What People Miss about the Bible on Marriage, Part 1: Jesus’ Words, Ancient Friendships, and the Usefulness of “Slaves”

When people today talk about wanting to take biblical content on the subject of marriage seriously, including questions about marriage equality, however well intended this orientation is, the typical application of it overlooks passages related to key figures in the Christian Bible, and applies a highly “cherry-picked” interpretation of the four passages that ground “biblical marriage” for Christians. In this first of three articles on marriage in the Bible, the author encourages readers to take seriously the implications of what is being said and communicated in a handful of passages related to Jesus, Paul, and David.

See also: Marriage in the Bible: What Do the Texts Say? (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2023).

By Jennifer G. Bird, PhD
Public Biblical Scholar
JenniferGraceBird.com
February 2024   

          As a person who grew up within a mainstream Christian denomination, spent nearly a decade within fundamentalist and evangelical spaces, and who has formal training for pastoral roles, I am well familiar with the ways that people tend to play fast and loose with biblical texts while believing they are being profoundly true to them. Somewhere along the way to completing my PhD in biblical studies, then, I became keenly aware of how my former convictions were formed not based upon what is actually in the Bible but upon certain ways of engaging it, and with specific goals in mind at the outset. The list of topics that people seek to know “what the Bible says about…” is long and includes the most important aspects of human relationships and realities. Now, as a biblical scholar, I have spent the past dozen years or so trying to help people understand what “the Bible says” about marriage, and thus about sex and sexuality, since so much is on the line, globally, politically, and religiously, in this conversation about marriage and marriage equality.[1]

          Instead of addressing the ways many people have been misled by translations of some key biblical passages that relate to this conversation, specifically Genesis 1:28 and Genesis 2:24,[2] I thought it might be more productive to talk about some of the passages that are not typically engaged when discussing “marriage in the Bible,” or “biblical marriage” today, but that I do think are relevant. When we have a clearer view of what these ancient but sacred texts are implying, first, we can have more productive conversations about whether and to what degree we want to adhere to their guidance on this subject.[3]

          The things that Jesus is depicted saying about marriage is a good place to start. Though Jesus refers to a wedding banquet in a couple separate parables or stories, he never speaks positively about marriage in any direct way. What he does say is that it is okay for his disciples to leave their homes and immediate family in order to follow him (Luke 18:28-30). In Matthew 5 and 19, he does seem to offer a positive take on marriage when he condemns divorce. But what is also happening in those words, what is also being communicated about women and their bodies in the reason that divorce is a problem, is that a man claims a woman as his own by having sex with her. This is how “marriage” is talked about and legislated in the Hebrew Bible. Jesus affirms this view, indirectly, when he says that divorce should not happen because (implied) the two people will remarry and thus commit adultery against their first spouses. The focus in the conversation about marriage is on the sex act. It is not a concern about tearing families apart, should they divorce; it is not even the issue of the woman being left on her own, struggling to support herself, even if this piece of the picture was in the backdrop. What is said is only about the sex act. Since so many of us have been taught, “sex before marriage is a sin,” and then we have this kind of a passage that only discusses marriage in terms of the sex that will be involved, perhaps you can understand why it can be difficult for people to separate talk about sex from talk about marriage.

          What most people do not also consider are his words at the end of that exchange in Matthew 19:3-12. This is where Jesus makes that challenging claim about eunuchs: some people were born that way; some were made that way by others; some make themselves eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom. “Let anyone accept this who can” (Matthew 19:12d). Contrary to popular belief, this was not Jesus affirming celibacy! Bishops in the 4th century created this specific association between being a eunuch and being celibate, even though copious examples from several centuries discussing the reputations of eunuchs say that they were sexually active with both men and women.[4] The presence of eunuchs in the Hebrew Bible and in the book of Acts as well as in numerous aphorisms, parables, philosophical writings, and even in superstitions in the ancient world tell us these members of society were familiar, and their presence was noteworthy. That in the first century they were discussed as a third gender (tertium genus hominem),[5] or as people who embodied both male and female gendered attributes, is also not something to sweep under the rug, not when Jesus is depicted embracing these humans just as they are.

          But there are two other elements attributed to Jesus or spoken of about him that are also relevant to this conversation. I must admit that it took me quite a bit of time to wrap my own head around them, given how far reaching their implications are for challenging traditional beliefs. The first is that in John’s gospel, which was aimed at a Greek audience, Jesus is depicted as the lover to his beloved. Many people have been taught a slightly skewed rendering of this disciple, as “the beloved disciple.” In this way of talking about him, he stands in for all of Jesus’ followers, when “beloved” is just a descriptor for being a disciple. But in the text, he is “the one Jesus loved,” and he is first spoken of this way in the middle of the passages where Jesus is telling all of his disciples how much he loves them. So, his beloved stands out among them all, in this special way. We could debate whether this typical Greek relationship was something that Jesus actually engaged in (I happen to think not). But the point here is that he is depicted engaging in one, and quite powerfully, if you are able to take a step back from it all and see what is being described. I highly recommend Theodore Jennings’ book on this topic for more explanations on what I have summarized here.[6]

          The men in leadership of the Church over the centuries and translation committees more recently have generally kept most of us from seeing this relationship for what it was, and of course I understand why that happened. But we really are kidding ourselves if we want to claim that same-sex relationships are condemned in the Bible. The most important figure for Christians and Catholics is depicted engaging in one! How might just this piece of information, alone, change the conversation about same-sex relationships today?

          The second element related to Jesus that ought to turn some heads is what is described in Revelation 14 and 21. In these two chapters, Jesus is being called the lamb of God, and the narrator is talking about the marriage of the lamb. The question is whether the 144,000 male virgins are the ones standing in as the bride to Christ or whether it is the new city of Jerusalem that is his bride, a city which descends from the heavenly realm and takes its place on the earth as the new dwelling place for the redeemed people of God. It is either a cosmically challenging metaphor, Christ and a city, or a homoerotic scene, a male bride and male groom. Even if people do not tend to turn to Revelation for relational guidance, this is a biblical idea that is associated with Jesus, the lamb of God. There is no questioning the importance of the Lamb of God for the Church, so it seems to me that this image ought to be in the mix when it comes to talk about marriage for the Church. What do you think?

          There are two other elements of scripture that I wanted to comment on, in terms of the broader conversation and how or when people of faith turn to a biblical passage to help navigate current concerns about marriage and marriage equality. The first is to shed some light on what friendships looked like in the ancient world. When people are talking about Jonathan and David, you might hear a comment along the lines of, “Well, they were just friends.” What this well-intended commentor is missing, however, is that friendships in the ancient world look and sound nearly identical to what most people today describe as being a part of their marriages. New Testament biblical scholar Mary Ann Tolbert notes:

Marriage partners share all things in common, as did ancient friends; marriage should be a relationship marked by mutuality and reciprocity, as was ancient friendship; marriage promotes honesty and intimacy, the faithful keeping of secrets and confidences, as did ancient friendship; marriage partners are each other’s soul mates, as were ancient friends; and marriage binds the two into one until death, as did ancient friendship. Although many forms of eroticism were part of the practice of ancient friendship, genital sexual relations probably were not, at least not in the stated ideal of friendship... Although a few Greco-Roman texts suggest that men and women can be friends, the vast majority of the references insist on the similarity of gender for true friendship to occur. Ancient soul mates were most often people of the same sex (italics added).[7]

In other words, to say that “Jonathan and David were friends” is to say that they were in a relationship that, biblically speaking, comes closest to today’s marriages. Additionally, theirs is the only relationship in the Christian Bible that uses language implying souls being bound together, or “soul mate” language.

            Finally, there is the letter to Philemon. I have to admit that, as a biblical scholar, I do not have questions regarding what Paul was trying to communicate to Philemon about Onesimus. But what I can say, after reading Jennifer Glancy’s excellent book, Slavery in Early Christianity,[8] is that we need to be honest about the ways some people have used enslaved people, even if it means that we do not like what Paul is implying in this letter. Maybe I should say especially if it means we end up not liking what Paul is implying, in light of the devastatingly common sexual use of enslaved people. This step—needing to come to terms with the fact that Paul was not so different from other privileged people in his day and age and thus he legitimately spoke of enslaved people as if they were not fully human—was also not easy for me to take in initially. He very likely was being playful about the range of “usefulnesses” of enslaved people, and thus belittling such humans, even as his comments seemed to elevate them in social status. He was no different from many people today who speak jocularly of other humans they perceive to be “below them” in some way.

            The reason these comments from Paul matter for our context is because of what they communicate to us about ancient views of certain bodies, those of enslaved people, and the sex acts that many people in positions of power engaged in with them. It says something about how sex and sexuality was viewed at the time, in ways dramatically different from how we strive to do so today. It makes it easier to see the human influence on these ancient texts, no matter how sacred they may be to people today. This element about biblical texts needs to be taken seriously, it seems to me.

            That there are words attributed to Jesus and coming from Paul that undermine a belief that “the Bible says” that sex needs to be procreative and is only for a man and a woman is something I think we ought to mull over. It is something to take seriously about biblical content. In the next two articles on this subject, I will invite you to consider the impact of a handful of translation choices that direct readers to read current ideas about marriage onto these ancient texts and to take seriously the way the paired-up relationship that we call marriage is used as a model for people of faith and a vehicle for conveying behavioral and cultural expectations.

 

[1] See Pew Research Center’s “Same-Sex Marriage Around the World.”

[2] I address these two passages and the other two primary passages (Matthew 19:4-6; Ephesians 5:31-32) that people use to define “biblical marriage” in the first four chapters of my recent monograph, Marriage in the Bible: What Do the Texts Say?

[3] This article is not intended to engage a comprehensive list of such passages, as that is the goal of my most recent book, Marriage in the Bible: What Do the Texts Say?

[4] J. David Hester, “Eunuchs and the Postgender Jesus: Matthew 19:12 and Transgressive Sexualities,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 28, 1 (2005): 13-40.

[5] Historia Augusta, Severus Alexander 23.7.

[6] Theodore Jennings wrote about this relationship in The Man Jesus Loved: Homoerotic Narratives from the New Testament (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2009).

[7] Mary Ann Tolbert, “Marriage and Friendship in the Christian New Testament: Ancient Resources for Contemporary Same-Sex Unions,” in Authorizing Marriage? Canon, Tradition and Critique in the Blessing of Same-Sex Unions, eds Mark D. Jordan, Meghan T. Sweeney, and David M. Mellott (Princeton: Princeton University, 2006), 49-50. For more scholarship on friendship in several ancient contexts, see John T. Fitzgerald, ed., Greco-Roman Perspectives on Friendship, Society of Biblical Literature Resources for Biblical Studies 34 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1997).

[8] Jennifer Glancy, Slavery in Early Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006).

Article Comments

Submitted by David Madison on Mon, 03/04/2024 - 03:45

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"But what is also happening in those words, what is also being communicated about women and their bodies in the reason that divorce is a problem, is that a man claims a woman as his own by having sex with her."

This is a bizarre interpretation. When a man and a woman marry they become one flesh, as Jesus points out. This is about integration not ownership. You would not say that the left half of the body owns the right half. Some may choose to see marriage in terms of ownership but this view cannot be attributed to Jesus. The article also misses the point that Jesus makes about remarriage and adultery. Jennifer Bird assumes that if Jesus wanted to make a case for marriage then he should make a practical case and argue that wives would suffer if they are abandoned by their husbands. This is often the case but it misses the main issue. For Jesus divorce is unnatural. This follows from his comments about "one flesh". It would be as if the left half of the body tried to separate from the right half. Again, this is not about ownership but about the state of becoming one flesh. And this state has been ordained by God. This way of thinking will make no sense to those who reject Christianity but perfect sense to those who don't reject it.

Those who cannot accept that husband and wife become one flesh have only one alternative - celibacy. This brings us to the discussion about eunuchs. Jennifer Bird argues that Jesus is not affirming celibacy, for celibates could still be sexually active. This is a strange objection. Castration may not completely eliminate sexual function but it severely reduces it. Furthermore, Jesus is speaking figuratively about eunuchs, just as was speaking figuratively about plucking out eyes. Does the metaphor fail just because eunuchs are capable of some degree of sexual activity? Hardly.

The contention that the beloved disciple is, in John's Gospel, Jesus' lover is a bizarre one but no argument is made for it here. Instead we have a reference to a book on the subject. I wonder if the arguments in the book are more compelling than those made in this article.

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