The We-Passages in Acts: a Roman Audience Interpretation. Pt 1

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by Neil Godfrey

The “we-passages” in Acts have been understood either as being taken from an eye-witness record or as a non-historical literary device. The former view is generally embraced by default on the grounds that the literary device arguments appear to be burdened with too many qualifications and exceptions to make them compelling. Yet the arguments for reading the we-passages as an historical eye-witness record raise more questions than they answer and I will discuss some of those. I want to suggest another way of reading the we-passages which involves a new way of reading much of Acts itself and that I believe answers many of the questions that have been raised against both the literary device and eye-witness interpretations.

I intend to attempt to argue the possibility of reading the “we” in the we-passages as the author’s way of drawing a Roman audience into a vicarious identification with a new Christianized founding myth of Rome, or more specifically the church at Rome, that drew on both the founding epic of Rome (the Aeneid) and the Primary History of Israel (Genesis – 2 Kings). I believe this interpretation offers coherent answers to such questions as why Paul is always clearly distinguished from the “we”; why the “we” remain anonymous; why the “we” appear and disappear with the odd suddenness they do; why the we-passages portray Paul and his miracles with a low-key modesty and “naturalness” that contrasts with the exaggerated and the dramatically miraculous features found in other Pauline stories; why Paul decides to walk to Assos while “we” sail there to pick him up; and also make more sense of some features of Paul’s approach to Rome and the abrupt ending. While I cannot “prove” that the author intended the we-passages to be read this way I can point to possible clues throughout the text that may make this reading plausible.

VKR on the relationship between the we-passages and Rome

Vernon K. Robbins pictured the author of Acts penning his narrative in Rome and addressing the question of how “we” got “here” in Rome when “we” started out “there” in Jerusalem. In support of this claim he continues:

[The author] says that all of the things about which he writes have been accomplished “among us” (Luke 1:1) . . . As he sits in Rome, he participates in the events of the Christian church, and explains to “Theophilus” how his community of believers got to be where they are (Luke 1:3-4) . . . Thus he can say . . . as Paul voyaged across the sea, “we” got here. (p.241)

Two facts can be presented as undermining this assertion: (1) the we-passages are not used consistently for all of Paul’s overseas voyages, and (2) most we-passages address journeys to places other than Rome. In my argument below I will show that a fresh look at the narrative structure and multiple literary allusions in Acts may well remove these weaknesses from Robbins’ essential idea.

Tannehill on the literary function of the we-passages

Robert Tannehill takes up the psychological import of the narrative first person plural approach as it invites readers to enter in the inclusive “we” with Paul as he journeys to farewell his churches and face his final (Christ-like) passion as it is to be determined in Jerusalem.

By using the first-person plural during the journey to Jerusalem, events are experienced through a focalizing character who accompanies Paul but is distinct both from the seven named companions . . . and from Paul himself . . .. This focalizing character is both anonymous and plural (“we,” not “I”). The anonymity of the group decreases its value as eyewitness guarantor of the report, but an anonymous and plural first-person narrator is well suited to increase imaginative participation in the narrative by readers or hearers of it. The anonymous “we” – a participant narrator – is a special opportunity for us and others to enter the narrative as participants and to see ourselves as companions of Paul as he prepares the churches for his absence and resolutely approaches the danger in Jerusalem. A first-person narrator is a focalizing channel through whom the story is experienced. Our experience of events is limited to the experience of the first-person narrator, and this common perspective creates a bond of identification. The anonymous “we” is a focalizing channel without clear definition, except as companions of Paul, making it easy for many individuals, and even a community, to identify with the narrator. “We” as fellow travellers both share Paul’s experience and receive his legacy as he travels toward his passion. The narrative also heightens our experience of the journey as such, for the “we” narration includes passages that simply present the journey with sufficient detail to make us aware of it as experience of a special type, with its own stages, decisions to be made, and goal . . . (pp.246-247)

The main weakness of this argument is that it is inconsistent with the role of the first we-passage that is not describing a farewell journey to Jerusalem at all but involves the “we” in a narrative where Paul is expanding churches, not farewelling them.

But I will argue below that Tannehill’s main point works much better if one reads Paul’s journey to his passion against the background, in part, of the Roman founding epic, which is, I suggest, exactly the way the author of Acts frequently invites his readers to read it.


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Neil Godfrey

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