What’s in a Name?
Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. – Acts 9:36a (NRSV)
First things first: Tabitha is an Aramaic word for “gazelle” that’s often confused with Talitha, Aramaic for “little girl.” When Jesus raises Jairus’ daughter to life (Mark 5:21-43), he uses “Talitha” as a term of endearment, like mijita (little daughter) in Spanish.
Since my name Talitha comes from that biblical story, some might think I was predestined to become a pastor. But my naming had to do with economics, not theology. My family was living with my Grandmother Talitha when I was born because my father was sick. My mother (her daughter) wanted to name me Jane, but Grandmother was helping pay the bills. Those two strong-willed women compromised by naming me Talitha Jane, and for my first six years, my mother called me Janey and my grandmother called me Talitha until the pediatrician insisted they settle on one name because his nurses were getting confused. They thought I was twins.
Back to Tabitha in the book of Acts. We don’t know who named her “Gazelle.” We don’t know if her Jewish friends called her Tabitha and her Gentile friends Dorcas. We do know she’s the only woman in Christian scripture named as a disciple. We also know that when the author of Luke-Acts wrote about her being raised from the dead, he used the same word (anasti) he’d used about the disciple Matthew “rising up” from his tax table to follow Jesus. A word that’s the root of anastasi (Greek for resurrection).
Whatever her friends or family called Tabitha/Dorcas/Gazelle, one could argue that her two most important names were “disciple” and “resurrected one.”
Perhaps they’re our most important ones, too.
Whatever name we’ve been given, O God, help us live into your names for us. Amen.
Talitha Arnold is Senior Minister of the United Church of Santa Fe (UCC), Santa Fe, New Mexico. She is the author of Mark Parts 1 and 2 of the Listen Up! Bible Study series and Worship for Vital Congregations.