Good question...

...Is polygamy allowed by the New Testament? 

Created July 23, 1999 ; added pushback Feb/2001

Someone asked a question about polygamy in the New Testament:

I would like more information on the issue of modern Christian Polygamy. For the argument of "husband of one wife" I hear that it only applies to church government.

When I ask about "one flesh", the answer I have gotten is that there is the possibility of one flesh relationship of a man with EVERY wife he can have. And the patriarchal society has been an inspiration for those who are trying to adopt polygamy as a way of life, since most Biblical patriarchs had many wives.

I would appreciate more information on this subject. I have been investigating, asking, researching, but there is absolutely NOTHING that I can found to say that polygamy is NOT within the will of God.

Thank you for your time. I hope to hear from you soon.

The question of polygamy in the NT is rather straightforward...

We have NT data from Jesus and from Paul, and we have information on the attitude of the early church to it from the Fathers.

But first the historical setting:

1. Polygamy was NOT practiced in Greek and Roman societies of the time:

"Even though we may find numerous traces of polygamy and polyandry in the Gk. myths, monogamy predominated in the Gk. world in the historical period. Morality within marriage was strict. The Homeric hero had one wife, who was faithful and inviolable, a good manager of the home and mother. Gk. marriage was monogamous. [NIDNTT:s.v. "Marriage, adultery, bride, bridegroom"]

"Polygamy was not practiced in the Roman world outside Palestine, though illegal bigamy and certainly adultery were. [EBC: in.loc. 1 Tim 3]

2. Polygamy was practiced somewhat in 1st century Palestinian Judaism (by the government/aristocratic leaders):

"In the Second Temple period, Jewish society was, at least theoretically, polygamous, like other oriental societies of the time but in contrast to the neighboring Greek and Roman societies...."[HI:JWGRP:85]

"There is evidence of the practice of polygamy in Palestinian Judaism in NT times (cf. J. Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus: An Investigation into Economic and Social Conditions during the New Testament Period, 1969, 90, 93, 369f.). Herod the Great (37-4 B.C.) had ten wives (Josephus, Ant. 17, 19f.; War 1,562) and a considerable harem (War 1,511). Polygamy and concubinage among the aristocracy is attested by Josephus, Ant. 12, 186ff.; 13, 380; War 1, 97. The continued practice of levirate marriage (Yeb. 15b) evidently led to polygamy, which was countenanced by the school of Shammai but not by that of Hillel. [NIDNTT:s.v. "Marriage, adultery, bride, bridegroom"]

3. Among the Jews, it was not accepted by the prestigious school of Hillel (above), nor by the strict Dead Sea Sect (Qumran), and was not widely practiced, esp. among the rabbi's:

"But even if polygamy was permitted by tannaitic halakhah, other halakhic systems counseled otherwise. During the Second Temple period, monogamy was preferred even on the conceptual plane by, above all, the Dead Sea Sect whose halakhah explicitly prohibited polygamy. In the reworked version of the statutes of the king in the Temple Scroll, it is stated: "he shall not take another wife in addition to her, for she alone shall be with him all the days of her life" (LVII 17-8). In the Damascus Covenant, criticism is leveled against the 'builders of the wall' (Pharisees?) in the following terms: 'they shall be caught in fornication twice; once by taking a second wife while the first is still alive...' [HI:JWGRP:85]

"it was known in Jewish society as represented in rabbinic literature, polygamy was not widespread in practice, especially not among the sages themselves." [HI:JWGRP:86]

So, polygamy was present only in a particular subset of Palestinian Judaism (not in Roman society, Greek society, Diaspora Jewish communities, the Hillel-school, or Dead Sea Sect), and generally confined to the aristocracy.

Now the New Testament Data:

1. The clearest verse comes from Jesus in His teaching on divorce:

Jesus replied, "Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. 9 I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery." (NIV Matt 19.8-9, pp. Mark 10.1-12)

The key thing to note here is that this argument fails if polygamy is acceptable! Jesus' point is that improper divorce does not nullify a marriage, and if the first marriage still stands, then a "second" marriage is adultery--and NOT simply 'polygamy'! This is very clear.

"The saying is hyperbolic-that is, it has exaggerated, intensified force: because God does not accept divorce as valid, any man who divorces his wife is not really divorced, and if he marries someone else, he commits adultery. No one else in antiquity spoke of divorce in such strong terms. (Because most Jewish teachers allowed polygamy, they would not have seen marrying a second wife as adultery, even if they had agreed that the man was still married to the first wife. But Jesus eliminates the double standard; a man consorting with two women is as adulterous as a woman consorting with two men.) [BBC, in.loc. Mark 10:11.

"The school of Shammai ... did not permit divorce except for the wife's unfaithfulness (whether successful or attempted), but they did not consider remarriage afterward adulterous. Jesus is more consistent: if one divorces one's spouse without valid grounds , the marriage is not truly dissolved and subsequent marriage is adulterous." [BBC, in. loc. Mtt 19.9]

2. Paul, in Romans 7, actually uses the same principle, but applies it to the wife:

So then, if she marries another man while her husband is still alive, she is called an adulteress. But if her husband dies, she is released from that law and is not an adulteress, even though she marries another man. (Rom 7)

Notice that a polyandrous relationship would also be adultery.

3. There is another, more general argument expressed in the New Testament, concerning the example of godly leaders.

It is clear (as the questioner notes) that those in Church government/leadership are to be monogamous (the 'husband of one wife' clause shows up in both statements of elder/deacon qualifications: 1 Tim 3.2 and Titus 1.6).

But these leaders are told to be examples to the flock, and the believers are told to follow the example of the apostles, disciples, and leaders. [Phil 3.17; 4.9; 1 Thess 1.6,7; 2 Thess 3.7,9; 1 Tim 4.12; Tit 2.7; 1 Pet 5.3; 1 Cor 4.6; 1 Cor 11.1]

Therefore, in the absence of other NT instruction, ALL believers are to emulate the purity and scripturally-mandated characteristics of our elders--including the monogamous one (2nd in each list!).

In fact, one measure of the 'godliness' of a widow, worthy of welfare support from scarce church funds, was that she be a "wife of one husband" (the exact same phrase turned around)--I Timothy 5.9. The reference to polyandry shows that monogamy was important for general believers as well.

The NT data is rather clear--for both forms of polygamy: polygyny and polyandry--that monogamy is important to God's will, and that entering into polygamy is committing adultery.

[This, the commentators quickly point out, does not mean that existing polygamous marriages in foreign cultures are supposed to be dissolved through multiple-divorce! That is not the same thing, according to most, as entering into one as a Christian.]

We might also point out that the post-NT church was likewise anti-polygamy:

1. Justin Martyr (c.160) rebukes the Jews for allowing polygamy:

"Your imprudent and blind masters [i.e., Jewish teachers] even until this time permit each man to have four or five wives. And if anyone sees a beautiful woman and desires to have her, they quote the doings of Jacob." [ANF, vol. 1, p. 266]

2. Irenaeus (c.180) condemns the Gnostics for, among other things, polygamy:

"Others, again, following upon Basilides and Carpocrates, have introduced promiscuous intercourse and a plurality of wives..." [ANF, vol. 1, p.353]

3. Tertullian (c.207) was also explicit:

"Chapter II.-Marriage Lawful, But Not Polygamy. We do not indeed forbid the union of man and woman, blest by God as the seminary of the human race, and devised for the replenishment of the earth and the furnishing of the world, and therefore permitted, yet Singly. For Adam was the one husband of Eve, and Eve his one wife, one woman, one rib. (ANF: Tertullian, To His Wife)

4. Methodius (cf.290) was clear on the issue, arguing that it had stopped at the time of the Prophets:

"The contracting of marriage with several wives had been done away with from the times of the prophets. For we read, 'Do not go after your lusts, but refrain yourself from your appetites'...And in another place, 'Let your fountain be blessed and rejoice with the wife of thy youth.' This plainly forbids a plurality of wives." [ANF, vol. 6, p.312]

5 The Pseudo-Clementine Literature boasts about how St. Thomas taught the Parthians [i.e., an Iranian culture] to abandon polygamy:

"But I shall give a still stronger proof of the matters in hand. For, behold, scarcely seven years have yet passed since the advent of the righteous and true Prophet; and in the course of these, inert of all nations coming to Judaea, and moved both by the signs and miracles Which they saw, and by the grandeur of His doctrine, received His faith; and then going back to their own countries, they rejected the lawless rites of the Gentiles, and their incestuous marriages. In short, among the Parthians-as Thomas, who is preaching the Gospel amongst them, has written to us-not many now are addicted to polygamy; nor among the Medes do many throw their dead to dogs; nor are the Persians pleased with intercourse with their mothers, or incestuous marriages with their daughters; nor do the Susian women practise the adulteries that were allowed them; nor has Genesis been able to force those into crimes whom the teaching of religion restrained. (ANF 8: "Book IX: Chapter XXIX.-The Gospel More Powerful Than 'Genesis.'"]

6. The Council of Neocaesarea a.d. 315 (circa) refers to a 'purification period' for polygamists. By that time, sinners had to 'sit out' of Church activities until they had demonstrated reformation. If a sin showed up on this list of canons, it was considered a 'bad sin'--and polygamy shows up here:

"Ancient Epitome of Canon III. The time (for doing penance and purification) of polygamists is well known. A zeal for penance may shorten it." [ANF]

7. Basil, Archbishop of Caesarea, mentioned it a number of times in his letters, generally concerning the period for exclusion from church for polygamists, calling it 'limited fornication'(!):

"IV. In the case of trigamy and polygamy they laid down the same rule, in proportion, as in the case of digamy; namely one year for digamy (some authorities say two years); for trigamy men are separated for three and often for four years; but this is no longer described as marriage at all, but as polygamy; nay rather as limited fornication. It is for this reason that the Lord said to the woman of Samaria, who had five husbands, "he whom thou now hast is not thy husband." He does not reckon those who had exceeded the limits of a second marriage as worthy of the title of husband or wife. In cases of trigamy we have accepted a seclusion of five years, not by the canons, but following the precept of our predecessors. Such offenders ought not to be altogether prohibited from the privileges of the Church; they should be considered deserving of hearing after two or three years, and afterwards of being permitted to stand in their place; but they must be kept from the communion of the good gift, and only restored to the place of communion after showing some fruit of repentance. [ANF: (Canonica Prima.)To Amphilochius, concerning the Canons. Letter CLXXXVIII written c.347.]

The data for the NT seems rather clear. Although it was already a minority practice (outlawed in many countries), the stance of Jesus, Paul, and the early church is emphatically condemnatory towards it. Monogamy is upheld as God's design, His will, and His expectation for His people.


PushbackGlenn, I just read your reply to a reader regarding polygamyin the New Testament. I must differ with you. The Bible is most certainly clear that polygamy is not only authorized, but in many cases it was demanded by God. How do you explain your position of saying it is adultery?

Good question, friend.

What must be understood is that God's allowance of something and even His requirement of it in exceptional circumstances is NOT incompatible with it being "wrong" in the vast majority of cases.

Obviously, polygamy was 'authorized' (the Mosaic law specifically refers to it) and 'demanded' (especially in the case of levirite marriage), but this doesn't mean that it is something God wants us to do, except in extreme situations (e.g., the provision of a supportless-widow of kin, in a specific society tied to a genealogically-based land inheritance economy).

A good way to illustrate this is from a very similar marital topic--divorce.

Divorce was "authorized" in the Mosaic Law (Deut 24), and "demanded" in the case of the returned exiles (Ezra 10). But it is crystal clear that divorce is:

What this means for OUR discussion is that one must look at the more "principle-like" statements about a topic, for guidance as to what the will and heart of God is about a subject, rather than the exceptions in history (e.g., permissions, extreme circumstances). The statements of principle about polygamy (discussed above)--like the statements of principle about divorce-- indicate the behavioral norm that we are to follow. The exceptions in history to those overarching statements of principle and life are just that--exceptions, called forth by either extreme situations or called forth by our own moral weakness (e.g. hardness of heart). 

Hope this helps your study,

Glenn Miller
July 23, 1999

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