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The passage in question is Mark 12:18-23 (ESV):

And Sadducees came to him, who say that there is no resurrection. And they asked him a question, saying, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man's brother dies and leaves a wife, but leaves no child, the man must take the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. There were seven brothers; the first took a wife, and when he died left no offspring. And the second took her, and died, leaving no offspring. And the third likewise. And the seven left no offspring. Last of all the woman also died. In the resurrection, when they rise again, whose wife will she be? For the seven had her as wife.”

Mark makes clear that the Sadducees are questioning Jesus about resurrection. Perhaps they are trying to trick him or maybe they want to test his orthodoxy (according to the Sadducee system, of course). The scenario seems unusual, but as they say, it was commanded by Moses in Deuteronomy 25:5 (ESV):

If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the dead man shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband's brother shall go in to her and take her as his wife and perform the duty of a husband's brother to her.

So the Sadducees take the example from the Torah and push it to extremes (seven men instead of just two). Therefore, if the resurrection occurs, one woman will have seven possible husbands. If polyandry is no problem, I don't see how the question is an issue: she has seven husbands in the resurrection. But if polyandry (particularly the fraternal variety) is sinful, the question has bite.

Can we also say by extension that polygamy was considered sinful (either by the Sadducees or their opponents) or is that a bridge too far?

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The idea to ask this came from an answer to another question. (I just wanted to establish the link. ;-) – Jon Ericson Oct 25 '11 at 18:16
It's important to note the difference between polygyny and polyandry. It may seem subtle, but doctrinally, it's a huge gap. The word "polygamy" covers polygyny, polyandry, and polyamory (which is just a wild free-for-all). – Richard Oct 25 '11 at 18:19
up vote 6 down vote accepted

No, the problem they were asking isn't about polygamy. The problem they were struggling with is regarding adultery.

The problem with adultery is that the woman is married to multiple men:

Matthew 5:32 (NASB)
but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the reason of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

This can be seen through a perspective of Old Testament

Leviticus 20:10 (NASB)
If there is a man who commits adultery with another man’s wife, one who commits adultery with his friend’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.

Adultery was, of course, having sex with another man's wife. The issue with a woman being married to multiple men wasn't a problem of polygamy, but of adultery.


The Sadducees were attempting to back Jesus into a corner regarding his preaching about the afterlife. A woman was not allowed to marry multiple men. This resulted in adultery. If heaven existed, their logic went, then the woman who married multiple men would have committed adultery in heaven (thereby disallowing her admittance into heaven--creating a paradox).

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I'm glad I asked. I'll have to re-think the passage. (But I wonder if a possible answer to the Sadducees would be that death does not annul the marriage. The first man was never "divorced" from his wife. (Jesus' response is exactly the opposite by the way.)) – Jon Ericson Oct 25 '11 at 18:21
At first glance, it seems that Sadducees believe that marriage lasts beyond the grave. However, if this were truly the case, why would they permit remarriage under any circumstances? They were attempting to back Jesus into a corner with a seeming paradox. Clearly, death annuls all marriages and there is no marriage in the afterlife. – Richard Oct 25 '11 at 18:25
Also of interesting note, the Matthew 5:32 exclusion to divorce, "except for the reason of unchastity", shows that the woman has already committed adultery. In essence, Matthew 5:32 says that if you divorce your wife, you make her commit adultery unless she already has! – Richard Oct 25 '11 at 18:31
Well, the Sadducees didn't believe in the resurrection at all and Moses did command remarriage, so the question seems totally benign to their system of belief. What happens after death, before and during the Resurrection was a problem for the Pharisees, not the Sadducees. Jesus' solution was likely one of several. (And I think we are once again agreeing different. ;-) – Jon Ericson Oct 25 '11 at 18:33
@JonEricson Aah, great point! I have a hard time keeping historical belief systems straight. ;) So it sounds like they were trying to trip him up on a paradox they saw with the Pharisees' beliefs. Thanks for pointing this out! – Richard Oct 25 '11 at 18:35

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