Initially read Virgil’s Aeneid for my interest in the classics and culture of the Roman world and the literature that inspired many throughout the ages. Re-read it recently to compare with the New Testament literature. In particular, note the sudden ending that is not a satisyfing ending at all for our tastes, and compare sudden “non-endings” of the Book of Acts and Gospel of Mark (assuming 16.9-20 is not original). Even some ancients could not accept that Virgil really intended the Aeneid to end so abruptly and composed their own endings for it, just as many have attempted to deduce possible intended endings for Acts and Mark.
Yet when one notices that the existing ending of the Aeneid is decorated with literary allusions and images used at the beginning (e.g. the literal storm imagery that opens the Aeneid in Book 1 is repeated figuratively in Book 12 to describe Aeneas attacking Turnus), thus bracketing the work like bookends, then one can more easily accept the current conclusion is as the author intended it. Similarly one notices a similar literary allusions bracketing the current opening and endings of Mark — (the most well known examples being the tearing of the heavens at Jesus’ baptism and the tearing of the temple veil at his death; and the disobedience of the healed leper to the command to remain silent against the disobedience of the women to the command to speak (16.8).)
As for the ending of Acts, one cannot avoid the similarities between the constant mythic and literary themes of pioneers struggling through hardships and opposition and dangerous travel to establish “a new and truly God-fearing community” in Rome. In both the conclusion is abrupt once the beginninngs of this are established through one final conflict.
(There is much more to add by way of comparison with NT literature, but I have saved specifics for other posts to come, in particular for the series I am adding to this site on the we-passages in Acts. An interesting read, with its plusses and minuses like like any read, is Marianne Palmer Bonz’s “The Past as Legacy: Luke-Acts and Ancient Epic” (Fortress Press, 2000).)
aeneid, book+of+acts, gospel+of+mark
When this is required reading for all “coalition of the willing” political leaders and no-one in power can make a public statement or foreign policy decision without having passed a test on their comprehension of it we will at last begin to see the beginnings of rationality and humanity in our dealings with the Middle East. I bought this after reading a piece by Chomsky in which he said this was probably the best book written on terrorism. Burke knows his subject well and gives a clear ground-eye view of who the terrorists are and how they operate. Burke demonstrates that there is no such thing as a Dr Evil type monster out there, but the real danger is our inability to see how our western leaders have so humiliated and raped and despoiled and oppressed (by proxy or directly) the democratic and human rights aspirations of Arabs and how there are literally as a result thousands of would-be suicide terrorists incognito and freelance the world over. I can just add to Burke’s book the comment that it’s not a problem with Islam — otherwise we would have seen this sort of terrorism non-stop ever since the west has encountered islam. The 9/11 plotters and Bin Laden made their aims and motivations very plain (why do so many in the west still remain ignorant — why do our leaders continue to deny it in public?) and the US conceded on their major demand (withdrawal from Saudi Arabia) after establishing new bases in Iraq. And Australia fully supported and backed the US proxy occupation and oppressoin of Moslem holy lands and peoples — hence Bali. No prizes for guessing the motivations of the new wave of terrorist activities since then.
We-passages testify against, not for, genuine eyewitness account
It is commonly asserted (rarely actually argued) that the most natural way of understanding the we-passages is to read them as eyewitness reports, and that as such they testify to the historicity of the events they describe. While the author’s use of “we” inevitably leads a reader to imagine an eyewitness account, at the same time it simply breaks all rules of literary rhetoric and common reading experience to say that it logically follows that the “we” indicates a genuine historical record. Everyone knows that fiction written in the first person “I” or “we” is still fiction. (And this applies to ancient classical literature as much as to modern novels.) No-one believes that a first-person narrative is a criterion for genuine historicity in any other field of literature, so when an exception to this common knowledge is made in the case of Acts one may fairly conclude we are confronting a case of theological apologetics.
Ancient historians were conscious of their need to establish credibility and to this end they identified both themselves and their sources. As Robbins notes of the historian Thucydides, he was strongly conscious of presenting himself as a trustworthy and accurate historian, even using the third person to tell of events in which he was personally involved. The historian Xenophon did the same. To impress readers with his accuracy and objectivity he speaks of himself always in the third person “he”, never as “I” or “we”. The historian Arrian likewise described a sea-voyage, for which he had a personal account, in the third person. The author of Acts avoids both citing any sources and allowing the reader to know his or her identity. Even the we-passages are anonymous. Even by the standards of ancient historians that simply does not rate as history. It is, rather, the rhetoric of fiction. Acts makes no pretence to match the historical tone of the more reputable ancient historians. Its third person narrative lacks any reference to the author’s identity, sources used and alternative accounts of events – characteristics common to Hellenistic histories. Its tone and rhetoric are those of a Hellenistic adventure novel. [Pervo]
Before continuing with the next section of this I will add to the above some extracts from the authors referenced and add full citations to demonstrate the argument.
We-passages and the sense of community
One reason for sometimes narrating sea voyages with an authorial “we” has been the sense that once on board a ship a tight interdependent community is naturally formed. It is natural and common in ancient literature for an authorial voice to slip from an “I” to a “we” when imagining this change of setting. Both Robbins and his critics have acknowledged this. This essay goes one step further by suggesting that the “we” community includes not only the narrator and his characters but vicariously the audience also as an integral part of the “we” community. The story outline of Acts strongly suggests that it was written for a Roman audience who had a strong interest in Rome’s role as a Christian centre, and I believe that the we-passages are best understood by including that Roman audience vicariously in the sea-voyaging community. For reasons I give below I wonder if the audience originally read the literary “we” as their founding community in Rome. Why such an audience community should be related only to certain, but not all, sea-travel sections of Acts will become quickly apparent in the discussion.