"We" Passages in Acts

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Acts, Paul


In several places in Acts, Luke writes in the first person using "we," as in "we" did this or that. If he was right there, why are there so many discrepancies between what he writes in Acts and what Paul writes in his own letters?


First, we need to better understand the "we" passages. They have mystified scholars for ages. They are introduced with no explanation, so the reader is left to interpret the meaning of these statements on his own. Basically, scholars have narrowed it to several choices. It could indicate that Luke was present. He writes in Luke 1:3 that he examined "everything carefully" before writing it down. This could be an example of how he did that. On the other hand, it might mean that he was using a written source from someone else and he was being faithful to their witness. In that case, he would be adhering to what he wrote in Luke 1:2 about those who were "eyewitnesses and servants of the word." Scholars are aware that using such sources was an acceptable practice in antiquity.

Either way, these passages were written by the same person who wrote the rest of the gospel and Acts. So if Luke had been using a different source, he rewrote it in his own words. Others argue that Luke was just following traditional convention in his writings. Typically, in writing about journeys (especially those involving sea voyages), the author would switch to using first person accounts. It would enhance the story's detail and integrity.

Scholars agree that there seems to be no particular reason for using "we" the few times it appears. Rarely does the author intrude into the text. The first instance of "we" occurs when Paul is prevented from continuing into Bithynia. "When he had seen the vision, 'we' immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them." (Acts 16:10) This is a very innocuous passage, hardly the high drama one might expect from "traditional convention."

The best explanation might be the simplest. If Luke really was a companion of Paul's, he might only have accompanied him for part of the second journey and some of the third. He does not want to make a big deal out of his own participation, so he simply records the events and details that happened. The assumption, however, that he was Paul's constant companion is perhaps overstating the situation a bit.

The second question is why do they differ in their accounts of events? The simplest answer is that they were writing at vastly different times. Acts was written after Luke's gospel, possibly 20-30 years after Paul's letters. Moreover, Luke and Paul had very different reasons for writing. Paul's letters were situational and addressed to specific churches. He was addressing issues, not writing history. Luke, on the other hand, was writing an historical account of the early church, complete with an explanation of how God's promises to the Jews ended up in a Gentile church. He needed to make things very harmonious and orderly. In Luke, the opposition is primarily Jewish; in Paul's letters, they are simply called "opponents," a much broader category. In Luke, Paul and the apostles are all working together; that is not always the case according to Paul. Paul frequently talks about gathering a "collection" to take to Jerusalem to be given to the poor; Luke never mentions it. Such discrepancies are hard to harmonize. It would appear on the surface that one is right; the other is wrong. Typically, scholars will defer to Paul's letters, giving them more weight. Still, Acts is a valuable witness to the development and evolution of the early church.

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