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A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

Why so much skepticism? Acts and the "We Passages"

Despite the significant amount of time I have spent studying the New Testament and interacting with online skeptics, I continue to be impressed by the rigidity of skepticism to the idea that Acts was written by a companion of Paul. In verses 16:10-17; 20:5-15; 21:1-18; and 27:1-28:16, Acts transitions from describing events from the third person perspective ("they") to narrating them in the first person ("we"). Obviously, the author claims that he participated in these events. Many scholars and layreaders recognize this and accept it as evidence that Acts was written by someone who spent some time traveling with Paul. So why does the skepticism persist for so many?

First, some have accepted Vernon Robbin's theory that the we passages are a literary device which were used to describe sea voyages whether or not the author really was present. But this notion has been refuted again and again by contemporary scholars. The commentators who still cling to it (such Burton Mack, Robert Price, and Earl Doherty) have not explored the issue in depth. On the other hand, every scholar who has seriously examined Robbin's argument has discovered that Robbins was wrong--there simply was no such literary convention. Moreover, even if such a convention existed, Acts does not follow it because it narrates much sea travel in the third person and significant events on land in the first person. A devastating critique by atheist Peter Kirby is available online here. My own online critique is available here.

Second, it is argued that the theology of Acts is too different from Paul's own letters for it to have been written by one of his companions. This argument is just as unpersuasive. In his book, Acts in Paul, Stanley Porter gives a point-by-point refutation of the notion that the theologies are dramatically different and demonstrates that the speeches attributed to Paul by Acts find much confirmation in Paul's own letters. But on an even more basic level, why should we assume that everyone who worked with Paul shared his full theological focus? Especially in this case, where the proffered companion of Paul was a Christian before he met Paul, worked apart from Paul for probably the majority of Paul's career, and wrote Acts 15-20 years after Paul's death.

Third, some argue that Acts used a travel diary of a companion of Paul and simply retained the first person. Although this may explain the accuracy and vividness of the we passages, it fails for many reasons. The style, grammar, and vocabulary of the we sections are the same as the rest of Acts. And why retain the first person without any explanation as to whose perspective it was? There are no parallels from the ancient world of using sources in this way. Why take a source, retain the first person, but then use it in such a way that your audience does not know that you are using a source? "And, further, what a marvel it would be for such a diary, kept supposedly by one of Paul's travel companions, to have survived for thirty or forty years and then fallen into the hands of the man who had conceived the idea of writing the history of those travels!." Edgar J. Goodspeed, An Introduction to the New Testament, pages 201-02.

Clearly, these counterpoints (and a few others that are even less convincing) are an inadequate justification for the skepticism of companion authorship of Acts. Renowned classical historian Robin L. Fox has chided more reticent scholars for their attempts to "deny the obvious" and concludes "I regard it as certain, therefore, that he knew Paul and followed parts of his journey." The Unauthorized Version, page 210. E.J. Goodspeed is similarly critical of attempts to deny companion authorship:

Surely it is in the highest degree artificial to turn away from the natural interpretation of the We-narratives and regard them with suspicion and distrust as though the writing of Luke-Acts were a crime, the perpetrator of which had taken great pains to cover his tracks and conceal his identity.

Goodspeed, op. cit., page 204.

But if the objections themselves are so unpersuasive, why does this skepticism persist? For online skeptics the answer is obvious. They have to deny the obvious because their bizarre theories of Christian origins cannot allow Acts to be taken seriously as a source of history for early Christianity. As for more sober scholars, I suspect that there exists a reactionary skepticism to church traditions about authorship and a desire to avoid being labeled an apologist. But as with the online skeptics, perhaps many resist the notion because giving too much credence to companion authorship is a barrier to their own creativity. They may not go so far as to claim that Paul really was not a Jew or that Jesus never existed, but they definitely do not want to adopt the party line. If Acts is to be taken seriously as a source of early Christian history, scholars will have much less wiggle room to advance their own, less traditional, theories. Companion authorship is simply too confining. Too narrow. Too limiting. And, perhaps, too . . . traditional.

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