Sex as a Condition for Marriage

| | Comments (15)

Some Christians have argued that the ancient Hebrews took marriage to be nothing more or less than a relationship instituted by consummation, i.e. by sexual relations. My understanding of Gordon Hugenberger's view in Marriage as a Covenant is that he takes the sexual act to be the initiation of the marriage, with the ceremony leading up to it counting as only a formality. The vows serve an important foundation of the comittment in marriage, but those vows are contingent on actually consummating the marriage. So a couple legally married who never consummate their marriage are not biblically married on his view. This is why Christians have often had no problem with divorce in such cases, and some even insist on calling it annulment, which means the marriage is treated as if it never really occurred. On Hugenberger's view, it never really did.

I've been inclined toward thinking that this was the view the ancient Hebrews assumed. After all, the marriage ceremony lasted something like a week, and during it the bride and groom are not married until the groom took the bride to his tent for their first sexual intercourse. However, if you assume this view and then read the Christmas narrative in Matthew, something doesn't seem right about Joseph's interaction with Mary. The text seems to indicate that he married her but didn't have sex with her until after Jesus was born. So what did their marriage consist of? What event initiated it? Not sex. On Hugenberger's view, sex is what makes it marriage. It's hard to see how that's consistent with this text.

Now this is surely an extraordinary event, since it involves a pregnancy that is itself an extraordinary event. Maybe that's enough to allow this to be an exception to what's generally true. But it still doesn't sit right with me, because it means marriage can't be defined the way Hugenberger defines it. In at least one instance a marriage is not initiated in the way his view requires. This is consistent with his view that any sexual interaction involves an implicit lifelong commitment. It's also consistent with the view that a marriage without consummation can be annulled. But it does seem to show that marriage can't be defined as a relationship initiated by sex.


I haven't read Hugenberger's book, but I did take a class in which he discussed his position. I think your understanding may be a little bit oversimplified. Covenant for him is both word and deed, but the deed is more significant than the word. From the moment of betrothal, they were legally married, in a sense. Relations with another party would be considered adultery, rather than promiscuity. However, if the engagement were to be broken off in the normal sense, it could be done without repercussions. For instance, in the case that the girl's father forbids the marriage. On the other hand, if the couple has entered into nuptial relations, by the fact of the act they are considered to be in a covenantal marriage, regardless of what kind of marriage ceremony they had (or if they even had any).

The modern application he gave was the scenario of counseling a couple that were ready to get a divorce on the basis that they vowed to stay married "as long as we love each other." They reason that divorce is an option because of their specialized vows, but the particular wording of their vows is less significant than their regular act of consummating the marriage. By God's law, they still have to stay together, unless there is adultery.

As a result there is some overlap. Joseph was "married" to Mary in the sense that he took her into his house, but it would have been permissible to leave her at any time up to the point of actually consummating the marriage without being guilty of abandonment. At the same time, because they were publicly engaged to be married when Joseph discovered that she was with child, the process of breaking off the engagement would normally have looked something like getting a divorce. Hence Joseph's initial, kind decision to "put her away quietly," i.e. not to go through the the normal divorce procedures for adultery. I suspect he would have lost anything he had contributed to her dowry in the process, so Joesph would have been doubly kind.

I'm not sure anything you've said conflicts with anything I've said. I would hesitate to say that Joseph could permissibly have left Mary given that God had commanded him to marry her. But that's clearly a specialized feature of the case rather than of the other things true of their marriage.

I should say then that I was confirming that Hugenberger's position was closer to what you described in the post than to what you previously understood.

What I meant to convey at the end of the post is that this doesn't create problems for his view that sex is s sufficient condition for marriage (barring parental prohibition of marriage), but it still creates problems for the view that having had sex is necessary for marriage to have taken place.

What I meant to convey in my last comment is that what you've described as his view fits perfectly well with thinking sex is a necessary condition for marriage. His view seems to take Joseph not really to have married her but only to have done so in name. Isn't that how you described his view?

If so, then he has to take Matthew's description as referring only to what's true in name and not to what's true in reality. This isn't a huge problem, because Matthew treats Joseph as Jesus' father in the genealogy earlier in the chapter, and that's true by adoption but not by actual genealogy (although for the purposes of royal descent what matters is legal parentage, and Joseph was Jesus' legal father). It's clear what kind of marriage this is, a non-consummated one.

But it should seem funny to speak of a non-consummated marriage if Hugenberger's view is what you describe, the same way some people (wrongly) claim that gay marriage is a contradictory set of terms. We understand what a non-consummated marriage is, the same way we do a gay marriage, so the words can't be flatly contradictory the way "unmarried bachelor" is. And the key point here is that Matthew's readers, we assume, would have understood what he meant. So it seems likely that he wasn't speaking in a very funny way the way we'd have to if we speak of square circles and mean some object that's square in one dimension but circular in another. He was referring to it as a marriage because it really was. Even as you've explained Hugenberger's view, I don't see how that fits with it.

Re: marriage can't be defined as a relationship initiated by sex.

But could it not be defined as a relationship consumated by sex as the completion of the covenant? In truth the relationship was initiated at betrothal, but the seal of the marriage covenant would be sexual relations.

I find this fits the symbolic description of the relationship we have with Christ. Our intiation into the kingdom and the church (born again) as betrothal of the bride and our resurrection into the fullness of the new creation as consumation of the covenant, after which we sit down to the marriage supper.

Kyle hit things accurately in his first comment when he said that from the betrothal onward, ancient Hebrews were "married". Most of what I've read about ancient Hebrew marriage in general, talked about it that way. If we want to use terms that don't quite line up today, "engagement" would somewhat equal that level of "marriage". Jeremy did go into how much more serious it was than what we call engagement. It was normal for a couple to be called "married" during that year-long time period before the week of vows, partying and consummation. But they would not have been living in the same house before that week, which in the example used, would show what level of "marriage" Joseph and Mary were at (although for the census they may have been required to register together as "betrothed"/"married" and therefore that could have forced a non-standard situation as well). Not having studied the particular words used in various passages, does anyone know if there's any differences to help narrow down the "level" of marriage being discussed from the original languages?

Bill, what I have trouble with is how Mary and Joseph might have consummated their covenant without sex. If they could have, then ok, and it's just sex that normally does it except in their case. But if that's the only way to do so, then I don't think they could have been married on your view. But the text treats them as married.

If Steve is right, and a couple was normally called married during the betrothal, then my worry is dissolved. But Matthew has a different way of talking about the engagement period earlier, whereas he describes them here as if something different has occurred.

Biblically speaking, betrothal does indeed seem to carry the weight of marriage, considering that the woman having sexual relations with another man was the sin of adultery. Betrothal always came before the act of becoming one flesh. In Gensis chapter 2, God defined marriage in three stages:

1) the man leaving his father and mother (indicating a severance of his primary ties to father and mother in order to focus that commitment to another,

2) "cleaving" (becoming bound) to his wife, which may be described as having made the mental choice to commit to her, similar to the strength found in the acient rite of a covenantal bond, although I do not recall the Bible ever referring to marriage as a covenant,

3) and they becoming one flesh (the sex act).

Perhaps marriage is never placed on the level of a "covenant" because the bond of marriage is much more profound in nature, given that the woman gives the most intimate part of herself to a man that a mere covenant could never define.

I also agree with the comment that modern views, which give far too much credible weight to our legal definition of marriage here in the West, are indeed a form of violence against the true nature and definition of marriage. Most professing believers seem to inordinately focus on the legal definition of marriage rather than the Divine definition issued by our Lord. Our flawed legal system allows diviorce at the drop of a hat, regardless of the trauma it may create in the lives of innocent children and spouses. God's definition makes no such allowances. As a matter of fact, the Lord at no time ever indicated that He had ever relinquished His sole authority and definition of marriage over to mankind and his laws.

I does seem reasonable to say that Joseph and Mary did not consumate their marriage until after Jesus' birth, given that He was to be born of a virgin. This creates no problems whatsoever when we give due consideration to the power of betrothal. When we consider that the betrothed woman having sexual relations with another man as the parellel of adultery, this provides a strong enough bond to a relationship that the delayed consumation of Joseph and Mary creates no problem. The bond of commitment was already in place. She was, in God's eyes, already his wife before the consumation took place.

Give this a try: How many of you married folks ever walked into a religious church organization to gain membership, and were asked by its leadership if you both had ever consumated your relationship. As a matter of fact, I've never heard of any leadership ever asking for a copy of the legal marriage certificate. They all simply take it for granted that your word is indeed indicative of your relationship with your wife.

Unfortunately, most religious leadership utter hardly not one word about the rampant divorce and remarriage going on right under their noses. Membership roles seem to enjoy the greatest consideration rather than to address the multitudes of adulterous remarriages. That doesn't mean that all remarriages are adulterous in nature. However, the adulterous relationships are the brazen, although silent, sin that characterizes the image and character of much of our religious expression here in the West.

Darrel, all of that may be true (and I certainly think you're saying some uncommon but worthwhile things), but I'm not sure how it addresses the problem I raise. If you're right, then Joseph and Mary were betrothed until after Jesus was born. What, then, do we say about how Matthew describes their relationship during that time?

Although it is correct to associate sexual intercourse with the beginning of a marriage -- the context of 1 Cor. 6:16 and the Genesis passage seem to demand this. The initial post by Jeremy may have mistaken assumptions within about Joseph and Mary. The betrothal situation in Matthew and Luke have an apparent contradiction that can only be reconciled by putting the actual marriage ceremony -if there was one-- after the first Christmas. On the one hand we have Matthew:
Mat 1:24 And Joseph arose from his sleep, and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took unto him his wife;
Mat 1:25 and knew her not till she had brought forth a son: and he called his name JESUS.

Then we have Luke:
Luk 2:4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David;
Luk 2:5 to enrol himself with Mary, who was betrothed to him, being great with child.

Luke says that they were still betrothed at the time of birth. But Matthew also says that in order to get out of a betrothal there would be a divorce.
Perhaps in a similar manner Luke 2:33 on the eighth
day calls Joseph the father. Betrothal was a stong enough bond to allow for an unmarried person to need a divorce or to cause fatherhood of a child of a betrothed fiancee impregnated without his contribution.

The statement by Matthew that Joseph took Mary home as his wife could refer to "wife"hood prior to marriage (his betrothed) OR it could mean that the taking home was meant generally without regard to the timing.

In any case the marriage would have to have occurred after the birth to fit with Luke's straight forward declaration and the concept articulated well In 1 Cor. 6 that it is sexual intercourse that makes the "cleaving" and "one flesh" actual.

If Luke has to be taken that way, then I guess it solves the problem I'm raising.

I'm not sure your resolution of the difficulty between Matthew and Luke is the only one. Yours takes the face value of Luke more seriously at the expense of the face value of Matthew. One might do the reverse, since all Luke says is that they were betrothed when Joseph set out from Galilee toward Bethlehem. He doesn't say they were still merely betrothed at Jesus' birth.

On the assumption that they stayed in the stable because the inn was full, as most translations still take it, they probably didn't perform any wedding ceremonies in the intervening time, but a number of scholars have questioned that assumption (e.g. Ben Witherington), claiming that the term translated as "inn" really refers to a guest room in a family home. It's possible they performed the wedding feast during the time they were gathered with their family in Bethlehem, if Witherington is right. I'm not sure this is likely, but it may be a way to put the passages together while taking Matthew at face value rather than Luke, and if that's the correct reconstruction then the problem I raise still stands.

I don't have most of my commentaries with me, so I can't check to see the views on harmonizing these passages. I do have Carson and Keener's Matthew commentaries with me, and Carson doesn't really address the connection with Luke (but he does seem to take the text at face value as far as he does discuss it), and Keener straightforwardly insists that Joseph married Mary just after the angel's message without touching on what that means for interpreting Luke (although he does refer to the Luke narrative as a more detailed account). When I get home, I'll have to check my other resources.

It does seem to be a huge stretch to me to say that Luke describes the Mary Joseph relationship as betrothal at the time of very late pregnancy and onset of Journey to Bethlehem but that Luke neglected to mention marriage upon arrival. The point by Luke in mentioning betrothal seems to be to highlight the uniqueness of the virgin birth.
Not only was mother a virgin, she was not yet married to stepfather. It sort of comes down to inspiration and one's view of it. Was Luke inspired or not, really is the issue.
If he was inspired and we can reconcile him with Matthew then we do learn something about NT betrothal and marriage that we did not know. The one question I still have is that even though there does not seem to be marriage without sex in the NT, can it be that we can have a pre marriage betrothal? The reason I ask this is the ease with which Luke's readers could accept the idea of a young betrothed girl spending nights in the company of her betrothed.
I do not see how deemphasizing the impact of Luke's bald assertion in favor of Matthew can be squared with a high view of inspiration.

Well, I've now had a chance to return to my commentaries. Darrell Bock says the following (with parenthetical references removed):

The reference to Mary as betrothed may have a motive. It does not suggest that Mary is not yet married to Joseph, since this trip in a betrothal situation would be unlikely. Rather, it means that the marriage is not yet consummated and thus implies a virgin birth.

Leon Morris and Robert Stein suggest pretty much the same thing. R.T. France, like the Matthew commentators already mentioned, does not address the Luke issue but seems to agree with Carson and Keener in taking Matthew at face value. Craig Blomberg doesn't address either issue, either in his Matthew commentary or in his Historical Reliability of the Gospels.

There's no question in my mind that such a view is compatible with a high view of scripture. Claiming that a word does not suggest something that some people think it suggests does not attribute inaccuracy or error to the text.

I have also read similar commentaries and a variety of contradictory descriptions of NT betrothal but I still say it is a stretch to say
either a) that Luke neglected to mention a marriage in Bethlehem on Christmas eve or b) that Luke thought they were already married in Nazareth before the Journey began (remember Luke tells us that Mary absented herself from Joseph for the first 3 months of her pregnancy whild visiting Elizabeth Luke 1:56 and then returned to her parent's house) -- leaving inspiration aside, it was likely Luke knew the situation since he it seems he bothered to actually interview Mary. Luke 1:2,3 with Acts 1:14.
In my earlier post I left a phrase out of a sentence which made it unintelligible so I try again here: "The one question I still have is that even though there does not seem to be marriage without sex in the NT, can it be that we can have legitimate sex in a pre marriage betrothal? The reason I ask this is the ease with which Luke's readers could accept the idea of a young betrothed girl spending nights in the company of her betrothed."
Your Mr. Bock's ingenious solution to this does not really take account of the strange impact this would have on Luke's contemporary readers. Bock thinks they wouldn't tolerate a betrothed couple journeying together but they would tolerate Luke calling them merely betrothed. That spins my poor brain. Is it possible that betrothed people were allowed to have sex or at least put themselves in situations where sex was very likely and that if sex occured either the marriage had occurred or there still was a ceremony that was expected?
To me, the alternative to Jesus being born to a betrothed Mary is still to say Luke is mistaken. The very Luke who was not only inspired but who was a qualified investigative reporter.

It seems strange to speak of someone as betrothed when married, and it seems strange to speak of someone as married when betrothed. I don't see how you can insist that one is stranger than the other. Scholars seem universally to side with the latter, however, at least among evangelicals. That doesn't mean they're right. You may be. But I wouldn't insinuate that they have a low view of scripture or that their view is harder to swallow when each view is equally strange at face value in exactly the same respect.

Leave a comment


    The Parablemen are: , , and .



Books I'm Reading

Fiction I've Finished Recently

Non-Fiction I've Finished Recently

Books I've Been Referring To

I've Been Listening To

Games I've Been Playing

Other Stuff


    thinking blogger
    thinking blogger

    Dr. Seuss Pro

    Search or read the Bible

    Example: John 1 or love one another (ESV)

  • Link Policy
Powered by Movable Type 5.04