by GARY YAMASAKI The presence in the Book of Acts of passages where the usual third-person narration gives way to the first-person “we” has given rise to a veritable maelstrom of debate, spawning a number of theories as to how these passages should be taken: as a reflection of a convention for utilizing first-person narration in sea-voyage accounts or ancient novels, or as reflecting an eyewitness account of the author or of a source used by the author, just to name a few of the more prominent offerings. However, the debate has not given serious attention to the fact that the distinction between third-person and first-person narration is a point-of-view issue at heart. This post will begin the process of exploring the point-of-view dynamics surrounding the switches between third-person and first-person narration in Acts.
Point of view in a narrative text is all about the perspective from which the readers (or hearers) are being led to experience a given event, with first-person texts reflecting the perspective of a character in the story world, and third-person texts reflecting the perspective of a non-character narrating from a position outside the story world. And crucial to a point-of-view analysis of the “we-passages” of Acts is the issue of the effect created through using such first-person narration instead of the more conventional third-person narration. According to basic point-of-view theory, first-person narration has the effect of providing the readers with a sense of immediacy, and a sense of identification with, and empathy for, the character doing the narrating. Third-person narration, on the other hand, has the effect of providing the readers with a more objective experience of the characters.
Some scholars have drawn these insights into their treatments of the Book of Acts’ first-person narrative passages. For example, Robert Tannehill (The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts: Vol. 2, p. 247) asserts that this first-person narration creates a sense of “identification” with the narrator, while William Kurz (Reading Luke-Acts, p. 113) claims a sense of “immediacy” is implied by this type of narration. However, the work of Robert Scholes and Robert Kellogg contains insights that call into question the applicability of standard point-of-view theory to the study of narrative texts of antiquity.
Their 1966 The Nature of Narrative focuses mainly on narrative in the modern novel, but it does provide at least some coverage of narrative in texts of antiquity. And in a discussion of the issue of “first-person versus third-person in antiquity,” they note that authors writing accounts of events in which they were personally involved sometimes report their involvement in the third-person–”he did this”–as opposed to the more natural first-person–”I did this”; the four examples given are Xenophon’s Anabasis, Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War, Josephus’ Jewish War, and Julius Caesar’s Gallic War.
Scholes and Kellogg suggest these authors’ use of third-person narration may be rooted in a belief that third-person narration holds more authority than does first-person eyewitness testimony. As they put it, “A document aspiring to achieve truth of fact had a better chance of being appreciated as factual if it did not seem too personal” (243). And a little later, they say, “the first-person narrative seems to have been used mainly in the ancient world not for factual or mimetic representation, but for highly unreliable and one-sided apologiae, as in the case of Josephus, whose Life of himself does not check well against his history, and is usually thought to be the least credible of all his writings” (244).
Over against the low-authority nature of first-person narration, Scholes and Kellogg contrast the degree of authority afforded the “histor” which they describe as follows: “The histor as narrator is not a recorder or recounter but an investigator. He examines the past with an eye toward separating out actuality from myth. Herodotus takes his authority not so much from his sources as from the critical spirit with which he means to approach those sources. . . .Thucydides is the perfect type of the ancient histor, basing his authority on the accuracy of conclusions he has drawn from evidence he has gathered” (242-3).
These insights from Scholes and Kellogg raise the possibility that the alternation between third-person and first-person narration in the latter parts of Acts may have been prompted by the nature of the material being presented, some of it calling for third-person narration according to the standards of the day, and other calling for first-person narration. It remains to work through the text of Acts to test out this hypothesis, but that will need to wait for a future post.