Acts 13:48 – “Appointed” or “Disposed?”

8 06 2008

In a recent blog entry, Elshaddai comments on Acts 13:48. He quotes the TNIV:

When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honored the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed.

He then asks:

“Can anyone comment on the Greek verb form of “were appointed”? Is this an instance where the plenary meaning is “all who were [and who continue to be] appointed for eternal life…”? Certainly the translation at hand suggests predestination as a present reality for those who heard and believed.”

This verse was the exact verse that shocked me from my arminian understanding of election to a reformed view, that is, whether salvation is a divine initiative or a human initiative. There is some debate on this verse as to whether it should say “were disposed” (which leads to an arminian understanding) versus “were appointed” (which leads to a reformed understanding). As I look at the text, I will bring out some points on whether we should translate it as “disposed” or not.

In answer to Elshaddai’s question, the phrase isn’t just a verb, but a construction that is called a “periphrastic.” Basically this is just a big term that means a phrase that includes a “to be” linking verb with a participle. In this case, the phrase in question is ἦσαν τεταγμένοι (hesan tetagmenoi). Grammatically, a periphrastic (to be + participle) is to be taken as a single unit. The breakdown of the construction is as follows:

ἦσαν = εἰμί (eimi) – “to be” -3rd person, imperfect, active, indicative, plural.

τεταγμένοι = τάσσω (tassw) – “To bring about an order of things by arranging; to determine, appoint, etc.” – Perfect, Passive, Participle, Nominative, Masculine, Plural

If some of that makes no sense to you, that’s ok. I’ll bring out the meaning of the important issues.

τεταγμένοι, as I said above, is a form of the word τάσσω. It is in the “perfect” tense, which means that it is a completed past action that has ongoing significance. The word τάσσω is at the center of the debate- it is said that it should be translated as “disposition” instead of “appointed.” However, there are some problems with this rendering:

1. Very few lexicons list this as a possible meaning. It is not included in the BDAG, Liddle-Scott, Louw-Nida, or Thayer’s.

2. The verb is passive, which means that the subject is being acted upon. Even if we should take it as “disposed,” that would mean that the subject (the Gentiles) were being made disposed to accepting the Gospel- not disposing themselves as arminian theologians would take it. There is a possibility that the verb is instead a “middle” tensed verb, which would have the subject acting on itself- but this use of the middle tense is rare in the NT. Most middle tense verbs simply draw attention to the subject.

3. As a logical outcome of (2), if we were to take the verb as “dispose,” that doesn’t solve the problem, it only adds an extra step to solve. For example, since the verb is passive, we must ask ourselves then, “who is making them disposed?” that is, “who is making them so inclined to believe?” Which takes us back to the original issue.

It seems much more likely that we should understand this phrase in terms of being appointed. In fact, this is exactly how the vast majority of translations take it- the only translation that I’m aware of that translates it as “disposed” is the New World Translation, which is the Jehovah’s Witnesses Bible. Elshaddai gives quotes from many translations, all of which render it in terms of appointment, including: NRSV, NASB, HCSB, ESV, NLTse, NJB, REB, Lattimore.

So, then, taking the periphrastic phrase as “were appointed,” what can we understand from this verse?

1. As I noted earlier, the word “appointed” is in the perfect tense. This means that the action of appointing was completed in the past, but has on-going significance. What on-going significance you might ask? The most obvious significance is the belief exhibited by the Gentiles. It is not an appointment in the abstract, but concrete. In other words, the appointing has an object or goal. They were appointed “to believe.”

2. The reformed doctrine of election does not destroy human responsibility or action. As I said in (1) election is not actualized salvation, but election to salvation. Some might think that what I just said is a matter of semantics, but it is not. They were appointed to believe. The result is that they did believe – human action. Some people think that election means that if we are “on the list” we are in- whether we believe or not. They ask, “what is the point of evangelism?” Acts 13.48 is a clear picture of how election, evangelism, and human responsibility play out. God has appointed them to believe. A necessary condition for belief is hearing the Gospel (Romans 10.14-15). They heard the Gospel, and believed.

There is also an implied question that can be asked of this text. If those who were appointed believed, why didn’t the others believe? The implied answer is that they were not appointed. This leads us to Elshaddai’s next question:

“My biggest problem with those translations that use “as many as” (NRSV, NASB, ESV) is that it opens the ambiguity that predestination is a quota system – it’s not so much “who” believes, but “how many” believe.”

First of all, let me start by saying that I don’t think this is an either/or problem. I think the “who” question is asked and answered- “those who were appointed.” The Bible also talks elsewhere about the “who.” However, on to the use of “as many as.”

The question revolves around the phrase “all who” (cf. TNIV) or “as many as” (cf. ESV). If we stop and think about this for a bit, we can see that the two different phrases aren’t really different at all. They are just two ways of saying the same thing: “as many as were appointed” is equal to “all who were appointed.” For example if I were to say “As many as were named Bryan are incredibly good looking” I would be lying (with myself being a falsifying proof). However, even as big of a lie as it is, it is the same as saying “All who were named Bryan are incredibly good looking,” or “Everyone who was named ‘Bryan’ is incredibly good looking.” The Greek in question is not actually a phrase, but a word: ὅσοι (hosoi). This word is defined in the BDAG as:

“Pertaining to a comparative quantity or number of objects or events; how much (many), as much (many) as” (BDAG, hosos, 2,pg 729).

This word is used to answer the “how many” question by modifying the “who” phrase- “as many as were appointed.”

I think the best way to understand the phrase “ἦσαν τεταγμένοι” is as a “divine passive.” This means that it is God who is acting upon the subject of the verb, or in this case, the periphrastic phrase. It is God who has appointed these Gentiles to belief, the result of which is their believing the Gospel message which was preached to them.

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13 responses

8 06 2008
Scripture Zealot

Excellent. Thank you very much.

Is “as many as” old English? Kind of like “for God so loved the world” or “so that we might“? As much as I like the NRSV this is one reason I want to switch.

8 06 2008

Hmm. That’s an interesting question Jeff. I don’t think it’s old English- just not a widely used phrase.

I could be wrong though. The reason I don’t think it is, is because that’s one of the glosses we learned for hosos in my Greek classes, which would have made it the exception if it is. I’ve just pretty much ran with it as is, so I’m not too sure.

8 06 2008

Bryan, great post. I just left a comment on Elshaddai’s blog. The efforts to explain away “ἦσαν τεταγμένοι”, though periphrastic, as perfect passive, have all failed.

To do justice to the Greek we must treat this for what it is, a perfect passive, conveying the idea of being acted upon by an outside force.

8 06 2008
ElShaddai Edwards

Thank you, Bryan – an excellent post digging into the details. You are to be commended.

I’m sure that I was nitpicking on the “as many as” — my first reaction was from a logic viewpoint: I read “and as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed” as there were N number of people who “had been appointed” and there were “as many” who “believed”, so also N. The way “as many as” is worded however, you cannot logically say that both N’s include the same people. It is likely to assume that they are the same, but you cannot prove it. That’s why I said it opened up an ambiguity that may not be in the Greek.

8 06 2008

Hey TC!

Thanks for the comments. Yeah, I don’t really see any validity to the middle tense argument. If that was the case, then it just seems superfluous. The issue with the imperfect eimi isn’t very strong either. The perfect tense is what grabs the readers attention, and so it makes sense to take the periphrastic phrase with that tense. The force of the editorial note is lost otherwise. Luke’s use of Greek is too well thought out to take it otherwise.

Proorizw is a strictly Pauline word (all 5 of its occurances appear in Pauline Epistles), so it’s no surprise to find a near-synonym used in Luke’s writings, instead of the word we see mostly used for ordained.

8 06 2008

Yes, Luke’s Greek is the best in the NT, and must be taken for what it is, unless informed otherwise.

Hey, I’ve gotten in the action on my blog: Acts 13:48: Arminian? Calvinistic?

8 06 2008


I really do think its more obscure in the English than in the Greek. We must take “as many as” as one unit modifying “were appointed.” I hadn’t thought of the fact that those who were appointed and those who believed could be two different subsets. As I gave in my translation on your site we could take it as-
“And they believed – as many as were appointed to eternal life” where the phrase ὅσοι ἦσαν τεταγμένοι is epexegetical (explanatory) of those who believed. Who believed? All who were appointed to eternal life.

Thanks for your post, by the way- it’s led to some great discussion!

9 06 2008
ElShaddai Edwards

Thanks – I figured it couldn’t be as obscure as I was interpreting it, so I appreciate the explanation.

So now the question, prompted by David Ker, is whether predestination is a contextual concept specific to first-century Christianity and Judeo-Greek culture, or whether it is a universal truth for all Gentiles in all times.

9 06 2008

I think that David Ker, according to his comment, is positing ambiguity where none is necessary. In fact, he says that it is better explained in the larger narrative- but if we follow the biblical narrative, we see the same issues- Why was Abram chosen? Why was Isaac chosen? Why did some Israelites believe and some didn’t? Paul points the the answer as given to Moses in Exodus 33.19b: “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” He says the answer lies in the mercy of God- i.e., it was God’s mercy that Isaac didn’t have the same fate as Esau. Certainly, it was merciful for God to reveal himself to Abram. Just as it was mercy that appointed the Gentiles to salvation in Acts 13, and mercy that any of us are among the ἐκλεκτοὶ- the elect.

Cf. Romans 9.6-8,13-18

To say that we should take it as cultural is unnecessary- and I’m not really familiar with any scholars who have taken that interpretation. Even I. Howard Marshall says that the reformed view is there, but he prefers to take it as “disposed themselves” (see TC’s blog post linked above). Plus, I’ve tried to show that I don’t think the verse IS ambiguous- we should take Luke’s Greek for what it is.

Also, I want to say that I have a lot of respect for David Ker- and he is certainly smarter than I am in a lot of areas, but in this case I just simply have to disagree.

9 06 2008
Puritan Lad

disposed??? Which translation is that?

In any case, I don’t see how this could help the cause of Arminianism. Did God create some that were disposed to eternal life? That’s just not fair. ;)

9 06 2008


I do believe you hit the nail on the head :)

12 06 2008
Doulos Christou

Here is a bit more on the Greek detail for the conversation, especially regarding the passive / middle issue in parsing the verb.

19 06 2008
Calvinism and Arminianism | Scripture Zealot

[...] doesn’t usually come up in comparisons. Luke slips in predestination… – He Is Sufficient Acts 13:48 – “Appointed” or “Disposed?” – I follow Christ Acts 13:48: Arminian? Calvinistic? – Connecting Acts 13:48 An Exegetical Study – [...]

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