Depiction of young Jesus in Nazareth, anonymous artist, c. 1930 (from here)
Depiction of young Jesus in Nazareth, anonymous artist, c. 1930 (from here)

Most mornings, while I shave the hair of my face, I listen to a local radio station, WMAL. Supposedly, WMAL provides Conservative talk radio. Whatever it is I often listen to it, and I usually find myself grimacing, grumbling, and grousing at the hosts of “Mornings on the Mall,” Brian and Larry.

Why the grimacing, grumbling, and grousing? What follows is an example. This morning Brian and Larry had found some excuse to discuss the merits of the groom taking his bride’s last name. As usual, the discussion did not delve deeply into subject. It seems how we feel is all that matters, but is it? Our forebears had reasons for the things they did. Because they had to work hard to survive, they did little thoughtlessly. So why did they think it important for a woman to take the name of her husband? What reason did they have?

The history of the Jews provides the context. The Bible explains the wisdom of their traditions. Here are a several articles that describe the Jewish wedding at the time of Jesus. Each of these articles seeks to explain various passages in the Bible by relating them to the Jewish wedding customs of Jesus’ day.

In those ancient times the roles of sexes were well-defined, and people desired children, as many as they could have. Women bore children and cared for them. Men provided for their wife and their children.

When a man took a woman to wife, his family formed a bond with his wife’s family. Consider the nature of communities. In a time when people traveled little, you might be related to almost everyone you knew.

The word family had a wider meaning in both Aramaic and Hebrew than it does in English today. The Hebrew ah and the Aramaic aha could be used to refer to those who were brothers, half-brothers, cousins, and even other near relations. Extended family networks were both insisted upon and essential for survival. To have these ties and be dependent upon them was every Jewish person’s duty, and an absolute necessity for survival. (from here)

Hence, introducing a new member to the family was a big deal and the subject of much dickering and discussion. When a young man went out to find a wife, his father, mother, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, and cousins all had good reason to take a big interest. Who was this young woman he planned to bring into their community, perhaps even their home? And when a young man came looking for a wife, the young lady’s parents and relatives wondered whether that young man was the sort who could be trusted with their precious daughter, niece, or cousin.

What were typical homes like in Jesus’ time? describes the typical homes of Jesus’ day. Unlike our homes, those homes were places where people lived together and worked together as part of extended families. Now imagine the problems. How would a young woman signal her desire to be accepted into her husband’s family? How would young man approach the reverse problem. When he proposed, he was asking to take a precious young woman from her father, mother, and all the relatives who had cared for her and watched her grow into a young lady.

  • The young lady solved her problem by honoring her new husband’s family and taking her husband’s name.
  • In addition to paying a dowry, the young man solved his problem by going back to his father’s home and adding an addition, a home for his new bride.
  • And both families celebrated the marriage with a wedding feast.

Does the Bible say a woman must adopt the name of her husband? Do we live in the same sort of communities today? No and no, but if we stop to think, we must admit there are still a great many similarities between us and the people of Jesus’ time. In fact, many of us long to be part of a family, and we don’t know how to satisfy that longing. Perhaps, instead of being so modern or only considering our feelings, we need to review the lessons of the past. What worked? Why?


  1. One practical reason for a woman taking her husband’s surname, and then giving that surname to any children that result from the marriage, is to tie the children to their father in an unambiguous, visible way. Because the mother incubates and gives birth to the child, the child is very visibly tied to her, but the tie to the father is less apparent. Giving the father’s surname to the child is a way of declaring that bond in a way that everyone can clearly see.

    True story: About forty years ago, when divorce and remarriage were not nearly as commonplace as they are now, I spent about a year living and working in a very small blue-collar town in northeastern Connecticut. In the summer, the church I belonged to decided to do a Vacation Bible School for all the local kids. It was very well publicized, and dozens and dozens of kids showed up. For a full week, the kids were there all day every day, playing games and learning songs and doing crafts and listening to Bible stories; and at the end of the week, we put on a program for all the parents. Because I had nice handwriting, the VBS director assigned me to make name tags for all of the children and their mothers and fathers. He handed me a list of all the children’s names (which was all he had; for some reason, no one had thought to ask for the parents’ names on the registration forms), and he told me to make the parent name tags say, “Mrs. [Name], mother of [child’s name]” and “Mr. [Name], father of [child’s name]”… which I dutifully did. When the parents arrived for the program on Friday night and we attempted to tag them, it was a disaster — it turned out most of them had different last names from their children. My carefully-lettered name tags were largely worthless. As I said, this was forty years ago, and it was a real shocker for someone like me, who prior to that time had led rather a sheltered life.

    I know I’m hopelessly old-fashioned and an uptight traditionalist, but I miss the days when everyone in a family had the same last name. It made things so much simpler and less confusing.

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