Monday, July 14, 2014

Letting Go of Deborah (Genesis 35:8)

What was the name of Rebekah’s nurse? Deborah

While residing in Shechem (Genesis 33:18-20), God commands Jacob to return to Bethel and build an altar (Genesis 35:1). The patriarch complies, instructing his entire entourage to purge their idols, purify themselves and change their clothes (Genesis 35:1-3). After burying the idols near Shechem (Genesis 35:4), the caravan journeys to Bethel where Jacob builds the prescribed altar (Genesis 35:5-7).

The text notes that while there, his mother Rebekah’s nurse, Deborah, dies (Genesis 35:8).

Now Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, died, and she was buried below Bethel under the oak; it was named Allon-bacuth. (Genesis 35:8 NASB)
Elizabeth George (b. 1944) imagines:
Age brought an end to Deborah’s active role of caregiver, and then Jacob’s family cared for her. She loved them, and they loved her...Deborah was buried under “the oak of weeping” [Genesis 35:8] and was lamented with sadness and tears usually reserved for family. (George, Walking with the Women of the Bible: A Devotional Journey Through God’s Word, 67)
Deborah’s death notice is puzzling. Rebekah has not appeared in the book’s last seven chapters (Genesis 27:46) and, though her unnamed nurse has been referenced (Genesis 24:59), Deborah’s name appears in the text only here (Genesis 35:8). She is not mentioned elsewhere in Scripture.

Martin Sicker (b. 1931) acknowledges:

It is not at all clear why this statement is included in the text or what its significance is, and for over two millennia commentators have struggled to explain it. Perhaps what is most troubling is its mention by name of Rebekah’s nurse, and the notation regarding her death and burial, at the same time that the text is completely silent with regard to the death and burial of Rebekah. The absence of relevant information in the text has inspired a good amount of speculation and supposition to fill the gap. (Sicker, The Ordeals of Isaac and Jacob, 167)
The announcement leaves a lot of questions. Leon R. Kass (b. 1939) asks:
The report of Deborah’s death takes the reader by surprise: Why Deborah? And why now? Deborah, has played no visible part in our story; never before mentioned by name, we know of her only from a remark made long ago, when Abraham’s servant came looking for a wife for Isaac: “And they sent away Rebekah their sister, and her nurse, and Abraham’s servant and his men” (Genesis 24:59, emphasis added). How did she come now to be in Jacob’s party? And why are we told of her death, especially since the death of Rebekah herself will not be reported? We have no confident answers to these perplexing questions. (Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis, 502)
Gerhard Von Rad (1901-1971) surmises:
The brief notice about the death of Deborah [Genesis 35:8], who is not mentioned before or after, gives one the impression that the narrator and his readers once knew more about her. One may not ask what Rebekah’s old nurse, who belonged in Isaac’s house, was doing on Jacob’s wandering. A tradition about Deborah was early connected with a place not far from Bethel. According to Judges 4:5, it may have been one about the prophetess Deborah, but then a different tradition knew of a nurse of Rebekah. Since Jacob has now arrived in the vicinity of Bethel, this brief traditional element has been attached to the narrative. (Von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 338)
The verse is classified as a death report (Genesis 35:8). Jules Francis Gomes (b. 1966) inspects:
Genesis 35:8 is traditionally attributed to E. The form is that of a “Death Report” followed by the formula reporting the naming of the place in Genesis 35:8b. Structurally, it serves as an introduction to subsequent death reports (Genesis 35:16-19, 28-29). Erhard Blum [b. 1950] demonstrates how the death, burial and place naming for Deborah (Genesis 35:8) and Rachel (Genesis 35:19-20) closely resemble each other. The death reports are interrupted by P (Genesis 35:9-15) with a parallel report on the naming of Bethel. (Gomes, The Sanctuary of Bethel and the Configuration of Israelite Identity, 88)
Narrative asides such as this are common in Genesis. Hermann Gunkel (1862-1932) comments:
The very brief “comments” that occur occasionally in Genesis stand in starkest contrast to the expansive legends—for example, when it is stated, very briefly, that Jacob encountered the divine host in Mahaniam (Genesis 32:2-3), and he bought a field in Shechem (Genesis 38:18-20), that Deborah died and was buried near Bethel (Genesis 35:8, 14), that Rachel died near Ephratha when Benjamin was born...(Genesis 35:16ff.), or that Sarah was buried in the cave of Machpelah [Genesis 23:19]...It is certainly no accident that many of these “comments” mention the place where the event occurred, indeed, that it is often the main point of the whole tradition. Consequently, we must see such information as local traditions adapted directly from oral tradition. Such brief local traditions can still be heard in the German countryside and read in legend books (cf. Jacob Grimm [1785-1863] and Wilhelm Grimm [1786-1859], Deutsche Sagen nos. 2, 6, 11, 12, 19, 21, 22, etc. and, e.g., also Karl Bader [1868-1956], Hessische Sagen 1, nos. 8, 10, 11, 17, 19, 20, etc.). Later narrators sometimes constructed whole narratives from such “comments” (cf. Genesis 4:4). (Gunkel [translated by Mark E. Biddle (b. 1957)], Genesis (Mercer Library of Biblical Studies), xlviii)
Some have conjectured that the laconic notice may have been displaced. Claus Westermann (1909-2000) notices:
There follows in Genesis 35:8 an itinerary note, apparently independent of both...Genesis 35:1-7 and Genesis 35:9-12...It would be quite appropriate, however, before Genesis 35:16; in both form and content, Genesis 35:8 and Genesis 35:16-20 belong together. (Westermann, Genesis (Academic Paperback), 244)
Though the aside seems like a non sequitur, George W. Coats (1936-2006) situates:
This little unit [Genesis 35:8] connects with the context on the basis of a catchword organization. The context concerns Bethel. The burial site at the center of this tradition is Bethel. Yet, beyond catchword organization, the unit has no contact with its context. In the redaction of the patriarchal narratives as a whole, it may be taken as an introduction to the section of narratives dealing with death and burial of patriarchal figures and their associates. The following unit (P) interrupts that organization with a parallel to the Bethel tradition in Genesis 28:10-22 and Genesis 35:1-7. But the theme of death and burial or succession returns in Genesis 35:16 (J). It should be noted, however, that this unit has more contact with an Isaac narrative than with Jacob. Deborah has played no role in the narrative frame. There is no connection between her death and the pilgrimage from Shechem to Bethel described in Genesis 35:1-7. Rather, one has the impression that with this verse J shifts the organization of the Jacob tradition from the narrative inclusion to the narratives about the last days and the death of the patriarch and his family. (→ Genesis 35:16-20). (Coats, Genesis, with an Introduction to Narrative Literature (Forms of the Old Testament Literature), 238)
Deborah’s passing inaugurates a theme in this chapter of Genesis (Genesis 35:8, 19, 29). Bill T. Arnold (b. 1955) observes:
Rebekah’s nurse, Deborah, who left Mesopotamia with her mistress to return with Abraham’s servant (Genesis 24:59), is mentioned here again here in a passing death and burial notice (Genesis 35:8). She plays no role in the narrative and is named only here. But the record of her death is the first of three in this chapter [Genesis 35:8, 19, 29], which together serve to bring closure to the Jacob narrative generally. (Arnold, Genesis (New Cambridge Bible Commentary), 302)
W. Lee Humphreys (b. 1939) compares:
The narrator tells us that on the journey from Bethel, death once more strikes Jacob’s family. The impact of the death of Deborah seems limited in terms of the narrative space given her [Genesis 35:8]. The second death—of Rachel in childbirth—carried a much greater weight [Genesis 35:16-21]. (Humphreys, The Character of God in the Book of Genesis: A Narrative Appraisal, 200)
Abraham Kuruvilla considers:
Rachel’s burial in Bethelem is puzzling [Genesis 35:19]: it was only twenty-odd miles to the family burial site at Machpelah, where Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, and Leah were buried (Genesis 49:31). Indeed, if Jacob himself could have his body, and Joseph his bones, moved 200 miles from Egypt to the same burial site (Genesis 50:1-14; Exodus 13:19; Joshua 24:32), one wonders why Rachel’s remains could not have been transported a tenth of that distance to Machpelah. Besides, her burial is described in the exact terms as Deborah’s is, in Genesis 35:8; “And Deborah died...and she was buried,” “And Rachel died, and she was buried” (Genesis 35:19). “But while the sort of al fresco burial these verses depict is appropriate for a character like Deborah, a servant who merely sojourns with Abraham’s family and not a member of the Abrahamic patriline, it seems strikingly out of place for Rachel, whom we would expect to receive instead the interment in Machpelah due an honored wife, as is accorded to Sarah, Rebekah, and Leah.” (Kuruvilla, Genesis: A Theological Commentary for Preachers, 439)
Despite multiple deaths, the overarching tone of the chapter is upbeat (Genesis 35:1-29). Martin Kessler (b. 1927) and Karel Deurloo (b. 1936) characterize:
Deborah...died and was buried under the Oak of Weeping [Genesis 35:8]. Surely, there was mourning but the event also carried the undertone that they were in the land of milk and honey [Exodus 3:8]. (Kessler and Deurloo, A Commentary on Genesis: The Book of Beginnings, 179)
Thomas L. Brodie (b. 1940) expounds:
The journey to Bethel is shadowed by multiple reminders of death [Genesis 35:1-8]. The departure has to be protected lest the surrounding cities attack [Genesis 35:5]. There is another reference to fleeing from Esau [Genesis 35:1]. And then, most explicitly, there is sudden death, sudden in the sense that it intrudes, unannounced, in the narrative. It is the death of Deborah, the nurse of Rebekah [Genesis 35:8]. Its intrusiveness in the narrative does not mean that it does not belong there. Rather it illustrates vividly one of the narrative’s key concerns—the shadow of death, and the unpredictability of the way death strikes. Deborah apparently is the kind of person who is scarcely noticed till she dies...Yet, despite the emphasis on death, the journey as a whole is positive. (Brodie, Genesis As Dialogue: A Literary, Historical, and Theological Commentary, 342)
Deborah is known only by her death (Genesis 35:8). Tammi J. Schneider (b. 1962) introduces:
Deborah is the subject of one verb: she “dies” (Genesis 35:8). Deborah is described only by her occupation, but she is never depicted as doing her job. Her importance must lie in something other than her abilities as a nurse. (Schneider, Mothers of Promise: Women in the Book of Genesis, 207)
Though her name is referenced only at her death (Genesis 35:8), most commentators have determined that Deborah is the anonymous nurse who accompanies Rebekah from Paddan-Aram (Genesis 24:59).

Sarah Shectman (b. 1973) connects:

Very little attention has been paid to this Deborah, Rebekah’s wetnurse, who is mentioned by name only once, in Genesis 35:8, although an anonymous wetnurse of Rebekah is mentioned in Genesis 24:59 as well. The latter verse states that Rebekah takes her nurse with her when she leaves with Abraham’s servant to go to Canaan and marry Isaac [Genesis 24:59]. Interpreters tend to assume that these two wetnurses are the same person, and it is difficult to argue with this assumption. The text is not concerned with the logistics of how the wetnurse got from one place to another and suggests a tradition that this wetnurse stayed with Rebekah’s family for multiple generations. (Shectman, Women in the Pentateuch: A Feminist and Source-Critical Analysis, 103)
Tammi J. Schneider (b. 1962) concurs:
Deborah is named and described in only one passage, Genesis 35:8. But there is good reason to consider another passage as obliquely referring to her. The first potential reference to Deborah appears when Rebekah is leaving her family to marry Isaac (Genesis 24:59). The text notes that they send off their sister and her nurse, along with Abraham’s servants and his men. The term used for “nurse” is meneqet. The noun used to describe this person comes from the verb yanaq, meaning “to suck,” leading to the translation “wet nurse”...Nowhere is Deborah depicted nursing a child, and it is highly unlikely that Deborah still nurses Rebekah, nor does Rebekah have children. It is not clear why she accompanies Rebekah. The reason to connect this women to the Deborah who dies in Genesis 35:8 is that she is also labeled Rebekah’s “nurse.” The title is used infrequently in the biblical text and its use for both of these women connected with Rebekah strongly supports their identification. (Schneider, Mothers of Promise: Women in the Book of Genesis, 206-07)
Deborah’s name literally means “bee”. Her name within the family might have been Aunt Bee! While running a hive that includes twin boys, she is likely “busy as a bee”.

This type of name is common among Hebrew women. David W. Cotter provides:

A rule of thumb—women’s names often allude to some aspect of the natural world, e.g., Tamar = “palm tree,” Deborah = “honey bee,” Susanna = “lily.” Men’s names, by contrast, often contain a theophoric element, i.e., some reference to God: Michael = “who is like God?” Isaiah = “YHWH saves,” etc. (Cotter, Genesis (Berit Olam; Studies in Hebrew Narrative & Poetry), xxx)
Jeff A. Benner traces the root:
The root word is ‘davar’ and is most frequently translated as a thing or a word. The original picture painted by this word to the Hebrews is the arrangement of things to create order. Speech is an ordered arrangement of words. In the ancient Hebrew mind words are ‘things’ and are just as ‘real’ as food or other ‘things’. When a word is spoken to another it is ‘placed in the ears’ no different than when food is given to another it is ‘placed in the mouth’. The Hebrew name Devorah (Deborah) means ‘bee’ and is the feminine form of the word davar. Bees are a community of insects which live in a perfectly ordered arrangement. The word ‘midvar’ meaning wilderness is actually a place that exists as a perfectly arranged order as its ecosystem is in harmony and balance. (Benner, Ancient Hebrew Word Meanings: Wilderness ~ Midvar)
Deborah is “the help” (Genesis 35:8). She is a described as a “nurse” (ASV, ESV, KJV, MSG, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV, RSV), “one who had nursed” (HCSB) or “personal servant” (CEV).

Deborah would likely have been seen as a nanny. Nahum M. Sarna (1923-2005), investigates:

Hebrew meneket is really a wet nurse, such as employed for the baby Moses in Exodus 2:7. Rebekah could hardly have been in need of such services. In Mesopotamia the wet nurse, Akkadian mušēniqtum, “the one who suckles,” frequently had the additional duties of tarbītum, bringing up the child and acting as its guardian. In Genesis 35:8 Rebekah’s nurse is identified as Deborah, and her death and burial are recorded. She was obviously an esteemed member of the family. Having attended and reared Rebekah from birth, she must have remained as a member of the household and now accompanies her as a chaperon. Interestingly, Targum Jonathan renders meneket by padgogthah from Greek paidagŏgos, “tutor,” a meaning that echoes the Akkadian tarbītum. (Sarna, Genesis (JPS Torah Commentary), 169)
Martin Sicker (b. 1931) suspects:
With regard to Deborah’s identification as Rebekah’s nurse, the Hebrew term meineket would be better translated as “wet-nurse.” It has been suggested that the term does not refer to the woman who served as wet-nurse to Rebekah, but rather that she was the wet-nurse employed by Rebekah to care for their infant sons Esau and Jacob, which might explain in part why her death was a matter of particular concern to Jacob. (Sicker, The Ordeals of Isaac and Jacob, 167)
The descriptor “nurse” is rare in the Old Testament. Tammi J. Schneider (b. 1962) inventories:
The other two “nurses” serve Moses (Exodus 2:7) and Joash (II Kings 11:2; II Chronicles 22:11). There is a reference in Isaiah 49:23 but it is to theoretical future “nurses,” not specific individuals. (Schneider, Mothers of Promise: Women in the Book of Genesis, 207)
That Rebekah has a nurse has been interpreted as a sign of her family’s wealth (Genesis 24:59, 35:8). Carol Meyers (b. 1942) infers:
Because the mention of wet nurses is so rare in the Hebrew Bible (the only other specific instances are for Moses, where his biological mother is “hired” to be his nurse [Exodus 2:7], and for Joash, a Judean king whose mother was apparently murdered [II Kings 11:2; II Chronicles 22:11]), it may be assumed that most Israelite women nursed their own children. The exceptions may have been elite or royal women. That Rebekah is said to have had a nurse may be a literary embellishment pointing to her prominence among matriarchs. (Meyers, Toni Craven [b. 1944], Ross Shepard Kraemer [b. 1948], “Deborah 1”, Women in Scripture: A Dictionary of Named and Unnamed Women in the Hebrew Bible, the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, and the New Testament, 66)
Given her vocation, Deborah is likely an important witness. Like Eugene Allen (1919-2010), the White House butler who served eight presidents, Deborah has a unique view to multiple generations of history. Her presence at one event may be especially significant.

Tammi J. Schneider (b. 1962) speculates:

Deborah is labeled not a midwife but a west nurse [Genesis 35:8]. The text does not suggest who is with Rebekah when she bears her twin boys [Genesis 25:24-26]. Could it be that Deborah is there when Rebekah bears Esau and Jacob? If so, Deborah is the only person who witnesses which child emerges first. Throughout the text the situation of the primogenitor is an issue and here it is particularly important: the Deity conveys to Rebekah that the older shall serve the younger [Genesis 25:23]...This is a major concern for Rebekah, ensuring that the Deity’s plan comes true. Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, would be the only person who knows which son of Rebekah should receive the promise. (Schneider, Mothers of Promise: Women in the Book of Genesis, 208)
Deborah has clearly endeared herself to the family, her value far exceeding her vocational position. Michelle Ephraim (b. 1969) chronicles:
The medieval philosopher Nachmanides [1194-1270] understands the nurse Deborah as a surrogate maternal figure who gets sent along in lieu of Rebecca to accompany Jacob as he leaves home. Jacob’s weeping on the occasion of her death [Genesis 35:8], he reasons, should be taken as his mourning of Rebecca, whose death ceremony, for reasons of Jacob’s departure [Genesis 28:5], Esau’s fury [Genesis 27:41], and Isaac’s blindness [Genesis 27:1], could not be properly performed: “[F]or the weeping and anguish could not have been such for the passing of the old nurse that the place would have been named on account of it. Instead, Jacob wept and mourned for his righteous mother who had loved him and sent him to Paddan-Aram and who was not privileged to see him when he returned.” The Midrash explains Jacob’s weeping, similarly, as grief for both Deborah and Rebecca. John Calvin [1509-1564] understands Deborah as “a holy matron...whom the family of Jacob venerated as a mother” whose ceremonial burial is evidence of her status. Andrew Willet [1562-1621] explains that Deborah most likely played the role of Rebecca’s “bringer up and instructor.” (Ephraim, Reading the Jewish Woman on the Elizabethan Stage, 63)
Jacob’s respectful burial of this servant is a sign of love. A contemporary literary comparison might be that of Harry Potter’s unnecessary burial of the house-elf, Dobby (J.K. Rowling (b. 1965), Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, 477-81).

Warren W. Wiersbe (b. 1929) applauds:

Jacob’s tender treatment of this elderly servant is an example for all of us to follow. (Wiersbe, Be Authentic: Exhibiting Real Faith in the Real World (Genesis 25-50), 83)
Deborah’s body is laid to rest beside an oak tree and the site is christened Allon-bacuth (Genesis 35:8). Dianne Bergant (b. 1936) explains:
Planting a tree over a burial site, as Jacob did over Deborah’s grave [Genesis 35:8], was a common practice. It might have developed from an animalistic belief that the souls of the dead could then live in trees. The name of the tree planted here is very fitting for the occasion: בכות אלון (Allon-bacuth; the oak of the weeping). (Bergant, Genesis: In the Beginning, 150)
Kenneth A. Mathews (b. 1950) supports:
The association of Deborah’s internment with the “oak” (’allôn) at Bethel also encouraged the inclusion of this burial in the passage (see “oak [’ēlâ],” at Shechem, Genesis 35:4). Her burial under a tree was not exceptional (cf. “tree” [’ēlâ], I Chronicles 10:12; also I Samuel 31:13), although in the patriarchal period a hewn cave for multiple burials was typical. Burial sites continued to be honored by later generations, providing future descendants a psychology of divinity with the land (Genesis 47:29-30, 49:29-32, 50:25; Exodus 13:19). (Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26 (New American Commentary), 620-21)
Some have connected this tree with the palm tree from which the judge Deborah operates (Judges 4:5). Jules Francis Gomes (b. 1966) informs:
The connection between the palm of Deborah in Judges and Rebekah’s nurse has been noted by many scholars, “asserting that the latter day Deborah had turned a venerable place of lamentation into a little oracular oasis.” (Gomes, The Sanctuary of Bethel and the Configuration of Israelite Identity, 121)
Klaas Spronk (b. 1957) explicates:
According to Barnabas Lindars [1923-1991], “the later editor, knowing the place, has decided that it was the right place for Deborah simply because the name was the same. This was not necessarily due to simple-minded confusion, but was the result of an hermeneutical principle, whereby one passage of scripture is elucidated by reference to another. In this case it furnished the location of Deborah, which was not given in the text.’...If Lindars is right in assuming that a later editor used Genesis 35:8 to fill the gap of information left in Judges 4, then why did he not cite it properly? In Genesis 35:8 we hear of Rebecca’s nurse Deborah being buried ‘under the oak below Bethel’ and that this oak received on this occasion the name ‘oak of weeping’ (בכות אלון). Why does the assumed editor not speak in Judges 4:5 of an oak, but instead a palm tree or, to be more precise, of חמר, using an uncommon vocalization? A commonly accepted bridge between these names was constructed by Wolfgang Richter [b. 1926]. He relates both trees to ‘the oak of Tabor’ (חבור אלון) mentioned in I Samuel 10:3, which is also located in the vicinity of Bethel. This would be according to an old suggestion a corruption of דבורה אלון, ‘the oak of Deborah.’ This does not explain, however, the use of the word חמר in stead of the expected אלו. According to Lindars the unusual vocalization might indicate a ‘different tree from the various kinds of might denote any tree.’ Why did the editor not use then, one could ask, the normal word in Hebrew for tree? More to the point seems to be the explanation of this word by Angelo Penna [1917-1981] as polemically vocalized with the vowels of בשת, ‘shame’, indicating that we are dealing here with a pagan cult object. Lindars reports this suggestion, but does not accept it. In my opinion, however, this could very well be a first clue to a better understanding of this verse. (Johannes C. de Moor [b. 1935], “Deborah, a Prophetess: The Meaning and Background of Judges 4:4-5”, The Elusive Prophet: The Prophet as a Historical Person, Literary Character, and Anonymous Artist, 234)
Some interpreters have seen the explanation of this location’s name as the primary reason behind the death report (Genesis 35:8). Robert Alter (b. 1935) remarks:
Allon-bakuth. The name means “oak of weeping.” Beyond the narrative etiology of a place-name, there is not enough evidence to explain what this lonely obituary notice is doing here. (Alter, Genesis: Translation and Commentary, 197)
Deborah’s grave site gives Jacob one more stake in the Promised Land, an important prerequisite to the fulfillment of the promises given to his grandfather, Abraham (Genesis 12:2).

John H. Walton (b. 1952) enlightens:

When the family of Jacob arrives at Bethel, Rebekah’s nurse, buried under a tree (Genesis 35:8). There is no suggestion that this land for burial has to be purchased, but its use for a tomb establishes yet another claim and foothold in the land. This continues to be an important submotif in the author’s development of covenant issues. (Walton, Genesis (NIV Application Commentary), 631)
Deborah’s presence here is odd (Genesis 35:8). She is out of place both in the narrative and geographically. Laurence A. Turner concedes:
The most puzzling element in this paragraph is the death notice of Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse (Genesis 35:8)...Claus Westermann [1909-2000] considers it to be ‘beyond comprehension what Rebekah’s nurse is doing in Jacob’s caravan’ (Westermann 1985:552). Surely she could not have accompanied Jacob to and from Haran. (Turner, Genesis (Readings: A New Biblical Commentary), 156)
Joyce G. Baldwin (1921-1995) notices:
There is nothing to suggest that she had been in Jacob’s caravan, and by this time she would have been very old, having left Haran some 140 years earlier (compare Genesis 25:20 with Genesis 35:28). Her grave would, however, have been of considerable interest to this family, which had come from the same place in Haran as Jacob’s wives. (Baldwin, The Message of Genesis 12–50 (Bible Speaks Today), 149)
Miguel A. De La Torre (b. 1958) inquires:
The appearance of Deborah as a member of the caravan is odd [Genesis 35:8]. She is the only servant in Genesis whose death is recorded, even though we know nothing about her, except that she left Paddan-arm with Rebekah [Genesis 24:59]. It is strange that the text tells us about Deborah’s death, and yet is silent about the death of her mistress, the matriarch Rebekah. Moreover, how did Deborah find herself in Jacob’s caravan? Did Deborah go with Jacob to Laban’s house over two decades earlier? If so, why is she not mentioned as accompanying him on the journey? If not, when did she join the caravan? (De La Torre, Genesis: Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible, 294)
John C.L. Gibson (1930-2008) wonders:
Had this old, old woman, who had perhaps dandled him on her knee as a baby, come north to Jacob from Hebron when he had returned to Canaan to tell him of Rebekah’s own earlier death, the mother who, it will be remembered, had expected him back from Mesopotamia in a “few days” (Genesis 27:44 KJV), but had not lived to see it? If so, the note prepares us for a quick descent from triumph to pathos; for hardly has Jacob left Bethel than his beloved Rachel dies giving birth to Benjamin [Genesis 35:19].(Gibson, Genesis, Volume 2 (Daily Study Bible), 217-18)
Many have speculated that Deborah’s presence is because she is serving as a messenger. Rashi (1040-1105) records a tradition that Rebekah has sent Deborah to alert Jacob that it is finally safe to return (Genesis 27:45).

Martin Sicker (b. 1931) supposes:

It is suggested that, notwithstanding her obviously advanced age, Deborah was sent by Rebekah to find Jacob and encourage him to return home, fulfilling Rebekah’s promise to him when she sent him away to escape his brother’s anger until it was assuaged, then I will send and fetch thee from thence (Genesis 27:45). According to this reconstruction of events, Deborah encountered Jacob after he left Shechem and reported to him that his mother Rebekah had died, and then succumbed herself. (Sicker, The Ordeals of Isaac and Jacob, 167-68)
More commonly, Deborah is seen as the bearer of the bad news that Rebekah has died. Robert R. Gonzales, Jr. (b. 1963) conjectures:
After Rebekah’s death and on learning that Jacob was on his way, Deborah apparently went to meet Jacob to give him the news. Ironically, she dies sometime shortly afterwards. (Gonzalez, Where Sin Abounds: The Spread of Sin and the Curse in Genesis with Special Focus on the Patriarchal Narratives, 236)
The presumption is that if Deborah is not with Rebekah, Rebekah is dead. Rebekah is Deborah’s home. This makes the passage as indirect allusion to Rebekah. In this way, Deborah is doing what she always does: standing in as a surrogate for Rebekah.

Many have seen Deborah’s death notice as an indictment against Rebekah. When last seen, the matriarch assures her reluctant son, Jacob, that if he deceives his brother Esau, as she proposes, that she will incur any resulting curse upon herself (Genesis 27:13). Rebekah assumes the consequences for Jacob’s actions.

Bruce K. Waltke (b. 1930) understands:

Rebekah stakes her life on her convictions [Genesis 27:13]. Knowing the oracle she has been given that the older will serve the younger [Genesis 25:23], she can dismiss Jacob’s fears. Although her faith pays off and no curse falls on her, she pays a price for her deception. Ominously she disappears...after this scene. The narrator memorializes Deborah, her nurse not Rebekah (Genesis 35:8) and makes no notice of her death (cf. Genesis 23:1-2). At the end of Genesis however, he notes that she was given an honorable burial with the other patriarchs and matriarchs in the cave of Machpelah (see Genesis 49:31). (Waltke with Cathi J. Fredricks [b. 1970], Genesis: A Commentary, 378-379)
Deborah’s presence is a reminder of Rebekah’s conspicuous absence. Victor P. Hamilton (b. 1952) scrutinizes:
The last we heard of her [Rebekah] was Genesis 27:46, well over twenty years before this scene. Without exception Genesis tells us about each patriarch’s death and burial (Abraham, Genesis 25:7-11; Isaac, Genesis 35:29; Jacob, Genesis 49:33). Genesis also tells us about the death and burial of each patriarch’s favorite wife (Sarah, Genesis 23:1-20; Rachel, Genesis 35:19). The exception is Rebekah, apart from the summarizing statement in Genesis 49:31. Presumably she died and was buried before Jacob returned from Aram-naharaim, for there is no reference to Jacob being reunited with Rebekah. Rebekah is gone, though survived by her nurse, but only Jacob arrives. He not only does not get to see his mother, but is forced to become undertaker for his late mother’s nurse [Genesis 35:8]. Thus, one of Jacob’s first experiences after coming back home is confronting death. But including the name Rebekah, the author helps his reader recall her character, she who instigated the deception of Isaac [Genesis 27:5-10]. Her punishment (implied at least) is that she will never get to see her son again. (Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50 (New International Commentary on the Old Testament), 378)
Laurence A. Turner bolsters:
The effect of her [Deborah’s] death notice in this context is important. The narrator has provided the death notices for Sarah (Genesis 23:1-2), and for Rachel in the next paragraph (Genesis 35:19), but for Rebekah, the death of her nurse is provided [Genesis 35:8]. Perhaps depriving Rebekah of a death notice, but providing one for her nurse, passes silent comment on her role in the story. Others who died were remembered; but Rebekah has died and been forgotten. (Her burial place is mentioned in passing only in Genesis 49:31). She died without ever seeing her son again (cf. Genesis 27:44-45), and appears to have said more than she realizes when she told Jacob, ‘Let your curse be on me, my son’ (Genesis 27:13; see Joyce G. Baldwin [1921-1995] 1986:149). (Turner, Genesis (Readings: A New Biblical Commentary), 156)
Deborah is a character who is introduced at her funeral (Genesis 35:8). Her life is not documented, only her death. She is known by her obituary.

Her nature can be inferred from the two passages that reference her (Genesis 24:59, 35:8): Having spent so many years in service to Rebekah, she is loyal and faithful. Deborah must have been courageous to both leave her homeland with Rebekah (Genesis 24:59) and then, at some later point, leave another familiar place at an advanced age to reunite with Jacob in Bethel (Genesis 35:8).

Furthermore, the documentation of her death is evidence that Deborah is an important member of Jacob’s household (Genesis 35:8). The patriarch feels very attached to the woman. This sentiment is likely amplified by Deborah representing the last vestiges of his beloved mother, Rebekah.

At her death, Deborah, a character usually behind-the-scenes, takes a rare turn in the spotlight. She is an unsung hero. In a heart warming moment, the Bible documents the care Jacob takes in regards to this caretaker (Genesis 35:8). The loss of someone the world would have viewed as insignificant is felt greatly by Jacob. And his God.

Why is Deborah’s death notice recorded in Scripture (Genesis 35:8)? When have you felt out of place? Who do you overlook; are you familiar with any unsung heroes? Has anyone served as a surrogate parent to you or your children? How do you feel about these people? When has a person’s death been more documented than their life? When have you felt that you met someone after they passed? How would you want your obituary to read?

This period represents a time of transition in Jacob’s life. Deborah is a connection to his past. John Phillips (1927-2010) envisions:

It was a great comfort to Jacob to have her back and, no doubt, a great comfort to his wives as well, for she was a link with Padan-aram. How eagerly Deborah must have asked after Laban and old friends of years gone by. Then, too, she, was a link with Rebekah, a link with him, a link with Jacob’s past, with boyhood days, with life’s early memories. But God was gently severing all those ties and separating Jacob to Himself, so Deborah died and was tenderly buried under a notable terebinth tree, a landmark in those parts now to be called “The oak of weeping” [Genesis 35:8]. It was snapping one more tie that bound Jacob to earthly things. (Phillips, Exploring Genesis: An Expository Commentary, 275)
Burying Deborah marks the end on an era (Genesis 35:8). Kenneth A. Mathews (b. 1950) denotes:
Her [Deborah’s] presence recalls Abraham and Isaac, whose connection with Paddan Aram arose from the servant’ attainment of Rebekah (Genesis 24:59). Deborah then represented the past, and her presence in Jacob’s circle meant that the past is revived in the return of Jacob. Similarly, the death of Rachel in conjunction with Benjamin’s birth also recalls the past in Paddan-Aram (Genesis 35:16-20), which is now only a painful memory for Jacob. The burials of Deborah and Rachel meant the end of the Aramean era. (Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26 (New American Commentary), 614)
R. Kent Hughes (b. 1942) agrees:
Now, with the patriarch in Bethel, God began to effect a transition to a new generation with the death of aged Deborah. “And Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, died, and she was buried under an oak below Bethel. So he called its name Allon-bacuth [“oak of weeping”] (Genesis 35:8). Deborah’s 180 years bridged the lives of the first two patriarchs, “and her death reminded the people of the era that ended with the return of Jacob to Bethel” (Allen P. Ross [b. 1943]). Change was in the air. (Hughes, Genesis: Beginning and Blessing (Preaching the Word), 421)
In laying Deborah to rest, Jacob is burying his past. This is connected to the burial of his family’s idols four verses earlier (Genesis 35:4). Victor P. Hamilton (b. 1952) bridges:
Deborah being buried [wattiqqābēr] under the oak tree [’allon] parallels Jacob’s burying (wayyitmōn) the false gods under a terebinth (’ēlâ), earlier in the chapter [Genesis 35:4]. For the gods’ burial the root tāman is used. For Deborah’s burial, the more usual root qābar is used. The opening unit in the Jacob cycle (Genesis 25:19-34) contains, among its emphases, the birth of two people, Esau and Jacob. The concluding unit in the Jacob cycle (Genesis 35:1-22) contains, among its emphases, the death of two people, Deborah [Genesis 35:8] and Rachel [Genesis 35:19]...Jacob’s life after the events at Peniel [Genesis 32:24-32] is filled with hardship: the trauma of facing Esau again [Genesis 33:1-17], the violation of Dinah [Genesis 34:1-31], the death of his late mother’s nurse [Genesis 35:8], the death of Rachel in childbirth [Genesis 35:16-20]. In the remainder of his life he will face more tragic and distressing situations. (Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50 (New International Commentary on the Old Testament), 378-79)
Leon R. Kass (b. 1939) joins:
The place of Deborah’s burial, “beneath the oak” (tachath ha’allon), reminds of the burial of the foreign gods and earrings, also “beneath the oak” (tachath ha’elah), at Shechem, during the recent purification, mentioned but a few verses earlier (Genesis 35:4). Deborah, the last remnant of the world of Paddan-aram, the old nurse of his mother who had been sent to watch over her as she left to join the people of God’s covenant, now at last departs; with her burial “beneath the oak” are symbolically laid to rest all traces of Mesopotamian influence. (Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis, 502)
Thomas L. Brodie (b. 1940) applies: buried under an oak tree, which they called the Oak of Weeping (or Oak of Tears, Genesis 35:4, 8). Her tearful burial, under the tree, forms a precise literary continuity with the burial of the foreign gods under a tree (Genesis 35:4, 8). The apparent suggestion, is that, while tears have their place—they are prominent in the Odyssey—they can also be foreign gods, idols, and it is right at a certain point to bury them, to put them away. (Brodie, Genesis As Dialogue: A Literary, Historical, and Theological Commentary, 342)
In this time of transition, Jacob’s puts his past to rest. Some burials, like Deborah’s, are good things that are relinquished with tears (Genesis 35:8). Others, like the false gods, are not (Genesis 35:4). Jacob lets go of both to embrace the future that awaits.

When have you wept over loss? What is your greatest loss? What do you need to let go of in order to move forward?

“Holding on is believing that there’s only a past; letting go is knowing that there’s a future.”- Daphne Rose Kingma (b. 1942), The Ten Things to Do when Your Life Falls Apart: An Emotional and Spiritual Handbook, p. 74

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Paul the Tentmaker (Acts 18:3)

What was Paul’s occupation? Tentmaker (Acts 18:3)

During Paul’s second missionary journey, the apostle travels from Athens to Corinth (Acts 18:1). In Corinth, he stays with a Jewish husband and wife named Aquila and Priscilla who have been banished from Rome by the Edict of Claudius (Acts 18:2). Paul also joins the couple in their trade of tentmaking (Acts 18:3).

And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, having recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome. He came to them, and because he was of the same trade, he stayed with them and they were working, for by trade they were tent-makers. (Acts 18:2-3 NASB)
Despite not having been previously referenced, Acts casually reports that Paul works as a tentmaker as if his trade is common knowledge (Acts 18:3). This is one of the few biographical facts Acts provides about the famous missionary (Acts 18:3).

David Wenham (b. 1945) compiles:

In the book of Acts Paul first appears on the scene as a ‘young man’ at the killing of Stephen (Acts 7:58). Acts gives us very little information about his background; but we gather that he had a Hebrew and a Roman name (Saul and Paul respectively). Born in Tarsus he was a citizen of that city (Acts 21:39, 22:3), and also a Roman citizen by birth (Acts 16:38, 22:26, 27). By trade he was a tent-maker (or leather-worker) (Acts 18:3). A ‘Pharisee and son of Pharisees’, he trained in Jerusalem under Gamaliel, ‘educated strictly according to our ancestral law, being zealous for God’ (Acts 22:3, 23:6). He was fluent in Hebrew/Aramaic (Acts 22:2) but apparently associated with the Greek-speaking synagogues of Jerusalem (to judge from his involvement with Stephen; cf. Acts 6:9 and also Acts 9:29). (Bruce W. Winter [b. 1939] and Andrew D. Clarke, “Acts and the Pauline Corpus II. The Evidence of Parallels”, The Book of Acts in its First Century Setting: Ancient Literary Setting 216-17)
Robert L. Brawley (b. 1939) sees Acts’ character sketch as supporting its historicity:
Paul’s highly repetitious references to himself, especially in the Miletus address and the defense speeches, point to a literal character. In addition, Acts individuates Paul as a persecutor of Christians [Acts 9:4-5, 22:4, 7-8, 26:14-15], a Pharisee [Acts 23:6] educated under Gamaliel [Acts 22:3], a tentmaker [Acts 18:3], and a Roman citizen [Acts 22:26-29, 23:27] (cf. Jacob Jervell [1925-2014] 1972:154, 161-63)—characteristics that have no symbolic counterpart in Christianity as a whole. He faces some typical opponents, but others confront him uniquely (e.g., Acts 21:21, 28, 24:5). (Brawley, Centering on God: Method and Message in Luke-Acts, 156)
Though he enters the text eleven chapters earlier (Acts 7:58), this is the first time that Acts mentions that Paul works in this capacity (Acts 18:3). Either he has never previously plied his trade while on the mission field and he is adapting his strategy to correct a deficiency or he has always worked and there had simply been no cause to mention this activity previously.

James Montgomery Boice (1938-2000) speculates:

This is the first time in the missionary journeys of Paul, so far as we can tell, that he found it necessary to support himself by making tents...How had he managed before? No doubt those who sent him had given him sufficient money. (Boice, Acts: An Expositional Commentary, 306)
Kenneth O. Gangel (1935-2009) adds:
Paul wrote often about his “secular occupation” and seemed to take a good bit of heathy pride in his self-support (I Corinthians 4:12; I Thessalonians 2:9; II Corinthians 11:7). Only here, however, does the Bible tell us Paul was a tentmaker...Willingness to work to support oneself while proclaiming the gospel served as a life principle for Paul. (Gangel, Acts (Holman New Testament Commentary), 303)
Though Paul does not specify the type of manual labor he performs in his letters, he alludes to it. Luke Timothy Johnson (b. 1943) introduces:
Paul...makes a considerable point of his “working with his hands” (I Thessalonians 2:9; II Thessalonians 3:6-8; I Corinthians 4:12, 9:6), in this following one ideal for teachers of wisdom, found among at least some of the Rabbis (see Pirke Aboth 2:2, 4:7; Aboth de Rabbi Nathan 11), as well as among certain Cynic Philosophers (see Diogenes Laertius [third century], Lives of Eminent Philosophers 7:168 (Cleanthes [331-232 BCE]); Epictetus [55-135], Discourses 3,26, 23; Musonius Rufus [first century], fragment 11). (Johnson, Acts (Sacra Pagina), 322)
Mikeal C. Parsons (b. 1957) informs:
Like Paul, Aquila and Priscilla were also tentmakers [Acts 18:3]...This characterization of Paul as an artisan who worked with his hands coheres with the picture Paul paints of himself in his letters (I Corinthians 4:12, 9:6; I Thessalonians 2:9; II Thessalonians 3:6-8). If the Paul of the letters viewed such manual labor negatively (so Ronald F. Hock [b. 1944] 1978, 555-64; but cf. now Todd D. Still [b. 1966] 2006, 781-95), there is no indication he does so in Acts (cf. also Acts 20:34-35). Paul stayed and worked with Aquila and Priscilla [Acts 18:2-3]. Paul moves from intellectual debate with Athenian philosophers to manual labor with Corinthian artisans, and in so doing “becomes all things to all people” (I Corinthians 9:22). His economic self-sufficiency was no doubt important, not only given the length of his stay (eighteen months; cf. Acts 18:11), but also because of Corinth’s reputation for hosting philosophical charlatans and other “peddlers” who sold their intellectual “wares” to the highest bidders...It is little wonder...for an audience familiar with such practices that Luke would characterize Paul as engaging in work for self-support in order to distinguish himself from these hucksters in much the same way that Paul in writing to the Corinthians would seek to distance himself from “so many who are peddlers of God’s word” (II Corinthians 2:17). (Parsons, Acts (Paideia: Commentaries on the New Testament), 250-51)
While Paul does not make a direct reference to tentmaking in his writings, he does present a related analogy. James F. Kay (b. 1948) connects:
In II Corinthians 5:1 Paul, the tentmaker (Acts 18:3), switches his metaphors. The “body” (II Corinthians 5:8) is likened to a destructible “earthly tent” in contrast to a “house...eternal in the heavens.” Our tattered flesh, in which the treasured gospel finds embodiment, strains forward to God’s permanent provision for risen life. Treasured by God, eternal security awaits us in glory when we shall be “at home with the Lord” (II Corinthians 5:8). “So we do not lose heart” (II Corinthians 4:16, 1), and “we are always confident” (II Corinthians 5:6) amid our present struggles on behalf of the gospel. (Roger E. Van Harn [b. 1932], “Third Sunday after Pentecost, Year B”, The Second Readings: Acts and the Epistles (The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts, 253)
Aquila, Priscilla and Paul presumably work closely together as in this era people sharing a trade worked in close proximity (Acts 18:2-3). This practice still holds in some areas. For instance, many Oriental rug distributors sell in the same region of Atlanta.

Bruce J. Malina (b. 1933) and John J. Pilch (b. 1936) report:

In the ancient Mediterranean world, artisans lived in their respective quarters. Hence, tentmakers lived in one place and Paul, who plied this trade, would very naturally seek lodging there. We agree with Ekkehard W. Stegemann [b. 1945] and Wolfgang Stegemann [b. 1945] (1999:300) that by Paul’s own testimony (I Thessalonians 2:9; I Corinthians 4:12; II Corinthians 11:7) he worked hard, day and night, with fellow tradespersons for a daily wage in workshops. (Malina and Pilch, Social-science Commentary on the Book of Acts, 130)
Bruce B. Barton (b. 1943) explains:
Since ancient craftsmen did not compete as merchants do today but rather formed cooperative trade guilds and often lived in close proximity, it is not surprising that Paul and Aquila worked together [Acts 18:2-3]. Because many of the trade guilds had adopted pagan practices, two God-fearing artisans would have been delighted to work together. (Barton, Romans (Life Application Bible Commentary, 311)
In addition to living in close proximity, Aquila, Priscilla and Paul share other common bonds, three especially important: race, religion and occupation. Given this commonality, it is not surprising that the trio bonds and becomes lifelong friends (Acts 18:2, 18; Romans 16:3; I Corinthians 16:19; II Timothy 4:19).

Robert C. Tannehill (b. 1934) deduces:

Aquila and Priscilla are introduced in Acts 18:2. They are important, first of all, because they enable Paul to work at his trade. Later they will travel with Paul from Corinth to Ephesus (Acts 18:18) and will play a role in the mission as teachers during Paul’s absence from Ephesus (Acts 18:26). Thus they are more than employers. The reference to Paul working with them at a trade in Acts 18:3 prepares for Paul’s statement in his farewell speech that he supported himself and others with his own hands (Acts 20:33-35). His statement there indicates that he did hand labor not only in Corinth but also later in Ephesus. (Tannehill, The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts: A Literary Interpretation, Volume 2: The Acts of the Apostles, 221)
Though there is some debate, most assume that all three, including Priscilla, work as tentmakers (Acts 18:2-3). Luise Schottroff (b. 1934) researches:
There are two versions of Acts 18:3 in the handwritten manuscripts. One version...says that Prisca, Aquila, and Paul worked in the trade of tentmaking (“he stayed with them and they worked”). The other version uses the singular—“and he [Paul] worked”—creating the impression that Paul is living with people of the same trade and, on that basis, pursues his work...The more reliable and older version leaves the impression that Aquila, Prisca, and Paul live together and, for that reason, also work together. The change to the singular, which makes no mention of Prisca working, belongs to the recognizable intention of one part of the handwritten communication of Acts, which was to push Prisca into the background. Even Adolf von Harnack [1851-1930], who had clearly brought this matter to attention and had commented extensively on Prisca, devotes to her work the singular notice that she and her husband made tents. In more recent commentaries, I find either that Aquila and Prisca were a well-to-do couple who owned a tentmaking business and that Paul was employed by them or that Aquila and Prisca were tentmakers. Reference to Prisca’s work is missing even where the vocation of tentmaking is discussed as the vocation of Aquila and Paul or of Aquila and Prisca. The conditions under which women live are no subject matter for traditional interpretation even when the text, as in this case, speaks about them directly. Extensive analysis of and theological reflection on women’s work in the New Testament can be found particularly in the work of Ivoni Richter Reimer [b. 1959], a woman scholar of feminist liberation theology. (Schottroff, Lydia’s Impatient Sisters: A Feminist Social History of Early Christianity, 88)
The work in which the trio is engaged is described by the Greek skēnopoiós. The term is almost universally translated as tentmakers with only the grammatical construction varying: “tentmaker(s)” (ESV, HCSB, KJV, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV, RSV), “tent makers” (ASV, CEV), “tent-makers” (NASB) or “tentmaking” (MSG).

This is in fact, the literal meaning of the term. Though the word’s scope is broader, the translation of tentmaker is so pervasive that even contemporary paraphrases like The Message and The Voice retain it.

James M.M. Francis (b. 1944) recognizes:

To be sure it would be more accurate to refer to Paul as a leather worker but the description of tentmaker has come to predominate, so much so that in the United States of America non-stipendiary ministry is regularly preferably described as a tentmaking ministry, harking back to the example of Paul [Acts 18:3]. (Francis and Leslie J. Francis [b. 1947], “Biblical Perspectives”, Tentmaking: Perspectives on Self-Supporting Ministry, 1)
Despite the consistency among translators, the word’s precise meaning is disputed. Instead of simply indicating a tentmaker, skēnopoiós is commonly thought to be an umbrella term encompassing a variety of skills pertaining to leather working.

The exact meaning of the term cannot be established with confidence. F.J. Foakes-Jackson (1855-1941) acknowledges:

Σκηνοποιός is a difficult word. It is rendered ‘tent-maker’ in the Authorized Version [Acts 18:3]. In the Vulgate there is no attempt to translate the word, which is rendered scenofactoriae artis. One Latin manuscript has lectari (lectarii)—makers of couches. The rendering workers in leather, found in some Latin versions, is open to the alleged objection that this was considered an unclean trade, and consequently one not likely to be chosen by a family of strict Pharisees, like Paul’s [Acts 26:5; Philippians 2:5]. Paul is popularly called a ‘tent-maker’; and there we must leave it. (Foakes-Jackson, Acts (Moffat Commentary), 169)
Frank Stagg (1911-2001) admits:
The common trade which brought Paul and Aquila together is usually held to have been that of tentmaker [Acts 18:3]. The Greek word means just that etymologically, but early writers refer the term to leather-workers. This latter is not a likely trade for a Jew, because of the “defiling” force of skins; and cloth made of goat hair would have offered Paul a ready trade, since it was the special product of Cilicia...The reader is faced with inconclusive evidence and in honesty must plead ignorance. In view of the uncertainty of the evidence, there is little reason for departing from the traditional view that Paul was a tentmaker. (Stagg, The Book of Acts: The Early Struggle for an Unhindered Gospel, 189)
Ivoni Richter Reimer (b. 1959) explicates:
The word σκηνοποιοί, “tentmakers,” is a New Testament hapax legomenon [Acts 18:3]. Therefore no New Testament passage can be adduced to explain it; nor is it found in the Septuagint, although there we do find σκηνή, “tent” (e.g., Genesis 4:20: “those who live in tents...”. As far as I can tell, the word σκηνοποιός is attested only twice in literary sources, and not at all in Greek inscriptions. It is a composite of the two words σκηνή and ποιέω, which in the active voice means “to make tents,” not in the sense of “pitching tents,” but in that of producing them. (Reimer, Women in the Acts of Apostles: A Feminist Liberation Perspective, 199)
Several potential meanings have been posited. Beverly Roberts Gaventa (b. 1948) presents:
Disputes persist about the exact nature of the labor Luke identifies as skēnopoioi (NRSV: tentmakers), whether it refers to leather work, the actual construction of tents, weaving, or even the construction of theatrical sets (Ronald F. Hock [b. 1944] 1980, 20-21; [Walter Bauer [1870-1960], F. Wilbur Gingrich [1901-1993], William F. Arndt [1880-1957] and Frederick W. Danker [1920-2012] 928-29). Paul’s letters refer to his labor, but not to a specific trade (I Corinthians 4:12). Similarly, interpreters differ in their estimates of the income and status attached to this labor. That Aquila and Priscilla are able to accommodate Paul at least suggests that they do not operate at a mere subsistence level, but that fact scarcely places them among the elite. In addition, nothing in the syntax permits identifying Aquila and Paul, but not Priscilla, as laborers (Ivoni Richter Reimer [b. 1959] 1995:195-226). (Gaventa, Acts (Abingdon New Testament Commentaries), 256)
Darrell L. Bock (b. 1953) contemplates:
Paul and these two make an immediate connection because they share the same trade (τέχνη, technē). I Corinthians 4:12 refers to how Paul labored with his hands to earn a living (also I Thessalonians 2:9). They are tentmakers, which likely included working with leather in general, so that they can be considered leatherworkers (Wilhelm Michaelis [1896-1965], Theological Dictionary of the New Testament 7:393-94, speaks of primarily leatherwork, which also could include tents; Jacob Jervell [b. 1925] 1998:458). They are not weavers of goat hair as some suggest (correctly, Gerhard Schneider [1926-2004] 1982:249; William J. Larkin [1945-2014] 1995:262-63n). (Bock, Acts (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), 578)
Some have posed the alternate theory that Paul is in actuality a stage maker. L.L. Welborn (b. 1953) relates:
The term used by Acts to describe their occupation, σκηνοποιός, is traditionally translated “tent-maker” [Acts 18:3]; but Frederick W. Danker [1920-2012], the editor of A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, has...argued, on the basis of contemporary usage, that readers of Acts in urban areas would have thought of σκηνοποιός in reference to matters theatrical, and so he has proposed the translation “maker of stage properties.” Whether as a “tent-maker” or a “prop-maker,” Paul lived and worked with Jewish artisans in one of the little ships scattered throughout the city, perhaps in the Peribolos of Apollo just off the Lechaeum Road, or in the North Market, or along East Theater Street. (Mark Harding [b. 1951] and Alanna Nobbs [b. 1944], All Things to All Cultures: Paul Among Jews, Greeks, and Romans, 208)
Bartosz Adamczewski (b. 1967) directs:
Luke’s description of Paul as tentmaker, a trade that was hardly profitable in a great city and that, moreover, was referred to by Luke with a neologism in this meaning (σκηνοπσιός: Acts 18:3), probably alludes to II Corinthians 5:1.4. For a suggestion that this noun meant “maker of stage properties” and as such it alluded to I Corinthians 4:9, see William O. Walker, Jr. [b. 1930], ‘The Portrayal of Aquila and Priscilla in Acts: The Question of Sources’, 488-89. (Adamczewski, Heirs of the Reunited Church: The History of the Pauline Mission in Paul’s Letters, in the So-Called Pastoral Letters, and in the Pseudo-Titus Narrative of Acts, 127)
Eckhard J. Schnabel (b. 1955) counters:
Frederick W. Danker [1920-2012] suggests that the Greek term skēnopoios, which is usually translated as “tent-maker,” should be interpreted in the sense of “maker of stage properties” for theatrical productions (Walter Bauer [1870-1960], F. Wilbur Gingrich [1901-1993], William F. Arndt [1880-1957] and Frederick W. Danker [1920-2012], 928-29). Note, however, the Jewish objections toward the theater; cf. Emil Schürer [1844-1910], History of the Jewish People, 2:54-55. (Schnabel, Paul the Missionary: Realities, Strategies and Methods, 105)
Some have posited that Paul’s trade is that of weaving in conjunction with a purported connection to his home territory, Cilicia (Acts 21:39, 22:3, 23:34). F.F. Bruce (1910-1990) opines:
Paul’s trade was probably connected with the chief manufacture of his native province, cilicium, a cloth of goats’ hair from which were made coverings designed to give protection against cold and wet. While the etymological sense of σκηνοποιός is “tent-maker,” it was used in the wider sense of “leather-worker” (cf. English “saddler,” which has a wider sense than “maker of saddles”). Ronald F. Hock [b. 1944], who puts Paul’s manual work in a Hellenistic social setting (cf. “Paul’s Tentmaking and the Problem of his Social Class,” Journal of Biblical Literature 97 [1978], pp. 555-64; “The Workshop as a Social Setting for Paul’s Missionary Preaching,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 41 [1979], pp.438-50; and The Social Context of Paul’s Ministry: Tentmaking and Apostleship [Philadelphia, 1980]), finds a polemic note in Paul’s own references to it; whether that is so or not, there is no such note in Luke’s present reference. (Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles: The Greek Text with Introduction and Commentary, 392)
David G. Peterson (b. 1944) refutes:
Some have argued that ‘Paul’s trade was probably connected with the chief manufacture of his native province, cilicium, a cloth of goats’ hair from which were made coverings designed to give protection against cold and wet’. However, the same occupation is ascribed to Priscilla and Aquila, though they were from Pontus [Acts 18:2], and Paul probably did not learn his trade until he began his formal theological education in Jerusalem (Acts 22:3). It is more likely that his trade involved working with leather rather than with weaving. (Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles (Pillar New Testament Commentary), 508)
Christopher R. Little (b. 1959) expounds:
The better one understands Saul the Jew the more clearly one comprehends Paul the apostle (Martin Hengel [1926-2009] 1991:xiii). This is especially true in terms of his trade. Some have supposed that Paul’s trade should be linked to his upbringing in Tarsus where it is known that the tentmaking material cilicium was manufactured (Franz Delitzsch [1813-1890] 1883:81-82; J.B. Lightfoot [1828-1889]1895:27; Colin J. Hemer [1930-1987] 1989:119; Roy B. Zuck [1932-2013] 1998:22). However, there are several reasons to doubt this viewpoint...Paul spent his childhood in Jerusalem not Tarsus...In relation to this Brian Raspke [b. 1952] says: “Trying to connect Paul with Tarsus/Cilicia in this way is irrelevant. He moved to Jerusalem while still very young...The fact that the same occupation is ascribed to Aquila and Priscilla though they are from Pontus shows the link to be unnecessary” (1994:107). Also, it is misleading to associate Paul with cilicium. This material, which derived it name from the province of Cilicia, was “a coarse cloth woven from goats’ hair” (Wilhelm Michaelis [1896-1965] 1971:394). It was used in the production of tent-fabric and carpets (Michaelis 1971:394). Because weaving was an occupation reserved for women, Jewish men who undertook this trade were disqualified from the priesthood and even despised (Michaelis 1971:394; W. Hulitt Gloer [b. 1950] 1988:792; Raspke 1994:107). “It is therefore highly improbable that Paul would have chosen to be, or have been trained as, a weaver by profession” (Rapske 1994:107). Thus, “The thesis that Paul wove tentcloth from the goats’ hair...should once and for all be dropped” (Ronald F. Hock [b. 1944] 1980:66). (Little, Mission in the Way of Paul: Biblical Mission for the Church in the Twenty-First Century, 27)
Ernest Haenchen (1894-1975) concurs:
It was natural to conjecture that Paul in his homeland had learned the weaving of cilicium as a trade. But cilicium served neither exclusively nor particularly for tents; they were rather made chiefly from leather: Theodor Zahn [1838-1933] 633. We must with Joachim Jeremias [1900-1979] (Zeitschrift für die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 30 (1931), 299) understand by σκηνποιός a leather-worker. This was already the explanation of the ancients with their explanation σκυτοτόμος (Rufinus [340-410], probably after Origen [184-253]) and σκηνοράψος (John Chrystostom [347-407]): Zahn 632, n. 10. (Haenchen, The Acts of the Apostles: A Commentary, 534)
The weaver’s tools would likely be too cumbersome to transport for a persistent traveler such as Paul. Brian M. Raspke (b. 1952) scrutinizes:
If Paul’s overland journeys were generally undertaken on foot, the recently popular explanation of Acts 18:3,that Paul was a weaver of tentcloth made from goats hair or linen, whatever its other problems, is rendered even less probable. Such an occupation, requiring tools and equipment inconvenient in size, weight and shape, is hardly in keeping with the impression in Acts of a highly mobile Paul — even less so a pedestrian like Paul. The maker/repairer of tents and other leather products, carrying his bag of cutting tools, awls, sharpening stone and such, presents a more consistent and more credible picture. (David W. J. Gill [b. 1946] and Conrad Gempf [b. 1955], “Acts, Travel and Shipwreck”, The Book of Acts in Its First Century Setting: Graeco-Roman Setting, 7)
The most prevalent theory identifies Paul as a leather worker (Acs 18:3). Brian Raspke (b. 1952) argues:
Acts...affirms that he [Paul] plied a trade (Acts 20:33-35) and specifies that he was a σκηνοποιοὶς (Acts 18:3). This term, appearing only this once in the New Testament, is also rare in non-New Testament sources. Wilhelm Michaelis [1896-1965] writes: “ cannot rule out the possibility that σκηνοποιοὶς is used for the trade of “tent-maker.” For one thing this meaning is wholly within the range allowed by the etymology and it is indeed the most natural, since a construct with -ποιοὶς can hardly denote a casual and not a permanent activity.”...It seems best to understand that Paul was a leather-worker. First, tents during the period with which we are concerned were usually made of leather and not textiles. Second, the earliest versional renderings noted above by and large presume that Paul’s trade, whatever it actually entailed, had something to do with working leather. Third, while tanning was considered an unclean trade, no stigma attached to the Jew who worked already-prepared leather. Finally, the tools needed to work leather, certainly less onerous a burden to carry from place to place than weaver’s equipment, lend themselves well to the picture of Paul found in Acts. We may cite Ronald F. Hock [b. 1944]’s comments in summary: “Leatherworking, then, was Paul’s trade; the specialized title ‘tentmaker’ reflects a widespread tendency among artisans to use specialized titles, even though they made more products than their titles would suggest. We must thus picture Paul as making tents and other products of leather.” (Rapske, The Book of Acts in its First Century Setting: Paul in Roman Custody, 106-08)
Christopher R. Little (b. 1959) bolsters:
Paul is reported to have been a “σκηνοποιός.” This term, translated as “tent-maker” (Acts 18:3), is best rendered “leather-worker” (Wilhelm Michaelis [1896-1965] 1971:394). The testimony of early church fathers confirms the view “that Paul was a leatherworker of some sort” (W. Hulitt Gloer [b. 1950] 1988:792). Leatherworkers produced a wide variety of good from leather, not just tents (Ronald F. Hock [b. 1944] 1980:21; Gloer 1988:792). According to Ronald Hock: “Leatherworking involved two essential tasks: cutting the leather, which required round-edge and straight-edge knives; and sewing the leather, which required various awls” (1980:24). Hence, Paul is more accurately described as a “leatherworker” who carried the easily portable tools of his trade during his missionary travels in order to sustain himself (Hock 1980:25; Brian Raspke [b. 1952] 1994:107). (Little, Mission in the Way of Paul: Biblical Mission for the Church in the Twenty-First Century, 27)
This task required arduous labor if not skill. Marie Noël Keller (b. 1943) describes:
Today most scholars think all three missionaries worked with leather, and they picture the three of them working for long hours, bent forward on a stool by a workbench. All that was needed was a set of basic tools, which included round-edge and straight-edge knives to cut the leather and awls, needles, and thread to sew it. So little was necessary, it made “tenting” a portable thriving trade. Indeed, Acts 28:30 may even imply Paul worked when he was in custody in Rome. More onerous was the abundance of strength and patience that were also needed, for as Paul later comments, “We grow weary from the work of our own hands” (I Corinthians 4:12 NRSV). (Keller, Priscilla and Aquila: Paul’s Coworkers in Christ Jesus, 15)
An advantage to leather working is that the trade was in steady demand during Paul’s lifetime. Jerome Murphy-O’Connor (b. 1935) enlightens:
In cities several types of awning were in demand. They all involved sewing strips of canvas of various weights together. Those in sailcloth shading the theatre and forum could be moved backwards and forwards on guy wires. The courtyards of private houses had to be protected from the summer sun. Inscribed awnings both advertised and shaded shop fronts. Those who went to the beach used linen pavilions to provide shade without impeding the cooling breezes...The market for tents in the strict sense was also far from negligible. Inns needed them to accommodate overflow customers, which occurred on the occasion of great festivals. Shrewd travellers took the precaution of providing themselves with tents in case an accident should prevent them from reaching an inn at night. If they planned to travel any distance by boat, tents were indispensable. There were no ferries, and cargo boats had no cabins. Without tent deck passengers could not protect themselves from sun or spray, and had nowhere to sleep when the ship docked at nightfall...Every town with a temple had its festival, when traders erected their leather or canvas booths around the sanctuary...Minor repairs were also a valuable source of income...Paul had chosen to arm himself with a skill that virtually guaranteed him jobs on every road he walked and on every sea he sailed. (Murphy-O’Connor, Paul: His Story, 29-30)
This demand might have been especially high in Corinth. David W. J. Gill (b. 1946) reveals:
If Paul stayed in Corinth for eighteen months (Acts 18:11) and was present during the governorship of Gallio [Acts 18:12, 14, 17], one of the events he would have witnessed would have been the biennial agonistic festival held at nearby Isthmia and which was the responsibility of the colony. This festival was linked to the sanctuary of Poseidon where the temple was refurbished in the early days of the colony with its interior being partly revetted in marble. Oscar Broneer [1894-1992] has suggested that as Aquila and Priscilla were tentmakers or σκηνοπιοι (Acts 18:3), they may been involved with the making of awnings or skenai for the festival of Isthmia which would have been held in April-May 51. Certainly this is an attractive possibility, though they could have been making skenai for the theatre and other such areas at Corinth itself. (Gill and Conrad Gempf [b. 1955], “Achaia”, The Book of Acts in Its First Century Setting: Graeco-Roman Setting, 452)
There are many advantages that accompany Paul’s selection of this particular trade. Jerome Murphy-O’Connor (b. 1935) evaluates:
To us this seems a rather bizarre choice. Paul exercised his ministry in an urban environment, and what need have city dwellers of tents? From a first-century perspective, however, it was a very clever decision...The skill involved was minimal, so was quickly learned. It was essentially the ability to cut and shape lengths of leather and canvas, and then to sew them together with a neat turned-over seam. The tools were simple and light. Paul needed a half-moon knife to cut heavy leather of canvas, an awl to make the holes to take the waxed thread, and curved needles. The lot fitted neatly into a small wallet. Exercise of this trade developed muscular shoulders and strong calloused hands. The stitch was set by a sudden outward jerk of both hands into which the thread bit. Little wonder that Paul could write only with awkward large letters (Galatians 6:11)—a sign that he had plenty of work. (Murphy-O’Connor, Paul: His Story, 29)
Some have seen some symbolic connection associated with Paul’s secular trade (Acts 18:3). Bernard Aubert (b. 1972) bridges:
Paul’s occupation as a tentmaker is relevant to the issue of his relationship to the countryside. Ronald F. Hock [b. 1944] argues that Paul’s occupation as a tentmaker indicates his willingness to lower himself on the social scale. In the context of the city, Paul’s manual labor corresponds to the labors of shepherds. Consequently, there is a loose correlation between Paul’s occupation (Acts 20:34) and the servant-shepherding ministry (Acts 20:19, 28). More importantly, whether “tentmaking” (Acts 18:3) refers to work with “goats’ hair” (cilicium) or “leatherworking,” Paul was working with material from flocks. Thus Paul in his trade, must have been at least indirectly connected with herdsmen responsible for raising animals. (Aubert, The Shepherd-Flock Motif in the Miletus Discourse (Acts 20:17-38) Against Its Historical Background, 46)
Robert Wall (b. 1947) consociates:
There are a few intriguing allusions to the first part of the Amos citation [Amos 9:11-12] (Acts 15:16) that facilitate a more reflexive reading between the two. For example, the promise the God ‘will rebuild the tent (σκηνήν) of David’ is picked up in Acts 18:3 where Paul’s occupation is described as a ‘tentmaker’ (σκηνοποιός). The irony of this narrative detail is clear: Paul is actually God’s appointed ‘tentmaker’ by whose Gentile mission the Davidic/Messianic kingdom is reconstituted and restored according to Scripture (cf., Acts 1:6). (I. Howard Marshall [b. 1934] and David G. Peterson [b. 1944)], “Israel and the Gentile Mission in Acts and Paul: A Canonical Approach”, Witness to the Gospel: The Theology of Acts, 450)
The Bible does not state how Paul acquires his vocational skill. Two primary explanations have been offered. Gerd Lüdemann (b. 1946) supplies:
Paul’s activity as a tentmaker or leatherworker (Acts 18:3; cf. I Thessalonians 2:9; I Corinthians 4:12, 9:6-18, etc.) either derives from the rabbinical custom of learning a trade or stems from a familial context, likely from his father. If the latter is true, “Paul’s family may have acted in accordance with specifically Jewish prescriptions, but we need to realize that the plausibility structure for their action extended far beyond the Jewish community.” (Lüdemann, Paul: The Founder of Christianity, 94)
Christopher R. Little (b. 1959) details:
There is a difference of opinion on how Paul would have acquired his trade in Jerusalem (W. Hulitt Gloer [b. 1950] 1988:792). Some assert that Paul obtained it during his studies under Gamaliel in connection with the Rabbinic injunction to combine the study and teaching of the Torah with the practice of a trade (Joachim Jeremias [1900-1979] 1969:112-13; Martin Hengel [1926-2009] 1991:16; Brian Raspke [b. 1952] 1004:107). However, Ronald F. Hock [b. 1944] contends that “the ideal of combining Torah and a trade is difficult to establish much earlier than the middle of the second century A.D., that is, long after Paul” (1980:22; cf. Jerome Murphy-O’Connor [b. 1935] 1996:86). Others believe that “since it was a general rule that the son followed the trade of his father” (Franz Delitzsch [1813-1890] 1883:81), it is best to see Paul coming form a long line of leatherworkers (Richard Wallace [b. 1941] and Wynne Williams [b. 1941] 1998:140). In this fashion, Paul’s profession would have been passed on to him by his father (W.C. Van Unnik [1910-1978] 1973:300; Gloer 1988:792) in accordance with the common maxim of the day: “Whoever does not teach his son a craft teaches him to be a robber” (Arthur T. Geoghegan [1914-2006] 1945:108). Even though there is disagreement on the manner in which Paul obtained his trade, the reasons for which he was taught it are quite clear. (Little, Mission in the Way of Paul: Biblical Mission for the Church in the Twenty-First Century, 28)
Traditionally Paul’s tentmaking is consider a product of his religious training. F.F. Bruce (1910-1990) educates:
Paul’s maintaining himself by his own manual work is traditionally illustrated by the rabbinical insistence that religious instruction should be gratuitous (cf. Pirqê ’Abôt 4.7: “Rabbi Zadok [first century] said, ‘...Make not of the Torah a crown with which to aggrandize thyself, nor a spade with which to dig.’ So also used Hillel [110 BE-10 CE] to say, ‘He who makes a worldly use of the crown of the Torah shall waste away.’ Hence thou mayest infer that whosoever derives a profit for himself from the words of the Torah is helping on his own destruction”). A later teacher, Gamaliel III [third century CE], said that the study of the Torah was excellent if combined with a secular occupation (Pirqê ’Abôt 2.2). Greek culture, by contrast, tended to despise manual labor; an exception is presented by scientific writers, who speak respectfully of τεχνιται. Loveday C.A. Alexander finds in the attitude of scientific writers a possible background for Luke’s totally matter-of-fact record of Paul’s practice her (“Luke’s Preface in the Context of Greek Preface-Writing,” Novum Testamentum, pp. 48-74, especially p. 70). Cf. Acts 20:34, and Paul’s reference to his policy in I Thessalonians 2:9; I Corinthians 9:12b-18; II Corinthians 11:7-12. (Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles: The Greek Text with Introduction and Commentary, 391-92)
Lee Martin McDonald (b. 1942) interjects:
In the Mishnah, a Rabban Gamaliel [third century], son of Rabbi Judah the Patriarch, says: “Excellent is study of the Law together with worldly occupation, for toil in them both puts sin out of mind. But all study of the Law without labour comes to naught at the last and brings sin in its train. And let all them that labour with the congregation labour with them for the sake of heaven, for the merit of their fathers supports them and their righteousness endures for ever (m. Aboth 2.2, Herbert Danby [1889-1953] translation)...Similar attitudes were found among the Greeks and those philosophers who also worked with their hands were praised. The practical Stoic philosopher Epictetus (ca. 54-120 A.D.) admonished all in his guild to combine their scholarly activity with practical work. Showing his disdain for those who refused to work with their hands he concludes that they, “have only to learn the life of healthy men—how the slaves live, the workmen, the genuine philosophers, how Socrates [470-399 BCE] lived—he too with a wife and children—how Diogenes [412-323 BCE] lived, how Cleanthes [331-232 BCE], who combined going to school with pumping water. If this is what you want, you will have it everywhere, and will live with full confidence” (Discourses 3.26.23-24, Loeb Classical Library). He goes on to ask why those in his guild have made themselves so useless that no one would take them in. (Discourses 3.26.23-24, Loeb Classical Library). (Craig A. Evans [b. 1952], Acts—Philemon (Bible Knowledge Background Commentary), 125-26)
Ernest Haenchen (1894-1975) objects:
At this juncture it is usually pointed out...that the Rabbis were in the habit of learning a trade. But Paul was not a Rabbi and also did not want to imitate the Rabbis: Alfred Loisy [1857-1940] 689. (Haenchen, The Acts of the Apostles: A Commentary, 534)
Sadami Takayama (b. 1955) exposes:
In Jewish tradition any occupation was considered to be a distraction from the study of the Law. All the evidence of rabbis practising trades originates in the post-AD 70 period when conditions in Jerusalem had starkly changed. The rabbis had to support themselves by working and this necessity created a maxim, “All study of Law without (worldly) labour comes to naught at the last and brings sin in its train. (Takayama, Shinran [1173-1263]’s Conversion in the Light of Paul's Conversion, 159)
Paul’s performing manual labor is a far cry from his intellectualizing with philosophers in Athens seen in the previous pericope (Acts 17:16-34). There has been much discussion regarding the perception Paul would have accrued working as a secular artisan.

Marianne Palmer Bonz (b. 1942) reports:

As Richard I. Pervo [b. 1942] has so eloquently observed, it is absurd to claim (as Luke does) that Paul was a tentmaker who somehow gained the favor of Ephesian Asiarchs (Profit with Delight: The Literary Genre of the Acts of the Apostles [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987], 10). (Bonz, The Past as Legacy: Luke-Acts and Ancient Epic, 169)

David G. Peterson (b. 1944) investigates:

F.F. Bruce [1910-1990], 391-92, supports the view that Luke’s background is that of the Greek scientific writers who were more respectful of manual labourers. However, Ronald F. Hock [b. 1944], The Social Context of Paul’s Ministry: Tentmaking and Apostleship, 36, argues that tentmakers belonged to a class of humble artisans who were looked down upon by aristocrats and some leisured intellectuals. Hock, 42, discusses the workshop as a social setting for Paul’s missionary preaching, but Bradley Blue [b. 1960], ‘Acts and the House Church’, in David W. J. Gill [b. 1946] and Conrad Gempf [b. 1955], The Book of Acts in Its Graeco-Roman Setting, 172-77, argues for the household as the standard base for ministry outside the synagogue. Cf. Hock, ‘Paul’s Tentmaking and the Problem of his Social Class’, Journal of Biblical Literature 97 (1978), 555-64...Jewish tradition encouraged rabbis to support themselves with some other occupation, while giving religious instruction (cf. Pirke ’Aboth 2,2, 4.7). Greek culture, however, tended to despise manual labour, which makes Luke’s matter-of-fact record of Paul’s practice...unusual. ‘By lodging with an artisan couple and, beyond that, actually joining them in their trade, Paul suddenly appears no longer as the rising star among noble ladies and gentlemen and lofty academicians.’ In his farewell speech to the Ephesian elders, Paul makes much of the fact that he worked with his own hands, to support himself and his companions, while engaging in ministry (Acts 20:33-35). Although he urged Christians to share all good things with those who taught them (Galatians 6:6). Paul did not normally avail himself to such rights (I Corinthians 9:3-18). Two reasons are given in Acts 20:33-35 for what we know to have been his practice in Ephesus, Thessalonica (I Thessalonians 2:3-9; II Thessalonians 3:6-8), and Corinth (I Corinthians 4:12, 9:6; II Corinthians 11:7). Negatively, Paul sought to avoid any hint of covetousness. Positively, he was determined to help ‘the weak’, inspired by an otherwise unrecorded saying of Jesus about the blessedness of giving instead of receiving [Acts 20:35]. Paul’s behaviour thus reflected his trust in God and God’s generosity to his people, demonstrating two important aspects of the message he preached. (Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles (Pillar New Testament Commentary), 508-09)
F. Scott Spencer (b. 1956) delineates:
To determine the position of Priscilla, Aquila and Paul in Corinthian society, we must understand the nature and status of their ‘tentmaking’ trade. The main skills associated with the craft involved the cutting and stitching of leather material with specially designed knives and awls. It was hard work, demanding long hours hunched over a workbench to make ends meet. As for their social position, Ronald F. Hock [b. 1944] has demonstrated that tentmakers belonged to a class of humble artisans clustered in the marketplace who were looked down upon by aristocrats and some leisured intellectuals...“Stigmatized as slavish, uneducated, and often useless, artisans [like tentmakers], to judge from scattered references, were frequently reviled or abused, often victimized, seldom if ever invited to dinner, never accorded status, and even excluded from one Stoic utopia (Hock, 36)”...By lodging with an artisan couple and, beyond that, actually joining in their trade, Paul suddenly appears no longer as the rising star among noble ladies and gentlemen and lofty academicians. Rather, he restores his links with lowly cloth-handlers, like Lydia (cf. Acts 16:13-15), and builds new tie with the rabble of market laborers (agoraioi) who previously were turned against him (cf. Acts 17:4-5)...It is thus becoming increasingly difficult to construct a consistent portrait of Paul’s social identity in Acts. We seem to be facing a more idealistic than realistic image of the great missionary as a kind of ‘everyman’, able to span the spectrum of human society. It is, nonetheless, an image in keeping with one who himself claimed in correspondence with the Corinthians: ‘I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some’ (I Corinthians 9:22; cf. I Corinthians 9:19-23). (Spencer, Acts (Readings: A New Biblical Commentary), 178-79)
Paul’s willingness to perform manual labor has called his social standing and background into question. Christopher R. Little (b. 1959) inquires:
Church fathers such as John Chrystostom [347-407], Gregory of Nyssa [335-394], and Theodoret [393-457] believed that Paul, in view of his labor-intensive lifestyle as a leatherworker, fell among the lower social levels of the first-century world (Ronald F. Hock [b. 1944] 1978:556). Adolf Deissmann [1866-1937] renewed this position in the modern era by postulating that Paul “came from the unliterary lower classes and remained one of them...[H]e belongs far more to the middle and lower classes than to the upper class...[And] to the great mass of the weary and heavy-laden” (1926:48, 51, 74). However, in rejection of this hypothesis, a new consensus has emerged in contemporary scholarship regarding Paul’s place in ancient society. This place can be ascertained by examining his social status, his education, and his wealth. (Little, Mission in the Way of Paul: Biblical Mission for the Church in the Twenty-First Century, 7)
Craig L. Blomberg (b. 1955) inspects:
From his autobiographical remarks in the epistles and from the data of Acts, we learn that Paul’s own socio-economic background seems to have been relatively prosperous, at least by ancient standards. Tutored in Jerusalem under the rabbi Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), after a probable elementary-school education in Tarsus, a centre of Greek culture, Paul would have been among the top few percent in his society in terms of level of education. He also had training in leather-working, of which tent-making was one common application (Acts 18:3). As one who inherited Roman citizenship from his father, he also would have been among just a handful of non-Romans in the empire with this privilege (Acts 22:28). Gillian Clark (1985:111) concludes, ‘The chances are that Paul, though prepared for the sake of the gospel to identify himself with the artisans, was at home in the more prosperous levels of society.’ Nils Dahl [1911-2001] (1977:35) occurs, adding that Paul probably came from a rather well-to-do family. (Blomberg, Neither Poverty Nor Riches: A Biblical Theology of Possessions, 177)
Ryan S. Schellenberg considers:
Luke’s Paul is evidently a man of elevated status: he is always aristocratically self-possessed; he comfortably converses with the likes of Felix and Festus [Acts 24:10-23, 25:6-12]; he capably addresses the Athenians in the Areopagus (Acts 17:16-34). Such a man could only have been a tentmaker incidentally. And, indeed, this is precisely how Luke, like many subsequent biographers, deals with Paul’s labor: he mentions it in passing (Acts 18:3). (Schellenberg, Rethinking Paul’s Rhetorical Education: Comparative Rhetoric and 2 Corinthians 10-13, 20-21)
Ben Witherington III (b. 1951) illuminates:
Some Cynic philosophers were known to frequent workshops, and so even when Paul did practice his trade, it would not necessarily have sent the signal that he was a person of low social status. Martin Hengel [1926-2009] makes reference to a man named Isaac, a linen merchant from Tarsus who was an elder in the Jewish community in Jaffa. He was, in short, a relatively high-status person in his own community, yet like Paul he was not reluctant to practice a trade—indeed, his work is proudly mentioned on this tombstone! But also like Paul, Isaac had lived in more than one social world, and while he may have had high status in the microcosmic Jewish community in Tarsus and in the Holy Land, elsewhere he would have been seen as a Jew and an artisan, which in the anti-Semitic environment of the Roman Empire would have represented two strikes against him. (Witherington, The Paul Quest: The Renewed Search for the Jew of Tarsus, 129)
John B. Polhill (b. 1939) footnotes:
Ronald F. Hock [b. 1944] notes that Paul’s references to his work by such terms as “enslaved” (see I Corinthians 9:19) and “demeaning myself” (see II Corinthians 11:7) and being “a spectacle to the world” (see I Corinthians 4:9, 12) reflect a decidedly upper-class attitude toward work and may, along with Roman citizenship, indicate his coming from a higher social level (“Paul’s Tentmaking and the Problem of his Social Class,” Journal of Biblical Literature 97 [1978], pp. 555-64). (Pohill, Acts (New American Commentary), 381)
While his social standing is debated, Acts certainly presents Paul as being self sufficient. Thomas E. Phillips characterizes:
Although Paul’s hosts in Corinth, Aquila and Priscilla, are said to share a common vocation with him, Acts never records any of Paul’s traveling companions engaging in labor of any kind. Barnabas, Paul’s traveling companion in Acts 13:2-15:39, may have been independently wealthy [Acts 4:36-37], but according to Acts, Paul provided economic support for his later traveling companions, including Silas, Timothy, and the narrator of Acts. The Paul of Acts is a tentmaker who takes pride not only in the financial independence that the revenue from his labor provides [Acts 18:3], but also in his ability to support his fellow missionaries and the poor within the community [Acts 20:33-35]. The Paul of Acts experiences shipwrecks [Acts 27:27-44], beatings [Acts 16:22], and persecution, but he does not experience unaddressed physical needs for food, clothing, or shelter. In fact, the Paul of Acts has sufficient resources that he can claim to “give” rather than “receive” (Acts 20:35)...In Acts, Paul, the tentmaker and Christian missionary, is a hardworking and generous artisan. In fact, the degree of Paul’s generosity is somewhat surprising for a mere artisan in the Greco-Roman world. Not only can Paul support his fellow missionaries, but upon his arrival in Jerusalem, James assumes that Paul can afford to pay the expenses associated with the fulfillment of a vow for himself and four other persons (Acts 21:23-24), and the governor Felix assumes that Paul could afford to offer him a bribe for his freedom (Acts 24:26). Paul’s apparently flush financial situation in Acts is hardly consistent with the resources typically derived from work as an artisan, a fact that has caused some interpreters to speculate that the Paul of Acts had benefited from inherited wealth. (Phillips, Paul, His Letters, and Acts, 115-16)
While there has been some discussion about how Paul’s day job would have been perceived, it cannot be denied that he is proud of his labor (Acts 20:33-35). He owns it. He knows who he is: Paul is a worker.

The fact that Paul works may be more important than the specific job he holds. Despite being stated so incidentally, it is remarkable that Acts presents one of its leading figures engaging in manual labor (Acts 18:3).

Loveday Alexander divulges:

Celsus [second century]’s complaint about the Christians in the second century includes the fact that they meet in ‘cobblers’ shops and fullers’ shops’, and Tertullian [160-225] lists a wide variety of crafts practised by Christians (and causing problems of conscience) including those of plasterers, painters, marble masons and bronze-workers. Luke’s own narrative features a number of craftsmen and women in leading roles: Aquila and Priscilla, Lydia and Paul himself are presented as artisans or traders (Acts 16:14, 18:1-3)...For Luke, as much as for the other evangelists, Jesus the carpenter’s son and Paul the leather-worker figure without a trace of irony as actors in and mediators of events of world-shattering religious significance. (Alexander, The Preface to Luke’s Gospel: Literary Convention and Social Context in Luke 1:1-14 and Acts 1:1, 177)
The tentmaker becomes a world maker (Acts 18:3). In Christianity, all have a chance to serve and perform great works regardless of social standing.

Which bonds Paul and Aquila and Priscilla more, shared religious beliefs or mutual work (Acts 18:2-3)? Where have you seen similar artisans working in close proximity? In today’s world, is it natural to bond with people of the same trade? Who are you closer to, fellow church members or your coworkers? What is Paul’s motivation for performing manual labor; is it out of financial necessity, to correct a perceived problem in his ministry, both or neither? How many of the ideas from Paul’s Jewish education did he retain after he accepted Jesus? In what ways is Paul a model for contemporary tentmakers?

Many have imagined Paul conducting workplace evangelism while Paul “moonlights” as a tentmaker. William J. Larkin (1945-2014) speculates:

Paul engaged in leatherworking to offer his gospel without charge and model a good work ethic (Acts 20:34-35; I Corinthians 4:12, 9:15, 18; I Thessalonians 2:9; II Thessalonians 3:8). He probably used his workshop as a place of witness, as some Greek philosophers used theirs as a teaching venue (Ronald F. Hock [b. 1944] 1979). His departure from the workshop and exclusive devotion to preaching after Timothy and Silas’s arrival from Macedonia probably shows that he did not view his leatherworking as essential to his evangelism strategy (Acts 18:5). (Larkin, Acts (IVP New Testament Commentary Series), 263)
Ronald J. Allen (b. 1949) agrees:
Priscilla, Aquila, and Paul are, evidently, all tentmakers [Acts 18:2-3]... They worked in the marketplace. People often came to the market place to discuss philosophy in the stalls operated by workers. The detail that Paul was a tentmaker helps explain how the missionary financed the mission and also how he witnessed in the marketplace. (Allen, Acts of the Apostles (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries), 143)
Grace Preedy Barnes (b. 1938) discusses:
While the reader might assume that Paul roved about looking for people to argue with (Acts 18:4), archaeology reveals that tentmaking stalls tended to be in or near markets in Corinth, allowing ample opportunity for Paul to engage with those who passed by or sought to do business. Thus Paul probably shared his faith naturally while at work. This suggests another emerging principle: All work is sacred if done unto the Lord and for God’s purposes in this world. (Robert L. Gallagher [b. 1949] and Paul Hertig [b. 1955], “The Art of Finishing Well: Paul as Servant Leader, Acts 18:1-28 and Acts 20:17-38”, Mission in Acts: Ancient Narratives in Contemporary Context, 242)
William H. Willimon (b. 1946) preaches:
From Athens Paul journeys to another great city of Greece—Corinth, where he is the guest of two Jewish refugees from Rome, Aquila and Priscilla [Acts 18:2-3]...While in their home, Paul practices his tentmaking trade (Acts 18:3, cf. I Thessalonians 2:9; II Thessalonians 3:7-8), though his work does not hinder his preaching in the Corinthian synagogue (Acts 18:4), particularly after the arrival of Silas and Timothy (with a gift? II Corinthians 11:9; Philippians 4:15). Paul regards his tentmaking work as an opportunity for evangelization: “...You remember, brothers, our work and toil. It was while we were laboring day and night, in order not to burden any of you, that we proclaimed to you the gospel of God” (I Thessalonians 2:9; author’s translation). Christian witness is not only for the synagogue or place of Sunday worship. (Willimon, Acts (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching), 145)
It is entirely possible that the two buildings where Paul worked and taught were one and the same, particularly if Aquila and Priscilla hosted a house church (Romans 16:3-5). John B. Polhill (b. 1939) reports:
Paul...may have witnessed in the context of the workshop as he pursued his tent-making trade. Homes were often connected with shops. Paul thus may have lodged, witnessed, and worked all in the same place when he took up with Aquila and Priscilla at Corinth (Acts 18:3). (Polhill, Paul and His Letters, 99)
Bradley Blue (b. 1960) rejects:
Ronald F. Hock [b. 1944] attempted to demonstrate that a shop such as the one Paul would have shared with Aquila ‘...was recognized as a conventional social setting for intellectual discourse’ and would have been suitable for Paul’s missionary purposes as an Artisan-Missionary. Paul, however, seems to have preferred the local synagogue or a publicly recognized location which was used exclusively for the purpose of preaching. (David W. J. Gill [b. 1946] and Conrad Gempf [b. 1955], “Acts and the House Church”, The Book of Acts in Its First Century Setting: Graeco-Roman Setting, 172-73)
Paul’s ministry may have benefited from his trade. Tentmaking gives Paul an “in” with the Corinthian society. There are certainly financial benefits; tent makers are rent makers. He may also have used his business experience in operating his mission.

Loveday Alexander conjectures:

Paul’s own ability to deploy a complex network of co-workers may well owe something to his business experience. Travelling artisans had a recognized place in the life of the city, without the special privileges of citizens but accepted (and taxed) as resident aliens. The workshop of Aquila and Priscilla provides a long-term base for Paul’s operations, and solves the problem he had experienced in Philippi, Thessalonica and Athens. No one could just turn up in a Greek city (especially if it’s also a Roman colony) and start preaching, but the shopfront of a typical workshop, opening directly onto the marketplace, could provide an ideal location for engaging in conversation with passers-by. The shop also gave Paul financial independence, something that was to prove useful in later years in his somewhat stormy relationship with his Corinthian hosts (see I Corinthians 9:6). (Alexander, Acts (Daily Bible Commentary: A Guide for Reflection and Prayer), 138)
Paul’s day job also gives him a connection to the working class. Daniel R. Langton discloses:
Shalom Asch [1880-1957]’s Saul is described as ‘all motion and restlessness, as if in his veins ran quicksilver instead of blood,’ an ascetic firebrand who fasts frequently, has taken a vow of chastity, and provokes both admiration and concern for his uncompromising religious fervour...A student of the great Pharisaic authority, Gamaliel the Elder [Acts 5:34], Paul has trouble keeping up with the rabbinic curriculum, not because of any innate inability but because of his determination to follow the rabbinic ideal of learning a trade, which for Saul was tent-making. For Asch, this dedication to an occupation not only gave Saul financial security, reflecting the man’s independent streak, but also provided an opportunity to suggest that, in contrast to other Pharisaic students, Saul learned the ways of life not from legal theory but by contact with reality, with the poor and oppressed of first-century Palestinian society. In contrast to the yeshiva students, then, ‘The young man Saul knew the meaning of life.’ (Langton, “The Novels of Shalom Asch and Samuel Sandmel [1911-1979]”, The Apostle Paul in the Jewish Imagination: A Study in Modern Jewish-Christian Relations, 213)
Bruce Larson (1925-2008) confesses:
Paul sits eight or ten hours a day sewing tents, and by night he continues to be the world’s most exciting evangelist and preacher. I think the Holy Spirit wants that same rhythm for all of us. It’s a strange thing for a preacher to say, but I confess I’m a little suspicious of the religious professionals. It’s a somewhat lopsided focus. It seems to me much healthier to have a job out there in the real world. We need the rhythm of life—prayer and play, work and worship. (Larson, Wind & Fire: Living Out the Book of Acts, 128)
Paul’s experience in Corinth has coined the modern term “tentmaking” as a synonym for bivocational ministry (Acts 18:3). John R.W. Stott (1921-2011) familiarizes:
‘Tentmaking ministries’ have rightly become popular in our day. The expression describes cross-cultural messengers of the gospel, who support themselves by their own professional or business expertise, while at the same time being involved in mission. Dr. J. Christy Wilson, Jr. [1921-1999] has written about it in his book Today’s Tentmakers. The principle of self-support is the same, and the desire not to burden the churches, but the main motivation is different, namely that this may be the only way for Christians to enter those countries which do not grant visas to self-styled ‘missionaries’. (Stott, The Message of Acts (Bible Speaks Today), 297)
William J. Larkin (1945-2014) apprises:
Today “tentmaker” missionaries enter “creative access” countries through secular employment when there is no way to enter as a full-time missionary. If they keep Paul’s motives in mind, they will be able to see their bivocationalism as beneficial to the spiritual health of churches they plant. Not only will they model a work ethic that is essential to sanctification, but they will avoid creating wrongful dependency, for they will be offering the gospel of grace “free of charge.” (Larkin, Acts (IVP New Testament Commentary Series), 263-64)
Ajith Fernando (b. 1948) notes:
There has been a surge of interest in tentmaking ministry over the past two decades. Situations today may require tentmakers for the same two reasons that Paul had: economic necessity and credibility. In certain situations, where there is no trust yet concerning the Christian workers, it may be best for them not to take support from the people to whom they minister (cf. I Corinthians 9:1-27). Sometimes a work cannot afford to support a worker. This is true of churches in poorer areas and in predominantly in non-Christian cultures...Tentmakers bring great enrichment to a ministerial team in that they have much more intimate contact with the world, which can enhance the team’s relevance and impact on the culture. Ruth Siemens [1925-2005] writes, “The secular job is not an inconvenience, but the God-given context in which tentmakers live out the gospel in a winsome, wholesome, non-judgmental way, demonstrating personal integrity, doing quality work and developing caring relationships.”...It is on the mission field that tentmaking is becoming most valuable. In fact Ruth Siemens feels that the international job market, a key feature in today’s business world, “is an argument for tentmaking because it does not exist by accident, but by God’s design.” She describes it as God’s “‘repopulation program,’ transferring millions of hard-to-reach people into freer countries (Turks to Germany, Algerians to France, Kurds to Austria, etc.), and opening doors for Christians in hard-to-enter countries—so that many can hear the gospel!”...When challenging Christians to missions, which we should all be doing, we can also place before them the possibility of going as tentmakers to needy places. (Fernando, Acts (NIV Application Commentary), 498-99)
The efficacy of tentmaking is not universally accepted. Kenneth O. Gangel (1935-2009) notifies:
The wisdom of the ages haunts us today. Many teachers still wonder whether one can make a living at such a task, and many college and seminary students struggle with the potential of “tentmaking” as a means of ministry...In today’s selfish society, such a practice runs against the grain, but we cannot escape its biblical precedent, not only in Paul who apparently practiced it part-time with the primary focus on preaching, but also in Priscilla and Aquila who never left their full-time work to carry out vocational ministry. A major principle surfaces here: there is no secular duty for a Christian; everything we take on, from changing diapers to governing a state, becomes a form of service to Christ (Colossians 3:23-25). (Gangel, Acts (Holman New Testament Commentary), 303)
Definitions of modern tentmaking range in scope. Patrick Lai surveys:
Ed Van Baak [1926-2007] the most common definition of a tentmaker when he writes,”A tentmaker is a missionary in terms of commitment, but is fully self-supporting.” Don Hamilton [b. 1921], in his book Tentmakers Speak, defines a tentmaker as “a Christian who works in a cross-cultural situation, is recognized by members of the host culture as something other than a religious professional, and yet, in terms of his or her commitment, calling, motivation, and training, is a missionary in every way”...Richard Chia puts forward one of the more concise definitions befitting those working in restricted access nations. He sees a tentmaker as, “One who has a calling for full-time missionary service but is unable to enter a country of choice because of restrictions. One whose primary purpose is to do full-time missionary work but because of restrictions has to modify his mode of service.” Ruth Siemens [1925-2005] adds clarity to our understanding in pointing out that “tentmaking cannot be equated with lay ministry because it is a missionary mode, a missions strategy. But some of Paul’s principles are equally applicable to lay ministry.” (Lai, Tentmaking: The Life and Work of Business as Missions, 11-12)
There are different types of tentmakers. Patrick Lai delineates:
Greg Livingstone [b. 1940], the director emeritus of Frontiers, suggests that there are three types of tentmakers: job takers, job makers, and job fakers. Job takers work for national and international companies...Job makers are workers who set up their own businesses, offer social services for nationals or open schools...Job fakers find some legal way to get a resident visa that keeps them free enough to be fully involved in proclamation and discipleship of new believers. Job fakers, like regular missionaries, are supported by their home churches. (Lai, Tentmaking: The Life and Work of Business as Missions, 12)
As in Paul’s day there are advantages to modern tentmaking. Tetsunao Yamamori (b. 1937) catalogs:
Likelihood of being a “tentmaker” (Acts 18:3) would...give the Envoy less time for evangelizing. But it would also produce important benefits. First, the Envoy’s mission activities would be untraceable, since there would be no sending body. Second, the Envoy’s passport profession would create natural working opportunities for witness. And third, there would be no need to leave the mission field at regular intervals to secure funds. Being a tentmaker is also consistent with one of the basic premises of the Special Envoys: they should not compete for resources (that is, mission support) that current traditional missionaries require. (Yamamori, Penetrating Missions’ Final Frontier: A New Strategy for Unreached Peoples, 77)
Though Paul labors in Corinth (Acts 18:2-3), he does not always work a secular job while ministering. John R.W. Stott (1921-2011) reminds:
Paul insisted several times on the right of Christian teachers to be supported by their pupils [I Corinthians 9:3-7; Galatians 6:6]. But he himself voluntarily renounced this right, partly so as not to be a ‘burden’ to the churches and partly to undercut the accusation of ulterior motives by preaching the gospel free of charge [II Corinthians 12:13; I Thessalonians 2:9; II Thessalonians 3:8]. (Stott, The Message of Acts (Bible Speaks Today), 297)
Paul is not afraid to roll up his sleeves. Though the object of much criticism, no one has ever accused Paul of being lazy. Paul is both a blue collar and white collar worker. This enables him to interact with regular Joes, like working stiffs in Corinth (Acts 18:1-18), and the philosophical elite, as in Athens (Acts 17:16-34). Both Paul’s manual labor and striking intellect work for the glory of God (Romans 8:28).

What benefits does Paul gain from working a secular job in Corinth while ministering (Acts 18:2-3)? What are the reasons for contemporary tentmaking? Do you know any tentmakers? Should clergy learn a secular trade; should this be a component of a seminary’s curriculum? What are the advantages and disadvantages of bivocational ministry? How would you feel if your pastor also worked a secular job? When should a minister not charge for services?

“There are moments when art attains almost to the dignity of manual labor.” - Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)