Re-definition of the fatherless family in the Early Christian Church
Westbrook, Kathryn Buchanan
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Widows and their fatherless children are commonly perceived to be the most deserving category amongst the poor. The frequent exhortations in the Hebrew Scriptures of the Old Testament clearly and constantly reminded the early Christian Church of the divine expectations God had enjoined upon them in this matter. There appears to be no obstacle, theological or moral, to perceiving them as worthy recipients of Christian charity and pastoral care. Yet the results of this study show that in the early centuries of the church the fatherless family was invisible to its leadership. They were not perceived as needy people deserving support but were regarded as a problem, rather than real human beings. Ambiguous material in the Gospels and in the other writings of the New Testament, where references to them are sparse and sometimes unsympathetic, allowed creativity of interpretation to occur permitting evasion of the giving of straightforward support, and instead facilitated greater management and control by the clergy. Their informal self-organisation and methods of mutual self-help were increasingly eroded. The only extensive study of the support of the fatherless family in Roman society and the Church is the four volume habilitation thesis of Jens-Uwe Krause, Witwen und Waisen im Römischen Reich, published between 1994-1995. This large study deals with the long period 200 BCE – 600 CE diachronically. Apart from the 2009 collection of essays edited by Sabine R. Hübner and David M. Ratzan. Growing up Fatherless in Antiquity, which deals mainly with elite, political, and literary figures rather than the poor, little else has been written on the fatherless child in antiquity. The issue of whether 1 Timothy 5:3-16 and similar later material are referring to an ‘Order’ of widows, typified by Bonnie Thurston’s 1989 book, The Widows: A Women's Ministry in the Early Church, has proved a major diversion. Recent work by Steven Friesen and Bruce Longenecker reinforce the conception of the composition of the early church as being primarily that of the poor. My focus is on the neglected area of pastoral care of the poor fatherless family within the earliest church, concentrating on the first 300 years CE. The existence of the poor fatherless family created financial, social and moral difficulties for the church leadership, which forced them to devise novel ways to deal with the duties encumbering them. How could they control these sexually experienced, but vulnerable and dependent, women with their young children? One way was to re-define them as something else. The first method, and the most successful, was to split them up into two distinct groups, old people and full orphans, each requiring a different approach. Another strategy was to make widows represent someone or something other than themselves. Their alter egos will be shown to be human, literary or theological. The third trend observed was an effort towards extinguishing the voice of women. If women and fatherless children were to epitomise something else other than themselves, then their own self-perceived reality had to be kept well hidden. They could not be allowed to speak or socialise. If they did speak their words had to be rendered unheard or to be of no effect. Finally, the young fatherless children of widows have no voice and consequently have been rendered invisible. They do not appear in the Gospels. In the rest of the New Testament and the writings of the early church fathers, they receive little more than a cursory mention as part of a literary trope, or are transformed into barely mentioned full orphans.