3.7.10

What's in a name...Tabitha/Dorcas

The reader must observe names in Scripture because they often carry metaphorical meaning. To preserve meaning in the Greek, the Aramaic name changes. Cephas means rock in Aramaic but Peter means rock in Greek and with Tabitha (Ταβιθά), meaning 'gazelle' in Aramaic, to preserve this meaning, her name becomes Dorcas (Δορκας) in Greek. Strelan describes how 'there was a degree of ambiguity about the gazelle...'it was not a consecrated animal [but] belonged to the category of “clean” animals.' Her name perhaps prepares the reader for the ambiguity that is going to follow for the Christian community over clean and unclean foods and future exemption from the Mosaic food laws. Her location in Joppa draws further attention to her ambivalent status living as a Jew on the edge of Judea's territory. Hers has been a fringe social status as a woman and possibly a widow. Her location and name prepare us for Peter's visit to Simon the Tanner, unclean because of his work with animal skins. It is from his roof that Peter will have the vision to kill and eat in defiance of the food laws and so understand God's plan to advance the Kingdom to the Gentiles through Cornelius. Raising Tabitha prepares us for God's extension of God's promise from the consecrated and clean (Jewish), to the unconsecrated and unclean (Gentiles). She crosses both categories as the gazelle.


Luke's interest in women
Some commentators point out that Tabitha' s name, meaning gazelle, is in keeping with a tendency to name female slaves after animals. It is interesting to think about what should be made of Tabitha's status: this Jewish Christian, likely wealthy and possibly widowed woman. Widowhood, womanhood and previous enslavement would have certainly given her empathy for the marginalised. Tabitha's ministry consists of clothing the widows with garments that she has made. She exercises a ministry of compassion through her gifting, which anticipates Cornelius', who gives alms (10:2).

However, it could be that Luke is hinting to her position as a leader in the church. This could be behind his reference to her as a disciple. Witherington believes that her body being laid out in an upper room of a house the reader assumes to be hers, hints at her status as a leader of this house-church whose upper room would have afforded that degree of privacy also prized in Acts 1:3, 13 and 20:8. Craven & Kraemer believe that she might have been as much mourned by the widows because of their loss of 'a leader of the Christian community' as she would have been because of her support of them through her means. Her status as a Christian leader takes on further significance when one considers that she is presented to the saints and the widows, where perhaps by its inclusion, the saints refers also to men whom she might have impacted through her teaching, although this can not be substantiated from the text.

I am led to read commentaries with a hermeneutic of suspicion similar to Anderson's, if those commentators overemphasize Tabitha's deeds at the cost of her designated status as a disciple of probable financial independence. It is interesting that Tabitha's care of the widows is described as a good work and her discipleship status often overlooked. When men have a ministry of this kind they are called deacons (Acts 6) but interestingly not in the text itself, only in the later commentary upon it. Like Junia's apostleship (Rom 16:7), Tabitha's discipleship has been much overlooked and impacts the gender debate about women's roles in the New Testament.

Conclusion
In this pericope I am interested in the dynamics of status. Peter's status as an apostle imbued with the Holy Spirit with specific ministries is made clear by his patterning the healings of Jesus. The glory is ultimately Christ's but Peter's calling and commission in Jesuss name is demonstrated here. For Aeneas his status amongst his community is restored, he can now make his own bed; be responsible for himself in a way he was never able to before and this is emphasised by Peter's very practical command to him on his healing. Tabitha's status is complex and the church's treatment of her over time has often been influenced by culture and ideas about gender. Perhaps ultimately we are to marvel at the status of those witnessing these miracles both then and now. The outer garment Tabitha would have stitched for each of her friends is symbolic of the cloak of Christ which becomes clothing for new disciples 'born'. Ultimately the consequences of both these healings is a turning to the Lord in faith for those who witnessed (9:35) or heard about the miracle (9:42). It is God who is glorified.

5 comments:

SingingOwl said...

I never thought of these things before. Thank you so much for sharing them...fascinating to ponder whether this woman we honor for her compassion could have also been a leader. Just need to tell you, my name is Dorcas. :-)

Rachel Marszalek said...

What an honour of a name - wonderful. Thank you for your affirmation. Bless you Rachel

Richard Fellows said...

Thanks. Interesting point about the upper room. I have just published a blog post on Tabitha here. I argue that she, like most (all?) other NT benefactors of the church, had been given a new name (Tabitha) in recognition of her generosity. I also engage with Strelan's paper.

Rach Marszalek said...

Thank you Richard, I shall read your post with interest.

God bless and Merry Christmas to you.

Anonymous said...

A musing;

Who and what sort of person(s) could have made the clothing of Jesus?

It must have been a difficult garment to make, as some stories say that it was made with one single continuous thread. What ever the form of stitch or weave, it is probable that the thread started in one edge/corner, and finished in another edge/corner. Rather than in the center of a panel.

Whoever it was would probably have been well regarded by those in the know,
especially as the clothes get mentioned in prophesy (related to resurrection).

The widows present display the clothes that Tabitha (Ταβιθά) has made.
Maybe many garments were present in her house, or possibly more likely,
the women had gathered the garment from around town to remember her life's work,
and maybe in anticipation of a need to persuade Peter.

When Peter arrives, he goes to (one of) the upper room, where they all are.
But instead of (any of) them inviting him to approach Tabitha, they (many/all) stand next to him, showing him these garments.

Musing if he recognized by "what manner" they were made by.

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A little background reading on the two theological integrities in the Church of England regarding women in ministry.