What does this mean?

1 Timothy 5:9 Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age, having been the wife of one husband1
1Or a woman of one man

The footnote suggests that “wife of one husband” might be some kind of idiom, for being a faithful wife. Is this possible?

Literal meaning

The ESV footnote reading “woman of one man” is itself peculiar since “woman of…man” is how Greek writes “wife of…husband”. The main text is probably correct, and the ESV footnote incorrect, for five reasons:

  1. To be an idiom requires evidence of a use that means more than the sum of the words. In this case there’s no such evidence.
  2. The evidence that does exist (see notes below) is for a literal meaning. Propertius, in Funeral elegy of Cornelia exhorts her daughter to be “wife of husband” for life, not faithful to a series of husbands.
  3. There are many other clear ways of saying “faithful wife” in Greek if this is what Paul meant. Most usually “wise” (sophron) was used as an idiom for chaste, faithful in a wife (or in a bishop 1Tim.3:2)
  4. It’s unlikely that Paul would say “Let a widow be enrolled if she has been faithful” — since this would require Timothy to not simply ascertain not how many times the widow had been married (and whether a previous husband was still alive), but require Timothy to investigate the personal matters of the widow’s bedroom. Clearly Timothy could not go poking around in the private history of every applicant for the widow’s list.
  5. Paul has already established his concern in 1Tim.5:3 — “Honor widows who are truly widows.” What Paul means by this is not that he expected widows to be misbehaving (as the proverbial “merry widow”) but that the word “widow” was often used euphemistically to describe women who were simply divorced, separated, but whose husbands were in fact still alive. Divorce and remarriage was extremely common in the 1st Century, and many of those baptised would enter the church in this situation (see 1Co.7:27 “are you loosed [divorced] from a wife?”).

So isn’t Paul being unfair?

This then raises the question of whether Paul is being unfair. That a widow who was widowed twice (the first husband died, she remarried, the second husband died) would be excluded. Or a “widow” who had in fact been deserted, or divorced, against her will, would be excluded.

Clearly Paul expected Timothy to apply the rule with discretion and mercy. Timothy was not going to let someone starve because she did not strictly meet the criteria of Paul’s rule. The point is that Paul did not want to see the church becoming a large welfare organisation for widows who had living children, or a living ex-husband, or were under 60 and in his view would do better to remarry. So “not less than sixty years of age, having been the wife of one husband” is only a guideline.

But it still means what it says, the ESV alternative reading “having been a faithful wife” is something Timothy could hardly investigate, and has no support in texts of the period.


1. Funeral elegy for Cornelia
Propertius 4.12.67-68:
“My daughter be like me, be the wife of
one husband only”
filia, tu specimen censurae nata paternae,
fac teneas unum nos imitata virum.

2.  Gravestone inscription
“she lived 50 years, content with one man”
Imperial era. Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum 6.5162
cited Lightman & Zeisel in Church History Vol.46/1 1977

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