Top Five Acts Commentaries

Introduction. This blog began in 2008 when I was teaching through Acts both at my Church and in a semester class at Grace. Since I have had the chance now to teach through Acts several times, I have put together a huge collection of commentaries and other resources for studying the Book of Acts. Along with Luke, there are a number of excellent monographs on the theology of Luke and Acts as well as literary studies which focus on Luke as an author. To complicate matters, the study of Acts invites historical study, especially the Greco-Roman background of the Pauline mission. I would highly recommend the five-volume series published by Eerdmans on Acts, including Paul in Roman Custody by Brian Rapske. The second volume of Eckhard Schnabel’s Early Christian Mission (IVP) is also essential for the history and background of the various cities which Paul targets as he moves west.

Perhaps more than any other installment in this series so far, I have been tempted to add to my “top five.” I could easily double this list, but that is what the comments are for. I invite the readers to add a few that I have skipped here.

Ben Witherington III, Acts: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1998). This commentary is one of the best for cultural background material for reading Acts and has been the “first off the shelf” for me for several years. Witherington provides some exegetical commentary, although the general reader will have no problem reading the commentary since this is not the main thrust of the book. Where the commentary excels is the massive amount of Greco-Roman material which is brought to bear on the text of Acts. As with all the Socio-Rhetorical commentaries, Witherington uses lengthy excursuses in a slightly smaller font to develop special themes. These “closer looks” are worth the price of the book alone! For example, after introducing Aquila and Priscilla in Acts 18, he provides five pages on Judaism as a religio licita. This detailed section is worthy of a major Bible Dictionary article. One of the criticisms I have of other volumes in this series is the somewhat forced use of Greco-Roman rhetorical forms, but this is not a problem here in Acts.

Joseph Fitzmyer, Acts (AB; New York: Doubleday, 1997). As a companion to his two-volume Luke commentary, Fitzmyer’s Acts commentary is readable and useful for scholar, pastor or layman. The Anchor Bible format begins with a fresh translation followed by a comment on the text and then a “notes” section for exegetical detail. All Greek is transliterated and all citations are in-text. What is remarkable to me is how efficient Fitzmyer’s commentary is. He is able to cover the necessary issues in the text in a few paragraphs, despite having an encyclopedic knowledge of the Greco-Roman world! While the commentary is 800+ pages, it is not overly burdensome. For each section there is a bibliography covering secondary literature in English, German, and French. This makes the commentary invaluable for the scholar.

James Dunn, Beginning at Jerusalem (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2009). This is the second volume of Dunn’s epic Christianity in the Making, so technically speaking it is not a commentary on Acts. Dunn wrote a brief commentary in the Epworth series (1996) and it appears to me that most of that commentary has been assumed into this larger book on the origins of Christianity. (There are some passages which are word-for-word the same, and a handful where significant changes have been made). I find Beginning at Jerusalem to be the most highly detailed commentary on Acts available today (pending Keener’s due summer of 2012). After 130 pages of introduction, Dunn steps through the book of Acts dealing with each pericope on an exegetical level, but much more attention is paid to historical and theological matters. Dunn’s style is not a verse-by-verse commentary, but rather a series of questions which need to be addressed in order to come to a full understanding of Acts. Each of these subsections are important, but a reader may skip over some if that particular question is not of interest. One of the features of this book I appreciate are chapters on topics which cannot be included in most commentaries. For example, chapter 30 is on Paul’s Churches. This sixty page essay on churches in the middle of the first century is excellent and will help any interpreter of Acts (or the epistles) unpack Pauline mission more accurately. The average commentary simply cannot spend the effort on such detail.

John Polhill, Acts (NAC; Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1992). This is an efficient commentary on Acts. By far the smallest on this list, Pohill does an excellent job covering exegetical details in the text along with providing cultural and historical background. The introduction is a only 50 pages, yet manages to give the reader a basic orientation to major issues for reading and understanding Acts. Most of the background material is found in the footnotes, although even these are not so copious that a casual reader will become overwhelmed. All Greek is transliterated. A possible criticism here is that Polhill did not write the NAC commentary on Luke, so there is less awareness in the commentary of overarching Luke-Acts themes.

Darrell Bock, Acts (BENTC; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2007). Bock also write the BECNT on Luke, so this commentary has the same look and feel as his previous work. Bock also has a work on the Theology of Luke / Acts due from Zondervan in the Summer of 2012. His 46 page introduction briefly covers essential issues, and while I particularly like his theology of Acts section, I look forward to more detail and expansion in his upcoming biblical theology text. As with his previous commentary, each section begins with a summary of the larger unit and a translation of the text. The exegesis section includes both Greek and a transliteration of the Greek. He deals with both lexical and syntactical issues in the body of the commentary, spending more time on identifying grammatical categories than other commentaries on this list (I think that is a DTS thing!) Unlike the Luke commentary, Bock does not have a final summary at the end of the pericope, by guess is that these were dropped by the commentary series.

Conclusion. What have I left out? What commentaries on Acts have you found useful?  Once again the classics are missing (no F. F. Bruce?) Let me know what I have missed!

Index for the Top Five Commentary Series


Introduction to Series on Commentaries

On Using Commentaries 

Matthew        Mark        Luke        John        Acts
Romans        1 Corinthians         2 Corinthians
Galatians         Ephesians        Philippians        Colossians
1-2 Thessalonians        Pastoral Epistles         Philemon
Hebrews        James         1 Peter         2 Peter & Jude 
Letters of John         Revelation

Conclusion:  Last Thoughts on New Testament Commentaries

32 thoughts on “Top Five Acts Commentaries

    • I do not have Peterson, but I have enjoyed the few Pillar commentaries I have used. Perhaps a trip over to Eerdmans is in order….My guess is that Keener’s Acts mega-commentary will overwhelm everyone, perhaps driving us back to more simple commentaries (like Polhill?)

  1. I’m curious what you think about the New Interpreters commentart series? There’s no way I’m affording it any time soon, but the volume on Acts-Romans-1 Corinthians looks good Robert Wall on Acts and Wright on Romans. Can’t go wrong. Though I understand Wright is supposed to expand his Romans Commentary from that into it’s own “out of series” stand alone commentary at some undisclosed time in the future.

    • I have used the NIB a few times in my dissertation, mostly in Isaiah although I did look over the gospels a bit. If I were to buy a single volume, it would be the one with Wright’s commentary in Romans in it. The problem with any massive set like the NIB is some parts are great, but other are not. I would rather have Romans by Wright separately (as I will opine in the next installment), than have to buy a $75 volume just to have access to one section.

    • Both are great commentaries, thanks for bringing them up. I have not used Pervo, if I recall correctly he tends to have a bit more skepticism on the historicity of Acts than the commentaries I list above. It is an excellent replacement of the Conzelmann volume in the Hermenia series.

      Luke Timothy Johnson is almost always excellent, and I have found his work in the Gospels (or James for that matter) to be first rate. The Sacra Pagina series is not my favorite in terms of format, that limits what Johnson can do in the book. I like the fact that Johnson wrote both the Luke and Acts commentaries in that series, it seems that when an author covers both books the commentary is more rich, overarching themes become more clear.

  2. I’ve read through Bock while leading a study of Acts, and found him useful but oh-so-boring. Fitzmeyer is good but also not great. I’ll have to try some of the others you suggest, especially Dunn. What I really wanted is a theological commentary on Acts, but what Pelikan produced is interesting but not quite on target.

    • I agree that Bock is not the most fun to read, Dunn, on the other hand, is very “readable”. I am not aware of a “theological commentary,” but there are many monographs on the theology of Luke-Acts.

      • Acts seems to cry out for a commentary that goes beyond the “theology of Luke-Acts” approach and dares to evaluate the actions being described. Is it reasonable, for example, to assess the efforts of Paul during his first period in Jerusalem as an abject failure? The text almost seems to suggest that. Was that why they sent him back to Tarsus, to ponder until Barnabas called him to Antioch? This kind of thing is certainly speculative, but such readerly questions were the ones my Bible class seemed most interested in asking. I came to my own conclusions, of course, but it would have been useful to measure them against others’.

  3. Hi,

    How does Peterson commentary compare to Bocks? Which would you prefer to have and why?. I like to use for sermon material, I like good depth with historical/cultural context and discussion on the theologial issues and discussing various viewpoints.

    Thanks in advance.



    • This is similar to the other question, I find both the Pillar series (Peterson) and the Baker Exegetical to be excellent choices, the Pillar tend to be a bit more in depth. Unfortunately I do not own Acts by Peterson yet. Bock’s background type material is great, although for Acts I might lean toward Witherington for the historical / cultural. But Keener’s first volume is out soon (already?) and promises to be the end-of-all-commentaries on Acts.

      One advantage of Bock is that he does both Luke and Acts and then wrote a Theology of Luke/Acts. I would love to see him go back and re-write the two commentaries with the insight gained from writing the Theology. There is some advantage to reading the two books together,

  4. Hi
    commentaries on acts – here is a few thoughts.

    At the more technical end:
    Bruce (greek),Cully and Schnabel.

    At the more intermediate level:
    Longnecker and Kistemacker are worth a look.

    At the lower end:
    Gooding, Faw and Milne maybe worth a look.

  5. Hello Steve, Schnabel was not out when I wrote this, and since then Keener’s massive commentary was released (or the first two volumes, anyway). Both of those have to be considered on the “high end.”

  6. Dr. Long,

    I just discovered your lists of recommendations. Being a bibliophile I love such things!

    I wondered if I might get your thoughts on some issues your list raised. It strikes me as curious that so many people who write these lists (1) prefer what is newest and have little regard for what is older, for instance a theological commentator like John Brown of Edinburgh never makes these lists. Now, it is only fair to note that you commend Lightfoot and Westcott and refer to some other deeply grammatical authors of the 19th century. As a former pastor, I am interested in grammar, though I find grammar often fails to resolve many important issues of interpretation. The meaning of the text is ultimately theological and commentators like Brown or Hodge, etc. are theologically helpful, without dismissing the grammar or the flow of the authors’ argument.

    (2) Lists like this tend to exalt commentaries that are fairly worthless to most pastors and Bible teachers (laymen). (I love hyperbole as a standard mode of speech, so please take no offense.) The great majority of people who buy commentaries are of the latter sort and they do not have time or inclination to read such mammoth works, especially when they end up being only occasionally helpful for their own work as teachers of Scripture. (see my footnote below on Aune). So the authors of such lists end up commending commentaries that are designed for that small cadre of academics (no offense intended), who already know what is important in the field and so, do not need such lists. Yet it is precisely pastors and Bible teachers who need such lists because they are not attuned to the state of academic discussions.

    (3) You also give pride of place to a number of “New Perspective on Paul” authors. Is this your own inclination? Personally, I would be very chary of commending such to the kind of audience that needs such lists. I know that academics need to interact with such theorizing, but such views are spiritually dangerous (I fully realize that this is my opinion, but it is one entertained by someone who knows he must stand and give an account before the Great Searcher of Hearts.)

    I was particularly surprised that there was no mention of Stott on Acts either in your ‘top five’ or in the comments. I wonder if Dr. Waters’ new commentary on Acts would rate a mention in any revision that you might make. He mentions many “academisch” issues, but simply refers readers, via footnote, to other standard commentaries where they are discussed. He does discuss issues that are relevant to the actual exposition of the text. He includes theological discussions and has very useful applications. I cite it as an example of a commentary that would be vastly superior for most commentary buyers’ purposes. (You may not be aware of Waters’ work. He is Professor of NT at Reformed Seminary in Jackson, MS. Unfortunately Evangelical Press has done a very poor job in promoting any of the commentaries in their series.)

    I am acutely aware that ‘tone of voice’ or ‘attitude’ is very difficult to convey in writing and is easily misinterpreted negatively. I write cheerfully as one who enjoyed your lists, but craves thoughtful interaction. I hope you and yours have a blessed Christmas and a spiritually prosperous New Year!


    Footnote: Consider that you placed Aune on Revelation at the top of your recommendations. By your own admission he does little to sort through the plethora of references he makes, especially to Greco-Roman authors. You wrote: “Concerning Aune, the commentary strikes me as the ultimate example of “missing the forest for the trees,” you are correct that there is little interpretation at the end of the day. Still, no one can really write a commentary now without engaging it.” If I can make my point pointedly, how many people reading your recommendations are intending to write a commentary on the Revelation, especially a scholarly one? I appreciate academics, like yourself, because you know lots of stuff I don’t know, but wish I did. (My field is late medieval through post-Reformation historical theology.) I guess my questions ultimately resolve themselves into this: for what audience are you recommending commentaries and how does that effect your choices?

    • What a detailed response! Thanks for taking the time to read the lists, although they are obviously becoming more dated as new commentaries are published. In general, I artificially limit myself to only five and intended from the beginning to have readers chip in their suggestions. That is the fun of the internet, these posts have continued to generate discussion for more than three years now. In addition, these are my five “first off the shelf commentaries,” someone like yourself with an interest in “late medieval through post-Reformation historical theology,” you will recommend five completely different authors.

      First, I it not necessarily that prefer “what is newest and have little regard for what is older,” but new is often far more detailed and takes into account the last 100 years of interpretation. For example, a commentary written before 1950 will not have any knowledge of the Dead Sea Scrolls or their impact on NT Scholarship. In fact, a commentary written before the mid-80s would would not have much since the flood of studies on Second Temple Judaism did not begin until them. So you are correct, a “theological commentator like John Brown of Edinburgh never makes these lists,” but that is because my interest is not “history of interpretation” as much as the tools needed for doing interpretation today.

      On that note, since I wrote these posts, there have been a number of commentaries published with the avowed intention of reading the text canonically or theologically. The Two Horizons series, for example, intentionally uses a theological method which includes (in most cases) canonical and reception history. I would probably add Mark Seifrid’s 2 Corinthians commentary here as well, since it is less exegetical than it is theological.

      Second, hyperbole aside, “Lists like this tend to exalt commentaries that are fairly worthless to most pastors and Bible teachers (laymen)” is a fair criticism. I think if you look over the many book reviews I have published here, I often make an assessment on the usefulness of a book for the busy pastor or interested layman. Since we are on the Acts commentaries here, I think anyone who is a pastor and wants to prepare sermons on the Book of Acts should be able to use Bock and Polhill. The NAC series is very “pastor friendly” and is a good aid to expository preaching. I would like to think a pastor wants to use the best tools possible for preparing for sermons, and they ought to be using Witherington from this list. For a layman, I would recommend first a decent study Bible. The ESVSB or NIVSB, for example, both have detailed intro articles on the books and mini-commentaries on key ideas in the text. If there is a desire for more, Polhill is not a bad choice (he wrote the ESVSB notes). You are correct, a layman may not get as much out of Fitzmyer, but sometimes it is good to be stretched!

      Parenthetically, since this post was published, Schnabel’s commentary from Zondervan came out – that is a very accessible work that ought to be of use to pastor or layman. In addition, Craig Keener’s 4 volume 5000 page monstrosity of a commentary came out and changed the ruined Acts commentaries for everyone!

      Third, I do occasionally “give pride of place to a number of ‘New Perspective on Paul’ authors,” although I am not sure the number is all that high, depending on one’s definition of the New Perspective. My own inclination that James Dunn is a excellent exegete and is enjoyable to read. If he writes something, I usually buy it and find it very useful. I would probably lean toward Dunn and Wright as getting quite a few things correct, but I am not one who jumped on the NPP bandwagon, nor to I think they are agents of Satan sent to destroy the reformation.

      If you like, I wrote a series of posts in 2012 on the New Perspective that start here:

      I turned these into a short article, published here:

      Other than NT Wright’s Colossians commentary (which is one of the most readable exegetical commentaries I have ever read), I am not sure many. In Romans, for example, I did recommend Dunn, but also Moo and Schreiner, so one NPP and two well-known opponents, along with Cranfield (quite reformed!) In Galatians, I do not list Dunn’s very useful commentary in the Blacks NTC series, but I do have Ronald Y. K. Fung, F. F. Bruce’s student and not at all NPP. I also list Timothy George, which is probably the most theological commentary I listed anywhere in the series.

      Thanks again for the detailed response, I took your comments as cheerfully as they were intended!

      • Now, granted, I’m a rather strange and individual individual, but I am continually puzzled by people who say that academic commentaries are “fairly worthless to most pastors and Bible teachers (laymen)”. D. A. Carson in his NT survey declared Urban C. Von Wahlde’s 3 volume commentary on John’s gospel and letters to be “completely worthless to the pastor” (which just made me want to read it all the more, and it is on my shelf). All I can say is that in my own experience as a layperson and former Anglican Church (and Masters of Divinity) drop out, I wouldn’t be sitting here today, re-immersed in the study of the gospels and Hebrew Bible, and back within the fold of the Anglican Church after two decades, if not for academic commentaries. I don’t mean to sound harsh, and I certainly don’t want to insult anyone’s intelligence, but I have always suspected that a layperson or pastor who can’t find theological insight and a deepening of faith through a rigorous examination of the texts of the Bible, simply lacks either imagination, or a heart that is open to the inspiration of God’s word beyond the strictures of our various denominations.

        For example, we cannot begin to appreciate the radical theology of Genesis 1 unless we first understand how it interacts with the Enuma Elish, the crisis of 586 BCE, and the Priestly overturning of Babylonian mythology of war and murder that creates inequality and insurgency. My own recent studies in Mark’s gospel would not be as theologically fruitful without the vast field of Second Temple studies, and commentaries by the likes of Joel Marcus or A. Y. Collins, to name the two most technical commentators I am reading. What is more, I am further bewildered by the fact that the insights I have gained into Mark’s gospel are not reflected by “pastors and laypeople” in standard, or strictly theological approaches, except by “this is a puzzling passage…”.

        For example, the youth who runs away naked: This strange little scene takes place right after the apostles have abandoned Jesus and all run away. The last is the youth in a linen cloth. He is seized, but abandoning the linen cloth he runs away naked (following Marcus’ translation). We already know that clothing in Mark is a sign of revelation and faith in the Son of Man. Those who are naked are without faith or demon possessed. Once they have been released by Jesus, they immediately clothe themselves. The youth who abandons his linen, abandons, like the apostles, his faith (and trust?) in the revealed Christ in exchange for his own pathetic life. He returns, like the apostles, to a feral state of unbelief (demon possession) and spiritual cowardice. He is metaphor not literal (Is there a further possible connection between nakedness and clothing oneself in this garden of betrayal and nakedness and clothing oneself in the garden of Eden which contained a different kind of betrayal? See the Midrashic mind working, spurred by academic stimulus?). Contrast this to the young man dressed in a white robe, seated in the tomb who announces that Jesus is not there (Could he be, as L. T. Johnson muses, the Gerasene demoniac now clothed and free to reveal that which he was admonished earlier to keep secret?). It is no mere coincidence that Mark mentions that detail of clothing. Now, no one commentator has said this specifically (Marcus in his excursus on the naked youth makes no such connections whatsoever, but reviews the literature), I simply put the clues together from studying other pericopes through such technical commentaries and being attentive to the way Mark purposefully connects his stories and images (sensitive to W. D. Davies’ comment that if someone hasn’t already thought of it in the last 2000 years it’s probably wrong). Nothing is haphazard in Mark. If this story follows the apostles’ flight, then they are meant to comment on each other. The apostles “abandon” Jesus; the youth “abandons” his linen cloth. We are naked. We are exposed in the same way Jesus saw straight through Peter’s hubris (and clothing) when he said, “You will betray me three times.”

        I have had many such revelations in my reading of Mark which I hope to share through a study group this year, but deep readings like this only follows deep technical study of the text. Without such commentaries I wouldn’t even be reading the Bible. I would have abandoned it along with the Anglican congregations of the 1970s and 1980s as a relic that had long outlived its usefulness, and never discovered the living, breathing text that is as dynamic today as it was in the decades and centuries of its original composition. And no less vital to our reading of humanity in 2016, if never more so.

        Rob Walton

      • Hi, Rob. It was not my intention to suggest that there are not pastors and laypersons who enjoy technical commentaries and may profit from them, but they are a small minority of those who use commentaries. You are indeed an “individual individual.” Having been a pastor for 25 years, I have known many pastors. Many are not academically gifted. They are activists rather than contemplatives, to use a medieval analogy. Since ‘not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth’ who are called by Christ, a clergy comprised of intellectuals would prove rather difficult for most believers to understand. Though I suspect we might both lament some of the things that are preached in churches every week. Yet it is good to remember that God’s church moves forward in weakness rather than strength so that the glory belongs entirely to Him. In addition, I would point out that, the duties and responsibilities of pastors are very numerous, oftentimes including teaching two or three times a week. It is no simple task to prepare several addresses a week. Professional speakers take months to develop just one! (I guess that’s why they get the ‘big bucks.’) My point was not to condemn academic works, but simply to note that the majority of pastors will not and cannot profit from them. I might note that seeing Mark’s naked runner as a metaphor and not a real person is not a view I would endorse. (It might simply be autobiography.) Johnson’s musings about the Gerasene demoniac are random and arbitrary at best. Nor would I be persuaded by the notion that Genesis is post-exilic. It is good to remember that not all learning arrives at the truth (2 Timothy 3:7) and that truth is often hidden from the wise and prudent and revealed to mere babes (Matthew 11:25). Of course, I am as fallible as any man, so keep in mind the admonition, “caveat lector!”

      • Please accept my apologies for the double post. WordPress said the first didn’t go through and I decided that some of the things I wrote weren’t appropriate on someone else’s blog, so I deleted them. Unfortunately the first post did go through, so both appeared. Please accept my apology for those comments, as well as the double post. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa!

  7. Speaking of new, or different perspectives… readers of Acts might want to consider having a gander at World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age by C. Kavin Rowe. From the blurb: “For almost 300 years, the dominant trend in New Testament interpretation has been to read the Acts of the Apostles as a document that argues for the political possibility of harmonious co-existence between Rome and the early Christian movement. Kavin Rowe argues that the time is long overdue for a sophisticated, critically constructive reappraisal. A brilliant piece of work by a young scholar of considerable promise.”

    Just a suggestion… no agendas here…:)

  8. Hi, Rob. It was not my intention to suggest that there are not pastors and laypersons who enjoy technical commentaries and may profit from them, but they are a small minority of those who use commentaries. You are indeed an “individual individual.” Having been a pastor for 25 years, I have known many pastors. Many are not academically gifted. They are activists rather than contemplatives, to use a medieval analogy. Since ‘not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth’ who are called by Christ, a clergy comprised of intellectuals would prove rather difficult for most believers to understand. Though I suspect we might both lament some of the things that are preached in churches every week and wish pastors would spend more time in profitable studies. Yet, it is good to remember that God’s church moves forward in weakness rather than strength so that the glory belongs entirely to Him. In addition, I would point out that, the duties and responsibilities of pastors are very numerous, oftentimes including teaching two or three times a week. It is no simple task to prepare several addresses a week. Professional speakers take months to develop just one! (I guess that’s why they get the ‘big bucks.’) In addition, pastors are also called upon to spend time visiting in hospitals, counseling members, preparing programs, preparing worship services, etc. My point was not to condemn academic works, but simply to note that the majority of pastors will not and cannot profit from them. They need commentaries that illumine the text quickly and succinctly so that they can see what the text is actually saying and then get on to preparing appropriate applications. Anyone who preaches knows that good application is easily the most difficult aspect of preaching. They simply don’t have the leisure for more recondite studies. Congratulations that you do.

  9. Thank you for this site!

    If you to choose between Keeners massive volumes and Schnabels commentary, which one is most beneficial? Who is strongest on exegetical or theological issues?

    In Christ,

    • If money is no object, Keener. It is really a massive “dictionary of Acts.” Schnabel is a great “normal” commentary, but do not overlook John Polhil in the NAC series. It is conservative but quite helpful.

      Thanks for your kind comment, enjoy the site

      • Thank you so much.
        Conservative is no issue! More of a demand : )

  10. Another question – is Schnabel or Peterson (the Pillar one) to prefer?

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