Dedicated to the writings of Saint Luke.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Rewriting Tabitha

“Now in Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha (which translated means Dorcas). She was completely occupied with good deeds and almsgiving.” (Acts 9:36)

Tabitha was a virtuous and kindly woman who belonged to the Christian community in Joppa. She was known for her good deeds and almsgiving. Having become grievously ill, she suddenly died. At that time, the Apostle Peter was preaching at Lydda, not far from Joppa. Messengers were sent to him with an urgent request for help. When the Apostle arrived at Joppa, Tabitha was already dead. On bended knee, St. Peter made a fervent prayer to the Lord. Then he went to the bed and called out, “Tabitha, get up!” She arose, completely healed.

Tabitha and Cornelius exemplified the ideal convert (Tabitha being Jewish and Cornelius a God-fearer) as part of the Lucan presentation that persons of means and status were becoming Christians. This Lucan focus is certainly understandable if Theophilus was also a person of means and status.

Joppa was a Greek city and the border coastal region adjacent to Judea controlled by the Romans during this period. The narrative is therefore part of the step progression method utilized by Luke.

Three hundred years later, Cyprian rewrote the story of Tabitha in support of redemptive almsgiving.

“In the Acts of the Apostles the faith of the fact is established; and that souls are delivered by almsgiving not only from the second, but from the first death, is discovered by the evidence of a matter accomplished and completed. When Tabitha, being greatly given to good works and to bestowing alms, fell sick and died, Peter was summoned to her lifeless body; and when he, with apostolic humanity, had come in haste, there stood around him widows weeping and entreating, showing the cloaks, and coats, and all the garments which they had previously received, and praying for the deceased not by their words, but by her own deeds. Peter felt that what was asked in such a way might be obtained, and that Christ’s aid would not be wanting to the petitioners, since He Himself was clothed in the clothing of the widows. When, therefore, falling on his knees, he had prayed, and—fit advocate for the widows and poor—had brought to the Lord the prayers entrusted to him, turning to the body, which was now lying washed on the bier, he said, “Tabitha, in the name of Jesus Christ, arise!” Nor did He fail to bring aid to Peter, who had said in the Gospel, that whatever should be asked in His name should be given. Therefore death is suspended, and the spirit is restored, and, to the marvel and astonishment of all, the revived body is quickened into this worldly light once more; so effectual were the merits of mercy, so much did righteous works avail! She who had conferred upon suffering widows the help needful to live, deserved to be recalled to life by the widows’ petition.” On Works and Almsgiving, 6.

A work in progress.

Copyrighted 2008


Blogger Richard Fellows said...


it is often said, as you do, that it was part of the agenda of Acts to emphasize that people of wealth and status became believers. I guess that people are suggesting that Luke was being snobby.

What is the evidence for this? I believe that the data can be explained whithout having to appeal to this kind of unsupported assumption.

In the ancient world people had a duty to honour their benefactors. Therefore Luke names those who supported the church through their benefactions (Barnabas, Lydia, Jason, Titius Justus, Prisca, Aquila, Crispus, Mary Magdalene, etc.). At the same time Luke also protects the Jewish benefactors (Barnabas, Jason, Prisca, Aquila, and Crispus) from reprisals from synagogue Jews by keeping silent about where they ended up.

By honouring benefactors and protecting them from reprisals, Luke encourages future and present benefactors, including, presumably, Theophilus himself.

I don't think Luke is saying "many wealthy people joined the church" (not very many did). Rather he is saying "the church honours and protects its wealthy benefactors".

Incidentally, the very name "Theophilus" is evidence that he was a benefactor. Consider the epithet "Philotheos", which was given to Akeptous, a Christian benefactor. See
I suggest that "Theophilus" was such an epithet.

Your thoughts?

11:19 PM

Blogger Richard H. Anderson said...

Theophilus is the name of a real person who served as High priest from 37 to 41 CE.

11:51 PM

Blogger Richard Fellows said...

Richard. I know that you think that Theophilus was the high priest. I disagree.

First century Christian benefactors often (usually?) recieved new names/epithets in recognition of their benefactions (Joseph-Barnabas, Mary-Magdalene, Crispus-Sosthenes, Gaius Titius Justus-Stephanas, and others). It makes sense to see "Theophilus" as such a new name/epithet, because Theophilus was probably a benefactor or potential benefactor of the church and because the term was used as an epithet by kings (according to Plutarch) and because of the Megiddo inscription. In short, the name Theophilus is associate with benefaction and therefore, given the tendency of the early church to rename its benefactors, was probably not his birth name. Can you think of a single birth name in the NT that is associated with benefaction?

So, while I agree that Theophilus was a real individual, I do not agree that he was the high priest. Are you able to engage with the arguments that I have offered?

4:51 PM

Blogger Richard H. Anderson said...

Initially, it should noted that Theophilus has a prefix of κράτιστε which is an honorific title applied to high ranking appointed Roman officials. Luke correctly applies the title to Felix and Festus but not to King Agrippa. In the second century and later, the title could be applied to any Roman official or person of high status. As High Priest, Theophilus is a high ranking appointed official. Interestingly, Theophilus does not have the honorific title at the beginning of Acts. This probably is an indication he no longer holds his high ranking Roman appointment. It is hard to believe that a high ranking Roman official could become a Christians and the Romans not know the person and his new identity. Furthermore, the Christian missionaries would have been citing the conversion example of “Theophilus” to all their potential converts.

Secondly, there is no evidence that Theophilus is a Christian apart from the translation of the Greek word,κατηχήθης as instructed. In Acts, this same Greek word is translated as informed in Acts 21:21 and 24.

Thirdly, there are no examples prior to the third century of a Christian bearing an honorific title. See generally the dissertation of Lucilla Dinneen, Titles of address in Christian Greek epistolography to 527 A.D. (1929).

Fourthly, Christians sought to become martyrs so much so that steps had to be taken to discourage it. A number of books have examined through pagan, Jewish and Christian sources the fascination of first and second century society with the noble death phenomenon. Thus protective anonymity must be explained against this cultural background.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, Luke has a two witness theme wherein a particularly obscure woman is a witness to the resurrection but placed in a “position of prominence” in a chiastic structure suggesting that she is someone important to most excellent Theophilus. There is only one other example of the name of a person being placed in the “position of prominence” in a chiastic structure. Her name and that of Theophilus also appear on an ossuary owned by the Israeli government whose inscription has been cited by both Richard Bauckham and James Vanderkam. If the ossuary is authentic, then Johanna may be the granddaughter of the High Priest Theophlus.

I believe that Luke wrote to Theophilus the High Priest who was a member of one of the wealthiest families in Judea with almsgiving being one of his themes to remind him via the Parable of the Unjust Steward that Theophilus and the temple establishment have not been meeting their obligations of providing support to the poor.

12:44 PM

Blogger Richard Fellows said...


Thanks for your thoughts.

you wrote, "As High Priest, Theophilus is a high ranking appointed official."

Fine, but how many officials of sufficiently high rank to be called κράτιστε were there in the second half of the first century? If you could show that there were fewer than 200, say, then there would was probably no other person with the birth name "Theophilus" who could have held this title. Note that the frequency of the name "Theophilus" can be estimated from the Lexicon of Greek Personal Names, though note that some names were more common among those of high rank than others. Anyway, it would be helpful if you could attempt a quantitative analysis.

In any case, I am not persuaded that Theophilus was his birth name rather than a new name/title/epithet. See below.

You wrote, "Interestingly, Theophilus does not have the honorific title at the beginning of Acts. This probably is an indication he no longer holds his high ranking Roman appointment."

Or maybe Luke felt that Theophilus would have had Christian sympathies after having read Luke's gospel. If you are right that Christians were not given honourific titles, then this would explain why Luke does not give Theophilus the title in Acts. I suppose there are numerous reasons why Luke may have omitted the title in Acts. In any case, I'm not sure how it would strengthen your case even if it could be shown that Theophilus lost his high rank between the writing of Luke and Acts. I suppose it means that you don't have to date Acts impossibly early. Is that your point? You still need to date Luke uncomfortably early, though.

You wrote, "It is hard to believe that a high ranking Roman official could become a Christians and the Romans not know the person and his new identity". I suppose we might expect the most committed Christians not to keep their faith secret. However, some believers of sympathisers did keep it secret (probably Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus). In any case, I'm not sure what point you are trying to make her. My view that "Theophilus" was not his birth name does not require that he was a committed Christian, or even a Christian at all. He may have been a sympathiser or Luke may have just seen him as a POTENTIAL convert. We do not know whether he lived up the the name that Luke gives him here, "Theophilus", or whether others honoured him with the same name. The fact that Luke-Acts is extant tends to suggest that Theophilus was sufficiently committed to fund the publication of the text or at least to preserve it. He didn't just put it in the garbage. This assumes that what we have is not derived from a copy that Luke kept for himself. Anyway, I am agnostic on the question of Theophilus's level of commitment to the faith. Sometimes a person is given a name to reflect the type of person that others HOPE he/she will become, but the expectation is not always realised. Consider Peter, who failed to live up to his name, in many ways, even though the name stuck. In the case of Theophilus we don't know if the name stuck.

You wrote, "Furthermore, the Christian missionaries would have been citing the conversion example of “Theophilus” to all their potential converts." Why so? In any case, I don't understand what point you are making here. I suspect that Luke omitted Theophilus's birth name to hide his identity, but this does not require me to believe that Theophilus kept his faith secret. I don't think people were frequently persecuted just for being Christians. They were persecuted for being BENEFACTORS of the Christians. Consider the experience of Jason, and also the fact that Sosthenes was beaten, and that Sosthenes, Crispus, Prisca and Aquila all had to leave Corinth. Also note that Luke had to keep quiet about the collection from Achaia and Macedonia to fund the Judean church. It was benefactors of the church (and potential benefactors) who were in need of protection (particularly if they were not fully committed, one would think).

You wrote:
"Thirdly, there are no examples prior to the third century of a Christian bearing an honorific title. See generally the dissertation of Lucilla Dinneen, Titles of address in Christian Greek epistolography to 527 A.D. (1929)."

I don't see how this proves that Theophilus was not a Christian. You would need to show that people who held honorific titles droped them when they became Christians. In any case, I do not require that Theophilus was a Christian. I require only that Luke hoped that Theophilus would become (or continue to be) a lover of God, which is a safe assumption.

"Fourthly, Christians sought to become martyrs so much so that steps had to be taken to discourage it. A number of books have examined through pagan, Jewish and Christian sources the fascination of first and second century society with the noble death phenomenon. Thus protective anonymity must be explained against this cultural background."

Even the most prominent members of the movement like Jesus, Peter, and Paul, took measures to protect themselves from persecution. Even if some sought martyrdom, which is doubtful, they would not have endangered fellow believers unnecessarily.

I am not convinced by the Joanna thing. One in 27 women were called Joanna. The data is open to so many interpretations other than the one that you give it. It seems to me to be an exceedingly weak argument. Even if you could show that our Theophilus was the high priest, I would still not be convinced that the Joanna of the gospel was a relative of Theophilus.

I tend to agree with you that Luke wanted Theophilus to give to the poor. Perhaps this is an idea whose time has come. There seems to be increasing awareness of the importance of benefaction for ancient associations, synagogues and congregations.

I think you are right that we need not suppose that Theophilus was already a Christian, and I will update my web site to make this clear.

1:28 AM

Blogger Richard H. Anderson said...

You seem to negate the existence of a chiastic structure in Luke 24:9b-10 that Bauckham and others have recognized.

A ἀπήγγειλαν ταῦτα πάντα τοῖς ἕνδεκα
B καὶ πᾶσιν τοῖς λοιποῖς
C ἦσαν δὲ ἡ Μαγδαληνὴ Μαρία
D καὶ Ἰωάννα
C’ καὶ Μαρία ἡ Ἰακώβου
D’ καὶ αἱ λοιπαὶ σὺν αὐταῖς
E’ ἔλεγον πρὸς τοὺς ἀποστόλους ταῦτα

Bauckham cited L. Dussaut (1987) followed by Nolland (1993) in footnote 327.

Although the name Johanna is common, the combination of Theophilus and Johanna is not.

You also seem to negate the substantial evidence that Theophilus is a person of status and prominence in the first century and the many clues that he is Jewish since Luke does not explain Jewish customs etc.

I have detailed all of this evidence about the chiastic structure, the Jewish status and prominence of Theophilus and the significance of the combination of the two names in one document on my blog.

10:14 AM

Blogger Richard Fellows said...


actually, I did not comment on the supposed chiastic structure. Even if there is a chiastic structure in 24:9b-10, I am not convinced that Joanna is the central element in it, rather than the three women as a whole. In lists of names it is invariably the most prominent person who is mentioned first.
This was Mary Magdalene. If Luke wanted to emphasise Joanna's importance he would have named her first.

There is also a chronological problem with your hypothesis. Even if Joanna was only 20 years old when she followed Jesus and provided for the twelve in A.D~30, her grandfather is unlikely to have been less than 60. Therefore by A.D.62, which is the earliest date that Acts could have been written, Joanna's grandfather is unlikely to have been less than 92. This is highly unlikely. You need a young Joanna AND a long lived Theophilus AND rather short generations between grandfather and granddaughter. It's awefully strained.

However, I do think it is possible that Joanna, like other characters in the gospel, is named because she was known to the believing community and/or to Theophilus. Since she was connected to Herod she probably had connections with the Roman world, and she was probably wealthy enough to travel. It is therefore possible or likely that she travelled outside of Palestine either to escape the war or earlier. Therefore Theophilus, wherever he lived, could easily have heard of here or met her. So Joanna's position in the text, even if it were prominent, does not require that she was a relative of Theophilus. Bauckham may be right that Joanna was Junia, in which case she was indeed well known and well travelled, including in Rome. Perhaps she was the one who had instructed Theophilus in the faith, but, again, we have no evidence for this either.

Why do you believe that Theophilus must have been a Jew rather than a god-fearer? God-fearers would have understood Jewish customs wouldn't they? I suspect that most gentile converts were god-fearers.

You say that I negate the evidence that Theophilus was a person of status, but I do not. I think he DID have high status.

You wrote:"Although the name Johanna is common, the combination of Theophilus and Johanna is not."
I'm sure that both you and I know someone called Joanna. Does mean that you and I are the same person?

2:15 AM

Blogger Richard H. Anderson said...

The rules of chiastic structure are different. The middle name is in the position of prominence as laid our by Bauckham. The combination of Theophilus and Johanna is significant because neither name appears anywhere else in the NT.
Theophilus was living in the sixties and was the power behind the scene. His son Matthias served as HP from 65 to 67 CE. Theophilus could have been 50 when he served as HP from 37 to 41 CE and had his first child at age 14 in 2 CE. His son or daughter could have had the first child in 16 CE and this child named Johanna would be 14 year in 30 CE.

There are probably 20 or more entries on my blog about passages directed to Theophilus that would probably only been meaningful to him because he was high priest. In addition, Luke does not use the language of election because his addressee is not a member of the community. All of the high priests mentioned in Luke-Acts are related to Theophilus except one. Many priest joined the Way, Gabriel only appears in Luke, the Chosen vessel story in Act and the servant of the HP had his ear restored by Jesus are four stories that would be important only to Theophilus the High Priest.

9:52 AM

Blogger Richard Fellows said...


Let us estimate the probability that Joanna had a grandfather who was alive when Acts was written. Let us assume that Joanna travelled with Jesus and the disciples in A.D. 30. How old was she at the time? Let us assume that any age between 14 and 85 is equally likely. What was the age gap between her parent and her? Let us assume that anything between 14 and 45 years is equally likely. Similarly for the age gap between her parent and grandfather. When was Acts written? Let us assume that any date between 62 and 95 is equally likely. How old was her grandfather when he died? Let us assume that any age between 50 and 85 is equally likely. Joanna had two grandfathers. With these assumptions the probability that Joanna had a grandfather who was alive when acts was written is 1 in 29000. These are hopelessly long odds, and the conclusion doesn't change even if you feed very generous assumptions into the calculation. I recommend that you abandon the theory that Joanna was the granddaughter of the addressee of Acts.

I read your post on redemptive alms giving. Are you suggesting that Luke wrote Luke-Acts to encourage Theophilus (whoever he was) to seek redemption through almsgiving? I think this idea is certianly worth persuing.

12:31 AM

Blogger Richard H. Anderson said...

History is the record or account of past events and developments preserved of the past in written form but what makes history interesting is when unique or unusual events are recorded. If Joanna is a one in 29000 story, her story becomes the subject of history.

There are 13 separate references to Herod in the Gospel of Luke, only four of which can also be found in the other gospels. This means that there are nine references to Herod in the Gospel of Luke for which Luke had to have a source independent of another gospel. Johanna could easily have informed Jesus of the splendid style in which Antipas and his court officials lived. Johanna must have been one of the eyewitnesses available to Luke as a source for his Herodian material including the beheading of John the Baptist and the trial of Jesus before Herod Antipas. This would be reason enough for Luke to identify Johanna by name.

Luke also tells us that Johanna was one of a number of women who visited the tomb on the first Easter Sunday morning. These women proclaimed the news of the resurrection to the 11 disciples who had gone into hiding. Consequently, Johanna is one of the privileged few who accompanied Jesus from Galilee and became a witness to his crucifixion and resurrection. She is a very important person in the Jesus movement.

If Johanna is the granddaughter of an important person and a witness to him of important events such her miraculous healing and of the resurrection, she is an unusual person, the kind of person that makes history, the first relative of a high priest to become a follower of Jesus.

What Luke wrote was intended to be a private letter read by one person. It did not include “let the reader understand” or other indicia of public communication. It probably circulated privately or was used by Luke in his sermons in Macedonia and elsewhere. Sometime later, long after the reason these irenical presentations were made to Theophilus was forgotten, it was included in a collection of writings.

The names, Johanna and Theophilus, only appear in the Gospel of Luke. The unmistakable role of the placement of the name of Johanna in the vertex of the chiastic structure is to draw attention to the one eyewitness to the resurrection known personally to the first reader, most excellent Theophilus. This demonstrates that Luke has employed chiastic structures as one of his rhetorical tools in “the presentation of verifiable facts.” Johanna was the “Forrest Gump” of the first century. But she is a woman and her words were considered to be an “idle tale.”

12:24 PM


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