Priscilla Aquila Apollos Acts 18

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

There is only one verse in the entire Bible that disallows a woman from teaching—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). This article will answer the question, Did Priscilla, a woman, teach Apollos, a man?

Priscilla, Aquila, and Paul

Priscilla, or Prisca, and Aquila are mentioned by name six times in the Greek New Testament.[1] 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 indicate that Priscilla’s ministry 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 had 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 with them (Acts 18:1-3, 11, 18).[5] 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 there to care for a church that met in their house (1 Cor. 16:19). It was while the couple were caring for a church in 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, traditionally thought to be 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 literally as a “man of words.” This indicates Apollos was well-read, well-educated, and trained in rhetoric. He is portrayed as both an eloquent orator and as someone with a thorough (literally, “powerful”) understanding of the Old Testament 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 they 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 used in the New Testament in the context of someone communicating aspects of the gospel and the 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 for Priscilla and Aquila’s explanation in Acts 18:26. They claim that it does not mean “teach.” Didaskō is the Greek word usually translated as “teach” or “instruct.” BDAG (2000: 241) define 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 Acts chapter 19 (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 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). He does not use the word “teach” (didaskō) here, and yet there can be no doubt that, during those three months, Paul did in fact teach. He taught boldly with reasoning and with persuasion. Dialegomai is used again in Acts 19:9-10 for Paul’s two-year ministry in the lecture hall of Tyrannus.

It is unreasonable to suggest that Paul’s ministry in Acts 19:8-10 did not include teaching simply because the word didaskō is not used. It is equally unreasonable to suggest that Priscilla and Aquila’s explanation to Apollos did not include teaching just because the word didaskō does not occur in Acts 18:26. 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 the author of Acts, traditionally thought to be Luke, uses the word elsewhere.

“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 (2000: 310) give 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 has a second meaning, “to put forth, declare, explain.” (Perschbacher 1990:131) BDAG (2000: 310) give the definition of this second sense as “to convey information by careful elaboration.” This sounds a lot like teaching to me. Luke uses ektithēmi 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 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 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, the author of Acts has a large vocabulary. Throughout his narratives, he avoids the repetition of words and uses synonyms or words with similar meanings. Ektithēmi (“explain”) and didaskō (“teach”) have similar 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 unlikely 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 persuasion.

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

Most English dictionaries define explain as “make plain and comprehensible.” This is surely one of the major aims of 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.[11]

Did Priscilla, with her husband, teach Apollos the Way of God more accurately? Did a woman, Priscilla, teach and correct a man—an eloquent and educated male teacher? When we understand the word ektithēmi and read Acts 18:26 objectively, it is difficult to see otherwise.

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 give 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 that prohibits women from teaching men must be reassessed and redressed.


Footnotes

[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 that means “venerable” or “ancient.” Aquila is a Latin word which means “eagle.”

[2] The New Testament verses that 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 Prisca 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 Prisca greet you warmly in the Lord, and so does the church that meets at their house (1 Corinthians 16:19).

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

[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] The exact form of the verb in Acts 18:26 is 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] The following is a sample of words 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,” “talk,” or “tell”; dialegomai means “discuss,” “reason,” or “dispute”; parakaleō means “exhort” or “encourage”; kēryssō means “proclaim” or “preach”; euaggelizomai means “proclaim the good news or gospel”; nouthetō means “admonish,” “warn,” or “exhort”; ektithēmi means “put forth” or “explain”; disdaskō means “teach”; etc. There are also a verbs with an aggel– stem and with different prefixes (one occurrence in the New Testament with no prefix) that mean “report” or “announce,” etc.

[11] As previously stated, BDAG (2000: 310) defines ektithēmi as “to convey information by careful elaboration”.


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 Hierarchy, Ronald W. Pierce and Rebecca Merrill Groothuis (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)

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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Postscript 1
What Church Fathers have said 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).

In his Homily 30 on Romans), John Chrysostom says that Paul stayed with the couple for two years (cf. Acts 19:10). He highlights Priscilla 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. Chrysostom waxes lyrical about Priscilla’s fame.  He mentions the couple in at least five of his surviving sermons. More on this here.

Jerome mentioned the couple when he defended his right to teach women: “Aquila and Priscilla educate Apollos, an apostolic man learned in the law, in the way of the lord. If to be taught by a woman was not shameful to an apostle, why should it be to me afterwards to teach men and women?” (Letter to Principia, 379)

In the Constitutions of the Holy Apostles, Aquila and a man named Nicetas are listed as the first bishops of Asia. This idea is not substantiated elsewhere.

An Orthodox Church tradition states that Aquila was one of Jesus’ 70 disciples (Luke 10:1-24). Another 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.)

More recently, 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.

Postscript 2

In his 2019 book, Andrew Bartlett makes these points about Priscilla’s teaching.

With her husband, Priscilla corrected Apollos, a prominent male preacher, and taught him the way of God more accurately, as narrated by Paul’s companion Luke (Acts 18:26). Paul commends Priscilla as one of his co-workers (Romans 16:3-4). Luke considered Priscilla’s correction of Apollos sufficiently important to include it in his short history. Teaching Apollos was no minor task. He was a forceful public exponent of the gospel, with an expansive ministry (Acts 18:24-28). When he moved on to Corinth, his ministry there was more influential with some believers even than Paul’s (1 Cor. 1:12). Calvin admits: “we see that one of the chief teachers of the church was instructed by a woman.”

The example of Priscilla’s teaching of Apollos is about as authoritative as one may imagine. As we have seen, with her husband, as co-host of the local congregation in Ephesus (1 Cor. 16:8,19), she corrects the doctrinal understanding of one of the chief teachers of the church. If authoritative teaching is a special category, Priscilla is doing it.
Men and Women in Christ, Fresh Light From the Biblical Texts (London: Inter-Varsity Press, 2019), 207 & 227. (More about this book here.)


Related Articles

At Home with Priscilla and Aquila
Partnering Together: Paul’s Female Coworkers
Were there women elders in New Testament churches?
Various articles on 1 Timothy 2:12 here.
Paul’s Qualifications for Church Leaders
Junia: the Jewish woman who was imprisoned with Paul
Euodia and Syntyche: Women Church Leaders at Philippi
Were Priscilla, Phoebe and Junia friends?
A list of the 29 people in Romans 16:1-16
Chrysostom on 5 Women Church Leaders in the New Testament

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