More on the Bible and marriage

From a webpage titled: History of Winnie the Pooh

Gavin (at Otagosh) posted a fairly long response to my piece Biblical marriages. Since he took the trouble to reply at some length as a post, I’ll do the same.

His critique starts

Then Tim makes an amazing statement: “In terms of the teaching of Scripture it is clear that Gen 2 is a privileged text (Jesus and Paul both cite it when discussing marriage).”

Genesis 2 is a privileged text?  In what sense?  Both Jesus and Paul cite other texts too.  Or, to be more specific, Paul and the Gospel writers cite other texts.1

Well, yes, evidently both Jesus and Paul2 also refer to other parts of Scripture. A full treatment of what the Bible says about marriage would need to treat them and yet other texts (that neither of these use) also. But still it seems to me, for a Christian reading of Scripture the fact that both Jesus and Paul (more than once) cite Gen 2 does make that passage a somewhat privileged locus for seeking a biblical understanding of marriage.3 No, Gavin, I cannot accept that all texts, or passages, are equal. Like most people4 I have a “canon within the canon, though it will be different for different purposes and I think that (as I began to here)5

From a webpage titled: History of Winnie the Pooh

Gavin continued:

There were no “red letter” options available to indicate Jesus’ actual words, quotation marks had yet to be invented, and speaking of “invented”, much (please note that I’m not saying all) of the material attributed to Jesus has clearly been put into his mouth.

This seems to assume that when I say “Jesus” my interest is historical. There is a terrible tendency in modern thought to value history and “facts”. But I am not a historian, I am a theologian, my primary interest is not in reconstructing a plausible history but in the character “Jesus” who inspires and is the centre of the New Testament. This Jesus whether or not “invented”6 does make special use of this passage.

This section of the post concludes:

Tim’s decision to anoint Genesis two as “privileged” is entired [sic]7 theological and subjective.

I hope that I have shown that the first is entirely true, but perhaps to be expected of a theologian, and that the second is true only in the most general sense. I gave a reason that Gavin did not like, and in a short post failed to present any of the others, perhaps I have begun to rectify that lack above.

Gavin then quotes something I wrote and rejects it. I wrote:

“in this (as in everything else) human sinfulness warps and twists God’s intent. All of the ‘biblical’ marriages listed in the graphic reflect this.”

Gavin replied:

The problem is that, as Tim knows full well, the documents themselves contain little or no condemnation of these customs.  If there’s warping and twisting going on, wouldn’t you assume that this would be signalled within the text

Well, Gavin and I might assume that, but the fact is that biblical narratives though they frequently recount the most terrible breaches of God’s desires (as expressed in the texts themselves) seldom mark them as such, we cannot rely on such explicit markers. But then the simple fact that no Bible character (with the arguable exception of Jesus) is presented without faults, sins and failings might suggest – and certainly does to my theological reading – that the Bible sees humans as sinful, warped and twisted. Nice middle-class liberal moderns may not like it, but we are all broken and in need of repair.

On the charge of biblicism that Gavin closes with, perhaps I’d be happy to plead guilty.

  1. I am sorry, I have spent half an hour playing with HTML but cannot reproduce gavin’s emphasis in these quotes, something to do with the way this theme handles blockquotes :( []
  2. See below, I’ll continue to use these convenient shorthand designations despite Gavin’s scorning of them. []
  3. Much like a blog post getting lots of links would privilegeit in Google’s algorithms ;) []
  4. Except raging fundamentalists. []
  5. Though of course in a longer treatment I should have added other reasons, like the claim that Genesis serves as a preface to both the Torah and Scripture as a whole, and the further claim that the early chapters are particularly “laden” with significant teaching, and the claim that Gen 2 is “about” marriage and is one of few Old Testament texts that are… []
  6. I know why I put quotation marks round the word, since i seriously doubt that the gospel authors or the traditions that may stand behind them intended to “invent”, but why does Gavin use scare quotes here? []
  7. PS3/2/12  now corrected in the original post. []

2 comments on “More on the Bible and marriage

  1. mgvh

    I am sympathetic with what you are trying to establish here, Tim. I think you establish the grounds upon which you build, but I’m still puzzled about some matters myself.
    a) Are we being entirely anachronistic imposing a modern understanding of “marriage” on the biblical texts?
    b) Part of your argument (as I understand it) is semantics. “Marriage” has a clear sense, but you are open to talk on other grounds about “civil unions” or “partnerships.” If that is the case, what words do you understand to refer to marriage in the Hebrew and Greek. I am having trouble finding somewhere in the Hebrew where it refers to the concept of “marriage” with a single word. (In the instances I checked, what the NRSV translates as “marriage” is more literally to “give as a wife.”) In the Greek, I suppose γαμος is the word you would use, but in the NT it is almost always used more in the sense of “marriage celebration” or “wedding.” (Heb 13.4 would be the clearest use of the term for the concept of marriage.)

    I don’t know that I’m being entirely clear, but I’m thinking that an ancient “giving for a wife” is not really an expression of modern “marriage.” Is there indeed a clear concept–and term–for marriage in the biblical texts that corresponds with what we call “marriage” today? Or were there a range of types of relationships in the Bible that might be more helpful for in considering the subject today?

  2. tim

    On (a) if that IS what I’m doing then, yes, that would be to impose. What I’d rather do is to see what elements of the biblical understanding of [whatever we call the union of a man and a woman that Gen 2 etc. talk about] has to say about a theological understanding of “marriage”.

    On (b) I entirely agree. Again I was taking short cuts, since this was a short blog post not a monograph ;) and rather than spell out the [whatever we call the union of a man and a woman that Gen 2 etc. talk about] speaking of the formalised relationship that we practice that is also the union of a =man and a woman…

    Clearly if you take Paul’s understanding in 1 Cor 6:15-16 the understanding is nothing like the modern conception of marriage… but it does all, I think provide a foundation for such an understanding.

    On the civil union thing, in NZ we have a legal category “civil union” available to pretty much any couple, that gives the same legal status, rights and responsibilities as marriage…