Widows in the Bible, 3: the Gospels and Acts
The New Testament repeats the Old Testament concern for needy widows. Jesus condemned scribes who “devour the houses of widows” (Mark 12:40), lamented upon seeing a poor widow convinced to give everything she had to live on to the Temple (Mark 12:38-44), and resuscitated the only son of the widow of Nain (Luke 7:11-17). The Letter of James exhorts, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction (1:27).”
We also read the parable of the “feisty”/persistent widow and the unrighteous judge (Luke 18:2-5). For the community to relate to the widow, they would have known of such widows who knew her rights and spoke up for them. (One can think of Tamar in Genesis.) We must also mention Luke 2:22-38, the presentation of Jesus in the Temple. There we meet Anna, a prophet, who had been married for seven years and then lived as a widow until she was 84. “She never left the temple but worshiped night and day with fasting and prayer. … She gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.” This description of Anna, a Jew, prompts the question, “Was it common for some Jewish widows to lead a life of prayer and fasting?”
Two passages in Acts show the early Christian community’s care for needy widows. In Acts 6:1-6, we read of the complaint of the Greek-speaking Christians that their widows were not getting a fair share of the daily distribution of food. So, the Twelve appointed seven deacons to look after the matter. Comments on this passage most often center on the ordination of the first deacons. However, the situation also depicts the widows being cared for by the community and other Greek-speaking members, probably including their widows, speaking up for their just cause.
In Acts 9:36-4 one reads of the woman Tabitha in Joppa. She is described as a disciple, continuously abounding in good deeds. When Tabitha became ill and died, other disciples sent for Peter in nearby Lydda. When Peter arrived, “all the widows showed him tunics and other clothes” that Tabitha used to make for them. Peter resuscitated Tabitha and called “the saints and widows” and presented her to them alive. One can ask: Was Tabitha a widow? Did she have a group of widows living with her? Was there a distinct group of widows in the Christian community in Joppa? The first two questions can be answered; Maybe. Tabitha does not have a husband’s name added to her description, so she might have been a widow herself; the text does not say the widows were living with Tabitha, but they were right there. However, the wording “the saints and widows” allows one to say, Yes, the “widows” were a distinct group.
All of the above comments serve as background and prepare one for the fuller description of Christian widows found in 1 Timothy, a pastoral letter intended a leader of Jewish and Greek Christians in Ephesus. Stay tuned.