The Narrator as "He," "Me," and "We": Grammatical Person in Ancient Histories and in the Acts of the Apostles

By Campbell, William Sanger | Journal of Biblical Literature, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

The Narrator as "He," "Me," and "We": Grammatical Person in Ancient Histories and in the Acts of the Apostles


Campbell, William Sanger, Journal of Biblical Literature


(ProQuest: ... denotes formulae omitted.)

Despite the relatively modest extent of first person plural narration in the Acts of the Apostles, the so-called "we" passages have influenced the understanding of Acts far beyond what the narrative space they occupy would seem to justify.1 The primary reason for the disproportionate weight given the "we" passages has been the conviction that they offer eyewitness testimony concerning persons, events, and speeches and, therefore, that they provide a window to the circumstances of Paul's mission and to the historical development of the early church. As C. K. Barrett notes, the first person plural in Acts "prima facie suggests that the story is being told by one who was present."2

The shift in grammatical person from third person (the grammatical person employed throughout most of Acts for nondiscourse narration) to first person plural in Acts has presented perennial interpretive problems, however. The narrator does not provide an explanation for the change from third person to first person plural, and the rationale for the shift is not obvious from the narrative context of the passages. In other words, the narrator does not say that at these points he has entered events personally, nor does the story itself suggest that this is the case.3 First person plural narration simply appears at certain points in the book, suddenly and seemingly without reason, and then just as abruptly disappears. The proposals offered to account for the enigmatic application of first person plural in Acts can be grouped into four general categories: (1) the author shifted his writing style to first person plural or added first person plural to a source document to indicate that he was present at certain events (author-as-eyewitness); (2) the author retained first person plural from or added it to a source document because the source was present at those events (source-as-eyewitness); (3) the author occasionally shifted to first person plural style, but neither he nor his sources were there (fictional eyewitness); or (4) the author adopted first person plural where literary considerations demanded it (conventional eyewitness).

The most widely accepted solutions to the intermittent use of first person plural style in Acts have been the first two categories (author-as-eyewitness and sourceas- eyewitness). Both argue that this grammatical practice indicates the presence of a historical eyewitness to the events narrated and focus on who the eyewitness might have been-either the author or the author's source-a view that continues to dominate interpretation of the "we" passages.4 Acts in general and the "we" passages in particular, however, have proven stubbornly resistant to traditional historical-critical investigation, including historical-critical literary analysis (source, form, and redaction criticism). Author-as-eyewitness proposals have been unable to explain adequately gaps in the author's eyewitness testimony caused by his unconventional application of the first person plural or to account for differences between the narrative of Paul's mission in Acts and that which can be constructed from the apostle's letters. In addition, the majority view among Acts commentators is that the author deliberately withheld his identity, and proponents of the author-as-eyewitness theory have been unable to resolve the question raised by anonymous authorship, namely, Why would the author purposely conceal his identity throughout much of Acts (and the Third Gospel) only to reveal his presence during later sections of Acts in such an idiosyncratic and incomprehensible manner as the intermittent employment of first person plural grammatical style? On the other hand, source-as-eyewitness solutions have failed to provide a sustainable rationale for the author's decision to introduce or retain first person plural style in passages that, by this grammatical choice, suggest the presence of the author but in reality are meant to identify someone else at the events narrated. …

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