Studies in 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus—Lesson 13 (1 Timothy 5:16 and Acts 9:36-43)
by Reta Halteman Finger
I hope you are intrigued by the title of this lesson on 1 Timothy 5:16. This is Part B of Lesson 12 on the problem of too many widows for the churches of Ephesus to support. I never gave much notice to verse 16 before, but now I’m excited to connect it with my previous doctoral dissertation research on widows in the book of Acts.
After our author deals with five different categories of widows in 1 Timothy 5:3-15—how they should behave or who should take care of them—he adds a sixth category that seems redundant. Verse 16 in the NRSV reads, If any believing woman has relatives who are really widows, let her assist them; let the church not be burdened, so that it can assist those who are real widows. Every other translation I have consulted agrees with this meaning, except the literal KJV and the revised 2011 NIV, the latter using “widows in her care.”
This translation has two major problems. First, it is already clear from 5:8 that believers must provide for widowed relatives, especially for those living in the same house (oikeios). If this is true, then why repeat the instruction in verse 16? Second, the original Greek of 5:16 says nothing about relatives. It simply says, “If any believing woman has widows (chēras). . . . ” A woman who “has widows” might be one who has formed an economic collective where widows share life together. Apparently, most contemporary translators cannot imagine a Christian woman setting up a farm or shop where unattached women could help to support each other.
Opinions by experts
Three of the commentaries I am using ignore verse 16 altogether or imply that the widows are relatives. Three others refer briefly to the story of Tabitha (who is also known as Dorcas) in Acts 9:36-43. Benjamin Fiore’s preferred interpretation is that “believing woman” in 1 Timothy 5:16 refers to the mistress of a household “and thus match[es] the admonition to household masters in 5:8. . . . Less likely,” he says, is the option of a woman taking widows under her care as did “Tabitha/Dorcas who supplied clothing for a circle of widows” (pp. 107-8). Annette Huizenga and Jouette Bassler comment more positively about the same story, but neither elaborates further on it (Huizenga, pp.64-65; Bassler, p. 96). Instead, I will elaborate!
The difference a preposition makes
Every commentator I’ve read on the story of Tabitha assumes that she was making clothing for the widows (Acts 9:39). But that is not what the text says. After Tabitha/Dorcas is introduced as a disciple full of good works, we learn that she became ill and died. After ”they” (the widows?) washed and laid her in an upstairs room, local disciples sent for Peter, who was in a nearby town (9:36-38). Peter was taken to Tabitha’s room where “all the widows” showed him the “tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them” (9:39).
That little preposition “with” helps us picture a circle of women who are working together to make clothing not only for themselves but also to sell. The act of “making clothing” in that world was hardly a one-woman job. It implies a labor-intensive industry of turning flax into linen, acquiring and spinning wool, weaving yarn into cloth, and cutting and sewing undergarments like tunics, as well as outer clothing. As widows, these unattached women needed to make a living. Most likely, Tabitha had a house and enough resources to supply the tools of the trade, so the women could work together as an economic collective. That is why her death was so catastrophic for these widows, and why Peter made the effort to walk all the way to her house and pray for her resuscitation.
Economic sharing in community
But as Luke explains in the book of Acts, the idea of a shared “community of goods” did not originate with Tabitha. It began after Pentecost in Jerusalem as Jesus-believers began sharing their possessions and eating together by households each day, so that all would have their needs met (Acts 2:43-47). Moreover, we find groups of widows in Acts 6:1, where tensions had arisen between the Hellenists (Greek-speaking Jews) and Hebrews (Aramaic-speaking Jews) in the “daily diakonia.”
Again, we have a major translation problem. Both the NRSV and the NIV state that the Hellenist widows “were being neglected in the daily distribution of food” (6:1). But the original Greek reads “the daily diakonia.” Diakonia never means “distribution.” It means “service,” and in this context it means “table service” (6:2) and is happening daily (2:46). Rather than imagining that destitute Hellenist widows living in huts complained because of not getting their daily “meals on wheels,” we must square Acts 6:1 with the report of common meals and economic sharing from Acts 2:43-47 and reinforced in 4:32-37. See especially 4:34: “There was not a needy person among them” (which is quoted from Deuteronomy 15:4).
It is more likely that the unattached women of the Jerusalem community were given the task of serving the daily meals, and tensions had arisen among them because of different languages and cultural backgrounds. Perhaps the Hebrew widows were pulling rank over the Hellenists because of the Hebrew women’s past personal relationships with Jesus (as in Luke 8:1-3). Mistranslating diakonia as “distribution” only highlights how modern scholars may too easily read their own capitalist assumptions of wealth and poverty into the shared economy of the first-century Jesus Movement.
The widows’ economic and spiritual community around Tabitha in Joppa demonstrates that variations on the shared economic life after Pentecost persisted beyond Jerusalem. And if we translate 1 Timothy 5:16 accurately—“If any believing woman has widows, let her assist them . . . ,” it provides further evidence that, at least into the early second century, Christian women like Tabitha continued to set up economic cooperatives with other unattached female believers.
Questions for discussion or reflection
- What is your evaluation of my proposal for interpreting 1 Timothy 5:16?
- Are you troubled by mistranslation or misreading of a text? Why or why not?
- Do you know of contemporary Christian economic cooperatives or “intentional communities”? Can they work within our current capitalist economy?
Bassler, Jouette M. 1 Timothy 2 Timothy Titus. Abingdon New Testament Commentaries. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996.
Finger, Reta Halteman. “Not a Needy Person Among Them.” Sojourners, Vol. 45, No. 3 (March 2016): 30-33.
Finger, Reta Halteman. Of Widows and Meals: Communal Meals in the Book of Acts. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007.
Fiore, Benjamin, S. J. The Pastoral Epistles: First Timothy, Second Timothy, Titus. Sacra Pagina. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007.
Huizenga, Annette. 1-2 Timothy Titus. Wisdom Commentary. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2016.