Acts (BECNT) | Book Review

The thesis of Darrell L. Bock’s Acts, part of the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (BECNT) series, is that the author of Acts is “a historian in the ancient mold, whose historiography is rooted more in Jewish models than in Greco-Roman ones” (3). Consequently, in terms of literary genre, Acts is “a piece of Hellenist and Jewish historiography that treats the theme of how the new community is rooted in God’s old promises, the Lord Jesus’s current activity, and the Spirit’s effective presence” (12). Bock’s goal in interpreting the text is “to lead the reader through the fundamental argument of the book by paying special attention to the Greek and its historical context” (43). While not denying the value of “the narrative-critical and literary levels” in Acts, Bock does not focus on them. He points readers toward the application of specific passages—their “central teaching and ethical points” (44)—at the end of his commentary on each pericope.

Bock identifies Acts’ author as Luke, “a sometime companion of Paul” (15), based on a combination of internal and external evidence. Though formally anonymous and narrated in the third person, Acts switches unexpectedly to first-person-plural narration in several passages—16:10–17, 20:5–15, 27:1–28:16—suggesting that the author accompanied Paul on those legs of his various journeys. Colossians 4:14, Philemon 24, and 2 Timothy 4:11 name Luke as one of Paul’s missionary coworkers. When postapostolic Christian tradition names Acts’ author, it uniformly identifies Luke. Critical scholars doubt this traditional identification because of “the seemingly different portrait of Paul in his epistles from that in Acts” (16), but Bock notes that “the emphasis and concerns of a student may not always mirror those of the teacher” (18).

Bock notes that Acts could not have been written earlier than A.D. 62, which is the widely accepted date for Paul’s arrival in Rome in Acts 28. Also, the majority of New Testament scholars believe that Luke used the Gospel of Mark as a literary source in his Gospel, which means that Luke could not have been written prior to Mark. Given that Acts succeeds Luke, the same reasoning applies to its dating. So, the terminus a quo for Acts is the mid 60s; if Luke is its author and lived an average lifespan, most scholars put the terminus ad quem at 90. Many scholars believe Luke’s redaction of Mark’s eschatology (in the Gospel) places the dating of both Luke and Acts into the 80s. This is so because Luke’s Gospel redacted Mark’s eschatology in light of the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Bock doubts Luke’s eschatological redaction determines date, and though he acknowledges the possibility of a post-70 date for Acts, he prefers “the late 60s” (27). “Either Acts is written so m   much after AD 70 that these issues are no longer worth noting, because they are given, or it is written before it,” he writes (ibid).

It is difficult to evaluate every interpretive move made in a commentary of this length and complexity. However, Bock’s interpretation of Acts 17:16–34 ably illustrates how he handles the text and responds to criticisms of the book’s historicity. So, it is useful to take a moment to examine his interpretation of that passage.

In Acts 17:16–34, Paul arrives in Athens alone. As was his practice, he ministered in the Athenian synagogue with Jews and God-fearing Gentiles. However, he also ventured into the public square to minister to non-God-fearing Gentiles, some of whom were Epicurean or Stoic philosophers. His message in both the synagogue and marketplace included reference to Christ’s resurrection, which provoked scorn as well as confusion, so Paul’s audience brought him to the Areopagus for an explanation. The resulting speech in verses 22–31 is Paul’s longest speech to a Gentile audience. His concluding mention of the resurrection results in an ambivalent response, with some expressing scorn and others interest in his message. Two notable converts were Dionysius, evidently a member of the Areopagus council, and Damaris, a woman.

The historical question in Acts 17:16–34 concerns Luke’s report of Paul’s evangelistic speech. Passing references to the city’s name, its plethora of idols, its marketplace, its philosophical orientation—specifically Epicurean and Stoic philosophies in the mid-first century, and the Areopagus are easily confirmed, historically. Both literary and archaeological evidence confirm the existence of altars to unknown gods. The historicity of these incidental details can be acknowledged, however, even if the authenticity of Paul’s speech is denied. In other words, the historical question is whether the speech reflects Paul’s thinking or Luke’s. Scholars critical of Acts’ historicity argue that Paul’s relatively benign portrayal of Athenian idolatry in verses 22–23 is contradictory to his thorough-going condemnation of idolatry in Romans 1:18–32, among other passages. Moreover, whereas Paul is ruthlessly Christocentric and even crucicentric (e.g., 1 Corinthians 12–14), this speech does not mention Jesus by name, let alone refer to the cross. It moves from natural theology to future judgment with only a passing reference to Jesus’ role as judge, confirmed by his resurrection from the dead (verse 31).

Both difficulties can be resolved by remembering that Christians speak differently when they’re talking aboutnonbelievers than when they’re talking to them. As Bock writes, “The tone distinct from Rom. 1 is the difference between Paul addressing Christians about the fallenness of the culture as a ground for the gospel in Romans and the attempt to make a bridge to the culture in presenting the gospel in Acts” (559). Finding a cultural bridge for the gospel explains both the positive tone of Paul’s remarks before the Areopagus as well as the focus on natural theology, including the apparent quotation of the pagans Epimenides and Aratus in verse 28.

And yet, Paul’s positive tone should not be misinterpreted as total acceptance. The gravamen of his speech is exhorting the Athenians to move from ignorance to knowledge in light of a future judgment. This implies that their paganism was wrong, and that they were sinners. Moreover, the capstone of Paul’s speech is the resurrection of Jesus, which Greeks found incomprehensible. So, while Paul acknowledges Athenian religiosity, he also provides a corrective to it at central points: the object of worship and the need to repent in light of coming judgment.

Finally, Bock turns the argument against the historicity of this event on its head by noting that “the lack of an express Christological focus and the lack of results” (559). “In these details, it does not seem like a scene someone would create” (ibid). An author trying to sound like Paul would not go out the way to not sound like Paul, in other words, because a counterfeit speech would undermine the impression of authenticity the author was trying to convey. Furthermore, what purpose is served by reporting such an ambivalent, if not desultory, response to Paul’s message? Is it not more like that the wholesale invention of this event would have been presented as a triumph? As it is, only a small congregation resulted from preaching.

Bock’s treatment of Acts 17 illustrates how he handles the question of historicity throughout, though he goes into far greater detail of exegesis and argumentation than I have summarized here. That attention to understand the meaning of the Acts in its original contexts—literary, cultural, and historical—makes Bock’s commentary well worth reading, even though one will not necessarily agree with every one of his interpretive judgments.

Book Reviewed
Darrell L. Bock, Acts, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Robert W. Yarbrough and Robert H. Stein (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007).

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