In his review of Chris Keith’s Jesus’ Literacy: Scribal Culture and the Teacher from Galilee Christopher Skinner made the following remark: “I tell my Greek students that we often find in the textual apparatus, the earliest commentary on the NT text.” Acts 19:2 may be a great example of this. It is a problematic text because it reads (NASB), “He said to them, ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?’ And they said to him, ‘No, we have not even heard whether there is a Holy Spirit.” This is v. 2b in Greek:

οἱ δὲ πρὸς αὐτόν· Ἀλλʼ οὐδʼ εἰ πνεῦμα ἅγιον ἔστιν ἠκούσαμεν

Allʼ oudʼ ei pneuma hagion estin ēkousamen

This is part of a conversation between Paul and some “disciples” (of John? of Jesus?) in Ephesus. Paul wants to know more about their understanding of Jesus. In the context of Acts these disciples seem unaware of the events of Pentecost, that John’s prediction regarding a “Coming One” who would baptize with “holy Spirit and fire” has been fulfilled. Paul wants these disciples to know that Jesus is that Coming One, so he questions them, and as the narrative unfolds Paul’s claim is supported when these disciples experience the presence of the holy Spirit coming upon them resulting in glossolalic utterances and prophecy.

The glaring problem with v. 2 is that the disciples seem to be completely ignorant of a holy Spirit. How would these disciples been ignorant of the holy Spirit? Even if their understanding of the Spirit wasn’t the same as post-Pentecostal Christians the basic idea of a holy Spirit is quite common in early Judaism and the Hebrew Scriptures. This perplexed early interpreters as well.

In the NA 28 an alternate reading is noted to appear in Papyrus 38 (3rd century CE), Papyrus 41 (8th century CE), D 05 (5th century CE), the Syrian Harklensis, and the Sahidic tradition. In 05 the alternate reading is αλλ ουδε π̅ν̅α̅ αγιον λαμβανουσιν τινες ηκουσαμεν/all oude pna agion lambanousin tines ēkousamen. It says, “but we have not heard whether anyone received a/the holy Spirit.” The Nomina sacra for Spirit indicates that this is interpreted as the divine Spirit in this text. The third person plural present active indicative λαμβανουσιν questions whether “they received” while the pronoun τινες raises the question where “anyone” has received the Spirit.

The NASB has a footnote which reads, “whether or not the Holy Spirit has been given” as an alternative reading indicating the possibility of a similar interpretive solution. The NET Bible has a fn. which reads, “Apparently these disciples were unaware of the provision of the Spirit that is represented in baptism. The language sounds like they did not know about a Holy Spirit, but this seems to be only linguistic shorthand for not knowing about the Spirit’s presence (Luke 3:15–18).” Even now interpreters are trying to make sense of this statement. If scribes as early as the 3rd century were doing the same it must have been a riddle to some of the earliest readers of the text as well.