What Does the Bible Say about Celibacy?

Paul Tambrino, EdD, PhD

Ask Augustine with Dr. Paul Tambrino


Ask Augustine is a weekly column where professor/author Dr. Paul Tambrino discusses various theological questions with wit, clarity and substance.

Question #39 – What Does the Bible Say about Celibacy?

Introduction

Celibacy was unknown to the ancient Israelites and would probably have been incomprehensible to them.

To be fruitful, multiply and replenish the earth (Gen. 1:28) was one of the first pre-Mosaic commandments given to mankind.

Judaism has always emphasized the duty of building a home and rearing a family. The rabbis have always taught that the celibate life is an unblessed life.

Israel from the first had a married priesthood. Not only did the Levites and priests marry, but the office passed down from father to son.“Celibacy was unknown to the ancient Israelites and would probably have been incomprehensible to them.”

By the Mosaic law, the tribe of Levi was set apart as the priestly class in the theocracy of Israel. Marriage laws and customs for the Levites and priests were stricter than for others because of the importance of preserving the priestly lineage.

There is no evidence in the Bible that even the vow (to separate from certain worldly things and to consecrate oneself to God – see Numbers 6:1-8) taken by the Nazarite prohibited the marriage relation.

Samson, a Nazarite, was married. However, certain prophets, priests and other individuals “may” have taken the vow of celibacy in ancient Israel, as this practice appeared to have been quite common among the Jews in Palestine in the time of Jesus (see next answer).

Were the Early Followers of Jesus Celibates?

There was a sect of Jews at that time called Essenes who abstained from marriage in violation of the law of Moses and the usual Jewish conception of life.

Although the Essenes are not mentioned by name in the Bible, it is believed that many of their teachings had a profound influence upon the doctrines of John the Baptist, Jesus’ disciples and many of the early Christians.

Some authorities even suppose that the early Christian church in Palestine absorbed almost the entire Essene sect.

John the Baptist is supposed to have been a celibate. Of the twelve disciples of Jesus, there is no definite evidence that any of them was married, except Peter whose “wife’s mother” is referred to in Matthew 8:14 as well as in Mark and Luke.

Eusebius records a tradition that Peter’s wife accompanied him to Rome and suffered martyrdom a short time after her husband Peter did.

Phillip the evangelist, whom Paul visited at Caesarea and who had four daughters who did prophesy, was probably not the same person as Phillip, one of the Twelve Apostles.“Of the twelve disciples of Jesus, there is no definite evidence that any of them was married, except Peter.”

It is also questionable whether Paul ever married. Some have argued that Paul’s (then named Saul) involvement in the stoning of Stephen, and in voting against many Christians as recorded in Acts 26:10, infers that he must have been a member of the Sanhedrin, whose membership required one to be a married male.

Paul, nevertheless, held up absolute celibacy as an ideal. He did not require celibacy on the part of Christians but regarded marriage as perhaps necessary and a lesser evil than licentiousness (1 Cor. 7).

Were the Priests in the Early Christian Church Married?

In the early days of the Christian Church the clergy were permitted to marry. The growth of celibacy, first as a custom and then as a rule of discipline, was gradual among the clergy of the Catholic Church.

Even in modern times some Eastern churches under the jurisdiction of Rome have had a married priesthood.

Many bishops and priests, perhaps in imitation of St. Paul, voluntarily began to practice celibacy at an early date. Second marriages of priests began to be questioned; then marriage of priests was restricted to virgins.“The growth of celibacy, first as a custom and then as a rule of discipline, was gradual among the clergy of the Catholic Church.”

The first church council that definitely forbade marriage to the higher clergy was the local synod of Elvira in 305 A.D.

Eighty years later in 385 A.D., Pope Siricius issued a decree enjoining strict celibacy upon all bishops, priests and deacons.

He insisted on the immediate separation of those who were married and prescribed expulsion as the penalty for disobedience.

This may be regarded as the real beginning of universal compulsory sacerdotal celibacy in the Roman Catholic Church as a rule of discipline. This rule was later extended to sub deacons.“The word celibacy does not occur in the Bible but it is derived from the Latin caelebs, meaning unmarried or single.”

For several centuries, however, the rules against marriage were widely violated both openly and secretly by priests and bishops.

In the eleventh century several Popes turned their attention to the question and took stringent measures to enforce the injunctions against marriage among the clergy.

Pope Gregory VII, who was Pope from 1073 to 1085, especially distinguished himself in this respect. He enforced the celibacy rules so stringently that he is still often erroneously credited with being their author.

The word celibacy does not occur in the Bible but it is derived from the Latin caelebs, meaning unmarried or single.

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Image Credit

Rembrandt’s Son Titus in a Monk’s Habit, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1660. The Rijksmuseum. SK-A-3138.

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