A Christian Precedent for Same Sex Marriage -The History of Marriage and What it Means Today
The question of marriage has been going back and forth a lot in the news lately. In questioning current events, it is always important to look at how we got here. What is the history of Marriage? Where did it come from? What does it really mean? These are a few of the questions I mean to explore here, and hope that you join me in considering what is going on right now.
Note about the author: Daniel has a BA in History and is working on his Masters in History and Education.
What Are Some Key Points Covered?
1. Marriage was not created by Christians.
2. There are Christian precedents for same sex marriage. There is a history of same sex marriage in the Christian Church that people do not discuss.
3. A short explanation of Christian restrictions to marriage over time.
What is not covered: I will not go into detail on verses that clearly say to love thy neighbor, to love people, to not judge, and to be a good human being because even though a lot of 'Christians' do not abide by these, true Christians do. Also I will not go into a discussion about some of the strange and antiquated laws of the bible such as in the picture below, though it is an interesting point to ponder.
What does "marriage" mean?
Literally, the modern English word for marriage comes from marītāre meaning to provide with a husband or wife. The definitions of marriage have come and gone, ever changing.
Many marriage norms have existed throughout the world. In some societies an individual is limited to being in one coupling at a time, while other cultures allow males to have more than one wife or a female to have more than one husband - due to women's rights issues throughout the world most of the time this last one is seen as taboo as it would give women a lot of power. Some societies have (and now do) allow marriage between two males or two females. Societies frequently have restrictions on marriage based on the ages of the participants, kinship, and membership in religious groups or class groups.
The First Accounts of Marriage
Sumerians, over 5000 years ago, were the first instance of marriage that we know about. There were laws about marriage - however these laws were not the same as they would be in... most places. The "best man" needed to be the best to fight off relatives who would try to keep the bride from being kidnapped and rescue her. The Romans, who thought most things uncivilized, most certainly found this to be as well and created laws that made sure both bride and groom entered into marriage of their own free will.
The history of the marriage certificate - or contract as it was at this time and would continue to be for quite some time - starts 2500 years ago. This was found in a bundle of Aramaic papyri which was in the ruins of a Jewish Garrison at Elephantine Egypt. This was a contract that shows us that the groom got a 14 year old girl in exchange for six cows. Marriages were investments in life so they needed to be well paid for and contracted, this would continue for quite a while and would end with the dowry slipping away from marriage.
Japanese Marriage: Shinto
Marriage ceremonies became solidified in the Jomon period which is 14,000-300 BC. Shinto teachings consider marriage to be one of life's rites of passage. In ancient customs the couple is introduced to the ancestors by reporting the marriage to the ancestors before the household Shinto altar, and to the community by a banquet held by the family. At the start of the last century formal ceremonies were held at Shinto shrines or Buddhist temples.
In traditional Chinese thinking, people in primitive societies - which all else were, like the Romans felt - did not marry and had sexual relationships with each other indiscriminately. Such people were thought to live like animals because they did not have the concept of a true family and filial piety, or the match-making and marriage ceremony. Part of the Confucian mission of civilizing people (like Rome, again) was to define what it meant to be "Father" and "Husband" and teach people respect of the relationship between family and to regulate their sexual behavior. Chinese culture in older times was often male oriented with Confucian sentiments of filial piety and obeying the father, so without clear distinctions everything would go to uncivilized chaos.
Celtic Marriage: Handfasting
Handfasting is an ancient Celtic ceremony of wedding that comes from pre-Christian times as well. The term is derived from the verb to handfast, used in Middle to Early Modern English for the making of a contract of marriage. Each family member and friend ties a knot around the wrists or hands of the pair and then they are 'handfasted'. This is the origin of the phrase "tying the knot" - the ceremony is tying/binding the hands of the pair together with a cord or ribbon.
Same Sex Marriage in Christianity
Did you know there was same sex marriage in Christianity? Furthermore did you know there were rites for all the ceremonies, prayers for same sex couples, and more? You may be skeptical, but I will outline and give sources for you.
A quick example would be the Saints Sergius and Bacchus from the 7th century who became martyrs because they were tortured to death for refusing to attend sacrifices in honor of the Roman god Jupiter. They were erastai, or lovers who got married "in the sight of Jesus". In the image to the left is what this statement arises from. The image shows Jesus as the 'best man' or witness to the wedding.
Historically speaking, Churches were storehouses of information so many historians go to Churches to examine old documents. Historian John Boswell has been able to collect around 70 manuscripts that show that same-sex couples were able to get married and show that they were in a relationship.
Here are some quotes from some 13th Century Documents:
A Prayer For Same Sex Marriage Ceremony [Greek inserted for clarity]
Forasmuch as Thou, O Lord and Ruler, art merciful and
loving, who didst establish humankind after thine image and
likeness, who didst deem it meet that thy holy apostles
Philip and Bartholomew be united, bound one unto the other
not by nature but by faith and the spirit. As Thou didst
find thy holy martyrs Serge and Bacchus worthy to be united
together [adelphoi genesthai], bless also these thy
servants, N. and N., joined together not by the bond of
nature but by faith and in the mode of the spirit [ou
desmoumenous desmi physeis alla pisteis kai pneumatikos
tropi], granting unto them peace [eirene] and love [agape]
and oneness of mind. Cleanse from their hearts every stain
and impurity and vouchsafe unto them to love one other [to
agapan allelous] without hatred and without scandal all the
days of their lives, with the aid of the Mother of God and
all thy saints, forasmuch as all glory is thine.
O Lord Our God, who didst grant unto us all those things
necessary for salvation and didst bid us to love one another
and to forgive each other our failings, bless and
consecrate, kind Lord and lover of good, these thy servants
who love each other with a love of the spirit [tous
pneumatike agape heautous agapesantas] and have come into
this thy holy church to be blessed and consecrated. Grant
unto them unashamed fidelity [pistis] and sincere love
[agape anhypokritos], and as Thou didst vouchsafe unto thy
holy disciples and apostles thy peace and love, bestow them
also on these, O Christ our God, affording to them all those
things needed for salvation and life eternal. For Thou art
the light and the truth and thine is the glory.
Source of the source: John Boswell, Same Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe, (NewYork: Villard, 1994)
There were ceremonies called the "Office of Same-Sex Union" (10th and 11th century), and the "Order for Uniting Two Men" (11th and 12th century). These church rites had all the symbols of a heterosexual marriage: the whole community gathered in a church, a blessing of the couple before the altar was conducted with their right hands joined, holy vows were exchanged, a priest officiatied in the taking of the Eucharist and a wedding feast for the guests was celebrated afterwards. These elements all appear in contemporary illustrations of the holy union of the Byzantine Warrior-Emperor, Basil the First (867-886 CE) and his companion John.
The History of Same Sex Marriage is rich and full of history, such as the Byzantine Empire in 867, Paris 1667, Dalmatia in 18th century, and a lot more. With a little research you should be able to find a lot of it.
Marriage Restrictions: Early Modern England
What are some ways that marriage has been restricted? There are a vast number of ways actually. Primarily in earlier times it was by class. A king would not marry a peasant. A Noble wouldn't even marry a peasant. The social order would become completely undone if the king, queen, or a noble married anyone beneath them because it would ruin the social order and the movement of assets between families and interrupt the Great Chain Of Being - God, the King who is God's instrument on earth, the Nobles who are given power to do the Kings work, and the peasants who serve the nobles. Gods rights can not be undone to take away the social order.
Marriage Restrictions: Race
1800s America. Picture it. The gold rush: America finds gold and will become rich. Other nations find out about it and send people over. China has a stream of people go to California and Australia for gold to make a new and better life for themselves. Other nations follow as well.
Soon, the Americans - white people - start to get angry that the Chinese are in such a high number. They start complaining that they work cheaper and are taking all the jobs. Australia, finding a similar problem starts to interchange ideas with California and they both use each other as precedents to escalate actions against the immigrants. This gets us to the marriage restrictions.
Plots of land would be next to each other, so we start to get letters back and forth between white neighbors about how "the animals" are looking in at their property and they want it, and they want their children too. Interracial marriage starts to circulate as "beastiality". "I will never talk to my daughter again because she has borne children from a beast" states one letter.
It is interesting to note that these days the common argument is "if we allow same sex marriage, we might as well allow incest and beastiality"... It's nice to see how times have changed.
For more information on racial inequality in history, please read the wonderful book.
Drawing the Global Colour Line: White Men's Countries and the International Challenge of Racial Equality (Critical Perspectives on Empire)
Marriage Restrictions: Same Sex
So, if there was a history of same sex marriage in the Church, where did this come from?
This requires look at a few things. The first of which the word Sodomy. Let us deconstruct the meaning of this, without graphic detail. Sodom, after Sodom and Gomorrah. There is no explicit mention of any sexual sin in Ezekiel's summation of Sodom, and "abomination" is used to describe many sins.
In Ezekiel 16, a long comparison is made between Sodom and the Kingdom of Israel. "Yet you have not merely walked in their ways or done according to their abominations; but, as if that were too little, you acted more corruptly in all your conduct than they." (Ezekiel 16.47 New American Standard Bible)
Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had arrogance, abundant food and careless ease, but she did not help the poor and needy. Thus they were haughty and committed abominations before Me. (Ezekiel 16.49–50)
Jude 1:7 Even as Sodom and Gomorrha, and the cities about them in like manner, giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh, are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire.
"Giving over to fornication" denotes whoredom. "strange flesh" refers to the giving themselves over to "the nature of man" if you look at the Greek.
Outside the Bible there is Josephus:
“About this time the Sodomites grew proud, on account of their riches and great wealth; they became unjust towards men, and impious towards God, in so much that they did not call to mind the advantages they received from him: they hated strangers, and abused themselves with Sodomitical practices”
So, what did sodomy refer to in the Bible? Corrupt governments, selfishness, whoredom.
How did this turn into "same sex coupling"?
Roman Emperor Justinian I, in his novels no. 77 and no. 141 declared that Sodom's sin had been specifically same-sex activities and desire for them. He also linked "famines, earthquakes, and pestilences" upon cities as being due to these "crimes" during a time of recent earthquakes and other disasters. Some knew that he was able to use the anti-homosexual laws he enacted upon personal as well as political opponents in case he could not prove them guilty of anything else.
So because Justinian had no other way to attack his opponents he had to create a way that he could, and it so happened that he was able to use this well to his advantage. Even though this happened, there were still same sex marriages after this.
Strangely, today Christians use the statement that 'since before time marriage has been between a man and woman' yet we clearly see that there were marriages in other cultures that did not know Christianity. Furthermore even within the Christian faith itself there was same sex marriage even though the Church has done a lot to cover this up.
In considering what our values are as Americans, I think that we need to start being more logical and less ignorant. Is same sex marriage bad because God says it is, or because a few people say it is? Could the dreams of many be continuously crushed by the few people who dislike gay people, or are afraid of their own sexuality? How is this different from not allowing African American marriage between African Americans around the times of slavery? Or even interracial marriage later? What about not allowing marriage between classes? How is this any different from any of these?
Intolerance and ignorance can only be perpetuated by not understanding that people can lie, mislead, and do bad things in the world. Do some research for yourself - read sources yourself. Look at where people are getting their information before making up your mind about an issue. Change the cycle of ignorance.