An Alternative Understanding
Acts 13:48 is often considered a coup de tat’ of any reading of Scripture the denies a deterministic view of particular election of individuals to salvation. The following is a short response to this idea, providing a brief summary of alternative views of Acts 13:48. We must remember that we are not to translate a passage to fit a system. You translate and understand a passage to fit a context, and then derive our systematic from that understanding. Often our interpretation depends on the tools we engage for the understanding of a passage. There have been several understandings of this verse throughout the history of interpretation. This is a short (one page) review of other readings of this verse. I will post a more thorough analysis in another post.
Scholars often appeal to the Greek to determine the meaning of words and this verse certainly has gotten plenty of attention. Henry Alford, a 19th-century Greek scholar who held to a high view of God’s sovereignty, lists a variety of ways this could be translated. For him, the word translated “had been appointed” (τεταγμένοι, from τάσσω / TASSŌ) should be translated as “had been disposed” or “were disposed.” His argument found in his footnotes is interesting and understandable, and linguistically sound. He is not the first to suggest this. This argument apparently was common in Calvin’s time since he disputes it.
TASSO (τάσσω; τεταγμένοι) essentially means, “to set” and for all the hype generated around the “paraphrastic construction,” we should simply affirm that this is a pluperfect participle that formally could be read with either a passive or middle voice. The middle voice is essentially how Alford understood the participle, appealing to a similar, but not identical, use in 1 Corinthians 16:15 (ἔταξαν ἑαυτούς; reflexive active).
A second approach is to examine the form of the surrounding text. There does appear to a “chiasm” here, a linguistic pattern common in Scripture, that runs from 45 to 48, and these Gentiles are being contrasted with the Jews who rejected Paul’s message. As such, the key to this section is really found in verse 47, not 48 –
For so the Lord has commanded us, saying, “‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.'” (Acts 13:47 ESV)
Hence, those who were “appointed” were the Gentiles, most likely the god-fearers and proselytes already aligned with the synagogues who received and rejoiced that salvation had come to them. They are referenced in the first clause. Hence, those who were appointed were the Gentiles who rejoiced at Paul’s words that salvation had come to them. (Alford also appeals to this linguistic pattern.)
Finally, we may want to consider how this type of language is used elsewhere. There is virtually identical language in Philo, an ancient non-Christian Jewish author of the first century. Wanting to get a non-biased opinion, I took the Philo quote and posted it to the b-Greek forum several years ago without the reference to ask what this meant. After some deliberation, one of the Greek scholars (who taught Greek professionally) suggested that this language was a reference to those who aligned themselves with the synagogue for worship. This would mean that “those who were appointed” is a reference to the Gentiles proselytes or God-fearers who are referenced earlier in Acts 13 as following Paul after his first sermon in Antioch. This would make sense if the Gentiles who rejoiced at this message were the same Gentiles who attended synagogue as God-fearers prior to Paul’s first message in Antioch and who followed Paul and Barnabas for more information.
As you can see, the determinist reading of this text is far from rock-solid, and alternatives do exist. In fact, Alford listed six alternative readings in his extensive footnote to this issue, although his defines them in Latin. Given the progress of exegesis since that time, I am sure other alternative understandings do exist.
For more on this, check out my expanded analysis of this text in another post, which I plan to post shortly.