Apostle Apollos? image

Apostle Apollos?

It’s a great privilege to have just had an article published in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. My topic was the question over whether Paul regarded Apollos as an apostle, specifically in 1 Corinthians 3-4, and my conclusion was that he did, and that this has implications for how we see the apostolate, both then and now. To read the whole thing, you need to subscribe, but I’ll give my main reasons here.

There are at least four good reasons to support the conclusion that Paul saw Apollos as an apostle in 1 Corinthians 3-4, and three of them would not emerge from reading 4:6-9 in isolation. They are as follows:

(1) When Paul speaks of God having exhibited ἡμᾶς τοὺς ἀποστόλους [us the apostles] last of all, the wider context of 3:5-4:21 indicates that the subjects of ἡμᾶς [us] are Paul and Apollos (and possibly Cephas as well). The subject of ἐσμεν [we are] in 3:9 is certainly Paul and Apollos, and the ἡμᾶς of 4:1 clearly involves Paul and Apollos, and perhaps Cephas too (from 3:22). So it is not a question, as Lightfoot suggests, of simply linking 4:9 to 4:6; the whole section has Apollos as one of the subjects of the first person plural, and there is no indication that this has changed by the time we reach 4:9. The observation that the first person plural is used in various ways in Paul’s letters, which is accurate, does not indicate sudden, unmarked transitions of that nature in this passage.1

(2) Looking at the specific paragraph in which the phrase ἡμᾶς τοὺς ἀποστόλους appears—which clearly begins with the ταῦτα δὲ, ἀδελφοί [now then, brothers] at 4:6—reinforces this conclusion. The ἐν ἡμῖν [in us] of 4:6 is certainly Paul and Apollos. Moving forward to verses 7-8, having just said that the Corinthians are intended to learn from “us” not to go beyond what is written, it makes immeasurably more sense to suppose that they are still the subjects of the heavily ironic “without us you have become kings” and “would that we might rule with you” in 4:8, than to suppose that new subjects have been introduced, and old ones removed, without any indication in the text; if a different subject had been intended, it is hard to see how the Corinthians, let alone modern readers, could have been expected to know that. The same is true, but even more so, of the connection between the “us” of 4:8 and the “us the apostles” of 4:9, which undoubtedly refer to the same subjects. Lightfoot’s analysis on this point is particularly unsatisfactory:

In 1 Cor 4:9, “I think that God hath set forth us the Apostles last etc.”, he might seem to include Apollos, who is mentioned just before, verse 6 … [Lightfoot then discusses Clement’s testimony, on which see below] … If therefore there is a reference in 1 Cor 4:9 to any individual besides St Paul (which seems doubtful), I suppose it to be again to Silvanus, who had assisted him in laying the foundation of the Corinthian church (2 Cor 1:19).2

Three brief comments need to be made here. Firstly, Lightfoot ignores the first person plural appearing twice in verse 8, which makes the link between verse 6 and 9 much stronger: “myself and Apollos … so you may learn from us … without us you have become kings ... would that we might rule with you … God has exhibited us apostles last of all.” Secondly, he gives no reason at all for his slightly strange statement that it “seems doubtful” that ἡμᾶς τοὺς ἀποστόλους refers to another individual besides Paul; on the basis of this phrase, and the remainder of 4:9-13 (ὡς ἐπιθανατίους ... ἐγενήθημεν ... ἡμεῖς μωροὶ ...) [those sentenced to death … we have become … we are fools …], it does not seem doubtful at all. Thirdly, his tentative suggestion that Silvanus may be intended has no basis in the passage, or indeed the whole of 1 Corinthians, and has to be imported from outside the letter. It therefore seems safe to conclude, with Fee, that “in this context it [“apostles”] must include Apollos.”3

(3) There appears to be a close overlap in rhetorical strategy between 4:6-13, in which Paul focuses on the dishonour and weakness of the apostles, and 3:5-4:5, in which he describes himself and Apollos (and, again, possibly Cephas) using humbling terminology like διάκονοι [servants](3:5), ὑπηρέται [servants](4:1), and even οὔτε ὁ φυτεύων ἐστιν τι οὔτε ὁ ποτίζων [neither the one who plants or waters is anything](3:8). It is hard to escape the conclusion that he has the same end in view in both cases—to debunk the Corinthians’ inflated view of human importance in Christian leadership, by showing what his and Apollos’ ministry really looks like—and that the subjects of both passages are the same. This, obviously, would involve Paul seeing Apollos as a fellow apostle.

(4) The whole purpose of 1:10-4:21 is to address the factionalism that has developed in Corinth, with various people in the community associating with Paul, Apollos and Cephas respectively.4 It seems likely, given what we later discover about the Corinthians’ preoccupation with apostolic credentials (2 Cor 11-13), that the Corinthians regarded Apollos as a bona fide apostle, for the simple reason that it would be strange for the situation to have developed in this way, with Apollos rivalling Paul and Cephas in the minds of people in the congregation, if they did not. However, if Paul believed the Corinthians were mistaken in this regard—if, in his view, Apollos was not an apostle because he had not seen the risen Jesus—then Paul would probably not have reasoned the way he did, affirming the similarities between himself and Apollos throughout 1:10-4:21, and seamlessly moving from talking about the two of them to talking about “us apostles”. It therefore seems probable (a) that the Corinthians believed that Apollos was an ἀπόστολος [apostle], whatever they would have understood by that word, and (b) that Paul did not attempt to correct their view. The only obvious explanation for this is that he shared it.

In the rest of the article, I engage with the three main reasons given for rejecting this conclusion, as expressed by Lightfoot (and following him, Grudem) in particular: the testimony of Clement of Rome (1 Clem 47:4), the indication in 1 Corinthians 9:1 (and Acts 1:21-22) that having seen the risen Christ was a necessary requirement of apostleship, and the statement that the appearance of Christ to Paul was the last of all in 1 Corinthians 15:7-9. My concluding suggestion, in the final line, is that ‘although the appearances of the risen Jesus ceased with Paul’s encounter on the Damascus road, the apostoloi did not.’



  • 1.  Samuel Byrskog, “Co-senders, co-authors and Paul’s use of the first person plural”, ZNW 87 (1996) 230-250, highlighted four ways in which the first person plural was used in Paul: (i) pluralis sociativus including the addressee(s); (ii) pluralis sociativus including a particular group of the addressees; (iii) a literary plural referring only to Paul himself; (iv) a plural referring to Paul and some who work with him or are with him as he writes the letter. The context makes it clear that we are dealing with (iv) when the first person plural is used throughout 3:5-4:21, and as such we would expect indications in the text if Apollos was suddenly to be excluded in 4:8-13.

  • 2.  Lightfoot, Galatians 96. For reasons he does not explain, Lightfoot regards it as “doubtful” that any other person than Paul is included in the “us” of v9 (even though the first person plural has been used this way throughout 3:5-4:6!), so his suggestion of Silvanus is made tentatively.

  • 3.  Fee, 1 Corinthians 174 n.47.

  • 4.  Thus Winter, After Paul Left Corinth 31-43.

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