Last week during the tweet chat for the Read the Bible in 90 days challenge being hosted by Amy at Mom’s Toolbox the question came up about when marriage became the paired relationship that we now know as opposed to the polygamous relationships that we see in the early Old Testament (like Solomon and his 700 wives and countless concubines). I mentioned that I had some resources on this buried in my office someplace and I’d try to dig them up to shed some light on this area, which I will do, but FIRST, a disclaimer.
I am NOT an historian. I am an eighteenth-century TransAtlantic non-fiction prose specialist. Otherwise known as an English professor. If we were talking about the Eighteenth Century, I would be on much surer footing and could talk, easily, about the development of the companionate marriage (defined and described by Lawrence Stone) which is far closer to our modern marriage construct than even what we see in the 17th century and certainly in the New Testament. Also, I am primarily doing this from memory, so if you have something to add, the comments are open and you’re welcome add to the discussion.
The argument seems to run that the reason that we see more polygamous marriages than paired marriages, particularly in the Old Testament, is directly related to wars and the availability of men. The more times numerous men are slaughtered, the fewer there are to continue the family line and the more easily the remaining males could obtain additional wives (or were required to; remember, God requires in the Old Testament that a brother marry his brother’s widow in order to continue his brother’s line). These were viewed as marriage and seen as acceptable. It also seems that even in polygamous marriages the first wife had primacy of place and was allowed some extra measure of interest (note the discussions in Esther, for example, of the King’s first wife as he is searching for another) or protection. The first son of the first wife typically was the recognized heir. Though, we certainly see that circumvented time and again by both second wives and second sons (think Rebekah and Jacob).
We see a shift away from discussions of multiple wives in the New Testament. Now, the argument on some more conservative sites is that Jesus told us to follow the Lord’s commandments, and they believe that this means returning to the one woman/one man model seen in Adam and Eve through roughly Noah. Others suggest that it was the influence of Greco-Roman culture on the Jews that caused the shift from polygamous to monogamous marriages. The primary marriage model in both Greek and Roman cultures emphasize one spouse per “customer” so to speak. Also, it seems likely that as the Israelites were becoming more settled it would be less necessary to maintain more nomadic models of family structure. Nomadic models tend to rely on one protector and numerous followers, so that also might play a role in the reasons why we see more polygamy in the Old Testament rather than the New Testament.
It’s also important to keep in mind that the notion of marriage as we’ve come to understand it, doesn’t actually exist until, well, some date it as late as the early 20th century (romance novels notwithstanding). Generally, marriage was seen as a means of ensuring family lines, property exchange, and so forth more than as an emotional commitment.
Possibly the earliest marriage for love in literature is Samuel Richardson’s Pamela where the “master” of the household takes a strong liking to one of the household servants and ultimately rather than compromise her virtue, he marries her. We start seeing that model rise more frequently in the novels of the Romantic period, but those do not, strictly, reflect the relationship culture of the time period. It is more likely that we could say that the literature reflects what people wish was happening, not what was actually happening.
Clearly, this is not authoritative, but it does offer some ideas about why there’s a shift and where the shift seems to occur. As a final note, if you are a student who is thinking this is a good thing to submit to your professor DON’T DO IT! Do your own research! My conclusions are my own and you might reach different conclusions by reading around on your own.