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What Was Marriage Like Among the First Christians?

Matrimonio en la antigua Roma – en

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Primeros Cristianos - published on 10/25/14

They married like everyone else, but their conduct marked them as strikingly different.

On the occasion of the conclusion of the Synod on the Family, we are offering some interesting articles about the family and marriage.

Marriage in the First Centuries of Christianity

In the first centuries, as it says in the Epistle to Diognetus (from the middle of the second century), Christians “marry, as do all” (V, 6), following Jewish, Greek, or Roman customs. They accepted imperial laws, as long as these didn’t go against the gospel.  Matrimony was celebrated “in the Lord” (1 Cor. 7:39), within the community, without a special ceremony.
In the Jewish world, marriage was celebrated according to the traditional customs and rites. (See Genesis 24 and Tobit 7, 9 and 10). A certain time after the engagement, the wedding was celebrated. (The wedding was a private family matter. It was not celebrated in the synagogue, but at home.) Nonetheless, as is the case with everything in Israel, there was a religious dimension. The celebration included prayer and a blessing.

In the Roman world, three different forms of celebrating a marriage succeeded each other historically. Confarreatio (with a wedding cake), the oldest form of celebration, included legal and religious ceremonies. In the imperial age, this type of union was very rare. The common way of getting married was coemptio, a rite that symbolized the purchase of the wife, and the usus (use), simple cohabitation after mutual marital consent.

Consensus (consent) eventually became, in practice, the essential part of marital union. The Digest [part of a collection of Roman law] says, “It is not sexual union that constitutes a marriage, but consent.” (35, I, 15) As such, a wedding did not require any particular rite or the presence of a magistrate. Civil authority did nothing more than recognize the existence of a marriage, and (in a way) protect the conjugal union by imposing certain conditions.

Christians married like everyone else, but “display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life.” (Epistle to Diognetus, V, 4).  They welcomed newborn life and respect the conjugal bed: “They beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed.” (V, 6 and 7)

Ignatius of Antioch (around the year 107 A.D.) invited Christians to marry “with the approval of the bishop, that their marriage may be according to God, and not after their own lust.” (Letter to Polycarp 5,6)

Tertullian (around 160-220 A.D.) commented on the advantages of marrying in the Lord: “Whence are we to find words enough fully to tell the happiness of that marriage which the Church cements, and the oblation confirms, and the benediction signs and seals; which angels carry back the news of to heaven, which the Father holds for ratified?” (Ad uxorem II, 8)

Marital consent

From the fourth to the ninth centuries the ecclesial character of the marriage celebration between Christians was emphasized, and it was clearly established that the ceremonies of prayer and blessing were not obligatory for the validity of the union.

The first written testimony speaking of a truly liturgical nuptial blessing dates from the period of Pope Damasus (366-384 A.D.), and is found in the works of Pseudo-Ambrose (Ambrosiaster).  The blessing was only granted for a first marriage.
Thiswas profoundly influenced by Roman law, according to which consent alone was strictly necessary for marriage, whichever form it took.

In the year 866 A.D., in his answer to the Bulgarians who asked him about the importance of the ecclesiastical ceremonies (prayer and blessing), which some had declared to be the constitutive elements of marriage, Pope Nicholas I sa
id, “According to the laws, the consent alone of those whose union is at issue, is enough. Yet if this consent alone is perchance lacking in the wedding, all the rest, even if it is consummated with intercourse itself, is in vain.”

In the following centuries, the Church claimed legal authority over marriage and mandated that consent and the consequent giving of the wedding garment take place expressly in the presence of a priest (ninth to twelfth centuries), in a church, or, more often, at the doors of a church, as several rituals from the eleventh to the fourteenth centuries indicate. This rite was followed by the celebration of Mass and the blessing of the wife.

In order to give it more publicity, it was agreed that the rite take place no longer in the fiancée’s home, but at the door of the church. In this way, what was formerly done by the father or legal guardian, was now done by the priest, with words like these: “I give you [name] to be your wife.” (Ritual of Meaux) Between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the form was extended: “And I join you…,” which some consider to be the sacramental form of marriage.

MARITAL FIDELITY

With respect to fidelity, Christianity was markedly different from the customs of the time. Here we find a divergence between the principles of Christian morality and the pagan understanding of marriage. For the pagans, it was merely a social reality that could be formed or broken by a simple decision on the part of one of the spouses. From the time of the first Christians, the husband’s infidelity was considered the same as that of the wife, and in both cases it was considered a grave sin.

For St. Augustine, marriage was a good, and not a relative good in comparison with fornication, but a good on its own, for its own sake. The first natural covenant of human society was given to us, therefore, by married men and women.  Children come immediately after to consolidate the efficacy of this conjugal society as its only honest fruit, the result not only of a simple union of man and woman, but of their friendship and their conjugal relationship.

St. Augustine wondered at the efficacy of marriage and concluded that there is something great and divine in this sacrament: “Which I by no means think could have been of so great avail, were it not that there were taken a certain sacrament of some greater matter from out this weak mortal state of men, so that, men deserting it, and seeking to dissolve it, it should remain unshaken for their punishment.” (On the Good of Marriage, 7)

And so, the equality of man and woman in Christian marriage was another novelty in the society of the time: In marriage between Christians, the woman’s position was that of a companion with rights equal to those of the other spouse.

 Consequently, Christianity gave women greater consideration when we compare it to the majority of the pagan religions of those days.

Thisarticle was reprinted with permission by Aleteia’s Spanish edition. Translated byMatthew Green.

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