Polygamy in the Hellenistic Period by Nuria Calduch-Benages

Polygamy (from the Greek polygamos, often married) refers to a person who is married to multiple spouses. The term includes polygyny (from the Greek polygynes, having many wives), which refers to a man with several wives. The presence of polygamy in the Bible is very controversial.

Is there evidence of polygamy in the Bible?

Polygamy is attested in the Old Testament. While most of the first marriages are monogamous (Adam and Eve, Noah and his wife), there are nevertheless many famous examples of polygamous males in the biblical accounts (Abraham, Jacob, Esau, Gideon, David, Solomon, etc.). The presence of several wives did not contribute to the peace of the home, especially when one of the wives was barren. The sterile wife was despised by the other wife, even when the second wife was a slave. This is the case of Sarah and Hagar (Gen 16:4-5), Hannah and Peninnah (1Sam 1:6), wives of Abraham and Elkanah respectively. In return, the sterile wife was jealous of the fertile wife, as in the case of Rachel and Leah (Gen 30:1), both wives of Jacob. The husband’s preference for one of the wives added to this rivalry (see Gen 29:30-31; 1Sam 1:5). Although we do not know how frequent the practice of polygamy was in ancient Israel, the Deuteronomic legislation assumes it, describing whose offspring would inherit in such a situation (Deut 21:15-17) and advising kings against it (Deut 17:17).

Is there evidence of polygamy in the Hellenistic period?

Polygamy remained legal in the Hellenistic period. Ben Sira, who wrote his book of wisdom ca. 185 BCE in Jerusalem, recognized the problems of disharmony and jealousy between wives and their negative impact on the family: “a woman jealous of another woman is but heartache and grief, and the scourging tongue affects everyone” (Sir 26:5-6; see also Sir 37:11). Josephus, in the first century CE, records a few cases of polygamy in the royal house and justifies them by appealing to the old Israel tradition. In his account of the marriages of Herod and his relatives, Josephus states: “For it is our ancestral custom that a man have several wives at the same time” (Ant. 17.14; J.W. 1.477). Some cases are also attested among the priestly families (Life 75). Philo describes a man who had two wives (Virtues 22.115) and another who had children by three wives because of his hope of multiplying his race (Virtues 38.207). Rabbinic writings mention polygamy in legal discussions (m. Ketub. 10:5; m. Ker. 3:7) and permit eighteen wives for kings (m. Sanh. 2:4). Some cases of bigamy in well-off families are also recorded (t. Yebam.1:10; Sukkah 27a).

However, given that the practice of monogamy is recommended in many rabbinic texts and that not a single case of bigamy is attested among the rabbis themselves, it may be assumed that monogamy was the widespread norm. Prohibitions against the practice found at Qumran support this assumption (CD IV, 20–V, 2), but evidence found in the Babatha archive, in Naḥal Ḥever near the Dead Sea, suggests otherwise. For instance, a second century CE Greek papyrus describes disputes between Babatha and Miriam, the two wives of Yehuda, after his death. Moreover, polygamy was declared illegal among Jews by the emperor Theodosius I in 393 CE, which suggests that the practice was still prevalent at the time, even if it was outlawed thereafter.

Nuria Calduch-Benages, "Polygamy in the Hellenistic Period", n.p. [cited 13 Aug 2022]. Online: https://www.bibleodyssey.org:443/en/people/related-articles/polygamy-in-the-hellenistic-period



Nuria Calduch-Benages
Professor of Old Testament, Pontifical Gregorian University

Nuria Calduch-Benages, born in Barcelona (Catalonia, Spain), is Professor of Old Testament at the Pontifical Gregorian University and Invited Professor at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, Italy. Her research focuses on wisdom literature, deuterocanonical books, especially Sirach, biblical anthropology, biblical metaphors, and women studies. Among other publications, she is author of “Polygamy in Ben Sira?,” in Family and Kinship in the Deuterocanonical and Cognate Literature, ed. Angelo Passaro (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2013), 127–38. Reprinted in Nuria Calduch-Benages, For Wisdom’s Sake: Collected Essays on the Book of Ben Sira (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2021).

Of or relating to Greek culture, especially ancient Greece after Alexander the Great.

marriage to two people at the same time

A Jewish historian from the first century C.E. His works document the Jewish rebellions against Rome, giving background for early Jewish and Christian practices.

married to one person at a time

Also called the Hebrew Bible, those parts of the canon that are common to both Jews and Christians. The designation "Old Testament" places this part of the canon in relation to the New Testament, the part of the Bible canonical only to Christians. Because the term "Old Testament" assumes a distinctly Christian perspective, many scholars prefer to use the more neutral "Hebrew Bible," which derives from the fact that the texts of this part of the canon are written almost entirely in Hebrew.

A Jewish philosopher who lived from roughly 20 B.C.E. to 50 C.E. whose writings bridge Greek culture and Jewish thought.

having more than one husband or wife at the same time

Relating to the priests, the people responsible for overseeing the system of religious observance, especially temple sacrifice, depicted in the Hebrew Bible.

An archaeological site on the western shore of the Dead Sea, in modern Israel, where a small group of Jews lived in the last centuries B.C.E. The site was destroyed by the Romans around 70 C.E. The Dead Sea Scrolls were found in caves near the site and are believed by most scholars to have belonged to the people living at Qumran.

Related to the rabbis, who became the religious authorities of Judaism in the period after the destruction of the second temple in 70 C.E. Rabbinic traditions were initially oral but were written down in the Mishnah, the Talmud, and various other collections.

religious authorities of Judaism in the period after the destruction of the second temple in 70 C.E.

The third division of the Jewish canon, also called by the Hebrew name Ketuvim. The other two divisions are the Torah (Pentateuch) and Nevi'im (Prophets); together the three divisions create the acronym Tanakh, the Jewish term for the Hebrew Bible.

Gen 16:4-5

4 He went in to Hagar, and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress. 5 Then Sarai said to Abram, “May th ... View more

1Sam 1:6

6 Her rival used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb.

Gen 30:1

1When Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, she envied her sister; and she said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die!”

Gen 29:30-31

30 So Jacob went in to Rachel also, and he loved Rachel more than Leah. He served Laban[a] for another seven years.
31 When the Lord saw that Leah was unloved, ... View more

1Sam 1:5

5but to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the Lord had closed her womb.

Deut 21:15-17

The Right of the Firstborn
15If a man has two wives, one of them loved and the other disliked, and if both the loved and the disliked have borne him sons, the f ... View more

Deut 17:17

17 And he must not acquire many wives for himself, or else his heart will turn away; also silver and gold he must not acquire in great quantity for himself.

Sir 26:5-6

5 Of three things my heart is frightened,
    and of a fourth I am in great fear:[a]
Slander in the city, the gathering of a mob,
    and false accusation—all t ... View more

Sir 37:11

11 Do not consult with a woman about her rival
    or with a coward about war,
with a merchant about business
    or with a buyer about selling,
with a miser ab ... View more

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