Book Reviews

Acts

An Exegetical Commentary. Volume 4

Craig S. Keener Grand Rapids October 6, 2015

Now complete, Craig Keener’s four volume, 4501 page (xlii + 4459), 10¾ inch (27.5 cm) wide, 19 lb (8.62 kg) commentary, with more than 45,000 ancient nonbiblical references on the book of Acts, is a monumental achievement. The page count is even higher if one includes the introductory material from volumes 2–4 (some is duplicate) and the 120-page Scripture index exclusive to the CD. It is unlikely that we will see anything of this breadth and depth on Acts for some time (if ever). Volumes 1, 2, and 3 were reviewed in Bibliotheca Sacra 170 (2013): 498–99 and Bibliotheca Sacra 173 (2016): 380–82. This present review discusses the contents of volume 4 and the overall value of the entire work.

This volume continues the final section of the book begun in volume 3 on Acts 20:1–28:31. After a detailed table of contents for the volume (vii–x) and an abbreviations list (xi–xxxvi), the commentary takes up the exposition at Acts 24:1. Like the other volumes, the table of contents provides a detailed outline of the text, usually going down to the verse level (vii–x). However, page numbers are provided only for major sections. The commentary follows the pattern of the previous volumes, in which Keener carefully works through the text, discussing historical and cultural issues as they arise. For example, Keener devotes twenty-eight pages to his exposition of Acts 24:22–27, where Felix hesitates to make a decision about Paul (3421–48). He walks the reader through the passage, addressing Greek where necessary (e.g., 3423) and often using other literature to help in this process (e.g., 3423–24, 3436). Keener takes slight detours on historical, cultural, and other topics that contribute to the exegetical process and illuminate the meaning of the text (e.g., how friends help prisoners [3427–29] and Felix’s wife Drusilla [3430–32]). All this provides the reader with a thorough understanding of the biblical text. After these long discussions, however, a summary would have been welcome.

Unlike the previous volumes, this one has no excursuses. However, throughout the commentary, people, practices, and the like, are often introduced with short topical descriptions. For example, Keener does a nice job of describing Berenice, the sister of Agrippa II, who appears with her brother and Festus to hear Paul (Acts 25–26) (3473–76). Though she has only a minor role in Acts, Berenice was probably one of the best-known figures of her time. Among other things, she was the lover of a future emperor, Titus (3475). Keener devotes significant space to describing the “sea travel narrative” and its importance in literary works (3555–70). Such narratives go back at least as far as Homer’s Odyssey (3556). In Acts, the most important function of this narrative is apologetic (3567). Luke uses it to demonstrate that with God’s help, through various difficulties, it was God’s will for the innocent Paul to go to Rome (3567–68).

After the commentary proper, Keener includes a brief postscript in which he describes scholarly developments on Acts since the publication of volume 1 (2012) (3777–80). Most significantly, Keener notes that more support for a second-century date exists today than a few years ago (3777). This is not a majority opinion and it does not cause him to reconsider his first-century conclusion, but he believes his early date warrants further defense (ibid.). Additionally, Keener notes other works on the ancient novel that, if incorporated, might have provided a more sophisticated approach to this genre and its relationship to Acts (3778n8).

Most of this volume (3781–4459) is devoted to a list of works cited (3781–4082) and three indexes: subjects (4083–87), authors and select names (4089–4203), and nonbiblical ancient sources (4205–4459). The works-cited list and indexes reflect the entire four volume set. This material is also included with the Scripture index on the CD that comes with this volume.

This commentary provides careful exegesis. Scholarly options are given and reasonable solutions are provided. The primary strength of this commentary is the thoughtful exegesis informed by the literary, historical, and cultural context of the book of Acts. As with the other volumes, the vast amount of detail is both a strength and a weakness. Having an informed scholar provide this material for use in understanding Acts is invaluable. However, the detail is so immense it is possible to get lost. In general, one cannot come to this commentary with the intent to quickly get an interpretation of a specific passage. This is not really a negative. One simply needs to understand that this commentary is meaty and rewards careful reading.

Now that we have the entire four-volume work, how do we evaluate this commentary in light of the tradition of commentary writing? The length and extensive use of ancient sources make it unique. However, to emphasize the length would miss the importance of this work. To some extent, many of Keener’s other commentaries (e.g., John [2003]; still large at over 1600 pages) are similar. Keener’s work seems to represent a new type of commentary, one of two types of major commentaries. The traditional commentary is more self-contained, primarily gleaning influences within the book itself, focusing on lexical and syntactical matters, and to varying degrees on biblical theological and literary issues. In such commentaries, the historical and cultural backgrounds are somewhat subordinate to these concerns. On the other hand, Keener is attempting to firmly place the biblical book in its historical, cultural, and literary context. This approach attempts to reconstruct the cognitive environment (context) of the original recipients from which the modern reader can read the text. There is no claim to more than a small and incomplete understanding of the ancient world. It is a process of using what we know and of continually learning as more evidence surfaces.

Traditional commentaries do not, of course, ignore backgrounds, and this new genre represented by Keener does not minimize Greek. However, when one compares a commentary like Barrett’s two-volume International Critical Commentary (1994, 1998) with Keener’s, it is immediately obvious that the former has detailed discussion of Greek on almost every page and less emphasis on background contexts while the latter has page after page of contextual work with explicit discussion of Greek appearing only where this focus is necessary. Although Keener is not the only one writing context-focused commentaries, the historical nature of Acts and Keener’s impressive knowledge of the first-century environment make his four-volume Acts commentary the ideal representative of this type.

At this point a few critical observations in no way detract from the value of Keener’s work, and they apply to all commentaries of this nature. First, the use of ancient sources needs some type of formal method. How do we know an ancient source informs reading of the biblical text? This is not a problem with Keener’s work because of his generally excellent handling of the sources. However, we need clear ways of establishing a link between the source and the biblical text. There are at least three reasons for formal methodology. First, it will provide the larger scholarly community with a means of evaluating the use of sources. Second and more importantly, it will help others evaluate whether commentators are consistent in their approach. Third, whether fair or not, it has been argued that some New Testament scholars use background sources to change or modify the meaning of the biblical text. An established method will help avoid improper use of sources.

Related to the previous but more applicational, there is a need for more precise use of sources. Keener uses many ancient texts with which the majority of readers will be unfamiliar. Therefore, their use often needs some qualification. For example, Keener uses Suetonius hundreds of times (see the index, 4429–31). Many readers will not be aware of the “gossipy” nature of this author. For many uses of Suetonius, this will not matter. However, in some cases, this type of information may be helpful. For example, Keener suggests that rumors of Berenice’s incest with her brother Agrippa II were “almost certainly false” (3474). This is supported by a footnote that states, “Omitted by Suetonius, Tacitus, and Dio Cassius” (3474n1036). For the reader aware of Suetonius’s tendency to gossip, the omission of this information would more strongly support Keener’s point, since Suetonius would likely have used it if it had any credibility (and he knew of it). Also, one might wonder about the relevance of the omission by the two other authors mentioned, Tacitus and Dio Cassius. These were both Roman historians, and although it is not without precedent that such information could be included, such authors were generally not concerned with the personal lives of small client kings. This is especially the case with Dio Cassius because he wrote long after many would have cared about Berenice and her relationship with Titus. As the footnote progresses, Keener does qualify a source to strengthen his point, “Juvenal, who supports it, was anti-Jewish and exploited any available rumors for satire” (ibid.). More of this type of critical use of the sources is necessary. Again, this is new frontier for New Testament scholars, and precision in use will no doubt improve.

Meanwhile, new sources are always being discovered. Our understanding of the ancient world will evolve and, by extension, so will our understanding of the biblical text. In Keener’s postscript he states, “Contrary to what some scholar friends suggested with reference to the completion of the four-volume commentary, much more work remains to be done on Acts in light of its historical context” (3779). Keener understands the situation. There is a long way to go and many more sources to explore. Keener describes one such source, T. J. Cornell’s massive three-volume set, The Fragments of the Roman Historians (Oxford University Press, 2013), as “2736 delicious pages” (3778n4).

With Keener and others like him we see a shift in the importance of contextual material. A goal should be to read the text as much like an original recipient as we can. I noted above that this type of commentary places less of an emphasis on Greek. I would have liked to see a little more; however, I suspect more syntactical discussion will take place in commentaries on epistles and other books where syntactical nuances have a more significant impact on a larger percentage of the text. Knowledge of Greek is as important in this type of commentary as others. One could argue that even the knowledge of Greek itself is a means of entry into the ancient world.

Again, my critique is not intended to detract from the value of Keener’s work. His may be the best commentary of its type. My concerns apply to anyone working with this model. Further methodological development, discovery of more sources, and competent familiarity with and use of all ancient sources will continue to enhance our understanding of the New Testament.

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