Monogamy is not Biblical: Early Christianity Recognised Polygamy

Polygamy in Early Christianity

by Ibn Anwar

Polygamy in Islam is often seen by Christians as something sinful worthy of mockery. They are proud of their supposedly monogamous culture and believe, erroneously so, that polygamy is proscribed by their religion based on the Bible, and thus, polygamy is to be shunned. As for the biblical basis for monogamy, there really isn’t one. There are texts that may seem to suggest mongamy is the way, but readers of the Bible must admit that no explicit statement can be found anywhere in either the Old or New Testament where polygamy is outlawed or made out to be a sin. In fact, the Bible actually shows God regulating polygamy which necessarily means that He sanctioned it:
“If a man has two wives, and he loves one but not the other, and both bear him sons but the firstborn is the son of the wife he does not love, 16 when he wills his property to his sons, he must not give the rights of the firstborn to the son of the wife he loves in preference to his actual firstborn, the son of the wife he does not love. 17 He must acknowledge the son of his unloved wife as the firstborn by giving him a double share of all he has. That son is the first sign of his father’s strength. The right of the firstborn belongs to him.” (Deuteronomy 21:15-17)

The idea that the unlawfulness of polygamy in Christianity was necessitated by the Bible is a misreading of history. No doubt, monogamy was adopted by Christianity at an early period, but this was not due to any biblical instruction. The monogamy of early Christianity was primarily due to the influence that Roman culture and life had on the adherents of Christianity. Roman law in CE 212 through the enactment of ‘Lex Antoniana de Civitate’ made polygamy illegal for Romans, but a special exemption was given to the Jewish community living under Roman rule. This exemption, however, was lifted up by Diocletian in CE 285 and in CE 393, Theodosius implemented a special law just to prohibit the Jews from practicing polygamy due to their persistence in practicing it despite the early exemption having been rescinded by Diocletian. It was within this Roman milieu that Christians saw it fit to religiously outlaw polygamy. In an academic review of a journal article called ‘After Polygamy Was Made a Sin,’ it states that, “…polygamy or polygyny was “made a sin” when the church became centered in Rome. “The Roman insistence on monogamy was incorporated into the church’s moral doctrine” (p. 221).” [1]

It is quite evident that Christianity was not the moving force behind the implementation of monogamy as the only way where marriage was concerned in Christian living. That was due to pressure from the cultural and societal milieu in which Christianity found itself. As a matter of fact, we know that Christians did not view polygamy as intrinsically irreligious because even as late as the 300s, evidence has been found of Christians openly living polygamous lives. This is seen rather clearly in the oldest surviving Christian letter discovered thus far. This letter dated to 1700 years ago demonstrates that polygamy was very much part of Christian life. In it, a Christian reaching out to his beloved brother describes him as having more than one wife:
“Greetings, my lord, my incomparable brother Paulus. I, Arrianus, salute you, praying that all is as well as possible in your life.
“[Since] Menibios was going to you, I thought it necessary to salute you as well as our lord father. Now, I remind you about the gymnasiarchy, so that we are not troubled here. For Heracleides would be unable to take care of it: he has been named to the city council. Find thus an opportunity that you buy the two [–] arouras.
“But send me the fish liver sauce too, whichever you think is good. Our lady mother is well and salutes you as well as your WIVES and sweetest children and our brothers and all our people. Salute our brothers [-]genes and Xydes. All our people salute you.
“I pray that you fare well in the Lord.” (emphasis on WIVES is mine) [2]

The letter above that can be accessed in the link below shows clearly that even after two centuries of Christianity, faithful Christians were still happily living polygamous lives. This is clear evidence that to equate monogamy with correct Christian living is historically inaccurate. And Christians would do well to remember their own history before they try to be facetious about Islam and its restricted recognition of polygamy.

Notes:
[1] n.d. (n.d.). After Polygamy was Made a Sin: The Social History of Christian Polygamy. Journal of Church & State. Retrieved from https://academic.oup.com/jcs/article-abstract/20/3/553/836508?redirectedFrom=PDF

[2] Parke, Caleb. “1,700-Year-Old Recently Discovered Christian Letter Offers Clues into How Faithful Lived Centuries Ago.” Fox News, FOX News Network, 16 July 2019, www.foxnews.com/science/christian-letter-bible-discovery-rare.
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