2006-12-08

The We-Passages in Acts: a Roman Audience Interpretation. Pt 4

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by Neil Godfrey

Features shared by all we-passages

  1. The “we” are never identified by name or specific role. At best they are left as ambiguously identified with a group associated with the author. (One of the reasons, but not a necessary one, for associating the narrative’s “we” with the author is because the author appears to introduce himself as the singular first person “I” in the prologue. This “I” must also be read as a “narrative voice” but that is another topic.) Despite this apparent indentificaion with the author, there appears to be a studied design by the author to avoid personal identification: the author addresses his patron by the otherwise unknown Theophilus (“Lover of God”) but unlike known historians does not identify himself. This cannot be explained by modesty. If the auhor was really so modest why would he use “we” at all? But it is characteristic of fictional works. Nor can the abrupt usages of “we” be explained by the author copying and pasting portions of sources written with that “we” into his account. His literary competence clearly exceeds such crude copy and paste methods.

  2. The we-passages are travel itineraries. The “we” disappears soon after the author’s attention turns again to Paul’s central role in a new adventure.

  3. All we-passages are found in voyages that begin at Troas and that accompany Paul, as a result of divine calling, as he ultimately heads for Rome or a city that represents or is an extension of Rome. (The second voyage is broken by several adventures and speeches of Paul yet the we-passages maintain the readers’ consciousness that these breaks are merely pauses in what is essentially the one long journey to Rome (Acts 19:21).) I will also argue that the broken we-passages of the second voyage are held together by parallel events in Ephesus and Jerusalem, and three two-year periods of preaching by Paul, in Ephesus, Jerusalem and Rome.

  4. Both extended we-passages result in Paul being made a prisoner among the Romans in the Roman city, even though the prison in both cases is an open one through which he can preach and make conversions.

I argue below that the deliberate lack of personal identification serves the function of appearing to be a rhetorical invitation to a Roman audience to vicariously identify with those re-enacting their founding voyage from Troas to a new spiritual home in Rome. Not that the author was consciously writing only or mainly to a Roman audience. The wider original audience or readers would also have read this “history” as emanating from Rome or the Roman church, and they also would have read the we-passages as pertaining primarily to that provenance.

The travel itinerary, the divine calling, the point of departure (Troas) and destinations (whether to the Roman colony in Macedonia or to Rome itself via the lengthy detour and detention in Jerusalem) all follow the template of the Roman founding myth popularized by Virgil’s Aeneid. Acts, I will attempt to demonstrate, is a blending of the founding myths of both Rome and Israel. When we recognize these respective founding myths in the subtext of Acts we find our perenniel questions over such oddities as the we-passages and sudden ending of Acts are readily resolved.

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Neil Godfrey

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