One of my students, Corinne Samuelson, has spent the summer investigating what’s happening with “widows” in 1 Timothy 5. At first glance, one might think Paul was simply instructing Timothy about how to handle the many hungry older women in the Ephesian church (1:3). But on closer exploration we see a description of what might look like an office. That's a challenging question. As Corinne notes, “While Timothy would have surely understood Paul’s instructions about widows in the Ephesian Church, 1 Timothy 5:3–16 leaves today’s readers with many questions.” Each of the questions below (most of which she crafted) are worth considering when making interpretive decisions about this passage:
- Meaning of “to honor” (τίμα, v. 3) – (“Give proper honor to those widows who are really in need.”) Does “to honor” imply interpersonal respect, financial support, or both? Is this a parallel to granting “double honor” to elders who teach (v. 17)?
- Placement of need/pleasure contrast (v. 5–6) – (“The widow who is really in need and left all alone puts her hope in God and continues night and day to pray and to ask God for help. But the widow who lives for pleasure is dead even while she lives.”) Is the reference to need/praying a Pauline tangent, further description of the “real” widow, or a prerequisite for enrollment?
- Meaning of “to enroll” (καταλεγέσθω, v. 9) – (“No widow may be enrolled unless she is over sixty, has been faithful to her husband, and is well known for her good deeds, such as bringing up children, showing hospitality, washing the feet of the Lord’s people, helping those in trouble and devoting herself to all kinds of good deeds.”) What are the implications of “to enroll”? Did Paul simply describe a name being added to a charity list or is he implying accompanying duties for the person placed on a list? If the former, do we refuse food to hungry older women who have not done these things? The description parallels in many ways the description of an elder in 3:2–7 (faithful to his wife/faithful to her husband). Speaking of which…
- Meaning of “faithful to her husband” (ἑνός ἀνδρὸς γυνή , v. 9) – Was Paul referring to a woman who was married once only or is the emphasis on being a one-man kind of woman?
- List of qualifications/duties (v. 10) – “Raised children, practiced hospitality, washed the feet of the saints, helped those in distress”: does this list describe the past character of the widow in view, or was Paul outlining ongoing responsibilities of an enrolled widow?
- Meaning of “a widow who is really a widow” (τάς ὄντως χήρας; vv. 3, 5, 16) – What’s the difference between a “widow” and an “actual” or “real” widow? Her lack of family members, her devotion to God, the characteristics listed in vv. 3–10? All of the above? A few people roughly contemporary with Paul (e.g., Philo QE 2.3, Ignatius13.1) speak of “widows who are virgins”—suggesting the word was used to mean a “without-a-man woman.” So are there “widows” and then “actual widows”? And if so, did one include older single woman never married vs. those bereft of husbands?
- Different kinds of widows? – Are the widows in verse 9 and verses 3, 5, 16 one and the same, or was Paul referring to two types of widows (a “real widow” and “an enrolled widow”)?
- Meaning of “their first pledge” (τήν πρώτην πίστιν, v. 12) – What is the meaning of “pledge” (πίστιν)? The first wedding vow? Or a vow of office? Perhaps a vow of commitment to celibacy?
- Harsh language –(“being led away from Christ,” v. 11; “wandering after Satan,” v. 15) What actions did Paul have in mind here?
- Bad behavior – (“idlers, going house to house, talking nonsense,” v. 13) Was Paul insinuating young widows were spreading heresy, participating in witchcraft, or committing social faux pas? Can we gather from “going around from house to house” that these women were conducting bad house visits which were a part of their duties as enrolled widows? Does “house to house” refer to going from house church to house church?
- Overall purpose – Why did Paul give this instruction about enrolling widows and the qualifications? Did he provide here some requirements for selective charity, or was he talking about widows being enrolled into an order/office? Is there an overlap between the two? He wrote quite a bit about church organization in this letter to Timothy. Is it possible he had more in mind here than food distribution?
- Contradictory advice? – Is it problematic that Paul lists qualifications for widow enrollment for those who married once (v. 9), but instructs younger widows to remarry (v. 14)? Why would he give different advice to women in differing age groups? Is he taking into account Roman civil marriage laws that apply to younger but not older women?
- Background information – What pertinent background information about women and widows is helpful in understanding Paul’s instructions?
The options for translating and interpreting this passage are numerous. Considering that compared to fifty years ago we have a lot more social-background information (e.g., Roman civil laws) available to us, this passage is certainly due a closer look.