Holladay, Carl R. Acts: A Commentary. NTL; Minneapolis: Westminster John Knox, 2016. lxiv + 608 pages; Hb. $75.00. Link to Westminster John Knox Press
There have been several significant contributions to the New Testament Library series from Westminster John Knox in recent years (Marianne Meye Thompson on John and Eugene Boring’s 1-2 Thessalonians, for example). Carl Holladay continues this tradition with this readable and useful commentary on the book of Acts. Although several new commentaries on Acts have appeared in recently, including Keener’s massive four-volume work, Holladay’s commentary provides a balance of exegesis and background to the Acts without overwhelming the reader with details which may not illuminate the text.
A seventy-page introduction covers more than the usual authorship and date issues. Holladay considers Luke and Acts as a literary unit from a single author “possibly, but not certainly, Luke the physician” (5). He does not proved evidence for the literary unity until the end of the introduction, offering a few themes which run through both Luke and Acts. He does not engage any recent challenges to the literary unity of the books (Patricia Walter, for example) or the canonical problem that Luke and Acts do not seem to have ever circulated together. He simply points to the (obvious) evidence which supports the consensus view Luke and Acts were intended to be read as a unity.
The author is a “devoted Paulinist who was not only an admirer of Paul but also a strong advocate for his pioneering role in the church’s formative period” (6). Although any date between A.D. 60 and 180 is possible, he assumes sometime after the fall of Jerusalem, possibly sometime in the 80s. If Acts reflects knowledge of Josephus, the date would have to be closer to A.D. 100. With respect to genre, Acts is a history, but “we must be cautious against simply historicizing the Acts account” (13).
Holladay devotes sixteen pages to the textual history of Acts, identifying the major textual witnesses to Acts and classifying them into four categories. His fourth category is essentially the expansive Codex D (Bezae). This version of Acts dates to about A.D. 400 and is about 10% longer than the Alexandrian text. Sometimes the text is expanded to edify readers, other times there is a theological motivation (anti-Judaism, for example). But most often Codex D simply fleshes out details absent in the other textual traditions. This has led to the suggestion of two textual traditions for Acts. For some both were written by Luke (the shorter being the final, edited form, perhaps made after Luke’s death), or only the shorter comes from Luke with the longer expanded by incorporating notes on Acts into the manuscript. Holladay concludes that neither the short or long texts are directly traceable to Luke, but the short text is earlier (30).
With respect to literary structure, Holladay admits a three-stage geographical outline for the book makes sense, but it oversimplifies matters. Acts 1:8 indicates the disciples will be witnesses in “Jerusalem, all Judea and Samaria, and the ends of the earth,” foreshadowing chapters 1-7 (in Jerusalem), 8-12 (in Samaria and Judea) and finally 13-28 (the Pauline mission to the rest of the world). What this common structure overlooks is Paul’s back-and-forth movements from the east to the west, eventually returning to Jerusalem before being sent to Caesarea for two years and then on to Rome. Holladay suggests the story line of Acts is God’s activity beginning in Jerusalem as the center of Christianity to Rome as the “symbolic center of the gentile church” (32). But the focus is also on only some of the apostles, “effectively eliminating Johannine Christianity.”
Holladay argues Luke’s literary style is a clue to his theological purposes. Beginning with Luke’s redaction of Mark, Holladay points out that Luke consistently rewrites Mark’s colloquiums in order to appeal to more educated readers. Like other contemporary writers, Luke likes to use rare words, subtle Geek grammar and syntax, and litotes (emphasizing something by intentionally understating it, such as calling Tarsus “not an insignificant city). Luke frequent imitates the Septuagint as he narrates stories. The use of the phrase “it came to pass,” for example, reflects the Septuagint’s translation of the common Hebrew verb used to introduce a new story.
Since as much as 30% of Acts are speeches, Holladay offers a short introduction to Luke’s literary and theological strategies implied by his use of speeches. Ancient historians regularly included speeches woven into their narratives which often convey the writer’s own agenda. The example of Eleazer’s speech at Masada in Josephus’s Jewish War is a prime example. Josephus could not have any eyewitness of what was actually said, so the speech reflects the gist of what must have been said to achieve the known result. Although Luke did not have to create speeches out of nothing (as Josephus did in this example), the speeches in the book are theological summaries of how the apostles preached to the Jews, or how Paul approached gentiles living in Athens. Often Christological titles are embedded in speeches which imitate the language of the Old Testament (43). For Holladay, “each speech is composed ‘in character’ to fit the respective portraits of Peter and Paul (46).
The final section of the introduction is a twenty page survey of Luke’s theological themes in Acts divided into five categories. First, Holladay describes Luke’s interest in the fulfillment of God’s purpose and intent. This is a continuation of the promise-fulfillment scheme prominent in Luke. The community which formed around Jesus the messiah is a fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham (50). But Luke does not see the church as a “new Israel” or is the category “Israel” used to understand the church (51). Second, Acts presents the church as faithful Christian witnesses in both the context of early Christian preaching and in scriptural promise-fulfillment. Third, Luke presents the early church as politically harmless yet socially redemptive (56). Roman authorities see the church as an extension of Judaism (a sect of the Nazarenes) who are often peaceful victims of violence. Christianity is portrayed as a socially constructive community which has characteristics appearing to culturally sophisticated Hellenists (57). Fourth, the church as an extension of Jesus’s ministry as it suffers persecution as a result of preaching of the good news of Jesus Christ. Finally, Luke describes the church as divinely favored. The “God who acts” works through Holy Spirit to foster a generous community of the Holy Spirit (67).
The body of the commentary present each pericope as translated by Holladay with lexical and textual notes following. All Greek appears in transliteration and syntactical issues are minimal. Holladay’s exposition sets the text in historical context. For example, when introducing Paul’s time in Ephesus, Holladay offers two pages of background material necessary for understanding the story Luke tells. Recent commentaries on Acts have tended to expand this background material beyond what is necessary, much of which can be found in a quality Bible Dictionary in the first place.
Footnotes in the body of the commentary cite parallel biblical material, lexical notes, parallel ancient works (for example, Josephus), geographical notes, and occasional reference to secondary literature. Since the New Testament Library focuses on the interpretation of the text rather than surveying various opinions in other commentaries, reference to secondary literature rare in the commentary. This lack of constant reference to other commentaries makes for a reading commentary and ought not to imply the author has no knowledge of “the literature” on the book of Acts. Holladay has certainly done the work required to read the text of Acts with clarity.
Because there are three versions of Paul’s conversion in Acts, Holladay offers a nineteen page excursus on Saul’s conversion/call (203-222). He recognizes the event has elements of both a conversion and a prophetic call and uses the double expression throughout the excursus. Although there are variations between the accounts, Holladay points out four key common elements (Paul as a persecutor, the Damascus Road experience, the risen Lord’s commission to Saul and Paul’s subsequent preaching activity). He compares this composite narrative to the version of Paul’s conversion found in Galatians 1:13-24. There are several differences, especially in terms of Paul’s response to his vision. In Galatians he immediately preaches in the Synagogues and for three years in Arabia before finally coming to Jerusalem to briefly become acquainted with the Apostles. Holladay considers this “quite remarkable” (216) and he tends to follow Stendahl’s suggestion that in Galatians Paul presents his experience as a prophetic call while Luke emphasizes the Damascus Road experience. More important that sorting out the historical data is Luke’s theological understanding of Paul’s conversion/call. Luke understands the story of Saul’s persecution as authentic and his preaching as originating from the moment of his calling. For Holladay, although Paul is not formally called an apostle, he is accepted by the apostles and his mission to the Gentiles comes out of Jerusalem as opposed to Antioch.
Conclusion. Carl Holladay has made a significant contribution to the study of the book of Acts, although falling short of the recent encyclopedic commentaries on the book. The result is a commentary useful for both professionals and laymen as the preach and teach the book of Acts
NB: Thanks to Westminster John Knox Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.