Acts 9:36-35 – Raising Tabitha

Tabitha is described as a godly disciple who died suddenly (9:36-38). This is the only woman described as a disciple in the New Testament. The word μαθήτρια is used only here, it is used for female disciples of Plato (D. Lat Lives, 4.2). Luke is fond of telling two similar stories, one featuring a man and a second featuring a woman (cf., Luke 15:1-10). It is likely Peter did many other miracles during his ministry on the coastal plains, but Luke selected these two examples. Luke likely wanted his readers to take these two healings together as examples of the sorts of things Peter often did. In both cases Peter encounters potential uncleanliness, but this ceremonial uncleanliness does not prevent him from reaching out to people on the fringes of Judaism. I suggest Peter is simply following the pattern of ministry of Jesus who regularly crossed over cleanliness taboos during his ministry.

Tabitha Masolinode PanicaleTabitha was also known as Dorcas, both names mean “gazelle.” While the name may be drawn from Song of Solomon 2:9, Ben Witherington points out it was common to give female slaves animal names (Acts, 331, n.16).  He goes on to speculate that she may have been a freedwoman, although he settles on the name being of Jewish origin. It is possible Tabitha was wealthy since she is “always doing good works.” If she was a former slave set free by some prominent person, she may have had the time and means able to devote herself to charity work. She has a home with an “upper room” and her burial seems to be more opulent than expected if she was a pauper. It is possible she was a patroness of the church in Joppa, although this is not stated.  Luke mentions at least one other prominent, wealthy woman, Lydia, who may have become a patroness of the church at Philippi. In addition, it is possible that Phoebe in Romans 16:1-2 was a patron for the church in Cenchrea.

The description of her godliness is in line with Jewish indications of godly living. First, she was “always doing good.”  Paul urges women to do “good works appropriate for women who profess to worship God” in 1 Tim 2:10. Second, she was always “helping the poor,” specifically poor widows. It is likely the clothing the women show Peter in v. 39 are examples of these acts of compassion.  The description of Tabitha is similar to that of Tobit, a prototypical good man in the Jewish captivity (Tobit 1:3; 4:5-11).

Whatever Tabitha’s social position, her death was seen as a great loss to the believers in Joppa.  It is not clear that the believers called on Peter to raise her from the dead.  Peter comes quickly to Joppa and prays for Tabitha (9:39-42). Similar to Jesus in Luke 8:50-56, Peter tells Tabitha to arise. There are a few significant differences, however. Jesus commanded the girl to rise, using nearly the same words as Peter does in verse 40 (in Aramaic, there would have been a difference of only a since letter). Unlike Jesus, Peter prays prior to telling Tabitha to rise. Peter also takes Tabitha’s hand in order to help her up from the bed. This is significant since (until a few moments before) she was dead. Touching a corpse would have rendered Peter unclean, but he has no problem entering a home where a dead person was placed and even touching the woman’s hand.

As with the healing of Aeneas, we are left wondering what the point of the story is. Is Luke setting up Peter’s vision in Acts 10 and his visit to Cornelius? Or is Luke trying to consciously patterning the ministry of Peter after than of Jesus?

10 thoughts on “Acts 9:36-35 – Raising Tabitha

  1. We are not actually told that Tabitha was also known as Dorcas. It could be that Luke, when writing Acts, was the first to translate her name into Greek. In any case, Luke takes an interest in the meaning of her name, and this shows that he commends her highly, for the implication is that she had lived up to the name(whatever exactly it symbolized). It is very very unlikely that she was given the names Tabitha and Dorcas at birth, since there is only one example in the ancient world of a Jew having two names that translated each other.

    The point of the stories (or at least a major point) is that God saves those who are worthy. Both Tabitha and Cornelius were generous. Cornelius was commended and the name Aeneas means praised.

  2. In both the case of the raising of Tabitha and the healing of Aeneas, we are able to see Peter helping those in need in the name of Jesus. Some choose to question to point of the story and why Luke decided to include it. I chose to see it as a reminder of God’s love for us in that He used His disciples to help those in need and that He has never turned His back on us. While I do not know for sure why Luke included the story in Acts, my guess would be that it is a good reminder of God’s love and compassion for those that are faithful to Him. Or I could be completely wrong and it was because Luke was setting up Peter’s vision in Acts 10. However, I tend to lean more on the side that Luke was reminding the readers of God’s faithfulness to us. This may have also been Luke reminding us of how Peter modeled the way he spread the gospel with what Jesus did while He was on earth.

    • Alex,
      I would agree. I think part of the passage is a reminder of Gods faithfulness, but also, having faith in him. It was stated above that there were differences in how Jesus told a young girl to rise and how peter told Tabitha to rise. One thing that was mentioned above was that Peter prayed. I think this is significant because its showing us that peter had faith in God. Faith that God would raise Tabitha up. And the other would be touching. When Jesus raised the girl up, she rose on her own but in peters case he helped her. This could be the area or maybe a representation. When peter did this, Jesus had already died and rose again, thus fulfilling the prophecy and meankng the old law didnt apply anymore.

  3. Seeing how Jesus’ ministry is reflected in the ministries of the disciples is always unique. At this time there were so many different cultural taboos that they were “breaking” to do healings and tell people about the Gospel. Also, when it comes to Tabitha’s actions of ministry, I find it interesting that it has to be clarified that she only does things that are “appropriate for women who profess to worship God.” It is so hard for me to wrap my head around the limitations that are always present. But, the fact that her works were still seen as good and beneficial is encouraging; because of this her death is taken very hard by those around her, but they were not even looking for her to be raised or healed. Peter comes on his own, which is unique because entering a dead woman’s house and touching her would have been anther taboo subject. There are again similarities between what Jesus did and how Peter raised the dead. However, Peter prays first, which I think is really important. Jesus did not have to pray because He is God, but Peter is praying for God to use him to do His will and His work. This is what makes the resurrections different. It shows the people around him that it is done by God’s will and not of his own will or power.

  4. The miracle of Tabitha is an amazing story of the power of God. Although many women were not mentioned in scripture this story seems to be of significance to Luke. I think this story shows the power of God through Peter, because he prayed before the healing. The stories of Jesus healing and Peter’s healing are very similar and I think Luke was definitely trying to pattern Peter’s ministry with Jesus’.

    However, I do not think that this was the only reason Luke shared this story. God changes both Paul and Peter’s thinking. Paul converted/called by God does not require Gentiles to be circumcised or follow a bunch of Jewish rules to be saved, but rather he shares that salvation is through faith alone (Galatians). Peter, even though he was a Jew, was not hesitant to enter the room of the corpse of Tabitha, which was a radical thing for a Jewish man. I think Luke shares this story to help us understand that God was changing Peter’s thinking and was about to challenge him in new ways with his vision in the next chapter.

    Whatever point Luke was trying to make through this story, we do know that many believed in the Lord after this miracle (9:42). I think this passage shows that God still has power over death. Even though Christ is not physically on earth, the Holy Spirit is performing miracles through Peter and death is conquered in Jesus’ name.

  5. I think many, if not all, the miracles of the disciples are in reflection of Jesus’ ministry and the things he has done. Although, It is difficult to confidently say the purpose with little to go off of. I think the best way for us to get an understanding of the purpose that Luke chose to share this event, is to understand the book of Acts as a whole and it’s purpose for being written. The purpose of Acts, as well as Lukes writing in his gospel, is to give an orderly, detailed account of the early church after Christ’s resurrection. It also is setting ground work for a new age, and a messianic kingdom beginning to take place, and through the Holy Spirit and the disciples the good news is beginning to spread. With that in mind, I think the story of Tabitha fits comfortably in the ark of Acts, as well as reflecting Jesus’ Ministry. Not only is he crossing cleanliness taboos similar to Jesus, but also reflecting Jesus’ words and actions in Luke 8:50. So, I would say the purpose of this story is help guide the purpose of the book in redirecting those who are considered Jews own thinking. Preaching the gospel requires a new way of thinking for these Jews. In this chapter we see Saul (eventually Paul), a devoted Jew and Pharisee, was converted from killing people who were preaching Jesus’ name. To them preaching Jesus’ name. For Peter, also a devoted Jew, although having become a disciple early one, went against cultural taboos to raise Tabitha from the dead. So, although their might be a few reasons why Luke included this, or even how this helps the purpose of his writings. I think arguably, a good reason is to show the reorienting of thinking, by Jesus, for those who are becoming devout believers.

  6. First, I find it interesting that she is the only woman referred to as a disciple of Jesus. There are several other women in the New Testament narrative who played an active role in the church. Mary washed Jesus’ feet, Lydia, and Pricilla immediately come to mind. How did Tabitha differ from these women? Why is she the only one to be referred to as a disciple? This simply be explained as passive linguistic choice. Its singular use suggests otherwise. To what degree did she have an official role or position in the church or community? How literally can we take the word disciple here? Regardless Luke wants to stress her key role in the life of the church (ie. caring for the poor, always doing good).
    In response to your question regarding the point of the story, my answer is that I don’t know. Both options seem reasonable. It is interesting that Luke’s account here mirrors his record of Jesus’ healing in Luke 8. This, like the use of the word disciple, seems intentional. Given what I now understand about the setting of the book of Acts, I might also guess that this is more evidence of the continuing of the spread of the gospel. That being said, and interesting problem occurs – why would Peter go and raise a woman who was dead and who was already a believer. Clearly it is not due to the fact that Peter hoped to evangelize to her after he raises her. This was, if anything, a witness or message to the fellow believers and an unbelieving crowd.
    Also, what would be the purpose of patterning Peter’s ministry after that of Jesus? Was Luke trying to authenticate Peter’s ministry? Or possibly, he is simply trying to draw out the patterns and the continuation of Jesus’ ministry as the disciples go out into all the nations?

  7. Tabitha is an intriguing character to me, especially because she is named a disciple. She is depicted to have a good standing in the community at this time. Although who she was or her potential importance is not the most important point here. Here we see Peter healing a women like Jesus. In verse 40 it says, “Tabitha arise”. Peter here is replicating Jesus’ resurrection of the Talitha “little girl” in the mark 5. Peter appears to no longer be caring about the unclean and clean laws the Jews had. As stated above Peter appears to be resembling “Jesus who regularly crossed over cleanliness taboos during his ministry”(P.Long). It seems as if this is a key milestone in Peter’s ministry because in chapter 10 Peter is addressed by God about clean and unclean foods. It is also important to recognize that Peter is staying with a tanner. Tanners were considered unclean people. Being unclean they would have been someone who Jews would have been not associated with because of being righteously unclean. This again then shows that Peter is becoming less focused on who people are in the community but more concerned about their souls and spreading the gospel. As Peter becomes more gospel driven he resembles more of Jesus’ ministry as he grows his ministry for the Lord.

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