Generally, murmuring, the biblical term for complaining or dissenting, appears to be one of those actions that does not seem to bring about something positive. But that is not always the case. Murmuring can bring about transformation such as that related in the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 6. The grumbling of the Hellenists concerning the unfair treatment of their widows, “neglected in the daily distribution of food,” gives a new perspective on the power of murmuring. (The Hellenists were a Greek-speaking group of Jews living in Jerusalem and practicing different customs.) This seemingly innocuous reference to widows has a consequence of immense significance in the Christian movement.
In the Scripture, widows more often than not were cast as helpless. But rereading this passage of Acts from the perspective of the Good News for the poor allows one to see the action of the Spirit in lowly situations. The action of the Spirit, transformed in these supposedly passive members of the primitive church, moved the story of the Christ-event forward and outside its Jewish enclave. Again the unusual power of women in shaping the Jesus movement continues to unfold as we pay closer attention to issues of gender in this passage.
Inquiry into gender relations over the last several decades continues to offer new perspectives on the ways women and men help shape society. Indeed, gender discourse continues to unravel the many salient ways women helped create history and have continued to do so regardless of social status, that is, whether they are single, married, celibate or widowed. As my undergraduate students and I recently investigated the role of women in the spread of the Jesus movement in Acts, one group of women stood out – the Hellenist widows. It led us to look at what impact an insignificant group, a gathering of unnamed women, could make within the movement.
Widows and widowhood practices have continued to generate much discussion in Nigeria for some time now, but that discussion belongs elsewhere. I must, however, mention that widowhood, whether in Scripture or in many African cultures, is a painful state. Even among Christians, widowhood remains a bitter bill to swallow. Society tends to relegate widows, particularly those with younger children, to the shadows of life. This woman, who should otherwise receive care as prescribed by the Covenant Code in the Hebrew Scripture, is literally in lockdown. The death of a spouse, most especially in the case a husband, can be steeped in controversy, with the wife at the center. But the interest here is the widow in nascent Christianity and her positive impact within the group.
A contextual reading of Scripture brings the text closer to the students’ experience. Students familiar with the writings of Nigerian novelist, poet and playwright, Ben Okri, were thrilled to discover that Hellenist widows, those only talked about, fitted well into Okri’s ideas of power. For Okri, there is no such
a thing as a powerless people (A Way of Being Free). So the idea of a widow being powerless did not appear to hold in this Acts passage. Power can reside in the act of silence.
The students discovered that the mere presence of the Hellenist widows in such an assembly made a significant impression. Added to this was the mode of the daily distribution of food. Another salient point was the concern for the widows by the Christian community. In light of this, neglect became a source of agitation, hence the murmuring. The reported act of neglecting this group of women, persons who have no attachment to patriarchy, stirred unrest. The action inadvertently led to the fundamental change in church structure: the appointment of deacons. (In solving the problem of extra work to cater to the widows, the Twelve asked the community to select from among themselves seven Spirit-filled men of good standing for the work. Note that the Apostles did not presume to appoint leaders for the people. They gave the criteria – “good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” – and allowed the community to select persons so qualified.) Again Okri would call this fundamental institutional shift a miraculous feat that the unvalued ones helped to create. The presence of the widows led to a beautiful new era in church formation. And more is to come.
All this time, the fledgling movement had concentrated in Jerusalem. With the deacons at work, new things began to happen; a new energy was injected into the movement. One thing led to another. Stephen was martyred, and Saul (later Paul) was introduced into the narrative, a bittersweet experience. Fierce persecution drove the church outside Jerusalem. Thus, the neglect of the less fortunate, the widows, and the murmuring it generated, had far-reaching consequence. The voiceless women created new history. For, as Okri writes, “New vision should come from those who suffer most and who love life the most,” in this case, the women.
My students keep discovering more trajectories that fall out of the murmuring. Those who had dispersed because of the persecution went to different parts. We read about Philip going to Samaria to proclaim the Messiah there. But that was not all. Philip encounters an Ethiopian thereafter. For some students, the African angle of the passage was quite revealing. Many were happy to read of a person of African descent, one of their own, in the early part of the unfolding of the Christ-event. The characteristics of the queen of Ethiopia’s official were remarkable; this African did not appear to be a commoner. He was riding a chariot and was literate and in possession of a scroll of the prophet Isaiah. This uncommon traveler had a spiritual encounter with Philip, who helped him better understand a passage in the Scripture. But above all, the Ethiopian requested baptism at the site of a body of water. After his baptism, both he and Philip went their separate ways. Some students believed the Ethiopian is the proto-evangelist of African peoples.
Contemporary gender discourse illuminates the quandary a widow encounters in many parts of the world. Christian widows are not exempt from dehumanization. Sometimes it becomes difficult to truly ascertain the influence of Scripture on religion at the ground level. Recently, however, some parishes in our diocese have seriously taken up the welfare of widows. But a great deal more needs be done from the top. In the story of the Hellenist widows, the church leaders had ears to the ground so they could hear the muttering against unjust situations that had the potential to ruin the fledgling movement. Silence was not an option. The sensitivity of the leadership to the murmuring was key to the transformation that took place in the primitive Christian community.
As the universal church deliberates on marriage and family, the issue of widowhood should also be brought to the table. The joy of the Gospel is felt more when showing concern for persons on the periphery, a domain most widows occupy. Students completed the semester satisfied that women, indeed, even those thought to be at the fringes, played significant roles in the formation of the church from its earliest days.
[Caroline Mbonu is a member of Congregation of the Handmaids of the Holy Child Jesus and holds a doctoral degree from the Graduate Theological Union. She is senior lecturer in the department of Religious and Cultural Studies at University of Port Harcourt, Nigeria.]