Of Widows and Meals: Communal Meals in the Book of Acts.
Reta Halteman Finger, colleague from the West Side of Chicago (Circle Urban Ministries and LaSalle Street Church), and Assistant Professor of New Testament at Messiah College, has penned a significant study on common meals in the early church, specifically as found in the Book of Acts. While she deals extensively with the history of interpretation and the sociohistorical background, her major contribution is an exegetical study of the Greek texts found in Acts 2:41-47 and 5:42-6:6.
In regards to contemporary interpretation of Acts 2:41-47 and its parallel 4:32-37, hardly any author would conclude that the Jerusalem Christians actually had all possessions in common and ate a common meal every day. The reasons for doubting the historicity of the meals lie primarily in the present context of the critic. Churches closely connected with the State can hardly be expected to affirm a communal meal for an entire nation. So scholars assume Luke used the meals to describe a utopian existence that at best implied sharing with the poor, that is, giving alms. Speaking sociohistorically, post-Reformation exegetes lacked, or overlooked, data that could have altered their opinion. Because of their own culture, perhaps, they had assumed there were many wealthy or middle-class Jerusalemites who could have shared with the poor. In fact, most Jerusalem people barely lived at a subsistence level, so that sharing was not a sacrifice but a necessity. Prior to Jesus, in many Palestinian towns communal groups already existed. According to Philo and Josephus small groups of Essenes had formed communal groups in which goods were shared, while members worked for wages or paid a group tax. One should assume that the Jesus group knew the local Essenes and formed a similar commune. In her exegesis of Acts 2:41-47, Finger indeed concludes that the Jerusalem church formed such a community of goods.
Acts 5:42-6:6 creates quite a different set of issues. To be sure, it reflects a communal meal in the Jerusalem church; however, it appears to support the modern view that these meals were for the poor, that is, almsgiving. The apparent poor in the text were the Hellenistic women who were neglected in the distribution of food (6:1). To counteract this nearly unanimous perception, Finger does a sociohistorical redefinition of diakonia. Diakonia can refer to service received or service done. A major honorable role for women in the Hellenistic world was to serve. In this passage widows were being deprived of their role as servers (6:1). Strangely enough, it would appear the apostles had taken over the female food distribution function (6:2-4) and now were willing to give up the serving role in order to preach the Word. As a result of this decision they neither served as Jesus did (Luke 22:27) nor preached the Word as they felt called (p. 266).
Finger's interpretation of 5:42-6:6 makes the three texts agree that meals were communal, not a service to the poor. While she cannot determine how long such meals continued, though Didache 4:8 and Barnabas 19:8 imply communal meals, in later history some of our foreparents like the Hutterites (and the modern Bruderhof) did return to the New Testament community of goods and common meals. Finger describes some other modern religious communities, such as the Catholic Worker movement, that stress the commonality of meal. Her major final point is that, as in Acts, communal meals today create and celebrate the unity of the Jesus group.
This is a stimulating and insightful study. Finger makes it convincing that the first Christians did own things in common and did eat at a communal table. She also makes it convincing that women played a prominent role in that common life. Her sociohistorical analysis of the two meal texts offers us insights not easily available from theological or literary readings of the text.
Graydon F. Snyder
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|Author:||Snyder, Graydon F.|
|Publication:||Currents in Theology and Mission|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Feb 1, 2008|
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