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Updated:  Aug 12, 2013
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Widow

In Old Testament and Christian times

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* Published by Encyclopedia Press, 1913.


Widow. —I. Canonical prescriptions concerning widows in the Old Testament refer mainly to the question of remarriage. If a man died without children, his widow was obliged to marry her deceased husband's brother, and if the latter refused to take her to wife he was put to shame before the people (Deut., xxv, 5-10). The high-priest was forbidden to marry a widow (Lev., xxi, 14), but other members of the priesthood were at liberty to take to wife the widow of another priest, but not the widow of a layman (Ezech., xliv, 22). Outside of these prescriptions, there is no law in the Old Testament restricting a widow's remarriage. The support of widows was commended to the charity of the Israelites, and they were to have the gleanings of the cornfields, olive trees, and vineyards (Deut., xxiv, 19-22). In the third year of tithes (or the great tithe) widows were to have their share of the offering (Deut., xxvi, 12), and at the three principal solemnities of the year they were to be invited to feast with the nearest house-holder (Deut., xvi, 11). In the times of the Machabees money was deposited and provisions were kept in the Temple at Jerusalem for the subsistence of widows (II Mach., iii, 10), and the spoils of battle were also shared with them (II Mach., viii, 28). For their protection, there was a prohibition against taking their garments in pawn (Deut., xxiv, 17). In the Book of Job the taking away of a widow's ox for a pledge is considered a wicked action (xxiv, 3), from which commentators generally gather that the law of Deuteronomy was later extended to all a widow's possessions. Besides legal prescriptions for the protection of widows, the Old Testament contains many general precepts commending them to the reverence and benevolence of the chosen people and bitter denunciations of their oppressors and defrauders. The lot of the widow in Old Testament times was generally a hard one, and Christ refers to the widow's mite as an offering from the poorest of the poor (Mark, xii, 44). He also strongly denounces the Pharisees: "because you devour the houses of widows" (Matt., xxiii, 14). Under the Old Dispensation some widows devoted themselves to a life of special religious observance, as is recorded of Anna the Prophetess, "who departed not from the temple, by fastings and prayers serving night and day" (Luke, ii, 37).

II. In primitive Christian times the support of widows was made a special duty by the Apostles, who collected alms for them and gave care of them to the deacons (Acts, vi, 1). This support of needy widows has always been considered a particular charge of the ministers of the Christian Church, and many decrees of popes and councils make mention of it as specially incumbent on bishops, parish priests, and holders of benefices. In Apostolic times widows were employed in certain capacities in the ministry of the Church (Rom., xvi, 1), though not as pastors (I Cor., xiv, 34; I Tim., ii, 12). In his First Epistle to Timothy (v, 9) St. Paul speaks of certain widows of the Church, directing that one to be chosen must be "of no less than threescore years of age, who hath been the wife of one husband. Having testimony for her good works..."", and some see in this a reference to the order of deaconess (q.v.), while others do not. Shortly after, however, the office of deaconess was referred to as "widowhood" (St. Ignat., "Ep. ad Smyrn.", viii, 1). As to the remarriage of widows in the Christian Church, though St. Paul declares that widowhood is preferable to the married state (I Cor., vii, 8), yet he does not forbid remarriage (loc. cit., 39). Second nuptials are valid by ecclesiastical law if the first marriage bond has been really dissolved and if there is no canonical impediment, as is the case for clerics in major orders in the Oriental rites. In the mind of the Church, however, second nuptials are less honorable than a first marriage (Conc. Ancyr., c. 19; Conc. Laodic., c. 1), and the state of widowhood is more commendable (Conc. Trid., secs. xxiv, de matr., can. 10) as a more perfect good. (See Woman.)

WILLIAM H. W. FANNING


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