This is the twenty-ninth entry in the Bible Junkies Online Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles. This entry deals with Peter’s missionary travels to Lydda and Joppa and his powerful encounter with Tabitha.
For previous entries, please now go to the Complete Acts of the Apostle Commentary, where you can find links to each of the entries updated after each new blog post.
E) Preparation for the Gentile Mission: the Conversions of Paul and Cornelius (9:1-12:25): Peter’s initial missionary activities outside of Jerusalem (9:32-43):
32 Now as Peter went here and there among all the believers, he came down also to the saints living in Lydda. 33 There he found a man named Aeneas, who had been bedridden for eight years, for he was paralyzed. 34 Peter said to him, “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you; get up and make your bed!” And immediately he got up. 35 And all the residents of Lydda and Sharon saw him and turned to the Lord.36 Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. 37 At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. 38 Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, “Please come to us without delay.” 39 So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. 40 Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. 41 He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. 42 This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. 43 Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner. (NRSV)
“Rise up” (anastêthi), or “get up” in the NRSV translation, is said by Peter to both of the parties healed in this narrative, which links these two miracle stories with the power of the resurrection of Jesus. In a figurative sense we could also say it refers to Peter getting up and leaving Jerusalem to begin his activity as a missionary or something like a circuit rider, travelling from town to town, visiting disciples of Jesus. We do not learn how these people became disciples, we simply know that believers are present. Were they converted due to Jesus’ own ministry? To other missionary travels of the apostles? Or to the preaching of disciples other than the apostles?
What we learn is simply that the movement of the Gospel has continued from Jerusalem, without any clues as to how it arrived, and “as Peter went here and there among all the believers, he came down also to the saints living in Lydda” (Acts 9:32). Luke describes the general movement of Peter from “here and there,” which is intended to suggest the common reality of Christian disciples throughout the region however their communities were formed. Lydda itself, named by Luke, is the OT Lod (1 Chron 8:12; 1 Macc 11:34), a city around twenty-five miles NW of Jerusalem.
When Peter arrived in Lydda, “he found a man named Aeneas, who had been bedridden for eight years, for he was paralyzed” (Acts 9:33). Luke gives us details in this account, the city, the personal name, the ailment, and the amount of time Aeneas has been stricken, details which add a degree of verisimilitude to the story. Peter himself gets right down to business saying, “’Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you; get up and make your bed!’ And immediately he got up” (Acts 9:34).
Aeneas was paralyzed, which connects this healing miracle to Luke 5:17-26. Another detail is even more significant for the command upon his healing to make his bed is based upon Luke 5:24. Luke Timothy Johnson notes that the Greek of this phrase, strosôn seautô, is difficult since it means “spread/strew things for yourself,” but that in context it clearly means he can get up and do things for himself, in this case, he can make his bed (Johnson, Acts, 177). The truth of the healing is supported by the command to do things only someone who can walk and move about is capable of doing.
As a result of this healing “all the residents of Lydda and Sharon saw him and turned to the Lord” (Acts 9:35). The healing leads to conversion, for signs and wonders in Acts, miracles that is, are the means by which people are convinced of the power of the Gospel. Note that it is the Christus praesens that heals Aeneas here not Peter (Dillon, NJBC, 745): “Jesus Christ heals you.” But this power leads to belief in Christ.
A further geographical note is added by Luke when he mentions that not only the people of Lydda, but also of “the” Sharon – a definite article is present in the Greek – turned to the Lord. The Sharon is not a city or town, but a district, the Plain of Sharon (Isaiah 33:9), located between Caesarea and Joppa. This detail connects us to the next healing. Joppa the famous port city (2 Chron 2:16), which today is called Jaffa, is twelve miles farther NW from Lydda.
“Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity” (Acts 9:36). Tabitha is described as a mathêtria, a female disciple, the only time in the NT this form of the word is used (Johnson, Acts, 177). Tabitha means “gazelle” in Aramaic and T. E. Page says that “Dorcas” is actually an adjective which means “the creature with the beautiful look” or “beautiful eyes” (Page, Acts, 142). But Johnson says Dorcas is simply Greek for gazelle and is used to translate the Hebrew gazelle (zebi/zebiah) in the LXX in Deut 12:15, 2 Sam 2:18, and in Song of Songs 2:9 and 8:14 to define the beloved (Johnson, Acts, 177). The translation of the name to Dorcas in this account shows that this is an early Jewish-Christian story passed on by (or to) Hellenized Christians (Dillon, NJBC, 745). Once again, though, we have the important personal detail of the name.
More than that, Tabitha was noted for “good works and acts of charity,” which could include almsgiving among her other activities (Johnson, Acts, 177). As with Lydda, though, we do not know how the Gospel spread to Joppa or who spread it and how the assemblies met and gathered there. We get some tantalizing hints in this story, which I will discuss below, but nothing more.
For instance, Tabitha “became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs” (Acts 9:37). Who are “they”? Family? Other disciples? Are they in Tabitha’s home? A house church which she runs, perhaps, given her good works and acts of charity? They wash her body in preparation for burial, but it is odd that Luke omits the anointing of the body which is essential for Jewish burial. Is it a clue that she will not be buried, or simply an omission of a detail by someone who was not Jewish?
Luke then tells us that “since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, ‘Please come to us without delay’” (Acts 9:38). We learn here that the “they” who prepared Tabitha’s body must be disciples of Jesus, since they are noted as disciples in this verse. In addition, they know of and send for Peter, so they are clearly connected to other disciples including the apostles. So, another tantalizing hint is given: is it possible that Tabitha lived in community with the people who washed her body, as did the disciples in Jerusalem?
Not only do they send emissaries to Peter, but we find that Peter responds positively to the emissaries: “Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them” (Acts 9:39). This prepares us for the next narrative when Peter will respond to requests from other messengers to go and visit Cornelius.
This verse tells us more about Tabitha. There are a group of widows. Indeed, in this passage it seems as if the disciples specifically are widows, since that is how the group is described, but we do not know if they comprise the whole group of disciples in Joppa. We must suspect they are not all women since in Acts 9:38 two men were sent as messengers to Peter. As to the widows themselves, is Tabitha part of the group, a widow herself? Or are the widows the recipients of her charity (Johnson, Acts, 178)?
The widows are “showing” the clothing Tabitha made, but Page says it is more than “showing.” He says the verb epideiknymenai indicates more a sense of displaying or exhibiting and “conveys the idea of ‘showing with pride,’ ‘satisfaction’” (Page, Acts, 142). What Tabitha has made, chitonas kai himatia, are first the undergarments and second the flowing outer garments which comprised the basic wardrobe (Page, Acts, 142). After this description of the clothes is hosa, a relative adjective, which does not emerge in the English translation clearly, but describes the clothes with the sense of “as great as, as far as, how much, how many,” which indicates that Tabitha had made many clothes.
The next section is clearly modeled on Jesus’ healing of Jairus’ daughter in Mark 5 and in Luke 7:11-16 (Dillon, NJBC, 745; Page, Acts, 142; Johnson, Acts, 178). “Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, ‘Tabitha, get up.’ Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up” (Acts 9:40). The story has OT resurrection story models also (see 1 Kings 17:17-24 and 2 Kings 4:32-37) (Dillon, NJBC, 745), but clearly the precedent here is Jesus’ raising up of those who have died.
For example, in Mark 5:40, Jesus asks all the people present to leave, ekbalôn pantas; here in Acts Peter says, ekbalôn exô pantas. In addition, apart from the linguistic connection, there are the messengers bringing the healer, the weeping of the friends, the call by the healer to rise up, and the taking of the healed by the hand. I think it is even possible that the phrasing is modeled on Jesus’ healing of Jairus’ daughter in Mark. In Aramaic, Jesus says, “Talitha koum” (Mark 5:41; Dillon, NJBC, 745). Peter says, “Tabitha get up;” if also in Aramaic, it would be “Tabitha koum.” An interesting – perhaps intended – similarity.
There is one interesting discrepancy with the first miracle of Aeneas, however, and the pattern in Acts generally, and that is that Christ’s name is not invoked in the healing. Peter simply says, “Tabitha get up.” Why is this the case? Luke would not want to attribute the power to Peter himself, but perhaps it is to show the connection to Jesus’ own healing of Jairus’ daughter linguistically in terms of the simple command.
When Tabitha has been brought back to life, Peter “gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive” (Acts 9:41). The Greek for “showed her to be alive” (parestêsen heauton zônta) is virtually identical to Acts 1:3 and the description of Jesus, which indicates that this same power is working through Peter and active in Tabitha (Johnson, Acts, 178). We also learn in this verse that in the community there are definitely both men and women, since we have the widows once again mentioned, but also the hagious, masculine for “holy ones.” Do they all live together in community as did the disciples in Jerusalem? It is intriguing to think that Tabitha may have been the owner of the house whose charity and good works consisted of supporting the community, but there is too much supposition in this proposal to be certain.
Tabitha’s rising up from the dead “became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner” (Acts 9:42-43). This is obviously an even more significant miracle than the previous one for Peter raises Tabitha up from the dead. Of course the result of this event was the spread of the Gospel message, as with the previous miracle. The note that many believed in the Lord does indicate, even though Luke does not mention that Peter’s miracle was done in Jesus’ name, that these activities were done through Jesus’ power and led to belief in the Lord.
Peter stayed with Simon the tanner (byrsei) for “some time” (hikanas). Hikanas is a common word in Acts for time, number, size; it indicates something which does not fall short or is sufficient or adequate for what is needed. It is relative in meaning depending on the situation, thing, or event (Page, Acts, 143). It means that Peter spent as much time as was needed by the people of Joppa, but does not give us a solid number. Again, however, the name and occupation of Simon the tanner give authenticity to the story (Johnson, Acts, 178). The fact that byrsei, tanner, was held to be an unclean profession by the Jews is an interesting detail (m. Ket. 7:10; Page, Acts, 143). It sets us up in some ways for Peter to go to see a Gentile and to be among many potentially unclean people. In Luke’s schema it is important that Peter inaugurates the world mission to the Gentiles not Paul (Dillon, NJBC, 745). And the two miracles performed by Peter set us up for his encounter with Cornelius.
Next entry, Cornelius and Peter.
John W. Martens
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This entry is cross-posted at AmericaMagazine - The Good Word