Bible story Tabitha Dorcas widows Acts 9

Watercolour and ink portrait of Tabitha by Sarah Beth Baca.
Used with permission of the artist. All rights reserved.
Prints of this portrait and of other Bible women can be purchased here.

Introducing Tabitha (Acts 9:36)

Many women faithfully followed Jesus during and after his earthly ministry, and can be counted among his disciples.[1] But Tabitha, a Jewess living in the port city of Joppa (modern-day Jaffa, near Tel Aviv), is the only woman in the New Testament who is plainly called a “disciple.”[2] That Luke chose to use this word suggests that she was not only a committed Christian but that “she was a person of some status and importance in the Joppa Christian community.”[3]

Luke, the author of Acts, provides several details surrounding Tabitha’s story but begins with these glowing words.

Now in Joppa there was a certain disciple named Tabitha, which being translated [into Greek] is “Dorcas.” She was full of good works [i.e. benefactions] and of almsgivings [i.e. acts of charity to the poor] which she was [continually] doing. Acts 9:36

Who was this woman who is identified as a disciple and described as a generous supporter of the poor?

Like many women in the New Testament, Tabitha is not mentioned in relation to a man.[4] She seems to have been independent of either a husband or father, and her benefactions and acts of charity are her own (cf. Luke 8:1-3). The scenario that best fits this situation is that she was a relatively wealthy widow.

Furthermore, Tabitha may have been a relatively young widow. There was a high mortality rate in New Testament times, and as husbands were usually considerably older than their wives, it was not unusual for wives to outlive them. But Tabitha’s life was cut short. After an illness that appears to have been short and sudden, she dies.

Laid Out in an Upper Room (Acts 9:37-38)

At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, “Please come to us without delay.” Acts 9:37-38 NRSV

Luke includes the detail that Tabitha’s body was washed and then laid in an upper room. Why does he include this information? Washing the corpse was a usual practice,[5] but laying the body in a room was not. Rather, Jewish people buried their dead soon after death, usually on the same day.

There is an echo in Acts 9:37 to the stories of Elijah and Elisha when they restored the life of two sons who belonged to two prominent women. Luke may be using the literary device of intertextuality by choosing to mention that Tabitha’s corpse, like those of the two sons, was laid in an upper room. In 1 Kings 17:19, Elijah carried the dead son of the widow of Zarapheth to an upper room and laid him on the bed. In 2 Kings 4:21, the Shunammite woman carried her dead boy upstairs and laid him on Elisha’s bed. Both Elijah and Elisha then prayed to God alone in the upper rooms and the sons, future providers, came back to life.

It seems the Christians in Joppa were hopeful that Tabitha would be raised to life. They wanted her back! They had heard that Peter was in Lydda (23 kilometres away), and that through his ministry, Jesus Christ had healed a paralysed man there name Aeneas (Acts 9:34). So the hopeful church sent two men to urge the apostle to come with them to Joppa.

The fact that two men are sent to Peter, to ask for his help, indicates that Tabitha’s death was untimely. The church regarded it as a tragedy. If Tabitha had been elderly, it is hard to envisage that the church would have gone to the trouble to fetch Peter from Lydda; the journey there and back would have taken the two men a minimum of two days. Clearly, Tabitha was a valued and vital member of the community, and Peter is persuaded to come to Joppa.

Tabitha’s Upper Room (Acts 9:39)

So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. Acts 9:39 NRSV

By the time Peter arrives, Tabitha may have been dead for a few days (cf. John 11:39). And he is taken to the upper room (hyperōon) where her body is laid out.[6] Though Luke never states who the room belongs to, it is probably part of Tabitha’s house.

Luke mentions two other upper rooms in Acts, and both of them served as meeting places for Christian congregations. Before Pentecost, Jesus’ disciples met in an upper room (hyperōon) in Jerusalem (Acts 1:12-14). And when Paul was visiting Troas, the church held meetings in an upper room (hyperōon) (Acts 20:7-12). It is possible the church at Joppa met in the upper room at Tabitha’s home.[7]

The room does not seem to have been small. It could hold several people at the very least. In this room, Luke presents a stirring scene of “all the widows” who were weeping and showing Peter the clothes that Tabitha had made. It is difficult to determine if the widows were showing Peter the clothes they were currently wearing or clothes that had been put on display in honour of Tabitha.[8] Whatever the case, this scene is designed to elicit an emotional response from the reader.

Tabitha’s Good Works

Tabitha, who is called Dorcas in verse 39, was probably more than a weaver or seamstress who worked by herself, creating one garment at a time.[9] She may have worked with others, or perhaps she financed and organised others to make the garments. The New Testament mentions the importance of clothing the poor (Luke 3:11; James 2:15-16), and Jesus makes it personal in Matthew 25:35-36, but Tabitha was not just involved in clothing the poor, including poor widows. She was also involved in other unspecified good works and charitable acts, the kinds of deeds that were esteemed and practised by Jews and Christians.[10]

The expression “good works” (agatha erga and kala erga) is found several times in the New Testament.[11] And, as well as the reference to Tabitha in Acts 9:36, the expression is used occasionally in the context of wealthy women (Matt. 26:10//Mark 14:6; 1 Tim. 2:10). In 1 Timothy 5:10, a few specifics are given concerning the good works of women who were eligible to be enrolled as widows in the church at Ephesus.[12]

. . . having a reputation for good works (kala erga): if she has brought up children, has shown hospitality, has washed the feet of the saints, has cared for the afflicted, and has devoted herself to every good work (kalon agathon). 1 Tim. 5:10 ESV.

It seems that Tabitha had done at least a few of these things. We know she cared for widows who were poorer than her and who may have been “afflicted.” And though the text doesn’t plainly state that she exercised hospitality, her home with its upper room may have been a base for the Christians in Joppa. It may even have served as a home for poor widows.

The fact that she is called Dorcas in verse 39, the verse that mentions the widows, may indicate that these women were Greek-speaking.[13] It was not unusual for some Jewish people to have a Hebraic, or Aramaic, name as well as a Greek name, especially if they lived in cities where there was a strong Greek influence. As a port city, Joppa would have been fairly cosmopolitan. Luke uses both “Tabitha” and “Dorcas” in his narrative, perhaps indicating that she was highly regarded by both the Aramaic-speaking and Greek-speaking Christian Jews in Joppa.[14]

“Tabitha” and “Dorcas” both mean “gazelle.” Like the biblical prophetesses Deborah (“bee”) and Huldah (“weasel”), she has an animal’s name. There is nothing to indicate that Tabitha was a prophetess, but she may have been, or may have functioned as, a deaconess.[15]

Ben Witherington writes,

Perhaps the main reason for the Tabitha story is that Luke wishes to reveal how a woman functioned as a deaconess, a very generous supporter of widows. It is interesting that at the outset of the story Luke presents her credentials, and they are the sort one would look for in a deaconess.[16]

Tabitha Rises (Acts 9:40-41)

Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. Acts 9:40 NRSV

The focus of Tabitha’s story is in verses 40-41, and Luke slows the pace of the narrative here by giving Peter several actions. Following the example of Jesus (cf. Matt. 9:25), and of Elijah and Elisha, Peter sends everyone out of the room, and he prays for a miracle. He then turns to the corpse and speaks to it.

In the Greek New Testament, Peter’s words are recorded as “Tabitha anastēthi.”[17] But he probably spoke Aramaic words and actually said, “Tabitha kûmî.” Interestingly, this is just one letter different from what Jesus said to Jairus’s daughter when he raised her from death, as recorded in Mark 5:41: “Talitha kûmî.”[18]

Tabitha responds and opens her eyes, signifying her life has been restored. When she opens her eyes, she sees Peter, and then sits up. Her three actions lengthen the story and build suspense. I wonder what was going through Tabitha’s mind when she became conscious. Did she know the man in her room was the apostle Peter? Did she realise she had been dead and brought back to life?

He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. Acts 9:41NRSV

Luke keeps the pace slow and stretches out the narrative by giving Peter four more actions. Peter gives Tabitha his hand, he helps her up, he calls the saints (i.e. the Christians), including the widows, and he shows Tabitha alive. However, after listing Tabitha’s and Peter’s actions, Luke tells us nothing about the reactions of the Christians in Joppa when they saw their beloved Tabitha alive. This is left to the reader’s imagination.

Luke concludes the story by stating that Tabitha’s story “became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord” (Acts 9:42 NRSV). It is characteristic of Luke to include a comment in his stories about people becoming believers, the gospel spreading, and the church growing (Acts 9:31; 12:24; 19:20, etc). Tabitha’s story is, after all, not primarily about her, but more about the church, the community of Jesus’ followers.

Conclusion

Luke carefully chose which characters to include in the Acts of the Apostles, the account he was writing for his patron Theophilus, and he chose to include the story of Tabitha. As a wealthier woman who was prominent in her community, she was someone Theophilus could identify with. But more than that, Tabitha is representative of first-century women who were exemplary disciples of Jesus.

Forbes and Harrower write,

The story of Tabitha contributes to Luke’s broader understanding of female disciples. Luke-Acts leaves no doubt in the reader’s mind that believing women are full members of Jesus’ community and are rightfully designated as disciples.[19]

Furthermore, Tabitha’s momentous story helps the narrative to transition to another momentous story, the story of Peter and Cornelius and the inclusion of Gentiles in the church. Peter is still in Tabitha’s city of Joppa when he has his vision of unclean animals and when messengers come asking him to come to the house of Cornelius. Cornelius was not a Jew, he was a Gentile and a Roman centurion. But like Tabitha, he was also known for his pious almsgiving. The Holy Spirit was continuing to work, and the church was continuing to grow and expand.


Footnotes

[1] Women disciples of Jesus include Mary and Martha, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna and others. More about Jesus’ female disciples here.

[2] The feminine form of the Greek word for “disciple(mathētria) occurs only in Acts 9:36.

[3] Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 331.

[4] Mary Magdalene, Susannah, Chloe, Nympha, Lydia, Euodia, Syntyche, Phoebe, Tryphena, Tryphosa, Persis, the chosen lady, and other New Testament women are not mentioned with a male relative or guardian. These women are not described by their family situation but by their ministries.

[5] Beverley Roberts Gaventa notes, “Although washing a corpse is a common custom in antiquity, no mention of it elsewhere makes its way into biblical narrative. The inclusion of this intimate detail here provides one of several indications of Tabitha’s significance to this community of believers.” Acts, (Abingdon New Testament Commentaries; Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 160.

[6] Peter may have become ritually unclean by entering the room that contained Tabitha’s corpse, even though he didn’t touch her until after she was restored to life. Peter then stayed in the home of a man named Simon who was a tanner, an unclean profession. This leads to the next chapter, Acts 10, where Peter is confronted by a vision of unclean animals and learns that God regards Gentiles as declared clean.

[7] An unrelated word (anagaion) is used for the upper room where Jesus held his last supper (Mark 14:15//Luke 22:12).

[8] Craig Keener writes that the middle participle epideiknumenai (”showing”) may indicate that the widows were wearing the garments and “were displaying them with ‘pride, or satisfaction.’” Acts: An Exegetical Commentary. Volume 2: 3:1-14:28 (Google Books)

[9] Lynn Cohick states, “Women often worked in domestic fields such as weaving and tailoring.” And she refers to an epitaph (CIL VI.37826) of an ancient woman who was a tailor:

Carmeria Iarine, a freedwoman, dedicated a tomb to several men, including her patron, her patron’s patron, and her husband (a freedman). All of them, including Iarine, apparently worked as a group in the same shop making fine clothing, as the epitaph commemorates these “tailers of fine clothing in Tuscan street.
Lynn H. Cohick, Women in the World of the Earliest Christians (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 232 and 234.

[10] “. . .  good works and charitable acts; these were highly esteemed Jewish virtues and continued to be practised by Christians.” I. Howard Marshall, Acts (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries; Leicester: InterVarsity, 1980), 179.

[11] A sample of verses that use the expression “good works”: Matt. 5:15; Rom. 2:7; Eph. 2:10; 1 Tim 3:1; 5:25a; 6:18; Tit. 3:8, 14; Heb. 10:24: 1 Pet. 2:12.

[12] The enrolled “widows” in the Ephesian church may have belonged to a church order for pious older women. The nearby church at Smyrna had an order of widows. I discuss these Smyrnaen widows here. Was Tabitha the benefactor or patron of an early group, or order, of widows in Joppa?

[13] In Acts 6:1ff we read that Greek-speaking widows in Jerusalem had been overlooked, but in Joppa, they seem to have been cared for. Information about the kind of ministry the Jerusalem widows were missing out on is here.

[14] “Tabitha” occurs in Acts 9:36 and 40; “Dorcas” occurs in Acts 9:36 and 39. Peter calls her Tabitha (Acts 9:40); the widows may have called her Dorcas (Acts 9:36).

[15] Luke does not identify any person in Acts as a deacon or deaconess, not even the seven men in Acts 6. The Greek word diakonos (“deacon/deaconess”) does not occur at all in the book of Acts.

[16] Witherington, Acts of the Apostles, 151.

[17] Anastēthi (lexical form: anistēmi) is used over 100 times in the New Testament. It is often used in the context of significant events, sometimes in the context of miraculous healings. It means “stand up” or “rise.” This verb is related to the noun anastasis used for Jesus’ resurrection.

[18] The Aramaic word kûmî is transliterated as koum in Mark 5:41 of the Greek New Testament. (Luke records the story of the raising of Jairus’s daughter in his Gospel but doesn’t include Aramaic words.)

[19] Greg W. Forbes and Scott D. Harrower, Raised from Obscurity: A Narratival and Theological Study of the Characterization of Women in Luke-Acts (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2015), 173. (A review of this book is here.)


Related Articles

Jesus had Many Female Followers – Many!
The First-Century World and the Ministry of Women
Phoebe: Deacon of the Church at Cenchrea
The Church at Smyrna and her Women (Gavia)
Marcella of Rome: Academic, Ascetic and Almsgiver
Lydia: The Foreigner who became the Founding Member of the Philippian Church
Wealthy Women in the First-Century Roman World and in the Church

Further Reading

A comparison of the accounts of Peter’s dealings with Aeneas, Tabitha, and Cornelius is here.

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