Divorce and Remarriage in Ancient Times
By Kyle Pope
teaching in Matthew 19:9 that fornication is the sole cause for an innocent
spouse to divorce the guilty and remarry, was not produced in a moral vacuum,
but in a real world of people facing the same challenges that exist
today. Many of the loose values of today are merely echoes of ancient
of the Pagans
In the Greek world divorce was allowed
for many reasons. In Athens while a woman seeking a divorce had to go
before the Archon, a man could simply send a wife from his house. (Plutarch, Alcibiades,8).
Among the Spartans it was believed that a barren woman should be put
away. (Herodotus, 5.39).
According to tradition Romulus the
legendary founder of Rome established marriage laws which allowed a man to put
away his wife only for poisoning the children, counterfeiting the keys to the
house, and adultery. (Plutarch, Romulus,22). By the
first century such laws were disregarded. Caesar Augustus pushed through
legislation intended to strengthen marriage and limit divorce, yet mostly
it concerned financial penalties for unjustly divorcing a wife.
(Seutonius, Augustus,34). Sadly, the dowry women brought into
marriage was the only thing that preserved many ancient unions.
Not all ancients were so tolerant of
divorce. Tacitus claimed that the Germans maintained very strict marriage
codes. Adultery was severely punished and a woman was said to take “one
husband, just as she has one body for life.” (Germania,18,19).
To the rulers of the lands in which the
gospel was first preached the Lord’s teachings on marriage and divorce were in
direct opposition to their own lifestyles. The governor Felix, to whom
Paul spoke of “righteousness, self-control, and the judgment to come” (Acts
24:25) persuaded Drusilla to forsake her lawful husband the king of Emesa
and unlawfully marry him. (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews,20.7.2).
Cicero, governor of Cilicia, the province of Paul’s birth, a century earlier
divorced Terentia, his wife of thirty years for squandering his assets, then
married a younger wealthy woman to pay his debts. (Plutarch, Cicero,41).
All the emperors mentioned in Scripture
lived in violation of Christ’s teaching. Augustus (Luke 2:1) divorced his
first wife Claudia before the marriage was consummated. His second wife,
Scribonia, previously married to two former consuls, he divorced claiming “I
could not bear the way she nagged at me.” His true love Livia, he stole
away from her husband, although she was pregnant at the time. (Seutonius,
Livia’s child, Tiberius, the second
emperor (Luke 3:1), divorced his first wife Vipsania when she became pregnant
again shortly after the birth of their son. Tiberius married Julia the
daughter of Augustus, whom he eventually divorced for sexual immorality.
Although he had passed laws banishing noble women who had enrolled as
prostitutes, he maintained a palace on the island of Capri where he indulged
his own immoral desires. (Seutonius, Tiberius,7; 35; 43).
Claudius, the third emperor mentioned in Scripture
(Acts 11:28) divorced his first wife for “scandalous behavior” and suspicion of
murder. His second wife he divorced for less serious reasons. His
third wife actually signed a formal marriage contract with another man while maintaining
a marriage with him. His most scandalous marriage was made with
Agrippina, his niece. Claudius actually had a law passed which allowed
uncles to marry their nieces so that he would not be charged with incest.
(Seutonius, Claudius, 26).
In the second century our Lord’s
teaching found no nobler audience. The religious writer Justin in a
letter to the emperor Antoninus Pius defending the Lord’s teachings
claimed—“those who make second marriages according to human law are sinners in
the sight of our Teacher” (First Apology,15). Antoninus was the
adopted son of Hadrian, the emperor widely known for his adulterous homosexual
relationship with a young man named Antinous (Spartianus, Hadrian,12,14).
Remains of Shattered Lives
Some suggest that “things are just
different today!” A papyrus divorce certificate dating to 13 B.C.
reveals little has changed. Although the document says nothing about the
pain and betrayal that led two people to separate, it does reveal hearts as
cold and materialistic as those in modern divorce courts. It declares
“Zois acknowledges that she has received from Antipater by hand from his house
the material which he received for dowry, clothes in the value of 120 drachmae
and a pair of gold earrings” (H & E 6). What a sad epitaph of a