Let’s move on to another area that was also substantially different in ancient times: the family. Realize first that our modern concept of the nuclear family (Dad, Mom, and kids) wasn’t the norm in the ancient world. In fact, there was no Roman word or phrase for that kind of family.
The household was the basic family unit in Greco-Roman times. In Roman times it included the elite male (Paterfamilias), wife, legitimate children, slaves, extended family, adoptees, and boarders. The Romans made it illegal to have more than one wife.
In early Greek and OT times, the head of the household could have multiple wives. Concubines were also common, as were Levirate marriages—taking the wife of one’s dead brother and getting her pregnant so his name and inheritance could continue.
The children from wives, Levirate wives, and concubines were legitimate and could participate in the inheritance. The children from slaves remained slaves and the children from prostitutes were the responsibility of the prostitute—though I imagine most of them were exposed.
Old Testament Israelite Household
It’s important to understand that marriage/sex in OT times wasn’t just between a husband and wife but between the husband and all the people sexually available to him in his household. To get a sense of the times, here are the words from Demosthenes, a Greek philosopher from the 4th century BCE, on the matter:
Mistresses we keep for pleasure, concubines for the daily attendance on our person, but wives for the procreation of legitimate children and to be faithful guardians of our household.
This quote illustrates how family life morphed between ancient Greek and Israelite times. The children from the concubines of Israel became legitimate heirs, while Demosthenes indicates that those children would have been slaves. The various positions of the underlings (women and children) changed through ancient times, but the elite male remained at the top of the heap.
Why did elite men have that exalted position? In ancient times, battles and raids were near-daily occurrences. Young men were often killed. Famine and disease also decimated the population.
All these factors produced many young widows (with or without children). A woman had almost no opportunity to provide for herself (prostitution being a notable exception) and faced a difficult life without a husband. Polygamy in ancient times could be considered an act of compassion.
Step aside with me here to define some terms: Do you know what polygyny and polyandry mean? They are both a subset of polygamy.
Polygyny was where one husband had multiple wives. It was common in ancient times until the Romans put an end to it. Polyandry was where one wife had multiple husbands...which doesn’t seem to have existed in ancient times.
To truly understand sex and marriage in the OT, we need to know that neither the OT itself nor Greek culture had any law or moral restriction against polygyny. Many Bible teachers use Genesis 2:24 (“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh”) to claim that God ordained one man and one woman be married only to each other for life.
But the text says nothing about the man becoming one flesh with his second wife or the ones who followed her. Also, the Hebrew word translated as “flesh” here seems to mean kinship and doesn’t have a sexual denotation. The same word is used in Genesis 29:14 when Laban said to Jacob, “Surely you are my bone and my flesh.”
Since so many examples of polygyny exist in the OT, it doesn’t feel honest to ignore them. In fact, the OT law states that a man can take another wife as long as he provides the first wife with food, clothing, and sexual intimacy.
Polygyny was common in ancient Greece and in the OT. Then, Roman law made it a serious crime to be married to more than one woman. It’s significant that this rule came from the Romans and was not dictated in the Bible. When Paul wrote that a deacon must be a husband of but one wife, he was following Roman law, not Hebrew law.
What about ending marriages? Again, this is vastly different from modern times. The state didn’t register marriages; they were a private arrangement. Divorce was easy, common, and wasn’t viewed as a moral lapse, but women tended to be devastated by divorce.
Here are some general standards for divorce in Biblical times.
1. During the betrothal period, the groom or bride’s father could initiate divorce and there were no consequences in the separation.
2. After marriage, if the husband simply wanted out and no fault was found with the wife, her father (or brother) got her dowry back and kept the bride wealth.
3. If wife was found at fault in some way, there was no financial settlement.
4. If the wife produced children, some minimal safeguards for the wife were provided.
When Jesus spoke against divorce, these were the standards of contemporary culture. Jesus seems to be reinforcing the sanctity of marriage and the responsibility to treat one’s wife with love and kindness.
We need to understand Jesus’ teaching about divorce in light of his other hard teachings (do not get angry, give all possessions away, repay evil with love, etc.). He’s not making rules here; he’s showing us the best path and giving us the Holy Spirit.
 Helen Rhee, “Family Structures: Early Church,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Gender Studies, ed. Julia M. O’Brien (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), Volume 1, p. 228.
 Remember the movie “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?”
 Genesis 38:9 tells us of Onan unwilling to impregnate his dead brother’s wife per Levirate law. He and other reluctant brothers got their sandals pulled off and spit on by the widows.
 Jon L. Berquist, “Family Structures: Hebrew Bible,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Gender Studies, ed. Julia M. O’Brien (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), Volume 1, p. 201.
 Annalisa Azzoni, “Marriage and Divorce: Hebrew Bible,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Gender Studies, ed. Julia M. O’Brien (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), Volume 1, p. 484.
 Demosthenes, “Apollodorus Against Neaera,” Demosthenes, trans. by Norman W. DeWitt, Ph.D. and Norman J. DeWitt, Ph.D. (Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1949), Section 122.
 Sarah Shectman, “Marriage and Divorce: Ancient Near East,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Gender Studies, ed. Julia M. O’Brien (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), Volume 1, p. 481.
 Exodus 21:10
 Shulamit Valler, “Family Structures: Early Judaism,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Gender Studies, ed. Julia M. O’Brien (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), Volume 1, p. 224.
 I Timothy 3:12
 B. Diane Lipsett, “Marriage and Divorce: Early Church,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Gender Studies, ed. Julia M. O’Brien (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), Volume 1, p. 507.
 Sarah Shectman, “Marriage and Divorce: Ancient Near East,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Gender Studies, ed. Julia M. O’Brien (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), Volume 1, p. 482.
 The dowry was the assets the bride’s family gives to the groom at marriage, while the bride wealth was the assets given by the groom’s family to the bride.
 Matthew 19:8-12