Tabitha in the Bible

A disciple known for doing good

In the 15th-century painting Healing of the Cripple and Raising of Tabith, Masolino da Panicale depicts the most famous scene of Tabitha in the Bible: the miraculous prayer of Peter that brings Tabitha back from the dead.

Luke, the writer of Luke-Acts, tells the story of Tabitha, a disciple brought back to life after prayer from the apostle Peter. After she is washed and laid out in an upper room, Peter takes her hand and commands her to get up (Acts 9:36-42).

In seven verses, Luke presents Tabitha as much loved, and the miracle of her return to life leads many to believe (v. 42). Luke’s terse account contains praise, humor, honor, sadness, joy and insights on the faith of the early church. Tabitha is so beloved and so essential to the life of her believing community in Joppa, a port city near the heart of modern Tel Aviv, that others cannot imagine life without her. Tabitha simply cannot stay dead. Her faithful community will not permit it!

Throughout Luke’s story, Tabitha remains silent. Luke speaks for her. In what could be considered a humorous touch, her only living actions are opening her eyes, seeing Peter, sitting up, being helped up by him, and being presented alive to the believers and widows (vv. 40-41).

Luke Honors Tabitha in the Bible

By silencing her, Luke honors her. Others give her accolades and loudly mourn her death (v. 39). Perhaps the best and truest praise one receives comes extemporaneously from others. This certainly applies to the treatment of Tabitha in the Bible.

Luke introduces her with a double name: Tabitha and Dorcas (v. 36). The Aramaic and Greek mean gazelle. Perhaps the doubling shows her ministry to Jewish and Hellenistic believers, something noted earlier in Acts 6:1 and emphasized from chapter 10 on; if so, the placement of Tabitha’s story serves as a transition in the fulfillment of Jesus’ command to his disciples to “be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Perhaps her name indicates a woman of energy, grace, beauty and quick movements.
 


 
Robin Gallaher Branch has written several other Bible History Daily-exclusive character studies. Read Judith: A Remarkable Heroine, Barnabas: An Encouraging Early Church Leader and Anna in the Bible.
 

 
Luke praises her as a disciple (mathetria) who was always doing good and helping the poor (Acts 9:36); her specific designation as disciple proves that Jesus had female disciples. In fact, there are three places where the words disciple or disciples include women: Acts 9:1-2, 36; 18:24-26b.

Luke indicates that Tabitha took God’s commands about society’s most vulnerable seriously. (“Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor.” Zechariah 7:10. See also Deuteronomy 24:17, 20-21; Ezekiel 22:7; James 1:27.) Looking after the marginalized is one of God’s characteristics, too, for God is shown in Psalm 146:8-9 as lifting up those bowed down, watching over the alien and sustaining the fatherless and widow.

Luke is generally quite selective with his praise, heightening the value of the accolades given to Tabitha in the Bible. In addition to Tabitha, Luke-Acts commends a few other notable characters. Consider these examples: Luke describes Zechariah and Elizabeth as upright in the sight of God (Luke 1:6), Joseph as a good and upright man from Arimathea (Luke 23:50-51) and Barnabas as a good man and full of the Holy Spirit and faith (Acts 11:24).

Acts 9 highlights Luke’s characteristic writing style with its balance of opposites. Luke pairs Tabitha’s story of dying and being brought back to life with that of Aeneas, who is healed by Peter after being bedridden for eight years (vv. 32-35). Neither Tabitha nor Aeneas seeks a miracle. While visiting Lydda, Peter sees Aeneas and says, “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you” (v. 34); concerning Tabitha’s death, the disciples of Joppa urge Peter to “please come at once!” (v. 38). Acts 9:1-31 tells of Saul’s conversion and verses 32-43 close and balance the chapter with stories about Peter; like Peter, Saul becomes a great apostle of the faith. Seen another way, Acts 9 contains a man’s miraculous conversion and a woman’s miraculous restoration to life.
 


 
For more than two thousand years, Jezebel has been saddled with a reputation as the bad girl of the Bible, the wickedest of women. But just how depraved was Jezebel, really? Read Janet Howe Gaines’s article How Bad Was Jezebel? for free in Bible History Daily.
 

 

Ministry Focus

Luke’s account of Tabitha focuses on her ministry (to use a modern term) to two groups: the poor and widows. In Biblical times, the designation widow meant a woman whose husband was dead and who had no means of financial support; therefore, she needed both protection and physical, legal and financial assistance.* In other words, a widow is a woman with constant needs, and being a widow was virtually synonymous with being poor. If enfeebled, who will glean for the widows and how will they eat? If they lose their houses in order to pay their debts, where will they live? (In Mark 12:40, Jesus condemns teachers of the law specifically for devouring widows’ houses.) If they lack shelter and regular sustenance, they likely will fall ill. Who then will care for them? As they age, who will listen to them?

In a parable about helping the needy, Jesus contrasts the life-saving actions of a Samaritan with the bypassing indifference of a priest and Levite (Luke 10:25-37). Unlike these members of the established priesthood who ignored the man beaten by bandits, Tabitha purposefully sought out the poor and widows and actively looked to see how she could help meet their needs. In the first century, when female activities generally centered on daily survival for themselves and their families, Tabitha engaged the needs of her community. Her lifestyle showed that love is an active verb intent on doing good for others.

Luke concentrates on one specific part of Tabitha’s ministry: making robes and clothing for the widows. Evidently she dressed these widows fashionably, for as she lies washed and prepared for burial, they tearfully display her work to Peter with obvious pride (v. 39). These women were her friends.

Tabitha’s lifestyle contrasts admirably with the characterization of the good wife from Proverbs 31:10-31. Both display phenomenal energy. Both extend help willingly to the poor (Acts 9:36; Prov. 31:20). Both are proficient in needlework (Acts 9:39; Prov. 31:13, 19, 21,-22, 24, 25). Both seek to do good and undertake their activities within the context of faith (Acts 9:36; Prov. 31:12, 30). The lives of both women show they were “doers,” each putting feet to her faith.

Luke’s succinct description and the outpouring of grief at her death showed how greatly the believing community and widows loved Tabitha (v. 39)—a strong indication that Tabitha herself thoroughly enjoyed her work and loved these people in return.

Silences

As always when reading the Biblical text, consider its silences. What does Luke leave out? Tabitha may have been a widow herself, for Luke omits any mention of her husband or family. Additionally, Tabitha may have been independently wealthy, for the home where she is laid out awaiting burial is presumably her home and has an upper room (Acts 9:39). Evidently she offered her hospitality with flair, for the disciples and widows congregate around her. Perhaps Tabitha chose to use her wealth to aid the poor and the widows (v. 36).

Luke’s description of Tabitha makes it easy to imagine her home as welcoming, open and full of people. Luke indicates that Tabitha’s home functioned as a community center for believers. Tabitha may well have presided over a house church in her home. Quite likely her home became a drop off point for donations as she served as a reliable conduit for goods and services for believers and the wider Joppa citizenry. Tabitha is one of many New Testament women who, once converted to the new faith, set about building a community.
 


 
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Joppa’s Believing Community

In contrast to the long illness of Aeneas (v. 33), Luke presents Tabitha’s sickness and death as sudden (v. 37). Luke then shifts the narrative from Tabitha to Joppa’s believing community, which mirrors Tabitha’s lifestyle of action. It too puts feet to its faith.

Upon hearing of Tabitha’s death and Peter’s sojourn in Lydda (v. 32), members of the Joppa community immediately send two men to fetch him, hoping for a miracle.

Since Lydda was 25 miles northwest of Jerusalem and a day’s journey by foot from Joppa, it is possible that Tabitha was dead a total three days before her resuscitation. The messengers say, “Please come at once,” (me okneses); the use of the subjunctive indicates a formal request and carries a sense of respect. Peter drops everything and accompanies the messengers back to Joppa (vv. 38-39). He finds the widows grieving loudly in the upper room with the body (v. 39). Not only do the widows mourn Tabitha’s loss; they have valid concerns for their own lives, now that their protector is dead.

The widows’ mourning reciprocates the love Tabitha extended to them. Arguably she met more than their clothing needs. Her hospitality and generosity probably gave them food, sanctuary, a home, a warm heart and a listening ear. Modern research shows that talking not only is crucial to health but adds to longevity. Tabitha’s outreaching kindness undoubtedly saved lives.

The Miracle of Tabitha in the Bible

Luke records the miracle simply. It seems to happen quickly. Peter clears the upper room, perhaps because he’s distracted by the widows’ noisy grief (v. 40)! Alone with the dead body, he gets down on his knees, prays, and turns to the dead woman. Speaking to her he says, “Tabitha, get up” (v. 40). And she does!

Peter calls in the believers and widows and gives her back to them, alive. One can imagine the plethora of emotions—joy, wonder, amazement, awe, thanksgiving and even doubt—as everybody crowds in the upper room to confirm for themselves that Tabitha really is healed and alive!

Luke concludes Tabitha’s story with more silences, muzzling both Tabitha and Peter. Peter says nothing about the miracle and Tabitha says nothing about what it’s like being dead. Instead, Luke sums up the reactions of all concerned by stating a fact—her return to life became known all over Joppa—and its result—that many people believed in the Lord because of it (v. 42).

Luke then carries on with Peter’s visit to the centurion Cornelius’ home in Caesarea (Acts 10) but remains silent about Tabitha’s life. However, Luke’s silence again compliments her, for it acknowledges the obvious. We already know her character. We know what happens. This remarkable woman simply carries on doing good for the poor and serving her friends, the widows, by making them stylish robes.

 


 

Notes

* In the Bible, widowhood often serves as a textual marker to alert savvy readers of moments of significance. For more, read Robin Gallaher Branch, “Biblical Views: Groveling Grannies or Teaching Tools” as it appeared in the January/February 2013 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
 


 
Robin BranchRobin Gallaher Branch is professor of Biblical studies at Victory University (formerly Crichton College) in Memphis, Tennessee, and Extraordinary Associate Professor in the Faculty of Theology at North-West University in Potchefstroom, South Africa. She received her Ph.D. in Hebrew Studies from the University of Texas in Austin in 2000. She was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship for the 2002–2003 academic year to the Faculty of Theology at North-West University. Her most recent book is Jereboam’s Wife: The Enduring Contributions of the Old Testament’s Least-Known Women (Hendrickson, 2009).
 

 

Bibliography

Darrell L Bock, Acts: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007).

John Calvin, John 12-21. Acts 1-13. (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1993).

Stephen B. Clark, Stephen, Man and Woman in Christ: An Examination of the Roles of Men and Women in Light of Scripture and the Social Sciences. . (Ann Arbor: Servant Books, 1980).

Chalmer E. Faw, Acts. (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1993).

Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Acts. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003).

M. A. Getty-Sullivan, Women in the New Testament. (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2001).

Susanne Heine, Women in Early Christianity: Are the Feminist Scholars Right? John Bowden, trans. (London: SCM Press, Ltd., 1987).

Josephus. The Works of Josephus Complete and Unabridged. Wiliam Whiston, trans. (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1987).

Craig S. Keener, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts. Volume 1. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011).

I. Howard Marshall, New Testament Theology: Many Witnesses, One Gospel. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004).

C. Myers, T. Crave, & R. S. Kraemer, eds. Women in Scripture: A Dictionary of Named and Unnamed Women in the HebrewBible, the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, and the New Testament. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000).

Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, & Al Sitzler, Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002).

Jaroslav Pelican, Acts. (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2005).

Elisabeth Fiorenza, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins. (New York: Crossroads, 1983).

“Widow.” Encyclopaedia Judaica Volume 16 UR-Z Supplementary Entries. (Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House, 1972). 16:487-496.

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12 Responses

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  1. james says

    I had never considered Tabitha in such a manner as was described. The article was thought provoking and it caused me to imagine what it was like. From the widows loss to the unexpected event. The swirling of feelings was exponential. As I tried to imagine what it was like to see,hear,feel and experience the power of resurrection of a loved individual. I felt like shouting,crying and RUNNING. What a wonderful article. I will think on it all day.

  2. Mike says

    Nice.

  3. Patti says

    What a beautiful account on the life of Tabitha. I always saw her as a child. I love the whole community reference of her ministry. I could just imagine in my minds eye the whole scene. Well written and documented.

  4. Andrea says

    Thanks for the interpretation. There is so much to ponder in scripture. One thing though, I believe this article meant to say, … Tabitha offered her hospitality with flair, rather than with “flare”.

  5. James says

    We used this text as a lesson at the funeral service of my mother-in-law. She too had been a worker in fabrics. Indeed, during the personal remembrances of Helen’s life, it became clear that she was a miracle-worker in fabrics. She sewed gowns for stillborn children so that they could be buried in suitable clothing. Like Tabitha, Helen never called attention to herself.
    Thanks for the close reading of this text. It could not have come at a better time for us.

  6. Kurt says

    DORCAS

    (Dor′cas) [Gazelle].
    A Christian woman in the Joppa congregation abounding in “good deeds and gifts of mercy,” evidently including the making of inner and outer garments for needy widows. (Ac 9:36, 39) “Dorcas” corresponds to the Aramaic “Tabitha,” both names meaning “Gazelle.” Possibly Dorcas was known by both names, as it was not uncommon then for Jews, especially those living in a seaport such as Joppa with its mixed population of Jews and Gentiles, to have a Hebrew name as well as a Greek or Latin name. Or, Luke may have translated the name for the benefit of Gentile readers. Dorcas is the only woman mentioned in the Scriptures as having the feminine form of the word “disciple” applied to her. This, however, does not mean that she held a special position in the congregation, for all Christians were actually disciples of Jesus Christ. (Mt 28:19, 20) Though her death in 36 C.E. caused much weeping among the widows who had apparently benefited greatly from her kindnesses, the fact that no mention is made of sorrow on the part of a husband suggests that Dorcas was unmarried at the time.
    At her death the disciples at Joppa prepared her for burial and, on learning that Peter was in Lydda, about 18 km (11 mi) SE of Joppa, sent for him. Undoubtedly they had heard about Peter’s healing the paralytic Aeneas there, and this may have given them a basis for reasoning that the apostle might resurrect Dorcas. On the other hand, they may have turned to Peter simply for consolation.—Ac 9:32-38.
    Following a procedure similar to that used by Jesus in resurrecting Jairus’ daughter (Mr 5:38-41; Lu 8:51-55), Peter, after dismissing everyone from the upper chamber, prayed and then said: “Tabitha, rise!” Dorcas opened her eyes, sat up, and took Peter’s hand to rise. This is the first reported resurrection performed by an apostle, resulting in many becoming believers throughout Joppa.—Ac 9:39-42.
    http://wol.jw.org/en/wol/d/r1/lp-e/1200001214
    http://wol.jw.org/en/wol/s/r1/lp-e?q=Tabitha&p=par

  7. best says

    So if this may be the case, how come espresso considered more caffeinated than the
    usual regular cup of java. These days it is not uncommon
    to get people owning a coffeemaker. Here shall we be held do is pop the T-disc into the
    coffee brewer and away we go.

  8. M says

    “By silencing her, Luke honors her.” How is this true, please?

  9. Tabetha says

    Look How Lazarus was raised from the dead. We did not hear of him doing any works, nor speaking. But he stayed at the feet of Jesus. There, he could learn, grow, serve and worship. What is more honorable than this. This damsel alaready had a job of serving. Therefore, she went back to doing the work which was laid out for her by the Holy Spirit. Even though she was already honorable, this brought even more honor to her life.

  10. Tabitha says

    Wow my name is tabitha and I love this

  11. Jacqueline says

    that was soooo beautiful

  12. Tabitha says

    My name is Tabitha as well. I am not religious, but I was brought up as a child to believe in The Bible. I find this story amazing and beautiful. :)


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