Category Archives: Betrothal

WHAT DID IT MEAN TO BE BETROTHED?

When the Bible speaks of “betrothal,” what does the Bible mean? Some have paralleled betrothal to a modern-day engagement. However, this isn’t a very good comparison because betrothal was much more serious and was a legal matter.

MORE THAN AN ENGAGEMENT, LESS THAN A MARRIAGE

Betrothal was not the same as marriage (Deut. 20:7). It was a precursor leading up to the marriage (Ex. 21:9-11; 22:16; Lk. 2:5). In betrothal, the man designates the woman to be his woman/wife (Ex. 21:8-9; Mt. 1:18, 24).

It can be a bit confusing when seeing the English words “husband,” “wife,” “man” and “woman” in the Bible because in both the Hebrew and Greek language, the word translated “husband” in English is the same word that is translated as “man” in English and the word translated “wife” in English is the same word that is translated as “woman” in English. It can mean either/or. Thus, context must determine the meaning (See: Mt. 1:19, 24).

In Matthew 19, Jesus speaks of how one is joined to their “wife/woman” at marriage (Mt. 19:5-6). The man is joined to the woman to whom he is already betrothed. However, having a “woman” in betrothal is not the same as having a woman in marriage (Mt. 19:10). It is at marriage that the man and woman are joined together by God (Mt. 19:6).

A LEGAL MATTER

Being betrothed was a legal matter because when Joseph found out Mary was pregnant, he was going to secretly put her away/divorce her (Mt. 1:19). This means that the reason for which he was going to break off the betrothal would not be revealed (Of course, this was before he realized that Mary was miraculously pregnant and was still a virgin).

It appears that the man could end the betrothal at will for any reason through divorce, although there would be other consequences such as reputations harmed and the loss of the dowry or bride price. There are no laws, restrictions or instructions in the Torah when it came to reasons for ending a betrothal. Aside from being a just man, this is presumably why Joseph was going to get out of his betrothal without revealing the reason – because no reason was needed (Mt. 1:19). The fact that he was not going to reveal the reason implies that one could break off their betrothal for any reason (Consider also the possible translation of Exodus 21:8).

CONCLUSION

So, in summary, what is betrothal? In short, Jewish betrothal was the period for the man to “claim/designate” a woman and prove his worthiness by raising the bride price and giving it to the woman’s father (Ex. 21:11, 22:16; Gen. 31:5; etc.). During this process, the woman was to remain pure (Deut. 22:13-21; Mt. 1:18-19; etc.). While separate from marriage (Deut. 20:7; Mt. 19:6, 10), betrothal was a precursor to marriage (Mt. 1:19). There appears to be no limitations or restrictions in regards to reasons for breaking off a betrothal (Mt. 1:19) although the bride price and one’s reputation could be lost and tarnished in so doing (Ex. 21:8; see also: Mt. 5:37; Ja. 5:12).

– Kevin Pendergrass

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THE EXCEPTION CLAUSE: EXAMINING THE BETROTHAL VIEW

There are some who believe that Jesus, in giving His exception in Matthew 5:32 and Matthew 19:9, was speaking of Jewish betrothal and not actual marriage in the exception clause. Instead of believing that Jesus was teaching an exception to divorce, this view argues that Jesus was teaching an exception only during the betrothal process since the Jewish betrothal was a legal contract (Deut. 20:7; 22:23-26). If the one to whom you were betrothed proved unfaithful prior to the marriage, legal action could be taken and a divorce could be obtained.

This view argues that this process can be demonstrated by looking at Matthew 1:18-20. The Greek words that are translated as “husband,” “wife,” “put away” and “divorce” were also used in reference to the betrothal period. Even though Joseph believed that Mary had been unfaithful during her betrothal, he didn’t want to make her a public spectacle and he wanted to divorce her secretly. Advocates of the “betrothal view” point to Joseph as an example of what they believe Jesus was speaking about in Matthew 19:9. Furthermore, advocates of this betrothal position believe that it answers why the exception is only in Matthew and not in Mark and Luke. However, this explanation of Matthew 19:9 falls short for several reasons.

First, the Greeks and Romans were familiar with and participated in forms of engagement and betrothal (The Marriage Covenant, Bacchiocchi, Chapter 6).

“Greek law required that marriage be preceded by a betrothal agreement. A father’s pledge of his daughter to a prospective bridegroom was formal with witnesses on both sides and her dowry agreed upon. In Rome by the end of the Republic this betrothal became a looser system — an information business arrangement in writing before witnesses, which was easily renounced by either party and did not necessarily lead to marriage” (Background of Early Christianity, Ferguson, pp. 72-73).

Second, there were no laws, restrictions or instructions in the Old Testament when it came to reasons for ending a betrothal. If there are no laws, then there is no need for exceptions. The man could divorce his betrothed for any reason. Jesus wouldn’t be giving an exception to a betrothal law that didn’t even exist.

Third, the context of Matthew 19:1-10 is in relation to marriage, not betrothal (Mt. 19:1-4). This is seen in light of the fact that Jesus speaks of God joining man and woman, a process that happens at marriage, not betrothal (Mt. 19:6; Gen. 2:23-24).

Fourth, the Greek word translated “marriage” is in the context of Matthew 19 (v.9, 10). This Greek word translated as “marriage” in this context never refers to a betrothal in the New Testament or in the Greek Old Testament. Certainly, if Jesus wanted to speak of betrothal, He would have used the Greek word that meant betrothal (Mt. 1:18, Lk. 1:27; 2:5). Instead, Jesus used the word marriage and not the word betrothal. The disciples also understood Jesus to be speaking of marriage in this context (Mt. 19:10).

INCONSISTENT IMPLICATIONS

  • This argues that if one’s mate was guilty of fornication during the betrothal period or before they were married, they could be divorced after they are married for the sex they committed before they were married. This is highly inconsistent.

 

  • This would make it more consequential to commit fornication during a less committed relationship (betrothal) than it would be to commit fornication during the most committed relationship (marriage). This understanding of the exception clause would imply that faithfulness during the betrothal period bond is more sacred than the actual marriage bond itself.

 

  • Proponents of the betrothal view do not believe that the marriage bond can be broken except by death. Therefore, if someone married a spouse who did have sex during their betrothal period, does that mean that Jesus is saying that this bond can indeed be broken in this case and that death is not the only thing that can break a marriage? If so, advocates of this position have in essence given up one of their fundamental beliefs, namely that the marriage bond can’t be broken except through death.

 

  • If on the other hand, they argue that this marriage (where a man married a woman who had sex during her betrothal) was never even a God-joined covenant to begin with, then not only would they have to argue that Jesus was giving an exception to get out of this marriage, but they would have to say He was making it mandatory. Yet, the exception is an option and not an obligation.

 

  • Finally, there is one more glaring inconsistency. Proponents of the betrothal view argue that Jesus couldn’t be giving an exception in Matthew 19:9 because Jesus went back to the garden to establish His “law” when God first created man and woman. Yet, the same could be argued about betrothal using the same logic. In other words, there were no exceptions in the garden about divorcing your betrothed if they were unfaithful or divorcing your marriage partner if you found out they were not a virgin on your consummation night. Obviously, this reasoning is nonsensical from both sides since Adam and Eve were the only two humans living at the time of their marriage.

Based upon the aforementioned information, one should reject the betrothal view in regards to the exception clause.

– Kevin Pendergrass

For any questions or to be added to the newsletter list, please send an e-mail to kevin@kevinpendergrass.com.