The Bible in Its Traditions

James 1:26–27

Byz Nes TR

26  If anyone among you thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceiving his heart, the religion of this [man ]is useless.

26  But if anyone considers himself to be religious, but he does not restrain his tongue, but instead seduces his own heart: such a one’s religion is vanity.

26  If any man thinks that he ministers to God, and does not control his tongue, he deceives his own heart, and this manÆs ministry is in vain.

27  Pure and undefiled religion before God and [the] Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.

27  This is religion, clean and undefiled before God the Father: to visit orphans and widows in their tribulations, and to keep yourself immaculate, apart from this age.

27  For a pure and holy ministry before God, the Father, is this, To visit the fatherless and the widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.

27a pure Lv 11:32; Mt 5:8



17–27 Use in Lectionary RCL : Proper 17, Year B

19–27 Use in Lectionary

22–27 Use in Lectionary RML (1570) : 5th Sunday after Easter


Biblical Intertextuality

26,3:14 heart Anthroplogy In biblical anthropology, the heart (kardia) is the source of a person's inner life: his thinking, feeling, and will (cf. Gen 6:5; Ex 4:21; Mt 6:21; Jas 3:14; 4:8; 5:5; 5:8).


Literary Devices

26b bridling the tongue Topos: Passion as a Horse The Greek chalinagôgeô refers literally to bridling and thus controlling a horse. The image of the charioteer who can control strong horses is widespread in Hellenistic literature and philosophy (Ancient Texts 1:26b).


Comparison of Versions

26f Clarifying the Relationship between Jas 1:22–25 and 1:26–27

  • V adds "however"  (autem) following textual variants that add de.

Christian Tradition

27a Religion pure and undefiled The False Christianity of Slave Holders The social reformer and former slave Frederick Douglass's best-known speech, "What is the Slave to the Fourth of July" (1852) refers to Jas 1:27 and Jas 3:17 in his condemnation of Christian supporters of slavery. 

  •  Douglass July "But the church of this country is not only indifferent to the wrongs of the slave, it actually takes sides with the oppressors....Many of its most eloquent Divines, who stand as the very lights of the church, have shamelessly given the sanction of religion and the Bible to the whole slave system. They have taught that man may, properly, be a slave; that the relation of master and slave is ordained of God; that to send back an escaped bondsman to his master is clearly the duty of all the followers of the Lord Jesus Christ; and this horrible blasphemy is palmed off upon the world for Christianity...They strip the love of God of its beauty, and leave the throne of religion a huge, horrible, repulsive form. It is a religion for oppressors, tyrants, man-stealers, and thugs. It is not that "pure and undefiled religion" (Jas 1:27) which is from above and which is "first pure, then peaceable, easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy" (Jas 3:17). But a religion that favors the rich against the poor; which exalts the proud above the humble; which divides mankind into two classes, tyrants and slaves; which says to the man in chains, stay there; and to the oppressor, oppress on; it is a religion which may be professed and enjoyed by all the robbers and enslavers of mankind; it makes God a respecter of persons (cf. Jas 2:1), denies his fatherhood of the race, and tramples in the dust the great truth of the brotherhood of man" (200–201).

See also Christian Tradition 3:17.


27c the world Fallenness James' conception of "the world" as a realm opposed to God corresponds with what later Christian theology identifies as the fallen state of humans and of the world (see CCC 402–409; esp. 408–9 on the "world"). See also Biblical Intertextuality 1:27c; Christian Tradition 1:27c.


27 Religion pure and undefiled Alllusions in Charles Wesley's Hymns Charles Wesley's hymn, "Aldersgate Street," clearly alludes to Jas 1:27

  •  Wesley "Aldersgate": "Thy mind throughout my life be shown / While, listening to the sufferer's cry,/ The widow's and the orphan's groan, / On mercy's wings I swiftly fly, / The poor and the helpless to relieve, / My life, my all, for them to give. / Thus may I show thy Spir't within / Which purges me from every stain; /Unspotted from the world and sin, / My faith's integrity maintain; / The truth of my religion prove / By perfect purity and love" (139).



27 pure and undefiled …unstained: Use of Cultic Purity Language James readily applies cultic purity language to ethical and religious contexts: see Jas 1:18b; 3:6a; 3:17b; 4:8. This passage has specific verbal echoes with other phrases in James:

  • 1:27a: "pure (kathara) religion"; and Jas 4:8: "cleanse (katharizô) [your] hands";
  • 1:27c: "unstained" (aspilos) contrasts with Jas 3:6: "the uncontrolled tongue stains (spiloô) the body" (Ancient Texts 1:27; Biblical Intertextuality 1:27).                                                                                  

27c,3:6,4:4 world Negative Connotations The word kosmos is negative in James's worldview, expressing a realm or state opposed to God (Biblical Intertextuality 1:27; Christian Tradition 1:27; Christian Tradition 4:4b).

  • Jas 1:27: "keep oneself unstained from the world";
  • Jas 4:4: "Do you not know that to be a lover of the world means enmity with God?"

Literary Devices

27b look after orphans and widows Synecdoche Many commentators do not take James's singling out of orphans and widows literally: by synecdoche, he uses the specific example of orphans and widows to stand for care of the poor and vulnerable in general. See also the occurrences of this fixed expression in the OT (Marginal References 1:27b).

  • Thus e.g. Calvin Comm. Iac. ad loc. "in mentioning widows and orphans, he states a part for the whole (synecdochice de viduis et pupillis meminit; Owen 1849, 300; Reuss and Erichson 1896, 397).


Ancient Texts

27 pure and undefiled ...unstained: Cultic Purity James uses words taken originally from semantic realm of cultic purity (cf. Biblical Intertextuality 1:27). The same vocabulary is found often in other Greek writers:

  • pure (katharos): Hesiod Op. 337 "make holy sacrifice to the immortal gods in a hallowed and pure manner" (hagnôs kai katharôs; Most 2007, 114);
  • undefiled (amiantos): Plutarch Num.  9 [66B], used of the Vestal Virgins (Perrin 1914, 1:339);
  • unstained: (aspilos): Herodian Hist. 5.6.7, used to describe pure white horses used to draw the chariot of a god (Whittaker 1970, 2:53).

The terms are also applied to the moral realm:

  • Xenophon Cyr. 8.7.23 "works that are pure (katharos) and unstained with unrighteousness" (Miller 1914, 2:435).
  • Plato Leg. 6 [777d]: a man who in his dealings with his slaves is "undefiled (amiantos) by what is unholy or unjust" (Bury 1926, 1:476–77).

Biblical Intertextuality

26b bridling his tongue Guarding One's Speech

Exhortations to Control Speech

One finds exhortations to guard the tongue often in the biblical wisdom tradition:

  • Prv 13:3: "Those who guard their mouths preserve themselves; those who open wide their lips bring ruin";
  • Prv 21:23: "Those who guard mouth and tongue guard themselves from trouble."

Jesus' Teaching on Guarding One's Speech

  • Mt 12:36–37: "I tell you, on the day of judgment people will render an account for every careless word (rhêma agron) they speak. By your words you will be  acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned." See also Biblical Intertextuality 1:19bc.

27c the world The World (Kosmos): A Realm Opposed to God  In the NT, "world" (kosmos) can have the sense of a realm opposed to God (cf. Jas 4:4: "Don't you know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?"). In this sense, Satan is seen as the ruler of this world (Jn 12:31; 16:11;1 Jn 5:19; 2Cor 4:4). The standards of this world are not the standards of God (1Cor 2:12,3:19). The world hates Christ and his followers, since they are not of the world  (Jn 7:7; Jn 15:18f; 17,14). The "world" is equivalent to the current "age" (aiôn) that will soon pass away (2Cor 4:4; cf. Christian Tradition 1:27c; Theology 1:27c).


Christian Tradition

26 thinks he is religious while not bridling his tongue Words Must Be Consistent with Actions

  • Gloss. Ord. ad loc. the interlinear gloss to "religious" reads: "Not only should you be doers of the word, but also bridle the tongue"; the interlinear gloss to "bridling" reads, "through faith which one has through works of faith" (per fidem quam habet per opera fidei; cols. 1273–74).

27a religion pure and undefiled Accommodating the Teaching to the Hearers

  • Ps.-Oecumenius Comm. Ep. Cath. "If James is a teacher of the covenant in Christ (tês kata Christon diathêkês), why does he now not abrogate the things of the law, but rather exalt it, accepting those (who remain) in its observation...?" 
  •  Ps.-Oecumenius Comm. Ep. Cath. argues that James is accomodating his teaching to his Jewish-Christian readers: "he makes allowances for their weakness (sugkatabainei  têᵢ toutôn astheneiaᵢ).  His plan is to gradually draw them away from an observance of Torah" (col. 471).

27c world The World: a Realm Opposed to God.

  • Gloss. Ord. (V) ad loc. cites Bede: "By 'world' (saecula)  he means the world (mundus), or everything which is in the world, as concupiscense of the flesh and of the eyes, and arrogance of life." (col. 1274).
  • Hugh of St. Cher Post. pref. uses this same definition (311a) in his overview of James.

See further Biblical Intertextuality 1:27c; Theology 1:27c; →James: Medieval Divisio Textus.


27 Religion pure and undefiled The Principle of Subsidiarity

  • CCC 2208 cites this passage as an example of the Catholic social principle of subsidiarity. Each family should learn to live in such a way that its members learn to care for those in need: the very young, the elderly, the sick, disabled, and the poor. When a family is incapable of providing this support, the responsibility "devolves then on other persons, other families, and, in a subsidiary way, society, to provide for their needs." 

27a Vatican II’s Focus on Love

  • Paul VI Hom. Pat. Conc.: In his remarks to the last general session of the Second Vatican Council (December 7, 1965), Pope Paul VI notes that some might suspect that the Council's marked tendency to reach out to and understand the modern world was done at the expense of fidelity to tradition. For his part, however, the Pope prefers to conclude that love was the central focus of the Council: no one can fault an orientation based on love as contrary to true religion, as Jn 13:35; 1Jn 4:20; and Jas 1:27 demonstrate.


Literary Devices

27 pure and undefiled Series of Parallelisms James's fondness for parallel constructions is apparent in this verse:

  • religion pure and undefiled;
  • God and Father;
  • orphans and widows.


Ancient Cultures

27 orphans and widows in their affliction Vulnerable Social Position Widows and orphans represent two of the most vulnerable social groups in ancient Mediterranean societies (→James: Rich and Poor; Biblical Intertextuality 1:27b).

At Athens, widows were expected to live under the protection of a male relative and were encouraged to remarry, especially if young. A widow's dowry reverted to the man who protected her. Roman widows could receive a portion of her husband's property if she did not remarry.

An early 3rd c. AD legal petition from a widow in Egypt illustrates the vulnerability of the widow:

  • P. Oxy. 8.1120 "Concerning the outrage suffered at his abode by my son-in-law Polydeuces, I presented to the officials a petition against the perpetrator, Eudaemon; but his influence procured the failure of the petition, so that he should not seem indictable. I accordingly testify to his violence (bia), being a feeble widow woman (gunê chêra kai asthenês). For Thonis the curator of Seuthes rushed into my house and dared to carry off my slave Theodora, though he had no power [authority] (exousia) over her, so that I am subjected to unmitigated violence" (8:210–11).

A 2nd c. AD  Egyptian papyrus reads similarly:

  • →BGU 2.522: A widow writes to a local official, seeking his benevolence, and identifying herself as "a helpless and widowed woman" (gunê chêra athoêtêtos; 2:139–40).

Ancient Texts

26b bridling his tongue Classical Image of Bridling the Passions

Reason Bridling the Passions in the Soul

  • Plato Phaedr. 246AB applies this image to his tripartite division of the soul (see Plato Resp. 4 [439d–441c] for the three divisions). The charioteer, representing the reasoning faculty (to logistikon) of the soul, must control his two horses, who represent the part dominated by desire and other passions (to epithumêtikon) and the "spirited" part (to thumoeides) of the soul. See also Ancient Texts 4:1.

The Bridling Image Applied to Controlling One's Speech

  • Plato Leg. 701C "I must, every time, rein in my discourse (logos), like a horse, and not let it run away with me as though it had no bridle" (achalinon; Bury 1926, 1:249).
  •  Plutarch Adol. poet. Aud. 12 [Mor. 33f] "just as a horseman uses a bridle, or a helmsman uses a rudder, since virtue has no instrument so humane or so akin to itself as speech" (Babbit 1927, 1:177).
  • Philostratus Vit. Apoll. 4.26.1 "an unbridled tongue" (chalinos ouk ên epi têᵢ glôttêᵢ; Jones 2005, 1:376–77).
  • Euripides Bacch. 386 "tongues that know no bridle" (achalinos; Kovacs 2003, 44); cf. Plutarch Garr. 3.

See further Ancient Texts 3:2bLiterary Devices 3:2-3.

Suggestions for Reading

18–27 Exhortation to Doing the Word

Thematic Structure 

Although some interpreters see Jas 1:19 as a thematic statement developed in Jas 1:20–27, the following thematic flow of thought is evident:

  • Vv. 18–21: An example of God's good gift: "the word of truth." God implants (Jas 1:21)  a "word of truth" (Jas 1:18), the natural law of right and wrong, within each person. This law exhorts one to bridle his speech and his passions (such as anger). 
  • Vv. 22–27: One must not only hear this law, but act on it. Bridling one's tongue (Jas 1:19; 26) and caring for widows and orphans (Jas 1:27) are two specific ways of living out this law.

Interpretive Issues

  • Jas 1:18–21: One interpretive crux is clarifying the identity of the "word of truth" and the "first-fruits of his creatures" (Jas 1:18) together with the "implanted word" (Jas 1:21). One strand takes the "first fruits" as Christians, and thus the "the word of truth" and the "implanted word" as the gospel message of salvation through Jesus. Another strand, in contrast, takes the "word" to be God's word at creation, and thus the "first-fruits" to be humanity in its pre-eminence over the rest of creation (Christian Tradition 1:18b; Christian Tradition 1:21a).
  • Jas 1:19: James' advice on controlling anger renewed a classical ethical debate on whether anger should be rooted out as a wholly negative vice, or whether controlled anger has a place in the struggle to attain justice and the good (Ancient Texts 1:19c ; Christian Tradition 1:19–20). 
  • Jas 1:23–25: The word of truth is identified with the Torah. Comparing the "word of truth" to a mirror in which a human can see a reflection of his original, God-given nature (Jas 1:23–24, James then identifies the mirror with the "perfect law of freedom," the Torah as interpreted by Jesus (Jas 1:25). 
  • Jas 1:26: James' advice to bridle the tongue is situated within a rich Greco-Roman ethical tradition that valued brevity of speech and self-control; many biblical parallels are also apparent (Ancient Texts 1:26bLiterary Devices 1:26b; Biblical Intertextuality 1:26b).
  • Jas 1:27:  James' admonition to care for orphans and widows develops a common scriptural topos (Biblical Intertextuality 1:27). The tradition understood James' admonition both literally and as referring to the care of the poor and vulnerable in general (Christian Tradition 1:27; Christian Tradition 1:27b).


Textual Criticism

26a If anyone Pluses The precise relationship between James's well-structured admonition to "do the word" in Jas 1:22–25, and the teaching on "true religion" in Jas 1:26–27 is unclear. Textual variants attempt to make the transition clearer:

  • C P and some minuscules add the adversative de to "If anyone": "but if anyone" (de is not a strong adversative, however, and is often left untranslated); cf. also V.
  • Manuscripts of Byz add "among you" (en humin) to qualify "anyone," thus clarifying that James's teaching applies directly to the church community (Comparison of Versions 1:26-27).


26f religious Semantics of "religion" The adjective thrêskos ("religious") is found only here in the whole NT; the adjective is not found in G. The cognate noun form used later in the verse, thrêskeia, is well attested.

Thrêskeia emphasizes the public cultus (see its use in Col 2:18 for the worship of angels; Ws 14:27: the worship of idols). It is often paired with eusebeia ("piety").  Eusebeia (adjective: eusebês) is generally understood as the state of being pious (corresponding to Latin pietas), while thrêskeia concerns outward acts of piety (corresponding to Latin religio):

  • Josephus A.J. 6.90: "grant thrêskeia and eusebeia";
  • Josephus A.J. 13.244: Antiochus, "because of his exaggerated devotion (thrêskeia) was by all men called Eusebes."

The word can thus be used for religion as a whole as in Acts 26:5 and 4 Macc. 5:7 for the Jewish religion (cf. V's translation: religiosus = thrêskos; religio = thrêskeia).  

26c worthless Religious Connotations


The adjective mataios elsewhere in the NT characterizes activities as useless or unprofitable. For example, see  Tt 3:9: "avoid foolish speculations, and those genealogies, and the quibbles and disputes about the Law—they are useless and futile (mataios)." 


  • G-Is 29:13 uses the cognate adverb matên to refer to an outward worship of God that is merely verbal: "they honor me with their lips, while their heart is far from me, and in vain (matên) do they worship me, teaching human precepts and teachings";  Mk 7:6–7 / Mt 15:8–9 reports that Jesus quoted this passage against Pharisees and scribes.
  • Mataios and its cognates are regularly used to describe the "vain" worship of pagan gods:  G-Lv 17:7; Jer 2:5; 8:19; Ez 8:10; Am 2:4; Ep. Arist. 134; Sib. Or. 3.547; 5.85. With its widespread application to worship of idols, James may well imply that the religious observance of a person who commits sins of speech is no better than idol worship.

27b look after Two Meanings The episkeptomai has two general meanings (the verb used in S keeps the same semantic field):

  • to watch over or care for someone; e.g., G-Ps 8:4: "What is man that you are mindful of him; the son of man that you attend (episkeptomai) to him?"'
  • to visit someone–T. Sim. 1.2: Simeon's sons come to visit him; thus V visitare.

See also the cognate episkopos, literally "overseer," the one tasked with attending to matters and visiting subordinates. In turn, the Latin episcopus evolved into the English "bishop" (episcopus > [e]biscopus > *biscopobisceop; →OED ). Cf. →Ecclesiastical vocabulary among the first christian communities: episkopoi, presbuteroi, and diakonoi


26a thinks that he is religious What is the Subject? The 3rd person sing. verb dokei ("to seem") can be understood as either having a subject or being impersonal. So here there are two possibilities.

  • It is interpreted as having a subject, tis: "someone thinks that he is religious"; cf. Lk 8:18.
  • Or it is understood impersonally, "it appears that someone is religious" (cf.  Calvin Comm. Iac.).

The first possibility is more likely, given James' focus on correct understanding (cf. Jas 1:26c: "deceives his heart"; →James: Emphasis on Correct Knowledge in James ).


Biblical Intertextuality

27 pure and undefiled ...unstained: Imagery of Cultic Purity James' imagery draws on the world of cultic purity. All three terms are connected with ritual purity, e.g.,

  • katharos: e.g., G-Lv 11:32;
  • amiantos: the verb miainô regularly refers to objects or people becoming ritually defiled (e.g., G-Lv 5:3). 

 In other scriptural texts, the vocabulary is applied in a more metaphorical sense:

Peritestamental Literature

26b bridling his tongue The Image of Bridling One's Speech Philo often applies the image of a bridle to controlling one's tongue (Ancient Texts 1:26b).

  • Philo Det. 44: Those proficient in rhetoric but not in wisdom often have an unbridled tongue (achalina glôtta) (Colson 1929, 2:230–31).
  • Philo Det. 174: achalinos glôtta (Colson 1929, 2:316–17).
  • Philo Somn. 2.132: unbridled mouths (achalina stomata; Colson 1934, 5:500–501).
  • Philo Somn. 2.165: among some, wine causes an unbridled tongue (achalinôtos glôtta; Colson 1934, 5:516–17).
  • Philo Abr. 29: the unbridled mouth (achalinon stoma) perpetually speaks when silence is due (Colson 1935, 6:18–19).
  • Philo Mos. 2.198: unbridled mouth (achalinon stoma; Colson 1935, 6:546–47).
  • Philo Legat. 163: the Alexandrians have unbridled mouths (achalinon stoma; Colson 1962, 10:163–64).

The image can also be used in a positive sense for unrestrained praise:

  • Philo Her. 110: an unbridled mouth (achalinon stoma) used in a positive sense for praising God (Colson 1932, 4:336–37).
  • Philo Ios. 246: unbridled mouths (achalina stomata; Colson 1935, 6:258–59).

As is apparent from the following passage, the image of bridling the tongue draws on the more general image of the rational powers reining in the passions.

  • Philo Sacr. 49: Rule over oneself is greater than the rule over others: "the strength to rule (ischusai), as a king in a city or country, over the body and the senses and the belly, and the pleasures (hêdonai) whose seat is below the belly, and the other passions (pathê) and the tongue and in general all our compound being.…For like the charioteer (hêniochos) he must sometimes give the rein to his team; sometimes pull them in and draw them back, when they rush too wildly in unreined career towards the world of external things (Colson 1929, 2:130–31; Ancient Texts 1:26b).
  • Philo Spec. 1.79: a person must use a bridle (chalinos) on his passions, or disaster will result. In this context, Philo explicitly quotes  Stoic definitions of the passions (Colson 1937, 7:56–57; Peritestamental Literature 3:3–4).

27a religion pure and undefiled Religion Expressed in Virtues The concept of worshipping God through virtue and virtuous deeds is found in Judaism.

  • Josephus C. Ap. 2.192: God "must we worship (therapeuô) by the practice of virtue (aretê); for that is the most saintly manner of worshipping God" (tropos gar theou therapeias houtos hosiôtatos; Thackeray 1926, 370–71).


Comparison of Versions

26f religious ...religion: Religion as Serving God S translates the adjective thrêskos (Vocabulary 1:26-27) with the Pa‘el participle of the verb šmš, literally meaning "to serve." S uses this same verb at the following places:

  • Lk 22:27: "For who is greater: the one seated at table or the one who serves?"
  • 1Pt 4:11: " whoever serves, let it be with the strength that God supplies" (both verses translate the Greek diakoneô).

S uses the same root šmš for the noun at the end of the verse: "the service (tšmšth) of that person is worthless."

Christian Tradition

26b bridling his tongue James Refers Especially to Hypocrites The commentary tradition often attempts to specify what type of speech James means to control; identifying especially the hypocritical speech of one who appears to be religious outwardly, but uses his tongue for evil purposes.

Call to Refrain from Dishonest and Foolish Speech

  • Bede Ep. cath. ad loc. "even if someone appears to carry out in actions the commandments of God which he has learned, if he has not also bridled his tongue from slanders (detractionibus), lies (mendaciis), blasphemies, foolish conversations (stultiloquiis), even from the very act of speaking too much (multiloquium), and from the other things in which he is accustomed to sin, in vain does he boast of the righteousness of his works, as Paul, showing his approval of the thought of a pagan poet, says, 'Evil conversations corrupt good morals'" (1Cor 15:33; Hurst 1983, 192; Hurst 1985, 20–21).

Call to Refrain from Hypocrisy 

  • Calvin Comm. Iac. "'If anyone,' he says, 'seems to be religious,' that is, who has a show of sanctity (speciem habet sanctimoniae), but in the meantime flatters himself by speaking evil of others, it is hence evident that he does not truly serve God" (hinc convincitur non vere Deum colere; Owen 1849, 299; Reuss and Erichson 1896, 396).

Connection with Jesus' Teaching

Many commentators connect James' admonition with Jesus' teaching in Mt 12:36–37:

Application to Monks

Caesarius of Arles alludes to this passage in an admonition to monks to avoid murmuring and disobedience to their superiors:

  • Caesarius of Arles Serm. 233.7 "If we do not bridle (non refrenamus) our tongue, our religion is not true but false (non est vera sed falsa; Mueller 1973, 3:198; Morin 1953, 2:931).

27 look after orphans ...keep oneself unstained from the world: James Describes Religious Orders  The traditition often understands James to refer to the work of religious orders.

  An early 13th century rule for anchoresses, sees in this passage a description of the two ways of religious life:

  • Ancr. Wis. Pref. 78–100 "to look after orphans and widows" applies to prelates and preachers in the world. James' teaching is interpreted allegorically: "The soul is a widow who has lost her spouse, that is, Jesus Christ, through any mortal sin; a person is also fatherless who has lost the Father of heaven through sin. "To go and see such people, and comfort and help them with the food of holy teaching—this is true religion, says St James"
  • Ancr. Wis. Pref. 78–100 "to keep oneself unstained from the world": applies to those religious, such as anchoresses, who withdraw from the world. Paul the anchorite and St. Anthony also belong in this group (Savage and Watson 1991, 49–50; Hasenfratz 2000, 64–65). Contrast Bede Hom. Ev. 1.9.152–63, however, who applies this phrase to the active life of a person who does the works of mercy in the world, feeding the hungry, clothing those who are cold etc. (Martin and Hurst 1991, 1:91).

 Aquinas Impug. 2.3 (1.4) also applies "looking after orphans and widows" to the work of religious orders such as the Dominicans who are called to help parish priests in preaching and hearing confessions (Procter 1902, 123).

27a before [our] God and Father Religion in God’s Eyes Bede comments on the distinction between human and divine concepts of religion. 

  • Bede Ep. cath. ad loc. "Admirably he added, 'before God and the Father,' because there are those who appear religious to other people, when they are held by God to be idolaters (cum a Deo habeantur profani). Hence Solomon also says, "There is a way which appears righteous to people, but in the end leads down to death'" (Prv 14:12; Hurst 1985, 21; Hurst 1983, 192).

27a religion pure and undefiled Distinction between "Pure" and "Undefiled"

  • Gloss. Ord. glosses "religion is pure" with "by the intention of the heart" (in cordis inventione) and "undefiled" with "by the carrying out of an action" (operis executione; cols. 1273–74).

27a religion …is this: to look after, A Favorite Deist Text  The English Deist Matthew Tindal champions James' definition as a definition of true, natural religion focused on moral behavior, as opposed to the corrupted form that emphasizes belief in speculative doctrines such as the belief that God is a Trinity (Tindal Chr., 323).

27b to look after orphans and widows General Admonition to Act with Mercy and Compassion

Care for Orphans and Widows in the Early Church

General Mandate

The care of orphans and widows continued to be a special concern of the early Church:

  •  Herm. Mand. 8.10: The "servant of God" is exhorted to do the following tasks: "ministering to widows, visiting (episkeptomai) orphans and those in need" (Ehrman 2003, 2:272–73).
  • Herm. Sim. 1.8 "Instead of fields, then, purpose souls that have been afflicted (thlibomenas), insofar as you can, and take care of (episkeptomai) widows and orphans and do not neglect them" (Ehrman 2003, 2:308–9).
  • Barn. 20.2: those who follow the wrong path of the Two Ways tradition do not look out for (prosechô) the widow and the orphan (Ehrman 2003, 2:81).
  • Ps.-Clem. 1 Ep. Virg. 12.1 "this is comely and useful, that a man 'visit orphans and widows,' (visitare pupillos et viduas) and especially those poor persons who have many children. These things are, without controversy, required of the servants of God (Sunt haec [opera] sine controversia officium servorum Dei), and comely and suitable for them" (ANF 8:59; Funk 1913, 2:11).
  • Eusebius of Cesarea Hist. eccl. 6.43 quotes a letter from Cornelius, bishop of Rome (d. 253) who reports that the Roman church supported (diatrephô) over 1500 widows and people in distress (thlibomenoi; Lake et al. 1932, 2:118–19).
  • Ambrose of Milan Off. 1.(20).87 warns against young male clergy visiting widows and unmarried women, however, since it gives occassion to temptation and scandalous rumors. They should be accompanied by the bishop or additional clergy.
Task of the Presbyters
  • Polycarp Phil. 6.1 specifies care of orphans and widows as a task of the presbyters (presbuteroi): "The presbyters also should be compassionate, merciful to all, turning back those who have gone astray (epistrephontes; cf. Jas 5:20), caring (episkeptomai) for all who are sick, not neglecting the widow, the orphan, or the poor" (Ehrman 2003, 1:340–41). See also Christian Tradition 5:14b.
Task of the Overseers (Bishops)
  • Ign. Pol. 4.1 "Do not allow the widows to be neglected (ameleô). After the Lord, it is you (i.e., Polycarp, bishop [episkopos] of the church of the Smyrneans) who must be mindful (phrontistês) of them" (Ehrman 2003, 1:314–15).
  • Apos. Con. 2.4.2: the bishop is to discern if a widow deserves the assisstance of the church or not (cf. Didasc. 4 [Vööbus 1979, 1:46; Dunlop 1903, 1:55]).
  • Apos. Con. 2.25.2: the bishop is to distribute tithes and free-will offerings for the poor: orphans, widows, the afflicted, and strangers (cf. Didasc. 8 [Vööbus 1979, 1:90; Gibson 1903, 1:94]).
Task of the Deacons and Deaconesses
  • Can. Hipp. 5.
  • Test. Dom. 1.34: The deacon should be one "who helps the widows, who is the father of the orphans" (Cooper and Maclean 1902, 98; Rahmani 1899, 80).
  • Dor. Conf. 9: "Honarable older widows," ordained as deaconesses, should assist the deacons in visiting and caring for the poor, sick, and needy, including orphans and widows (referencing 1Tm 5:9; Rom 16:1, and Jas 1:27; CCFCT 2:779; Brüsewitz and Krebber 1983, 48).
Task of the Whole Congregation

Didasc. 17: If a church member does not have his own children, he should adopt Christian orphans (Vööbus 1979, 2:160; Gibson 1903, 1:176).

The Office of the Widows

Several texts, including church orders, indicate that the office of widows was a specific ministry of the early Church. The precise duties of these women is unclear, but included a devotion to prayer and providing aid to those in need, particularly women.

Imitating God's Mercy and Compassion

  • Ps.-Andreas Catena ad loc. (attr. to Chrysostom): "We can become more like God by showing mercy and being compassionate…'Be mericiful as your Father who is in heaven' (cf. Lk 6:36): this is the work (ergon) of God. If you do not have this, what do you have? 'I desire mercy,' he says, 'and not sacrifice'" (Hos 6:6; Cramer 1844, 8:9).
  • Erasmus Iac. Par. ad loc. "Pure and spotless religion consists in being both compassionate and kind towards our neighbor in the same way we have experienced God's compassion (misericordia) and kindness (beneficentia) towards ourselves. We behave in this way not from some expectation that a charitable act will be reciprocated, but from a pure and sincere love as we wait for the reward of our charity from no other source than from God" (Bateman 1993, 146; Bateman 1997, 132).

The Corporal Works of Mercy

  • Bede Ep. cath. "For when he orders us to 'visit orphans and widows in their tribulation' he implies (insinuat) all the things we ought mercifully to do for our neighbor" (Hurst 1985, 21; Hurst 1983, 192–93).
  • Grotius Annot. Jac. ad loc. "From the species the genus is to be understood (ex specie genus intelligitur; 17); see also Aquinas ST 2-2.187.2.
  • Lapide Comm. ad loc., citing  Hos 6:6 ("I desire mercy and not sacrifice") comments, "Thus the one showing mercy in visiting orphans and widows is like a priest (sacerdos), the victim is mercy, the sacrifice is his giving itself (ipsa eius donatio), on the altar (altare) is the the orphan and widow" (20:93).

Connection with Jesus' Parable of the Sheep and Goats

Commentators often connect this passage with Jesus' parable on the sheep and the goats (Mt 25:31–46).

  • Bede Ep. cath. ad loc. "How much this avails (quod quantum valeat) at the very time of judgment will be manifested when the judge comes to say, 'As long as you did it for one of the least of these my brothers, you did it for me''" (Mt 25:40; Hurst 1985, 21; Hurst 1983, 193). Cf. Gloss. Ord. ad loc. (cols. 1273–74).
  • Grotius Annot. Jac. points out that both James and Jesus' parable use the word "watch over" (episkeptomai) those who are in need; (see Mt 25:36; 43).
  • Laus. Cov. 9.

A Call for Christian Action

  • Laus. Cov. 9 "All of us are shocked by the poverty of millions and disturbed by the injustices which cause it. Those of us who live in affluent circumstances accept our duty to develop a simple lifestyle in order to contribute more generously to both relief and evangelism" (CCFCT 3:758). The statement references this passage and Jas 2:1–9.

27c keep oneself unstained from the world How Does One Keep Onself Unstained from the World? Lapide Comm. suggests the following ways of keeping oneself unstained from "the world" (defined as sinful values of a fallen world):

  • the fear of God as judge; citing Ps 119:120 (G-Ps 118:120): "My flesh shudders with dread of you; I fear your judgments";
  • subduing one's passions and senses (mortificatio appetituum et sensum);
  • a constant resolution and fortitude against enticements to sin in the world;
  • coming into contact with the things of the world as little as possilble (20:94–95).

Jewish Tradition

27b widows Legal Policies Concerning Widows  The Mishnah spells out specific rights for widows and orphans, especially in relation to the widow's rights to her ketubah—the money and goods given to a couple by either the bride's family (dowry) or the groom or his family at the time of the marriage.

  • m. Ketub. 4.2: If the groom dies while the couple is still betrothed, the ketubah reverts to the father; if the groom dies after the marriage, she has rights to her ketubah.
  • m. Ketub. 4.12: A widow in Galilee and Jerusalem had the right to stay in the family home and live from her husbands' property; in Judea, the husband's family could pay her the value of the ketubah and be under no further obligation to her.
  •  m. Ketub. 11–12: discussion of other rights the widow has in relation to her ketubah.


Literary Devices

26f to look after orphans and widows in their affliction A Central Theme: Concern for the Poor In his definition of "religion," James returns to a central theme of his letter: concern for the poor and vulnerable of society:

  • Jas 1:9: the humble person (closely associated with the poor) is actually exalted;
  • Jas 1:27: true religion is caring for widows and orphans;
  • Jas 2:2–7: christians should not show favoritism to the rich and dishonor the poor in their communities;
  • Jas 2:15–16: true faith is expressed in meeting the needs of those who are poorly dressed and lack daily food;
  • Jas 5:4: the just wages of harvesters have been withheld (→James: Rich and Poor).

26 thinks that he is religious while not bridling his tongue but rather deceiving his heart Emphasis on Correct Knowledge As is typical, James criticizes incorrect knowledge: here an incorrect, self-deceptive understanding of religion; cf. James's criticism of those who deceive themselves (Jas 1:22; →James: Emphasis on Correct Knowledge in James).


Ancient Texts

26b bridling his tongue Greco-Roman Tradition on Brevity of Speech

Brevity in Speech Associated with Wisdom and the Philosophical Life

  • Plutarch Garr. 1 [Mor. 502b]: logos is the remedy (pharmakon) for talkativeness (adoleschia).
  • Diogenes Laërtius Vit. Phil. 1.35 quotes Thales: "Many words do not declare an understanding heart / Seek one sole wisdom / Choose one sole good / For you will check the tongue of chatterers prating without end" (Hicks 1925, 1:36–37).
  • Diogenes Laërtius Vit. Phil. 1.69–70, cites Chilon, who was a man of few words (brachulogos): "Control the tongue (glôttês kratein), especially at a banquet";  "Let not your tongue outrun your thought" (tên glôttan mê protrechein tou nou; Hicks 1925, 1:70–71).
  • Diogenes Laërtius Vit. Phil. 9.7 commends Heraclitus is for his brevity (brachutês).

Brevity in Speech and Strength of Character

Brevity in speech is associated with strength of character; talkativeness with weakness and lack of self-control.

  • Demetrius Eloc. 7: Short clauses have "a greater force and vehemence when a lot of meaning is packed into a few words. So it is because of this forcefulness (deinotêtos) that the Spartans are brief in speech (brachulogoi)…Old men too speak at length, because they are weak" (dia tên astheneian; Innes and Roberts 1995, 348–49).
  • Plutarch Garr. 17 [Mor. 510e–511a] notes that short and pithy speeches are more admired than long, uncontrolled discourses, giving the speech of the Spartans as an example.

The Literary Tradition of Collecting Brief Wise Sayings

The Greek literary tradition was fond of collecting brief sayings or anecdotes to express the wisdom of various sages. The literary forms included (see, e.g., Hermogenes Progym. 3–4):

  • the maxim (gnômê): a saying, often unattributed;
  • the chreia: an attributed saying, often accompanied by a contextual action (Kennedy 2003, 76–78; Rabe 1913, 6–11);
  • the aphorism (aphorismos): a more general term for a brief saying, usually attributed to an individual.

Divine Wisdom and Brevity of Speech

Even the oracles of the gods were characterized by brevity of speech. This was especially true of the famed oracle of Pythian Apollo at Delphi:

See also Literary Devices 1:26b; Ancient Texts 1:19c; Literary Devices 3:2–3; →James: Speech in James.


Comparison of Versions

27b look after Literal sense of visiting in S and V The translations of V and S emphasize the literal sense of visiting orphans and widows (Vocabulary 1:27b: V = visitare; S = s‘r):

  • S and V use the same words, respectively, at Mt 25:43: "sick and in prison and you did not visit me."

Visual Arts

1:1–5:20 James Depictions of the Author Depictions of James, the author of the epistle, in paintings, statues, manuscript illustrations, engravings, woodcuts, and embroidery on liturgical vestments are particularly prominent in the Middle Ages. A common consensus of the artists is that the author of the epistle is James the Just, leader of the Jerusalem church; he is typically further identified with James, son of Alphaeus, one of Jesus' Twelve (Mk 3:18), and "James the Less" (Mk 15:40). The iconography of James draws particularly on accounts of James recorded in Eusebius of Cesarea Hist. eccl. 23 and Jerome Vir. ill. 2, who in turn draw on accounts from Clement of Alexandria and Hegesipus. See also →James: Introduction

Several prominent features of these portrayals may be noted:

  • Following the tradition that he was the first bishop of Jerusalem, James is often portrayed anachronistically in bishop's vestments.
  • James is often portrayed holding a fuller's club, alluding to the tradition that James was beaten to death with a such a club. Variations show him holding different types of clubs. Another related tradition shows James holding a bow such as one used by hat-makers of the Middle Ages.
  • James bears a striking physical resemblance to his brother Jesus.
  • One artistic tradition, based on accounts found in the preface to the Gloss. Ord. and de Voragine Leg. aur., portrays the infant James as part of a large extended family. According to this legend, St. Anne, mother of the Virgin Mary, had three children named Mary with three different husbands. James and his brothers Joses (Joseph), Simon, and Jude (cf. Mk 6:3) are the sons of Mary (daughter of Anne and Cleophas; cf. Jn 19:25) and Alphaeus (cf. Mk 3:18). James and his brothers are thus cousins of Jesus (son of Mary, daughter of Anne and Joachim) and of St. John the Evangelist and James the Greater (sons of Mary, daughter of Anne and Salomas).

The following images are noteworthy:

  • A painting of James in the Armenian Sts. James Cathedral, Jerusalem: James is dressed in episcopal robes, wears a miter and holds a crozier (Gowler 2014, 54).
  • Blessed James Apostle. In the Stav. Bib. (1093-97) illuminations of the apostle James are at the introduction to the Catholic epistles (f. 197 r→) and at the beginning of his epistle (f. 197 v→.). The apostle stands, holding a book.
  • Apostle James the Less, statue, south portal of Chartres Cathedral, early 13th century.

Anonymous, James Among Other Apostles (sculpture on limestone, early 13th c.),  South Portal, Chartres Cathedral, France

© D.R. Photo Mary Ann Sullivan→ 

James holds a club.

  • Leonardo da Vinci (1495-98), The Last Supper, Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan. 

Giampietrino (1495–1549), The Last Supper (oil on canvas, ca. 1520, after Leonardo da Vinci [1452–1519], The Last Supper [1495-1498]),  298 cm x 770 cm

Royal Academy of Arts, London, exhib. Magdalen College, Oxford

Public Domain © Wikicommons→ 

James, who resembles his brother Jesus, is second from his left. This full-scale copy was the main source for the— unfortunate—twenty-year restoration of the original (1978–1998). It includes several lost details such as Christ's feet, the transparent glass decanters on the table, and the floral motifs of the tapestries that decorate the room's interior.  It was first mentioned in 1626 by the author Bartolomeo Sanese as hanging in the Certosa di Pavia, a monastery near Pavia, Italy, but it is unlikely that it was intended for this location. At some point, the upper third of the picture was cut off, and the width was reduced. Giampietrino is thought to have worked closely with Leonardo when he was in Milan. A very fine, full-size copy of this painting, before it was cut down, is installed at Tongerlo Abbey in Westerlo, near Antwerp, Belgium. 

  • Lucas Cranach the Elder (1509), Infant Saint James among his relations, a triptych in the Stadelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt, Germany. The infant Jesus, his mother Mary, and Mary's mother St. Anne are portrayed in the center. To the right is St. Anne's other daughter Mary, her husband Zebedee, and sons John the Evangelist and James the Greater. To the left is another of St. Anne's daughters named Mary with her husband Alphaeus; their children James, Joses (Joseph), Simon, and Jude are in the left and center panels.

Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553), The Holy Kinship, (mixed media on lime, Wittenberg, 1509), Altarpiece, central panel: 100.4 × 121.1 cm; wings: 40 × 120 cm

Städel Museum — 1398, Frankfurt am Main

Public Domain © Wikicommons→

The side and central panels describe a a great hall with blue grey walls and three-colored tiles. In the side panels are depicted the half sisters of Virgin Mary, called after their fathers Mary Cleophas (left) and Mary Salome (right) together with their husbands.

Left panel: St. Mary Cleophas and Alphaeus (with the features of Friedrich the Wise with their two sons, the Apostles St. James the Less (at her breast) and Joseph Justus, called St. Barnabas, as annunciator of the Gospel of Matthew depicted with a book.

Central panel: Joseph, who seems to seems to sleep, the Virgin, dressed in blue with yellow lining, Anna and the Christ Child on her knee, who is stretching out his hand towards an apple given to him by Virgin Mary. Anna's three husbands following de Voragine Leg. aur. are shown in the background in the matroneum: on the left Joachim, who is attracted by the holy women in front of him and whose relation is also shown by the corresponding blue and yellow color of his dress, Cleophas (with the physiognomy and chain of Emperor Maximilian I and Salomas, with the physiognomy of Sixtus Oelhafen von Schöllenbach, secretary of Friedrich III, Maximilian I and Karl V), who are talking to each other. There is an architectural structure by a great stone bench in the foreground of the central panel with two marble columns on the sides, over which is strectched a cloth of gold. On the right column is a tablet with date and signature: [LVCAS CHRONVS FACIEBAT ANNO 1509. The parapet of the matroneum is decorated by a sculptured frieze with dancing putti holding six escutcheons with the six fields of Electorate of Saxony. In the hall are shown the 17 members of the Holy Kinship. In the central panel are shown two more children of Mary Cleophas and Alpheus, the Apostles Simon, patron saint of weavers, dyers, tanners and saddlers and Jude, who went on mission and suffered their martyrdom together and therefore are regularly depicted together.

Right panel: St. Mary Salome and Zebedee (with the features of Frederick III, Elector of Saxony, and his brother Herzog Johann der Beständige). St. Mary Salome, dressed in gold with dark red lining, is combing her son Saint James the Greater and while Saint John the Evangelist is hiding in her dress.

  • Paolo Veronese (Caliari) James as Bishop (1500s). Burghley House Collection, Lincolnshire, UK. The Bridgeman Art Library. James with crozier and miter, holding a book.

Paolo Veronese Cagliari (1528-1888), Saint James, (oil on canvas, ca. 1578), 200 X 85 cm, One of the volets of the organ of the church of San Jacopo, Murano, Venice — the other is a portrait of St. Augustine.

Burghley House Collection, Lincolnshire, UK, © A Graduate of Pomona→

  • Saint James the Less, painting by El Greco (c. 1612), Museo del Greco, Toledo, Spain. 

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El Greco (Domenikos Theotokópoulos) 1541-1614, The Apostle James the Greater, (Oil on canvas, 1610-1614), 100 cm X 80 cm

 Museo de El Greco→ (Toledo, Spain), © Wikicommons, 

James is shown holding a Bible, symbolizing his status as a scriptural writer, in one hand. James is depicted in the Mannerist style with elongated form and without any of the traditional iconographic symbols

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Nicolò Bambini (1651-1736), San Giacomo Minore (Oil on canvas, 1722-1723), Communion of St James (Series of the Twelve Apostles), Presbytery: right wall, center, Saint Stae,Venezia, © Chorus Venezia→ 

The risen Jesus appears to James and breaks bread with him (based on an account recorded in Jerome Vir. ill. 2, said to be drawn from the Gospel according to the Hebrews).

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Angelo de' Rossi (1671 – 1715), Jacobus Minor (Sculpture on marble, 1710-1711), Gli Apostoli, (h: 424 cm), Nef, San Giovanni in Laterano, Roma, © Wikicommons

James holds a book and club.

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James Tissot (French, 1836-1902), James the Lesser, (Opaque watercolor over graphite on gray wove paper, 1886-1894), 30.6 x 23.5 cm, Brooklyn Museum, 00.159.237, © Brooklyn Museum photograph, 2008

James, resembling Jesus, prayers on his knees with outstretched arms. It perhaps reflects Hegesippus' statement that James spent so much time in prayer that his knees were as hard as a camel's.

Eastern Orthodox traditions

  • James the Just, Russian icon, 16th century. Novgorod. James is depicted in episcopal robes and holds a book.

Anonymous, James the Just, (pigments on wood, mid. 16th c.), icon, Novgorod or Moskow, Novgorod

Public Domain © Wikicommons→,

The inscription bearing the name of the saint has disappeared, but the iconography—facial features and beard shape —suggest that the icon is of James. Byzantine art places him among the founding fathers of the Church. As the creator of the first liturgy containing memorial services and the author of the message, which speaks of the healing power of prayer (Jas 5:14-16), he was also worshipped in ancient times as a healer. In Novgorod, James is prayed for the end of the epidemics. In sacred iconography, the representations of James of Jerusalem alone are very rare. We know the icons of Novgorod in which he is represented with other saints: Nicholas the Thaumaturgist, James the brother of God, Ignatius the bearer of God, end of the 15th c.; James the brother of God, Cosmas and Damian, 2nd quarter of the 16th c. The icon comes from the best workshops in Moscow or Novgorod.

  • Martyrdom of James the Just. Illustration from the Menologion of Basil II. (PG 117:6-612). Late 10th, early 11th c. AD. Vatican Library. 1613. Image 131.→  

For discussion of visual depictions, see Gowler 2014, 53-62; Bedford 1911.


Biblical Intertextuality

27b orphans and widows Touchstone of Communitarian Ethics

Old Testament

Concern for Widows and Orphans

The OT often singles out the widow (Hebrew: ’lmnh; Greek: chêra) and the orphan (Hebrew: ytwm; Greek: orphanos), often together with the "resident alien" (Hebrew: gēr; Greek: prosêlutos) for special concern.

Laws of the Torah to Protect Widows and Orphans
  • Dt 14:29; 26:12–13: orphans and widows are to be given part of the tithe every third year for their support.
  • Dt 24:19–21: Gleanings of harvests are to be left for widows and orphans (cf Ru 2).
  • Dt 16:11: widows and orphans are to take part in Israel's festivals.
Legal Rights of Widows and Orphans to be Respected
  • Ex 22:21 "You shall not wrong any widow or orphan."
  • Dt 24:17: "You shall not deprive the resident alien or the orphan of justice, nor take the clothing of a widow as pledge."
  • Zec 7:10: "Do not oppress the widow or the orphan, the resident alien or the poor."
  • Prv 23:10: "Do not remove the ancient landmark, nor invade the fields of the fatherless."
God Will Establish Justice for the Poor
  • Dt 10:18: [The Lord] "who executes justice (Hebrew: mšpṭ; Greek: krisis)  for the orphan and the widow."
  • Mal 3:5: "I will draw near to you for judgment (mšpṭ; krisis), and I will be swift to bear witness…against those who oppress the hireling in his wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.”
  • Is 1:17:  "Make justice (mšpṭ; krisis) your aim: redress the wronged, hear the orphan's plea, defend the widow."
  • Is 1:23: "Your princes are rebels and comrades of thieves…The fatherless they do not defend, the widow's plea does not reach them."

New Testament

Jesus and Widows

Jesus' teaching referred to the plight of widows, criticizing injustice against them (see also Mk 12:41–44).

  • Mk 12:40: Jesus criticizes the scribes, "They devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext, recite lengthy prayers." This saying may allude to scribes charging exorbitant legal fees to represent the legal cases of widows.
  • Lk 18:2–5: Jesus' parable uses the persistence of a widow seeking justice to encourage persistence in prayer.
Care of Widows in the Early Jerusalem Community
  • Acts 6:1–2: The first Jerusalem church provided food assistance to widows; the apostles appointed certain men to oversee this ministry.
Widows as a Group Dedicated to Service in the Church

Widows, particularly elderly widows, were associated with an office of service in the early church.

  • 1Tm 5:3–16 distinguishes between "true widows" (elderly widows who care for the needs of others) and younger widows, for whom the author recommends remarriage. 

See further Christian Tradition 1:27b.