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Marriage and Women in the Pagan World of Bible Times

Neaira lived in ancient Athens, about three hundred years before the birth of Christ. She was purchased as a child to be raised a hetaira, or high-class prostitute. For a while, Neaira “served” two unmarried men until it was time for them to settle down. Eventually, she bought her freedom and even married. However, she could not leave her dark days behind. Her greedy husband forced her into prostitution once more.1 As a little girl who deserved the loving protection of a father, Neaira found herself instead groomed to be a sexual servant. Then, as a wife, she found herself forced into other men’s beds. Neaira’s situation was not particularly unique. Prostitution was common in ancient Greece.2 This dark region desperately needed light.

Ancient Greece is just one of the societies that provides the context for the biblical world. Others include the ancient Near East, Rome, and, of course, ancient Israel, with moral (and immoral) influence passing freely, back and forth across their borders.3 But the Bible teaches that God’s people are to take their cues not from the surrounding culture but from His holy Word. Several historical examples drive this point home:

  • According to one Assyrian contract, a husband and wife could divorce by making a simple financial payment.4 Consider this a very ancient version of the “easy-divorce.”

  • In Babylon, a husband’s commitment literally depended upon a woman’s health. In the event she was too ill to have sexual relations with her husband, Babylonian law permitted the husband to marry another—legalized polygamy.5

  • In Mesopotamia, a husband could divorce his wife for donating family property to an outsider. Even worse, he could shame her in the process by “literally stripping the woman naked and driving her from the house.”6

  • In the Roman world, men, both before they married and in their later years of life, were all but expected to have a concubine—a female companion to whom the man had no legal obligation.7 A man might choose to marry his concubine or treat her as a sexual plaything to be discarded at a moment’s notice.

  • Then there was the lasciviousness of ancient Greece, where it was not considered adultery for a married man to have relations with a hetaira, like Neaira, at a social event. Some husbands did not even bother to hide their liaisons with servant girls—such was the perversion of the culture.8

The New Testament repudiated these prevailing practices. Jesus upheld the Father’s intention of the one-flesh union as the ultimate standard, declaring divorce and remarriage to be adultery in Mark 10. Paul inspired men to be the “the husband of one wife” (1 Tim. 3:2), implying all married men are to be devoted to their spouses only. Peter called husbands to “honor . . . the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life” (1 Pet. 3:7). As Greek and Roman men reveled in promiscuousness, leaving woman after broken woman behind in their wake, it is Paul who taught the Church the hard word that the sexually immoral will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9-10) and who pointed the tempted away from lust and toward God’s ideal—marriage between a man and a woman (1 Cor. 7:2). No doubt, this would have been music to Neaira’s ears. Notice, it is the Christian Scriptures that demand commitment, that foster fidelity, that insist women can be valued as co-heirs of the Gospel, and that encourage sex in its proper context, marriage.

The next time Christianity is charged as a repressive, unenlightened, and backward religion, the critic should reconsider how repressive, unenlightened, and backward the world would be today, without the Christian defense of marriage.


See S. M. Baugh, “Marriage and Family in Ancient Greek Society,” in Marriage and Family in the Biblical World, ed. Ken M. Campbell (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 105-107 and Allison Glazebrook, “The Bad Girls of Athens: The Image and Function of Hetairai in Judicial Oratory,” in Prostitutes and Courtesans in the Ancient World, eds. Christopher A. Faraone and Laura K. McClure (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006), 125-126.


Allison Glazebrook, Ibid., 130.


Ken M. Campbell, “Preface,” in Marriage and Family, xv.


Peter Coleman, Christian Attitudes to Marriage: From Ancient Times to the Third Millennium (London: SCM Press, 2004), 9. For example, the Assyrian couple, Laqipum and Hatala, agreed to the following stipulations in the nineteenth century BC:

Laqipum may not marry another woman, but in the city he may marry a hierodule [temple prostitute]. If within two years Hatala does not provide him with offspring, she herself will purchase a slave-woman. After she will have produced a child by him, he may dispose of her by sale. Should Laqipum choose to divorce Hatala he must pay her five minas of silver and should she choose to divorce him, she must pay him five minas of silver.


Victor H. Matthews, “Marriage and the Family in the Ancient Near East,” in Marriage and the Family, 15.


Ibid., 25.


Susan Treggiari, “Marriage and Family in Roman Society,” in Marriage and Family, 169-171.


Baugh, “Marriage and Family in Ancient Greek Society,” in Marriage and Family, 116-117.