Acts: An Exegetical Commentary. Volume 3:15:1–23:35
These two volumes are the middle two of Craig Keener’s massive four-volume work on Acts. Volume 1, which at 1038 pages is only slightly smaller than these volumes, included an extensive introduction and commentary on chapters 1 and 2 (reviewed in Bibliotheca Sacra 170 : 498–99).
These middle volumes include no introductory material. Rather, they each have a table of contents (v–xiii in each volume) and an abbreviation list (xiv–xxxix in each). The table of contents reflects the sections and subsections of the commentary and is also a highly detailed phrase outline that often goes down to the verse or partial verse level. This gives an excellent overview of the sections of Acts covered in these volumes. As a table of contents, only the major sections include page numbers. Combining the outline and table allows anyone looking over the outline to get a good idea of where a specific discussion is located in the commentary. Also the table identifies excursuses with shaded boxes and their initial page numbers. The abbreviation lists in both volumes are almost identical.
The page numbering of the commentary proper in the volumes is consecutive. In this review only the page number will be noted. Pages 1039–2191 refer to volume 2 and pages 2193–3348 refer to volume 3.
The commentary develops as expected by those who are familiar with Keener’s work. Each major section has an introduction, verse-by-verse exegesis with extensive, well-documented detail from the ancient world (including thousands of references to ancient literature), and excursuses where necessary. For example, the section on Herod Agrippa and Peter (Acts 12:1–24) is 114 pages long (pp. 1865–1979) and includes comprehensive information on the historical and cultural backgrounds as well as the text. The modern reader may not realize it, but Herod Agrippa was likely the most influential Jewish leader named in the New Testament. In fact, due to his imperial connections, with the exception of the named emperors, probably no one mentioned in the New Testament was more powerful. Keener rightly alerts the reader to Herod’s significance as a oppressor (p. 1865). Keener’s in-depth approach to the text provides an opportunity for important issues to be discussed that other authors may not have room for. These include the character and career of Herod Agrippa (pp. 1867–71, 1874–78), house churches (12:12; pp. 1894–1900), and an in-depth discussion of how and why Herod Agrippa died (12:23; pp. 1958–71). Topics needing more space are included in excursuses such as slavery (pp. 1906–42), dreams (pp. 2347–49) and ancient anti-Judaism (pp. 2472–77). Even seemingly minor details are discussed within the commentary’s exegesis (e.g., Peter’s getting dressed before escaping prison [12:8; pp. 1886–88]; large Jewish homes [12:12–13; pp. 1900–3]; doors and porters [12:13; pp. 1903–4]). Further, Keener highlights connections with Luke (pp. 1870–71; 1883; 1884; 1962). He also compares the accounts of Herod Agrippa’s death in Acts 12:23 with Josephus, Antiquities 19.343–50 (pp. 1965–69) and concludes that they are compatible (p. 1967).
Keener’s handling of many interpretive problems is thorough. Concerning Acts 5:3–4 where Ananias attempts to deceive the apostles by holding back some of the money he promised to the church, Keener states: “Lying to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:3) is identified with lying to God (Acts 5:4). . . . Christians at an early stage seem to have portrayed the Spirit at times as an entity within the one Deity” (p. 1190). He further discusses Peter’s knowledge as supernatural and how some might associate this recorded event with the Jewish prophetic tradition (pp. 1190–91), and he directs the reader to an excursus in volume 1 on the “background for Luke’s view of the Spirit” (pp. 529–37). There is a lot here and Keener is clearly placing this passage within the context of Lukan biblical theology. However, the reader simply wishing for information on a proof text on the deity of the Holy Spirit may be disappointed.
Other helpful discussions of common interpretive issues include identifying Paul’s meeting with some of the apostles in Acts 15 with the meeting mentioned in Galatians 2 (pp. 2211–12; see also pp. 1160–63 on Acts 11:30). Further, the restrictions in the council’s decree (15:20) are generally straightforward: idol food, immorality, and strangled meat containing blood (pp. 2270–77). However, it is not clear if Paul agreed with all of these or accepted some (especially the strangled meat) to accommodate the Jewish believers (p. 2278). In 16:31, Paul’s instruction to the jailer, “believe in the Lord Jesus and you and your household will be saved,” is not a guarantee that his entire family will be saved but rather reflects the expectation of the time that a family would follow the lead of the father (pp. 2510–11). In 21:11, Agabus does not make a mistake in his prophecy. Keener defends the prophet against this by stating that “this charge, however, likely presses Agabus’s words with a pedantic literalism that no biblical prophet’s (or historian’s) words could long survive” (p. 3106). His conclusion could have been further supported by interpreting the voice of the verb (“handed over”) as a causative active (see Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, 412).
These volumes include thirty-eight excursuses that provide historical, cultural, and/or theological background to enhance the commentary. In the excursus on “Greek and Aramaic Use in Judea and Galilee,” Keener suggests that Greek was “widely used” in Israel. Keener’s excursus on “Freedpersons” (pp. 1304–6) is a brief introduction to a complex class of people. As such it is helpful, though its simplicity may be misleading. He cites important primary sources uncritically and has not used some of the most recent secondary literature. Of course, Keener’s work on this may have already been at press when some of these studies became available. Surprisingly, in “Son of God” (pp. 1671–72), Keener does not mention potential Roman referents for this title. His discussion of the Jewish context is very helpful; however, given the audience of Acts, one would think the excursus would include something on the Roman context (even if simply to reject any relevance here). The excursus “‘Divine’ Humans” (pp. 1782–86) provides a clear discussion of this phenomenon in the ancient world. It could have been improved by adding more information on the potential interaction of imperial cults and the earliest Christians.
There is a lengthy discussion of slavery in the excursus “Slaves and Slavery” (pp. 1906–42). Keener should be commended for this section. Although the negative experience of the slave could have been more strongly highlighted and one can quibble over emphases here and there, this is among the most well-balanced discussions on this topic by a New Testament scholar who is not known for particular expertise in this area. It is too brief to be used for a thorough understanding of the topic, but as a brief introduction for students of the Bible, it is excellent.
Keener briefly discusses Paul’s soteriology, specifically the Law and justification (“Pauline Soteriology in Context,” pp. 2079–90). This is helpful, considering how prominent Paul is in Acts. The excursus summarizes the New Perspective on Paul debate and related issues with Keener’s brief (and purposefully minimally supported) conclusions. His view is informed by the New Perspective but basically traditional. Keener provides foundational cultural information in his excursuses on “Patrons, Clients, and Reciprocity” (pp. 2408–13) and “Hospitality” (pp. 2414–20). Since much of the material is basic to understanding the ancient world, these discussions might have served the commentary better in the introduction. An excursus on “Suicide in Antiquity” (pp. 2498–2507) helps the reader see the differences between ancient and modern perspectives on this issue. Keener acknowledges that early Christian theology rejected suicide (p. 2506). However, his source for this is Justin Martyr in the mid-second century. Unfortunately, Keener dismisses any allusion to the notion of honorable death by one’s own hand (an allusion, not an endorsement) in Paul’s letters (pp. 2506–7). His position is not untenable and is probably held by the majority of scholars; however, there is significant scholarly literature on this issue with which he could have interacted or simply cited.
These excursuses enhance this commentary and also provide general information that will impact reading much of the New Testament. Select other excursus topics include “The Disabled, Poverty, and Begging” (pp. 1050–62), “Pharisaism” (pp. 1225–27), “Proselytes” (pp. 1284–87), “Son of Man” (1437–40), “Circumcision” (pp. 2215–22), “Acts and First-Person Usage in Some Ancient Historians” (pp. 2363–74), “Demons and Spirit Possession” (pp. 2429–56), and “Epicureans” (pp. 2584–93),
Like volume 1, these volumes contain a CD-ROM that includes indexes and the works cited for the present and previous volumes. Thus, the latest CD contains all necessary information. A more detailed discussion of this material will be included in the review of volume 4.
Keener’s contribution to study of Acts is invaluable. As with volume 1, the main weakness of volumes 2 and 3 may be that only the most serious scholars will fully appreciate the wealth of material provided.
Joseph D. Fantin
1–3 John. By Bruce G. Schuchard. Concordia Commentary: A Theological Exposition of Sacred Scripture. Saint Louis: Concordia, 2012. xliii + 752 pp. $54.99.
According to the editors, the Concordia Commentary series is intended “to assist pastors, missionaries, and teachers of the Scriptures to convey God’s Word with greater clarity, understanding, and faithfulness to the divine intent of the text” (p. ix). They further describe presuppositions and characteristics of the series. (1) The Scripture testifies of Jesus (Christological). (2) The Law and Gospel are thematic doctrines of the Bible. (3) The Bible is the means by which God communicates the Gospel; it is inspired, infallible, and inerrant. (4) The Bible is essentially for the church (pp. ix–x). Additionally, although individual authors need not fully agree with the exegetical tradition, this commentary series is from within the Lutheran tradition (p. xi). Thus, the series and this commentary have a very high view of Scripture and place themselves within a confessional Lutheran tradition. The latter is evident in this volume but not pronounced, possibly due to the nature of the letters themselves. The series highlights fifteen theological themes and distinctives by placing corresponding pictures (icons) in the margins (for the identification of these icons, see pp. xvii–xix). These include topics such the trinity, temple, Christology, Lord’s Supper, death and resurrection, baptism, justification, sin/law-breaking/death, and worship.
Schuchard includes a lengthy fifty-eight page introduction that covers traditional introductory matters. The Apostle John wrote the letters (pp. 33, 37–40) from Ephesus (pp. 5–8) during the reign of Nerva (AD 96–98) (p. 55). John’s exile to Patmos permitted an opportunity for deception to creep into the church. As a result, when he returned, he wrote the letters to confront this threat (p. 18). The opponents were secessionists without a fixed structure or doctrine (p. 16). The relationship between the three letters is as follows: 2 John was a cover letter for 1 John and these were sent to the churches in Asia Minor (pp. 19–23). The personal letter 3 John was included with the other two for Gaius’s church (pp. 22–23). Schuchard maintains that oral tradition was very important to John and is one reason John committed things to paper so late (pp. 8–9). In light of this practice and that of the Roman world, the letters were intended to be read aloud (pp. 23–24). Schuchard maintains that the Apostle wrote the Gospel, Epistles, and Revelation. The order is as follows: (1) Revelation is written during Domitian’s reign (AD 81–96); (2) John returns and writes the three letters during Nerva’s reign (AD 96–98); (3) The Gospel is written early in Trajan’s reign (beginning AD 98) (pp. 55). Although certainty about this may be impossible, Schuchard presents a believable scenario. His conviction that John emphasized oral teaching over many years removes the dependence on the interpretation of a written Gospel as an issue in the letters (p. 9). The teaching later reflected in the Gospel was already well known.
This is a detailed and well researched volume. Each commentary unit begins with a translation. Next, a section called “Limits and Structure” provides detailed Greek and English structural layouts with comments. The author has included an internet link to color-coded versions of the Greek structural charts in this volume (p. 1 n. 1). Third, a well-documented section of “Textual Notes” discusses issues of grammar and other fine points of interpretive detail. This section is geared towards those with a seminary education. Fourth, the “Commentary” section goes clause-by-clause through the English translation of the passage (mostly without verse references). Here the main interpretation takes place. The final section, “Concluding Observations,” is brief and focuses on contemporary application.
First John 1:9 will serve as an example of how the commentary approaches the text. The structural section alerts the reader to the relationship of this verse to the surrounding context. Verse 9 is the second conditional sentence in a pair of conditional sentences (1:8–9), and this pair is the second of three pairs (1:6–7; 1:8–9; 1:10–2:2) (pp. 102–3). The textual notes refer back to the structure and discuss syntactical and other issues. For example, unlike verse 7, the second conditional sentence in the first pair, there is no linking conjunction here and Schuchard notes this is asyndeton and concludes that it indicates a “polar opposite” of the preceding verse (p. 14). He also notes that the implied subject of “he is faithful and righteous” is Jesus, not God (p. 114). Further, “faithful” is interpreted as “reliable” or “one who can be depended upon” (p. 115). The commentary section brings things together and explains the verse more fully. Confessing sins means to “concede to their reality ever and always with a focus on the admission of wrongdoing, and to deplore them as sins and iniquities with which we have ever offended our God.” (p. 139). This is the confession of a believer (p. 140). In the concluding remarks, Schuchard confronts two problems in the church today: some take sin too lightly, while others want to see themselves as “beyond the need for repentance and the forgiveness of sins” (p. 148).
Many other passages can be mentioned. Here are two. First, the difficult language about sin in “no one who is born of God practices sin” (1 John 3:9, NASB) is interpreted as “no one who is born of God lives for the sake of sin” (p. 335, emphasis added). For Schuchard, this does not teach perfectionism, which would contradict 1:6–2:2. Rather he states, “The life of the believer is to be one of sincere repentance and faith” (p. 336). Second, for ἱλασμός in 2:2, Schuchard sees both propitiation and expiation (“atoning sacrifice” is the translation used) (p. 120).
Ideally, one will use the structure, textual notes, and commentary to follow the progression of thought. However, for the Bible student without a seminary education, the commentary section alone will be quite helpful. This still makes reference to Greek but not extensively. Two issues are worth noting. First, the commentary is weak on lexical issues. Generally, the discussions are well done, but Schuchard’s lexical conclusions would prompt more confidence if there were a stronger presence of major lexical reference works. Second, the choice to omit verse references in the commentary can make finding specific passages rather difficult. Schuchard should be commended for trying to make the letters’ content read more naturally. However, in today’s fast-paced world, where one needs to find information quickly, some will be frustrated.
The volume concludes with two indexes: subjects (pp. 696–718) and passages (pp. 719–52). Schuchard’s 1–3 John is a serious commentary on these letters. Although Lutheran in its commitments, it will meet the needs of many in the evangelical community.
About the Contributors
Joseph D. Fantin
Dr. Fantin believes an accurate understanding of God’s Word will enable the believer to grow in his or her relationship with Christ, to love God and others, to bring Christ’s love to a lost world, to build up the church, and most importantly, to glorify God. He is committed to teaching exegetical method in order to help students understand, apply, and teach the Bible in order to achieve these goals. Dr. Fantin’s research interests include the first-century world, Greek language and linguistics, exegetical method, and exegesis of the prison epistles. He and his wife, Robin, have two children: Jillian and David.