Acts 1:2—a bequest?

I've been given a preaching opportunity well in advance, for Ascension. Which is forty days after Easter, which is forty days away from this week. But it's never too early to translate the texts and get them "under my fingers," so to speak. And, frankly, to get critical exegete brain out of the way of gospel preacher brain!

Today, of course, is a "critical exegete" day. As so many are. But this will be a brief note (by my standards), rather than the usual treatise.

So: your average English translation of Acts 1:2 suggests that Jesus commanded his chosen apostles. Which is not what the Greek says, unless it is very clumsy Greek indeed. And among the things you've got to ask yourself is, did Jesus actually issue commands to his disciples by means of the Holy Spirit? Is that what the Spirit does? (Besides which, is that what actually happens at the end of Luke?)

What Does the Greek Say?

I'll transliterate because I have realized lately that Android devices can't display polytonic Greek text by default (a bug that is apparently marked WONTFIX): achri hēs hēmeras enteilamenos tois apostolois dia pneumatos hagiou hous exelexato anelēmphthē. This is only the second half of the colon—what in English we might call a sentence, because we write much shorter sentences. The verse begins "... until that day," ends with "when he was taken up," and in the middle is the interesting part: enteilamenos tois apostolois dia pneumatos hagiou hous exelexato.

Usually this participial phrase is translated something like "after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen" (NRSV). And much of that is good. "After" is an implication of the aorist participle enteilamenos, a participle of the verb entellomai; "through the Holy Spirit" is a valid if inflexible way of dealing with dia pneumatos hagiou (because of course dia should always be translated as "through"...); and the dative tois apostolois does indeed place "the apostles" as the indirect object of the verbal action. Whatever Jesus is doing by means of the Holy Spirit here, they receive it.

But that leaves us with the single glaring bug, oustanding since at least the 1600s, of translating the accusative relative pronoun hous as if it belonged to the earlier dative "to the apostles." It's a rather natural mistake to make, since hous exelexato is just kind of dangling there at the end of the phrase, and we have to do something with it.

Reproducing the Error

If we assume that entellomai is basically intransitive—that it's about commanding verbally-implicit commands (the same root gives us entolē, "commandment")—then the only direction to go with the plural relative pronoun hous is towards the only other plural thing in the phrase. So it becomes "to the apostles, ... whom he chose."

Except that the syntax is weird, then. Good Greek nests, so we do expect things to appear in the middle of other things. But tactfully, artfully—which doesn't seem to be the case here. The Greek ear expects relevant modifiers to be wedged in the middle of a construction, to tell you more about it. But in such a case the chosen-ness should be nested inside of "the apostles." Something like "the whom-he-chose apostles." At the very least, if we're not nesting attributes, the modification should be attached more directly to the phrase it modifies.

Instead, if we want the chosen-ness to apply to the apostles, we have something else nested in the middle: "(to) the apostles [pl], by (the) Holy Spirit [sg], whom [pl] (he) chose." Now, if exelexato, from eklegō, were the dominant verb, that would make perfectly good sense—the Holy Spirit becomes the means of election. But it's not; entellomai is the dominant verb, because this is all just the payload of its participial phrase. The prepositional phrase dia pneumatos hagiou belongs to the participle, not to the subsequent verb—just as the dative tois apostolois does.

Fixing the Mistake

Following the rule that everything in a participial phrase belongs first to the participle suggests that the relative phrase hous exelexato therefore also belongs to the participle! And as what? We have a dative phrase for the indirect object; we have a genitive phrase for means; and here we have an accusative phrase. The obvious answer is: as the direct object of the participial verb entellomai! But then the pronoun is not "whom"—it's "what."

So if that's true, then Jesus uses the action of the verb entellomai to convey what he chose, to the apostles, by the Holy Spirit. If these are chosen instructions, select commandments, perhaps the verb can remain translated as it usually is. A matter of commandments or injunctions. But that's not what the end of Luke gives us. If we read the end of Luke as Jesus commanding his disciples, he does it himself!

What, then, is conveyed to the apostles by the Holy Spirit? This is still a legal verb, still a matter of declarations with binding force. But it has other contexts. It is used in Greek literature to denote that someone is commanded to give something to someone else. In these cases it appears with two objects, accusative and dative, the thing and the recipient, just as it does here in Acts 1:2. And in an extension of this usage, the verb entellomai (especially as entellomai in the middle, as opposed to the active entellō) is used to convey the bequests of the departed, as in a will.

And certainly that's what's happening here—Jesus is departing! And whatever he delivers to his disciples directly, face to face, he also promises them that after he leaves them, the Holy Spirit will be the executor of their inheritance: "And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high." (Luke 24:49, NRSV)

If you're willing to take this analysis, how should you translate the passage? I'll give you the whole "sentence" from 1:1-2, as I would translate it: "I wrote the first account, O lover of God, about everything that Jesus both did and taught, from the time he began up until that day when he was taken up, having bequeathed what he chose to his apostles by the Holy Spirit."

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