The We-Passages in Acts: a Roman Audience Interpretation. Pt 5

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by Neil Godfrey

The first we-passage: Acts 16:10-17

“Now after he had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go to Macedonia, concluding that the Lord had called us to preach the gospel to them. Therefore, sailing from Troas, we ran a straight course to Samothrace, and the next day came to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is the chief city of that part of Macedonia, a colony. And we were staying in that city for some days. And on the Sabbath day we went out of the city to the riverside, where prayer was customarily made; and we sat down and spoke to the women who met there. Now a certain woman named Lydia heard us. She was a seller of purple from the city of Thyatira, who worshipped God. The Lord opened her heart to heed the things spoken by Paul. And when she and her household were baptized, she begged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” And she constrained us. Now it happened, as we went to prayer, that a certain slave girl possessed with a spirit of divination met us, who brought her masters much profit by fortune-telling. This girl followed Paul and us, and cried out, saying, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to us the way of salvation.”” (New King James Version)

The First “We” reference:
The anonymous “we” intrudes unexpectedly here after Paul’s party, hitherto addressed as “they”, have completed their Jerusalem-ordained mission. After delivering the Jerusalem decrees (Acts 15:23, 30, 41) to these churches and seeing them all now duly strengthened and prospering happily — “so the churches were strengthened in the faith, and increased in number daily” (16:5 – c.f. 2:46-47; 5:42; 6:7; 12:24; 14:21-22) — Paul’s party, “they”, suddenly find themselves lost in a maze. Everywhere they turn leads to a dead-end. “They” tried to preach in Asia but “were forbidden by the Holy Spirit” to do so (16:6). “They” next tried to go to Bithynia but “the Spirit did not permit them” (16:7). With the left and right turns closed to them “they” had no choice but to continue on to Troas (16:8). The author does not permit the reader to think of a “we” party at any stage being part of this divinely led journey to Troas. Nor does the author permit of any new conversions in Troas. If a genuine historical and authorial “we” were converted at Troas it is inconceivable that there could be any omission of such a report. But even if we could contemplate inconsistent modesty on the part of the “we” author (not wanting to draw attention to his conversion, but drawing subtle attention to his presence with Paul) then we have to explain why the “we” references suddenly drop from later scenes where the narrative also tells us he must have been present.

The “we” appears the moment the divine vision calls Paul to leave Troas and go to Macedonia. I will discuss many clues within the text that, at least to me, cumulatively indicate that the author turns to writing “we” in order to identify himself and his readers as fellow Romans who are embarking on a new Aeneid, a new journey from Troy to Rome. I will, of course, address the obvious objections that come to mind – Troas is not Troy and Macedonia is not Rome – and attempt to demonstrate that these places are indeed deeply embedded as part of the classical myth of Rome. I will argue that Acts is best understood by attempting to enter the minds of first or second century Roman audiences for whom the myth of Aeneas and the founding of the Roman race, beginning from the renowned Troy, was part of their collective identity. The Roman readers now saw themselves as founding a new kingdom of God at Rome that was overlaying this original mythical view of themselves, and non-Roman readers who understood Acts came from Rome would have likewise understood this of the Roman church.

Firstly I will draw attention to the features of this passage that most obviously associate it with a journey to a place of the world ruling power, then look at the wider contextual allusions that reinforce the interpretation that this passage is meant to be read as a shadow of the founding myth of Rome, and then follow with a discussion of the significance of these pointers for my argument about the role of the we-passages generally.

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Neil Godfrey

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