The notion that widows needed someone to take care of them rests on ideas about the legal and social status of women. Perhaps most important is the idea that widows could not possess their own property. A wife was dependent on her husband, and when he died, she went to live with her father’s household if he was alive, or to an adult son if she had one. Having a father or son was fortunate, because otherwise widows were entirely without resources. Widows were also legally subordinate to these male relatives. The above picture is largely false for the Mediterranean world of the first and second centuries.
See Also: Women in the New Testament World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).
By Susan E. Hylen
Professor of New Testament
Candler School of Theology
Emory University, Georgia
Interpreters of the New Testament often employ a common set of assumptions about the social context to understand the position of widows. The basic idea—that widows were always at the mercy of others to care for them—is often repeated in commentaries, classrooms, and sermons. However, historical evidence suggests we should rethink these assumptions.
The notion that widows needed someone to take care of them rests on ideas about the legal and social status of women. Perhaps most important is the idea that widows could not possess their own property. A wife was dependent on her husband, and when he died, she went to live with her father’s household if he was alive, or to an adult son if she had one. Having a father or son was fortunate, because otherwise widows were entirely without resources. Widows were also legally subordinate to these male relatives.
The above picture is largely false for the Mediterranean world of the first and second centuries. Legal and social norms of this period granted women property rights and substantial authority within their households and communities. While some widows were greatly disadvantaged, many would have experienced only a slight drop in economic or social status, and possibly none at all.
In the New Testament period, women owned a substantial amount of property. About one-third of all property was owned by women, two-thirds by men. The disparity reinforces our assumption that women were not social equals of men. Yet the proportion of property owned by women is also large enough to suggest women’s ownership was by no means unusual.
Under Roman law, both women and men technically owned no property until their father died. At that time, they inherited property from him. The social convention was to give children roughly equal shares of the estate. Adult children whose father’s had died became legally independent (Latin: sui iuris), whether they were male or female.
When women married they did not come under the legal authority (potestas) of husbands, nor was their property controlled by him. A child’s legal status was determined by the death of their father and was independent of the child’s marital status. There was an older form of marriage in Roman law in which wives came under the legal authority of their husbands, but this was infrequent in the New Testament period.
A woman who was legally independent maintained control over her own property during her marriage. The dowry was a portion of the woman’s property, which the husband could use or invest during the course of the marriage. But the dowry was considered the woman’s property and it was returned to her if the couple divorced or her husband died. Dowries were of modest size in this period, and many women also owned property that was not part of their dowry.
When her husband died, a woman’s dowry was returned to her, and she also inherited money from her husband. The proportion of the estate a spouse could inherit was limited by law, but it grew if the couple had children. Some wives retained control over their children’s inheritance from their father as well.
This legal situation explains why some widows remained wealthy. Indeed, it was quite possible that the amount of property a woman owned herself would increase at her husband’s death. Inscriptions, letters, and other literary sources record the wealth of many widows in the period. Many inscriptions record the gifts of both elite and non-elite women who were likely widows. Inscriptions that mention the names of children but not a husband suggest that widows with property made such gifts from their wealth to gain honor for themselves and their families. Other records show women—with no husband mentioned—who bequeath property to their children.
The picture described above pertained directly to women who were Roman citizens. However, Roman law applied only to Roman citizens, and so women in the provinces were governed by a variety of local customs. For the most part, those customs are not available today in a written record. Yet in papyri and inscriptions we can occasionally see evidence of things like women’s property ownership or the living arrangements of unmarried women, and these can suggest if women’s lives differed strongly from their Roman counterparts.
In Asia Minor, for example, inscriptions show women donating large and small gifts to their cities. They funded buildings and renovation projects, festivals and games. They held civic and religious offices. The inscriptions show married women in these roles, but a woman’s husband was not always mentioned. These women were credited with using their wealth to support civic needs. Their marital status is not always clear, and some were likely to have been widows.
In Egypt, papyrus records also suggest a similar pattern of property ownership by married and widowed women. Women payed taxes, inherited and bequeathed property. They owned slaves, land, livestock, and household goods. Some were poor and others were wealthy. Some census records show that women lived in households with no adult male present. This evidence suggests women were not required to live under the authority of a male relative.
Readers of the Bible may wonder about the status of Jewish widows. Many assume that the lives of Jewish women were more restricted than their Greek and Roman counterparts. It can be difficult to understand the specific situation of Jewish women in the New Testament period because direct evidence is sparse. However, the evidence that exists suggests that their lives were similar to those of non-Jewish women. For example, one archive of papyrus fragments from the Judean desert records a dispute by two women over property. Papyri also suggest that Jewish women inherited property from their mothers or husbands. These women weren’t governed by Roman law in particular, but they still seem to have legal ownership rights according to local customs.
Consider the story of Judith, from the apocryphal books of the Bible, written just before the New Testament period. Judith is a wealthy widow in the story: “Her husband Manasseh had left her gold and silver, men and women slaves, livestock, and fields; and she maintained the estate” (Judith 8:7 NRSV). The story assumes readers will not find the situation unusual. Some aspects of Judith’s story are meant to be extraordinary—in particular, she shows remarkable wisdom and bravery. Her wealth helps to explain some of her authority in the story. For example, she calls the elders of the city and they come to her (8:10-11). But the reader is not meant to be surprised that a widow could inherit and own property. This is simply part of the social background the story takes for granted.
In addition to their legal status, the social standing of widows in this period is also important to consider. Married women had some social status, and this increased if they also had children. The widowed matron was a respectable person. Some widows gained status by forging a second marriage, which brought new social connections. But widows who did not remarry were also honored by being described as loyal to their husbands.
Honor was also due a widow by her children. Loyalty to one’s parents was a widely-recognized virtue in the period, so that “honoring one’s father and mother” was not simply an Old Testament precept but a common social norm. In part, that honor meant that both parents exerted influence over children throughout their lives. It also meant that children should provide for elderly parents if they were in need,
Although widows are often imagined as being subject to their adult sons, many widows would have had influence over their children. The emperor Tiberius went to some lengths to distance himself from the influence and power of his mother, Livia. An example from literature is the mother of seven sons in 4 Maccabees. She encouraged her sons to be steadfast in their faith, even in the face of torture (4 Macc 16:16-23). Their martyrdom was interpreted as a response to the faith they had learned from birth (13:19-27). Women continued to have influence over adult children.
Even though widows had these social and legal supports, widows could still be vulnerable to abuse. Stories were told of villains who preyed on widows’ finances—posing to assist them, for example, while stealing their money, or suing for the widow’s inheritance. These portraits also draw on familiar situations, and in doing so they suggest that widows could be vulnerable. But the stories also convey that the abusers are wrong to misuse widows.
This historical portrait suggests there was a lot of variety in the social status of widows. Some were wealthy and even powerful. Some were poor, and many were in the middle. Some experienced a drop in economic position when their husbands’ died, and others did not. Although vulnerable in some ways, widows were also supported by social expectations that gave them increased status.
When we read the New Testament texts, we should remember all of these possibilities. Take, for example, the widow who gives her last two coins to the temple. Her story is told as an example of radical dedication (Mark 12:41-44; Luke 21:1-4). This woman did not own much, but the story only makes sense if the two coins are owned by the widow.
The passage before this one also conveys the vulnerability of widows. Both Mark and Luke also record Jesus criticizing the scribes: “they devour widow’s houses” (Mark 12:40; Luke 20:47). The language of the passage suggests that the widows own houses, and that the scribes are criticized for their abusive behavior.
Some New Testament passages underscore that some widows were quite poor. Acts 6:1 points to food distribution to (presumably) poor widows. 1 Timothy 5 reinforces the social convention that family members should provide for relatives, including widows. Male and female family members were to provide for widowed relatives, but the church stepped in if familial assistance was not available (1 Tim 5:16).
Similar questions may be posed to Old Testament passages including widows. Certainly, the repeated instructions to care for widow, orphan, and stranger (e.g., Exod 22:22; Deut 24:21; Isa 1:7) suggest a kind of iconic vulnerability that the idea of widowhood evoked. However, these sources do not assert that all widows were poor. In some cases, widows appear to be people of some means, and we should not let our assumptions prevent us from acknowledging these signs.
In Ruth, for example, some of the textual details suggest that women and widows have some resources at their disposal. For example, Naomi tells her daughters-in-law to “go back each of you to your mother’s house” (1:8). If the problem of widowhood was securing male support, this is a strage instruction. It may be that readers would imagine Ruth and Orpah’s mothers, whether still married or not, to have resources that would be of help to their widowed daughters.
Naomi also appears to have resources, including property. Later in the story, Boaz says to his kinsman, “Naomi…is selling the parcel of land that belonged to our kinsman Elimelech (3:3). The wording gives Naomi the active role in selling the property, which presumably belongs to her. The detail enters into the story because Ruth gained a husband by marrying the purchaser of this property. But Naomi’s ability to sell the property assumes she is it’s rightful owner. As a widow, she has land inherited from her husband. This may be property that was held in trust for her sons, who, if they had lived, would have had rights to the property. But Naomi appears as the owner and seller under the circumstances of the story.
Widows lived under a variety of circumstances in the ancient world, and ancient readers would have had many different experiences of and conventions about widows that they drew on to understand the stories of the Bible. Modern readers of the biblical texts should bracket their expectations of widows’ distress in order to look for the signals the text includes about a particular widow’s status. Doing so may lead us to new insights about the variety of resources available to widows of the period.