TWH: Apollos (Ἀπολλῶς) was a Christian contemporary of Paul, Jewish by ancestry, born in Alexandria, who ministered in and around Corinth and Ephesus. Below we'll just take a closer look at this important New Testament figure. We'll start with his name, its etymology and different spellings found in the manuscripts. Then we'll move through Acts, 1 Corinthians, and Titus to glean what we can about his life and ministry.
A. Textual Variants and Etymology
A quick glance at the manuscript history unveils a couple of variants to this individual’s name in the text of Acts. In Acts 18:21 Codex Bezae has Ἀπολλώνιος. Ἀπολλῶς is probably just an abbreviated form for what is found in D, similar to “Tom” for “Thomas” without the level of interpersonal familiarity that accompanies the former. A number of manuscripts (e.g., א*) contain the reading Ἀπελλῆς, but, Metzger notes, it stems from a single geographical region and suggests an “Egyptian preference” (412–413). Given the absence of any such variant in Acts 18:27 and Paul’s use in the Corinthian correspondence (e.g., 1 Cor 1:12; 3:4, 5, 6, 22; 4:6, etc.), it should be concluded that “Apollos” is his name.
It was common for parents to take names from compounded forms of the Greek gods’ names. This one is tied to the son of Zeus, namely Apollo. Apollos’ name has this close connection to Greek mythology, but it is not surprising given his birth outside Israel in Alexandria (Acts 18:24). This does not mean there was no Jewish presence there. In fact, the opposite is true. Alexandria was home to possibly the largest concentration of Jewish people outside of the regions promised in Genesis 15.
B. In Acts
Many characters in the New Testament receive little introduction. For example, in Paul’s letters, there is no reason to give any background information for people he references by name because his audience is generally familiar with them. Luke’s work for Theophilus is quite different. His attention to detail and the inclusion of background information for individuals is a great help, at the least for appeasing curious minds. From Luke, we learn that John was Mark’s name, but people called him “Mark” (Acts 12:12). We also learn that his mother was a believer (Acts 12:12), they lived in Jerusalem, and that he was the root of Paul’s major disagreement with Barnabas (15:37–39).
In the case of Apollos, we have a great description from Luke. We know his ancestry, for Luke refers to him as a “Jewish man” (Ἰουδαῖος; Acts 18:24). We also know where he was born and, therefore, at least an idea of any socio-cultural factors that could have influenced who he was. Luke tells us he is “an Alexandrian by birth” (Ἀλεξανδρεὺς τῷ γένει; Acts 18:24). Next, he inserts an expression that has some significant semantic range. What does Luke mean when he writes ἀνὴρ λόγιος (Acts 18:24)? Does he refer to Apollos’ education or to his eloquence, perhaps hinting at his training in rhetoric and oratory? Most likely, Luke refers to the latter (Trebilco, 115), especially since v. 25 deals specifically with the instruction he received.
Luke also says he is “highly knowledgeable of the Scriptures” (δυνατὸς ὢν ἐν ταῖς γραφαῖς; Acts 18:24). Thiselton prefers the translation “competent” (155). Luke likes to tell his audience how individuals relate to the Scriptures prior to their encounter with the gospel. This is not the first time (see Acts 8:27–28; 19:1–7). Apollos is very similar to the disciples Paul encounters in Ephesus. Like them, he is only acquainted with the ministry and baptism of John the Baptist (Acts 18:25). Nevertheless, he had a superb grasp of Jesus’ life and ministry (Acts 18:25), despite not knowing anything of his sacrificial death in Jerusalem. It appears that Apollos is familiar with the ministry of John the Baptist after John’s identification of Jesus as the “Lamb of God” (John 1:29; Hartin, 96). He received John’s baptism and, like the disciples in Acts 19, afterwards departed from Jerusalem. John’s ministry continues even after Jesus is baptized and the Spirit of God descends on him. The only difference is John’s message would have included what is found in John 1:29–34. Like Philip with the Ethiopian eunuch, Priscilla and Aquila have the wonderful privilege of filling in what lacks in Apollos’ knowledge of the Jesus he already adores and proclaims.
C. In 1 Corinthians
The Corinthian correspondence creates the greatest conundrum concerning the life and work of Apollos. He is mentioned only in 1 Corinthians (1:10–17; 3:1–9, 21–23; 4:1–7; 16:12). For some, Apollos is nothing more than a rival of Paul, a false teacher who challenges Paul’s teaching and drums up support against him. Some even connect the false apostles in 2 Corinthians 10–13 with Apollos. Is he really an enemy or a rival? What happened to the man Luke says ripped the Jews’ arguments to shreds? What of the man who showed that Jesus was indeed the King that all the Scriptures foretold (Acts 18:28)? The evidence in 1 Corinthians is sufficient to show that Paul and Apollos were not rivals at all. The problem with the Corinthians was the Corinthians. There is nothing directly critical of Apollos flowing from Sosthenes’ pen (Ciampa and Rosner, 853).
The first mention of Apollos in 1 Corinthians concerns the divisions existing in Corinth and the fights (ἔριδες) they were causing (1 Cor 1:10–12). Some of the Corinthians were saying they were part of one of four different groups. One of the groups identified themselves with Apollos. For one reason or another, they were choosing sides. Tom Wright says, “[W]e should not be surprised that there were some in Corinth who had decided that they preferred Apollos’s teaching, style, methods and perhaps content, to Paul’s. Go to any church where two preachers have worked side by side, or in quick succession, and you will find people comparing them” (Wright, 7). It was not Apollos’ fault, nor his intention, no more than some in the bunch were saying “I’m with Paul!” Paul had been intentional about not using a style that made the orators famous for their speech (1 Cor 2:1–5). Apollos was unaware about Paul’s approach, and apparently those traits Luke mentioned were the final ingredient the Corinthians needed in a recipe for factions (Witherington, 130).
The second mention of Apollos in 1 Corinthians reveals exactly how Paul viewed the ministry of Apollos in Corinth. In 1 Cor 3:5, Paul says he and Apollos are nothing but “servants” (διάκονοι). Then in v. 6 he describes how the two, while ministering independently, were being used among the same people in different roles: “I [Paul] planted. Apollos watered. But God was causing the growth (i.e., causing salvation).” This is hardly something the Corinthians should hear Paul say for a rival or false teacher. He even calls him a “co-laborer” (συνεργοί) in 3:9. The third mention in 4:1–7 sums up his point. The Corinthians should not be boasting in anyone but God, and they most definitely should not allow any human being cause discord among the fellowship.
The fourth and final mention of Apollos in 1 Corinthians is found at the end of the letter. Following instructions for how the Corinthians ought to treat Timothy if he visits (1 Cor 16:10–11), Paul gives some behind the scenes information on an interaction he had with Apollos about a possible visit to Corinth. Paul really wanted Apollos to return to Corinth, and he told him so (1 Cor 16:12). Perhaps Paul thought Apollos could help extinguish some of the factions. Or, perhaps Paul just wanted to let Apollos know he was not prohibited from returning to Corinth, really that it was not his fault and Paul harbored no ill-feelings. The possibilities are almost limitless (Ciampa and Rosner, 853). Paul, however, was unsuccessful in convincing him to return. Paul says it was not at all his desire (θέλημα) to return at that time. Such a statement begs the question, “Why would Paul tell his rival to come on back and stir up some more controversy?” The answer is, he would not.
D. In Titus
Only one reference to Apollos is found outside of Acts and 1 Corinthians. That reference is found in Paul’s letter to Titus. In it, he exhorts Titus to work hard at seeing that Zenas and Apollos lack nothing as they leave for some undisclosed ministry (Titus 3:13).
Ciampa, Roy E., and Brian S. Rosner. The First Letter to the Corinthians. The Pillar New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2010.
Hartin, Patrick J. Apollos: Paul’s Partner or Rival? Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2009.
Metzger, Bruce M. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. 2nd ed. New York: United Bible Societies, 2005.
Thiselton, Anthony C. The First Epistle to the Corinthians. NIGTC. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2000.
Trebilco, Paul. The Early Christians in Ephesus from Paul to Ignatius. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2007.
Witherington III, Ben. Conflict and Community in Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1995.
Wright, Tom. 1 Corinthians. Paul for Everyone. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2004.