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 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?