This blog, by Richard Fellows, discusses historical questions concerning Paul's letters, his co-workers, Acts, and chronology.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Benefactor=good eyes=Gazelle (Tabitha) and Eagle (Aquila)

Tabitha (Acts 9:36-42), meaning "Gazelle" and Aquila (Acts 18:2-3, 18, 26; 1 Cor 16:19; Rom 16:3-5), meaning "Eagle" were benefactors of their believing communities and both animals were known for their good eyes. For ancient Jews and early Christians, good eyes symbolized generosity and I will argue here that these individuals had been given their names in recognition of their generosity.

We have good evidence that most of the benefactors of the early church were given new names in recognition of their generosity. I have provided a summary.

In this post I will first show that the meaning of the name "Tabitha" had great significance for Luke and should not be considered a birth name. Then, I will show that the name, meaning "gazelle", is an appropriate name to be given to her in recognition of her contributions to the community. Rick Strelan's paper ("Tabitha: The Gazelle of Joppa (Acts 9:36-41)", Biblical Theology Bulletin. May 2009), which is now available on-line hereprovided much of the stimulus for my own thinking. I will engage with Strelan's work in appendix 1 below.

"Tabitha" was not her birth name
Acts 9:36-40 reads,
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. At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. 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." 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.
Tabitha and Dorcas both mean gazelle, so in Acts 9:36 Luke is translating the name "Tabitha". In English we could render this verse, "Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which means "Gazelle"". In Acts 9:40, however, Luke uses the word "Gazelle" (Dorcas) as her name. It is not clear whether Tabitha was already known also by the name "Dorcas", or Luke is here giving her that name for the first time. It doesn't matter much. The important question is why the name "Tabitha" was rendered into Greek (at least by Luke). A clue can be found in the following survey of all the NT characters whose names were translated into Greek in early church documents:

Cephas-Petros (John 1:42)
Barnabas, which Luke interprets 'son of ~exhortation' (Acts 4:36)
Elymas, which Luke interprets to mean 'magician' (Acts 13:8)
Boanerges, which Mark interprets, 'sons of thunder' (Mark 3:17).
Thomas-Didymos (John 20:24 and gospel of Thomas)
Simon Kananaios-Zelotes (Matt 10:4, Mark 3:18, Luke 6:15, Acts 1:13) Both epithets mean "zealous".
James the Just. Eusebius quotes Hegessipus as saying that 'James was called the Just and Oblias, which signifies in Greek "Bulwark of the people"'.

In probably all 7 cases the name that is translated was not given at birth, but was given at a later time because of its meaning. This strongly suggests that Tabitha was not her birth name either.

Some have suggested that Jews often took an additional (Greek) name that was a translation of their (Semitic) birth name, and that Tabitha-Dorcas is such a double name. However, this would not explain why Luke gives "Gazelle" as the translation of Tabitha, rather than as Tabitha's bi-name. Also, there is almost no evidence that Jews ever did translate their birth names in ancient times (see appendix 2 below).  The earliest commentators on this passage, who were much closer to ancient naming practices than we are, did not interpret "Dorcas" as a mundane translation of a birth name, but saw symbolism in the name.

John Chrysostom (A.D. 349-407) wrote:
It is not without a meaning that the writer has informed us of the woman's name, but to show that the name she bore matched her character; as active and wakeful was she as an antelope. (Homily 21 on Acts of Apostles)

Bede (A.D. 672/3-735) wrote:
Now at Jaffa there was a woman disciple by the name of Tabitha, which means Dorcas, that is, "deer," or "fallow deer," signifying souls exalted by the practice of virtues although contemptible in the eyes of people. For the blessed Luke would not have provided the meaning of the name if he had not known there was strong symbolism in it. The deer and the fallow deer are animals that are similar in nature, though different in size. They dwell on high mountains, and they see all who approach, no matter how far away they may be. Hence in Greek they are called dorcades from he sharpness of their vision.
It is therefore unlikely that "Tabitha" was her birth name. Why then, might she have been named, "Tabitha"? Well, immediately after giving the translation of her name, Luke mentions her good deeds and charity and this may be a hint that she had received her name for her benefactions.

Tabitha was "devoted to good works and acts of charity" (Acts 9:36), such as making clothes for widows (Acts 9:39). Aquila too, was a benefactor, since he provided his house for Paul (Acts 18:2-3) and as a meeting place for believers (1 Cor 16:19 and Rom 16:3-5). Note that Aquila's name appears before that of Prisca/Priscilla in the two passages where their benefaction is prominent (Acts 18:2-3 and 1 Cor 16:19), indicating that he (not surprisingly) was in charge of the resources.

"Tabitha" is Aramaic, which is consistent with the view that it was not her birth name. Hacklili writes, “nicknames are mostly in Aramaic, with some in Hebrew” (These are the names. Studies in Jewish Onomastics vol. 3 Ed. Demsky. p105). "Aquila" is Latin, which would not be surprising if the name was given in Rome.

The good eyes of the gazelle and the eagle
John Chrysostom wrote:

But are you clear sighted? Not as the gazelle; not as the eagle. Homily 7 on Philippians
This illustrates the reputation of the gazelle and the eagle for acute vision. The exceptional vision of the eagle requires little discussion. Along with other predatory birds, the eagle has the best vision of all creatures. Isidore of Seville (c. 560-636), even suggested that the eagle was given its name (Aquila) because of its high quality vision:
The eagle (aquila) is named from the acuity of its vision (acumen oculorum), for it is said that they have such sight that when they soar above the sea on unmoving wings, and invisible to human sight, from such a height they can see small fish swimming, and descending like a bolt seize their prey and carry it to shore with their wings. Etymologiae XII.7.10
The Gazelle has exceptional vision for movement because it must watch out for predators.  Its eyes are open from birth and are on opposite sides of its head, giving it nearly 360 degree vision. It has striking large dark eyes.

The quotation from Bede above further confirms the gazelle's reputation for acute vision, and suggests that the Greek name, δορκάς, actually signifies good vision. Bede seems to be dependent here on Isidore of Seville, who writes:

Greeks call these wild goats δορκάδες because they see very sharply, that is ὀξυδερκέστερον. They dwell in high mountains and, although far-off, see all who approach. Etymologiae XII.1.15

Liddell and Scott give a very similar etymology for δορκάς: "a kind of deer (so called from its large bright eyes)". The very word, δορκάς, therefore represents good vision.

Intriguingly Hitchcock's Bible Names Dictionary gives "clear-sighted" as a translation of "Tabitha". I don't know why. Could "Tabitha" in Aramaic folk etymology have been considered to be a contraction of tb, meaning "good", and babatha, meaning "pupil of the eye"? I am out of my depth here.

Good eyes as a symbol of generosity
It is well established that, for Jews, a bad eye represented envy and stinginess (Francois P. Viljoen, "A contextualised reading of Matthew 6:22-23: 'Your eye is the lamp of your body'"Hervormde Teologiese Studies vol 65 no. 1 Pretoria 2009; Rivka Ulmer, The evil eye in the Bible and in rabbinic literature. (Partly available on Google books)). The converse is also attested: a good eye represented generosity. We see this in Prov 22:9
He who has a good eye (tob ayin) will be blessed, for he shares his bread with the poor.
and also in the Jerusalem Talmud:
One Abba Judah was there, who performed the law with a good eye. Being now reduced to poverty, when he saw the Rabbins he was dejected. He went home with a sad countenance. His wife said to him, "Why doth thy countenance languish?". He answered, "The Rabbins are come, and I know not what to do." She said to him, "You have one field left; go and sell half of it, and give to them," Which he did. And when they were departed he went to plough in the half of his field, and found a great treasure.   Yerushalmi Horayot 3.4 
More importantly, we see the same thing in Matt 6:22
If your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light
The context of this verse is the discussion of money and possessions in Matt 6:19-34, so the 'good eye' here represents generosity, as in the other passages. We can assume that the original intended audience understood the symbolism. It is therefore plausible that a name that signified good eyesight could symbolize generosity. We should therefore not be surprised if the believers named benefactors after the eagle and the gazelle, which had a reputation for exceptional vision.

The generosity of the gazelle
Strelan brings to our attention to the Aramaic Targum to Song of Songs 8.14,:
But in times of trouble, when we pray to you, be like a gazelle which sleeps with one eye closed and one eye open. 
The writer here is wanting the Lord not only to notice them in times of trouble, but also to act. This text may therefore give us a hint that the gazelle had a reputation for being attentive to others' needs.

Strelan also quotes the Zohar, which dates to the thirteen century, but may contain earlier material.
our Rabbis have said that she [the gazelle] is the kindest of the animals, and she has more compassion than she has children. When all the animals are thirsty they gather around her, since they know her kind deeds ... 
What is the gazelle of the dawn? She is an animal who is compassionate; among all the animals in the world, none is compassionate like her. Because, at a time when time is pressing on her and she needs to feed herself and all the animals, she goes into the distance, by a distant path, and brings food. And she does not want to eat until she comes back and returns to her place. Why? So that the rest of the animals may gather to her, so that she may divide that food for them. When she comes back, all the rest of the animals are gathered to her, and she stands in the middle and distributes portions to each and every one.
Since Luke went to the trouble of translating the name "Tabitha" into Greek, we can assume that the meaning of the name had significance. Tabitha and Aquila were benefactors of the church and it is likely that they had been named after animals with good eyes because good eyes signified generosity.

Footnote: Phoebe (Rom 16:1), whose name means "shining", was also a benefactor of the church. It is possible that she had been named with a metaphor such as that of Matt 6:22-23 in mind.

Appendix 1
 Here, again, is the link to Strelan's piece on Tabitha. I am indebted to Strelan's thought provoking work, without which the ideas in this blog post would not have been developed. He points out that, in Acts, Tabitha has a positive, charitable image, that matches that of the Gazelle. I have followed Strelan in this line of thinking.

However, Strelan emphasizes not Tabitha's charity, but her proselyte or fringe status. He argues that the name was used (by Luke at least) as a metaphor for a proselyte or someone on the edge of the Jewish community. I don't agree.

We know the names of only about 19 proselytes to Judaism in the ancient world. About half of them took new names after conversion, but these new names did not, in general, place them on the fringes of the community, but rather asserted their belonging. Thus, the names "Judah" and "Sarah" were particularly common for proselytes. We do have the example of Yeshua Giora (Giora meaning "proselyte"), but here "Yeshua" is surely his conversion name, and "Giora" is a nickname to distinguish him from other Yeshuas. It is therefore unlikely that the name "Tabitha" was given to her or to anyone else as a conversion name to symbolize her proselyte status.

But was Tabitha's name unhistorical and brought into the text by Luke as a metaphor for proselyte status? Strelan seems at times to lean toward this view. For me, a major difficulty here is that Strelan is asking too much of the readers. How were the readers expected to uncover this hidden code that has been obscure to commentators for the last two thousand years? There is nothing explicit in the text that points to Tabitha's supposed proselyte status (whereas her charity is mentioned in the same breath as the meaning of her name). It is true that it would fit the theme of chapter 10 if Tabitha was a proselyte: it would represent a step in Peter's associations towards his fraternization with Gentiles. However, it is not clear how the original readers could have made that link while still in chapter 9.

The suggestion that Luke invented the name "Tabitha" here is problematic because Luke was not an inventor of names. The names that he uses were historical, as is shown by a comparison of the names in Acts and those in Paul's letters. Bauckham's work in Jesus and the eyewitnesses makes a good case that the names in the gospels were not invented either.

Appendix 2
Tal Ilan points out that "Some scholars believe that Jews used Greek names that correctly translated biblical ones".  She then goes on to conclude that "there is little evidence" (Lexicon of Jewish Names in Late Antiquity Part I p11). I have found a few commentators who assert that Jews had double names consisting of names of different languages with the same meaning. The authorities that they cite seem, for the most part, to trace back to Mussies, "The Jewish People in the First Century" vol 2 p1052. Mussies, in turn, cites various inscriptions, but none of them contain an example of a double name. Mussies does not cite examples of double naming to prove the thesis that the Jews employed translation names. Rather, he (and others) point to the fact that certain Greek names that were common among Jews had the same meanings as names that were common in Palestine. This argument is hopelessly unscientific. Mussies is cherry picking, and does not discuss Greek names that were common among Jews that had no common Hebrew/Aramaic equivalent. Nor does he discuss common Hebrew/Aramaic names that  had no common Greek equivalent among Jews. Also, there may be other explanations for Mussies' observations. When Jews named their infants, they may have favored certain meanings, so that, in time certain meanings would be become popular in both the Jewish Greek onomasticon and the Jewish Hebrew/Aramaic onomasticon. It has not been demonstrated that there was conscious name translation going on. Also, even if parents did deliberately choose Greek names that translated Hebrew/Aramaic names, this does not mean that the child would thereby have a double name (and Mussies does not claim that it would). A child might have been named Theodotos in honor of his grandfather, Jonathan, but that does not mean that the child also bore the name Jonathan. Also, once a name, such as Theodotos, entered the Jewish onomosticon it would be passed on to subsequent generations and all connection with the equivalent Hebrew/Aramaic name might be lost. CPJ vol 1 p29 makes this point.

Most telling against the suggestion that Jews held translation double names is the lack of examples. Tal Ilan finds the names of 2531 diaspora Jews (Lexicon of Jewish Names in Late Antiquity Part III The Western Diaspora 330 BCE- 650 CE). Yet, Williams, in her exhaustive study, finds only 54 cases of any form of double naming, and only about 3 of these can be considered possible examples of translation naming. Even allowing for under-reporting, we can safely conclude that Jews rarely, if ever, translated their birth names.


  1. See Gal 3:1 for an example of the "evil eye". See, e.g., Dunn and Betz.

  2. Hi Richard,

    Thanks for providing a link to Rick Strelan's paper on Tabitha. Any chance you could email me a PDF of the article as it was published in Biblical Theology Review?

    How's your Prisca ad Junia paper going?

  3. Got your email. Thank you very much! The link works.

    (I'm away from home at the moment [reading Greek at Macquarie Uni for a week] and I can receive emails but not send them. I don't know why this happens.)