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Polygamy in the Hellenistic Period

There is evidence that polygamy was practiced by Jews in the Hellenistic period, although it was accepted by some and rejected by others.

George Segal

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.

  • Calduch-Benages-Nuria

    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).