Keener’s Commentary on the Book of Acts (Volume 1) – First Impressions

Last Friday I received a copy of Craig Keener’s new commentary on the book of Acts. Specifically, I received the first volume of the projected four-volume set. Here are my first impressions.

  1. Stating the obvious: it is huge! It has 1,038 pages.
  2. Footnotes, not endnotes. Oh, what a blessing this is. With the amount of reference material Keener uses it is so nice to have these at the bottom of the page rather than at the end of the volume.
  3. Wide margins. I like this because I tend to make observations in the margins.
  4. CD included. Keener is known for his vast bibliographies and this work will be no exception. This volume, however, contains no printed bibliography. He explains, “The commentary was written as a cohesive work keyed to the bibliography. Circumstances of publication have, however, required its release in successive volumes. The publisher therefore is providing for the users of each volume the current working bibliography for the entire work, as well as indexes for this volume, on the accompanying CD-ROM, but the final volume will contain the final hard-copy bibliography and indexes.” (xvi)
  5. As for the commentary proper on the book of Acts goes this volume only covers 1:1 – 2:47. This requires some explaining.

The first 638 pages are devoted to the “Introduction.” That may seem like overkill for an introduction but there is a lot of material to cover and no one does it better than Keener. The intro contains eighteen chapters along with a Prolegomenon. Those chapters are:

  1. Writing and Publishing Acts
  2. Proposed Genres for Acts
  3. Acts as a Work of Ancient Historiography
  4. The Character of Ancient Historiography
  5. Historical Perspectives, Tendenz, and Purpose
  6. Approaching Acts as a Historical Source
  7. Acts and Paul
  8. Speeches in Acts
  9. Signs and Historiography
  10. Date
  11. The Author of Luke-Acts (Excursis: Ancient Physicians)
  12. Luke’s Audience
  13. The Purpose of Acts
  14. Israel’s Story
  15. Some Lukan Emphases (Excursis: Background for Luke’s View of the Spirit)
  16. The Unity and Structure of Luke-Acts
  17. Geographic Background
  18. Luke’s Perspective on Women and Gender

Now you understand why the intro is 638 pages.

What kind of commentary is this and who is it for?

The commentary is called an “exegetical” commentary which Keener notes was “graciously titled” by the publisher. (6) Keener describes it as a “social-historical, and in some sections, rhetorical in its focus and does not focus as much attention on lexical or grammatical details (a matter treated adequately by a number of other works).” (5-6) Keener recognizes the strength of other exegetical commentaries and says that much of the lexical materials needed for word studies are readily available from numerous sources. In this commentary he has “chosen instead to focus more often (though not exclusively) on conceptual parallels to provide the reader what she or he would find elsewhere only with greater difficulty.” (6, See also pp. 25-26 “This Commentary’s Sociorhetorical Approach”)

Keener’s intended audience.

“As noted above, this commentary, like my commentary on the Fourth Gospel, will be especially valuable for scholars, professors, advanced students, and other academic audiences. Nevertheless, I have tried to keep it more readable than my earlier academic works so that other readers may find it useful. As in earlier works, I depend on the Greek text for my own analysis, but, where possible, offer my own English translation in the text for the sake of these other readers. Less academic readers with the time and interest to use a commentary like this one should employ their discretion to screen out material less relevant to their interests.” (34)

In the Prolegomenon Keener makes it abundantly clear what his focus is.

“This commentary’s primary focus is what the text meant to its first audience.” (4)

“To welcome earlier interpretive voices is not, however, to accord them ‘canonical’ status in evaluating how Luke’s first audience would have heard him (the goal emphasized in this commentary).” (15)

“My historical interests overlap with literary ones, for my primary concern is how Luke’s contemporaries would have heard his message.” (23)

“My primary interest is the meaning of the text for the likeliest general first-century audience we can reconstruct for Luke.” (26)

“My primary literary interest concerns its first-century context, but this remains a question of meaning and not simply an evaluation of historical accuracy.” (27n147)

“As I have noted, my focus here is on reading Acts in its first-century Greco-Roman setting, and as in other works of this nature, I endeavor to provide, where possible, fresh insights into this way of reading the text (in addition, of course, to building on what others have done).” (34)

In chapter 3, “Acts as a Work of Ancient Historiography,” Keener persuasively argues that Acts fits the genre of ancient historiography. But this must be carefully understood. He writes,

“Merely arguing that Acts was ancient historiography as opposed to fiction does not resolve all our questions about its character, since there was a wide range of historical writing. . . This chapter therefore simply introduces arguments for Acts as fitting the genre of ancient historiography, and later chapters (esp. chs. 6-9) will explore more specific classifications of Luke’s historiography (especially with regard to historical accuracy).” (100)

What he writes next is critically important.

“Although it should go without saying, we must be careful to distinguish ancient historiography from modern historiography. When we claim that a biblical (or other ancient) work fits the genre of history or letters, modern readers often make the facile assumption (happily, more difficult for apocalyptic texts) that we are talking about the same genres as modern history or modern letters. Granted, there are considerable similarities, the ranges overlap, and modern analogies evolved from these ancient forms. But conventions differed, and only those who have done little reading in the ancient sources will simply equate ancient and modern historiography.”

“It is anachronistic to assume that ancient and modern histories share all the same generic features (e.g., the way speeches should be composed) merely because we employ the same term today to describe them. Thus those who evaluate Acts’ historical details only according to modern standards, whether to defend or to condemn them, themselves risk distorting the historical task.” (100)

So far I’ve read a little more than the first 120 pages of the introduction along with some of the commentary proper and it is impressive. Here’s my suggestion for those who are debating whether or not to invest in this magisterial work. I won’t have to convince scholars as to the importance of this commentary. Pastors and students may need a little persuasion. Seldom do pastors or students read through a commentary. They buy them, put them on the shelf and use them as needed. I would suggest for pastors to buy this first volume and read the introduction. This is especially true if you are going to preach through Acts. There is a wealth of information here that will enrich your study of the book. Then you can use the remaining material and the subsequent three volumes as necessary. But, of course, once you own volume one you won’t be able to resist the other three.

I’ve gone on long enough for a post of “first impressions.” My bottom line: Magnificent!

Watch for volume 2 which is due out May 2013. It will cover 3:1 – 14:38. One final note: If you’ve read Keener’s The Historical Jesus of the Gospels some of the material in chaps 4-6 will sound familiar. I was thinking this myself and then discovered the reason. Keener says the material from his Historical Jesus book was adapted from the Acts commentary draft which was completed before the Historical Jesus book rather than the reverse. (117n4) I’ve read Keener’s Historical Jesus book but I don’t want to skip these chapters because I can use the refresher.


About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
This entry was posted in Biblical Studies, New Releases. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Keener’s Commentary on the Book of Acts (Volume 1) – First Impressions

  1. LLM says:

    Thanks for taking the time to share and write all this up for us! I recently read a book by Keener that I appreciated, so I’ve been interested in exploring his other works. And HOORAY for footnotes and not endnotes!! I hate endotes too!


  2. Timothy says:

    Well, you have sold me on it! :). I will be adding it to my wish list.


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