Dorcas, Christian woman
Main themes of the story
Women in the Christian community, like Dorcas, were models of the virtues advocated by Roman leaders: traditional family values like good sense, courage, and fortitude. Dorcas
This image countered accusations that the early Christians were undesirables whose practices included cannabilism (eating the body and blood of a leader called Jesus).
The story of the raising of Dorcas established Peter as a miracle-worker who had inherited some of the power of Jesus, and was therefore worthy to lead the emerging Christian church. It is set in the period of dynamic growth that followed the events of Pentacost.
The story has four episodes showing a model Christian woman who, even in death, promotes the good of the Church:
Read Acts 9:36-37
Dorcas seems to have been a well-off widow living in the coastal city of Joppa (to see the location of the coastal city of Joppa, go to MAPS). The original Greek text describes this widow-woman as 'mathetria', a female disciple - the only time the New Testament uses this word. So immediately we know she is a woman of good repute.
She is always portrayed in artworks and commentary as a holy woman, and that may well have been true. But she also sounds like one of those large-bosomed, generous-hearted women who are loved by all.
This is reinforced by the next thing we learn about her: she spends her time doing good works and 'acts of charity'. She is therefore an admired member of the community, esteemed by all.
She becomes ill and dies. Her illness is unspecified, but we may assume she was nursed by her friends and family; there was nothing corresponding to a hospital or medical center at that time. Sick people were cared for and treated within their own home, by their friends and family.
When she dies, her body is washed and cared for (see Burial Practices in the Ancient World) and then laid out in an upper room.
The 'upper room' has special significance in the Christian story. An upper room was the scene of the Last Supper in Jerusalem, and it is mentioned twice, pointedly, in the story of Tabitha. It is a space that is removed from the hurly-burly of the ground-floor courtyard and public rooms, a relatively quiet place where contact with God might take place.
Read Acts 9:38-39
Ritual mourning follows her death. She has many friends, and they all wish to show their respect and affection by openly grieving.
Mourning was not a restrained activity in the ancient Middle East. People showed their grief by wailing, crying, and tearing the upper part of their woven garment. The more noise, the more the dead person was loved.
But then someone has an idea. The people in Dorcas' house, described also as 'disciples', hear that Peter is in nearby Lydda. They send two men to get him and bring him to Dorcas' house - no doubt the widows of Tabitha's circle of friends had many sons and nephews who could be roped in for this sort of task.
Peter responds immediately, and his journey is significant. It is a twelve-mile walk to Joppa, and by travelling there Peter is moving to the limits of Jewish territory - further away from Jerusalem, which at that time was hostile to the infant Christian church. The journey is a reflection of his inner journey, as he moves away from Judaism towards a new understanding of his mission.
taken to Tabitha's body, laid out in the upper room of her house. Her
friends are gathered around her body. They show Peter the garments she has
made for the poor. The evidence for a well-lived life is there for all to
Read Acts 9:40-42
Peter is moved by their grief, but he puts them outside so that the room becomes peaceful and quiet again. There is only him and the body of Dorcas.
He kneels and prays, facing away from the body - perhaps to focus his entire mind on God.
Then he turns to Dorcas' body. Using her Jewish name, Tabitha, and drawing on the same source of power that Jesus had, he commands her to get up. The dead body responds. She opens her eyes, sees Peter, and sits up. He extends his hand to her and raises her up into a standing position.
Then he summons her friends from outside, who see with their own eyes what has happened. Acts does not attempt to describe their gaping amazement. It simply records that because of this, many people believed in the Lord - as well they might!
But it is important to see that there are two dimensions to the raising of Tabitha:
The life of the body is one thing, but it must be accompanied by life within a community.
Up until this moment, Peter believed it was his mission to convert the Jewish people.
At Joppa there is a significant change in his attitude. It is as if, after the raising of Dorcas, Peter realizes he has a more profound role to play in human history.
Acts 10 reports he had a dream and realized that 'God shows no partiality' (Acts 10:34). From this moment, Peter knows he must convert Gentiles as well as Jews to belief in Jesus Christ. This was one of Luke's main points when he wrote the Acts of the Apostles; he was writing largely for Gentile Christians.
FAMILY, WORK AND RELIGION: the tribe, the family, slaves, women's tasks, beliefs
MILESTONES IN A WOMAN'S LIFE: Puberty, menstruation, marriage, childbirth, death, burials
Present these descriptions and responses in the form of a journal entry, or assume the persona of
a bystander and tell the
group or a learning partner about your experience.
Find out about the practices and beliefs surrounding death in 1st century Palestine. Spend some time thinking about your own beliefs about life after death.
Women in films
Questions for Bible Stories
5. The narrator/editor has chosen to tell some things and leave other
things out. What has been left out of the story that you would like to
Dozens of extra ideas at Activities for Bible Study Groups and Schools
Read about more fascinating women of the Bible
Dorcas/Tabitha - Women of the New Testament, Bible Study Resource: Raising of Dorcas/Tabitha by Peter, apostle