The “We-Passages”

In the Book of Acts, there are “we” passages.  They include Acts 16:10-17; 20:5-15; 21:1-18; and 27:1-28:16.  Essentially, they tell the story of Paul’s journeys using the first person plural (“we”).  For many, this indicates that the author of Acts (probably Luke) accompanied Paul on his travels.

When I was a first-year student at DePauw, however, I read another idea by New Testament scholar David Barr.  He said that the use of a first-person plural occurred in ancient writings when they were talking about sea travel.  Here’s an informative article that I found about this (though I only scanned it).  This sort of thing occurs in Homer’s Odyssey, for instance. 

But there are times when the author of Acts uses “we” when discussing Paul’s adventures on land.  Was “we” used for narratives about journeys—which encompass the sea travel and also the time spent on land?

In the Handbook of Classical Rhetoric in the Hellenistic Period, I read Stefan Rebenich’s essay, “Historical Prose”.  On page 307, Rebenich states:

The so-called “We-passages” probably do not show the author as a companion of Paul, but are rather a literary device of which Luke makes use, partly in accordance with tradition and partly at the instance of his sources.

On page 333, Rebenich talks about Ammianus, a fourth century C.E. Roman historian.  Rebenich states that Ammianus departed from traditional history writing, in part by narrating in the “we-form”. 

This raises questions in my mind.  Where was the “we-form” found in the ancient world?  Was it in histories, or poems, or both?  Did it fall out of favor at some point in time?  And why did Acts use it (assuming it wasn’t saying that Luke, the author of Acts, accompanied Paul on its trips)?  Did the author of Acts use it to be more vivid in his narrative?

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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2 Responses to The “We-Passages”

  1. James Pate says:

    On my Blogger blog, Looney said:

    According to Witherington’s commentary on Acts, the “We” passages are following the pattern of other great first person histories: Thucydides, Polybius, Xenophon. These authors all wrote of events in which they were intimately involved – at least in part. For example, Polybius gives an account of the earlier circumstances of Rome which lead to his involvement with Scipio and the wars against Carthage.

    Luke was part of the events and is emphasizing that some of what he is telling he knows first hand, while the gospel of Luke sets the stage. This theory has the nice side effect of explaining why things that would have been included by a later armchair history writer (i.e. what happened to Peter, John and the others?) aren’t included in Acts.


  2. jamesbradfordpate says:

    On my blogger blog, Richard Fellows says:

    No-one has found a single case where an ancient writer uses first person narrative for events where he/she was not claiming to have been present. Attempts to deny that Luke was claiming to have been a companion of Paul are therefore very strained, it seems to me. Polybius, for example, refers to himself by name when describing events on land where he was a participant. Interestingly, he switches to first person plural on one occasion when he set sail. This seems to reflect an ancient preference for first person plural to describe sea voyages made by the author. Act is the same. The fact that Luke does not mention himself using the third person (by naming himself) is simply explained by his desire to follow the convention of anonymity that the other gospel writers also followed. He did not want to draw attention to himself. Thus the style of self-reference in Acts is the same at that in Polybius, except that it is over-laid by Luke’s desire to stay largely in the background.

    There are good historical reasons to believe that Luke was with Paul on his journey to Troas and also later in Corinth before the journey to Jerusalem. That is to say he was present BEFORE the ‘we passages’ start, as well as during the ‘we passages’.

    Those who try to deny that Luke was a companion of Paul are trying to deny the obvious, I feel. I think they are driven to such attempts by their misreading of Galatians, which makes them feel that the letter contradicts Acts.

    I appreciate Looney’s comments. I would add (or clarify) that Luke’s focus on Paul to the exclusion of other people and events is explained by the fact that he was part of Paul’s team.

    I hope this helps.


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