2006-12-01

The We-Passages in Acts: a Roman Audience Interpretation. Pt 3

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by Neil Godfrey

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.

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