Origins of the Monogamy Only position
It is ironic that monogamy became the norm from one of the most decadent empires in all of history.
While on its surface the Roman Empire was very monogamous, the reality is they were not. Roman men could officially have only one wife and she, as well as her children, would have all the rights and privileges that went along with that as citizens of the empire. The way men got around this though was through female slaves.
Many men had un-official harems through the use of female slaves and even had children by them. In some instances Roman wives did carry on affairs with their male slaves, but if they were to be impregnated by their male slaves they would try to cover it up lest they be disgraced.
There are a lot theories as to how the MO position came to be in the Roman culture. One of the more popular ones is that MO made inheritance issues almost completely go away. Where other parts of the world especially in the Middle East and elsewhere still wrestled with these issues. This was also a way the Romans could make themselves feel superior to other nations as most other areas of the world at the time still heavily practiced polygamy.
While polygamy did continue to exist in Europe it was usually hidden and very frowned upon.
By the way even the term – Romantic – means “like the Romans” referring to monogamous only societies. Romanticism occurs in the context of a monogamous relationship.
How did the Romans handle the Jews and Polygamy?
A good summary of the Jewish history with the Romans on this subject is found in “Christian Marriage: An Historical and Doctrinal Study”:
“When the Christian Church came into being, polygamy was still practiced by the Jews. It is true that we find no references to it in the New Testament; and from this some have inferred that it must have fallen into disuse, and that at the time of our Lord the Jewish people had become monogamous. But the conclusion appears to be unwarranted. Josephus in two places speaks of polygamy as a recognized institution: and Justin Martyr makes it a matter of reproach to Trypho that the Jewish teachers permitted a man to have several wives. Indeed when in 212 A.D. the lex Antoniana de civitate gave the rights of Roman Citizenship to great numbers of Jews, it was found necessary to tolerate polygamy among them, even when though it was against Roman law for a citizen to have more than one wife. In 285 A.D. a constitution of Diocletian and Maximian interdicted polygamy to all subjects of the empire without exception. But with the Jews, at least, the enactment failed of its effect; and in 393 A.D. a special law was issued by Theodosius to compel the Jews to relinquish this national custom. Even so they were not induced to conform.”
Source: Christian Marriage: An Historical and Doctrinal Study – Joyce, George (1933). Christian Marriage: An Historical and Doctrinal Study. Sheed and Ward. p. 560.
Polygamy during the Protestant Reformation
During the 16th century some of the Reformers reexamined the issue of Polygamy. Martin Luther stated:
“I confess that I cannot forbid a person to marry several wives, for it does not contradict the Scripture. If a man wishes to marry more than one wife he should be asked whether he is satisfied in his conscience that he may do so in accordance with the word of God. In such a case the civil authority has nothing to do in the matter.”
Source: Luter, Martin. De Wette II, 459, ibid., pp. 329–330.
Later Luther would qualify his previous statement by saying it only referred to men whose wives were sick or lepers. But I personally believe he had it right the first time.
Some Anabaptists actually promoted and practiced polygamy as the restoration of Biblical plural marriage.
Conclusion of Part 2
In this part of my series on Polygamy we have shown that the Roman Empire had the greatest influence in history as far as pushing the MO position and making polygamy an unacceptable form of marriage. We have also shown that Polygamy was still a common practice during Christ’s time and yet he never speaks against it. We can also see that some of the Reformers embraced polygamy and saw it as Biblical practice.
In the next part of this series we will discuss some common arguments that many modern Christians make against polygamy.