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The institution of the family in the 1st Century Mediterranean

English Spanish

In the Mediterranean world of the first century, marriage was — first and foremost — a fusion of the honor of two families; it was the separation of the future wife from her family through a ritual that included gifts or services offered by the father of the groom to the father of the bride, and included his response.

The men in charge drafted a marriage contract, and eventually the father of the bride handed her to the groom, who took her to his own house (his father's house). The process was completed with the consummation of the sexual act, which verified the virginity of the bride.

The bride’s family looks for a groom who would be a good provider, a good father and a respectable citizen.

In the Mediterranean of the first century, the only lineage that counted was that of the male descendants (the father and his lineage).

The most rigid unit of shared loyalty was the group of brothers and sisters, whose spouses enter as strangers to the group and remain as such in some way.

That is why it was expected that marriages would be preferably between cousins ​​on the side of the mother or father, although the bonds from the father’s side were preferred.

Once the husband has paid the price for the wife, she becomes his property; he is her lord (“ba’al”) and she is who belongs to a lord (“be’ülat ba’al”).

However, the husband cannot dispose of the woman as if she were any purchased object. The price of a wife was tantamount to a compensation for damage caused to another person or property.

The property of the family, mainly real estate, must remain within the lineage or in the tribe. The heir daughters could never marry outside the tribe itself (Num. 36, 5-12)

The family included the father, the mother and the firstborn (heir to everything) and his family, the other single children, and the married children, together with their respective families.

The family was an effective social unit of residence, consumption and production where each conjugal household was autonomous, although the parents easily meddled in the families of their children.

Slaves, servants or salaried workers also lived in the home.

In the house of Simon Peter also lived his mother-in-law and his brother Andrew, surely with all his family (Mk. 1, 29-31; Mt. 8, 14-17; Lk. 4, 38-41; 1 Cor. 9, 5). The adult male children usually stayed in the father’s house or very close to it, while the daughters who were married left it.

In late Judaism, marriageable ages were 12 years for girls and 13 years for boys. Although early marriage was always advised, it was usually contracted around the age of 18.

The firstborn usually inherited the paternal house and the other married brothers settled as nearby as possible. In addition, the sons were expected to continue the father’s occupation.

The world of women and men were completely separate. The family was especially the place for women, who were responsible for the upbringing, clothing, distribution of food and everything necessary to carry the family forward.

A woman was permanently underage; however, there was a change when she married and went to live in the husband’s house, where she was not incorporated into until she gave birth to a male child.

The virtues of the woman were absolute chastity, silence and obedience. They received support from the other women of the family, where they developed even closer ties than those between husband and wife. She was always expected to be submissive to authority; to avoid everything that caused embarrassment to the family; to have a disposition of deference, passivity, shyness, and moderation. Depending on different life situations, a woman only saw the men of her family during meals, and her husband in bed.

We are not aware of any women’s literature of the time, as very few knew how to read and write.

To a great extent, however, men were subject to maternal authority throughout their lives, so the deepest and most important relationship that could exist among opposite sexes was between the mother and the child. In public opinion, any disobedience of a male to his mother, even as an adult, was dishonorable.

The relationship between home and outside world was the responsibility of adult males, since women could not have any public life. Only the widows who did not have children were allowed to assume some masculine roles related to the survival of the family.

Being celibate, Jesus spoke very positively about marriage (Mt. 19, 3-12). He does not preach abstention from marriage, but he attends and blesses with his presence the wedding of his mother’s relatives, and multiplies the wine so that guests — such as he and his disciples — can continue to celebrate with the bride and groom. He affirms the original unity and indissolubility of marriage. Christ takes the morality of marriage to plenitude, condemning not only relations with someone else’s wife, but even the desire or dishonest attempt to do so.

Conjugal unity has its foundation in the heart. St. Paul, relying on the authority of Jesus, condemns the principle of divorce; not even a marriage with an unbeliever can be dissolved, unless the unbeliever himself initiates it.

Comments from readers

james - 02/27/2018 06:28 PM
great article, thank so much !

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