In the OT marriage is assumed to be a normal relationship, ordained by the Creator (Gen. 1: 26 f.) though the initial period of innocence and joy gave way to ‘hardness of heart’ (Matt. 19: 8). Then rules became necessary, though there are many references in the OT to happiness in marriage (e.g. Prov. 5: 18 f.; the S. of S.; Tobit 7: 8–10: 13), and the means of ensuring posterity—even sometimes a marriage within what were later to be forbidden degrees of kinship (Gen. 24: cf. Lev. 18: 6–18). Marriage with foreigners became forbidden after the Return from Exile (Ezra 9–10), but numerous wives and concubines had been available for kings in the period of the monarchy (1 Kgs. 11: 3). Husbands were allowed to divorce a wife (Deut. 24: 1–4) and were in general allowed more licence in relationships than women, but there was also a strong strain of objection to the idea of divorce (Mal. 2: 14 ff.), based on the analogous relationship of the covenant between God and Israel—human marriage being a reflection of that bond.

In the NT there is a similar theme of the covenant relationship, but the parallel is now that of Christ and his Church (Eph. 5: 22–33). That marriage is the normal form of adult life is endorsed by Jesus' presence as a guest at the wedding in Cana (John 2: 1–12), and some if not all of the twelve apostles whom he chose were married (1 Cor. 9: 5). The sayings of Jesus about marriage that are recorded do not imply that a marriage is indissoluble in the sense that a relationship has been created by God which cannot be terminated by human action, though he warns couples of the great human responsibility they undertake under God's general provision for marriage (Mark 10: 6–9). It is characteristic of Jesus' ethical teaching not to lay down precise rules but to indicate qualities of behaviour: anger is as bad as murder; absolute non‐resistance is preferable to retaliation. Lifelong marriage is better than divorce—but divorce is not inherently impossible, and perhaps sometimes (as in the case of a Christian married to an un‐believer) it could be desirable (1 Cor. 7: 15), and the divorcee is no longer ‘bound’, that is, he or she is free to remarry.

In the time of Jesus a marriage was initiated by two families who negotiated a betrothal between their offspring which was a more solemn and binding commitment than our engagements, even though the bride and bridegroom were much younger than is usual in modern western countries. The marriage was finalized, sooner or later after betrothal, when the man led his wife from her parents' home to his own. Joseph was disconcerted according to Matt. 1: 18–19 when Mary was found to be pregnant after betrothal but before they were cohabiting and, in accordance with Jewish law (Deut. 24: 1), he resolved to terminate the contract. But being of a generous disposition his intention was to act without attracting any publicity.

The two stages of contracting marriage survived in the Church, where it was not uncommon for bride and bridegroom to live together before a church ceremony had taken place: the parties are themselves ministers of the sacrament; the priest in church blesses the union. In Britain it was not until Lord Hardwycke's Act of 1753, in attempting to eliminate the scandals of clandestine weddings, established the public service of holy matrimony in the Book of Common Prayer as the sole legitimization of marriage. From that date prenuptial cohabitation attracted social and religious disapproval.