Luke's Eye-witness Accounts in Acts

Kevin Rogers

(Investigator 153, 2013 November)



Introduction

Within the Acts of the Apostles there are distinct passages where the author writes in first person plural, using pronouns such as "we", "our" and "us". If these really indicate when Luke was with Paul, then what does this imply for the dating and reliability of the Acts of the Apostles and Luke's gospel?

For the 1st half of the Acts of the Apostles, Luke describes the activities of the protagonists using the third person (e.g. "he" or "they"). However, in chapter 16 he starts using first-person plural pronouns such as "we", "our" and "us". The obvious conclusion to draw is that Luke had joined Paul during these phases of his missionary journeys. This is not a constant feature. Luke swaps between 1st person and 3rd person at distinct points. This allows us to track segments in Paul's travels where it seems as though he was accompanied by Luke.

The "we" sections are summarized in the following table, but we will consider each section in more detail.



Sections in Acts Description Approximate Dates
16:10 to 16:18 Troas to Philippi 49 AD
20:4 to 21:19 Philippi to Jerusalem 54 to 57 AD
27:1 to 28:30   Caesarea to Rome    59 to 62 AD



Troas to Philippi

The 1st "we" passage occurs in Acts 16:6-10. Note the sudden transition:
6 Paul and his companions travelled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. 7 When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. 8 So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. 9 During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, "Come over to Macedonia and help us." 10 After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.

This transition occurred at Alexandrian Troas, which was an ancient Greek city on the north western tip of Turkey.

 From Troas the company sailed to Samothrace, Neapolis and then travelled to "Philippi, a Roman colony and the leading city of that district of Macedonia". (Acts 16:11-12)

In Philippi, Paul cast an evil spirit out of a fortune-telling slave girl, taking away her gift. The owner complained to the authorities and so Paul and Silas were imprisoned. After Paul was released, he told the magistrate of his Roman citizenship and so the magistrate politely asked him to leave the city.


Luke dropped off at Philippi

At this point the "we" passages stop for a significant time. Paul & Silas then travel to Thessalonica, Berea, Athens and then to Corinth. Paul then stayed in Corinth for 18 months (Acts 18:10). This sojourn can be dated from the end of 49 AD to mid-51 AD.

Paul then travelled to Syrian Antioch via Cenchrea, Ephesus (in Turkey) and Caesarea (Palestine). He then visited various places in Galatia and Phrygia (Turkey) and then returned to Ephesus again, where he stayed for just over 2 years.

Paul then travelled to Macedonia and then Achaia (Greece), where he stayed for 3 months. He then returned to Philippi in Macedonia.


Luke Rejoins Paul at Philippi

When he sailed from Philippi to Troas, the "we" passages resume. The interlude has been over 4 years. Note that Philippi was the drop off point for Luke and Luke rejoined Paul from the same location.

After staying in Troas for 7 days Luke then sailed to Assos but Paul went by foot. Paul was then taken on board at Assos. They then sailed to Caesarea via Mitylene, Kios, Miletus, Cos, Rhodes, Patara, Tyre and Ptolemais.


Luke in Jerusalem

From Caesarea, they travelled overland and arrived at Jerusalem (Acts 21:17).

 Luke then provides us with some very important information:
"When we arrived at Jerusalem, the brothers received us warmly. The next day Paul and the rest of us went to see James [Jesus' brother], and all the elders were present." (Acts 21: 17, 18)

From this reference it is reasonable to infer that Luke was introduced to James, Jesus' brother, as well as to the church in Jerusalem.

Paul then participated in a purification rite at the temple to show that he still adhered to the Jewish law. However, he was recognised by some Jews from the province of Asia and they started a riot. To cut a long story short, Paul was arrested and taken to Caesarea, having been in Jerusalem for only 12 days. Paul is then imprisoned at Caesarea for 2 years. When Paul was taken to Caesarea, the "we" passages stop. So, where was Luke while Paul was at Caesarea? It seems reasonable to suppose that he stayed with the church in Jerusalem.

Paul initially appeared before Felix. Felix left him in jail for 2 years until he was replaced by Porcius Festus (59 AD). Paul was then interviewed by Festus and Herod Agrippa II. Even though Paul is assessed as innocent he is sent to Rome because of his appeal to Caesar.


Journey to Rome

At this point (Acts 27) the "we" passages recommence and it is we, we, we, all the way to Rome.

Acts 27 describes the sea voyage from Caesarea to Malta. This includes the places they passed or visited, the storm and the scuttling of the ship on Malta. I encourage you to read this chapter. It is extremely vivid. Judge for yourself whether the author was present.

Acts 28 describes the subsequent trip to Rome where Paul is placed under house arrest and the book of Acts finishes with the following statement:
"For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. Boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ."

Dating

Paul would have arrived in Rome in AD 60 and Luke mentions that he was under house arrest in Rome for 2 years. That is where Luke's writings end. What followed was tumultuous.

•    Paul, James and Peter were all executed in the mid-60s.
•    The Neronian persecutions commenced in 64 AD
•    The Jewish wars commenced in 66 AD and
•    The Jewish temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD.

Why did Luke not mention these things? Acts records the martyrdoms of Stephen and James the son of Zebedee. Why not these latter ones? The obvious explanation is that Luke completed the book of Acts shortly after Paul's house arrest and he probably wrote it during that time.


Reliability

The gospel of Luke was written prior to Acts. Luke commences his gospel with the following words (Luke 1:1-4)
"Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught."

Luke makes 5 key claims within this prologue:

•    He consulted prior writings
•    He spoke to eyewitnesses
•    He conducted a careful investigation
•    He wrote an orderly account
•    So that the reader may have certainty regarding what actually happened.

When did he do most of this investigation? It was probably during his 2 year stay in Jerusalem while Paul was imprisoned at Caesarea.


Theories

Although there currently exists no scholarly consensus on the "we" passages, three interpretations in particular have become dominant:
•    the writer was a genuine historical eyewitness,
•    the writer was a redactor, or
•    It was a stylistic convention.


Historical eyewitness

The historical eyewitness interpretation states that the "we" passages indicate that the writer was a historical eyewitness. This remains the most influential opinion within current biblical studies. Objections to this viewpoint include the claim that Luke-Acts contains differences in theology and historical narrative which are irreconcilable with the authentic letters of Paul the apostle.


Redactor

The redactor interpretation claims that the "we" passages are an earlier written or oral source incorporated into Acts by a later redactor. This view still acknowledges the apparent historicity of these texts and that they were eyewitness accounts but it views the "we passages" as being distinct from the main work. However, this view has been criticized for failing to provide sufficient evidence of a distinction between the source text and the document into which it was incorporated.


Stylistic convention

The stylistic convention interpretation claims that the use of the first person plural is a deliberate stylistic device which was common to this type of genre, but which was not intended to indicate a historical eyewitness. Since a number of the "we" passages are associated with ship voyages, some scholars claim that the "we" passages are a literary convention typical of shipboard voyages in travel romance literature of this period. This view has the following problems:

•    Nobody has found such appropriate parallels, or the existence of such a stylistic convention.
•    Acts does not belong to this genre.


Forgery

Apart from the above commonly held views, sceptical New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman claims that the "we" passages are deliberate deceptions, designed to convince readers that the author was a travelling companion of Paul, even though he was not.

According Ehrman, the "we" passages are written by someone falsely claiming to have been a travelling companion of Paul, in order to present the untrue idea that the author had first-hand knowledge of Paul's views and activities, and Acts of the Apostles is thereby shown to be a forgery. Ehrman's view is not widely supported but it does indicate how threatening the "we" passages are to sceptics.


Early Christian Writings

The commentator from the Early Christian Writings website provides this assessment:
This nonchalant and matter-of-fact dovetailing convinces me that the author of Acts was among those who were left behind at Philippi and joined up with Paul to sail from there later. The distinction between Paul and "us" discredits the idea that the first person perspective in these passages is some kind of literary device, which would take the perspective of Paul (for example increasing the drama of Paul's adventure or increasing the connection of Paul to the group), and for which there is no precedent in ancient literature. The alternative is that the author of Acts was making a false affectation to being a companion of Paul. This prompts the question of why the author made this claim in such a subtle way, instead of ensuring that the reader could not miss it by emphasizing the point, as apocryphal writers often did. It also leaves us wondering as to why the false claim to participation is restricted to a few passages, leaving Paul alone for most of the narrative--though this is understandable if the author's participation was in fact sporadic. The most probable conclusion is that Luke had travelled with Paul at times, a fact of which Luke's patron Theophilus was already aware.


Conclusion

It seems fairly certain that Luke accompanied Paul on many of his missionary journeys between about 49 AD and 62 AD. He accompanied Paul to Jerusalem and met James the brother of Jesus. He thus had direct access to direct eyewitnesses of Jesus of Nazareth.

One of the characteristics of the gospel of Luke is his numerous accounts of Jesus' contact with women. It may just be that many of those women were still part of the church at Jerusalem while Luke was there between 57 and 59 AD.



References

Acts of the Apostles and the gospel of Luke

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Authorship_of_Luke%E2%80%93Acts

http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/acts.html


http://users.adam.com.au/bstett/

http://ed5015.tripod.com/