To understand any book, you must understand the culture in which it was written. I love reading Dickens in part because I am fascinated with the history of the early Industrial Age. By history, I don’t mean memorizing dates and heads of state; I mean the social history of how people actually lived. Dickens comes alive when you have a better sense of how families functioned, how people made a living, and how debtor prison worked in nineteenth century Britain.
The Bible surpasses all books in number of copies printed and the reach of its influence. Many of us read the Bible daily and love the insights, yet few of us put forth much effort to understand the culture in which the Bible was written. This chapter will help you develop a sense of the Greco-Roman culture—of living in ancient times—with a particular focus on sex and marriage.
The only sex mentioned on the Ten Commandment stone tablets was adultery. What does adultery mean? You know it’s something about married people having sex with anyone other than their spouse...at least that’s the definition today.
In Old Testament (OT) times, though, the Hebrew word for adultery (moicheia) was defined as a married woman having sex with any man who was not her husband. That’s an asymmetric definition. The requirements are different for a woman than for a man.
A woman can’t have sex with anyone except her husband. A man, on the other hand, may have sex with his slaves, prostitutes, concubines, or anyone else who is not a free and betrothed or married woman.
That’s the OT definition of adultery, as well as the common understanding of it through Greco-Roman times. The stipulated penalty in the OT was death.
Why were wives bound to this strict sexual fidelity when husbands were not? Inheritance. Fathers wanted to pass their assets to their true heirs. If the wife had sex with anyone else, the lineage of the heir would be questionable. Like my Dad said, “You always know who the mother is...but not so sure about the father.”
To understand the sexual options open to a man in Greco-Roman times, let’s hear from the fourth century BCE Greek orator Demosthenes about the three kinds of women an Athenian man can have sex with.
1. Wife: for the birth of legitimate children
2. Concubine: for regular sex (may be a slave)
3. Sexual Companion: a prostitute trained in the sexual arts and social graces and able to accompany the man to social events, such as banquets, where wives were banned
Prostitution was legal and accepted in Greco-Roman society. The Bible has a mixed message about prostitution. Rahab the prostitute was never condemned for her job and was called one of the heroes of the faith. Paul criticized prostitution—not as immoral but as polluting the male client.
We make a big mistake when we assume all cultures in all times resemble our current one. The Romans, for example, believed a woman was a vastly inferior version of a man. Women, children, slaves, effeminate men, eunuchs, etc., were all considered “non-men.” All non-men lived under the authority of an elite man.
One Sex Roman Model
When Jesus spoke about adultery, it was in this cultural context. When the Pharisees brought the woman caught in adultery to Jesus to be judged, it was unsurprising that the man was not likewise accused.
After Jesus, the early church leaders struggled with the issue of adultery and forgiveness. Hemas wrote that it should be forgiven only one time, while both Tertullian and Origen thought it unforgivable. In keeping with the times, some thought that husbands could be forgiven but wives could not.
Basil of Caesarea, a famous preacher and theologian alive around 350 CE, wrote that slave women sexually violated by their masters were not subject to Church discipline. He also mentions no punishment for Christian masters who sexually abuse their slaves.