talking even to his
own wife on the street or in public. A saying of Rabbi Jose ben
Jochanan is recorded in the sayings of the Fathers (1.5): "Talk
not much with womankind. They said this of a man's own wife. How
much more of his fellow's wife. Hence the Sages have said: He
that talks much with womankind brings evil upon himself, and
neglects the study of the Law, and at last will inherit Gehenna."
"It is forbidden to speak to woman in the street, even one's own
wife" (Yoma 240 a).
Little wonder that, the disciples were ASTONISHED to return
to the well to find Jesus talking with the woman of Samaria (John
But it is obvious that there is another side to this. As Daniel
Rops put it: "It goes without saying that in the small kingdom
that is the home the wife was queen" (Daily Life in Palestine, p.
129). A woman could acquire merit by sending her children
faithfully to learn the Law in the Synagogue school, and by
encouraging her husband to be a student in the schools of the
rabbis (Ber. 17 a).
The Jews never questioned the supreme influence of the woman. The
rabbis told a story of a pious man who was married to a pious
woman. They were childless, and after ten years childlessness
divorce was compulsory. "He went and married a wicked woman, and
she made him wicked; she went and married a wicked man, and she
made him righteous. It follows that all depends on the woman"
(Genesis R. 17.7).
The influence of the woman for good or for evil was never denied,
and none ever held a more honored place than the good wife and
Certain pleasant stories gathered around the creation of woman.
She was created from the rib taken from Adam.
God considered from which part of man to create woman. He said, I
will not create her from the head, that she should not hold up
her head too proudly; nor from the eye, that she should not be
too curious; nor from the ear, that she should not be an
eavesdropper; nor from the mouth, that she should not be too
talkative; nor from the heart, that she should not be too
jealous; nor from the hand, that she should not be too
acquisitive; nor from the foot, that she should not be a
gadabout; but from a part of the body that is hidden that she
should be modest" (Genesis R. 18.2). It was said that in
courtship the man must pursue the woman, and not the woman the
man, because, since the woman was made from man's rib, man was
doing no more than seeking that which was already his own.
There was a famous story about how a man once said to Rabbi
"Your God is a thief because it is written, The Lord God caused a
deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept; and he took one of
his ribs" (Genesis 2:21). The rabbi's daughter said to her
father, "Leave him to me; I will answer him." She then said to
the man, "Give me an officer to investigate a complaint." "For
what purpose?" he said. She replied, "Thieves broke into our
house during the night and stole a silver ewer belonging to us,
but left a gold one behind." The man exclaimed, "Would that such
a thief visited me every day!" She answered, "Was it not then a
splendid thing for the first man when a single rib was taken from
him and a woman to attend upon him was supplied in its stead?"
(Sanhedrin 39 a).
(Oh, I love that one, how this daughter of Gamaliel answered the
man - Keith Hunt).
There are two famous passages of a good wife, in Jewish
literature. The first is from Ecclesiasticus 26:
Happy is the husband of a good wife; the number of his days
will be doubled.
A loyal wife rejoices her husband, and he will complete his
years in peace.
A good wife is a great blessing; she will be granted among
the blessings of the man who fears the Lord.
Whether rich or poor, his heart is glad,
and at all times his face is cheerful.
The other is the most famous tribute of all to a good wife
Provers 31:10-31, a passage which the man who possessed a good
wife was suppose to read aloud every evening before the Sabbath.
It is too long to quote in full but verses 25-29 run as follows:
Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the
time to come.
She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of
kindness is on her tongue.
She looks well to the ways of her household,and does not eat
the bread of idleness.
Her children rise up and call her blessed; her husband also,
and he praises her:
"Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them
TO BE CONTINUED
A few surprises in what we have been given by William Barclay.
Marriage in the Jewish community at the time of Jesus, was a
marriage when very young. Mary the mother of Jesus was probably a
young teenager when she married Joseph, and he was probably under
the age of twenty.
We can also see how the Jews had SOME parts of God's word correct
on marriage, but then we also see how they added many false ideas
and teachings - a real mixture of truth and error. We also
clearly see from all what Barclay has presented to us, WHY the
disciples of Jesus were amazed that Jesus was talking to a woman
at the well, even a Samaritan woman at that, for the Jews were
taught to have nothing to do with the Samaritan sect period, let
alone talk to a Samaritan woman.
In the light of all this information, we can now have a much
better appreciation for how Jesus treated women, how He conversed
with them, talked to them, had them as His friends and disciples,
how He ignored the false ideas and false Jewish customs of the
"religious" male Jew and male "religious leaders" and their wrong
ideas and teachings and practices towards women.
William Barclay will enlighten and even maybe shock some of us
with more facts on women and marriages at Jesus' time, in the
second part of this study - Keith Hunt.