In the Jewish communities of that time, however, polygamy was still practiced.[1] Josephus, the Jewish historical writer of the first century, mentions in two places that this custom still existed among his people.

The Lord certainly must have known that polygamy still existed among His Jewish contemporaries. If His teaching on marriage was intentionally incompatible with this immemorial custom, we might expect to find some clear statement of his against the permissiveness of the Mosaic law. We might expect to find at least a clear hint of disapproval in the one passage where Jesus actually discussed the practice of levirate marriage (c.f. Matthew 22:23-30, and parallels). This practice frequently, perhaps even more often than not, involved polygamy. For marriage was so highly esteemed among the Jews that men, as well as women, normally married at an early age (usually just after puberty), and bachelors must have been very rare indeed.[2] So it may be assumed that levirate marriages very frequently must have been polygamous.

“This duty [levirate] was enjoined by the law,” says Bernard Haring, “even in cases where the brother-in-law of the widow was already married.”[3] The sin of Onan, for which he was punished with death by God, was not masturbation; it was his refusal to perform the levirate duty of taking his brother=s widow and raising up offspring for his deceased brother (cf. Genesis 38:8-10).

Eugene Hillman
Polygamy Reconsidered,
Orbis Books, 1975, pp. 20, 163-164


(return)1. See:

George H. Joyce, Christian Marriage: A Historical and Doctrinal Study, Sheed and Ward, 1933, 1948, pages 570-571.

Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time Jesus, Allerton, 1922, Vol. III, pages 84-86.

Salo Wittmayer Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews, Columbia University Press, 1937, 1952, 1962, Vol. II, pages 223-229.

Bruce Vawter, The Four Gospels, Doubleday, 1967, page 315.

(return)2. See:

Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel, McGraw-Hill, 1961, page 29.

 Salo Wittmayer Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews, Columbia University

Press, Vol. II, page 218-220

E. Neufeld, Ancient Hebrew Marriage Laws, Longmans, Green, 1944, pages 139

(return)3. Bernard Haring, A Theology of Protest, Strauss and Giroux, 1970, page 147.