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Jerusalem and the “We” Sections in Acts July 18, 2010

Posted by Lee in "We" Sections, Luke's Writing Style.

I have been reading through the “we” sections in Acts. Here, I offer a theory of why Luke included these sections in the first person. (Inherently, this theory asserts that Luke was writing first-hand, and not working from another’s travel journal.) I am not married to this theory yet, but I plan to examine the texts further in light of it. A very brief synopsis of the surrounding events follows, with my initial thoughts scattered throughout.

I agree with those who suggest that the author of Luke-Acts is Lucius of Cyrene, mentioned in Acts 13.1. (For one representation of this argument, see Richard Fellows’ article.) Luke was therefore from Antioch and a leader of the church there alongside Paul and Barnabas (13.1). There had been some dispute in Antioch regarding Gentile inclusion, evidenced in Paul’s epistle to the Galatians (Gal 2.11ff.). (I will not here take up the issue of whether the events described in Gal 2 represent those of Acts 11 or 15. Suffice it to say, the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15 should be seen as Jerusalem’s final corrective to the dispute [15.1-2, taking place in Antioch].) Thus, Luke was most probably intimately familiar with the inner workings of the dispute in Antioch.

The letter commissioned by Jerusalem was then sent to Antioch with Paul, Barnabas, Silas and Judas (Acts 15.22, 30.). Jerusalem would have been interested in how well their letter had been received. Silas and Judas then returned to Jerusalem to deliver the news, while Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch teaching (15.36). When Paul and Barnabas decided to take their mission abroad again, they had a dispute over who should accompany them. Barnabas wanted to take John Mark while Paul saw Mark as unworthy. Paul eventually chose Silas, and Barnabas took Mark to Cyprus.

I wonder how interested Jerusalem would have been in Paul’s (and others’) faithfulness to the letter’s parameters in his teachings to Gentiles outside of Antioch. They had been familiar with and trusted Barnabas (Acts 9.26-27). But a shadow may have followed Paul due to his past life (cf. 9.26b). The Jerusalem leaders may have then been concerned when Paul parted company with Barnabas. They may also have been alerted by Mark (cf. 13.13) to something in Paul’s ministry which seemed off or questionable. If so, it may further explain why Paul so defiantly objected to taking Mark again (cf. 15.39).

Paul, at least initially, remained faithful to the decisions made by the Jerusalem council when teaching Gentiles (Acts 16.4-5). Then Paul came to Galatia (16.6). We do not know how much, if any, tension in Jew-Gentile relations was present there at that time. But it is hard to imagine that there was none, and that Paul was not vocal about alleviating it. Further, it is hard to imagine that Jerusalem was ignorant of such, were it to have occurred. After leaving Galatia and passing through the adjacent regions, Paul came to Troas. And Luke joins Paul for the first time there, and journeyed to Macedonia with Paul (Acts 16.10).

Why should Luke have decided to join Paul & company at this point? Could it be that Luke saw a need for Paul’s vindication before a curious Jerusalem leadership? Or was Luke himself curious enough to offer a report of Paul’s missionary activities? What exactly do Luke’s “we” sections tell us about Paul’s mission? And how might these passages relate to the Jerusalem?

“We” Section #1

While in Macedonia, Luke relates a story in Philippi about a woman named Lydia, a God-worshiper from Thyatira, who came to accept Paul’s message and baptism. But no mention of the Jerusalem decree was made. Paul also cast out a demon of a slave girl and was thrown into prison, at which point the first “we” section ends.

“We” Section #2

Paul then traveled, apparently without Luke, through Greece ministering to the Gentiles. He wanted to get back to Jerusalem (Acts 19.21), and worked his way back to Macedonia, where he again picked up Luke (20.3, 5). Luke stayed with him until he reached Miletus (20.15). Not much regarding Paul’s missionary activity was related by Luke in this passage, save Paul’s midnight message and fellowship with the church at Troas. In concluding this second “we” section, Luke relates how Paul desired to go to Jerusalem (20.16).

“We” Section #3

Paul then made arrangements for himself to journey back to Jerusalem while his fellow workers remained in Miletus. He met with the elders of the Ephesian church before embarking toward Jerusalem. After this meeting, somehow Luke reunites with Paul here, setting sail from Ephesus(?) and stopping off at Cyprus. But, says Luke, Paul was discouraged by some disciples at Cyprus from making the trip to Jerusalem (21.3-4). Barnabas and Mark had previously gone to Cyprus (15.39). I wonder if perhaps Barnabas had remained there until this time, and been among those discouraging Paul from going to Jerusalem. After eventually arriving in Caesarea (21.8), Agabus came from Judea with a prophecy that Paul would be bound by Jews in Jerusalem (21.10-11). As a result, those listening begged Paul not to make the trip (21.12). Paul was not persuaded and continued on (21.14). And they arrived in Jerusalem (21.15), giving a full account of Paul’s work among the Gentiles (21.19). I wonder if Luke’s first-hand experiences with Paul were then given to the Jerusalem leadership at this point, as evidence of the manner in which Paul ministered among the Gentiles.

It was supposed among the Jews in Jerusalem that Paul taught that Jews should abandon the Law (21.21). Paul underwent a vow demonstrating these accusations to be false (21.23-26), though in the end it was to no avail. Paul was beaten and bound, just as Agabus had prophesied.

“We” Section #4

Paul was held in custody at Caesarea and brought before Felix, Festus and Agrippa (Acts 23.33-26.32). Luke then joined Paul for the trek to Rome, on account of Paul’s appeal to Caesar (25.11; 26.32). We learn from Luke’s first-hand account about this entire trip and Paul’s two-year house arrest while in Rome. Luke leaves the story open-ended at this point.

My Theory

Luke’s first-hand testimonies, offered in these “we” sections, do not appear in the first half of Acts. This is because 1) Paul’s mission had not begun until after his conversion in chapter 9, and 2) the disputes regarding Gentile inclusion had not presented any conflict between Paul and the Jerusalem leadership until after the Jerusalem council. Because of these conflicts, and in light of Paul’s past life and relatively new presence as a missionary to the Gentiles, the Jerusalem leaders (and perhaps Luke himself) had grown concerned about Paul’s behavior. Luke for the most part accompanied Paul during his travels between Troas and Macedonia and around Asia Minor. The only two spans in which Luke did not accompany Paul from the time he began at Troas (16.10) to the time they came to Jerusalem (21.18) were 1) between Paul’s departure from and return to Philippi, at which time he visited Greece, and 2) during Paul’s meeting with the Ephesian elders just before embarking for Jerusalem from Miletus. So, according to the record of Acts, Luke was with Paul for a good portion of his ministry among the Gentiles and thus able to document the bulk of Paul’s travels. When they arrived in Jerusalem, they gave an account “one by one” of Paul’s work among the Gentiles (21.19, though Luke says there that Paul gave his own account).

Most likely Paul was aware of Luke’s travel record. He may even have been aware that the Jerusalem leaders were highly interested in his work abroad, evidenced in their eagerness to hear of his work when he returned (21.17ff.). Luke had vindicated Paul’s mission to the Jerusalem leaders, for they were thrilled to hear of his successes and offered a means by which Paul could vindicate himself (via a vow) to those Jewish believers who had heard about his teachings and thus doubted him. Doubtless, the Jerusalem leaders themselves were skeptical, given the rumors that Paul taught “all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or observe the customs” (21.21). This misunderstanding most probably arose out of Paul’s letters to the Gentile churches, in which he encouraged Gentiles to refrain from taking up the Law as a means to inclusion without explicit references to his intended readership being Gentile. Jewish outrage could be expected had his letter to the Galatians, for example, fallen into the hands of believing Jews outside of Galatia, who were thus unfamiliar with his teachings to and dealings with those in Galatia. Vindication of Paul was indeed needed.

This reading explains why Luke accompanied Paul and wrote his testimony in the first person. The “we” sections, then, are offerings from Luke as vindication of Paul’s missionary efforts to a skeptical Jewish leadership in Jerusalem.



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