Thursday, December 2, 2010

How The Early Church Redefined Marriage Long Before Gays Did, or, That Pesky History, messing up our trusty media sound bytes!

One of my biggest issues with popular objections to gay marriage is with attempts to use history to justify that stance. A student asked me about this a while back when CA's Prop 8 passed -- then came the media fracas regarding Rick Warren praying at President Obama's inauguration, more states passing, blocking, or repealing same-sex marriage rights, the question of 'Don't ask, don't tell,' and etc. So the matter remains not only pertinent, but front-and-center.

Warren pointed to "a 5000-year definition" to justify his refusal to call gay marriage "marriage." Not only was he wrong about that, but he gave several other examples of what he wouldn't call "marriage" that have also, historically, been called marriage, including a man with several wives, marriages between siblings, and marriages between men and very young girls.* It doesn't matter whether we legally recognize them today in the U.S. They have been recognized historically. As a result, it makes his justifications sound ignorant. I should add that I don't dislike Warren even if I strongly disagree with him on several points; as far as popular evangelists go, he's one of the least offensive and has some wise things to say even if one doesn't subscribe to his theology, or even his belief system ... and I've never been one for damning a whole group indescriminately. But that doesn't mean I think he has any business using history (badly) to justify his opinion.

See, there's not just one characteristic by which any group defines "marriage." Paying attention only to the gender of the partners is deceptive. Perhaps it's ignorantly deceptive, but that doesn't alter the fact. There are several different factors that ALL contribute to a definition of marriage for any given culture at any given time (present or historic). There have been marriages, called marriages, between people of the same biological sex, historically speaking. There have also been religious vows made between people of the same biological sex that were regarded as a more permanent and unbreakable link than that culture's legal marriages.

Perhaps most surprising to some of the (Christian) gay marriage nay-sayers, the Christian church itself REDEFINED marriage in its own early history, changing it from a civil contract ratified by families in a secular setting to a sacred vow made in a religious structure (a church) and ratified by a priest. So, can we even call Christian marriage "marriage" then? If you want to argue from "five-thousand years" of historical precedent then ... no. Rick Warren's own argument would illegitimize religious, vow-based Christian marriage.

I dare say that would surprise him.

I realize there are those who believe -- based on their religious convictions -- that gay relationships are morally wrong, so of course they wouldn't extend sanction to one via their own religious ceremonies. I have no quarrel with that, actually; the U.S. permits freedom of religion. I may not agree, but I have no right to tell you what to believe anymore than you have a right to tell me what to believe, religiously speaking. My irritation comes when CIVIL rights for same-sex partners are denied -- including the right to the term "marriage" itself -- based on ignorance of real (not imagined) historical precedent. Fact is, marriage is largely a civil institution historically, not a religious one. As such, even if one's religious convictions won't allow recognition of a religious marriage ceremony, that cannot and should not extend to civil/secular recognition of same. Trying to point to "history" to justify refusing it -- especially when I know better -- just torques me off.

"Marriage" is a slippery institution to define. Whatever the extremists would have us think, there is not a single, universal definition, and marriage has not been unchanged throughout time -- quite the opposite. Like most cultural institutions, it's gone through a wide variety of permutations.

Let me begin by stating I'm a historian, not an anthropologist, and my area of focus is not, strictly speaking, the legal history of marriage. There are whole BOOKS written on marriage in various societies. I didn't write them. I'm not Nancy Demand, Susan Treggiari or Maria Brosius to discuss the legal specifics of Greek, Roman, or Persian marriage. But I do know a fair bit about sex and sexuality in the Ancient Near East (ANE), the Mediterranean (Med) world, and the Early Church, and also marriage traditions among Anishnaabe tribes in the Great Lakes regions. I won't pretend to talk about marriage in, say, medieval Japan, among the Maasai in Kenya, or in T'ang China because I'd look like an idiot trying. Unlike Warren, I know my limits.

So ... marriage. In order to define it, we have to look at more than ONE criteria. It is not enough to say that marriage is between one man and one woman, as if this were self-evident in all places, times, and religions.

We must ask WHAT man and WHAT woman could be married? What were their ages, their blood ties, even their ethnicities? How many wives, or husbands, could one individual have? Was marriage a civil contract or a religious vow? Could marriages, once made, be dissolved, and under what circumstances? All these things together -- not just the gender of the partners -- determined what marriage MEANT.

First, let's look at social vs. religious functions and how that impacts the understanding of marriage as well as it's assumed indissolubility.

Most of the societies with which I work regard marriage primarily as a social institution that is "hemmed" with some religious trappings. Marriages are legal contracts made between a husband and/or his family and the girl's family (not the girl, note). They do not occur in religious structures and priests do not preside over them because a priest's role is to propitiate god/s through formal sacrifice (which typically weren't made at marriages). Likewise, oracles, soothsayers, or other religious functionaries weren't present at weddings either, although at least soothsayers (and sometimes magicians) were consulted in advance to insure any god/s didn't object to the match. Libations and prayers might be made at points during the ceremony, but these were performed by family members or friends, not religious functionaries. Pre-marriage dedications were often made in temples and shrines (especially for the girl), but this was only peripherally part of the marriage itself; they functioned more as fertility or coming-of-age rituals.

(We could discuss the whole "sacred marriage" of Babylonian tradition, which IS a religious rite, but it's also not marriage as practiced normally in Bronze-Age Babylonian society.)

In short, marriage served a SOCIAL and SECULAR function -- not a religious one. Religion was present only because religion was always present in any important activity undertaken in ancient societies because "atheism" as we understand it didn't exist -- nor did any separation of religion and "state" activities. In fact, we talk of most religions at this time as "civic religions." That doesn't make marriage "religious." In fact, it was notably less religious than warfare! (The latter included formal sacrifices and soothsayers.)

What WAS its social function? The production of legitimate children for purposes of inheritance was the main one -- but far from the only one. Political or business alliances could also figure into it, and the wife was often responsible for seeing to the private realm of home management, particularly in upper-class families. (See Xenophon's Oikonomikos.)

Please notice that LOVE was nowhere in those functions. Did these husbands and wives never love each other? Well, yes, absolutely sometimes they did -- but it typically came after the marriage, not before, and it was far, far, far from a requirement.

Some other details that would jolt many moderns when it comes to marriage ...

Husbands and wives weren't expected to be the same age, or even close. In fact, especially in the upper classes, the girls were half the age of their husbands -- typically married off shortly after their first menses. That's about thirteen or fourteen. In some cases, they were betrothed -- and even married! -- younger yet ... yes, even into clear "childhood." Today, we call that statuatory rape and child sexual abuse, not marriage. That's not a judgment on ancient society so much as a recognition that OUR WORLD ISN'T THEIRS.

Likewise, some of these ancient societies accepted polygamy at points in their history, especially royal polygamy; that includes the ancient Hebrews who wrote what Christians call the "Old Testament." Does that not count as "history" for Warren and friends? Surely so! Some societies also permitted marriages between closely related individuals -- marriages that would, today, be considered incestuous. I can't (off the top of my head) think of any society that permitted parent-child marriages, but there have been some that did allow brother-sister marriages in the upper classes to preserve inheritance (including both ancient Egypt and ancient Persia), as well as -- even more commonly -- uncle to niece, and first cousin to first cousin.

Also, there are cases where membership in a particular ethnicity (or city-state) was required for a marriage to be recognized. For instance, post-Perikles Athenian men HAD to marry Athenian women for their children to be legitimate. Similarly, Spartans had to marry Spartans. Why? Control of resources and rights of citizenships. E.g., it had POLITICAL -- not moral -- motivations. And marriage between slaves? Only permitted if the slaves' master allowed it. Sometimes slaves married (lower class) free citizens, but again, this was recognized only if the slave's master gave the nod.

So what WAS marriage then?

Not so easy to define, is it? Let me provide some helpful bullet points:

Marriage in the ANE/Med could or did allow:
-- union of an older man and young, even preteen, girl
-- union between cousins, uncle and niece, and even (sometimes) brother and sister
-- several wives at particular times, places, or for certain royal families
-- union as part of a larger political or business deal
-- dissolution of the union as long as the dowry (or equivalent) was returned

Marriage in the ANE/Med usually assumed:
-- a legal contract between her family and his family or with he himself
-- the fixing of a dowry or "how many sheep/goats/olive trees is my daughter worth?"
-- sexual infidelity on the part of the male
-- that any offspring belonged to the father, not the mother, and would stay with the father at divorce

Marriage in the ANE/Med could be restricted by:
-- ethnicity
-- city-state citizenship
-- slavery
-- religious cult affiliation

Now, some societies where the status of women was higher did have better protections in place for their daughters. Examples include Bronze-Age Minoan society, Etruria, Achaemenid Persia, pre-conquest Egypt, Canaan/Phoenicia (yes, that includes the Hebrews/Jews), and apparently Illyria and Scythia too. In some of these societies, "love" might actually become a factor, and protections for the daughters could be written into the contract -- but this is because the status of WOMEN in these societies was generally higher. One thing remains fairly constant -- marriage was a contract, not a vow, and it's primary purpose remained social, not religious.

Now, just to provide a complete contrast before I get around to how the Early Church redefined marriage (and why), let me talk briefly about marriage among pre-European-contact tribal groups in the Great Lakes region.

I bring this up because it, too, requires a reassessment of the WHO in marriage. Yes, I know some in the "marriage must be between one man and one woman" crowd would probably like to dismiss these cultures as "savage," not Christian -- and therefore not worthy of consideration. But if one wishes to claim that marriage is and always has been ____, one can't blithely reject historical societies that don't meet with one's preconceived ideas. That's selective truth.

So, among Great Lakes tribes, due to the relatively small size of bands and the fact they weren't nearly as idiotic as Europeans took them for, marriage was carefully restricted and incest taboos were extremely strong. Hot young buck sees the pretty daughter of his dad's best hunting buddy ... his passion rises ... What's to stop him from leaving his moccasins outside her wigwam and doing the two-backed dance with his new wife? Incest laws stop him.

Yup, that's right. He's her COUSIN, even if he (technically) isn't ... because, well, he probably IS -- some number of times removed. As a result, one had to marry OUTSIDE the clan (and sometimes outside the tribe itself). Therefore full tribal and intertribal social affairs were prime wife- and husband-hunting events.

Their strictures on WHO was eligible for marriage were actually much tighter than in many (nay, most) Mediterranean cultures, but beginning and ending these marriages was easier in most tribes. Marriage still served a particular social function -- the production of a next generation that's not horribly inbred. They were also made for political (and business) purposes, just like in the ANE and Med, as well as for love. And -- IF a brave could prove he could afford it -- he could have more than one wife. He didn't usually have whole harems, but wealthy tribal members could have two, three, even four or more.

BUT, you may be thinking, ALL of those examples still involve males and females, not same-sex partners! Well, yes ... sort of ...

... if you ignore what's sometimes under the skirt, or the bone-bead breastplate. E.g., the breastplate might be hiding actual breasts, and the skirt hiding a penis.

You see, a boy or man could decide to take on the dress and roles of a woman. "He" then became a "she," was referred to as a she, treated as a she -- and married accordingly. The reverse was true with girls. Are they "gay"? Are they "transsexuals/transvestites"? Well, those are modern terms, and I resist trying to slap modern terms created for OUR culture on people in other times and places. It's anachronistic, whether you're calling Plato "gay" or Shawnee berdache "transvestites."

Once again, their world is not our world. And are these marriages between a biological man and a man "by choice" still "male and female"? Well, the tribes would have answered YES. But I doubt most of the anti-gay-marriage crowd today would agree.

Definitions ... pesky definitions. ;>

Just what do you MEAN by "one man and one woman"? Native people believe that a person is who the Creator and his visions make him (or her). Even if that involves "cross-dressing."

Let's move on ... back to the rise of Christianity and what the Early Church did to marriage.

As noted, in the ancient ANE/Med basin -- the societies that gave birth to early Christianity -- marriage was never a religious institution, much less a sacred vow. So how did it become one?

Via some rather twisted, largely gnostic/neo-platonic beliefs about sin and the body. Plato himself never claimed the body/physical world was "bad," "dirty," or "sinful." He believed it a distraction from higher (philosophic) pursuits. But over time, a combination of influences that arose out of the highly diverse melting pot of the Hellenistic and later Roman eras -- drawing ideas from as far away as India -- resulted in a growing belief that the physical world was BAD, not just a distraction. We find it in belief systems ranging from the Persian-born Manichaeism to the various flavors of gnosticism to neo-platonism to, yes, Early Christianity. For a FAR more complete discussion of this, see Peter Brown's The Body and Society (just to name one text). But a widespread belief was found among early Christians that sex (and other carnal desires) were inherently sinful, and "Original Sin" came to be equated with sex, not disobedience to God. This gave rise to such ideas as Mary's perpetual virginity and her Immaculate Conception -- she couldn't be tainted by the sin of her own parents having sex to produce her, or she wouldn't be a good (pure) enough vessel to carry "God" -- become the Theotokos.

Unfortunately for these extremists, Jesus didn't come back quite as soon as they'd hoped, and sex was annoyingly necessary in order to produce future generations. The fledgling Church had to settle into a family-style religion, not a radical apocalyptic cult -- and those two things aren't easy bed-partners (pun intended). So ... how to legitimize that "nasty" necessity of sex?

Marriage was converted into a "sacrament." A sacrament is "an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace." That's the traditional definition. Sacraments are actions that absolve sin. So baptism absolves Original Sin. Confession and the Eucharist (that's the Lord's Supper for Protestants) absolve typical, daily sin. Holy Unction gets rid of any left-over sins before death, making the stay in Purgatory less ...etc., etc.

And marriage?

It redeems that pesky sin of sex.

Now, I know some of the Catholics and Orthodox among you may be thinking, But wait! We don't believe sex is sinful in itself!

Well, no -- not anymore.

But the Church DID, historically. That's why marriage had to become a VOW, not just a contract. It's also why the Jews still have marriage as a contract like it always was. They never adopted those crazy Manichaean-gnostic ideas and sugar-coated them in Christian theology with the help of Origen's brilliant if troubled mind. (Remember, this is the guy who voluntarily castrated himself.) It wasn't just Origen, but he's probably the one most guilty of infusing neo-platonic and gnostic ideas into the (especially Eastern) church.

The only way to get around the issue of sex = sin was to introduce marriage as a holy sacrament that made sex "okay" within the context of a religiously sanctioned marriage, blessed by a priest. That, in turn, required it to become a vow and a religious ceremony -- not a secular civil arrangement.

So yes, Christianity REDEFINED marriage in the first place. And Christians have, perhaps, the least right to complain about modern society "redefining" marriage for new times.

It doesn't matter whether the various flavors of modern Christianity believe these same things. The change was instituted and has become so buried by "tradition" that most modern Christians have no idea whatsoever why it's a vow in the first place. Christianity ALREADY "redefined" marriage in a very, VERY fundamental way.

Now, let's just put the cherry on top here, okay?

Vows. Vows have religious functions. Vows cannot be broken (or shouldn't be) because they offend the GODS -- or God, as the case may be. That's why divorce was disallowed by the Church because it broke a religious VOW. That's a whole different kettle of fish than just dissolving a contract. The ancient world was well-familiar with vows ... they just didn't include marriage among them.

There were, however, vows of loyalty and fidelity made between individuals in the ancient Med. Let me hold up a little-known example. Like most historical examples, it belongs to a particular place and context: Fifth- and Fourth-Century Thebes, Boeotia (Central Greece).

The Thebans had a tradition that involved sacred vows exchanged in the shrine of Iolaus in the gymnasion (park) of the same name outside Thebes' Protiades Gates. The vow involved oaths of fidelity in peace, and courage in war -- to stand beside one's partner in all things, peace and battle, sickness and health, for richer or poorer, until parted by death. (No, we don't know the exact words of the vow; they've not been preserved -- but we DO know the gist of the promises. I've editorialized to make a point.)

It's from these pledged pairs that Thebes drafted members of their fearsome Sacred Band -- note the adjective SACRED in the name. This was THE crack hoplite unit of Classical Greece; it took out -- in a pitched, infantry battle -- no less an opponent than the Spartans (371, Battle of Leuktra). E-yup. Some real sissies there. ;>

The catch? Both partners were MEN.

Now, was that a marriage?

Well, if you'd asked the ancient Thebans, they'd have said, "No." Why? Marriage? Pshaw ... those are just contracts. This vow was more important than a mere marriage!

But if we define marriage as a sacred vow of loyalty to another for the rest of one's life ... then yeah, I think the Theban vow before Iolaus comes closer to the concept of marriage found in the Early Church than to Greco-Roman marriage contracts. Where it differed was, of course, that it didn't "legitimize" sex nor produce heirs. In fact, the fidelity pledged didn't involve exclusive sexual fidelity since many members of the Band had wives. (We're not sure if it involved sexual fidelity as regards other male partners ... it may have, but it may not have.) In any case, Band members could dissolve their marriages, but they couldn't break their vow to their lover (erastes) or beloved (eromenos). So depending on what "markers" one wants to use for definitions, I'd say the Band members were married to each other, and their 'wives' were just social accessories, necessary for inheritance laws and keeping their house.


Well, it depends on when, where, who and for what ... Pretty much like any other institution throughout history. There isn't a blanket definition now and never has been.

Oh, those pesky, pesky definitions again!

Marriage has NOT historically been between one man and one woman for the last five-thousand years, Amen. Not even close.

History just isn't that neat, nor monolithic.

*Warren's exact quote: "I'm not opposed to that [benefits for partners of gays and lesbians] as much as I'm opposed to redefinition of a 5,000 year definition of marriage. I'm opposed to having a brother and sister being together and calling that marriage. I'm opposed to an older guy marrying a child and calling that marriage. I'm opposed to one guy having multiple wives and calling that marriage."

To read a transcript or view the entire interview, go HERE:

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