Christian Colligation of Apologetics Debate Research & Evangelism

The "We Passages" of Acts as a Literary Device for Sea Travel?

A Critique of Vernon Robbins

By Christopher Price


One of the most interesting features of Acts is the parts of it that are written in the first-person plural. These are the so called "we passages." On the face of them, the author seems to be claiming to have been a part of the story. In other words, the author of Acts appears to be claiming to have been at times a companion of Paul. This prospect is unsettling to some. Although the use of the third-person plural is not necessarily dispositive of the issue, it is perhaps the propositions strongest evidence. Whether because they are committed to a mythicist position that cannot allow for the possibility that Acts portrays the early church and its faith in a historical Jesus or because they find other features of Acts point to directly to another conclusion, many commentators have searched for other explanations of the we passages.

The "We Passages" And Sea Travel

Perhaps the most popular -- at least among skeptics -- alternative theory has been articulated by V.K. Robbins. Professor Robbins claims that the use of "we" is not a claim to have been a part of the story, but was merely a literary convention common in contemporary Hellenistic literature. More specifically, Robbins claims that it was a common practice of authors of Acts' time to use "we" to describe voyages by sea, even if the author was not a participant in it. In his own words, Robbins claims that "The we passages fit the genre of sea voyage narratives. Such accounts would be expected to contain first person narration, whether or not the author was an actual participant in the voyage

Here are cites to the leading articles advocating this theory:

V. K. Robbins, The We Passages in Acts and Ancient Sea Voyages, BR 20 (1975), pages 5 18; Robbins, By Land and By Sea: A Study in Acts 13 28, SBLSP 15 (1976), pages 381 96; Robbins, By Land and By Sea: The We Passages and Ancient Sea Voyages, in Perspectives on Luke Acts. (ed. C. H. Talbert), pages 215 42. One of Professor Robbins' articles is available online.

Obviously, Robbins is the originator and primary advocate of this theory. And while I am aware that a few others scholars have mentioned Robbins' theory with passing approval or interest, I have yet to find a detailed examination of his views that resulted in a favorable opinion of this theory. To those who have accepted his theory as explaining away the references to first-person plural throughout Acts, they appear to have taken the theory at face value with no critical evaluation. Robert Price appears typical of these. See Review of Luke: A Critical Study, by Friedrich Schleiermacher ("In light of the work of Vernon Robbins, who adequately accounts for the "we" passages in Acts as a convention of ancient sea voyage narratives, may we not recognize and dismiss the tired old "We Source" as another harmonizing device of the same type?"), available online . As is Earl Doherty. The Jesus Puzzle, page 360, fn. 123 ("The puzzle was solved when Vernon Robbins . . . made a splendidly simple observation. All such passages in Acts begin with and mostly encompass sea voyages . . . . Luke is employing a stylistic device of Hellenistic literature."). Neither offers any discussion of Robbins' theory. They simply accept it as true.

For those scholars who have actually taken the time to evaluate the basis of Robbin's theory, there appears to be a unanimous conclusion that it lacks merit. See, e.g. , Stanley Porter, Paul in Acts, pages 12-24; Susan M. Praeder, "The Problem of First Person Narration in Acts." NovT 29, pages 193 218 (1987); Joseph Fitzymer, Luke the Theologian, pages 16 23; John B. Polhill, Acts, page 346; Colin Hemer, The Book of Acts, pages 317 19, Colin Hemer, First Person Narrative in Acts 27 28, TB 36, pages 70 109 (1985); Ben Witherington, The Acts of the Apostles, pages 483 84; C. K. Barrett, "Paul Shipwrecked," in Scripture: Meaning and Method, pages 53-55.

The problems would Robbins' theory can be articled in two points. First, Robbins fails to demonstrate the existence of a literary convention that ancient writers would portray sea voyages in the first person plural. Second, even if such a convention existed, Acts does not fit within it.

Robbins Fails to Demonstrate the Existence of His Purported Literary Convention

Although Robbins purports to review ancient literature and provide examples of his proposed literary convention, none of them are convincing. According to Hemer, "[h]is examples are not necessarily representative, nor are they always taken correctly in context, nor are they subject to control, nor do they prove the conclusions he draws from them." Hemer, op. cit. , page 317. In fact, an examination of Robbin's examples demonstrates that no such theory existed. As Witherington puts it: "It can now be said with a high degree of certainty that there was no convention in antiquity for sea voyages to be recorded in the first person." Witherington, op. cit. , pages 483-84.

I have condensed the problems with Robbin's purported literary convention into five points.

A. Many Purported Examples Lack a Shift in Perspective

Some of the works Robbins points to as "examples" of his convention fail because they are written from the first person perspective throughout. Although sometimes there is a shift from first-person singular to first-person plural, they are irrelevant. Acts is generally a third person work with some first person plural sections.

B. Examples of Third Person Accounts Predominate

Robbins claims that the first-person plural as a literary device for sea-voyages was so dominate at the time Acts was written, that it would have been bizarre for its author not to use that it. "By the first century A.D., a sea voyage recounted in third person narration would be considered out of vogue, especially if a shipwreck or other amazing events were recounted." Robbins, PILA, page 228. However, there are more examples of third person sea voyage accounts from that period than there are first person accounts. Obviously, therefore, Robbins has at least greatly overstated his case.

Professor Praeder provides the following examples:

Agamemnon 392a 578 (Seneca, 4 B.C./A.D. 1 65); Aeneid 1; 5; 10.606 18; Aesopica 30, 68, 78, 207, 391 (Babrius and Phaedrus, first and second centuries A.D.); Annales 2. 23 24 (Tacitus, first second centuries A.D.); Antiquitates Romanae 1.49 53 (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, first century B.C.); Argonautica 2.531 647, 1090 1121; 4.1223 1392 (Apollonius of Rhodes, third century B.C.); Argonautica 1.498 692, 4.637 710 (Valerius Flaccus, first century A.D.); Bellum Civile 5.403 721 (Lucan, A.D. 39 65); Bibliotheca 3.40 (Diodorus Siculus, first century B.C.); Chaereas and Callirhoe 1.11, 3.3 4, 8.2 6 (Chariton, first century A.D.); Convivium Septem Sapientium 160c 162c (Plutarch, first second centuries A.D.); Daphnis and Chloe 2.20 29 (Longus, second century A.D.); De Vita Pythagorica 3.13 17 (Iamblichus, ca. A.D. 250 325); Ephesiaca 1.10 14, 2.11.10 11; Epodes 10 (Horace, 65 8 B.C.); Geographia 2.3.4 5 (Strabo, first century B.C. first century A.D.); Historiae 1.23 24, 8.118 19 (Herodotus, fifth century B.C.); Historiae 1.36.10 37.10 (Polybius, second century B.C.); Homeric Hymns 7,33 (before the Hellenistic period); Indica 18 42 (Arrian); Iphigenia Taurica 1284 1499 (Euripides); Metamorphoses 11.410 748, 15.622 744 (Ovid); Navigium 1 9 (Lucian); Odyssey 2.413 3.12, 5.262 493, 13.1 125, 23.310 43; Posthomerica 14.346 658 (Quintus of Smyrna, fourth century A.D.); Punica 15.149 79, 17.201 91 (Silius Italicus, ca. A.D. 26 101); Satires 12 (Juvenal, first second centuries A.D.); Thebaid 5.335 485 (Statius, ca. A.D. 45 96); [and], Vita Apollonii 3.52 58, 4.11 17, 5.18 (Philostratus, second-third centuries A.D.).

Praeder, op. cit. , page 211 (reproduced from Peter Kirby's article referenced below).

C. Many Examples are Not Hellenistic or Contemporary to Luke

Although Robbins claims to be reviewing "Hellenestic literature" contemporary to Acts, his first examples come not form Hellenist or contemporaneous literature, but from ancient Egyptian tales dating from almost 2000 1200 years before Acts was written. Fitzmyer, op. cit., page 19. Moreover, "aside from the fact that these tales are scarcely part of 'Hellenistic literature,' they are narratives using the first person singular, not the plural." Ibid. Porter also criticizes Robbins for casting such a wide net. "There are major problems in the mix of literature that Robbins cites (Egyptian, Greek, Latin), their temporal range (1800 BC to third century AD) and their variety of literary genre (epic, poetry, prose narrative, oratory, fantasy, autobiography, romance or novel, scientific prose, etc)." Porter, op. cit., page 20.

D. Many Uses of the First Person for Sea Voyages Indicated Actual Presence

Most times the Hellenistic ancient authors used the first person for sea voyages they did so not for stylistic effect, but to assert that the author (or the author's source) was actually present during the voyage.

In fact, the occurrence of the first person plural in such narrative means, in almost very case, that the writer was claiming to be present and that not only on the sea. Just as the 'we' of Acts is not confined to the water so neither is it in, for example, the voyage of Hanno. Of course, any of the authors concerned may be lying . . . . And he may perhaps quote someone else's first person narrative, though I do not find that this happened. There is therefore . . . a fair measure of probability in what may seem an old fashioned, and was to me an unexpected, conclusion, namely that the narrative of Acts 27 was written by one who actually made the voyage.

Barrett, op. cit., page 55.

Hemer explains it this way:

Nothing said here disposes of the fact that voyage narratives are often couched in the 'we form', but this is a natural tendency dictated by the situation. Such accounts are indeed often in the first person, because they recall personal experience, and plural because they recall communal experience. That tendency is as true of colloquial English as of literary Greek (or Latin), but it is no proof of the existence of a literary style appropriate to what was not personal experience.

Hemer, op. cit., page 319.

F. Failed Examples

With each of the above categories in mind, this discussion addresses ten of the examples offered by Robbins to support his theory. These examples appeared to be the most likely candidates supporting the existence of his theory. Yet they fail to do so.

1. The Third Syrian War

Robbins relies on a fragmentary report about the Third Syrian War as an example of such a shift. However, as Praeder and others demonstrate, the shift here is an actual one. The author shifts from discussing events in which he participated to events in which he did not. See Praeder, op. cit., pages 211 12. "In the Syrian War text the shift from third to first person is a sign of authorial participation after the recording of events in which the author didn't participate." Witherington, op. cit., page 483. The first person is used to describe what the author's side of the battle (the Ptolemies) is doing as opposed to what the enemy (Seleucids) is doing. Significantly, the Ptolemies were attacking by sea while the Seleucids were land bound, thus explaining the distinction between first and third persons without any support for Robbins's theory.

Porter agrees, while also noting that the account is mutilated: "the four column text is so fragmentary that one must work from at text missing the first half of every line of the first and third columns (the third is worse than the first), and thus without a continuous sense. It appears that 'we' is used for the Ptolemies, whose spokesman is narrating the account, and 'they' is used for the Seleucids."

Porter, op. cit., page 23.

2. Voyage of Hanno

Robbins use of the Voyage of Hanno as an example is seriously flawed.

As Colin Hemer noted, "the two opening sentences are in the third person, and the remainder of the document in the first plural. But the opening is a formal heading which gives the explorer's commissioning, and it should be printed as a prefatory paragraph, as it is by its editor, and not as part of a continuous undifferentiated narrative, as it is in Robbins' rendering." Hemer, op. cit., page 318. Witherington further explains that "the shift occurs not because of the beginning of the sea voyage report but because the introduction is over." Witherington, op. cit., page 483.

Porter, a scholar who does not accept the "we passages" as evidence of authorial participation, still rejects Robbin's theory. Regarding Robbin's use of the Voyage of Hanno, Porter comments:

Hanno . . . is more straightforward than their presentation of it might lead one to believe. The use of third person at the beginning of the document ... is reflective of the conventions of the scientific preface that Alexander has studied in detail.... The preface, which consists of the declaration by the Carthaginians regarding the sailing task of Hanno, is followed by a description of the voyage that the author undertook, conveyed throughout the rest of the work, as one might expect, in the first person plural . . . . If this were a valid parallel, just as this account in Hanno purports to be the record of an actual voyage by the narrator, are we to take the 'we' passages in Acts as the same kind of record?

Ibid., page 22.

So the Voyage of Hanno fails because 1) it was a first-person account of the entire voyage, and 2) the one time when the third person is used is in the introduction to the story, having nothing to do with whether events were on land or at sea. Indeed, to the extent there are similarities between Hanno and Acts, they suggest that the author of Acts was claiming to have participated in the events he was narrating.

3. Antiochene Acts of Ignatius

While there is shift in the currently surviving text, it is not helpful for Robbins' theory because the surviving text is a composite one and written very late. J.B. Lightfoot, The Apostolic Fathers, Part 2, Vol. 2, pages 477 95. Moreover, the "we" begins in the middle of a sea voyage that has already been undertaken and extends far beyond the sea voyage. Hemer, op. cit., page 318. Thus, it provides no support for Doherty's theory -- which certainly does not anticipate changes in perspective in the middle of the sea-voyage.

4. Story of Sinuhe

This is an example of Robbins offering an example where the first person perspective is used throughout the story, not just in sea voyages. According to Professor Fitzmyer, "Robbins does not tell us that in the Story of Sinuhe almost the entire tale is recounted in the first singular; it is not restricted to sea voyages or lake crossings." Fitzymer, op. cit., page 17.

5. Akkadian Epic of Gilgamesh

"Robbins further cites the Akkadian Epic of Gilgamesh, yet the narrative in the first singular is not confined to the journey to Mount Nisir, but includes the building of the ship, the pouring of a libation on a mountaintop, and the granting to Atrahasis to see a dream." Moreover, the third plural is also used with reference to a boat voyage: 'Gilgamesh and Urshanabi boarded the boat; they launched the boat on the waves [and] they sailed away.'" Ibid., page 20. So this example fails because the first person is used to describe events on land that are not part of any journey.

6. Homer's Odyssey

Fitzmyer explains the failure of this example. "[E]xamples drawn from Homer's Odyssey prove little, since they are not examples of the first person plural introduced into a narrative when a sea voyage is involved. Rather, Odysseus is engaged in telling a story to King Alcinous and the Phaeacians at a banquet about his personal experiences, which happen to include a sea voyage. In modern usage it would all be set in a quotation marks, and this is quite different from use of "we" in Acts. Robbins makes much of the Homeric shift from the first singular to the first plural, 'a formulaic means for launching the ship, sailing for a number of days, and beaching the ship at the end of a voyage.' But he does not tell us that the first plural is also used in the account of the capture of wives and the looting of the city of Cicones (Od. 9.41), or about how the evil doom of Zeus 'attended us ill fated men" (Od. 9.52 53). There is, moreover, a constant shift back and forth between the first singular and the first plural even in the story about recounted in direct discourse about Odysseus' sea voyage. Robbins has simply concentrated on the first plural and has not sufficiently attended to the use of the fist singular." Ibid., page 20.

7. Virgil's Aeneid

"The same has to be said about the passage cited by him from Virgil's Aeneid 3.1 9. It is part of the story being recounted by Aeneas at Dido's banquet, and his story moves back and forth from the first singular to the first plural; and the latter is not restricted to sea voyage accounts." Ibid.

8. Varro's Menippean Satires

There is simply not enough here to support Robbin's theory. As Fitzymer asks, "how much can one really draw from Varro's Menippean Satires (nos. 276, 473), when they are only one or two line epigrams? Those quoted deal, indeed, with boating, but there are other epigrams using the first plural that deal with dining (nos. 102, 103)." Ibid., page 21. So this example is tiny and involves events on land as well as while boating.

9. Dio Chrysostom

Robbins' comment that the seventh discourse recounts a sea voyage that ends in a ship wreck uses the first person is unhelpful because the whole discourse is a personal account. But the very beginning of the discourse begins, "I Shall now relate a personal experience of mine, not merely something I have heard from others (7.1)." Moreover, it appears that the passage referred to by Robbins as being in the first person plural is in fact referring to a land journey. As Fitzmyer notes, "the narration has nothing to do with a sea voyage; it is an overland journey, recounted in the first plural." Ibid., page 21.

10. Achilles Tatius' Clitophon and Leucippe

This is an example where the first person perspective is used throughout the document. Tatius' work is an ancient Greek Romance Novel. The author uses the first person not because of any sea voyages therein, but because most of the story is written from the perspective of one of the main characters, Clitophon; "whose autobiographical account of his amorous misfortunes constitutes the rest of the narrative." Steve Nimis, Memory and Description in the Ancient Novel, at 6.

11. Peter Kirby's Article

Obviously, there can be no literary device if there is no literature showing that one existed. This point is made rammed home by Peter Kirby's outstanding piece reviewing Robbins' theory.

Although we used many of the same sources that evaluated Robbins' argument, his discussion is more exhaustive in that it covers 29 of Robbin's examples. Kirby's conclusion:

There are no known examples of a simply generic first person plural (where the person speaking is not present but rather employing an expected style) in an ancient sea voyage story, and this suggests strongly that an ancient author would not have slipped into the first person plural in response to a supposed demand of a sea travel genre. There is no precedent, and, thus, there is no such literary device.

(Mr. Kirby has notified Professor Robbins of his article, but has not yet received any response).

Even Were There Such a Convention, Acts Does Not Use It

Even if Robbins had succeeded in showing the existence of some sort of literary device for sea-voyages, a review of the use of the first-person plural in Acts demonstrates that Acts would not fall within it. Remember that there were plenty of sea voyages described in the first-person plural because of authorial participation, such as Josephus and the Voyage of Hanno.

A. Much of the "We Passages" Takes Place on Land

A common missperception about proponents of Robbin's theory is that the "we passages" only occur, or mostly occur, during sea voyages. (For example, see Doherty, op. cit., page 360 n. 123: "All such passages in Acts begin with and mostly encompass sea-voyages"). Even a cursory examination of the relevant passages shows that this is not the case. All of the "we passages" include a substantial amount of events that occur on land--before, after, and sometimes between sea voyages. Furthermore, except for Chapter 27, the sea voyages using the first-person plural are not even important plot points or have much significance.

Regarding the first "we passage," I reproduce the full we-passage is it in its entirety with the with the sections on land appearing in bold. 16:10-17

When he had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them. So putting out to sea from Troas, we ran a straight course to Samothrace, and on the day following to Neapolis; from there to Philippi, which is the foremost city of that part of Macedonia, a colony. And we were staying in that city for some days. And on the Sabbath day we went out of the city to the riverside, where prayer was customarily made; and we sat down and spoke to the women who met there. Now a certain woman named Lydia heard us. She was a seller of purple from the city of Thyatira, who worshiped God. The Lord opened her heart to heed the things spoken by Paul. And when she and her household were baptized, she begged us, saying, If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay. And she constrained us. Now it happened, as we went to prayer, that a certain slave girl possessed with a spirit of divination met us, who brought her masters much profit by fortune telling. This girl following Paul and us, and cried out, saying, 'These men are the servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to us the day of salvation.'

Obviously, most of the text of this "we" section is devoted exclusively to events that occurred on land, unrelated to any sea-voyage.

The other "we passages" similarly discuss many events taking place on land.

In 20:5-15/21:1-18, Acts notes that "we stayed seven days" in Troas, and discusses much of Paul's ministry during that time. (20:6-12) Acts goes on to discuss in detail to discuss in detail their stay in Caesarea, (21:8-15) as well as telling how in Jerusalem "Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present." (21:17)

But these had gone on ahead and were waiting for us at Troas. We sailed from Philippi after the days of Unleavened Bread, and came to them at Troas within five days; and there we stayed seven days. On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul began talking to them, intending to leave the next day, and he prolonged his message until midnight. There were many lamps in the upper room where we were gathered together. And there was a young man named Eutychus sitting on the window sill, sinking into a deep sleep; and as Paul kept on talking, he was overcome by sleep and fell down from the third floor and was picked up dead. But Paul went down and fell upon him, and after embracing him, he said, "Do not be troubled, for his life is in him." When he had gone back up and had broken the bread and eaten, he talked with them a long while until daybreak, and then left. They took away the boy alive, and were greatly comforted. But we, going ahead to the ship, set sail for Assos, intending from there to take Paul on board; for so he had arranged it, intending himself to go by land. And when he met us at Assos, we took him on board and came to Mitylene. Sailing from there, we arrived the following day opposite Chios; and the next day we crossed over to Samos; and the day following we came to Miletus....

When we had parted from them and had set sail, we ran a straight course to Cos and the next day to Rhodes and from there to Patara; and having found a ship crossing over to Phoenicia, we went aboard and set sail. When we came in sight of Cyprus, leaving it on the left, we kept sailing to Syria and landed at Tyre; for there the ship was to unload its cargo. After looking up the disciples, we stayed there seven days; and they kept telling Paul through the Spirit not to set foot in Jerusalem. When our days there were ended, we left and started on our journey, while they all, with wives and children, escorted us until we were out of the city. After kneeling down on the beach and praying, we said farewell to one another. Then we went on board the ship, and they returned home again. When we had finished the voyage from Tyre, we arrived at Ptolemais, and after greeting the brethren, we stayed with them for a day. On the next day we left and came to Caesarea, and entering the house of Philip the evangelist, who was one of the seven, we stayed with him. Now this man had four virgin daughters who were prophetesses. As we were staying there for some days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. And coming to us, he took Paul's belt and bound his own feet and hands, and said, "This is what the Holy Spirit says: 'In this way the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.'" When we had heard this, we as well as the local residents began begging him not to go up to Jerusalem. Then Paul answered, "What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be bound, but even to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus." And since he would not be persuaded, we fell silent, remarking, "The will of the Lord be done!" After these days we got ready and started on our way up to Jerusalem. Some of the disciples from Caesarea also came with us, taking us to Mnason of Cyprus, a disciple of long standing with whom we were to lodge. After we arrived in Jerusalem, the brethren received us gladly. And the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present.

In 27:1-28:16, Acts spends all of chapter 27 on the famous "ship-wreck", but spends most of the rest of the passage in chapter 28 discussing events on Land--Paul's ministry in Malta (28:1-10).

The idea that the "we-passages" are used mainly to record or describe sea-voyages is erroneous. A substantial amount of the "we-passages" are devoted to events on land that are unrelated to sea-travel.

B. Most Sea Voyages in Acts Do Not Use the First Person Plural

Although there are at least ten sea voyages (and two voyages by ship in the Gospel of Luke), we first-person "we" only occurs in three of them. The first-person plural is not used for the following sea voyages in Acts:

13:4-5 (sea voyage from Antioch to Cyprus)

13:13 (sea voyage from Paphos to Perga)

14:20-28 (sea voyage from Attalia to Antioch)

14:38-40 (sea voyage from Antioch to Cyprus)

17:14 (sea voyage from Thessalonica to Athens)

18:18-23 (sea voyages from Syria to Ephesus, from Ephesus to Ceasarea)

20:1-2 (sea voyage to Macedonia)

Clearly, Robbin's theory would have to explain why Acts uses the purported literary devices in such an arbitrary manner.

C. My Discussion with Robbins on Cross-Talk

I had the good fortunate to debate Robbin's theory with Professor Robins himself on Cross-Talk. Many others participated in the discussion. You should be able to follow the discussions by reading my two opening posts, available here and here.

Brian Trafford, another CADRE member, made some valuable contributions to the discussion, here.

In response to the argument that the "we passages" involved substantial travel on land and many sea-travels were recorded only in the third person, Robbins attempted to offer criteria explaining why some voyages used "we" and others did not. Below I discuss these points and provide a response.

1) One participant argued that the length of the trip seemed to be a factor. Thus those sea-voyages that were shorter would not necessarily use the first-person plural. But this cannot be true because some of the third-person sea voyages are longer than some of the first-person sea voyages. The trip in Acts 16 (Troas to Macedonia by way of Samothrace) uses the first-person plural but does not seem to be any longer than the one in Acts 13 (Seleucia to Salamis, Paphos to Perga) which does not. And while Berea to Athens does seem to be a coast hugger type journey, Cenchrea to Ephesus or Ephesus to Caesarea (chapt. 18) are recounted in the third person but are longer than some of the we-passages trips. Finally, the first-person plural is used from Assos to Mitlyene (Acts 20:13), which is a very short trip--much shorter than many of the third-person plural trips.

2) Robbins suggested that the use of signs and portents along the journey was a factor. ("Gods are portrayed as determining the fate of the voyage. Visits of the gods, and signs and portents, frequently attend the voyage."). But even if this were true of the literary device it cannot explain the usage in Acts because the trip in Acts 13, recounted in the third person, involves God's commissioning the voyage and a subsequent clash of magic versus miracle that results in conversion of a high ranking official:

Now there were at Antioch, in the church that was there, prophets and teachers: Barnabas, and Simeon who was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. While they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, "Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them." Then, when they had fasted and prayed and laid their hands on them, they sent them away. So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia and from there they sailed to Cyprus. When they reached Salamis, they began to proclaim the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews; and they also had John as their helper. When they had gone through the whole island as far as Paphos, they found a magician, a Jewish false prophet whose name was Bar-Jesus, who was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, a man of intelligence. This man summoned Barnabas and Saul and sought to hear the word of God. But Elymas the magician (for so his name is translated) was opposing them, seeking to turn the proconsul away from the faith. But Saul, who was also known as Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, fixed his gaze on him, and said, "You who are full of all deceit and fraud, you son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, will you not cease to make crooked the straight ways of the Lord? "Now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon you, and you will be blind and not see the sun for a time." And immediately a mist and a darkness fell upon him, and he went about seeking those who would lead him by the hand. Then the proconsul believed when he saw what had happened, being amazed at the teaching of the Lord.

Act 13:1-12.

This passage seems an ideal candidate for Doherty's literary device and it seems inexplicable that the author of Acts would not use it here--if such a device existed and he meant to use it. In fact, this passage contains arguably the most exciting sea voyage of Acts--barring Chapter 27.

3) Then Robbins attempted to distinguish between the use of third-person plural for direct trips "from one harbor to another specific harbor for the purpose of an extended inland mission" and the first-person plural for "a series of harbor to harbor stops toward a particular destination that lies inland." This attempt too failed.

Acts 13 again fits the bill but is narrated in the third person. It involves a series of harbor stops toward a particular destination inland rather than one harbor to harbor trip. It is a sea voyage to a harbor (Paphos v. 6) on an Island with another voyage to another harbor. (Perga v. 13). Thereafter, they specifically move inland to minister. Similarly, in 17:10 18:18, the sea trips from Bera to Ephesus (at least, because the trip goes on to Caesarea), involves stops at different harbors on its way toward a particular destination. On the flip side, Acts 16 -- a first-person plural passage -- would seem to better fit the former category of a direct trip. From Troas (v. 11) to Macedonia (v. 12) with a significant inland ministry (v. 16:13 17:13).

4) Robbins also argued that only trips to places Paul had not already been to could be recounted in the first-person plural. This seems to be clearly wrong. Paul's trips from Philippi to Troas (20:6) and from Assos on eventually to Caeasrea (v. 20:13 21:8) use the first-person plural yet are to places Paul has already been.

In sum, none of the offered "criteria" proved able to explain the random way in which the "we-passages" are used in Acts. Nor does it appear that they are fairly gleaned from Robbin's review of ancient literature. They appear more to be ad hoc criteria meant to explain the evidence of Acts rather than understand it. As Fitzymer points out, the use of the "we-passage" in some sea-voyages but the failure to use them in other passages which would be "candidates" for such a literary device defeats any claim that a literary convention is at work here. "The first person appears and disappears in an almost arbitrary manner, inexplicable except by whim or access to an eye-witness sources." Fitzymer, op. cit., page 26 (Fitzymer concludes it's the author's own).


Critical scholarship's conclusion that Robbins has failed to demonstrate that Acts' "we passages" are the product of a common Hellenistic literary device for portraying sea voyages is borne out. The examples offered by Robbins fail to support his theory. In fact, many of them--such as the Voyage of Hanno--actually reiterate that the use of the first-person plural in a narrative was intended to communicate authorial participation. Moreover, although there is no evidence that such a literary device existed, even if it did Luke never employed it. Luke is just as likely to use the first-person plural to describe events on land and the third-person perspective to narrate a sea voyages. None of Robbin's proffered criteria could explain this seeming arbitrary use of the first-person plural.



Barrett, C. K. "Paul Shipwrecked," in Scripture: Meaning and Method ed. B. P. Thompson, Hull University Press, 1987, pages 51 64.

Doherty, Earl The Jesus Puzzle Canadian Humanist Publications, 1999.

Fitzymer, Joseph Luke the Theologian: Aspects of his Teaching Paulist Press, 1989.

Hemer, Colin Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History Coronet Books, 1989.

Hemer, Colin First Person Narrative in Acts 27 28, TB 36, pages 70 109 (1985)

Kirby, Peter, First Person Perspective in Ancient Sea Travel, available at (accessed on 12/15/03).

Lightfoot, J.B. The Apostolic Fathers, Baker Book House, 1981.

Nimis, Steve, Memory and Description in the Ancient Novel, at 6, available online at (accessed on 12/15/03).

Polhill, John B. Acts (The New American Commentary) Baptist Book Stores, 1992.

Porter, Stanley, Paul in Acts Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2001.

Praeder, Susan M., "The Problem of First Person Narration in Acts." NovT 29, pages 193 218 (1987).

Price, Robert, Review of Luke: A Critical Study, by Friedrich Schleiermacher, JHC 1/1 (Fall, 1994), 148 156, available online at (accessed 12/15/03).

Robbins, V. K. The We Passages in Acts and Ancient Sea Voyages, BR 20 (1975), pages 5 18.

Robbins, V.K., By Land and By Sea: A Study in Acts 13 28, SBLSP 15 (1976), pages 381 96.

Robbins, V.K., By Land and By Sea: The We Passages and Ancient Sea Voyages, in Perspectives on Luke Acts. , pages 215 42, ed. C. H. Talbert; Mercer University Press and Edinburgh: T.& T. Clark, 1978.

Witherington, Ben The Acts of the Apostles Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997

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