Matthew 22:24 (KJV) Saying, "Master, Moses said, If a man die, having no children, his brother shall marry his wife, and raise up seed unto his brother."

In general do Christians believe it is OK to marry the wife of a deceased brother? How about if she has already children from the first marriage?

  • 2
    According to who? Questions like this need to be scoped to some specific theological tradition as different groups using the name "Christian" have different doctrines on many issues like this. This site is not the place to figure out which one is "correct".
    – Caleb
    Jun 27 '14 at 7:33
  • 3
    I believe it's possible to give an overview answer to this question that presents most of the Christian views. Vote to reopen. Jun 27 '14 at 13:18
  • I agree that the question can be answered, especially in light of Paul's advice to the church that young widows marry. If the question is is it okay?, an answer in the affirmative citing a lack of prohibitions in the doctrines of Christian groups (if that is the case) is sufficient.
    – Andrew
    Jun 27 '14 at 14:03
  • I'm a little confused. Is the brother deceased or his brother's wife? I don't think anyone can marry someone else who is already deceased.
    – Narnian
    Jun 27 '14 at 14:09
  • 1
    In the meantime, please see The types of questions the community allows.
    – fгedsbend
    Jun 27 '14 at 21:43

The Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England has a Table of Kindred and Affinity which lays down prohibited degress of relationship where a marriage may not be contracted. A similar table is included in the doctrinal books of other Anglican Churches.

Marrying a husband's brother is not prohibited, possibly because it was advocated in the bible. Marrying a husband's son is prohibited, even though there would be no blood relationship between the son and his step-mother.

Catholic Canon Law (Canons 1091–1094) uses descriptions of what prohibits marriage, rather than individual workings-out of those impeding relationships as the Reformation Church of England did. It appears to me that the effect of the Canons produces a table very similar to the Church of England's.

In the Anglican Communion and the Catholic Church, the question of whether a woman already has children from a previous marriage is immaterial in deciding whether it is permissible for her to marry another man. Once a marriage is ended by death, it is indisputably over.


1. Jesus was quoting Jewish (not necessarily Christian) Law and Practice

Jesus was referencing a Jewish custom called levirite marriage. In the Torah, at Deuteronomy 25:5-6, God specifically commands the Israelites to practice this custom, with the explicit purpose that the brother who shall have died should not "have his name blotted out." Put another way, he wanted to provide for the surviving widow and the family legacy.

Indeed, the story of Judah and Tamar even highlighted the crime that Judah committed against Tamar, leaving her destitute and childless when he withheld his third son from Tamar, after both Onan and Er died.

As both custom and Jewish law then, one can clearly establish it was Jewish, but then it raises the question To what extent does the Law of Moses apply?. There are cases to be made that the Torah (also called "the Covenant") does not apply because it was a specific contract between God and the Jews at a specific point in history. (This is called dispensationalism and is very common amongst many Christians.) There is also a counter case, but that is a rabbit trail, because there is a much greater issue with the question.

2. It is bad exegesis to assume every statement is prescriptive.

Even without the context, one would clearly have to misread the text in order to even ask the question.

Jesus was arguing with the Saducees (who deny the resurrection). The Saducees were the ones making an argument even they thought to be absurd here. For example, Pastafarians might well ask a Christian, "How do we know that God isn't a Flying Spaghetti Monster?" Let's pretend for a moment that a biblical writer observed Jesus responding to such a silly question. Would then legitimate the notion in the process? Of course not! Just because Jesus listened to someone who was wrong, it doesn't make what the person who was wrong somehow right!

The Sermon on the Mount records Jesus saying:

  • “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother[c] will be liable to judgment;

  • 27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

    In both of those cases, if one stops at the hypothetical, one misses precisely what Jesus was trying to say!

    In general, there is a tendency amongst many new or non-believers to turn the Bible into a magic talisman. There is an old joke about someone opening the bible, looking for guidance, and reading: "Judas went out and hung himself." Then, the person decides, well, maybe that isn't directly applicable. So he tries again: "Go and do thou likewise!"

    I can take any work, misread obvious intent, ignore the genre, and then find it strange.

  • When I read the Song of Solomon, I see a woman and a man about to go have sex in a garden. Am I supposed to find a random woman and go have sex with her there?

  • Psalm 137:9 says "Happy are they who dash their infants' heads against a rock!" Does that mean I should go kill babies?
  • Matthew 19:12 says that it is better for me to cut off a part of my body than for the whole thing to be cast into hell. If I struggle with sexual thoughts, does that mean I must castrate myself?

    Obviously these are silly - no responsible Theologian, be she Christian or Atheist would assume that is responsible. There is a context, and to read without context does violence to the intent of the work.

3. The context is clear

The context is clear - Jesus' opponents bring out an obscure custom in an attempt to make Jesus look foolish. (Oh how times have changed, right?)

Jesus takes the question, listens to it, and corrects the assumption. If Jesus didn't listen, he wouldn't be kind. But how does that legitimize anything?

The Sadducees thought Jesus foolish for believing in a resurrection because woman "obviously" couldn't be married to seven men, even though that is what the Torah (which they did believe) could set up a situation where that would have been the logical result.

Jesus says - If you actually knew what heaven was like, you'd realize the absurdity of your own question.


Marriage vows say 'til/until death do us part' - so it seems that once a marriage partner is dead, the other in that partnership is no longer married. Ergo sum it appears as though Henry's 'problem' regarding his 'first' wife was contrived rather than a legal reality.

  • Hello Laurence and welcome to the site. At the time Henry VIII married his dead brother's widow it was recognised as a breach of the canon law of the Roman Catholic Church, of which the C of E was part. This is based on Levitcus 18 and 20. The pope granted a dispensation allowing the breach. So if Henry's problem with his first wife was contrived, as is arguable, then what was contrived was Henry's conviction that Papal indulgences were invalid.
    – davidlol
    May 4 '20 at 13:41

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