The Historicity of the book of Acts (2/5)

Some verses in Acts use the second person plural (‘we’), indicating that the writer is participating in the events he is describing. The traditional interpretation (that the writer was an eyewitness, the traditional Luke),[1] was challenged in the twentieth century.[2]

Although there currently exists no scholarly consensus on the “we” passages,[3] three interpretations in particular have become dominant:

a) the writer was redacting existing written material or oral sources, whether by genuine eyewitnesses or not

b) use of the second person plural is a deliberate stylistic device which was common to the genre of the work, but which was not intended to indicate a historical eyewitness

c) the writer was a genuine historical eyewitness.[4]

A Later Editor

Interpreting the passages as from earlier written source incorporated into Acts by a later editor (whether Luke or not), acknowledges the apparent historicity of these texts whilst viewing them as distinct from the main work.[5] [6] [7] This view has been criticized for failing to provide sufficient evidence for sources.[8]

A stylistic Convention

Some view the passages as a stylistic convention typical of shipboard voyages in travel romance literature.[9] [10] [11]

This view is criticized for failing to find appropriate parallels,[12] [13] [14] [15] [16] [17] for failing to establish that such a convention exists,[18] and because Acts was not written in the fictional genre.[19] [20]

A Genuine Eyewitness

The interpretation of the “we” passages as indicative that the writer was a historical eye witness (whether Luke or not), remains the most influential in current biblical studies.[21] [22]

[1] ‘Irenaeus’s understanding of the “we” passages was for many centuries the accepted interpretation of them. Indeed, there was no serious challenge to the author-as-eyewitness solution until the beginning of the modern period a millennium and a half later.’, Campbell, ‘The “we” passages in the Acts of the Apostles: the narrator as narrative’, p.3 (2007).

[2] ‘By the second decade of the twentieth century, most Acts scholars were in agreement that the author had fashioned the narrative out of a variety of written sources. A number of them, however, did not accept the source-as-eyewitness solution to the “we” question.’, ibid., p. 6.

[3] ‘Present scholarship still struggles to make sense of the so-called “we-passages” in Acts 16:10-17; 20:5-15; 21:1-18; 27:1-28:16.’, Rothschild, ‘Luke-Acts and the rhetoric of history’, Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen testament 2. Reihe 175, p. 264 (2004).

[4] ‘Three interpretations dominate: 1) the author offers a perspective from his own life experience; 2) the author is in possession of an itinerarium source; and 3) first person plural pronouns represent stylistic insertions.’, ibid., p. 265.

[5] ‘We are on terra firma to recognize that Paul had a companion named Luke. We also know that this Luke came to be associated with the authorship of Luke-Acts on the basis of the “we” passages from Acts. It is possible that Luke, Paul’s companion, is the source for the “we” passages in Acts and perhaps for more of the material in Acts 13-28. This Luke would be a second generation Christian. (Paul must be considered a first generation Christian.) towards the end of the first century (see below) a third generation Christian – who had not accompanied Paul – using Luke as his authority for the latter half of Acts composed Luke-Acts. It is impossible to say whether the author knew Luke personally or had a written source, although the unanimity of the tradition suggests a strong (and therefore personal) connection between the author and Paul’s travelling companion.’, Sterling, ‘Historiography and self-definition: Josephos, Luke-Acts, and Apologetic Historiography’, p. 326 (1992).

[6] ‘Porter argues that the “we” sections were a source document that the author of Acts used, preserving its first-person form. S. Porter, “The ‘We’ Passages,” in The Book of Acts in its Greco-Roman Setting, ed. D.W.J. Gill and C.H. Gemph (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 545-574.’, Allen, ‘Lukan Authorship of Hebrews’, p. 125 (2010).

[7] ‘I conclude that the “we” passages were a previously written source used by the author of Acts, probably not originating with him.’, Porter, ‘The Paul of Acts: essays in literary criticism, rhetoric, and theology’, p. 11 (1999).

[8] ‘Although Porter’s argument is certainly possible, it is not sufficient in my view to overturn the traditional view that the author of the “we” passages was Luke himself. Schmidt concluded from his study of the style of the “we” sections that no basis exists for isolating this material from the rest of Acts. He found insufficient evidence to suggest that the “we” sections were either added to a source or retained from a source, even a source from the same author. D. Schmidt, “Syntactical Style in the ‘We’-Sections of Acts: How Lukan is it?” SBLSP, ed. D. Lull (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1989), 300-8. Edmundson’s point is well-taken: “There are few passages in ancient historical literature more clearly the work not merely of a contemporary writer but of an observant eye-witness in than is the narrative contained in the last seven chapters of Acts” (The Church in Rome in the First Century [London: Longmans, 1913], 87).’, Allen, ‘Lukan Authorship of Hebrews’, p. 125 (2010).

[9] Plumacher, “Lukas als hellenistischer Schriftsteller: Studien zur Apostelgeschichte”, SUNT 9 (1972).

[10] Pervo, ‘Profit with Delight: The Literary Genre of the Acts of the Apostles’ (1987).

[11] Robbins, ‘By Land and by Sea: The We-Passages and Ancient Sea Voyages.’, in Talbert (ed.), ‘Perspectives in Luke-Acts’, pp. 215-242 (1978).

[12] ‘The conventional eyewitness proposals advocating a sea-voyage genre (Robbins) or the customary practices of historiography (Plumacher) have been shown to lack sufficient clear parallels in ancient literature on which the arguments for them rely, a weakness that Plumacher himself acknowledges.’, Campbell, ‘The “we” passages in the Acts of the Apostles: the narrator as narrative’, p. 11 (2007).

[13] ‘Likewise, the theory that Luke is simply employing a common literary convention characteristic of sea-voyage narratives has proven an inadequate explanation for the full range of “we” passages in Acts.’, Bonz, ‘The past as legacy: Luke-Acts and ancient epic’, p. 10 (2000).

[14] ‘Whatever the function of the first person in the ‘we-passage’, it is not used in the Herodotean fashion to provide comment on the narrated from the perspective of a detached observer. On the contrary, this author projects himself as a participant in the action who explicitly shares the religious perspective of his characters: cf. 16.10, where the narrator identifies himself with the group which shares both in the theological interpretation of Paul’s vision and in the commission which it implies.’, Alexander, ‘Acts in its ancient literary context: a classicist looks at the Acts of the Apostles’, Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement, p. 158 (2007).

[15] ‘Some have cited passages from Achilles Tatius (2.31.6; 3.1.1; 4.9.6) and Heliodorus (5.17) as illustrating the use of the first person sea-voyage convention in the ancient novelists. Pervo is probably wise in not suggesting these as parallels, however, since they are not the kind of sustained usage of the ‘we’ convention in narrative that the hypothesis requires or that is found in the book of Acts. Furthermore, the sea-voyage convention is not established by usage in the Odyssey, including the passage cited by Pervo above, as well as Vergil’s Aeneid (3.5) or any number of other writers sometimes mentioned (see section III below for further discussion).’, Porter, ‘The ‘We’ Passages”, in Gill & Gempf (eds.), ‘The Book of Acts in Its Graeco-Roman Setting’, p. 553 (1994).

[16]The literary genres are not similar enough to constitute parallels, the instances of first person usage are often incomparable because they are too brief or are first-hand accounts by the actual authors or clearly reflect a flashback technique, and there is not the kind of straightforward equation with the sea voyage that would be necessary to establish this as an ancient literary type.’, ibid., p. 558.

[17] ‘In her study, Praeder, after comparison of ancient sea voyage accounts, concludes that these accounts are quite varied in style and approach, with none of them a true parallel with the accounts in Acts 27-28.’, ibid., p. 18.

[18] ‘For example, not only does Pervo overstate the importance and significance of the shipwreck motif, present in part in the “we” passages, but he gives a distorted view of its relationship to Acts in the ancient novels. He claims to show that the major features of the convention of the shipwreck appear in Acts. In the parallels that he cites from the ancient novelists, however, not one of the sources he cites has all of the features that Acts does. His model of the shipwreck is apparently his own reconstruction of this type, and not one found in ancient literature in the kind of detail that he claims, or that is necessary to establish the validity of the parallel.’, ibid., p. 18.

[19] ‘All of this suggests that, from the perspective of at least one group of ancient readers (readers, that is, attuned to this Greek literary debate), Acts might well be classed at first sight as fiction. Nevertheless, there are disturbing features about the construction of Luke’s narrative which make it difficult to sustain this classification. The exotic setting does not quite live up to the expectations of the novel-reader. Syria-Palestine turns out to be neither bandit-infested wilderness nor pastoral countryside, but a network of cities and streets which exhibit much the same humdrum features as the rest of the Mediterranean world. Travel takes place not in the archaic fantasy landscape of Greek romance but in the real, contemporary world of the Roman empire, and it is described in intensely (even boringly) realistic terms; unlike the novelists, this narrator takes the trouble to find out about winds and harbours, cargoes and ports of call. The shipwreck (and there is only one, as against Paul’s three: 2 Cor. 11.25) is described in dramatic but realistic terms – and there is no divine intervention, only a private vision to reassure the hero that the ship’s passengers, will survive. The miracles which punctuate the narrative also have unusual features for the Greek reader. Unlike the ‘marvels’ of the Greek novels, they are presented as real events of supernatural origin, not coincidences or dramatic fakes.’, Alexander, ‘Acts in its ancient literary context: a classicist looks at the Acts of the Apostles’, Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement, pp. 158-159 (2007).

[20] ‘Unlike the novels, however, Acts provides no final resolution for its characters’ pathe. It has an open-ended character which dissipates any feel of romantic fantasy: suffering and conflict are part of the agenda for the forseeable future (Acts 20.29-30, 14.22), and Paul’s trial narrative has no happy ending.’, ibid., p. 159.

[21] ‘A glance at recent extended treatments of the “we” passages and commentaries demonstrates that, within biblical scholarship, solutions in the historical eyewitness traditions continue to be the most influential explanations for the first-person plural style in Acts.’, Campbell, ‘The “we” passages in the Acts of the Apostles: the narrator as narrative’, p. 8 (2007).

[22] ‘If the author was not a companion of Paul, it is highly unlikely that he would retain the first person plural form ‘we’ instead of the third person in the narrative of these events.’, Samkutty, ‘The Samaritan mission in Acts’, Library of New Testament Studies, volume 238, p. 9 (2006).


  1. […] Article here. […]

  2. […] much thank to Bible Apologetics for all the work done there (part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5). They led me to my own book case (pics added) or my Logos […]

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