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 (
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” (
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.