Did Priscilla Teach Apollos?

Watercolour and ink portrait of Priscilla by Sarah Beth Baca.
Used with permission of the artist. All rights reserved.
Prints of this portrait can be purchased here.

There is only one verse in the entire Bible which disallows a woman from teaching a man—1 Timothy 2:12. Some Christians see this verse as comprehensively declaring a universal and permanent ban on every woman teaching any man. However, other verses in scripture indicate that there is nothing wrong with a godly woman teaching a man. Acts 18:26 is one such verse. Acts 18:26 tells us that Priscilla, along with her husband Aquila, explained theology or, more precisely, the doctrine of Christian baptism, to a man named Apollos.

This article will briefly look at who Priscilla and Aquila were, and it will explore the meaning of the Greek word for “explain” used in the statement: they [Priscilla and Aquila] . . . explained to [Apollos] the Way of God more accurately” (Acts 18:24-26, NASB). This article will answer the question, Did Priscilla, a woman, teach Apollos, a man?

Priscilla, Aquila, and Paul

Priscilla (or Prisca)[1] and Aquila are mentioned by name six times in the Greek New Testament. They are always mentioned together, and, significantly, in four of those occurrences, Priscilla’s name is mentioned first. This unconventional order of the wife’s name before her husband’s may be an indication that Priscilla’s ministry ability was more prominent than Aquila’s. [I have included all verses which mention Priscilla and Aquila in endnote 2 below.]

Priscilla and her husband, Aquila, were devoted friends and ministry colleagues of Paul.[3] At some point, or perhaps several times, they even risked their lives for Paul’s sake (Rom. 16:3-5).

Paul first met Priscilla and Aquila when he went to Corinth as part of his second missionary journey. Priscilla and Aquila had just arrived in Corinth from Rome in around 49 AD.[4] Paul then spent eighteen months living and working together[5] with them (Acts 18:1-3, 11, 18). After Corinth, Priscilla, Aquila, and Paul travelled together to Ephesus (Acts 18:18). Paul had confidence in the abilities of both Priscilla and Aquila as church leaders, and he left them in Ephesus to lead a church that met in their house (1 Cor. 16:19). It was while Priscilla and Aquila were leading a church at Ephesus that they met Apollos.

Priscilla, Aquila and Apollos

Now a Jew named Apollos, an Alexandrian by birth, an eloquent man, came to Ephesus; and he was mighty in the scriptures.  This man had been instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in spirit, he was speaking and teaching accurately the things concerning Jesus, being acquainted only with the baptism of John; and he began to speak out boldly in the synagogue. But when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately. Acts 18:24-26 (NASB, underline added)

In Acts 18:24-26, Luke, the author of Acts, introduces his readers to Apollos. Apollos was a Jewish Christian from Alexandria. Alexandria was a renowned centre of learning in the ancient world and famous for its impressive and extensive library.

Apollos is described by Luke literally as a “man of words”. This indicates Apollos was well-read, well-educated, and trained in rhetoric. Luke portrays him as both an eloquent orator and as someone with a thorough (literally, “powerful”) understanding of the Hebrew scriptures. Apollos would go on to become an outstanding minister of the gospel (1 Cor. 1:12; 3:4-6, 21-22; 4:6, 9).

Despite Apollos’ notable credentials, something was lacking in his teaching. He was ignorant of Christian baptism. Priscilla and Aquila recognised this lack and, as leaders of the local church, they took Apollos aside, possibly into their home,[6] and explained to him “the Way of God”, that is, theology, more accurately.[7]

The verb “explain” is plural in the Greek indicating that both Priscilla and Aquila were involved.[8] However, the fact that Priscilla’s name is listed first, before her husband’s in Acts 18:26, seems to indicate that Priscilla was the more active one in giving the explanation.[9]

“Teach”–didaskō

Many different verbs are commonly used in the New Testament in the context of someone communicating aspects of the gospel message and Christian faith.[10] And much of this communication would have included a degree of teaching and instruction.

Some people quibble about the meaning of the word “explain” (ektithēmi) used in Acts 18:26. They claim that it does not mean “teach”. Didaskō is the Greek word usually translated as “teach” or “instruct”. BDAG (p.241) defines didaskō as “(1) to tell someone what to do, tell, instruct; . . . and (2) to provide instruction in a formal or informal setting, teach.” Apollos is himself described as someone who was “speaking (laleō) and teaching (didaskō)” about Jesus (Acts 18:25).

In chapter 19 of Acts (the chapter immediately following the passage about Priscilla and Aquila’s “explaining”) Luke writes about Paul’s three month speaking ministry in the synagogue at Ephesus. Luke uses the cognates of three different verbs in reference to Paul’s speaking about the Kingdom of God: (1) parrēsiazomai–speak boldly or freely, (2) dialegomai–discuss or reason, and (3) peithō–persuade (Acts 19:8-9). Luke does not use the word “teach” (didaskō) here, and yet there can be no doubt that, during those three months at Ephesus, Paul did in fact teach. He taught boldly with reasoning and with persuasion.

It is unreasonable to suggest that Paul’s ministry in Acts 19:8-9 did not include teaching simply because Luke did not use the word didaskō. It is equally unreasonable to suggest that Priscilla and Aquila’s explanation to Apollos did not include teaching just because Luke did not use the word didaskō. Priscilla and Aquila did, in fact, teach Apollos. This becomes clearer when we look at the meaning of “explain” (ektithēmi) and at the circumstances where Luke uses the word elsewhere in Acts.

“Explain”–ektithēmi

Luke is the only New Testament author to use the Greek word ektithēmi. He uses it four times, and only in the book of Acts. There are two basic meanings for the word ektithēmi. In its most literal sense it means to “place outside” or “expose”. With this sense, BDAG (p.310) gives the definition of ektithēmi as “withdraw support or protection from”. Luke uses the word with this sense in Acts 7:21 where he recounts Stephen speaking about the baby Moses who was placed outside and left exposed on the Nile.

Ektithēmi also means “to put forth, declare, explain”. (Perschbacher 1990:131)[11] With this sense, BDAG (p.310) gives the definition of ektithēmi as “to convey information by careful elaboration”. This sounds a lot like teaching to me. Luke uses the word with this sense three times in Acts: in Acts 11:4 of Peter’s teaching, in Acts 18:26 of Priscilla and Aquila’s, and in Acts 28:23 of Paul’s. It is important to note that there is nothing at all trivial in these three instances where “explain” (ektithēmi) is used.

Peter’s Explaining in Acts 11:4

But Peter began and explained it to them point by point, saying . . . Acts 11:4 (NIV, underline added.)

In Acts chapter 10, we read that the very first gentiles had become Christians and were baptised through Peter’s ministry. The apostles and brothers in Judea were disturbed by this turn of events and when Peter went to Jerusalem they “took issue with him” (Acts 11:3 NIV). Peter responds to their criticism, and in Acts 11:5-17 he explains (ektithēmi) the remarkable events “point by point” (NIV), or “in an orderly sequence” (NASB). Peter does not merely relate his recent experiences, he persuasively presents his own conclusion (Acts 11:17-18). Peter’s speech about the inclusion of the gentiles in God’s plan for salvation was a huge turning point for the Christian church which up to that point was completely Jewish. Luke uses the word ektithēmi in this context.

Paul’s Explaining in Acts 28:23

When they had set a day for Paul, they came to him at his lodging in large numbers; and he was explaining to them by solemnly testifying about the kingdom of God and trying to persuade them concerning Jesus, from both the Law of Moses and from the Prophets, from morning until evening. Some were being persuaded by the things spoken, but others would not believe. Acts 28:23-24 (NASB, underline added.)

Luke’s final use of the word ektithēmi occurs in a passage where we read that Paul was explaining, testifying, and trying to persuade many people about Jesus using Old Testament scripture. While Luke does not use the word didaskō in this passage, we can see that Paul was, in fact, teaching his visitors about Jesus.

As an accomplished and careful writer, skilled in Greek, Luke has a large vocabulary. Throughout his narratives, he avoids the repetition of words and uses synonyms or words with similar meanings. Ektithēmi and didaskō have similar and overlapping meanings.

An Objection to Priscilla “Teaching”

Daniel B. Wallace disagrees that Priscilla “taught” Apollos. In his article Did Priscilla “Teach” Apollos? An Examination of the Meaning of ἐκτίθημι in Acts 18:26, he writes:

“The word [ektithēmi] 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.”

It is unclear why Wallace regards ektithēmi as a “vanilla term”, especially considering how Luke uses the word in Acts. It is highly unlikely that Peter told his audience the amazing events recounted in Acts 11:5-17 dispassionately, with no desire or intention to change the minds of those present. Moreover, in Acts 28:23 there is unmistakable evidence of “rhetorical persuasiveness”.

Wallace also states that:

“From the primary data and the lexical tools that interpret [ektithēmi], there was seen to be almost no unusual meaning, virtually no sense that could be viewed as approaching didaskō and its cognates in the NT. . . . the force of ektithēmi never seemed to transgress into the realm of exhortation.”

I agree that it is a straightforward exercise to translate ektithēmi into English as there are “almost no unusual meanings”; however, it is difficult to understand why Wallace believes its meaning cannot be viewed as approaching didaskō. “Explain” can often be practically synonymous in meaning to “teach” and “instruct”, whether in English or Greek. Furthermore, it is unclear why Wallace implies that didaskō involves exhortation and ektithēmi doesn’t. I strongly suspect that Peter’s and Paul’s explanations were not devoid of exhortations.

Conclusion

Typically, most English dictionaries define explain as “make plain and comprehensible”. This is surely one of the major aims in teaching. I would be very happy if my teaching was described as explaining. To discount Priscilla and Aquila’s “explaining” as true teaching simply because Luke didn’t use the word didaskō is unwarranted, especially when considering the context of ektithēmi in the book of Acts.[12]

Did Priscilla, with her husband, teach Apollos the Way of God more accurately? Did a woman, Priscilla, teach and correct a man, even a male teacher? When we understand the word ektithēmi and read Acts 18:26 objectively, it is hard to see otherwise.[13]

As church leaders, there would have been many occasions for Priscilla and Aquila to teach, either informally or in slightly more formal house church meetings. Neither Luke nor Paul gives any hint of censure or disapproval about Priscilla teaching Apollos, or her role as a house church leader. In light of the fact that Priscilla did explain Christian doctrine to a man, the blanket ban by some which prohibits women from teaching men, must be reassessed and redressed.


Endnotes

[1] “Paul always refers to her as ‘Prisca’, the more respectful form of her name; Luke always adds the diminutive ending in ‘Priscilla’.” (Payne 2009:64)
Prīsca is a Latin word which means “venerable” or “ancient”. Aquila is a Latin word which means “eagle”.

[2] The scriptures which mention Priscilla and Aquila:

There he [Paul] met a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all the Jews to leave Rome. Paul went to see them, and because he was a tentmaker as they were, he stayed and worked with them (Acts 18:2-3, NIV).

Paul stayed on in Corinth for some time. Then he left the brothers and sisters and sailed for Syria, accompanied by Priscilla and Aquila . . . They arrived at Ephesus, where he [Paul] left them [Priscilla and Aquila]. . . .  (Acts 18:18-19). Some translations such as the NIV repeat the names in Acts 18:19 for clarity, but the names are not repeated in the Greek texts.

He [Apollos] began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the Way of God more accurately (Acts 18:26).

Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my co-workers in Christ Jesus. They risked their lives for me. Not only I but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them. Greet also the church that meets at their house (Romans 16:3-5).

The churches in the province of Asia send you greetings. Aquila and Priscilla greet you warmly in the Lord, and so does the church that meets at their house (1 Corinthians 16:19).

Greet Priscilla and Aquila . . . (2 Timothy 4:19)

Extra-biblical ideas about Priscilla and Aquila:
Eusebius mentions Paul living with Aquila and Priscilla when he was ministering to the churches in Asia Minor (Church History 2.18.9). John Chrysostom says that Paul stayed with the couple for two years. (Homily 30 on Romans; cf. Acts 19:10.)
Chrysostom emphasises Priscilla, and doesn’t mention Aquila at all, as the person who received Apollos and instructed him in the way of the Lord. And he credits Priscilla, more so than Aquila, in making their home a church through evangelism and through hospitality. Furthermore, Chrysostom waxes lyrical about Priscilla’s fame. (Homily 30 on Romans)
Adolf von Harnack and Ruth Hoppin each speculate that Priscilla may have been the author of the book of Hebrews. An interesting article about this subject is here.
I suggest Priscilla and Aquila were leaders, or elders, of the church in Ephesus, here.
In the Constitutions of the Holy Apostles, Aquila and a man named Nicetas are listed as the first bishops of Asia.
An Orthodox Church tradition states that Aquila was one of Jesus’ 70 disciples (Luke 10:1-24), though this is unlikely.
A tradition holds that Priscilla and Aquila were both martyred. (There are many unsubstantiated martyrdom stories about many of the people mentioned in the New Testament.)

[3] Twice Paul refers to Priscilla and Aquila as his ministry colleagues (“co-workers”) (Rom 16:3-5; 2 Tim 4:19).

[4] Suetonius wrote that Emperor Claudius had expelled all the Jews (which included Priscilla and Aquila) from Rome in 49 AD (Claudius 25.4). Priscilla and Aquila later returned to Rome (probably from Ephesus) some time after the death of Claudius in 54 AD and probably before 57 AD.

[5] Aquila, Priscilla and Paul were all tentmakers by profession. During Paul’s third Missionary tour, Paul stayed with Priscilla and Aquila at Ephesus for over two years (Acts 19:10). They were all still living in Ephesus when Paul passed on Aquila and Priscilla’s greeting to the Corinthian church in 1 Corinthians 16:19. Aquila and Priscilla returned to Rome by 57 AD where they became church leaders again. 2 Timothy 4:19 suggests that the couple returned to Ephesus at a later date, possibly around 62-64 AD. Paul had no problem with a godly, capable woman being a church leader.

[6] The verb proslambanō, which occurs in Acts 18:26, can be used in a variety of ways. It can mean: “. . . to receive kindly or hospitably, admit to one’s own society and friendship . . .” (Perschbacher 1990:354) The CEB has that Priscilla and Aquila, “received [Apollos] into their circle of friends.” More on this in my short article At Home with Priscilla and Aquila.

[7] Luke frequently refers to Christianity as “The Way” (Acts 9:2; 18:25, 26; 19:9,23; 24:14,22; etc).

[8] Exethento (from ektithēmi) 3rd person plural aorist middle indicative.

[9] The order of Priscilla’s and Aquila’s names is significant. Luke was careful in what order he listed names. For example, in his account of the joint ministry of the Paul and Barnabas, Luke switches the order of the names of Paul and Barnabas, listing first whoever was more well-known or more active in ministry at that particular time. (See Acts 13:7, 42-50; 14:1, 3, 12, 14, 23; 15:2, 12, 22, 25, 35-36.)

[10] All of the following words are used in the New Testament to describe the transmission and teaching of the gospel and Christian doctrine: Parrēsiazomai means “speak openly, boldly or freely”; peithō means “persuade”; martureō means “testify” or “bear witness”; legō or laleō simply means “speak” or “talk”; dialegomai means “discuss” or “reason”; parakaleō means “exhort” or “encourage”, keryssō means “proclaim” or “preach”; euaggelizomai means “proclaim the good news or gospel”; ektithēmi means “put forth” or “explain”; disdaskō means “teach”; etc.

[11] Strong defines ektithēmi as “declare” and “expound”. (Strong’s number 1620)

[12] As previously stated, BDAG (p.310) defines ektithēmi as “to convey information by careful elaboration”.

[13] King Lemuel’s mother is another Bible woman who taught a man. The teaching of this woman has been recorded in scripture and thus has the authority of scripture. [More on King Lemuel’s mother here.]


Works Cited

Anonymous (attributed to Clement of Rome), Constitutions of the Holy Apostles, James Donaldson (ed), Christian Classics Ethereal Library.  http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf07.ix.viii.iv.html accessed 9/09/2010

Bauer, Walter, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd Edition, revised and edited by F.W Danker (University of Chicago Press, 2000)  [Known as BDAG for short.]

Belleville, Linda L., “Women Leaders in the Bible” in Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without Heirarchy, Ronald W. Pierce and Rebecca Merrill Groothous (ed) (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 2004)

Blue, B. B., “Apollos” in Dictionary of Paul and his Letters, Gerald F. Hawthorne (ed) (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1993)

Payne, Philip B., Man and Woman, One in Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul’s Letters (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009)

Perschbacher, Wesley J., (ed) The New Analytical Greek Lexicon, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1990)

Strong, James, Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, (McLean, VA: Macdonald Publishing Company, n.d)

Wallace, Daniel B., Did Priscilla “teach” Apollos? An Examination of the Meaning of ἐκτίθημι in Acts 18:26, Bible.org. http://bible.org/article/did-priscilla-teach-apollos accessed 08/09/2010

© 11th of September, 2010; Margaret Mowczko  


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