Fasting, Bodily Care, and the Widows of 1 Timothy 5:3–15

Abraham Malherbe in his essay, “Medical Imagery in the Pastoral Epistles,” argued that medical terminology was used polemically to describe the heretics or opponents. In relation to 1 Timothy, the opponent’s teaching is described as “diseased” and their minds “are corrupt…[and the opponent’s] diseased condition is exhibited in their demeanor, in their preoccupation with controversies, verbal battles, and wranglings (1 Tim 6:4–5).” In this paper Malherbe’s identification of this medical schema is the starting point to explore the connections between the opponents commands not to marry and abstain from foods (1 Tim 4: 2-3) with the instruction to younger widows to marry in 1 Timothy 5: 3–15. This exploration will begin by first noting some structural elements in the letter, then will define the word didaskalia (1 Tim 4:1) to be clear on what type of teaching the opponents are doing and how this might sear their consciences. It is this searing which enables them to abandon the faith and pay attention to spirits and demons. The imagery of the seared conscience appears to be medically inspired and this suggests a link between the “other instruction” (didaskalia), fasting, sexual continence, and ancient medical advice about care for the body. Ancient medical advice on health focused on balancing the humors within the body. The excess of some humors was believed to be the underlying cause of sexual desire. Expelling the excess sperm, a humor, was seen to bring the body back into balance, restoring health. However, since the humors were generated by nutrition it was possible to a certain extent to regulate sexual desire through diet. From the evidence of Tertullian it appears that Christians utilised this theory in an attempt to balance the humors and therefore remain healthy while being sexually continent. It will therefore be argued that the command of the opponents, which forbid marriage and fasting, relates directly to the instructions to the young widows to marry in 1 Timothy 5:3-15. Drawing on the work of Methuen (1997), who argued that the term widow (chera) could overlap with the idea of an unmarried women, it will be argued that the young woman in 1 Timothy 5:11 is a virgin rather than a woman whose husband had died. Founding his instructions on the current medical advice, the writer of 1 Timothy is pessimistic about young women keeping their vows of celibacy (1 Tim 5:12) and is thus opposed to the them entering into the order of widows (1 Tim 5:11).