The raising of Tabitha (Acts 9)

The lectionary readings for this week include three substantial readings: Acts 9.36-43, Revelation 7.9-17 and John 10.22-30. There is a note which says: ‘The reading from Acts must be used as either the first or second reading’, which suggests that this reading is thought to be particularly important.

The reading from Acts 9 comes at an interesting transition point in the narrative of Acts as a whole. In chapter 7, Stephen has become the first martyr for his faith, and the resulting persecution of Jesus’ followers paradoxically leads to the further spread of the Word (Acts 8.4) including into Samaria, and we read of Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian court official (‘eunuch’). This becomes the first stage of the spread of the good news beyond the bounds of or ‘orthodox’ Jews, and it anticipates the further rippling out that we see developing in Peter’s encounter with Cornelius in chapter 10. Then in the first half of chapter 9, Saul (Paul) encounters the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus, and we immediately see his powerful ministry in testifying to Jesus, initially to his fellow Jews. There is now a lull in the pressure, and in Acts 9.31 we come across one of Luke’s summary statements (which we also find in Acts 6.1, 12.24, 16.5 and 19.20):

Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace and was strengthened. Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.

Luke here offers us a picture of both trouble and triumph—the followers of Jesus under pressure and yet seeing that God is sovereign, and that this good news will spread and change the world despite the opposition that comes.

But the change of focus from Peter to Paul and back again are part of Luke’s careful interweaving of the ministry of the two founding apostles, the one to the Jews and the other to the Gentiles. Paul’s ministry will come to dominate the second half of the book (though not without referring to Peter again several times) and the ministry of Peter and Paul are carefully balanced in the text:

Peter Paul
2.22 Preaches about Jesus raised 13.26
3.1–10 Heals a lame man 14.8–12
4.8 Speaks full of the Spirit 13.9
5.15 Extraordinary miracles 19.12
8.17 Laid on hands for Spirit 19.6
8.18–24 Rebukes opponent 13.6–11
9.36–41 Raises dead person 20.9–12
12.6–11 Released from prison 16.25–41

The story itself belongs in a pair with the much shorter account of Peter healing the paralytic Aeneas in the preceding verses (Acts 9.32–35); this is characteristic of Luke who distinctively offers us examples of male-female pairs throughout the gospel and Acts. The language in that story has some obvious parallels with Jesus’ healing of the paralytic in Luke 5:17-26, with Peter using a similar command to ‘take up your mat’ (though the Greek grammar here is not quite the same). 


Joppa was a prosperous port on the west coast of Israel (modern day Jaffa still has an active fishing port) and was about 10 miles from Lydda; Luke continues his practice of being precise about place names and distances. ‘Tabitha’ is an Aramaic name, and once again we see evidence that Luke is writing with a Greek-speaking audience in mind, giving the translation of the name, which means ‘deer’. He describes her as a ‘[female] disciple’, the only time the feminine form mathetria occurs in the New Testament. This appears to suggest that she was of some standing in the Christian community; the note that she was always ‘helping the poor’ and that her house had an ‘upper room’ (Acts 9.37) suggests that she was a woman of some means. There is, then, a development in this pair of stories; though both Aeneas and Tabitha are named (which is relatively unusual in ancient miracle stories, since the focus is on the one doing the healing rather than the one healed), this second story is longer, more detailed, and about a more significant person. Luke is in the habit of telling us about women of means, both in Luke (‘These women were helping to support them out of their own means’, Luke 8.3) and in Acts (‘One of those listening was a woman from the city of Thyatira named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth’, Acts 16.14), and if his (real or narratively constructed) benefactor Theophilus was also wealthy, that would be important. For Luke, the gospel is good news for both poor and rich.

Washing the body of the deceased was normal Jewish practice, though there is no mention here of anointing. It is not surprising that there are widows waiting around, since they would both have been beneficiaries of Tabitha’s generosity and the ones who had washed the body, since this was the work of women. Peter shows none of the reluctance to come that he later shows in the request from Cornelius, since this person is already a member of the Christian community and is a Jewess. The request for Peter seems to assume the possibility of some miraculous restoration.

There are some obvious parallels in the narrative with the story both of the raising of the widow of Nain’s son in Luke 7.11–15 and the raising of Jairus’ daughter in Luke 8.49–56. But these stories in turn have echoes of the ministry of Elijah and Elisha (such as 1 Kings 17.17–24 and 2 Kings 4.32–37); Peter is not just continuing the ministry of Jesus, following his example, but is also standing in a long line of prophets in Israel who exercise a ministry of miraculous healing. Luke is not content to relate the bare facts of the story; just as he puts compassion at the centre of stories of Jesus’ healing, so he heightens the sense of pathos by describing the reaction of the mourners and their debt to the ministry of Tabitha, as they show the clothes she has given (though we are not told whether these are garments they are currently wearing).

As Jesus has done, Peter sends the mourners out of the room; like Jesus, Peter uses a direct word of command; like Jesus, Peter takes her by the hand; and like Jesus, he presents her back to her own. But unlike Jesus, Peter needs to pray to the one who gives healing; there is no doubt here (as elsewhere) who the source of the healing is, and that Peter’s ministry is entirely dependent on the power of Jesus. Luke doesn’t have any qualms in noting that (again, in parallel to the ministry of Jesus) the story becomes well known, and that (in parallel with the story of Aeneas), ‘many’ come to faith as a result. But, in contrast to contemporary stories of careless and insensitive prayer for healing, Peter has come in response to invitation, and the primary beneficiary is the person concerned. This is no performance in a circus of healing.

Despite the focus on the ministry of individuals in Acts, and especially Peter and Paul, for Luke (as for all the biblical writers) the main actor in the drama, the prime subject of the narrative, is God himself—his sovereignty amongst his people, and the continuing ministry of Jesus carried out by the Spirit poured out on his people. But there is a strong sense in which Luke offers these stories as examples of the ‘normal’ Christian life; as Peter stands in continuity both with the prophets and with Jesus himself, we too stand in continuity with him.


The reading from Rev 7 comes as part of the first interlude within the sequences of the opening of the seven seals, coming between the sixth and seventh, and in some ways is offered as an answer to the question posed by those facing the wrath of the lamb ‘Who can stand…?” (Rev 6.17). Here are my introductory and concluding comments from my commentary on Revelation.

Context

We have already seen how the text of Revelation moves from one scene to another (quite contrasting) one at key moments – the change from the epistolary introduction to the dramatic vision of the exalted Christ in Rev. 1, the change of focus to the assemblies in Rev. 2–3, John’s entry into heaven in Rev. 45, and the horsemen riding throughout the earth in Rev. 6. At the start of Rev. 7 we have another change of focus and ethos, though this is still described from John’s vantage point in the heavenly throne room.

We need to read this chapter in the context of what comes before and after, and in view of its connections with other parts of the book. This section of John’s vision has two parts to it, related by the ‘seeing versus hearing’ motif we have encountered before: John ‘hears’ the number of those counted (but does not see them); he then turns to ‘see’ an uncountable people, and these two descriptions interpret one another. They both describe the ‘servants of God’ who are before his throne, and so this vision, as an interlude between the sixth and seventh seals, functions both to answer the specific question at the end of Rev. 6 ‘Who can stand?’ But this interlude also begins to address the larger question of God’s will for the world and what he will do about humanity that has gone astray from his creation intention and both inflicts and suffers from chaos, evil and death.

This section looks back to the throne scene, since we discover the ‘great multitude’ are also before the throne, along with the living creatures, elders and angels, and they join in with the worship of the one seated on the throne and the lamb as the others have. But it also looks forward to the end of the book, anticipating the final scenes in the New Jerusalem, where they will drink from springs of the water of life (7:17; 21:6) and ‘God will wipe away every tear from their eye’ (21:4).

Theology

The interlude in Rev. 7, between the opening of the sixth and seventh seals, is clearly connected with the preceding six seals, and both fills in details from a fresh perspective and answers the question posed at the end of the sixth seal: ‘Who can stand?’ The four winds are closely connected with the four horseman, and the focus here is less on the destructive chaos that is unleashed and instead on God’s act of protection of those who have remained faithful to him, using imagery from the destruction of Jerusalem that led to the exile.

John’s vision here offers a three-fold picture of the people of God which are interrelated. The first is of a people looking like an army ready for spiritual warfare as they endure the intermediate time between their release from slavery and before their entry into the promised land, recast by John to refer to the period from Jesus’ death, resurrection and exaltation until his return and the renewal of all things. The second is of this people Israel now drawn from all nations of the earth, ‘out of every nation’ in terms of having members from every nation rather than being a nation set apart by national and ethnic boundaries. They are a people caught up in the praise of the one on the throne and of the lamb that we encountered in Rev. 45. The third portrait is of this people having come through intense suffering – not the suffering brought about by God’s wrath and judgement, but the ‘tribulation’ that comes from staying faithful to the testimony of the lamb who was slain in the face of relentless opposition. They are protected from divine judgement, but nevertheless endure suffering at the hands of human power; chapters 6 and 7 together function as a narrative exposition of Jesus injunction in Matt. 10:28. ‘do not fear those who harm the body, but God who can destroy the soul’.

Together, these portraits give us a picture of a people in receipt of God’s grace and responding to it. In contrast to those who, in desperation, cry to the rocks and mountains for protection (6:16), the servants of God wait for the gift of protection that comes from God’s sealing of them. They stand in white before the throne because of the gift of the blood of the lamb, by which they have been purchased as a kingdom of priests for God (5:9). And their response to this gift is to remain faithful, just as Jesus did, and be ready to live a disciplined life of obedience. The holy warfare for which they are prepared is their non-violent witness to Jesus, even to the point of death.


If you enjoyed this, do share it on social media, possibly using the buttons on the left. Follow me on Twitter @psephizoLike my page on Facebook.


Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, would you consider donating £1.20 a month to support the production of this blog?

9 thoughts on “The raising of Tabitha (Acts 9)”

  1. Fabulous commentary and sermon. Thank you so much for your wonderful blog. Your thoughts are very enriching.

  2. Interested why anyone thinks that Luke, having first called her by the name she was known by (Tabitha), gives us the translation (Dorcas or ‘gazelle’) and then proceeds to call her Dorcas for the rest of the narrative? After all, Tabitha is just a name. We would never do that today surely? And in multicultural 1st century Palestine it seems a strange thing to do when people would have been entirely familiar with common names in other languages. Any thoughts? Is it significant?

    • Ah, not for the rest of the narrative, only once more in relation to the clothes. Peter’s direct address to her reverts to her Aramaic name ‘Tabitha’.

      I wonder if Richard Bauckham has commented on this; the natural inference might be that she became known more widely in the Greek-speaking community, and thus by the Greek version of her name.

      • Luke translates Tabitha’s name into Greek. When names were translated it was naturally because the name had a meaning that said something important about the individual. We see this throughout the NT. Consider Cephas (rock), Thomas (twin), Boanerges (sons of thunder), Cananaean (zealot), Barnabas (son of encouragement), Elymas (magician), Bartimaeus (son of Timaeus). Some think that Tabitha was also called Dorcas from birth, but it was unknown (or at least very very rare) for someone to have two names that translated each other from birth. In fact there is only one possible case of this phenomenon among Jews in antiquity. Jerome was right: Tabitha’s name was translated because it carried a meaning that was fitting for her. I challenge anyone to find examples of ancient Jews who took translation names, except those cases when the meaning of the name was considered appropriate for the adult person. Bauckham must do a lot of special pleading here.

        I have shown that hosts and other benefactors of the churches were given new names that reflected their roles. See my Tyndale Bulletin 2016 article
        here. Tabitha was such a benefactor. Either she providentially had the appropriate name, Tabitha, from birth, or she was given the name by the Christians to reflect her role as benefactor. Luke does not tell us which of these two scenarios was the case, and it does not matter. By translating the name Luke tells his audience that she was a name-worthy benefactor/host (like Peter). Luke emphasizes her generosity, explicitly at 9:36, 39, and implicitly by translating the name. It is perhaps no coincidence that the name is translated in 9:36, 39, the same two verses where Luke is stressing her generosity.

  3. Thanks Richard, that’s fascinating. So it makes me ask the next question…which is whether anyone has any idea why the meaning of Tabitha (gazelle?) should be significant in the way other names were considered to be. Were gazelles understood to have certain desirable characteristics in the ancient world?

  4. Regarding Revelation, I wonder if you have read the 3 volume Lost in Translation by John Klein and Adam Spears? I have just received your new commentary on Revelation and am eager to get into it.
    Klein & Spears argue that Rev. is based on the wedding theme with the multitude dressed in white robes standing before the throne as guests of the wedding. Clearly, the bride of Christ is described later.
    What do you think of their wedding motif for understanding Rev?

    • I think, like many unified theories about the text, that this might offer *some* insight into *some* parts of it, but to claim that this is *the* overarching theme is to claim too much.

      If so, where are the wedding motifs in the vision of Jesus in Rev 1, for example?

  5. James, you ask what gazelles signified. Good question. This is where it gets a bit speculative. They were known for their good eyesight and good eyes were associated with generosity (Matt 6:19-24). That could be it.

Leave a comment