Tag Archives: acts

A Narrative Reading of Apollos and Paul (Acts 18:24-28; 19:1-7)

In our Acts seminar today we had a helpful discussion on the relationship of Acts 18:24-28 and 19:1-7. It seems that a cursory reading of scholars understand Apollos as being a Christian who just needs to understand the Gospel more fully while the disciples in Ephesus are clearly not Christians who need to hear the Gospel from Paul. David Pederson in his commentary on Acts sums the discussion up nicely:

It seems likely that some of John the Baptist’s disciples retained their distinctive beliefs for a while after his death and continued to urge other Jews to prepare for the coming of the Lord by accepting the baptism offered by John. While many of the Baptist’s disciples recognized in Jesus the fulfillment of their expectations, others may have had a mixture of beliefs and practices that fell short of the understanding and experience of mainstream Christianity as portrayed in Acts. Apollos and the Ephesian ‘disciples’ appear to have emerged from that sort of background. Apollos was clearly Christian when Priscilla and Aquila met him, but the Ephesians had not come so far when Paul encountered them1

From my brief examination of the two narrative I think Luke is presenting the two narratives not necessarily to show differences and similarities of the situation but rather the two provide two stories back-to-back that shed light on one another. My reasoning below is brief and I would love to hear any feedback you may have.

When we read these two narratives together we are presented with a more complete picture of the deficiencies of only following the teaching of John the Baptist. I take the story to present Apollos as a Jew who was following in the tradition of John the Baptist and proclaiming a message of repentance.

Acts 18:24-28

First, we can note that Apollos was well-versed in the scriptures, been instructed in the way of the Lord2, presented accurately the facts of Jesus, and was fervent in spirit (Acts 18:24-25).3 On the surface this seems to portray Apollos as a Christian who is preaching but needs further teaching from Priscilla and Aquila. The key caveat is that “he only knew the baptism of John (Acts 18:25).” Without the subsequent episode of Paul and the disciples in the next story we could easily read Apollos as a Christian preacher, as many commentators do, but Luke provides a subsequent story to give a more complete picture.

Acts 19:1-7

When Paul arrives at Ephesus he is greeted with whom he thinks are disciples. Upon meeting them he asks if they have received the Holy Spirit (Acts 19:2). When they reply that they didn’t even know of the Holy Spirit Paul quickly asks them how they were baptized (Acts 19:3). They respond that they were baptized in John’s baptism. Paul then tells them that John’s baptism was only a baptism of repentance and that they needed to be baptized in the name of Jesus and receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 19:4).


This last encounter sheds light on the situation with Apollos. Apollos, who only knew the baptism of John, was, according to the narrative flow of the two stories, only preaching a baptism of repentance. Indeed, he was preaching the things of Jesus and the way of the Lord in the same way that John the Baptist was. The things of Jesus do not necessarily have to refer to the acts and teaching of Jesus but instead could be in reference to the same Messianic expectations that John the Baptist was speaking of. This preaching was in preparation for the Messiah. But the Messiah has now come and the message is to believe on Jesus in order to receive the Holy Spirit and subsequently be baptized in his name.

Luke shows how Paul laid hands on the disciples then they received the Holy Spirit and were baptized. Afterwards they went about speaking in tongues and prophesying. Luke does not need to explicitly state that Apollos was converted at this time. But the similar situation in understanding the baptism of John in the next story makes it probable that he was converted during the “more accurate teachings of the ways of God” by Priscilla and Aquila. This story fills in the gaps of Apollos. Only knowing the baptism of John is only further defined in the subsequent story with Paul and the disciples.

Thus, reading the two stories together we get a clearer picture of why Priscilla and Aquila needed to teach Apollos more accurately the things of God. His message was not contrary but just deficient. It seems a more literary reading of the two stories together gives us a complete picture of Apollos.

  1. David G. Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles (The Pillar New Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids, MI; Nottingham, England: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 524. ↩︎
  2. This should not be understood as a reference to “The Way” as in Acts 9:2; (16:17); 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22. This is the only place with the modifier “of the Lord,” which may imply a reference to John the Baptist preparing the way of the Lord. All of references are just to “The Way,” which implies either the Christian message or sect. ↩︎
  3. I take this phrase to be an emotional state and not being fervent in the Holy Spirit ↩︎

QOTD: Acts for Christians Today

Something to think about when reading Acts…

They (Christians) can learn patience and faithfulness in mission in the midst of a world they do not control. The strong experience of resistance and rejection in Acts results in a necessary tempering of the mission. Peter and Paul are meant to impress us as powerful persons, but they are not all-powerful. The imprisonment of Paul is a particularly vivid indication of strong social limitations on the mission, and this imprisonment persists to the end of Acts. It does not change Paul's dedication to his task, as the final verses of Acts indicate, but Paul must learn to work within limits. He does so while maintaining trust in the purpose he is serving and in God's power to reach the ultimate goal. Such trust is supported by a perception of God as a God of surprises, indeed, a God who works by irony, who can use even opponents of the mission to move the divine purpose forward. The mission must work within limits, yet God repeatedly breaks out of these limits in ways that surprise both the church and its critics. Faithfully serving in mission while trusting in a God whose exact moves cannot be anticipated is part of the ongoing struggle of faith. The resulting life of service is a lesson in which we are repeatedly taught to push back our limited views of how God may act and whom God may use for the divine purpose. The church must be confident that it has a valid and important mission, as Peter and Paul are in Acts, yet it must recognize that God has other and surprising ways of working.

Tannehill, Robert C. The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts: The Acts of the Apostles. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989.

Speeches in Ancient History and Acts

One of the more difficult issues faced when reading Acts is the speeches. Unlike today, speeches in the ancient world are generally not word for word transcripts of what actually happened. In the modern age we have recorders, videos, and typists who can provide an exact account of the content of speeches. In the ancient world this was not so and it was not necessarily the goal. The writers did not feel burdened by the lack of exactness because speeches needed to be shaped and molded to fit the narrative context of the writing where the speech occurs.

Martin Dibelius in his classic collection of essays, Studies in Acts, includes an essay titled, “The Speeches in Acts and Ancient Historiography.”[1] In this work he argues that analyzing speeches in the ancient world (including Acts) that one must not analyze the referent but how it fits within the narrative it is located (139). In other words, we should not be concerned about what actually happened in history but rather how it shapes the narrative where the speech is included. He makes a sharp distinction between the truthfulness of the speech and how the speech shapes the narrative. These are polar opposites and are not compatible in the writing of Luke.

Conrad Gempf in his essay, “Public Speaking and Published Accounts”, argues that we should not judge a speech on its accuracy but rather we should use the categories “faithful” or “unfaithful” to the historical referent.[2] He finds that these categories are more helpful and takes into account what is actually happening when writers of the ancient world include speeches. This allows one to say on the one hand the writer has liberty to shape and summarize a speech for the narrative while still being faithful to the content of the speech itself. Unlike Dibelius, who argues that if one shapes the speech for the narrative then it is “untrue”, Gempf argues that these are the wrong categories. Gempf goes on to argue that speeches generally reflect the style and vocabulary of the orator and not necessarily that of the historian but we should not say that we do not hear the historians voice in the speech as well. Speeches need to fit within the narrative and ancient historians have the freedom to shape the speech to do so.

He concludes that we can take into account two clues about the faithfulness or unfaithfulness of a particular account (1301):

  1. Traces of the alleged situation into which it was purported to be delivered.
  2. Traces of the personality and traits of the alleged speaker.

In the book of Acts, just because several of the speeches use David as part of their argumentation does not negate the faithfulness of the speech itself. We should not necessarily see this as a Lucan invention but rather need to examine each speech and judge its apparent faithfulness or unfaithfulness. It is not surprising that these Jewish speakers include the story of David in their account, which gives credence to the faithfulness of the speech.

I find Grempf’s categories of faithfulness and unfaithfulness helpful when examining the historicity of the speeches in Acts. We should not judge ancient writers based on modern standards. It is clear that there is some type of summarizing and/or adding to the speeches in light of subsequent events when Luke is composing his narrative for a particular purpose. It is also not surprising that the speeches give insight into the narrative arc that Luke is writing so to help develop his story. Recording history comprises of selection and deselection and forming a coherent story from the individual acts of history. Therefore, we should not be surprised when speech fits well into a narrative and helps shape and develop the story.

  1. Dibelius, Martin. Studies in the Acts of the Apostles. Mifflintown, Pa: Sigler Press, 1999.  ↩

  2. Conrad Gempf, “Public Speaking and Published Accounts,” in The Book of Acts in Its First Century Setting: The Book of Acts in Its Ancient Literary Setting (ed. Bruce W. Winter and Andrew D. Clarke; vol. 1; Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle, Cumbria: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company; The Paternoster Press, 1993), 1259–1303.  ↩

Parallels Between Jonah, Peter, and Cornelius

Continuing the discussion of Jonah in relation to the rest of the canon I wanted to highlight an article, “Peter, ‘Son’ of Jonah: The Conversion of Cornelius in the Context of the Canon”, which shows the parallels between the Jonah story and Peter and Cornelius in Acts. R.W. Wall, following Williams commentary on Acts[1], finds several parallels between the stories (80)[2]:

  1. Continuity of location: Joppa (Jonah 1:3 – “κατέβη εἰς Ιοππην”; Acts 9:43 – “μεῖναι ἐν Ἰόππῃ”).
  2. Their hesitancy is dismantled only after God intervenes (great fish/vision) and its significance symbolized by the number three (Jonah 2:1 (LXX); Acts 10:16). Jonah’s three-day stay in the fish’s belly reverses his initial rebellion against God. Likewise, Peter’s vision, repeated three times corrects his negative, although pious, reaction to the demand to eat unclean foods, which results in Peter’s obedience to preach to the Gentile Cornelius.
  3. God commissions them by verbal revelation to arise and go (Jonah 3:2 “Ἀνάστηθι καὶ πορεύθητι”; Acts 10:20 “ἀναστὰς…καὶ πορεύου”) and deliver the Word of God to the Gentiles
  4. The Gentiles believed (Jonah 3:5 “ἐνεπίστευσαν”; Acts 10:43 “πιστεύοντα”) in the Word and were forgiven
  5. The conversion of the Gentiles resulted in an hostile response (Jonah 4:1; Acts 11:2). In both narratives God changes his mind about the status of Gentiles because he has mercy upon those who believe in the Word; and Jonah and Peter are both witnesses to God’s ‘conversion’, as well as the conversion of the Gentiles
  6. God’s rebuttal to Jonah and Peter’s response (Jonah 4:2–11; Acts 11:17–18). God’s final rebuttal of Jonah’s hostility in Jonah 4:9–11 is initiated by his directive that a “burning wind” (πνεύματι καύσωνος) take Jonah’s gourd away. His resultant self-pity, when “life” (Jonah 4:8) itself is forsaken, draws out the Lord’s reason for saving Nineveh’s life. This corresponds at least linguistically if not conceptually to Acts 11, where God convinces the Jerusalem doubters by giving his Holy Spirit (πνεύματι ἁγίῳ, cf. Acts 2:3 where the Spirit comes from heaven as ‘fire’) to Cornelius–the sign that the Gentiles also have “life” (Acts 11:18).

He goes on to say:

“Luke’s appeal to Jonah’s ’prophecy as the Word of God is appropriate in two ways: first, Jonah’s God is one who forgives the sins even of Gentiles; and second, Jonah’s God is one who would send his people to the Gentiles. Against this scripture-scape, the ‘theo-logic’ of the Gentile mission is painted by Luke: the Cornelius conversion is legitimized as the continuation of God’s merciful work at Nineveh, Simon-Peter is the bar Jonah, who is called by his ancestor’s God to convert the Gentile, and the people of God should do nothing but praise God and say, ‘God has granted the Gentiles repentance unto life’ (Acts 11.18).

The conflict which remains in Luke’s church regarding the Gentile mission involves the same theological conception, whether from the Jewish Christian side(s) or from the Gentile Christian side(s): thankful for God’s mercies bestowed upon them, but angry that he would ‘repent’ and bestow the very same mercies upon the others as welL Luke’s appeal to Jonah, then, finally intends to call into question such sectarianism and to reconcile a divided church, thus vindicating what all the prophets bear witness to, that ‘through his name every one who believes in him has received forgiveness of sins’ (Acts 10.43) (84–85).”

I think this may shed some light on the book of Jonah because we realize that this was a common thought among the Jewish people. Why should God bestow mercies on the Gentiles when he is our God? We are the ones who cite the Shema daily claiming that our God is one but the Gentiles are idols worshippers who don’t deserve his grace. Jonah is left open ended with Jonah still sulking that the Gentiles received salvation but Luke shows us in Acts that stubborn Peter has a transformed heart by the grace of God.

I wonder if this parallel has been picked up before Williams and Wall? I would be interested in researching some of the early churches typological understandings of Jonah and see if they picked up on anything outside Jesus being greater than Jonah in Matthew.

  1. Williams, C. s c. Harper’s New Testament Commentaries: The Acts of the Apostles. Harper & Brothers, 1957.  ↩

  2. Wall, Robert W. “Peter, ‘Son’ of Jonah : the Conversion of Cornelius in the Context of Canon.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament, no. 29 (F 1987): 79–90.  ↩