Tabitha is a Jewish name meaning ‘gazelle’. Dorcas is Greek, and also means gazelle. Peter means ‘rock’ or foundation; he was also called Simon.
Many Jews living in the Diaspora (outside Judaea) had two names, one Jewish and one Greek or Latin. St Paul was called either Saul or Paul. Why does Luke, in the Acts of the Apostles, give both names? To hint that Christianity is no longer an off-shoot of Judaism but part of the cosmopolitan Roman world of the 1st century AD.
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
Church mosaic of four Christian women revered in the early Church
attended to her spinning, producing garments for the poor
was a model to the community whose members revered her
dedicated her time to good works.
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
Tabitha is a Jewish name meaning ‘gazelle’
Dorcas/Tabitha has died of an unknown cause. She was an admired member of the community and many people mourn her death.
Her friends fetch Peter, hoping that he can help.
He comes, prays over her body in the upper room of the house and brings her back to life.
The event is a pivotal moment in Peter’s life. He and the first Christians are inspired and heartened, and the infant Church spreads and grows because of this miracle.
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.
Body in a shroud, with lilies
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.
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.
Peter is summoned, and responds
Sign post pointing to Joppa (actually, Joppa in Texas; my apologies to the people of Joppa, Texas…)
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.
A child’s garment found by archaeologists south of Cairo. It was woven from coloured wools as a single piece of cloth folded over at the shoulders. It appears to have been darned for recycling
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.
Peter is 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 see.
Peter raises Dorcas from the dead
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.
Masolino’s fresco of the Raising of Tabitha, Cappella Brancacci, Florence
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:
she is restored to life and
she is returned to her friends and community.
The life of the body is one thing, but it must be accompanied by life within a community.
The impact on Peter
Bust of St Peter, by French sculptor Nicolas Cordier
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.
For additional information on the lives of women in the Bible, see the links to
Imagine that you are present in the house of Dorcas when Peter raises her from the dead. Describe
what happens when Dorcas dies
Peter, how he looks, what he says and does
the response of the crowd of people when Dorcas comes back to life
your own emotions when you realize what has happened
your thoughts a few days later, after you have considered the whole incident.
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.
What happens after we die?
This is a question asked by every culture in every time.
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
Identify recent films that highlight the creativity of relationships between older women, either in a family situation or between friends.
What methods has the film used to present the relationship? Has the relationship been favorable, unfavorable or both? Explain.
The disciples grieve over the dead body of Dorcas-Tabitha
General Focus Questions for Bible Stories
1. What are the most interesting moments in the story? Why do these particular moments appeal to me?
2. In the story, who speaks and who listens? Who acts? Who gets what they want? If you were in the story, which person would you want to be friends with? Which person would you want to avoid?
3. What is God’s interaction with the main characters? What does this tell you about the narrator’s image of God? Do you agree with this image?
4. What is happening on either side of the story, in the chapters before and after it? Does this help you understand what is happening?
It was the women’s task to prepare a dead body for burial. The body was washed, and hair and nails were cut. Then it was gently wiped with a mixture of spices and wrapped in linen strips of various sizes and widths. While this was being done, prayers from the Scriptures were chanted. Major Events: Death and Burial