Luke’s Eye-witness Accounts in Acts
Christianity is a historic faith in this sense. Its validity is dependent on the truthfulness of actual historic events. Christians claim that God is there and He has spoken. He has intervened in human history. But how can we know that this is all true? The writer of Hebrews commences his book by saying, “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.” How do we know? Well witnesses recorded what they saw and heard and their testimony to these events is primarily recorded in the pages of the Bible. In this article we are going to look at this through the eyes of a single person whom we know as Luke.
2 The Nature of the New Testament
Before I start on the main topic I will firstly summarize the nature of the New Testament (New Testament). The New Testament did not emerge suddenly out of heaven, nor was it contrived by a committee. The New Testament is a collection of 27 separate documents written by supposedly the following 9 authors:
- The writer of Hebrews
All of the authors were Jewish, except for Luke who was probably a highly educated, Greek God Fearer who attended synagogue prior to his Christian conversion.
The New Testament documents were written at different times mostly in the latter half of the first century, from different places and to different readers. They were originally written on papyrus scrolls, which limited their maximum size.
It is debatable whether the authors were conscious that they were writing sacred scripture. They may have simply been writing to meet local needs at that time. However, the readers perceived their value, copied and distributed them to other churches and also formed them into collections for reading within local congregations and for personal use. For instance, Paul wrote 13 letters to various churches. It is likely that they were formed into a collection near the end of the 1st century and then widely distributed to churches.
Scrolls were expensive and laborious to produce. Thus it would have taken a significant number of years for them to be widely distributed within the Roman Empire and to gain acceptance by the churches.
The New Testament documents are both independent and interdependent. Paul’s letters are very early and he probably had no access to any of the 4 gospels. On the other hand, both Matthew and Luke seemed to have borrowed from the Gospel of Mark, but they also had access to their own independent material. The gospel of John seems to be completely independent of the other 3 gospels.
There were other documents around. Some of these were orthodox but written later and did not offer anything new. Others were forgeries from heretical groups. The churches had to decide and agree on which ones were authoritative. There were various canons (approved lists) constructed over the years in which there was substantial consensus, but the final canon was eventually agreed by church councils in the latter part of the 4th century (Council of Rome 382, Synod of Hippo Regius 393, Council of Carthage 397).
3 Introduction to Luke
The 2 documents that I will discuss are the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. Acts is a sequel to Luke and it is certain that they were written by the same author. The early church fathers identified the author as Luke, which will be assumed in the rest of this presentation. This is difficult to prove with certainty, but it is not highly contested, nor does it greatly matter. Luke is a minor figure who is only mentioned briefly 3 times by Paul in his letters. We know most about Luke from what he wrote. Luke is a highly polished Greek writer. His Greek is better than the rest of the New Testament. He is adept at changing his style between formal and colloquial Greek to suit the context. It seems as though Greek was his first language, unlike the other Jewish, New Testament authors.
The key focus of this presentation is on the “we” passages in the Acts of the Apostles. In Acts there are distinct passages where the author writes in first person plural, using pronouns such as “we”, “our” and “us”. If these really indicate when Luke was with Paul, then this has strong implications on the dating and reliability of the Acts of the Apostles and Luke’s gospel.
The use of “we” is done in a very natural and nonchalant manner. It is very easy to miss. I did not notice it myself for a number of years until it was brought to my attention. I also know of a fellowship group who studied Acts for a whole year and did not notice this critical feature at all. However, it is a well-recognized, distinctive feature amongst Biblical scholars.
For the 1st half of the Acts of the Apostles, Luke describes the activities of the protagonists using the third person (e.g. “he” or “they”). However in chapter 16 he makes a sudden switch and starts using the 1st person plural using such pronouns as “we, our and us”. The obvious conclusion to draw is that Luke had joined Paul during these phases of his missionary journeys. This is not a constant feature. Luke swaps between 1st person and 3rd person at distinct points. This allows us to track segments in Paul’s travels where it seems reasonable to infer that Paul was accompanied by Luke.
4 We Passages
The “we” sections are summarized in the following table, but we will consider each section in more detail.
|Sections in Acts
|16:10 to 16:18
|Troas to Philippi
|20:4 to 21:19
|Philippi to Jerusalem
|27:1 to 28:30
|Caesarea to Rome
5 Troas to Philippi
The 1st “we” passage occurs in Acts 16:6-10. Note the sudden transition
6 Paul and his companions travelled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. 7 When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. 8 So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. 9 During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10 After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.
This transition occurred at Alexandrian Troas, which was an ancient Greek city on the north eastern tip of Turkey.
From Troas the company sailed to Samothrace, Neapolis and then travelled to Philippi, a Roman colony and the leading city of that district of Macedonia (Acts 16:11-12).
In Philippi, Paul cast an evil spirit out of a fortune-telling slave girl, taking away her gift. The owner complained to the authorities and so Paul and Silas were imprisoned. After Paul was released, he told the magistrate of his Roman citizenship and so the magistrate politely asked him to leave the city. At this point the “we” passages stop for a significant time. Luke seems to have been left behind in Philippi.
6 Four Year Interlude
Paul & Silas then travel to Thessalonica, Berea, Athens and then to Corinth. Paul then stayed in Corinth for 18 months (Acts 18:10). This sojourn can be accurately dated from the end of 49 AD to mid-51 AD. While he was in Corinth, he wrote two of his letters, 1&2 Thessalonians.
Paul then travelled to Syrian Antioch via Cenchrea, Ephesus (in Turkey), Caesarea (Palestine) and Jerusalem. His subsequent travels are illustrated in the following diagram:
He then visited various places in Galatia and Phrygia (Turkey) and then returned to Ephesus again, where he stayed for just over 2 years.
Paul then travelled to Macedonia and then Achaia (Greece), where he stayed for 3 months. He then returned to Philippi in Macedonia.
7 Luke Travels to Jerusalem
When he sailed from Philippi to Troas, the “we” passages resume. The interlude has been over 4 years. Note that Philippi was the drop off point for Luke and Luke rejoined Paul from the same location.
After staying in Troas for 7 days (Point 9 above) Luke then sailed to Assos but Paul went by foot. Paul was then taken on board at Assos. They then sailed to Caesarea via Mitylene, Kios, Miletus, Cos, Rhodes, Patara, Tyre and Ptolemais.
[Some commentators split out 20: 17 to 20:38 as not being as we passage when Paul sends a message to the Ephesian elders to meet him in Miletus. However, Luke’s presence is assumed as 21:1 commences with “After we had torn ourselves away from them”.]
From Caesarea, they travelled overland and arrived at Jerusalem (Acts 21:17), probably in 57 AD.
Luke then provides us with some very important information:
“When we arrived at Jerusalem, the brothers received us warmly. The next day Paul and the rest of us went to see James [Jesus’ brother], and all the elders were present.” (Acts 21: 17,18)
From this reference it is reasonable to infer that Luke was introduced to James, Jesus’ brother, as well as to the church in Jerusalem. This would have included other eye-witnesses to Jesus’ life and ministry.
8 Paul at Caesarea
Paul then participated in a purification rite at the temple to show that he still adhered to the Jewish law. However, he was recognised by some Jews from the province of Asia and they started a riot. To cut a long story short, Paul was arrested and taken to Caesarea, having been in Jerusalem for only 12 days. Paul was then imprisoned at Caesarea for 2 years. When Paul was taken to Caesarea, the “we” passages stop. So, where was Luke while Paul was at Caesarea? It seems reasonable to suppose that he stayed with the church in Jerusalem.
Paul initially appeared before Felix but Felix left him in jail for 2 years until he was replaced by Porcius Festus in 59 AD. Paul was then interviewed by Festus and Herod Agrippa II. Even though Paul is assessed as innocent he is sent to Rome because of his appeal to Caesar.
9 Journey to Rome
As soon as Paul is released from prison and sent to Rome under Roman custody, the “we” passages recommence and it is “we, we, we, all the way to Rome.”
10 The Sea Voyage from Caesarea to Malta
Acts chapter 27 describes the sea voyage from Caesarea to Malta. It is quoted below and I encourage you to read it carefully. Note all the vivid details regarding the places visited and details regarding operation of the ship during the storm. Judge for yourself whether you think that Luke was actually there.
27 When it was decided that we would sail for Italy, Paul and some other prisoners were handed over to a centurion named Julius, who belonged to the Imperial Regiment. 2 We boarded a ship from Adramyttium about to sail for ports along the coast of the province of Asia, and we put out to sea. Aristarchus, a Macedonian from Thessalonica, was with us.
3 The next day we landed at Sidon; and Julius, in kindness to Paul, allowed him to go to his friends so they might provide for his needs. 4 From there we put out to sea again and passed to the lee of Cyprus because the winds were against us. 5 When we had sailed across the open sea off the coast of Cilicia and Pamphylia, we landed at Myra in Lycia. 6 There the centurion found an Alexandrian ship sailing for Italy and put us on board. 7 We made slow headway for many days and had difficulty arriving off Cnidus. When the wind did not allow us to hold our course, we sailed to the lee of Crete, opposite Salmone. 8 We moved along the coast with difficulty and came to a place called Fair Havens, near the town of Lasea.
9 Much time had been lost, and sailing had already become dangerous because by now it was after the Fast. So Paul warned them, 10 “Men, I can see that our voyage is going to be disastrous and bring great loss to ship and cargo, and to our own lives also.” 11 But the centurion, instead of listening to what Paul said, followed the advice of the pilot and of the owner of the ship. 12 Since the harbor was unsuitable to winter in, the majority decided that we should sail on, hoping to reach Phoenix and winter there. This was a harbor in Crete, facing both southwest and northwest.
13 When a gentle south wind began to blow, they thought they had obtained what they wanted; so they weighed anchor and sailed along the shore of Crete. 14 Before very long, a wind of hurricane force, called the “northeaster,” swept down from the island. 15 The ship was caught by the storm and could not head into the wind; so we gave way to it and were driven along. 16 As we passed to the lee of a small island called Cauda, we were hardly able to make the lifeboat secure. 17 When the men had hoisted it aboard, they passed ropes under the ship itself to hold it together. Fearing that they would run aground on the sandbars of Syrtis, they lowered the sea anchor and let the ship be driven along. 18 We took such a violent battering from the storm that the next day they began to throw the cargo overboard. 19 On the third day, they threw the ship’s tackle overboard with their own hands. 20 When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days and the storm continued raging, we finally gave up all hope of being saved.
21 After the men had gone a long time without food, Paul stood up before them and said: “Men, you should have taken my advice not to sail from Crete; then you would have spared yourselves this damage and loss. 22 But now I urge you to keep up your courage, because not one of you will be lost; only the ship will be destroyed. 23 Last night an angel of the God whose I am and whom I serve stood beside me 24 and said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul. You must stand trial before Caesar; and God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you.’ 25 So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will happen just as he told me. 26 Nevertheless, we must run aground on some island.”
27 On the fourteenth night we were still being driven across the Adriatic Sea, when about midnight the sailors sensed they were approaching land. 28 They took soundings and found that the water was a hundred and twenty feet deep. A short time later they took soundings again and found it was ninety feet deep. 29 Fearing that we would be dashed against the rocks, they dropped four anchors from the stern and prayed for daylight. 30 In an attempt to escape from the ship, the sailors let the lifeboat down into the sea, pretending they were going to lower some anchors from the bow. 31 Then Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, “Unless these men stay with the ship, you cannot be saved.” 32 So the soldiers cut the ropes that held the lifeboat and let it fall away.
33 Just before dawn Paul urged them all to eat. “For the last fourteen days,” he said, “you have been in constant suspense and have gone without food — you haven’t eaten anything. 34 Now I urge you to take some food. You need it to survive. Not one of you will lose a single hair from his head.” 35 After he said this, he took some bread and gave thanks to God in front of them all. Then he broke it and began to eat. 36 They were all encouraged and ate some food themselves. 37 Altogether there were 276 of us on board. 38 When they had eaten as much as they wanted, they lightened the ship by throwing the grain into the sea.
39 When daylight came, they did not recognize the land, but they saw a bay with a sandy beach, where they decided to run the ship aground if they could. 40 Cutting loose the anchors, they left them in the sea and at the same time untied the ropes that held the rudders. Then they hoisted the foresail to the wind and made for the beach. 41 But the ship struck a sandbar and ran aground. The bow stuck fast and would not move, and the stern was broken to pieces by the pounding of the surf.
42 The soldiers planned to kill the prisoners to prevent any of them from swimming away and escaping. 43 But the centurion wanted to spare Paul’s life and kept them from carrying out their plan. He ordered those who could swim to jump overboard first and get to land. 44 The rest were to get there on planks or on pieces of the ship. In this way everyone reached land in safety.
Do you think that this account is from an eyewitness?
11 Dating of Acts and the Gospel of Luke
Acts 28 describes the subsequent trip to Rome where Paul is placed under house arrest and the book of Acts finishes with the following statement:
30 For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. 31 Boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul would have arrived in Rome in AD 60 and Luke mentions that he was under house arrest in Rome for 2 years. That is where Luke’s writings end, but what followed was tumultuous.
- Paul was due to appear before the emperor Nero, but what was the outcome of Paul’s trial? We are not told.
- The Neronian persecutions commenced in 64 AD.
- Paul, James and Peter were all executed in the Mid-60s. Acts records the martyrdoms of Stephen and James the son of Zebedee. Why not these latter ones?
- The Jewish wars commenced in 66 AD and
- The Jewish temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD.
Why did Luke not mention these things? The obvious explanation is that Luke completed the book of Acts shortly after Paul’s house arrest and he probably wrote it during that time. It is quite possible that Luke was also a victim of the Neronian persecutions.
12 Is Luke Reliable?
Now that we have looked at the book of acts, what are the implications on the gospel of Luke?
The gospel of Luke was written prior to Acts in which Luke commences with the following words (Luke 1:1-4)
1 Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. 3 Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.
Luke makes 5 key claims within this prologue:
- He consulted prior writings
- He spoke to eyewitnesses
- He conducted a careful investigation
- He wrote an orderly account
- So that the reader may have certainty regarding what actually happened.
When did he do most of this investigation? It was probably during his 2 year stay in Jerusalem while Paul was imprisoned at Caesarea. During this time we know that he at least met James, the brother of Jesus, who could have provided him with the family background information on Jesus that is provided in the first 2 chapters.
Although there currently exists no scholarly consensus on the “we” passages, three interpretations in particular have become dominant:
- the writer was a genuine historical eyewitness,
- the writer was a redactor, or
- It was a stylistic convention.
These theories are discussed below:
13.1 Historical eyewitness
The historical eyewitness interpretation states that the “we” passages indicate that the writer was a historical eyewitness. This remains the most influential opinion within current biblical studies. Objections to this viewpoint mainly take the form of the following two interpretations, but also include the claim that Luke-Acts contains differences in theology and historical narrative which are irreconcilable with the authentic letters of Paul the apostle.
The redactor interpretation claims that the “we” passages are an earlier written or oral source incorporated into Acts by a later redactor. This view still acknowledges the apparent historicity of these texts and that they were eyewitness accounts but it views the “we passages” as being distinct from the main work. However, this view has been criticized for failing to provide sufficient evidence of a distinction between the source text and the document into which it was incorporated.
13.3 Stylistic convention
The stylistic convention interpretation claims that the use of the first person plural is a deliberate stylistic device that was common to this type of genre, but which was not intended to indicate a historical eyewitness. Since a number of the “we” passages are associated with ship voyages, some scholars claim that the “we” passages are a literary convention typical of shipboard voyages in travel romance literature of this period. This view has the following problems:
- Nobody has found such appropriate parallels or the existence of such a stylistic convention, and
- Acts does not belong to this genre.
Apart from the above commonly held views, sceptical New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman claims that the “we” passages are deliberate deceptions, designed to convince readers that the author was a travelling companion of Paul, even though he was not.
According Ehrman, the “we” passages are written by someone falsely claiming to have been a travelling companion of Paul, in order to present the untrue idea that the author had first-hand knowledge of Paul’s views and activities, and Acts of the Apostles is thereby shown to be a forgery. Ehrman’s view is not widely supported but it does indicate how threatening the “we” passages are to sceptics.
13.5 Early Christian Writings
By far the most predominant view is that Luke was an actual eye witness who accompanied Paul on some of his missionary journeys.
Early Christian Writings is a predominantly sceptical website. Even so, the commentator from the Early Christian Writings website (http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/luke.html) provides this assessment.
This nonchalant and matter-of-fact dovetailing convinces me that the author of Acts was among those who were left behind at Philippi and joined up with Paul to sail from there later. The distinction between Paul and “us” discredits the idea that the first person perspective in these passages is some kind of literary device, which would take the perspective of Paul (for example increasing the drama of Paul’s adventure or increasing the connection of Paul to the group), and for which there is no precedent in ancient literature. The alternative is that the author of Acts was making a false affectation to being a companion of Paul. This prompts the question of why the author made this claim in such a subtle way, instead of ensuring that the reader could not miss it by emphasizing the point, as apocryphal writers often did. It also leaves us wondering as to why the false claim to participation is restricted to a few passages, leaving Paul alone for most of the narrative–though this is understandable if the author’s participation was in fact sporadic. The most probable conclusion is that Luke had travelled with Paul at times, a fact of which Luke’s patron Theophilus was already aware.
It seems fairly certain that Luke accompanied Paul on many of his missionary journeys between about 49 AD and 62 AD. He accompanied Paul to Jerusalem and met James the brother of Jesus. He thus had direct access to eyewitnesses and family members of Jesus of Nazareth.
One of the characteristics of the gospel of Luke is his numerous accounts of Jesus’ contact with women. It may just be that many of those women were still part of the church at Jerusalem while Luke was there between 57 and 59 AD. Mary the mother of Jesus was at least an initial member of this church. The she may have still been there during Luke’s visit. If not, there would have been others who could have recalled Mary’s testimony.
Our last word from Luke is at the end of Acts while Paul is under house arrest. However, it is not the last word about Luke. Paul’s 2nd letter to Timothy was Paul’s last letter. It was written after his first defence, which seems to have gone poorly. He is no longer under house arrest. He is now bound with chains in a Roman prison and he states that “the time has come for my departure”. The Neronian persecution is about to begin. Many of Paul’s friends had either deserted him or had left Rome for other cities, except one. In 4:11 Paul states, “Only Luke is with me”. At that time it was very dangerous to be associated with Paul. The next personal information about Luke comes about 100 years later from Irenaeus in “Against Heresies” where he records “Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the gospel preached by him [meaning Paul].”
Luke does not identify himself in his writings. He only intrudes his personality in a subtle and nonchalant way. However, if you have eyes to see, then you can feel his personality. I am sure that Luke would agree with John when he said, “We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you may also have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete.” (1 John 1:3)
When I studied this feature it really gave me a fresh insight into Luke’s writings and I really could feel the man. It is clearly there for all to see. I encourage you to reread Luke’s writings and identify these features for yourself.
Most of this material is derived directly from the Acts of the Apostles and the gospel of Luke. However, the following websites are also helpful: