BMCR 2002.07.37

Jewish Marriage in Antiquity

, Jewish marriage in antiquity. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001. xii, 431 pages ; 25 cm. ISBN 069100255X $60.00.

This illuminating and comprehensive book by Satlow goes far to show that discussion on the subject of marriage was just as heated in antiquity among Jews, and among their Christian, Roman, and Greek neighbors, as it is today in modern American and modern Jewish society. Satlow, who sees marriage as a socially constructed, culturally dependent institution, gives a refreshingly historical perspective to the alarmist discourse of today. “The very fact that the discourse of societal marital ‘crisis’ is so old at minimum should alert us to the possibility that we are dealing with a matter of rhetoric more than reality. The dominant narrative of marital ‘decline,’ which assumes a past golden age of marriage, is simply wrong” (pp. xvi-xvii). As for the contrasting optimistic belief that modern marriage is instead an improvement on the bad old days of the patriarchal past, Satlow suggests that ancient Judaism is much more complicated than many suppose, and has “at least one rabbinic articulation of marital ideals . . . to rival our own egalitarian notions” (p. xvii).

Whether or not the “one rabbinic articulation” of near-egalitarianism impresses every reader, Satlow’s case for great diversity between the different Jewish groups is well-made (the Palestinian rabbis consistently appear in a better light than the Babylonian), and his book will thus be appealing not only to scholars of Near Eastern antiquity and Judaism, but to the learned public. The study takes a synthetic approach to Jewish marriage in the Mediterranean Levant (especially Palestine) and Babylonia from the Persian period to the rabbinic period (ca. 500 B.C.E. to 500 C.E.). There are three basic arguments: (1) individual Jewish groups of antiquity differed from each other in their understanding of marriage, usually but not always conceiving marriage in terms of their historical and geographical context; (2) there is nothing essentially Jewish about Jewish marriage until Jews adapted traditions and rituals shared with their host societies into their own idiom to mark them thus; and (3) just as in modern American marriages today, ancient Jewish ideals about marriage probably diverged greatly from reality, and various ancient legal prescriptions by the rabbis should not be taken as descriptive.

Satlow rightly cautions the reader concerning the nature of the primary sources; certain periods have little or skewed evidence, especially the Persian period (for which we only have Ezra-Nehemiah in the Bible and Aramaic legal documents from Egypt) and the Babylonian Amoraic period 200-500 C.E. (for which we have the Babylonian Talmud, a large source but one which reflects a closed rabbinic society and not Babylonian Jews at large). Otherwise the sources also consist of the Palestinian Talmud and midrashim, Jewish writings in Greek (including the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament), the Dead Sea Scrolls, scattered archaeological remains and inscriptions, and some references to Jews by non-Jewish Greek and Latin authors.

After the introduction, in which Satlow outlines his arguments, contributions, approach, sources, and methodology, the book is divided into three parts. Part I, “Thinking about marriage,” considers the ideology, theology, and legal underpinnings of marriage. Part II, “Marrying,” moves from the ideals of ancient marriage into the reality, as much as that is possible: matchmaking, who married whom (views of exogamy and endogamy), betrothal, the wedding, and even irregular marriages (e.g. second marriages, polygynous marriages, concubinage, and levirate marriages). Part III, “Staying Married,” covers the economics of marriage and the articulation of Jewish ideals in ancient literature and inscriptions. After a final chapter of conclusions, in which Satlow reorganizes his findings diachronically by period and region, the book closes with extensive end notes, a comprehensive bibliography, and three indexes: subject, premodern sources, and modern authors.

Part I, “Thinking About Marriage,” has three chapters. In ch. 1, “Why Marry?,” Satlow demonstrates differences among the Jewish groups of the times. According to Palestinian rabbinic material, Jews in Palestine thought of marriage in terms of the Greek oikos, through which “(1) its members gained identity; (2) a man achieved respectability and ‘manhood’; and (3) new members of the state and household were reproduced and raised” (p. 20). Babylonian Jews on the other hand, did not have in mind the establishment of an oikos, but, in the context of Sassanian Babylonia, the good of the individual. The Babylonian Talmud stresses that the purpose of marriage is to provide a sexual outlet for a man and to increase his spiritual merit by producing legitimate children, and the Babylonian Jews saw marriage in conflict with Torah study, something the Palestinians did not do.

In ch. 2, “Metaphor and Myth,” Satlow selects from the Hebew Bible the marital metaphor of a husband-wife relationship between God and Israel in Hosea 1-3 and the myth of the first marriage between Adam and Eve in Genesis 2 and explores how both were understood by Jewish Hellenistic authors and rabbis. Interesting here, Satlow says, is that the religious use of the marriage metaphor was not popular among most later Jewish writers (who preferred to think of God as father or king), and it did not influence their view of human marriage, although the metaphor became very popular among Christians, who used it to refer to Christ’s relationship to the Church and to the ideal human marital relationship. On the other hand, the myth of the first marriage in Genesis 2 was very popular among both postbiblical Jews and then Christians, although Satlow notes that Babylonian rabbis did not use this myth extensively.

In ch. 3, “Marriage and Law,” Satlow first points out that laws are “more valuable . . . as a reflection of how their framers idealized marriage than they are as a guide to how people actually behaved” (p. 68). Betrothal, or inchoate marriage, preceded the wedding itself in the Hebrew Bible, but, Satlow argues, Jews of the Hellenistic period followed a Greek notion of betrothal rather than a Semitic one, which was not seen as a legal beginning to a marriage. On the other hand, the rabbinic period reinstated a kind of inchoate marriage in order to create a collective and continuous past back to biblical times, seeing the betrothal as “the legal means for the relinquishing of a right of male control over a woman” (p. 78). Scholars may not agree with Satlow’s explanation for the rabbinic term, qiddushin, used as a synonym for betrothal. He says it does not reflect an idea that marriage is holy, in contrast to the connotation of its apparent Hebrew root qd$, since it was perhaps derived rather from ekdosis, the standard Greek term for “handing over” a bride (p. 77).

Part II has five chapters: ch. 4, “Shreds of Real Marriage,” ch. 5, “Making a Match,” ch. 6, “Endogamy and Exogamy,” ch. 7, “Customs and Rituals of Marriage,” and ch. 8, “Irregular Unions.” In ch. 4, Satlow introduces the mini-archives of legal documents on papyrus left by four Jewish women at two places, the island of Elephantine in Egypt (fifth century BCE) and in the Judaean desert (second century CE). These sources are fragmentary and deal only with legal issues, but perhaps they can be seen as remnants of real concerns, and they are a jumping-off point for the other chapters in this section which are meant to flesh out real practices.

To this end, ch. 5 covers the process of match-making in an honor-and-shame culture, giving much attention to the idea that the textual prescriptions about marital customs are meant to mediate the competing demands of ideal social values and reality. While the ideal age at marriage for both men and women was the teens, men tended to marry later. In Palestine, men married at around thirty to women who were ten or fifteen years younger, while in Babylonia, the expectation was that men would marry at around twenty to women in their teens. Great emphasis was placed on a woman’s beauty, and certain complex strategies for arranging marriages by the couples themselves are assumed, including taking advantage of proscriptions concerning rape. (Although one must note that such proscriptions, requiring the accused rapist to marry the victim, were surely horrific if followed in the case of true rape.) The ideal arrangement of a marriage was through the fathers; however, given the age at marriage of men and their probable life expectancy, it is likely that less than half of the daughters would have a living father to arrange a first marriage, while few sons (who married at an older age) would have a living father when they sought a match.

Ch. 6 deals with the value placed on endogamy rather than exogamy by ancient Jewish communities, although actual marriage patterns are impossible to ascertain from the data. In this discussion, Satlow shows that the definition of who was in and who was out was fluid and varied in the different Jewish communities based on each community’s view of their group identity. Before the razing of the second Temple in 70 C.E., priestly purity was paramount, and priests were to marry women of priestly descent. In the rabbinic period, endogamy came to emphasize marital castes and social classes, rather than genealogy or kinship. Palestinian Jews use the concepts of endogamy and exogamy to see all of Israel as a priestly or holy people, while Babylonian rabbis viewed themselves as a pure caste within Israel.

Ch. 7 addresses non-legislated customs and rituals of Jewish antiquity and is based on fragmentary descriptions. Satlow includes here the celebration of the betrothal at the bride’s house and the payments from the groom to his bride and her family; the period between betrothal and marriage (which could have included sexual relations for at least Judean Jews); the wedding itself and the public procession of the bride to the groom’s home; the customs surrounding the consummation of the marriage, which could well include a sacrifice beforehand; and the post-wedding feast with its blessings. Most sources are concerned with the bride’s virginity, but even the Babylonian rabbis are uncomfortable or ambivalent about actually following the biblical procedure of producing a bloodstained sheet as proof (Deut. 22:13-21), and instead offer many excuses for why a woman might not appear to her husband to be a virgin. Palestinian weddings seemed to celebrate the hope of fertility rather than an initiation into sex, while Babylonian weddings placed emphasis on sex in a sometimes bawdy way, perhaps since both the bride and the groom were younger.

Ch. 8, the last chapter in Part II, deals with irregular marriages (assuming regular to indicate “first marriages”). Satlow finds that “while we talk today of the fluid and tangled nature of the many ‘blended’ families in our society, the complexity of modern family dynamics does not even approach that of Jewish antiquity” (p. 195). Causes include a probable high incidence of remarriage after widowhood or divorce, as well as the possibility of levirate marriage and polygamy or concubinage, all perhaps resulting in families with children who did not share the same two parents. Remarriage in the case of widowhood or divorce had to have been rather frequent in antiquity. 40 percent of women and slightly less men alive at twenty would die by their forty-fifth birthday (based on model life tables of modern preindustrial countries), and while Satlow does not estimate the number of Jewish divorces in antiquity, the many stories about divorce in rabbinic literature may testify to at least a perception of a high divorce rate.

Part III, “Staying Married,” has two chapters: “The Economics of Marriage” (ch. 9) and “The Ideal Marriage” (ch. 10). Ch. 9 deals with the different kinds of marriage payments made in the preserved economic documents as well as in the rabbinic laws. For Palestinian Jews the dowry was important, while Babylonian Jews may also have re-instated a mohar payment from the groom’s family to the bride’s known from the Bible. Husbands alone had the right to divorce, although the ketuba required a payment of money to the wife. In order to test the results of ch. 9, which seem to indicate a strong mistrust between married parties as evidenced by the many stipulations in the legal writings, ch. 10 looks at three bodies of material: moralistic literature such as Ben Sira, exempla such as the models of marriage in the Bible, and tomb inscriptions from Palestine and Rome. Satlow finds that even the ideal marriage was not as strong a relationship as that of blood ties.

In his brief concluding chapter, Satlow summarizes his findings by reassembling them diachronically, moving from historical community to community, covering Jewish marriage during the Persian period, the Hellenistic period, Roman Palestine, in Babylonia, and finishing with implications for modern Judaism. This is a helpful summary, but it by no means distills the wealth of information from the main chapters. Finally, the broader implications Satlow finds for Judaism and marriage today return us to his opening statements. There is nothing new in the modern distress about marriage and family; if possible, families of antiquity were even more in flux than those of today. The difficult questions of Jewish marriage today, such as a concern over Jews marrying non-Jews and the changing definitions of who constitutes a married couple, may not actually have many new elements. Judaism of the past and present has always been in conversation with its host society about such fluid matters.

There are few typographical errors. One misspelling, however, highlights a modern oddity: the substitution of univera for univira on pp. 182, 183, and 240. Univira, a Latin term of praise used to indicate a woman who married only once, choosing to remain a widow after her husband’s death, is a term used often by modern scholars in contrast to the seemingly few times it was actually applied in antiquity (OLD s.v.).