Why is the raising of Tabitha in Acts 9 significant?


The lectionary readings for Easter 4 in Year C 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—and this is characteristic of the Easter season. As we reflect on the resurrection of Jesus, we cannot do this without reading about the resurrection life that the early church lived in Acts. The main commentary here is on Acts 9, but I also include some commentary on Rev 7 at the end.

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:

PeterPaul
2.22Preaches about Jesus raised13.26
3.1–10Heals a lame man14.8–12
4.8Speaks full of the Spirit13.9
5.15Extraordinary miracles19.12
8.17Laid on hands for Spirit19.6
8.18–24Rebukes opponent13.6–11
9.36–41Raises dead person20.9–12
12.6–11Released from prison16.25–41

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.


In the previous posting of this article, there was an interesting discussion in the comments about the significance of Tabitha’s name. Richard Fellows made this comment:

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.

In our video discussion (link in the next blog post), James notes that, when Simon Peter addresses her by her name, what he says will have clear echoes of Jesus’ words ‘Talitha cumi’ in Mark 5.41.


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.


The picture at the top is ‘Peter Heals the Crippled and Raises Tabitha’ by Masolino (1338–1447), a fresco at the Brancacci Chapel, Santa Maria del Carmine. He has reflected the male-female pairings in Luke and Acts, but unfortunately chosen two unrelated incidents, rather than pairing Aeneas with Tabitha!


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17 thoughts on “Why is the raising of Tabitha in Acts 9 significant?”

  1. Ian, thanks for another detailed and thoughtful post. I think you bring out the generous lifestyle of Tabitha as a fine example for disciples. I think you link it to the folk who stand in white as a kingdom of priests too. Both of these I agree with and sometimes aspire to do in everyday life.

    But I don’t understand what you think the significance of her raising is. Sorry!

    Reply
    • I wonder if we pull this out more in the video, which I will post tomorrow. The key thing I think is in the continuity; the parallels with both the ministry of Jesus and with the action of prophets in the OT communicates powerfully that we continue in our resurrection life and ministry the ministry of the risen Jesus. This fits with Luke’s introduction, where he describes to Theophilus that he is now offering an account of what Jesus is *continuing* to do through the apostolic church.

      Does that make sense?

      I also think the male-female and rich-poor pairings are significant too.

      Reply
  2. ‘But there is a strong sense in which Luke offers these stories as examples of the ‘normal’ Christian life’

    But it’s not. Not today. Genuine healings seem to be few and far between, and I doubt there’s a single medically-confirmed resuscitation from death.

    Reply
    • I am a healthcare professional. I agree that most healthcare is explicable, but I have encountered one astonishing recovery where the patient was on life support, after struggling for weeks following double lung transplant, and next of kin was called because it appeared there were only hours to go. I know several Christians on their last shifts had prayed for a young woman we had grown to care about a lot through her struggles. I came on shift in the morning, expecting her to have passed away in the night, to find a huddle of doctors outside her sideroom.

      I went in to find her sitting up, watching television. It didn’t make any sense to me, or to medics. I suppose, rationally speaking, there must have been some kind of misreading of her condition in the lead up, but then again… do we believe God is supernatural? A few weeks later, she was fit for discharge and went out to live her life.

      I think we should always be open to the possibility of supernatural events and interventions, but it’s down to God’s sovereign will. Also it’s important not to get distracted by signs themselves, except for the way they may point us to God. I’ve never gone looking for signs. If they happen, they happen. But it’s God we should focus on, not the signs.

      At the time, there was a second young woman on the critical care unit, who had also had a double lung transplant – they were both the same age – 28. She was the dearest thing and used to squeeze may hands to communicate when she grew weak. She had the dearest elderly parents, who were totally devoted to her, and they sat with her there each day – such good, decent people. After weeks of struggle, the young woman died. It was heart-breaking.

      Why did one young woman get to live and the other not?

      Miracle or no miracle (and personally I believe miracles are exceptional – mostly God ordains we live in a universe ordered by physical laws)… we are in the hands of God and the Will of God. Thanks be to God for so much love and compassion. Help us for not being able to understand why some people suffer so much. Help us to trust Your eternal goodness. Help us to seek you in the dark.

      Reply
      • I dont deny supernatural intervention at all, but I find it irritating when preachers claim such experiences is the ‘norm’ for Christians when for the vast majority Id suggest it simply is not. We dont live in the days of Acts, which is one reason why I think it rarely happens today and is not the experience of most Christians. Time and again I see people die from various illnesses, and it’s not through a lack of faith by them or those praying for them.

        Peter

        Reply
        • Peter, I agree with you. There is also the invidious psychological burden, that if a person close to you suffers and dies, there is a temptation to think you did not pray hard enough, when actually – as you say – it is the norm that many of us suffer and die. It is just the way of things. We live in a universe that is generally ordered by physical laws, and as physical creatures we are subject to those laws, including vulnerability to injury and disease. I see that as a reflection that God is a God of order, who has framed our lives within physical order, and for hard to fully understand reasons, allowed us to be victim to suffering and death. When you look at the universe, and indeed the complexity of life here on Earth, that orderliness is a source of wonder. Within that order, we have been able to emerge in conditions that seem finely balanced for life. But the norm seems to include suffering, and bodily death for us all. I believe God is the God who sometimes intervenes, but I regard dramatic healing to be exceptional to the norm, while inner healing (which can sometimes bring physical benefit) may operate much more frequently in a context of prayer and loving kindness, and the merciful healing of our hurts and emotional wounds. Of course, I hardly know all this for sure. It’s just the impression I form over the years.

          Reply
        • Peter.
          I sometimes think there is a lack of faith in some who pray for healing, and it may be a lack of faith to die and faith that for the Christian death is a healing – the healing presence of God. This life isn’t the only life there is. It is the human separation from loved ones that brings a right grieving over loss.
          A very dear, much older sister in the Lord died after a process of cancer treatment. She was from a charismatic background and had faith for a physical healing miracle right up to the end, as did her husband. But she has gone home to glory, as has her husband, though now no longer married.

          I recall the church we were part of ran a series of teaching on healing, and it wasn’t too long after a stroke I had. I also recall that I was convicted that I wanted healing more than I wanted the Healer; nearer my God to thee.

          Reply
  3. I’m a long term reader here, but this is my first post. Please forgive its length.

    I wonder whether there’s another angle to be taken here. According to some commentators such as Longenecker, this passage, together with the closely related episode that precedes it, opens the third major section of Acts. This section describes the growth of the gospel in Palestine and Syria and demonstrates how Jesus’ commission in Acts 1:8 continued to be fulfilled, extending the geographical spread of the gospel and, most significantly, reaching even beyond the confines of strict Judaism.

    Presumably, there were other events in the life of the early church that Luke could have included instead of this one. However, in recounting the raising of Tabitha together with the preceding parallel healing of Aeneas, it seems to me that Luke focuses on Peter’s apostolic role in continuing ‘all that Jesus began to do’ (1:1) in such a way as to prepare for the story of the conversion of the Gentile, Cornelius, in the next episode. This is a highly significant and controversial step in growth of the early church beyond its Jewish roots. The miracles thus underscore the divine authority entrusted to Peter and the divine approval of his ministry as he is about to take the remarkable step of preaching to Gentiles.

    Some of the features of the Tabitha episode could thus be seen as preparing thematically for the Cornelius episode:
    – The location at the port of Joppa, moves the Christian mission to a more cosmopolitan, ethnically mixed and religiously diverse region of Palestine.
    – The alternation between the Aramaic name, Tabitha, and the Greek name, Dorcas, also seems to point to this shift to a less strictly Jewish mission field.
    – The echo of Elijah’s raising of the widow of Zarephath’s son (1 Kgs 17) might also anticipate mission to Gentiles; note Jesus’ reference to this story in Luke 4:24-27.
    – The episode closes with Peter staying with Simon the tanner. Because of its contact with the hides of dead animals, tanning may have been regarded as an unclean trade by strictly observant Jews (cf. 10:14-15, 28). While the evidence for this is drawn from later rabbinic writings, it seems possible that such a view was held by some Jews at this earlier period.
    – More speculatively, Joppa is the location from where the prophet Jonah set sail, hoping to escape his commission to preach to gentile Nineveh (Jonah 1:3). It’s not clear whether Luke expects his readers to make a connection and see Peter as a positive contrast to Jonah, though it is interesting that the name of the town is repeated four times in the passage. Repetition of the location also occurs in the Cornelius episode and in Peter’s report of the event to the church in Jerusalem.

    Consequently, I am not so sure that Luke intends this passage to be understood as an example of “the ‘normal’ Christian life”. Indeed, despite the presence of a Christian community in Lydda, Aeneas’ long-term illness remained unhealed until Peter arrived. Similarly, in the face of Tabitha’s death, the disciples at Joppa recognised their need of Peter to solve the problem rather than dealing with it themselves. This strongly suggests that such powers were not widely distributed among members of the earliest Christian communities. Such deeds in Acts are accomplished only by the apostles and their close associates. Certainly, elsewhere in Acts, many examples of successful evangelism occurs without reference to such deeds (e.g. 11:19-21; 13:13-52; 14:1; 16:11-15; 17:1-4, 10-12, 17-34; 18:1-8). Indeed, miraculous activity is recorded somewhat less frequently as Acts progresses.

    These comments simply suggest that Luke does not present the performance of miraculous deeds as a normative practice for Christians in general or for Christian mission in general. They by no means deny that God may work in remarkable ways when, where and how he chooses.

    Reply
    • Thanks John. I think your post goes someway to agreeing with PC1’s observation that it isn’t “normal Christian life”.

      Perhaps as a whole, the Body of Christ Jesus (in a region?) may expect to have a ministry which is “Jesus continuing to do.”

      My first reaction to the Christians’ appeal to Peter of her life of generosity was similar to appeals in the Psalms – and that sometimes God answers those appeals with healings and even rarer with raisings from death.

      I think that in practice, in the churches and movements in the U.K. I’ve known, God heals some of the people (that are prayed for/with) some of the time. The Lord’s Prayer might be recognising this in that we still pray for Our Father’s kingdom to come.

      The biggest point I resonate with is her generous lifestyle.

      Reply
      • Just to clarify, my main point was to provide evidence from the passage in its immediate literary context for what I think is the primary answer to the question “Why is the raising of Tabitha in Acts 9 significant?” While there may be all sorts of secondary lines of contemporary application that might be drawn from the account, I’m inclined to think that Luke’s key purpose for including the passage should be understood in terms of its divine attestation of Peter in anticipation of his controversial involvement in the events that immediately follow in chapter 10.

        Reply
    • Indeed. To believe the apostles’ experience 2000 years ago at the beginning of the church and its spreading to Gentiles is ‘normative’ is laughable.

      Reply
  4. Even if the term “normal” is not applicable to the overall content of Acts, then it can feed a mentality which still resonates today; namely that of seeing the book (at the risk of oversimplification) as “a manual for successful Christian living” ( and with specific reference to the superintendence and empowering of the Holy Spirit) .
    However,maintaining this position as central requires the turning of a blind eye to two prominent facts: first, many of the incidents recorded in Acts involve acts of opposition , rejection, hostility and even persecution committed against the apostles in particular. And secondly, the chapters which seem to promote the image of the most illuminating spirituality [ chs.2 – 5 :16] are also those which reveal a body of the most powerful and incisive historical theology and doctrine to be found anywhere in Scripture. Moreover these passages remind us of the uniqueness and authority of the apostles dispelling ideas that, I suggest, counteract any sense of “normality” during this period: “Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs *were done by the apostles*[Acts 2:43]. ” The apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders among the people.[Acts 5:12].”
    Finally, the primary work of the Holy Spirit in this context was not only to convict the Jewish populace of sin but to assure them (through the empowering of the apostles) that the covenants and prophetic promises of God in the Old Testament (particularly those pertaining to the beginning of Messianic reig) were now manifested in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ [see Acts 3: 24 – 26].

    Reply
  5. Tabitha’s name is significant, but I would like to hear more about why that name is particularly significant. There is a striking similarity between the Aramaic that Jesus says to Jairus’ daughter as he raises her in Mark 5.41 (Ταλιθα κουμ … Τὸ κοράσιον … ἔγειρε) and Peter’s raising of Tabitha (Ταβιθά, ἀνάστηθι), which Peter might have spoken in Aramaic as ‘Tabitha, qum!’?. This Talitha/Tabitha similarity hits a problem when Luke 8.54 reports Jesus’ words to Jairus’ daughter simply as Ἡ παῖς, ἔγειρε with no Aramaic. Does a gazelle symbolize anything in particular?

    Reply
      • Yes, exactly. Though either way, the more precise detail is included, the better from the historian’s point of view – even if Luke were (improbably) the only person who now knew her and her bilingual name.

        Reply
    • 2 Samuel 1:19 NIV comments Gazelle symbolises human dignity. There seems also to be undercurrents from the Song of Songs here too.
      There may be no technical , theological connection but the two instances to conjure the pathos of her death and Jesus love coming to raise her up.

      Reply

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