Wednesday, February 14, 2018

A Deliberate Omission or a simple Oversight?

In Baptist Bible study several weeks ago I stumbled into an interesting problem in Acts. Luke (the putative author of Acts) includes a narrative about Apollos (Acts 18:24–28).1 He is described as a Jew, a native of Alexandria. He was an "eloquent man, well versed in the scriptures, and fervent in the spirit." Apollos "had been instructed in the way of the Lord" and he "spoke and taught accurately (ακριβῶς; that is, in strict conformity to a pattern or norm) the things concerning Jesus." That comment suggests Luke agreed with what the man had to say about Jesus. Luke mentions, however, that Apollos knew only the baptism of John (Acts 18:25), but nevertheless Luke does not describe him as being baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus, as the disciples in 19:1–7 were. Is this uncorrected deficiency an oversight by the narrator? The observation is left to dangle and nothing is made of it.

            Apollos spoke boldly in the synagogue, and when Pricilla and Aquila heard him speak, they apparently found deficiencies in his address before the synagogue, so they took him aside and "expounded to him the way of God more accurately" (Acts 18:26; ακριβέστερον comparative of ακριβῶς). Using the word "accurately" in one verse (18:25) and "more accurately" in another verse (18:26) sets up the following problem: "the statements are contradictory: if he taught accurately, he required no further instruction. If he required further instruction, he did not teach accurately."2 Richard Pervo describes the problem as a "gap intentionally left by the narrator."3 Pervo explains that Apollos' lack of knowledge of the baptism that brings the Holy Spirit (as we find it in Acts 19:1–7) is "a Lucan cipher for inadequate doctrine and rite, not explicitly false teaching, since it is based on ignorance other than deceit, and the like."4 He refers to his solution as cutting "the Gordian Knot," meaning I take it, as an unsatisfactory solution to an intractable problem (a problem having no obvious or simple solution).5

            Could the problem relate simply to the difference between Apollos' excellent knowledge of "the things concerning Jesus" and his need for some improvement in his understanding of God? That seems unlikely, however, for a Jewish man from Alexandria who was "well versed in the scriptures" and proficient in his knowledge of things pertaining to Jesus would likely be well versed in what scripture says about God.

            There is a textual variant in Acts 18:26 that might make a solution possible. Acts 18:26 in Codex Bezae reads simply "the Way," which is an expression describing Christianity (cf. Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22). Text Critics, however, insist that the preferred reading is "The way of God."6

            Another possibility, not considered by Pervo, was that Luke simply overlooked the contradiction; hence it was an accidental oversight by Luke, like (perhaps) the failure to baptize Apollos in the "name of the Lord Jesus." If so it becomes just another example of sloppy writing by a biblical writer.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Apollos is mentioned only twice in Acts. In this narrative and in a transition to the one that follows, Acts 19:1. He plays a much larger role in 1 Corinthians 1–4 and 16:12.
2My source is R. Pervo. Acts (Fortress: Hermenia, 2009), 460, note 16. The statement is by Ernst Haenchen as cited by Pervo.
3Ibid., 460, note 16.
4Ibid., 459.
6Metzger, Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 414. Two respected scholars, however, accept the reading "the Way" as the best reading: Jackson and Lake, Beginnings of Christianity. Part One, Acts of the Apostles, 3.178.


  1. Charlie, I don't understand what the oversight is... Because it sounds like Apollos really wasn't baptized in the name of Jesus and Luke was correctly stating that fact. So what is the oversight? When did all this baptizing become such a bugaboo anyway- even the disciples had to be corrected by Paul about their baptism... Who goes around demanding all these baptisms be performed in the correct way and where were they getting this authority to reprimand people- certainly not from the Tanach. I don't even know what scripture in the Tanach addresses baptism, do you? And what scriptures in Tanach "proved" Jesus was the Messiah as Apollos claimed to convince "the Jews" about? None of it makes any sense to me. Thank you, Elizabeth

    PS: You mention Apollos's lack of knowledge that baptism brings the Holy Spirit- well where in the world would that knowledge have originated?

    1. Good Morning Elizabeth,
      By "oversight" I mean to say Luke was not aware of having created a contradiction between Acts 18:25 and 26--he simply overlooked it. I also suggested that Luke overlooked the fact that he let the baptism of Apollos stand without correcting it as he did in the case of the disciples in Acts 19:5.
      On Baptism see the article by Lars Hartman. "Baptism" Anchor Bible Dictionary, 1.583-94. On the Early Christian use of Hebrew Bible as prophecies about Jesus see R. J. Miller, Helping Jesus Fulfill Prophecy (Cascade, 2016).

    2. Charlie, what is your opinion as to the identity of the "disciples" in Acts 19:15? I've heard various theories. One theory is that they were not the original disciples but new followers (or disciples) of Jesus. Have you heard this theory? Also- when did these events take place? I heard a rabbi ("Rabbi Micheal Skobac Cross Examines the New Testament") say that the Christian commentaries he consulted date the events in Acts 19 at 25 years after the crucifixion. Is this your understanding as well?

      Again, I don't know of any other NT writer other than Paul who claimed to know any baptism other than the baptism of John, i.e. the baptism of repentance. All other baptisms come from Paul's teachings, that I know of. It sounds to me like Luke was not entirely sure of this new doctrines about baptism since it was obviously being made up as Paul went along.

      Thank you, Elizabeth

    3. Hi Elizabeth,
      I imagine that the disciples were disciples of John, since that had been baptized by him at some point. I would not even guess about the date of this particular narrative in Acts 19, since I have no data on which to base an opinion.

  2. Wow Charles, thanks for making me think. :)

    1. Thanks Kerry,
      When I run across confusion in the text, it makes me think as well. The usual answers to the problems are not always satisfying.