The Power of Point of View

A New Approach to the “We-Passages” of the Book of Acts (Part 2)

we%20-%20croppedby GARY YAMASAKI    Part 1 of this post introduced a new approach to analyzing the “we-passages” of Acts by suggesting that the alternation between the third-person “they” language and the first-person “we” language in the narration of Acts might be attributable simply to the conventions of the time which called for third-person narration when a sense of authority is required, and first-person narration for more personal material. To test out this hypothesis, we will be positing a narrator–either the author himself, or a source used by the author–who is present for the events reported with the first-person “we”, but who is also present for some of the events reported with the third-person “they” and has simply switched to third-person narration for the purpose of lending a sense of authority to the reporting on particular events calling for such authority.

In order to test out this hypothesis, our first step is to determine the bounds of each “we-passage”. Traditionally, the extent of each of these passages has been determined simply on the basis of where the first-person plural material begins, and where it ends. This may appear at first glance to be a sensible way of determining the starting and ending points of these passages. However, if we are positing a narrator who is present for certain events, sometimes reporting in the first person and sometimes in the third person, we need to take a more nuanced approach to the task of establishing the bounds of these “we-passages”. Consider a text where the pronoun “we” is used on a number of occasions, and then the pronoun “they” appears. On the one hand, this third-person pronoun may mark the end of a “we-passage” and the beginning of a “they-passage”. However, it may be that the pronoun “they” is actually still a part of a continuing “we-passage”, the narrator simply finding it necessary to use the pronoun “they” to designate just a portion of the “we” group that does not include himself–for example, having a “we” group consisting of the narrator along with Paul, Silas and Timothy, with the narrator using the pronoun “they” in reporting on something that just Paul and Silas are doing. Because of the possibility that the pronoun “they” could be used in this manner at the end, or at the beginning, of a “we-passage”, determining the bounds of each of the “we-passages” turns out to be a more complex endeavour than it has traditionally been considered to be. The remainder of this post will undertake a determination of the bounds of the first “we-passage” of the Book of Acts, thus demonstrating how complex this process can be.

The first “we-passage” is in Acts 16, with the first actual usages of the first-person plural occurring immediately after the report of Paul receiving a vision of a Macedonian man beckoning for help; it reads, “After he had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go away into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the good news to them” (verse 10). Because of the possibility noted above that a part of the third-person language preceding this first-person language could still be part of this “we-passage”, it would appear prudent to check this preceding material to see if this is indeed the case. However, that step is not necessary here. At this point in the narrative, the readers will have encountered fifteen chapters of just third-person narration. And not having been primed by any “we” language in all of this narration to even the possibility of a “we-passage” here in chapter 16, it is safe to conclude that the readers would not take any the third-person material preceding verse 10 as being a part of first-person narration. Therefore, the first “we-passage” begins with the report in verse 10 of the decision to cross over to Macedonia.

How far does this “we-passage” extend? The following accounts of the team’s trip from Troas to Macedonia (verses 11-12) and of the team’s encounter with Lydia (verses 13-15) are replete with first-person plural verbs–“we sailed straight. . .” (verse 11); “we were. . .” (verse 12); “we went out. . .we were expecting. . .we began to speak. . .” (verse 13)–and also one first-person plural pronoun–“she prevailed upon us” (verse 15); all of this is clearly part of the “we-passage”.

Verse 16 represents the beginning of the account of the fortune-telling slave girl, and this verse exhibits two further first-person plural pronouns–“While we were going. . .a certain slave girl. . .met us“–and verse 17 exhibits another–“her following Paul and us”; so the “we-passage” extends at least this far. At this point, the use of first-person verbs and pronouns ceases and does not resume until four chapters later, and this has led scholars to conclude that the first “we-passage” ends with verse 17. However, as mentioned earlier, it is possible the third-person “they” language in the following report of the team’s interaction with the slave girl is also intended to be considered as part of this “we-passage”, just with the narrator not using any first-person plural language simply because he is not directly involved in any of the action of which other members of the team are a part.

Let us test this out by taking a closer look at this following material. Verse 17 provides the content of what this slave girl is shouting as she follows the team around: ‘These men are slaves of the Most High God who are proclaiming to you a way of salvation”, and verse 18a adds, “She kept doing this for many days”, thus establishing for the readers the image of this pronouncement being rained down constantly upon the team for days. Now, if the image of this repeated mention of “these men” is taken by the readers as including the narrator, then his presence would still be felt through verse 18a, despite the lack of any “we” language, and the wording of verse 17 does appear to secure the narrator as a part of “these men”. This verse begins with a reference to the slave girl following the team, which includes the narrator by virtue of the phrase “her following Paul and us“. This being the case, when the slave girl shouts “These men are slaves of the Most High God”, the readers would be given the impression the narrator is among “these men”. And when the account goes on in verse 18a to say she keeps up this proclamation for days, it is only natural the readers would continue to envision the narrator as a part of “these men” being referred to by her. Therefore, it is safe to conclude that verse 18a is a part of the “we-passage”.

The rest of verse 18 moves on to cover Paul’s casting the spirit out of the girl, and this focusing just on Paul has the effect of causing the rest of the team to start fading out of the scene. Therefore, even though the narrator would have still been present, his presence dims considerably here. Further, verse 19’s report that the slave girl’s owners seize only Paul and Silas, and bring only them before the magistrates, indicates the narrator has completely vanished from the scene. Therefore, we can conclude that this first “we-passage” begins to close with the turn toward Paul in verse 18b, and is definitively closed by the arrest of just Paul and Silas.

It remains to determine the bounds of the other “we-passages” in the Book of Acts, and to discern whether Scholes and Kellogg’s distinction between the nature of first-person material and third-person material in works of antiquity is reflected in a comparison of the content of the “we-passages” with the third-person narration surrounding them. However, this will have to wait for a future post.


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