When I read the story of Mary and how she was expecting to bear Jesus, while she was betrothed to Joseph, I am always interested in the customs of the day. Here is an overview of the betrothal and wedding customs at the time Jesus was born.
Stage 1- Betrothal
Betrothal was what we would consider an “engagement” today. The first stage of the betrothal was finding a suitable spouse for the bride or bridegroom. In the ancient Near Eastern culture, this was most often initiated by the families of the bride and groom. Though a young man could make his preference for a wife known to his family, his parents may or may not have agreed to pursue his wishes. Young men and women were pledged to each other at ages as young as twelve or thirteen.
The second stage of betrothal involved a sort of “prenuptial agreement”. Before witnesses, the young man and woman would enter into a formal betrothal. It was a legally binding contract, which gave the man legal rights over the woman. Once a couple entered this stage of betrothal, it could only be broken by a formal divorce. The terms “husband” and “wife” were used during this period, though the couple did not live together. Sexual relations were not permitted during this time, and if one was found to be unfaithful to the other, it was considered adultery. At the time of Jesus’ birth, adultery was punishable by stoning. Also, if one of the young people died, the other would be considered a “widow” or “widower”.
Stage 2- Wedding
The length of betrothal was generally about a year. The wedding was a special ceremony. Both bride and bridegroom wore special wedding clothes. The wedding started with a procession of the groom and his companions to the bride’s home. The company would then escort the bride and her companions back to the groom’s home where there would be a special supper prepared. During this celebration, the parents and friends blessed the couple and the father of the bride drew up a written marriage contract. The couple would then be escorted to a special “bridal chamber” where the marriage would be consummated. As prescribed in the Old Testament, evidence of the bride’s virginity would then be given. Marriage festivities continued for up to a week.
It is always interesting to reflect on the marriage customs of another culture. This is especially true when the customs are so different from the traditions we observe.