Acts: An Exegetical Commentary, Volume 1 | Book Review

In the Prolegomenon to his four-volume commentary on Acts, Craig S. Keener writes, “The primary focus [of this commentary] is what the text meant to its first audience. Its primary contributions lie in often providing further documentation for, and sometimes further elaboration of, the social and historical framework in which Acts was first written, read, and heard” (4). Keener’s focus on “social-historical inquiry” (16) is not to meant to denigrate other approaches to the text (e.g., literary, sociological, reception-historical). Nor is it meant to bypass concerns typically addressed in commentaries (e.g., text-critical, lexical, semantic). Indeed, Keener takes up such approaches and concerns as they bear on his primary focus throughout the four volumes.

Commentators typically divide their work into two parts: introductory matters and the commentary proper. Keener assigns 60% (638 pages) of volume 1 to introductory matters such as Acts’ genre, date, author, audience, purpose, theological emphases, literary structure and unity with the Gospel of Luke, geography, and perspective on gender and women. The remaining 40% (400 pages) offer commentary on Acts 1–2, as well as 13 excurses on topics related to the verses under discussion, such as the excursus on Lukan, Greco-Roman, and Jewish views of material possessions attached to the commentary on 2:44–45 (1023–1026). The primary value of volume 1, then, lies in its discussion of introductory matters, which shape Keener’s treatment of Acts in the remaining three volumes of the commentary.

Because Keener’s focus is on what Acts meant to its first audience, he devotes considerable space (chapters 2–9) to discussing the literary genre of the book. Along with the majority of commentators, Keener considers the book “a work of ancient historiography” (91). More specifically, it is a an “apologetic history in the form of a historical monograph” (115).

In chapter 2, Keener considers and rejects five alternative genres: travel narrative, biography, novel, epic, and acts, the latter being understood as “a narrative account of the heroic deeds of famous historical or mythological figures” (88). Though the latter is the title of Acts itself, Keener considers the title a “misnomer” (ibid).

In chapters 4–5, he argues that ancient historiography combined a concern for accurate information with literary skill in the service of a larger agenda. “In Acts, then,” Keener writes, “we should expect to find a blending of historical (informational) and literary (rhetorical, moral, and theological) interests. By ancient standards of composition, one could at least in principle accomplish each objective without harm to the other. Writers varied, however, in their amount of rhetorical expansion and adaptation” (147).

Acts’ historical-monograph genre does not necessarily guarantee the historical accuracy of the events it records, however, so, in chapters 6–9, Keener outlines a case for its historicity, keeping in view the fact that ancient views of historical accuracy are not identical to modern views. As noted above, ancient historiography allowed for more “rhetorical expansion and adaptation” than one would normally find in modern historical works. Chapter 6 concludes that “in the strong majority of cases [of issues we can test]”—such as titles, place names, people known from extrabiblical sources, and the like—“we find Luke a reliable reporter of events” (220). Chapters 7–9 examines arguments against that reliability, based on (1) tensions between the way Acts and the Pauline epistles portray Paul’s life, ministry, and theology: (2) disputes about whether or how Luke accurately reported speeches in Acts; and (3) Acts’ presentation of miracles, which is viewed as a prima facie argument against its historicity by many modern commentators. Keener’s two-volume Miraclesoffers a robust argument in favor of the reality of the supernatural, but here, his conclusion to chapter 9 is worth quoting: “Whether or not in the end one shares the early Christian worldview concerning signs, it is ethnocentric to simply despise it. And whether or not in the end one despises it, one cannot objectively expunge from the record the clear evidence that early Christians (and many people since then) believed that they experienced or witnessed these phenomena” (382).

Chapters 10–12 take up the questions of Acts’ dating, authorship, and original audience. Keener argues that the work was written in the early 70s by Luke, a missionary companion of Paul, for Theophilus (the named recipient in Acts 1:1), but also for “mixed but predominantly Gentile congregations” (434).

In chapter 13, Keener concludes that Luke had “more than one agenda in Luke-Acts” (458). For example, the book serves as “vindication for the mission to uncircumcised Gentiles” (ibid). It may also outline “the apostolic model for the church’s continuing mission” (ibid). Finally, Keener argues Acts’ purpose is also apologetic. “Romans generally tolerated Judaism because it was an ancient, ethnic religion; although the Christian movement now included many Gentiles … , Luke argues for his movement’s continuity with biblical history to indicate that it should be tolerated” (ibid).

Flowing out of this last point, Keener begins his discussion in chapters 14–15 of Luke’s theological emphases by noting how Luke and Acts “climax and continue the biblical [i.e., Old Testament] story in his [i.e., Luke’s] own day” (491). Other theological emphases include Jesus as Savior, the Gentile mission, eschatology, the work of the Holy Spirit, and the function of the miraculous. Chapter 18, which concludes Keeners’ discussion of introductory matters, also notes the Lukan emphasis on women in the ministry of Jesus, then in the ministry of the churches of Acts.

Finally, chapters 16 and 17 discuss the literary unity and structure of Luke-Acts, as well as geographical aspects of Acts.

On the whole, Keener demonstrates that Acts should be taken seriously as a historical monograph. Like other ancient historians, Luke used rhetoric to make a point, but neither his rhetoric nor his theological points obviate the basic historicity of the work. Even the reflexive, modern dismissal of the supernatural does do that. After all, a historian reporting what people believe to be the case has not done his work well if he fails to note that those people believe a miracle has occurred.

Space does not permit description or evaluation of Keener’s commentary on Acts 1–2, even though the second chapter of Acts is programmatic for the entire book. It is enough for now simply to note that Keener has made a strong case for social-historical inquiry into Acts. A focus on how the book’s original audience received it indicates that they viewed it as a reliable report and explanation of “all that Jesus began to do and to teach” (Acts 1:1). It was history with a purpose.

The only criticism of Keener’s commentary this author would like to register is its length. At 638 pages, Keener’s discussion of introductory matters alone is longer than most commentaries on Acts, and three similarly long volumes follow this initial installment. The publisher decided that the four volumes were too long to include a bibliography, so they  helpfully put that information on a CD. Keener makes no apology for the academic nature of his commentary, and his insights will set the standard for the next generation of discussion about Acts’ historical value. Even so, it is doubtful that full-time academics—let alone theological students or pastors—will be able to read all four volumes. Thankfully, Keener has abridged them in a one-volume commentary in the New Cambridge Bible Commentary series, which also is highly recommended, especially if time and budget are considerations.

Book Reviewed
Craig S. Keener, Acts: An Exegetical Commentary, Volume 1: Introduction and 1:1–2:47 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012).

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