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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Widows

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Widows and orphans are alluded to by St. James (James 1:27) as a class specially needing sympathy and support, and those who visit this class and extend to it sympathetic help thereby truly serve God, who is ‘a father of the fatherless, and a judge of the widows’ (Psalms 68:5). An emphatic expression of the same idea, viz. of charity to widows as true worship, occurs in Polycarp (ad Philipp. 4), who speaks of widows as a θυσιαστήριον, ‘altar of sacrifice,’ on which Christians should lavish their offerings as of old worshippers of Jahweh placed their gifts on the altar in the Temple. The same expression is reproduced in Apost. Const. (iii. 6). The same attitude towards widows is found in almost all the literature of the sub-Apostolic Age. In Hermas we find repeatedly such sentiments as the following: ‘Instead of fields then buy ye oppressed souls as each one can, and widows and orphans mercifully visit (ἐπισκέπτεσθε) and do not overlook them’ (Sim. i. 8). Fasting is recommended so that by the saving thus effected the widow and the orphan might be filled (v. 3). Deacons who exercise their office wickedly, robbing widows and orphans of their livelihood, are spots on the Church (ix. 26). Heretics are censured by Ignatius because ‘they do not care for the love-feast or for brotherly love (περὶ ἀγάπης), nor yet for the widow nor the orphan’ (ad Smyrn. 6). As against this, those who do care for this class are praised. Aristides in his Apology can say of Christians as a whole: ‘From the widows they do not turn away their countenance; they rescue the orphan from him who does him violence’ (see Hermas, Vis. II. iv. 3; Ep. Barn. xx. 2; Justin, Apol. i. 67; Apost. Const. ii. 26, iii. 6; and many similar passages). That there was need of such injunctions is clear, because church-officers might selfishly appropriate funds for their own use, and also because widows themselves might in a mercenary spirit take too much and ‘make their widowhood a profitable trade’ (E. Hatch, art. ‘Widows,’ in Smith and Cheetham’s DCA ii. 2033b; see also Apost. Const. bk. iii., where the faults of widows are enumerated).

The OT (Deuteronomy 14:29, Job 29:13, Isaiah 1:17, Jeremiah 22:3, Ezekiel 22:7, Zechariah 7:10, Malachi 3:5), the Apocrypha (Sirach 4:10, ‘Be as a father to orphans, and in place of a husband to their mother’), and Rabbinical literature (W. O. E. Oesterley, EGT , London, 1910, on James 1:27) all lay stress on the duty of ‘practising kindness’ towards widows. There were deposits for widows and orphans in the treasury of the Temple (2 Maccabees 3:10), and from the gospel we learn that even well-to-do widows were robbed by the Pharisees and that others were subject to spoliation without legal redress (Mark 12:40; see Swete, in loc.; Luke 18:1-8; see also, for widows in the early Church, J. B. Mayor on James 1:27).

No doubt the poor among the Palestinian saints for whom St. Paul cared so much (τοὺς πτωχοὺς τῶν ἁγίων, Romans 15:26), and whom he helped by means of the offerings of the Gentile churches (1 Corinthians 16), would include widows. Of course there were widows who were not poor, such as the mother of John Mark, and there were others for whom their relatives could provide; but as a class widows were poor, and the Church could not let them starve. From Acts 6:1 ff., we learn that in the Church of Jerusalem there were many widows, not only Aramaic-speaking widows, but also those of Jewish blood who spoke Greek. The latter class was evidently neglected compared with the former, but when this grievance was brought to the notice of the Apostles they appointed seven men to supervise the charity of the Church. This was in intention a temporary and local arrangement. It is possible that seven were appointed because there were seven meeting-places in the city, but one cannot be in any way certain that there was any special reason for the precise number. These men saw to it that the Hellenist widows as well as the others were fed at the daily ministration-probably meals were procured daily wherever the church met for worship. Monetary help and clothing would also be provided. Before this the duty of helping the poor, and among them widows, was left to the dictates of spontaneous individual charity in the daily ministration; now it was partially organized. Nothing is said, however, of a roll of widows or of specific qualifications such as age being necessary before relief could be given. These questions were yet to arise in the expanding Church. Certainly there is nothing here of the nature of a definite Church order. In Joppa Tabitha (Dorcas) had instituted a species of clothing society for the help of widows (Acts 9:36 ff.), and no doubt in other places also this class was helped if not by the Church as a whole then by individuals of an active charitable disposition. In both of these passages widows are brought before us as a needy class who were tended by the charity of their fellow-believers. Christian benevolence would not indeed be restricted to the household of faith, but it had the first claim.

When 1 Timothy 5:3-16 was written the question of the Church’s relation to widows-in Ephesus at any rate-had become a serious problem. There were at least two pressing questions, viz. (1) the wise administration of the Church’s financial resources, and (2) the clear enunciation of the basal principles of Christian charity. The Apostle makes it clear that no widows were to be relieved who had children or grandchildren able to support them. This was not simply to save the scanty finances of the Church, but much more in order to enforce a binding moral principle. There is every reason to believe that there were families who tried to evade what was a cardinal obligation of piety by attempting to get their widowed mothers or grandmothers to be supported by the Church. Possibly some widows were themselves eager to do so, so as to gain thus greater personal liberty. Against this St. Paul is emphatic in declaring that descendants ought to support their widowed relatives. He repeats this duty thrice. To neglect it is not only to violate Christian law (Mark 7:10-13), but also to fall below the moral standard of paganism (cf. 1 Timothy 5:8, ‘But if any one exercises no care for his relatives, and especially members of his own family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever’). The principle is stated generally in 1 Timothy 5:3-4, ‘Respect widows who are really widows. But if any widow has children or grandchildren, let such descendants learn first of all to act piously towards their own households and to requite their parents’; and a specific application of the same principle is thus expressed: ‘If any believing woman has widows, let her provide for them, and let the church not be burdened, lest really deserving widows have not sufficient support’ (1 Timothy 5:16). The Apostle here lays down a basal principle of Christian charity in general, making it apply specifically to the case of widows. Church support is not a substitute for filial indifference or neglect. To the Apostle the family is the important unit in regard to charity, not the Church. The Apostle also states that those widows who lived a fast life-a living death-were not to be supported out of Church funds. Those widows only are to be cared for who are really destitute and who have their hope fixed on God and keep to their prayers night and day-in other words, thoroughly God-fearing widows who have no relatives to whom they can look for help. This gave Timothy a guiding principle by which the resources of the Church could be husbanded and by which moral duty could be enforced at the same time. If the Apostle had stopped here, there would be no difficulty in understanding the teaching of the passage, but he goes on to speak of a roll (κατάλογος) of Church widows, and the question is whether this roll is a poor roll simply or whether it is a sort of inner circle selected from all those widows whom the Church relieved. If the latter view be correct, then we have an indefinite band of destitute widows, of all ages, supported by the Church, and of this band a select few who are on a roll of honour because they occupy some status in the Church. As regards this roll, what the Apostle says is this. Only destitute widows of sixty and upwards can be included, who have hitherto had a blameless career and a record of good works. Such an enrolled widow must have been ‘a woman of one man,’* must have brought up her family well, must have washed the disciples’ feet, shown hospitality to strangers, done service to the oppressed. If the Apostle intended the help of the Church to be restricted to such, then what was to become of destitute widows under sixty or even of those who did not come up to the moral requirements demanded? It is because this ruling appears so harsh that many scholars see in this catalogue not a poor catalogue at all, but a roll of widows with ecclesiastical functions and status. The Apostle excludes from this roll all younger widows. Before this, evidently, they were not excluded, and the consequence was that many of them married, others, owing to their freedom, went about as busy-bodies and gossips, and indeed some succumbed to sensual temptations, with the result that Christianity was evil spoken of. The widows on the roll were expected to remain unmarried, but the Apostle advises the younger widows to marry and become good housewives.

It is clear that this catalogue, even if it is regarded as more than a poor roll, cannot refer to the widows found in the Western Church in the 5th cent. and onwards, for in this order were included all widows of whatever age who took the vow of abstinence and donned a special ecclesiastical dress. They had little or nothing to do with Church support, and indeed many of them were well-to-do. The duties of this later class in the West corresponded with the duties of deaconesses in the East. But it is contended that there was an earlier order of widows in some churches (cf. Tert. de Virg. Vel. 9) dating at least from the 3rd cent., and that we find here the earliest evidence of its existence. The much disputed passage in Ignatius (ad Smyrn. 13), ‘I salute the virgins who are called widows’ (see Lightfoot in loc.), is claimed to support the contention, but against it is the fact that the Apostle says nothing as to the duties of the catalogued widows; and indeed the age limit imposed would render many of them unable to do any strenuous work for the Church. Besides, the whole passage is on the face of it concerned mainly with Church support, and again in the East, even in Chrysostom’s time, widows were regarded mainly if not exclusively as Church pensioners. That the Apostle does not refer to deaconesses is plain because in a previous section (1 Timothy 3:11 ff.) he discussed them. No doubt by the end of the 2nd cent. deaconesses would in many cases be taken from the ranks of the widows (Tert. de Virg. Vel. 9, ad Uxor. i. 7; cf. Ign. ad Smyrn. 13). In Titus 2:3 the aged women referred to are not female presbyters, and so on the whole it is better to regard the roll here spoken of as a catalogue of those widows who ought to be supported by the Church, and perhaps of these it was expected that they would give their time and skill to the service of the Christian community. Certainly they were not to remarry; in fact, the age limit made that practically impossible.* There is no reason, however, to think of a fixed ecclesiastical order with definite status and functions. That St. Paul speaks so strongly about the remarriage of young widows is no proof-on our view of the meaning of ‘a woman of one man’-that younger widows if they remarried and again became widows would be excluded from the roll, for they would still be faithful to one husband. On the other hand, the case of a destitute widow under sixty is not directly discussed. It is not the Apostle’s manner, however, to be exhaustive in his treatment of any subject. Such a woman would not be left to starve, but she might well he helped to look after herself and to abstain from going definitely on the roll of the Church. The Church’s earlier relations to widows were distinctly eleemosynary, whatever the later may have been, and there is no reason to believe that anything else is intended by St. Paul here.

The right of widows to remarry is tacitly taken for granted by the Apostle in Romans 7:3 and 1 Corinthians 7:8; 1 Corinthians 7:39; and, although in the latter passage he advises them to remain as they are, it is because of special reasons of temporal distress. His view on this subject, even in 1 Cor., is separated by a wide chasm from the opinion which became prevalent later when the remarriage of widows was regarded with horror. This view was based on the depreciation of marriage itself as early as the Pastor of Hermas (Mand. iv. 4), but remarriage is not yet regarded as sinful. But it is so regarded by Athenagoras, who says that ‘a second marriage is a pleasing adultery’ (εὐπρεπὴς μοιχεία‚ Leg. 33; cf. Clem. Strom. III. xii. 82, and the long note by A. Hilgenfeld, Nov. Test. extra Canonem Receptum, Leipzig, 1876, p. 173). In 1 Tim. the Apostle shows a much more sympathetic appreciation of family life and of the marriage relationship.

Once, in Revelation 18:7, the term ‘widow’ is used of a city in affliction-a usage borrowed from the OT prophets (cf. Isaiah 47:8). The idea of Grotius that Euodia and Syntyche mentioned in Philippians 4:2 were ‘widows’ can be neither proved nor disproved.

Literature.-Bible Dictionaries, art. ‘Widow.’ For widows of a later age, see E. Hatch, art. ‘Widows,’ in Smith and Cheetham’s DCA ii. 2023 ff.; J. B. Lightfoot, Apostolic Fathers, pt. ii.2, London, 1889, ii. 304, 322; A. Harnack, Mission and Expansion of Christianity, Eng. tr. 2, do., 1908, i. 122. All these discuss the relation between the widow and the deaconess. See, further, J. S. Howson, Deaconesses, London, 1862; Cecilia Robinson, The Ministry of Deaconesses, do., 1898. All expositors of 1 Timothy 5:3-16 deal with the question; see also W. M. Ramsay, Exp , 7th ser., ix. [1910] 436 ff.

Donald Mackenzie.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Widows'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/w/widows.html. 1906-1918.

Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, October 23rd, 2019
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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