In the Book of Acts, we’re at Joppa, a port city in Roman Judea. An urban trading center, a city of the empire. A place where cloth goods in particular, clothing, was made for sale down in Jerusalem and exported into the wider markets of the Mediterranean.*
There was a disciple there whose name was Tabitha. Tabitha is an Aramaic name,
so she was likely a Jew in this essentially Greek city. It was important to the writer that a listener know what her name meant; they translate it for a Greek listener: it means Gazelle. Gazelle is a woman of at least some wealth, which is the strong suggestion when someone in her world is described as devoted to good works and acts of charity. She had the means to be charitable to others. And she was charitable to others because something had happened to her. She was a person who had heard the story of Jesus, and been claimed by it. She was a disciple, a follower in the way.
She became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs.
Who are they, and where are they. We learn more after Peter has been sent for, and then arrives.
All the widows stood by him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Gazelle had made while she was with them.†
So, They are widows. And the writer gets that its a community. They washed her. They laid her in an upper room. All the widows are there, show the clothes Gazelle made when she was with them. The message they send to Peter is: come to us. This is a community of women.
Its a community of women in a culture which had very clear expectations of a woman’s obligations, and they had everything to do with the household she belonged to. The household was the most basic and the most inviolable institution in the greco-Roman world. The fundamental unit. But what provided stability to society and empire, didn’t provide safety or security with anything like equality.‡
Households were headed by men, and having a place was about the ability to establish a relationship to a man. A woman who wasn’t connected to a household as a slave, or a servant, or a wife, or a daughter, or a mother or a mother-in-law was adrift. Unless she had her own wealth, if a woman was widowed, and couldn’t find another household that could or would incorporate her, she was terrifyingly vulnerable and in desperate trouble. There was just no space for her to fit.
But here are a bunch of widows together. And this is the place they share. When Peter decides to stay in Joppa after the miracle, they do not invite him to make himself at home. He has to go stay someplace else—in the household of a man called Simon the Tanner. This is the place they share.
Maybe its Gazelle’s own house. A house with upstairs rooms—maybe the kind of house that was a center of production for the clothing we talked about earlier.§ And we know that Gazelle was both a woman with some money, and a woman who was a master seamstress. She’s been supporting the community, but she’s also been making clothes, either to sell, or for the women themselves to wear—maybe they’re showing the clothes to Peter as they wear them, weeping around her body. She’d chosen to be with them, and to help them go on together. And when Gazelle died, they took care of her. We don’t know if Gazelle, herself, was a widow. But if she had some other family, some other people, the women, the widows took care of her in the end. They washed her, prepared her body. And they’d heard that Peter was not far, so they sent disciples to ask him to come to pray with them and comfort them, and to bury her, I guess. Which isn’t what happened.
There is more than one miracle in Joppa. One, is that Peter calls Gazelle by name, and the power that raised Jesus from the dead moves through him she wakes up and gets up from the bed and the saints and widows come rushing in and there she is holding his hand and alive.
But the greater miracle is that in Joppa, the new thing alive and growing in the world broken open by Jesus, was a place where women like these women could become a household of their own. The new thing alive and growing in the world introduced a woman with something to give, to people who needed it. And they ended up belonging to each other. A bunch of widows and Tabitha. No one was dead, it turns out. They were all very much alive.
* For a discussion of Joppa in the 1st century, and a reading of historical evidence, including archeological evidence, that suggest Tabitha could well have been a benefactress from her position as a producer of cloth goods, see Teresa Calpino, Women, Work and Leadership in Acts. esp. pp. 141-153
† David Bently Hart, in his translation of Acts, helpfully just translates Dorcas as “Gazelle” throughout.
‡ On the position of widows and early Christian communities of widows, see Dennis MacDonald, The Legend and the Apostle
§ Calpino also identifies in the story suggestions that the household of widows we see in Acts 9 is connected to a workplace. pp. 159-160