This review appeared in the Oct-Dec 2013 vol. 170 no. 4 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.Subscribe Today
Acts: An Exegetical Commentary. Volume 1: Introduction and 1:1–2:47Baker Academic, Grand Rapids September 1, 2012
This first of four volumes of Keener’s massive commentary on Acts is certainly impressive. With over one thousand pages on introductory matters and only the first two chapters of the book, it will probably be the most comprehensive commentary on Acts available for some time. A 282-page bibliography of works cited (three columns of small print on each page) and four indexes (select subjects, authors and select names, Scripture, and other ancient sources) are included on a CD-ROM. The full bibliography and indexes will be bound with the final volume.
The 638-page introduction includes information on the approach of the commentary, whose “primary focus is on the social, historical, and rhetorical dimensions of the text” (p. 40), but it also intends to “examine (in view of Acts’ apparent genre) the degree to which Luke’s depiction of events coheres with the real world of the periods he depicts” (pp. 40–41). In eighteen chapters Keener discusses the genre, writing, historiography, and geographic background of texts, as well as topics such as authorship (Luke, a physician and friend of Paul, pp. 402–16), date (early 70s but 80s and 60s are “plausible,” p. 400), recipients (primarily Gentiles in Roman colonies in the Greek world such as Philippi and Corinth, pp. 423–34), Paul, speeches, purpose (an apologetic for the church and to help people understand the mission to the Gentiles, pp. 435–58), structure, theological (and other) emphases, the story of Israel, and women.
Keener discusses several proposed options for the book’s genre: travel narrative (pp. 53–54), biography (pp. 54–62), novel (pp. 62–83), and epic. (pp. 83–87). He concludes that Acts is “apologetic history in the form of a historical monograph and written for a fairly popular audience . . . the implied genre is history” (p. 51; this is defended on pp. 51–89 and then developed on pp. 90–382), but he also sees contributions from other genres (pp. 51, 80–82, 89). This is helpful because the acceptance of one genre need not require that all others be rejected. Keener’s discussion of the novel is good, but he could have drawn more from this. He correctly notes that the plot line of Acts differs significantly from ancient novels.
For Keener, Luke is a reliable ancient historian (pp. 166–220). This involves freedom to construct speeches (p. 219), but “he also preserved their gist when he had this information available” (p. 318).
Keener also includes valuable information about miracles and history (pp. 320–82). He has recently written a major work on this topic (Miracles [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011], 2 vols.). His goal is to show that the recorded healings in Acts were historically plausible (p. 320). He demonstrates that the modern Western assumption that miracles are impossible is not shared by everyone throughout the world (pp. 363–64).
The final chapter in the introduction discusses Luke’s description of women (pp. 597–638). This is an interesting and helpful chapter on women in their ancient contexts and on Luke’s treatment of them. Ultimately Keener suggests that “what is clear is that Luke expects women (such as Anna and Philip’s four daughters) to declare the word of the Lord and regards this as normative” (p. 638).
The exposition of Acts 1–2 is very detailed, covering almost four hundred pages (pp. 641–1038). So much information is given that it may distract some readers from following the book’s argument. Yet the content is valuable, and if one can work through it, the material will illuminate the meaning of the text. Also the detailed table of contents is a useful tool for navigating the volume. Much of Keener’s information is intended to shed light on the historical and cultural context of Acts. He also discusses some contemporary issues (e.g., in commenting on Acts 2:4 he includes significant background information, historical information, and contemporary issues related to speaking in tongues, pp. 804–31). Also Keener develops and emphasizes aspects of Luke’s theology (e.g., on the kingdom in Luke-Acts, pp. 670–71).
Concerning Acts 1:6–7, Keener affirms that the disciples’ question to Jesus about the restoration of the kingdom assumed Old Testament teaching on the restoration of Israel (p. 683). Further he notes that Gentile Christians are “a welcome part of Israel’s restoration; that is, the church is part of eschatological Israel, and the restored remnant of Israel also belongs to the church” (p. 688). The restoration of Israel is future, but the disciples were not to be concerned with timetables; rather, they were to focus on the mission they had been given (p. 687). The “other tongues” (2:4) are probably foreign languages (pp. 821–22), as supported by the context (2:6–12). Tongues are evidence of baptism in the Spirit, but are not expected to occur whenever someone is initially filled with the Holy Spirit (p. 830). Water baptism in 2:38 is an initiatory rite and is associated with “forgiveness of sins” (pp. 975–76). Keener states that for Luke “baptism is not dissociated from repentance but constitutes an act of repentance; under normal circumstance, one does not separate the two” (p. 975).
The volume includes a number of helpful excursuses on topics such as ancient physicians (pp. 416–22), the kingdom of God in early Jewish and Christian teaching (pp. 671–74), the Sabbath (pp. 736–38), astrology (pp. 837–39), “wine and excessive drinking” (pp. 853–59), prophecy (pp. 886–909), dreams and visions (pp. 911–16), “providence, fate, and predestina-tion” (pp. 927–38), and crucifixion (pp. 939–41).
This work deserves to be one’s main commentary on Acts. However, it is so massive that it is not always manageable. Thus its very strength may also be its weakness.
—Joseph D. Fantin