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Did Priscilla “Teach” Apollos? An Examination of the Meaning of ἐκτίθημι in Acts 18:26

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In some of the debates over the role of women in ministry nowadays, much is made of Priscilla teaching Apollos in Acts 18:26. It is often said that since Priscilla taught Apollos, 1 Tim 2:12 cannot mean that women may not teach men. Several assumptions are underneath this supposition, not the least of which is that “explained” in Acts 18:26 has every bit as much force as “teach” in 1 Tim 2:12. This assumption will be examined in this paper.

Primary Literature

The verb ἐκτίθημι is used only by Luke in the NT, and only in Acts (Acts 7:21; 11:4; 18:26; 28:23). The word is actually somewhat of a vanilla term, basically meaning “lay out,” or “expose.” It can be used in various contexts, but in collocation with information being passed on it tends to be restricted to simple explanation without concomitant urging or rhetorical persuasiveness. Thus, in Acts 11:4, Peter simply lays out the details of his visit to Joppa. This relating of the historical narrative occurs through v. 15 or perhaps v. 16. Then, Peter summarizes with the question in v. 17, “If God therefore gave to them the same gift as he gave to us also after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” This question is not a part of the explanation, but moves into exhortation. It is not a part of ἐκτίθημι. Acts 28:23 could conceivably present a different picture, for there Paul is said to be “explaining” (imperfect tense), though no direct object is given. It is of course possible that the direct object comes from v. 22 (as the NRSV and REB have it); it is also possible that the direct object comes with the present participle διαμαρτυρόμενος (“testifying”), viz., “the kingdom of God.” But if the latter, then διαμαρτυρόμενος is most likely a participle of means, thus defining the action of the main verb. All this means that we may need to factor in this verb’s force in the meaning of ἐκτίθημι. However, one would expect some confirmatory use of the verb elsewhere if it is to include this notion. (It is rather doubtful that the second person present participle, πείθων (“persuading”) is a participle of means since it has a different object (“concerning Jesus...”); rather, it should be viewed as purpose (“for the purpose of persuading,” “with the intention of persuading”) or contemporaneous (“while [making an attempt at] persuading”), the latter view being more natural.

In the LXX, the verb is used a dozen times (14 if one counts the Theodotionic version of Daniel): 9 times in Esther, 1 each in Job, Wisdom, and Daniel. All the references in Esther have to do with publishing or issuing a decree. The verb itself is used to describe making this decree known. Although the decree itself was a command, the verb in itself carries the force of simply “laying out” the news of the decree. (Cf. Esther 3:14; 4:3, 8; etc.). In Job 36:15 the verb speaks of God instructing the oppressed, though the Hebrew reads somewhat differently (Hebrew has “he opens their ears”). The problem here involves the difference between Greek and Hebrew, whether the Greek translated the same Hebrew text as we have today, etc. The differences elsewhere in the verse are so significant that not much can be made of this text. The passage in Wisdom 18:5 involves literal exposure (as in Acts 7:21). In Daniel 5:7 it relates to interpretation of the writing on the wall. In Daniel 3:29 (3:96 in the LXX) and 6:9 (6:8), the idiom involves making a decree public, as in Esther. The lexicon of the LXX by Muraoka confirms this assessment: “ἐκτίθημι+              V 0-0-0-13-2-15

Jb 36:15; Est 3:14; 4:3,8; 8:12

A: to make manifest  Jb 36:15; to publish  Est 3:14; to expose  Wis 18:5; to set forth  2 Mc 11:36; M: to publish  DnTh 3:96(29)”

Moving on to other literature, LSJ (the standard lexicon for the classical period) notes that ἐκτίθημι has the following forces: “ἐκ-τίθημι, f. -θήσω, to set out, place outside,  Od.: to expose  on a desert island or to expose  a new-born child, Hdt., Att.:—Med. to export,  Plut. II. to set up in public, exhibit publicly,   νόμους Dem.”

Returning to the New Testament, the semantic domain lexicon by Louw-Nida has this entry for the word: “33.151 τίθημιd; ἐκτίθεμαι; ἀνατίθεμαι: to explain something, presumably by putting forward additional or different information— ‘to explain, to make clear.’ τίθημιd: ἐν τίνι αὐτὴν παραβολῇ θῶμεν; ‘what parable shall we use to explain it?’ Mk 4:30.

Ε᾿κτίθεμαι: ἀκριβέστερον αὐτῷ ἐξέθεντο τὴν ὁδὸν τοῦ θεοῦ ‘they explained to him the way of God more accurately’ Ac 18:26.”

The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT) has no treatment of this word, nor does Spicq’s three-volume work.

The three-volume Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament by Balz and Schneider has a brief entry that adds nothing to our discussion (1.422), giving only the definitions of “explain, expose.”

Moulton and Milligan’s Vocabulary of the Greek Testament, a work that relates the vocabulary of the NT to (roughly) contemporary non-literary papyri, adds confirmatory evidence of the meanings we have already seen, viz., “post up a notice,” (as in the issuing of a decree), “expose,” and “explain or expound [the whole truth]” (p. 199).

Finally, BAGD gives two basic meanings, “1. expose, abandon; 2. fig. explain, set forth” (245).

From the primary data and the lexical tools that interpret such, there was seen to be almost no unusual meaning, virtually no sense that could be viewed as approaching διδάσκω and its cognates in the NT. That is, except for the possible participle of means in Acts 28:23 (διαμαρτυρόμενος), the force of ἐκτίθημι  never seemed to transgress into the realm of exhortation. To be sure, διαμαρτύρομαι does indeed involve exhortation, warning, etc. (cf. Luke 16:28; Acts 8:25; 18:5), though it also has a legal air about it (“solemnly testify”). In any event, since there is a different and just as likely explanation for the  use of the participle in Acts 28:23 and since no confirmatory evidence was found to suggest that ἐκτίθημι  meant more than “explain,” the meaning of “exhort” must be judged as unconfirmed on the basis of the data we have examined.

Secondary Literature

Turning to the secondary literature, we can say in general that few scholars really take the time to analyze this verb. In a friendly debate over the role of women in the church that I was involved several years ago, a female professor argued on the basis of Acts 18:26 that women had the right to teach men because, as she put it, “the verb ἐκτίθημι is stronger than διδάσκω.” That kind of comment, of course, is not helpful, for the adjective ‘stronger’ can mean just about anything. When it comes to this issue, it certainly is not stronger concerning exhortation and clearly has nothing over the Pauline use of διδάσκω regarding explanation, setting forth of the truth. I have checked several of the more important works on the role of women in the church. Several of them do not even mention the verse. But of those that do, very little is said. The following is a representative selection, with a few comments added.  (The books by France, Groothuis, and Tucker-Liefeld may be considered generally egalitarian, while the books by Hurley and Piper-Grudem are largely complementarian.)

R. T. France, Women in the Church’s Ministry (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), says that Priscilla and Aquila “take the initiative in ‘taking aside’ the formidable Apollos and teaching him ‘a more accurate’ version of the Christian message than he had yet encountered (Acts 18:26). Clearly they were a force to be reckoned with in early Mediterranean Christianity!” (p. 80). This statement is loaded with innuendos that tend to give a wrong impression about what really happened. (Similar is some of Jewett’s treatment of this text.) The text is plain enough as it is: Apollos had not been as well instructed in the facts of the Christian faith as would have been hoped. So, Aquila and Priscilla took him aside and laid out for him a more accurate explanation of who Jesus was and what the Christian message was all about.

Rebecca M. Groothuis, Good News for Women (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997), p. 194, makes this brief comment about the text: “Priscilla and Aquila offered doctrinal instruction to Apollos, a teacher and leader in the church, who received their instruction as authoritative—even though it came in large part from a woman (Acts 18:24-26).” Although this is true to a degree, it is also somewhat misleading, since the primary aspect of their instruction seems to have focused on the historical Jesus (v. 25). Of course, doctrine grows out of this, but the focus of the text and the lexical meaning of ἐκτίθημι  is that known facts were presented to Apollos so that he would have a more sure basis for his arguments.

James B. Hurley, Man and Woman in Biblical Perspective (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), offers an interesting perspective on this text: “We should consider the situation of a woman missionary or of a woman or a man who is not an elder in a situation in which there are no elders (e.g. China after Mao’s take-over or Uganda under Idi Amin). Such a situation is much like that of Prisca and Aquila in teaching Apollos (Acts 18:24-26)” (p. 250). Elsewhere he affirms the same thing (118-20). Still, Hurley does not address the meaning of the verb.

In the book edited by John Piper and Wayne Grudem, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1991), this passage is mentioned more than half a dozen times (on pp. 68-9, 82, 212, 218, 222, 256). On p. 69 Piper and Grudem say, “Nothing in our understanding of Scripture says that when a husband and wife visit an unbeliever (or a confused believer—or anyone else) the wife must be silent.” On p. 82 they say that because of Paul's influence, “Priscilla knew Scripture well enough to help instruct Apollos (Acts 18:26).” No elaboration on the meaning of the verb is given. Tom Schreiner’s note on p. 212 simply paraphrases Acts 18:26. On p. 222, Schreiner adds the sober note, “It should also be said that some who argue for no restrictions on women in ministry argue from isolated and ambiguous verses, such as Romans 16:7 or Priscilla's teaching of Apollos in Acts 18:26.” On p. 256, Paige Patterson notes that “no legitimate question exists with reference to either the adequacy or the acceptability of a woman serving in some teaching roles. Apollos profited not only from the instruction of Aquila but also from that of Priscilla (Acts 18:26).” In none of these references was there a word study on ἐκτίθημι.

Finally, one of the most extensive treatments of Acts 18:26 is to be found in Ruth A. Tucker and Walter Liefeld, Daughters of the Church: Women and Ministry from New Testament Times to the Present (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987). The text (or the broader context) is discussed on pp. 50 (though listed in the index, the text was not discussed on this page), 67-70, 125, 476 n. 104, 478 n. 49. They note that (quoting William Ramsey) Priscilla’s teaching of Apollos “is in perfect accord with the manners of that country. In Athens or in an Ionian city it would have been impossible” (p. 68). On pp. 67-70 they discuss the text, but never discuss the meaning of the verb, a significant oversight. As far as I can tell (no Greek word index is given), nowhere else in the book do they discuss this word.

Thus, the secondary literature, on both sides of the fence, is surprisingly sparse in its actual treatment of ἐκτίθημι. Assumptions are made based on context as to the nature of the instruction, but without an examination of scope of meaning that this verb can have, such construals are too subjective. Our tentative conclusion is that Priscilla and Aquila laid out for Apollos a more accurate understanding of the Christian faith, based on their instruction from Paul and their knowledge of the facts of the historical Jesus (which seems to be implied in Acts 18:25). This was not, of course, a mere history lesson. But it was not primarily, or apparently even secondarily, exhortational in nature. It was a historical-doctrinal explanation of the Christian faith. Further, it was done in private and by both Priscilla and Aquila. That Apollos took from this instruction a bolder refutation of Jewish views of Jesus and a stronger proclamation of the gospel (Acts 18:28) is instructive: what Priscilla and Aquila gave him was the tools necessary for his ministry, but Priscilla did not apparently perform the same ministry as Apollos.

Conclusion

This then seems to be the line of demarcation that this text encapsulates (especially when it is compared to 1 Tim 2:12): a woman may explain the known facts of the gospel. But whether she has permission to exhort men on the basis of those facts is both outside the scope of Acts 18:26 and its context and is proscribed in 1 Tim 2:12. In practice, I would see no problem with women instructing men in several areas in church ministry, such as Sunday school classes on church history, basic Bible facts (with a minimum of interpretation), and the like. But when it comes to teaching the Word to men in a manner that involves interpretation and/or application/exhortation, this seems to be a violation of the prohibition in 1 Tim 2:12.

Related Topics: Grammar, Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry, Leadership, Text & Translation