Tag Archives: We Passages in Acts

The Author of Acts

Dennis E. Smith
Dennis E. Smith

Dennis E. Smith, one of the editors of the Acts Seminar Report, published as Acts and Christian Beginnings, includes in that publication a short essay on on the identity of the author of Acts (pp. 9-10).

Smith begins by noting that the first writer we know who identified the author of Acts as Luke, a companion of Paul, was Irenaeus who wrote in the late second century. We can read Irenaeus making this assertion in Against Heresies, 3.14.1:

But that this Luke was inseparable from Paul, and his fellow-labourer in the Gospel, he himself clearly evinces, not as a matter of boasting, but as bound to do so by the truth itself. For he says that when Barnabas, and John who was called Mark, had parted company from Paul, and sailed to Cyprus, “we came to Troas;”(10) and when Paul had beheld in a dream a man of Macedonia, saying, “Come into Macedonia, Paul, and help us,” “immediately,” he says, “we endeavoured to go into Macedonia, understanding that the Lord had called us to preach the Gospel unto them.

So Irenaeus was the first to rely upon the prima facie inference of the “we passages” in Acts and conservative scholarship through to the twenty-first century, despite twentieth century research into the the matter, has not uniformly advanced in learning since.

Dennis E. Smith points out that Irenaeus was

evidently thinking of the person mentioned in Col 4.14, Phlm 24, and 2 Tim 4.11

who was named Luke and who was a close companion of Paul. Irenaeus was also of the belief that the real Paul wrote all three of those letters and was also the author of the Gospel of Luke. Modern scholarship has largely followed the reasoning and conclusion of Irenaeus insofar as the same author who wrote Acts was also responsible for the Gospel of Luke, but (contrary to what one may expect from web and blog-active New Testament scholars)

few have accepted the theory that a companion of Paul was the author.

So critical readers here can be assured that, according to the word of Smith and Tyson and contrary to some prominent web/blogging scholars, “the majority of critical scholars” do not accept that the author of Acts was a companion of Paul. read more »

A classicist’s insights into how Acts was composed and stitched together

I love to read fresh insights that potentially open new understandings on how a biblical author worked to produce what became a part of the foundational canon of western civilization.

I’ve recently been catching up with New Testament Interpretation Through Rhetorical Criticism by classics professor George A. Kennedy (1984).

Acts 1:1-15:35 seems to be a compositional unit and could be read as a complete work. The disciples have carried on the mission of Jesus and seem to have settled their internal differences; faced with Jewish opposition they have persevered, and the gospel is being extended to the gentiles. From 15:36 to the end of the book, focus is turned entirely upon the missionary activities of Paul; Peter and the other apostles are forgotten. (p.127)

I have frequently read the view that the Jerusalem Council is a climactic turning point in the book of Acts, but I think this is the first time I have taken note of the view that this episode also constitutes a satisfactory conclusion to a story that began in Acts 1.

Another take on the “we passages”

Kennedy adds some other interesting observations in support. The first of the “we passages” appears soon afterwards, in 16:10. Kennedy notes that scholars generally assume this marks the moment Luke joined Paul, but he himself points out that if this is the case, then it is odd that the author does not say that. Rather, Kennedy finds it interesting that the first “we passage” comes just after the introduction of Timothy as a companion of Paul.

Again in chapter 20 Timothy joins Paul and the narrative slips into the first person plural. . . . It is possible that Luke utilized Timothy’s account of his travels with Paul and did not alter “we” to “they.” This is unlikely to be an editorial oversight, considering the number of times it occurs and the otherwise smooth flow of the narrative. . . . Firsthand knowledge of what Paul said begins in chapter 20, when Timothy is present, and the speech there is rather different from what has gone before. (pp. 127-8)

I think there is a better accounting for the “we passages”, but I have not spent any time thinking through Kennedy’s suggestion here. It might be worth doing so, at least in respect to a source ostensibly claiming to be by a Timothy. (I don’t think I ever got around to completing my old notes on an alternative explanation for the we passages that I began here two years ago, darn it.)

Classical historiography — and classical endings

Kennedy suggests that the narrative from Acts 1 to Acts 15:35 “may represent a compositional unit which was all that was originally intended to be added to Luke’s Gospel.”

While I can readily accept that section of Acts is “a compositional unit”, I think it would be hard to sustain an argument that it was all that was originally intended to be added to Luke’s Gospel. The introduction speaks of the gospel going to all nations and the narrative presages Paul taking the message before kings and rulers. Both these are not fulfilled until the gospel reaches the capital and ruler of all nations (Rome) and till Paul has addressed Jewish and gentile rulers in Caesarea and Rome. But that the narrative up to 15:35 does represent an independent literary unit with a certain completeness in its own right is nonetheless interesting.

On the eminent suitability of Acts 15:30-35 as a classical ending to a work of ancient historiography, Kennedy writes:

Classical historiography generally does not employ a rhetorical epilogue and instead often concludes with a very brief reference to continuing events (as at the end of Acts 28). This well describes where we are left in Acts 15:30-35. (p. 128 – my emphasis throughout)

Here is Acts 15:30-35

So when they were dismissed, they came to Antioch: and when they had gathered the multitude together, they delivered the epistle: which when they had read, they rejoiced for the consolation.  And Judas and Silas, being prophets also themselves, exhorted the brethren with many words, and confirmed them. And after they had tarried there a space, they were let go in peace from the brethren unto the apostles. Notwithstanding it pleased Silas to abide there still. Paul also and Barnabas continued in Antioch, teaching and preaching the word of the Lord, with many others also.

I had not before noticed how this is so well echoed by the ending of Acts 28:

And Paul dwelt two whole years in his own hired house, and received all that came in unto him, preaching the kingdom of God, and teaching those things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ, with all confidence, no man forbidding him.

But what is particularly interesting is Kennedy’s observation as a scholar and professor of the classics:

The opening of 15:36 is reminiscent of the opening of Xenophon’s Hellenica, a work read in Greek schools. Xenophon attached his work on Greek history to the abrupt end of Thucydides (probably as left at the latter’s death) by the words meta de tauta, “And after this . . . .” Acts 15:36 begins “And after some days . . . .” An educated audience such as Luke had in mind might have perceived this.

I like reading of such fresh possibilities when someone more steeped in the broader literary context of the biblical books than in the confines of theological studies publishes his or her insights. If, as Kennedy notes, Xenophon’s Hellenica was studies in Greek schools, his case is quite plausible.

Putting it all together

If in fact the second half of Acts is Luke’s version of Paul’s travels, conceived as a separate entity and based on Timothy’s account filled out by Luke for those periods Timothy did not witness, the retention of the “we” is not an editorial oversight, but a stylistic rhetorical device to increase the authority of the account. No deceit need have been intended; Luke may have thought that the introduction of Timothy in chapter 16 made clear what he was doing, and it is possible that 15:36 was intended to be given a title such as “Luke’s Account of the Missions of Paul, after Timothy.” (p. 128)

If this is a credible option, Kennedy opines that the author originally had in mind a three part corpus:

  1. The Gospel
  2. The Activities of the Disciples from the ascension to the meeting in Jerusalem
  3. Second Acts: The Missions of Paul

Kennedy comments that although there is no real difference in the prose of the two halves of Acts, there is a significant difference in tone. The second half conveys an immediacy of a first-hand observation. I would qualify Kennedy’s observation by saying that this first-hand impression is itself a rhetorical device and not necessarily a fact of the sources at all.

I think that the difference in tone owes more to an additional explanation Kennedy offers — the movement beyond Palestine, Syria and Pisidia and to the Ionian coast, Greece, and beyond.

In this new setting Paul’s speech at Athens, the first address in what might be called Second Acts, takes on special meaning. Not only the Jews reject the gospel; so do the philosophers of the intellectual capital of the world. There is a dramatic movement from rejection in Athens, to rejection in Jerusalem and Paul’s trial, to rejection in Rome, but this rejection by leaders everywhere is shown against a pattern of acceptance by the people. (p.128-9)

I am not sure that Kennedy’s suggestion that the author originally intended a distinctly two part work for Acts is the only explanation for a Xenophon/Hellenica-like join at 15:36. The half-way cathartic ending in Acts with the Jerusalem Council and its aftermath, and the possible half-way kick-re-start at 15:36 could well have been the author’s way of informing his audience that one part of the story had finished and a new part, with a different theme, was to begin. Such rhetorical devices were the tools an author necessarily drew upon to speak his mind to an audience when he had adopted the voice of the anonymous narrator. As Jan-Wim Wesselius comments in The Origin of the History of Israel: Herodotus’s Histories as Blueprint for the First Books of the Bible,

The almost complete absence of the personal aspect of the narrator makes it impossible to express personal thoughts and feelings . . . .  This apparently made it necessary to invent or apply various literary techniques that enable an anonymous narrator . . . . to introduce the programme of a book through purely literary means . . . . (p. 77)

Not much is changed if we do see the author having originally intended for Acts to be a two-part work, or if a rhetorical device at Acts 15:36 served to introduce a new thematic program. What it does offer, however, is an insight to the human processes and plans that were responsible for its creation. Anything that helps us see with sharper clarity the West’s primary canon as a human product is A Good Thing.


From http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:ApostleFedorZubov.jpg
Ministry of the Apostles. Russian icon by Fyodor Zubov, 1660.
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A Ship of Adramyttium

Paul leaves for Rome initially in a ship from Adramyttium — a port city in the Troad, at the base Mount Ida, the gods’ grandstand from where they viewed the action of the Trojan war. This means that every “we” passage in Acts begins with a sea voyage associated with Troy. read more »

Acts 27-28 an eyewitness account? (Part 2)

Why does the Christian author of Acts bother to tell readers (in 28.11) that Paul’s ship had the figurehead of two pagan gods?

Why does the author of Acts use words that are only elsewhere found in fictional shipwreck stories in Homer?

Is there anything truly distinctive about Paul’s shipwreck to set it apart from fiction? Is Paul’s adventure at sea anything other than stereotypical? read more »

The sea adventure of Acts 27 an eyewitness account?

This post is in response to a lengthy citation from a work by Loveday Alexander arguing reasons for believing that the sea travel story of Acts 27 was an eyewitness account. Against that one point the following demonstrates that Alexander’s reason is relatively weak when balanced against the weight of other literary factors worthy of consideration in this chapter. read more »

The We-Passages in Acts: a Roman audience interpretation. Pt 10

(continuation of the series)

ii. Lydia, Lydia and Lydians
The first convert of Paul is a woman who has gained much wealth from selling “purple”. Purple is, of course, a colour that was indicative of rulership and worn by a select few, mostly Romans of authority.


The name Lydia was well-known to Romans as the ancestral kingdom of the Etruscans, the first inhabitants (and kings) of Rome. Virgil in the first century could write meaningfully of the Rome’s Tiber as the ‘Lydian’ river (Aeneid II.780-781) and call the early Etruscan people of Italy ‘Lydians’ (Aeneid IX.11; VIII.479-480 uses Maeonia, the Homeric name for Lydia). read more »

The We-Passages in Acts: a Roman audience interpretation. Pt 9


Excursis (only — not a foundational point): Another intermediate “little Troy”

(I will discuss in depth in a later excerpt the unity of Troas, the Troad and Troy in the Classical literature)


In passing it may be worth noting that after Aeneas left Troy and while Italy was still far off Aeneas came upon a second “little Troy” in Greece. Epirus had been populated earlier by Trojan refugees who rebuilt a Troy-like citadel and even attempted a second Xanthus River nearby. Aeneas’ party were welcomed as “fellow-citizens”. Epirus and Rome were both destined to be known as a new Troy, twin sister cities (Aeneid III.503-505).

Of specific note is that the first person Aeneas met here was a woman praying by a river, the royal Andromache, who welcomed him warmly. (III.294ff) Compare below the first person Paul met on reaching his “second Rome” – a woman wealthy from selling purple who was met at a place of prayer by a river (Acts 16:13).

The next person Aeneas met was a man who had the power of prophecy, Helenus. Aeneas greeted him with “You … are Heaven’s interpreter. You know the truth of Apollo’s power …What will guide me safely through the dread ordeals to come?” (III.358ff) Compare the second person Paul is said to have met in Philippi, the slave girl with the false spirit of divination. She greeted Paul with “These men are the servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to us the way of salvation” (Acts 16:17). The author of Acts never takes kindly to pagan prophets and rites.




The We-Passages in Acts: a Roman Audience Interpretation. Pt 8

This is the continuation with the next bit of something I tried to work out a while ago. A series of many more “bits” will follow this one to suggest that the author of Acts was using the “we-passages” as a rhetorical device to advance the theme of Acts as a “mini-epic” telling the tale of a new founding myth for Rome/the church….

read more »

The We-Passages in Acts: a Roman Audience Interpretation. Pt 7

Revised 25th Dec. — 6.30 am

Now that I am adding my two-year old thoughts about the we-passages on this blog segment by segment I have had to recheck what I had written and that has led to a belated reminder about the roots of this interpretation. I mentioned Bonz recently, and I now recall that it was a follow-on study from that that led to seeing the we-passages jig-sawing into a perfect fit into a vicariously involved Roman audience view. Damn. I began writing the we-passages from the wrong end. I should really have just made separate reference to the we-passages in just one section of the Bonz-conceived view of Acts as a whole.

I will have to explore this in writing over time afresh. But for now I can list some of the rubrics of what I was thinking:

read more »

The We-Passages in Acts: a Roman Audience Interpretation. Pt 6

Have just had another look in Marianne Palmer Bonz’s The Past as Legacy: Luke-Acts and Ancient Epic and rediscovered the obvious original inspiration for my view of the we-passages in Acts. She writes, after discussing the other suggestions up to the Robbins and MacDonald views:

The “we” passages do not represent historical, eyewitness accounts. But while they are, therefore, rhetorical, they were not created to add verisimilitude to Luke’s historical narrative. Nor was Luke merely attempting to follow a literary convention for certain types of adventurous voyages. Rather, the “we” references serve as rhetorical shorthand for the Pauline Christians — those who are vicariously privy to Paul’s example and who, as heirs to his legacy, have been called by him to continue his unfinished mission. They are Luke’s intended audience, whose participation in the ongoing drama of God’s salvation plan is signaled by the words of the Luke prologue: “concerning the events that have been fulfilled among us“. . .’ (p.173)

What I am attempting to do is to elaborate on this, though not necessarily in the way that Bonz herself might go. I am seeing the “we” less in terms of Pauline Christians per se than in the targets of the revised founding myth.


We-Passages in Acts — hiatus

I have been feeling a bit uncomfortable with my last post on the we-passages in Acts. I originally wrote all that up over a year ago at least now, and I am having doubts I have really incorporated in my essay a way of testing my interpretation and evaluating it rigorously enough against alternative hypotheses. I am not surprised that in approaching my essay afresh after such a long break that I would want to revise bits here and there and even add some extras, but I will take the next few days to think it through a lot more rigorously before I post more of it.


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

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. read more »

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

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.

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

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.