Who is to Care for the Widows? (1 Tim 5:16)

college papers

If any believing woman has relatives who are widows, let her care for them. Let the church not be burdened, so that it may care for those who are truly widows. (ESV)

If any believing man or woman has widows, let them relieve them, and do not let the church be burdened, that it may relieve those who are really widows. (NKJV)

The opening words of 1 Timothy 5:16 is plagued with four variant readings. At the outset, this paper will follow the order of the fifth revised edition of The Greek New Testament (UBS5)[1] textual apparatus in arranging the variant readings. The first reading is in that which is in the main body of the UBS5 Greek text, “a woman that believes” (pistē), the second variant reading is “a man that believes” (pistos), the third variant reading is the longer “man or woman that believes” (pistos e pistē), and the fourth variant reading is the accusative plural “women that believe” (pistas).

The variants throw into question as to who are the believers to care for their widows. Is it Christian women or men (variants 1-2)? Is it either or (variant 3), or is it a general call to care (variant 4)? The following processes will be followed: (1) evaluate the external and internal evidence, then (2) observe its affect on modern translations, and then (3) apply the most probable reading to approach an understanding for the reading in 1 Timothy 5:16.

Evaluating the Evidence

External Evidence

The weight of the external evidence of the four variant readings are early, but they are not of the same strength. In particular, the second (pistos) and fourth (pistas) variant readings are void of extant Greek manuscripts. The second reading is represented by the Ethiopic tradition from the sixth century, half of Ambrose (397), Augustine (430), and a Latin translation of Theodore of Mopsuestia, Cilicia. The meager witnesses for the fourth reading are exclusively translational itg (ninth) and vgmss (fourth and fifth).

The third longer reading (pistos e piste) is represented with witnesses which begin in the fourth and fifth centuries. The reading appears early in patristic witnesses such as John Chrysostom (407), Ambrosiaster (post 384), and also Ambrose; moreover, it has witness in Old Latin translations from the third and sixth centuries (itb, d). The earliest extant Greek manuscript witness, however, is the bilingual (Greek and Latin) sixth century uncial Codex Claromontanus (D 06).[2]

Despite the earlier witness of the longer variant reading against pistos and pistas, the uncials which support the first reading (pistē) are much earlier. These witnesses are from the fourth and fifth centuries and are traditionally more substantial in their textual value.[3] The fourth-century evidence has Aleph (Sinaiticus), along with fifth century codexes Alexandrinus (A) and palimpsests Ephraem (C 04), and uncial 048.[4] Patristic evidence has early witnesses as Athanasius (373) and mid-fifth century Pelagius. Translational evidence for the preferred reading is in the fourth century Sahidic Coptic text in Egypt (copsa). The early dates of the external evidence weighs in agreement with the UBS5 inclusion of the preferred reading.

Geographic Distribution

The geographical distribution is spread somewhat evenly among Eastern and Western text-type lines. The longer reading is distributed widely in the West more so than in the East. The inclusion of the longer reading is supported by Alexandrian Uncials, Western D, and Byzantium readings (K 018, L020). It is also distributed in the Greek Church (Chrysostom, and a majority of Lectionary readings) and Latin Fathers Ambrosiaster and Ambrose. Nevertheless, pistē has the widest breadth of distribution, impressively stretching from Greek Father Athanasius (373) in Alexandria, Egypt, in the East to the Latin Father Pelagius (418) in Britain in the far West in roughly the same time. The overlap of both readings in the translational evidence is also equally distributed and this is best typified by Latin Father Ambrose who is a witness to both readings; however, the longer reading is mainly supported by the Western witnesses. The geographical distribution of the second and third readings are both substantially Western.

Regarding text-type affinities and other aspects of these particular variants, the first and third variants share text-types and there are some external evidences which need to be considered. First, the first and third readings both share Alexandrian and Western text types, with the longer reading, have late witnesses from the Byzantium text-type. The second and fourth readings have no text-type witnesses. Second, in the evaluation of the external evidence of the four readings, it is clear that the second and fourth reading have connections to early witnesses but are relegated to translational evidence in Old Latin and the Vulgate.

Moreover, even the patristic witnesses for the second reading are Latin such as Ambrose and Augustine, and even the witness from Greek Father Theodore of Mopsuestia, Cilicia, is only found in a Latin translation. This suggests that unless better evidence emerges, the second and fourth readings should continue to be viewed as inferior readings which are probably translational in origin.[5]

One piece of the manuscript evidence which has not been considered is that the textual apparatus also lists a considerable amount of minuscule evidence for the longer reading both from Western and Eastern text-types; however, the earliest minuscule witnesses are from the tenth century (1175, 1739, 1912), eleventh century (104, 256, 424, 459, 1962), and later. This evidence is consistent with the late witnesses from the ninth century in Byzantium uncials K and L, and the Alexandrian 044 from a similar period. The abundance of these manuscripts which are geographically dispersed very well may prove to be sufficient evidence for its primacy as the text reading; however, the majority of late manuscripts are not weightier than the strong early Alexandrian texts which support the preferred text of the UBS5.

There are strong lines of evidence for dismissing the second and fourth readings because the external evidence is purely translational and patristic. The first and the third readings have competitive manuscript witness and have comparative geographic distribution, which slightly leans toward the third reading; nevertheless, the quality of the early uncial witnesses, translational evidence, and a distribution between patristic fathers from Alexandria to Britain in the same window of time, favors the preferred reading of “woman that believes” (pistē).

Internal Probabilities

Next, it is important to evaluate the internal evidence of the four variants readings and determine which reading has the best transcriptional probability for being the correct reading.[6] Currently, the editorial committee of the UBS5 places a {B} rating for the short reading piste which “indicates that the text is almost certain.”[7] Among the variants there are three short readings (piste, pistos, pistas) and one longer reading (pistos e pistē).

The shortest reading (pistē) with the most external support is a difficult reading, for it makes Christian woman solely responsible for the care of widows,[8] as opposed to a more general statement which calls all believers to care for the widows of the Christian community. It would certainly be more likely to have been broadened, especially in light of a few broad tis statements in 1 Timothy 5 (4, 8, 15).

Among the shorter readings, the second (pistos) and fourth (pistas) readings appear as linguistic changes intended to understand the care for widows as a broad Christian responsibility (“if any believer” and “if anyone has widows who are believers”). It would be likely for a scribe, or translator, to broaden the responsibility to “anyone” or to “a believer” than to limit it to the more difficult shorter reading, “a woman who believes” (i.e. a Christian sister). The latter best explains the former two readings.

The shorter reading and in the longer third reading (pistos e pistē). The longer reading makes the care of widows a gender inclusive responsibility in the church (“any man or woman who believes”). Regarding longer variant readings, the conventional textual critical wisdom prefers a longer reading so long as the change is unintentional;[9] from a practical point of view, a copyist would “more likely” omit words than to add words. Metzger concedes that “it is possible” that, if the longer reading

Metzger concedes that “it is possible” that, if the longer reading be original, a copyist may have accidentally omitted pistos e;[10] however, the longer reading has late attestation and may be best explained as a conflation of the variants (pistos and pistas) attempting to broaden the responsibility to care for widows in 1 Timothy 5:16 to both male and female believers (cf. 4, 8). This would effectively diminish the leading role of believing women that Paul had in mind.[11] However, the more difficult reading is piste and is better attested; in fact, it requires an explanation as to why Christian sisters are called to care for their widows. The first reading, then, is better attested, shorter, and more difficult; and in terms of probability is a natural impetus to explain the other variants.

How English Translations Stack

The direction most modern translations go is to follow the strength of the textual basis for piste, “a woman who believes” over the longer reading in 1 Timothy 5:16.

Major English New Testaments which take the longer variant reading, however, are the AV/KJV tradition (1611, 1979), Moffatt (1922), NEB (1961); moreover, less familiar versions such as The Living Oracles/Sacred Writings (1828) and McCord’s Everlasting Gospel/FHV5 (2005) also include the longer reading.

Since the time of the American Standard tradition (1901, 1971, 1995), the following major translation have accepted the shorter reading: the Revised Standard tradition (1952, 1990), JB tradition (1966, 1985), the NAB tradition (1970, 1986, 2011), TEV (1976), the NIV tradition (1984, 2002, 2011), ETR (1987), REB (1989), NCV (1991), CEV (1995), NET (1996-2006), HCSB (1999), and ESV (2001). The less known Plain English Bible (2003), The Voice Bible (2012), and the Jehovah Witness’ NWTR (2013) also have the shorter and better-attested reading.

The wholesale selection of the shorter reading by the vast majority of modern English translations provides a supportive scholastic culture to the present evaluation of the external and internal evidence in favor of pistē.

Applying “Believing Woman”

Finally, it is critical to find application of the present conclusion that the shorter variant has the strongest probability to be the text of 1 Timothy 5:16 and understand Paul’s instruction to Timothy regarding the care of widows in the church. The verse is situated in the final words of the pericope concerning directives for the care of widows and the expectations of young widows (1 Tim 5:3-16).[12] 

There is a strong distinction made between the church (5:8b, 9, 16) and Christian families with widows (5:4, 8a), and a distinction made between vulnerable widows to which the church has a responsibility to (5:5-7, 9-10) and young widows who should remarry and establish a proper family life (5:11-15). The last verse (5:16) apparently weaves these four counterpoint groups into a praxis for ministry towards widows which brings the Christian family to the forefront of such benevolent ministry; moreover, every Christian sister (widowed or not) is placed at the focal point to care for any widows they are related to (“she has”).

The counterpoint in this text is that such family ministry in Christian homes, carried out by a “woman who believes,” allows the church to care the widows who are truly vulnerable (5:3, 5a, 16b). Bruce Winter observes:

Christian women were being called upon to relieve the church of the extra mouths to feed who were their widowed relatives. There is no censure in v. 16, but a call to shoulder responsibility for kinship relationships so that the church can adequately support widows who are without relatives.[13]

Indeed, this Pauline injunction demonstrates a corrective in the Ephesian church culture where Timothy evangelized. Apparently, the church had been “burdened” and “exhausted” (bareō/omai) financially for sure;[14] but also, perhaps the capacity to serve had reached its limit and so the church was significantly fettered.

Nevertheless, Paul is clear there are widows whom the church, as a community, must help (the true widow), but there are widows whom must be cared for by their Christian families. In the latter point, Paul argues out the principle at stake: “if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim 5:8). Paul then calls upon Christian women specifically to meet this ministry need.

In the ideal realm, Christian families are responsible for their own widowed grandmother as a demonstration of godly repayment (5:4). Christians males (5:8) are responsible for this service (presumably husband of the family), but the transition to women believers (remarried women, wives) is significant since they are described as the ones who “run” and “control” their household (5:14).[15]

Part of the power of connecting “wife” and household authority is that it “implies the new and improved position which was secured to women by the Gospel.”[16] Furthermore, this requires a full range of administrative responsibility.[17] The practical application, then, appears to ask of the “believing woman” her full range of resources and ability to care for “her widow.” As such, if “a woman took good care of her household [including her widow], the enemy would not be able to say anything against them.”[18]

This understanding would encourage a multi-generational inclusive model of family responsibilities as part of a Christian worldview. There are, however, many methods of care for the older members of the family. Still, as Walter Liefeld[19] observes, a few considerations should be made to evaluate the need of a widow:

  1. Determine the actual needs of the widow. Do not presume to know their needs or abilities. It is critical to appreciate their abilities – known or latent. Moreover, consider that not all needs are physical (financial, home); some needs are emotional, spiritual, intellectual.
  2. Revisit and reaffirm family ties and responsibilities. For family cultures which tend to live far from each other, it is vital to reconnect and reestablish family ties. Distance is not an excuse. Communication, visitation, and creating space for one’s widow to find their new or expanded niche.
  3. One must take into account a widow’s responsibility. Truly, a widow must learn to grieve in a healthy manner. Paul encouraged the younger widows to reestablish a family and marry. He further recognized a widow’s need to manage and maintain her relationship with God. Ultimately, she must find her role in ministry to others.
  4. The church has a role in supporting a family to care for their widow. (a) Consider enlisting a member to qualify for hospice care in order to be a bridge between the congregation and the grieving widow. (b) Develop an awareness of the stages of bereavement to better help to bring comfort and encouragement. (c) Develop a team that is knowledgeable of basic financial instruments and entitlement programs one might be amenable to. This would help bring awareness of issues. (d) There should be a visitation program which the elders, deacons and preachers, and members should participate in to check in on various needs. (e) While a congregation should not act as a private investigator’s office, a congregation should not act blindly towards senior abuse.

These are but a few items to consider in the quest toward New Testament discipleship concerning the care of widows.

Concluding Thoughts

While this paper was specifically focused upon the injunction by Paul to “any woman of faith” and her responsibility to care for “her” widow, it is critical to remember that this is one side of the coin for the care of widows in the church. It is true that the church should not be so burdened that it cannot function to carry out its mission; however, the community of the church has a responsibility toward its widows who are widows indeed.

The conclusion drawn here is that the shorter, well-attested variant reading piste best explains the other variants. Furthermore, it better weaves within the counterpoints in the discussion which finds closure in verse 16. It provides insight into the service which Christian women rendered on behalf of their faith, as an extension of their Christian family, and as an asset to the church and its ministry to its own widows. To add the fourth reading (pistos e pistē) provides an additional counterpoint which detracts from the focus upon the “younger widows” (5:11).

Instead of carousing (5:11-13) they are to remarry and minister to their own widows whoever they may be (14-15). Knight legitimately proposes the possibility that this ministry to widows is an extension of the Christian sister’s husband and her household;[19] therefore, it seems reasonable to conclude that when she ministers to her widows, she ministers to her family’s widow.

The focus on “a woman who believes” is a powerful reminder of the importance Christians sister have in the church’s ministry and in their Christian homes. As in the early church, so today the need for “women of faith” to minister still exists within the church and their families.

The Voice Bible rendering reflects this emphasis:

Tell any woman of faith: if you have a widow in your family, help her so the church is unencumbered and is free to extend aid to the widows who are truly in need of its help.[20]


  1. (UBS5) Barbara Aland, et al., eds., The Greek New Testament, 5th rev. ed. (Stuttgart, Germany: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2014).
  2. Frederick G. Kenyon, The Text of the Greek Bible: A Students Handbook, Rev. ed. (London: Duckworth, 1949), 96.
  3. (NA28) Eberhard Nestle and Erwin Nestle, Novum Testamentum Graece, 28th rev. ed., eds. Barbara Aland, et al. (Stuttgart, Germany: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2012), 63*. There exist no papyrus testimony which supports any of the variant readings in 1 Timothy 5:16.
  4. The fourth-century Codex Vaticanus (B) is silent on the variant readings due to the fact that it lacks the letters to Timothy. See Neil R. Lightfoot, How We Got the Bible, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2003), 38.
  5. Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2d ed. (1994; repr., Stuttgart, Germany: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2001), 574-75.
  6. Metzger, Textual Commentary, 12*-14*; J. Harold Greenlee, Introduction to New Testament Textual Criticism, Rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964; repr., Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1999), 111-14.
  7. Metzger, Textual Commentary, 14*.
  8. Donald Guthrie, The Pastoral Epistles: An Introduction and Commentary (1957; repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1978), 104.
  9. Greenlee, New Testament Textual Criticism, 112.
  10. Since the extant evidence for these two variants is translational it is possible that the variants emerged in that process (Metzger, Textual Commentary, 575), or in the process of oral transmission since pistos and pistas may be pronounced the same (Greenlee, New Testament Textual Criticism, 57).
  11. Walter L. Liefeld, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, Kindle ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999), loc. 9699. Liefeld writes, this “would not be the first time that an ancient copyist changed the text to give preference to the male” (fn 21).
  12. Bruce W. Winter, “Providentia for the Widows of 1 Timothy 5:3-16.” TynBul 39 (1988): 83-99.
  13. George W. Knight, III, The Pastoral Epistles (1992.; repr., Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2013), 222. Winter, “Providentia for the Widows of 1 Timothy 5:3-16,” 94.
  14. Gottlob Schrenk, “baros, barus, bareō,” TDNT 1: 561.
  15. Karl Heinrich Rengstorf, “despotes, oikodespotēs, oikodespoteō,” TDNT 2: 49.
  16. Walter Lock, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, ICC (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1924), 61.
  17. Linda Belleville, “Commentary on 1 Timothy,” Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, ed. Philip W. Comfort (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2009), CBC 17: 95.
  18. Belleville, CBC 17: 101.
  19. Liefeld, 1 & 2 Timothy, 186-88 (loc. 3722-65).
  20. Knight, The Pastoral Epistles, 229.
  21. The Voice Bible: Step into the Story of Scripture (Nashville, TN: Nelson, 2012).