Review of Reta Halteman Finger, Of Widows and Meals: Communal Meals in the Book of Acts

[1] As the director of hunger education for ELCA World Hunger and a student of the Bible, I am always looking for books and resources that blend good history and theology with contemporary application. Reta Halteman Finger’s 2007 book, Of Widows and Meals: Communal Meals in the Book of Acts, in many ways succeeds in doing just that. Professor Finger, recently retired from Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania, ably explores the biblical texts and their original social context with honest reflections about her own personal experience and our contemporary situation.

[2] Of Widows and Meals is first and foremost an exegetical endeavor. Finger’s book offers a corrective to modern academic treatments of the communal meals described in Acts 2:42–47 and the subsequent conflict between the Hellenists and the Hebrews regarding the widows’ diakonia (Acts 5:42–6:6). Finger maintains that the practice of commensality (which she uses in the technical sense of the term, the sharing of meals) is not an idealized Lukan creation but that the early Christian communities continued Review of Reta Halteman Finger, Of Widows and Meals: Communal Meals in the Book of Acts by David CreechJesus’ practice of shared meals that, contrary to other contemporaneous pagan and Jewish meals, were open to all, regardless of class or position. She further argues that the dispute about the diakonia of the widows did not necessarily refer to the needs of impoverished women but to their ability to participate fully in the community. I will have more to say about both of these points below.

[3] Finger’s argument is organized into four parts. The first section explores the history of interpretation and offers a critique of traditional understandings of commensality in Acts. The second section explores the broader cultural milieu of Acts, with particular attention given to life on the ground in first-century Jerusalem. Finger relies heavily on social scientific methods and models to paint a picture of everyday life in Roman Judea. The third section (which I found to be the most enlightening) continues to describe the social situation with a particular focus on meals and commensality. The fourth and final section is a detailed exegesis of Acts 2:42–47 and Acts 5:42–6:6. Finger concludes the book with a reflection on what this study may mean for contemporary Christian meal practices, both sacred and mundane.

[4] Part I. Chapter 1 outlines the basic method and identifies the basic presuppositions underscoring the study. Finger follows many feminist and liberation exegetes in affirming the vital role the interpreter plays in creating meaning from texts. Finger acknowledges the role that her own background in a working-class Mennonite family has played in her interpretive predilections. Based on this experience, Finger identifies two key perspectives that inform her exegesis: poverty and gender. In short, Finger aims to read the text through the eyes of those who are poor and through the eyes of women. In chapter 2, beginning with pre-Reformation understandings and continuing to contemporary exegesis, Finger critiques centuries of interpretations that do not allow for the possibility of commensality in the early church. Finger shows that these “(mis)interpretations” are often due to “the economic, political, or theological interests of an interpreter” that make the concept of shared goods within a community impractical (13). In this chapter she spends some time with the reformers, and takes a particularly severe view of Martin Luther. Chapter 3 explores common understandings of the development of the Eucharist. Against those who see the communal meals depicted in the New Testament as distinct from the so-called “Last Supper” described in the Gospels and 1 Corinthians, Finger (rightly, I think) maintains that the communal meal evolved into the contemporary Eucharistic practice of a highly ritualized taste of bread and wine. In this chapter she sees descriptions of the communal meal in several texts (I have the impression that she would argue that virtually any text that mentions agape could possibly refer to the Eucharist), and argues that the “love feast” was a regular part of Christian practice in the early decades of the movement. Chapter 4 (cleverly titled, “Meals on Wheels for the Widows?”) begins the discussion of the widows and introduces the possibility that the widows described in Acts 6 were not poor and the dispute was not about poor relief.

[5] Part II. Chapter 5 uses social scientific models to describe the contours of agrarian life in the Roman Empire. She describes the intense social stratification in which the vast majority (90–95%) of the people would have been landless peasants engaged in industries such as fishing, farming, crafts, and resource extraction (100). Most of the followers of Jesus would have been poor. This point is debatable — we have evidence of wealthy patrons (e.g., Theophilus, Luke’s patron; the wealthy women who tended to Jesus in Luke 8:2–3; the many powerful people listed in Romans 16). Chapter 6 narrows the focus to Jerusalem and the geographic peculiarities that would have impacted the social structures therein. In this chapter Finger uses several disciplines to underscore the argument that the Jerusalem community would have been both producers and consumers and that the growth of the community could have been as rapid as suggested in the book of Acts.

[6] This brings up a broader critique of the book — Finger in general wants to prove the historicity of the book of Acts. The practice of sharing meals or the numbers of believers gathered together or the numbers added after a given sermon are all seen as historical fact. She seems to think that historical accuracy will help validate the general picture she wants to paint of the early churches’ commensality. The logic appears to be what was done in history is more theologically or ethically valid. Setting aside the question of whether or not Luke is a reliable historical witness (one’s position on this issue is usually dependent upon preconceived theological commitments), historically accurate is not the same thing as theologically true. It is possible for an entirely fictional story to communicate truth (Jesus’ parables are an obvious example). I think Finger’s book would have been enhanced if she had not so often taken detours to show why any given detail from Luke’s account is historically plausible.

[7] Chapter 7 explores social relations and community values of ancient peasants. In this chapter Finger makes several noteworthy points. She highlights the system of patronage that pervaded ancient society and the ways in which honor and shame governed many relationships. In this society, kinship is key for the security of those who are poor, and fictive kin, such as we see in the New Testament, would be especially important for transient communities living in urban areas. Chapter 8 looks at the Essenes as a model for the early Christian practices of sharing possessions and commensality. This chapter briefly summarizes the broad scholarly consensus on the Essenes and their relationship to the Dead Sea Scrolls — a consensus that is not universal, but the minority position is not mentioned in the book — before suggesting that the Essenes may have been a model that the early believers looked to in their formation of an eschatological community. I find this connection tenuous, as it is unclear just how widespread and popular the Essene movement was (if there really was one) and there really is no evidence of Christian interactions with Essenes in any ancient texts. The intriguing parallels between the Essenes and the early Christian movement are just that — intriguing parallels.

[8] Part III. The third section continues with the social background of Acts 2 and 6, now focused on meals and eating practices. Chapter 9 explores commensality in the ancient world. Finger discusses ancient meals that were highly ritualized and symbolic. With whom one ate and where one sat while eating communicated one’s social standing. In chapter 10, Finger explains how Jesus, in a rather revolutionary move, broke down those barriers and ate with whomever. In this chapter Finger points out the significance of Jesus’ commensality and how this would have led to the early community of believers sharing meals in a similar way. Here again she gets sidetracked on the historicity of Jesus’ meal practices but her points are well taken. Chapter 11 looks at the roles of women, especially widows, in preparing meals. The kitchen was a place where women held power, and where the widows could have been much more than “old, poor, lonely women sitting helplessly.” (214)

[9] Part IV. The final section of the book applies the cultural insights gleaned from the first three parts to a detailed exegesis of Acts 2:41–47 and 5:42–6:6. The chapters are detailed, line by line commentaries that interact heavily with the Greek text. The points raised in the earlier chapters are underscored, and sometimes further reinforced. The reading is not easy (as is typical in the commentary genre), and the bulk of the insights have already been shared in her discussion of the social background. The final chapter of the section summarizes the key points and asks a few relevant contemporary questions.

[10] Of Widows and Meals has much to commend to it. The book is clear in its aims, well organized, and well versed in (and interacts heavily with) the secondary literature. The book offers several helpful correctives to contemporary thinking on meals and community life as depicted in Acts. The questions that are asked spurred much thinking in areas somewhat unrelated to the topic of the book. This is a good thing — Finger frames the issues in such a way that contemporary connections are inevitable. I would like to briefly discuss two: 1) common misperceptions of those who are poor and vulnerable; and 2) the significance of meals in communal life.

[11] With respect to the first point, Professor Finger repeatedly stresses that the community in Jerusalem was not simply consumptive or a drain. She argues strenuously against the suggestion that the community faltered (and thus needed assistance from Pauline communities) because they shared possessions. She shows us, with a clear understanding of how the ancient economy functioned, that the community very likely both produced and consumed goods. It was not as if converts joined “the Way” and stopped functioning in daily life. This assumption, commonplace in biblical scholarship (and probably in our Western, individualistic society as a whole), perhaps reveals a bias against people who support one another. Finger’s depiction of the widows works similarly. She provides a thick description of the roles that widows played and the ways in which they contributed to society.

[12] In our contemporary context, very often a similar perspective is taken with regards to those who are poor and vulnerable, and dependent to a certain extent on outside (usually financial) support. It is assumed that if we give, those who are poor will simply consume and continue to be poor. We fail to recognize that they can become (and in many cases already are) producers as well. This is the aim of any good development strategy — to help people get over the initial financial obstacle and to move to self sufficiency and greater productivity.

[13] Finger raises the second point in her conclusion. She acknowledges that the community life described in the book of Acts is not easily replicated in our current contexts. She writes, “Anyone with historical and cultural sensitivity knows that social practices cannot be imported whole from an earlier time and place to our present modern and postmodern societies… Even if this practice [of communal meals] was tried with great effort, the theological meaning of those meals might change or look forced.” (280) Finger goes on to critique current Eucharistic practices that focus on the vertical and neglect the horizontal. If how we eat communicates our theology, what are we communicating? This is an important question, not only with respect to the Eucharist but also to how and with whom we eat our daily meals. The communal meals described in Acts may not be plausible in our day, but can we reclaim some of the theology and ethics inherent in them in our contemporary context? What might that meal look like, and what would it mean for our understanding of those who are poor and vulnerable?

David Creech

David Creech is Assistant Professor of Religion at Concordia College in Moorhead, MN and former Director of Hunger Education for ELCA World Hunger.