In a former life back in 2006/2007 I wrote a series of posts suggesting that the “we passages” in the Book of Acts were the author’s technique of vicariously bringing his Roman readers into his narrative as they followed the story of the founding of a second kingdom in Rome. Rome was replacing Jerusalem as the “headquarters” for God’s people and Acts was written primarily for a Roman audience. Those “we passages” begin with Paul leaving the region of Troy, or “the Troad”, and beginning a wandering mission that saw a temporary delay in Jerusalem where his destiny was almost brought to an end, before finally reaching Rome where the book ends. I suggested, encouraged by the views of Marianne Palmer Bonz iirc, that the structure of the narrative was built around the Roman founding epic of Aeneas leaving Troy to found Rome, being detoured on the way via Carthage where his destiny was almost overturned.
Twelve years later and here I am with two new books that encourage me to wonder if that interpretation of Acts, and in particular the “we passages”, had something going for it.
The first one:
- Erskine, Andrew. 2001. Troy between Greece and Rome: Local Tradition and Imperial Power. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.
Erskine confirms that the Aeneas epic and Trojan origins of Rome was certainly a major propaganda myth during the time of emperor Augustus and was still being popularized throughout the period of the Julio-Claudian emperors. That’s the era of the “dynasty” stemming from Julius Caesar (more specifically from his distant nephew Augustus Caesar) through to emperor Nero. Speaking of the “Augustan preoccupation” with Aeneas, . . . .
Many ancient writers are introduced into his discussions about how Aeneas escaped from Troy, his route to Italy and especially on the foundation of Rome itself. . . .
Aeneas is leading his son Ascanius by the right hand, while his father Anchises sits perched upon his left shoulder. This image has been found in many parts of the empire on coins, finger rings, and lamps, in painting, relief sculpture, and statuary, and the most likely explanation for this uniformity is that they are all based on a common model, namely the statue of Aeneas in the Forum of Augustus.
(Erskine, pp. 29 f)
That was in the Augustan period. That technically ended with the death of Augustus in 14 CE. The preoccupation with the story of Aeneas fleeing Troy and being destined to be responsible for the founding of Rome was the consequence of the victory of Julius Caesar’s “nephew” Augustus Caesar over Mark Anthony concluding the civil war period:
The predominance of the Trojan myth may have been the result of the political rivalries of various families; just as the Mamilii favoured Odysseus and the Fabii Herakles, so the Iulii [=Julians] and the Memmii favoured the Trojans. Aineias’ [=Aeneas’] martial prowess could perhaps have appealed to the militaristic Romans more than Odysseus’ cunning, or maybe the attraction lay in Aineias’ piety.66
66 On the piety of Aeneas see Bömer 1951: 39–49, esp. 47–9.
. . . . .
Ilion [=Troy] had a special place in the ideology of the Iulio-Claudians, a dynasty that invoked Trojan ancestry to justify its ascendancy in Rome. . . . In acting as patrons of Ilion Caesar and Augustus were acting in the same way as successive rulers in the east had done before them over the centuries. . . . Support for Ilion and promotion of Trojan ancestry may have gone some way towards repairing relations with Asia Minor at least.
(pp. 145, 245 — I have not had access to the Bömer reference. Virgil certainly dwells heavily on Aeneas’s piety in his epic poem The Aeneid)
Troy remained significant to Romans after the death of Nero in 69 CE, though. The emperor Hadrian paid a special visit to Troy in 124 CE. If Trojans did feel they were being neglected in the imperial propaganda they made up for it by reasserting their distinctive place in the mythohistory of Rome:
In response Ilion [=Troy] may have felt the need to reassert its Trojan identity; it is in the reign of Hadrian that Hektor makes his first appearance on Ilian coins, the first new Trojan hero to do so since Aineias and Anchises about 150 years before. Caracalla’s visit in the early third century was more a homage to Alexander and Achilles than to Troy or Rome’s Trojan past.Nevertheless, Rome’s Trojan origins are again in evidence when Constantine is planning his new city in the East. He is said to have begun construction of the city on the plain in front of Ilion before God intervened and directed him to Byzantion. The story, however, may merely be the product of later mythologies about the foundation of Constantinople.
But concerning the time of the composition of Acts we have more concrete evidence in the epic poem of Lucan. Lucan was forced by Nero to commit suicide in 65 CE. He was not allowed to live long enough to complete his epic poem Pharsalia about the war between Julius Caesar and Pompey. That poem is a total opposite of everything Virgil wrote about the journey of Aeneas from Troy to Italy. Lucan’s epic has even been called an anti-Aeneid because it strongly appears to be an attempt to undo all the idealism in Virgil’s epic about Aeneas.
On Lucan’s poem as ‘anti-Aeneid’, Conte 1994: 443–6.
(p. 249. Google Books gives access to 443-444, 446, but not 445. Anyone has access to p. 445 will gain my appreciation if they could forward it to me.)
Lucan evidently knew of Virgil’s Aeneid and sought to undo what to him was its sickening idealism. That is, as late as the reign of Nero (54-68 CE) the ideal of the pious Aeneas fleeing the great city of Troy to found the Roman nation was known well enough for Lucan to write an “anti-epic”, an “anti-Aeneid”, in response.
One passage in Lucan’s epic, Pharsalia, speaks of a Thessalonian witch who can raise the dead and speak in horrific sounds to tell the future (book 6). It is difficult not to be reminded of Paul exorcising a demon-possessed girl in the same region who speaks of the future with respect to Paul in Acts 16:11-15.
So the Aeneid, the grand propaganda epic of the heroic and pious Aeneas fleeing Troy to commence his God-ordained destiny to found the imperial city of Rome, was “a topic of conversation”, let’s say, towards the end of the first century CE at least. The point was, of course, that the Roman rulers, and then Rome itself, were the spawn of the great Troy.
- Smith, Warren S. 2012. “We-Passages in Acts as Mission Narrative.” In The Ancient Novel and Early Christian and Jewish Narrative: Fictional Intersections, edited by Marília P. Futre Pinheiro, Judith Perkins, and Richard Pervo, 171–88. Groningen: Barkhuis.
I’m not alone in proposing that the “we” in Acts is an attempt by the author to draw the readers into the story and its destiny.
I will argue that the use of the passages is probable evidence of the presence of the author or his source along with Paul . . . and that the we-passages serve the additional function of pulling the reader into the story by implying ‘our’ presence and participation, at least in spirit, in the Gospel mission. Parallels for this device can be found elsewhere, especially in early Christian literature. Often in such visionary passages, the narrator identifies the person reporting the dream as ‘he,’ but this is quickly followed by a reference to the effect which the vision has on ‘me’ or ‘us’, and thus the vision or prophecy is linked to the work at hand: its truth is established by a divine blessing, or the author (distinguished from the one who reports the vision) chooses this moment to step into the narrative with a personal reflection or mention of mission: a mission into which the reader may be implicitly drawn. The emergence of the author into his narrative gives permission for the extension of his message out to include the community of which he is a part.
(Smith, pp. 171 f.)
It’s time . . .
It is time to look again at the nature and significance of the first passage which seems to prompt the narrator to switch to ‘we,’ considering the possibility that the author uses these passages as a way to introduce himself into the story, as well as a way to suggest the reader’s inclusion, at least in spirit, in the new mission which is opening up for Christians.7
7 Compare the ‘we’ passage in the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, which clearly invites the reader to be included in the celebration of Homer as poet: “But we will carry your renown to wherever on earth we wander…” (Homeric Hymn to Apollo 174-175).
The significance of the “crossing over” urged by the Macedonian man is underscored by the sudden change in narration occasioned by his appeal: before the appeal, ‘they’ arrive in Troas; after the appeal, ‘we’ travel across. The importance of the transition is further underlined by the use of the verb διαβαίνω in view of the resonant sense this verb has elsewhere in the New Testament: in Luke 16,26 it is used of Dives wanting to “pass over” from the torments of hell into the bliss of heaven, and in Heb. 11,29 it is used of the Hebrews “crossing over” the Red Sea to escape the soldiers of Pharaoh. Clearly the verb often has the implication of a momentous passage, often across a river or from one realm or state of being to another, like hell to heaven, or from Egypt to the promised land, or in this instance, Christianity expanding to a new continent.
(pp. 175 f.)
We have in Acts the vision of a man in Macedonia calling Paul to “cross over” . . . .
The vision has a far-reaching implication, as it causes Paul and his companions to cross over from Asia into Europe; and it triggers the first of the four ‘we’ passages, which describe the mission voyage of these companions (compare the drama of Acts 1,8, where Jesus says just before his ascension, “you (ὑμεῖς) will be my witnesses… to the end of the earth”). Suddenly, when it broadens to Europe the mission becomes ‘ours,’ which first of all implies both the narrator’s presence and authority; as Campbell observes, the use of the first person plural “reinforces the assertion that the expansion of Paul’s mission from Asia Minor to Greece is mandated by God in a vision to the apostle”;9 secondly, however, it draws the reader him/herself into the story, as though in being extended to Europe the Christian mission has been widened in syntactical submission to Jesus’ prophecy to include the reader him/herself.
9 Campbell 2007, 73
Smith expands on the idea. The crossing from Asia to Greece, most notably through Troy, carries deep historical significance.
The widening of the Gospel mission to Europe also implies its extension to the Gentiles, in which Luke took particular interest and which is already implied in the infancy narrative of the Gospel of Luke when Simeon speaks of Jesus being a light to the Gentiles.The “Macedonian man” is anonymous, yet his calling to Paul has the momentous consequence that the preaching of the Gospel is now being invited to cross over to a new continent.
The implication of the unnamed ‘Luke’ without explanation entering his own narrative, with the further suggestion that the reader is being drawn in as well, is a startling way of calling our attention to the sphere at which the Christian mission is now operating. We have stepped into Europe along with ‘Luke’ on a mission for which God has provided the direction and paved the way. The uniqueness of the device has baffled and intrigued so many readers of Acts. It is meant to get our attention. The consequence of a summoning vision at this crucial moment elevates Paul’s crossing into Europe to the status of the journeys of great world conquerors like Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great. Caesar’s own account in the Civil War (1.8-12) about his reentry into Italy and defiance of the will of the senate is quite matter-of-fact, but the legend quickly grew about divine portents attending him. According to Suetonius (Jul. 32), Caesar was invited to cross the Rubicon by a gigantic divine figure who crossed the river in front of him blowing a trumpet, whereupon Caesar cried out, “Let the course be taken where the signs of the gods and the false dealing of our enemies point out. The die is cast!” This proclamation, even if a literary fiction, both declares Caesar’s mission and announces his passage into a new sphere of activity where human rules will be subordinated to divine mandate.
A momentous crossing of continents in earlier Greek history was the Persian invasion of Greece under Darius and Xerxes. . . .
. . . More specifically, the reference in Acts 16 to a “certain Macedonian man” may suggest the most famous ‘Macedonian man,’ Alexander the Great. Paul’s failure to recognize him specifically would then have a parallel with Luke’s story in his Gospel of the disciples’ failure to recognize Jesus on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24,16). Alexander conceived of himself as being on a divine mission to conquer the world by traveling from Europe to Asia.
(pp. 177 f.)
Did Luke develop the idea from the letters believed to be from Paul?
In the case of the crossing over to Macedonia, there is also a noteworthy parallel in Paul’s own account in 2 Corinthians 2,12 sq. where Paul, in describing the incident, initially uses the first person singular describing the very same moment as does Luke in Acts 16, his arrival in Troas, and then continues it in his crossing over to Macedonia (“When I came to Troas. . . So I said farewell to them and went on to Macedonia,” 2 Cor 2,12-13), but then he digresses to exclaim how God in Christ always leads ‘us’ in triumphal procession (2,14). Later in that same epistle after a long digression he finally returns to a description of the trip (2 Cor. 7,5), but now he has switched to the first person plural, even to the extent of saying “bodies” instead of ‘body’ (“For even when we came into Macedonia, our bodies had no rest…”). The variations do not seem forced but have a natural enough explanation. As he begins to generalize his experience Paul switches to the plural to include his companions, and as he reflects on how God consoles the downcast, distraught over the possible failure of their mission, it is natural for him to continue to see the trials of his mission as befalling not himself alone but the little group who shared in suffering with him (2 Cor 7,5-6).Perhaps in a similar extension, the ‘we’ of the mission trip described in Acts figuratively broadens as the mission widens to Europe, to include all those whom God blesses and guides, now on the verge of the third generation after the first generation of Jesus and the apostles, and the second generation of Paul and his fellow missionaries.
(pp. 179 f.)
On the other hand, if we come back to the myth of Troy as the origin of Rome and the myth of Aeneas being divinely guided to cross over to Greece and then on to Italy, and if we add this perspective to a second-century author of Acts writing a rationale for Rome’s leadership of the new religion, we have a more specific “extension”. The “we” of the mission is not so much a “widening to Europe” as it is the beginning of the Roman church and its leadership status. (Yes, I should have mentioned earlier, I am assuming a post-Justin and mid-second-century provenance for our canonical version of Acts.)
Smith addresses other occasions in the gospels where we find a similar transition from the third to first-person plural in a narrative (e.g. John 21:24) after a prophecy to draw in the readers or audience to be at one with the author.
The we-passages in Acts come at the momentous outset of the crossing of Christianity from Asia to Europe. The vision of the Macedonian Man calling Paul to “come over and help us” is given emphasis and importance by being the climax of a set of three divine warnings to cease preaching the word in Asia and move on to new territory, and it has parallels in the traditional stories of Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, and Xerxes whose missions are sanctified (or seem to be sanctified) by a divine injunction. But even more important, the first-person plural pronoun moves the Christian mission into a wider framework that embraces the reader as well and sees him or her as part of the divine plan, and does this by the bold device of making the reader actually appear to become an actor in the new and unfolding drama. Though there is no explicit parallel for seeming to make the reader a participant in the narrative along with the author, the device does recall other passages in pagan and Christian literature (Gospel of John, 2 Corinthians, Life of Apollonius, First Epistle of Clement, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Epistle to Diognetus, the Didache, the Philosophiae Consolationis) where a divine figure in a dream or vision opens up the message to the single recipient to include a wider audience. That wider audience is the ‘you’ plural or ‘we’ who are now encouraged by the solemnity of this other-worldly message to put into practice the word of God, in this to become part of the injunction of Jesus that “you shall be witnesses for me…even to the very ends of the earth” (Acts 1,8).
I would suggest a change to Smith’s broad conclusion. I would suggest we consider the possibility that the wider audience is in fact the church in Rome. Paul is the new Aeneas. Rome has replaced Jerusalem as the centre of God’s mission on earth.
It’s just a thought. I won’t leave me, though.
Previous related posts:
- The We-Passages in Acts: a Roman Audience Interpretation
- The We-Passages in Acts: a Roman Audience Interpretation. Pt 1
- The We-Passages in Acts: a Roman Audience Interpretation. Pt 2
- The We-Passages in Acts: a Roman Audience Interpretation. Pt 3
- The We-Passages in Acts: a Roman Audience Interpretation. Pt 4
- The We-Passages in Acts: a Roman Audience Interpretation. Pt 5
- We-Passages in Acts — hiatus
- The We-Passages in Acts: a Roman Audience Interpretation. Pt 6
- The We-Passages in Acts: a Roman Audience Interpretation. Pt 7
- The We-Passages in Acts: a Roman Audience Interpretation. Pt 8
- The We-Passages in Acts: a Roman audience interpretation. Pt 9
- The We-Passages in Acts: a Roman audience interpretation. Pt 10
- The sea adventure of Acts 27 an eyewitness account?
- Acts 27-28 an eyewitness account? (Part 2)
- A Ship of Adramyttium
For later posts relating to the we-passages in Acts see https://vridar.org/tag/we-passages-in-acts/
P.S. If anyone can supply me with a copy of page 445 of Conte’s Latin Literature I would be very grateful. It’s a key page missing in the Google Books Preview.
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