Women in the Earliest Church, Part 2

In the last installment in this series of articles we saw that women, like men, were joining the new movement founded on the belief in the risen Jesus and, also like men, were being persecuted for it. But the traditions tell us there was a definite upside to such faith as well.

Peter, the leading missionary apostle to Jews in the Holy Land and beyond, was preaching the gospel on his way toward the Mediterranean Sea and, according to Acts, made a stop at Joppa on the coast. Joppa had been a maritime cargo port ever since Solomon had it built to receive imported cedar timbers from Lebanon for use in the construction of the first Jewish temple in Jerusalem around 1,000 BCE. Formerly a Phoenician town, its name meant “beautiful.” Later invaded by Greeks, it was liberated for the Jewish people by the rebellious Maccabee family in the second century BCE following which it became the principal port of Judea. The Romans began to occupy it in 6 CE. Thirty years later, Peter had come to Joppa after being summoned by two of its resident Christian disciples (women?). They found Peter in Lydda, about 10 miles away, and inquired as to just what he could do about a fellow disciple named Tabitha who had only recently died (Acts 9:36-41).

The Aramaic name Tabitha meant the same as its Greek form, Dorcas: “gazelle.” It seems to have been rather common at this period for women, especially slaves, to be named after female animals. She may have been a former slave now freed. On the other hand, there is evidence that Tabitha was simply used as a name for Jewish girls. She is described in Acts using a word that will never reappear in the New Testament: mathētria, “female disciple,” indicating perhaps her respected position both within the Joppa Christian community and in Christian tales and legends that may have circulated about her in later decades.

There is reason to believe that Tabitha was a widow of some financial means. When Peter arrives in Joppa he is taken to what is likely Tabitha’s own house where her corpse has been laid out in the “upper room.” The notice that there was an upper room implies that the house was of significant size and that this room perhaps served as a Christian meeting place, an echo of the “upper room” in Jerusalem where the apostles gathered (Acts 1:13). A number of widows were surrounding Tabitha’s body. They showed Peter examples of clothing, both under- and outer-garments, that she had sewn for the local community of needy women believers. It may be that these widows, including Tabitha, formed a kind of woman’s league (not a monastic “order”) in which they pooled their talents to provide and repair clothing for members of their synagogue or house church. Others have suggested that these widows were merely recipients of Tabitha’s generosity. She was, Acts reports, “full of good works and acts of charity.” This usually implies that Tabitha gave alms consistently.

In the story, the widows washed Tabitha’s body for burial, as was the custom (women prepared the bodies of women), but there is no mention of any anointing which would have been customary. Perhaps they could not afford the oil.

In any event, she was sorely missed. Not only would her acts of charity be lost but perhaps also her house as a place for Christian meetings. What made these Christian Jews think that Peter could do anything about it? There is no record in Acts that he or any other disciple of Jesus could raise the dead. The obvious point of comparison here is with the acts of Jesus. In fact, scholars see much in common with the ensuing account of the resurrection of Tabitha and that of Jesus raising the daughter of Jairus, the synagogue elder, in Galilee (Mark 5:21-24, 35-40). Perhaps not knowing exactly what happened, the author of Acts borrowed the same story elements for this episode. For example, in both accounts the holy men are invited to travel to the place of the deceased, both order the mourners out of the room, and where Jesus exclaims “talitha cum,” little girl, rise, Peter commands, in Aramaic, “Tabitha cum,” Tabitha rise. Nevertheless, the figure of Tabitha is likely historical and her prominence in providing aid to the small community of believers in Joppa in the early days of the church was remembered in the traditions which the author of Acts later incorporated into his narrative.

The next prominent woman we encounter in Acts is Mary. Many women are named Mary in the New Testament; it was the most popular name for women among Jews at this time; about 20% of Palestinian Jewish women bore it. The reason may be that it was the name given to a Jewish princess of the Maccabean (or Hashmonean) dynasty, one of the last survivors of a family who reigned in the second-to-first centuries BCE. Herod the Great took her for his second wife. The Mary we are concerned with is identified by her relationship to her son, John Mark. Legend says that this is the Mark responsible for the earliest of the four New Testament gospels. He was an active missionary; Acts shows him evangelizing Cyprus with his cousin Barnabas. Mark is named by Paul as being with him in prison (in Ephesus?) in the New Testament Letter to Philemon and in the letter to the church at Colossae (this latter being among the disputed letters of Paul). Legend later places him in Rome (with Peter) and in Egypt (sometimes with Barnabas). The fact that Mary is identified via her son and not her husband could mean that her husband was not a Christian convert or, more likely, that he was dead.

It appears from the description of Mary in Acts that she is rather well-to-do. She owns a house which is presumably in Jerusalem. People are described as praying inside her house, thus she is likely the head of a house church established there. Peter, who has just escaped imprisonment, knows about it because he immediately makes his way there. A young servant girl, who has apparently been praying with the others (evidence of the breaking down of social barriers in the new faith?), receives him at the front gate, the implied courtyard it opens to being further evidence of Mary’s prosperity.

The scene is a bit comical. Peter raps repeatedly at the gate only to be met by the servant (or slave), nicknamed Rhoda (“rosebush”). She is so astounded by the presence of Peter that she leaves him standing there, a “top-ten” fugitive who has probably just awoken the neighbors with his persistent knocking. Rhoda goes inside to alert the others within. Judging her mad, they don’t believe her, thinking she has seen a ghost or an angel. Peter is forced to continue knocking at the door before the residents go out and see for themselves. Perhaps in frustration and fear, he quickly blurts out that he is alright and asks that they tell this to James and the other brothers of Jesus – he has to go!

The entire episode has many parallels with stories of death and post-mortem visitation in the ancient world. Some scholars suggest that this is in actuality the story of Peter’s death and reappearance. Elements of the story that suggest such a scenario include the description of Peter as “sleeping” (dead?), the bright light and appearance of an angel, the way in which the prison shackles (of bodily existence?) miraculously fall off Peter, the angel’s guidance outside the prison (of his body?), Peter’s failure to believe what was happening, the miraculous opening of the prison doors, the inability of the guards to see him, the shock expressed by Rhoda and the disbelief of the residents of the house that he is alive (the same response the disciples gave Mary Magdalene and the other women that they had seen Jesus – Lk. 24:11), their suggestion that Rhoda had seen Peter’s “angel” (a euphemism for his post-mortem form?), Peter’s command to “tell James and the brothers” of his appearance (echoing the command of Jesus to Mary Magdalene and the other women at the tomb to go and make a report to “my brothers” – Matt. 28:10), and the statement at the end of the story that Peter had mysteriously gone “to another place.” Peter does reappear later in Acts but the story of his death could be presented out of chronological order. Be that as it may, alive or in spirit, Peter chose Mary’s house to make his appearance after his release, evidence of the fact that she was among the prominent leaders of the young messianic movement in Jerusalem.

Next: The saintly Thecla and the dry-goods merchant from Lydia.

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