Book Review: James L. Papandrea, A Week in the Life of Rome

Papandrea, James L. A Week in the Life of Rome. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2019. 217 pgs., Pb.; $16.00 Link to IVP

This new addition to IVP Academic’s “A Week in the Life of” Series joins Ben Witherington’s A Week in the Life of Corinth (2012) and Gary M. Burge, A Week in the Life of a Roman Centurion (2015), with John Byron, A Week in the Life of a Slave coming in July 2019. Since these books are novels by biblical scholars, about half the book is academic side notes explaining the background details of the story. I have read all three of the currently available volumes and find them to be entertaining and easy reading. These are not academic books, but they do present the history and archaeology of the Roman world for a popular audience.

Papandrea makes use of some of the names in Romans 16 to create the story of a Greek freedman named Stachys, his wife Maria, and his son Tertius (yes, the one mentioned in Romans 16:22). Maria is the Mary of Acts 12 and the mother of John Mark (Marcus in the book). Along with her sassy slave Rhoda, she relocated to Rome where she married Stachys, a near convert to Christianity. Without giving too much away, the plot of the book revolves around how early Christians interacted with the Roman Empire. For example, how does a Christian attend public sports events which sacrifices dedicating the games to the gods?

The novel illustrates how important patron-client relationships were in the Roman world. Stachys is a client of his former owner, the equestrian class Roman citizen Urbanus. He must appear each day to greet his patron and be prepared to render whatever service is required. Urbanus involves Stachys in a complicated plot to increase his own status, which in turn would help Stachys. Unfortunately Urbanus wants Stachys to assign his son Tertius to a particular Roman tutor. Can the Christian Stachys allow his son to be mentored by a pagan pedagogue (with all that is implied by that relationship)?

Every few pages there is some illustration of something in the story, often a photograph with a short explanation. There are many academic notes which take up a page or two with illustrations. For example, at one point in the story Stachys attends a Roman banquet with his patron Urbanus.  Papandrea has a short section on what a Roman banquet was like along with illustrations of silver wine goblets and tableware. After introducing the emperor Claudius to the story, he gives a three page essay on the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Stachys is forced to the streets of Rome at night, so Papandrea gives a page on why the streets were so dangerous. There are short notes on the theater, gladiators and the arena, imperial power, Roman citizenship and evangelization and conversion in the early church.

As with any novel set in a biblical context, there are many minor issues with details. That Peter arrived in Rome as early as A.D. 50 is problematic and the details of Christian worship are speculation at best. I am not sure the way Papandrea describes the relationship of catechism and baptism reflects the A.D. 50 as much as the end of the century. He seems to be drawing on Didache, which reflects the situation in Syrian Antioch near the end of the first century. Was Stachys a Christian prior to baptism? The book seems to hold out the possibility he was not fully converted until he submits to baptism in the church.

Nevertheless, this book offers an entertaining insight into the relationship of Christianity and Rome in the mid-first century. Papandrea draws out the agonizing decisions a person living in the Roman world would have to make in order to be a Christian in an entirely pagan world. The book will be an easy introduction for readers interested in the background of the Roman world and early Christianity.

 

NB: Thanks to Intervarsity Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Book Review: Douglas J. Moo, Romans. Second Edition (NICNT)

Moo, Douglas J. Romans. Second Edition. NICNT; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2018. clvi+1027 pp.; Hb.; $80.00. Link to Eerdmans   

Douglas Moo’s 1996 commentary on Romans quickly became a standard reference on Paul’s longest and most important letter. Pauline studies have blossomed in the last twenty years since the first edition was published. Many important monographs and commentaries on Romans have appeared as well as several important Pauline theologies. Many important responses to the New Perspective on Paul were published, such as the two volume Justification and Variegated Nomism (Baker, 2004). Some of these nuanced and expanded Sanders others sought a return to the traditional view of Paul and Judaism. N. T. Wright’s Justification generated various responses, culminating in Wrights massive Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Fortress, 2013) and a collection of essays in response to Wright, God and the Faithfulness of Paul (Fortress, 2017). Since these developments in Pauline Theology often center on key texts in the book of Romans, an update to Moo’s NICNT commentary is welcome.

The introduction to the letter in this second edition is more or less the same, several paragraphs from the first edition have been omitted or re-worked and there are a few references to recent work on audience and purpose. For example, Moo has added a reference to Michael Gorman and Richard Longenecker as he describes the participationist view of Romans 5-8 (22). He adds a line at the end of his discussion of salvation history as the theme of Romans making it clear that although it is an important conceptual scheme for Romans, “it cannot be called the theme of the letter,” citing Douglas Campbell 2005 work on Paul’s Gospel (25).

In the body of the commentary, Moo begins each section with a translation of the text with footnotes indicating textual issues. In the first edition the footnotes had their own numbering for each pericope, in the second edition the numbers continue the footnotes for a major section. For example, there are now 1291 footnotes for the section Romans 5:1-8:39.

After a brief introduction to the pericope, he proceeds verse-by-verse commenting on key features of the text. Since this is not a Greek text commentary, all Greek appears in transliteration in the body of the text, more nuanced details are covered in the footnotes. His comments on the text not simply exegetical since the book of Romans demands some theological reflection. For example, after dealing with the difficult phrase “faithfulness of Christ” in Romans 3:21, Moo deals with two potential objections his understanding of the phrase as an objective genitive, both from a theological perspective, specifically that his view may violate sola fide and solus Christus. This attention to both exegetical detail and theological importance is well balanced in the commentary.

Moo has updated the footnotes in the second edition to include works written in the last twenty years. A comparison of the Index of Authors quickly shows the inclusion of major commentaries by Jewett, Longenecker, Schreiner, Wright and others. These are not simply appended to existing footnotes; often Moo interacts with these recent works in the body of the commentary.

In addition, footnotes are streamlined by only including a shortened citation. Occasionally only a commentator’s name is used without page number. Readers should refer to the greatly expanded bibliography in the new edition for details. The bibliography for the first edition of the commentary was twenty-five pages, the second has expanded to 156 pages of abbreviations and bibliography.

Some excurses have been expanded, others are added. For example, in the first edition after Romans 6:1-14 there was an excursus entitled “Paul’s ‘With Christ’ Conception.” In the second edition the title is “’With Christ’ and ‘In Christ’” and more than two pages have been added commenting on the 131 occurrences of “in Christ” in the Pauline letters, with references to recent literature. The excursus following Romans 1:16-17 on the righteousness of God has been re-worked and expanded; it now includes a section on righteousness language and Isaiah 40-66 and the section on the phrase “righteousness of God” now includes much more detail from Isaiah. Moo has also updated the essay with references to recent works on the righteousness of God by Mark Seifrid, N. T. Wright, and others.

After the commentary on Romans 9-11, Moo has added about five pages on “Recent Assessments of Paul and Judaism.” This short essay deals with the so-called Radical New Perspective or “Paul within Judaism,” Messianic Judaism, and bi-covenantalism. In every case, these approaches to Paul try to take seriously Romans 9-11 and to avoid supersecessionism. Also new is an excursus on Paul’s reading of the Hebrew text of Genesis 15:16 following the commentary on Romans 4.

Conclusion. Moo’s commentary joins an already crowded field of recent major Romans commentaries, including Richard N. Longenecker’s recent New International Greek Text Commentary (Eerdmans 2016) and Thomas R. Schreiner’s second edition in the Baker Exegetical New Testament Commentary (Baker, 2018). I consider Moo’s 1996 commentary the “first of the shelf” (see my Top Five Romans Commentaries). This second edition is an upgrade to an already excellent commentary, one that should be on the shelf for anyone seriously studying the book of Romans.

Book Review: Grant Osborne, Acts: Verse by Verse

Osborne, Grant R.  Acts: Verse by Verse. Osborne New Testament Commentaries; Bellingham, Wash.: Lexham Press, 2019. 545 pp.; Pb.  $19.99  Link to Lexham Press

The latest addition to the series of verse-by-verse commentaries by the late Grant Osborne is the Book of Acts. Lexham Press publishes this series simultaneously in both print and electronic Logos Library editions. Seven commentaries were published in 2017-18 (John, Romans, Galatians, Prison Epistles, Revelation), with volume on 1-2 Thessalonians and Luke coming soon.

In the nineteen page introduction to the commentary, Osborne states the book of Acts is a “historical narrative tracing how the Christ followers built ton their founder and became a worldwide force” (1). For Osborne, the book traces salvation history and the gospel-centered and Spirit-empowered mission of the church. Peter and Paul are only successful because they are commissioned by Jesus and led by the Holy Spirit to bring the Gospel to the ends of the earth.

Like many evangelicals who study Acts, Osborne is comfortable with Acts as both history and theology. He argues in favor of a traditional view authorship. Luke the companion of Paul (Colossians 4:14) is the author of the book, although he dates the book either before A. D. 62 or after Paul’s death, A. D. 75-85. Osborne prefers the earlier date, but both are possible. Throughout the body of the commentary it is clear Osborne holds traditional views of the authorship of Paul’s letters and the consensus view on most chronological problems. For example, commenting on Acts 19:21-22, he indicates “Paul was writing 1 Corinthians at this time” (349). He sides with the growing minority position by stating Galatians was written soon after Paul returned to Syrian Antioch, prior to the Jerusalem Council (269). Given the parameters of the commentary, he simply states his conviction without extensive argument.

In the first part of the commentary, Osborne uses the phrase “Christ follower” rather than Christian to describe the earliest community. He observes the church “has often been thought have originated at Pentecost, but that is not true. Pentecost is the launching of the church’s mission to be the “witnesses” (1:8), but not the genesis of its formation. If that can be ascertained, it would have to come when Jesus chose the Twelve” (18). Osborne wants to highlight the continuity between Israel of the old Covenant and the “new Israel of the new Covenant.” I understand what he is saying here, but it overlooks the fact the new Covenant was to be made with both the house of Israel and the house of Judah (Jeremiah 31:31-33).

Even As Osborne recognizes in the same paragraph, the earliest Christ followers called themselves the Way (Acts 9:2), “considering itself the messianic sect within Judaism.” There is more to the definition and nature of the church than Osborne can attempt in a very short introduction, but if he wants to reach back to the calling of the Apostles as a “genesis of the church” then the particularly Jewish nature of the church in the first twelve chapters of Acts will be diminished.

Like the other volumes in this series, the body of the commentary proceeds nearly verse-by-verse. Since Acts is much longer than other books Osborne has covered in the series so far, he is often forced to cover paragraphs rather than individual verses. This is really not a problem, although compared to some recent exegetical commentaries, this 543-page commentary seems brief. But this is not necessarily a bad thing since the goal of the commentary is to help a pastor, teacher, or interested layperson understand the main points of the text without going into the minutia of the text.

Osborne occasionally comments on the Greek text, but all Greek appears in transliteration so all readers will be able to follow the argument. Footnotes appear rarely and deal with finer details. Since his goal is clear explanation of the text, Osborne does not interact with other commentaries or enter into arcane debates on early church history. For example, he does not deal with the possible anachronism of Paul’s appointing Elders in Acts 14, simply noting that elders “followed Jewish practice for the most part” (265). He is able to deal with the Ephesian Riot in 19:23-20:1 in a few pages, without being overly distracted with a lengthy description of Artemis and her worship (Keener, in contrast, devotes more that seventy pages to the riot, including details on Artemis and her cult).

Conclusion. As with the other commentaries in this series, Osborne’s Verse-by-Verse Commentary will serve pastors and teachers as they prepare sermons on the text of the Bible. Osborne certainly achieves his goal of helping pastors to “faithfully exposit the text in a sermon.” Although scholars may find the brevity of the commentary frustrating, this commentary will be an excellent guide for anyone who desires to read John’s Gospel with more insight and understanding.

 

NB: Thanks to Lexham Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Book Review: Douglas Mangum and Josh Westbury, eds. Linguistics & Biblical Exegesis

Mangum, Douglas and Josh Westbury, eds. Linguistics & Biblical Exegesis. Lexham Methods Series 2; Lexham Press, 2016. 262 pp. $24.99   Link to Lexham Press

The second volume of the Lexham Methods series surveys the often difficult field of linguistics. Since the essays in this volume are all aimed at students who are doing exegesis of the whole Bible, examples are given for both the Old and New Testaments. For this review I read the electronic version of the book on an iPad using the Logos app and occasionally referred to the full desktop version of Logos.

Wendy Widder begins her introduction to this volume with the observation “Language is remarkably simple and extraordinarily complex at the same time.” A short handbook like this volume cannot possibly cover all aspects of linguistics. This book is not a guide teaching the methods of linguistic analysis. Rather, Widder says the book will introduce readers to the “aspects of linguistics that most apply to biblical study” in assist students who are using modern commentaries and other resources which do linguistic analysis of the text of the Bible.

In chapter 2 Widder introduces four fundamental aspects of linguistic study: phonology (study of sounds and their organization in language), morphology (the study of how languages form their words), semantics (how a language creates meaning), and syntax (how a language arranges its words into phrases, clauses, and sentences).

Jeremy Thompson and Wendy Widder survey several areas of linguistics focused on language use (chapter 3). The focus of the chapter is studying how language is used in context, or language as it is “actually used in literary and social contexts.” This includes pragmatics (meaning in context, including relevance theory and speech-act theory), discourse analysis (study that focuses on analyzing strings of sentences connected in a discourse). Discourse grammar is used to describe “grammatical conventions based upon the discourse functions they accomplish” citing Runge. The chapter includes a short discussion of sociolinguistics (the interaction between language and society, or social context).

In chapter 4 Daniel Wilson and Michael Aubrey offer a concise overview of the more complicated linguistic topics relevant for analyzing the biblical languages, such as language universals (grammatical, syntactic and semantic patterns that extend across languages).   The chapter also introduces linguistic typology (the attempt to establish universals across languages based on the presence or absence of forms) and markedness (how linguistic elements relate to each other).  Although arcane, Wilson and Aubrey argue the syntactic application of markedness is “one of the most beneficial for biblical exegesis” because it emphasizes prominence of a particular word or phrase in a sentence. If an author “marked” a structure in a sentence, the exegete ought to explore why it was so marked.

Jeremy Thompson and Wendy Widder provide a brief introduction to the field of linguistics and the main schools of thought in linguistics (chapter 5). They begin with a short section on comparative philology, which studies historical written sources to identify relationships among languages. This includes diachronic methods illustrated the Brown-Driver-Briggs (BDB) lexicon. This section interacts with James Barr, Comparative Philology and the Text of the Old Testament (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1987). Barr is well-known for his challenge to the diachronic method (and although this chapter does not mention it, he savaged TDNT). The chapter also includes sections on:

  • According to this chapter, the value of structuralism is seen at the lexical level. The authors cite several lexicons, including the valuable Louw and Nida.
  • Functionalism takes as its starting point that the end function of language is communication, and it works backward toward understanding language as a whole. With respect to biblical Greek, the influence of functionalism can be seen in approaches like Runge’s discourse grammar.
  • Generative grammar, following Noam Chomsky that posits a set of grammatical rules which generate surface structure sentences from deep structure sentences
  • Discourse analysis, a method which “approaches language at higher levels than the sentence.” The definition is more problematic since biblical studies has adopted some of the terminology and methods, but they do not always deploy them the way they were originally defined.
  • Cognitive linguistics applies cognitive science to language as a cognitive process continually affected by one’s experiences

Chapters six and seven focus on how linguistic methods are applied to the Bible. Both chapters cover the same four topics (Problems with the Data (in both cases, they are dead languages, although Greek has more Dara to work with); Verbal System, Semantics and Lexicography, and Word Order). Wendy Widder deals with linguistic issues in Biblical Hebrew (chapter 6). Widder observes that “establishing a chronology of the language in the Old Testament is infamously difficult because we lack firm dates for the composition of the biblical books” although some evidence from inscriptions and cognate languages “allows scholars to hypothesize patterns of development and thus the chronology of biblical Hebrew.” With respect to the New Testament, Michael Aubrey laments the fact papyri has not yet been sufficiently integrated into lexicons. “Moulton and Milligan’s Vocabulary of the Greek Testament was a grand attempt at the integration of the papyri into the lexicographical work of the era, but it never went beyond being a supplement to other lexicons.”

Finally, Michael Aubrey contributes an essay on the value of “linguistically informed Exegesis.” He argues a linguistically informed exegesis will enhance the “precision and explanatory power” of exegesis.

Each essay concludes with a short “Importance for Biblical Languages.”  These will be most useful to biblical studies students brushing up on linguistic. Following each essay is a brief, annotated “Resources for Further Study.” These often cite chapters in textbooks on linguistics. The annotations briefly point out the connections to the present topic. Some of these resources are substantive, but others less so. This should not surprise readers, but this guide is on the conservative side of the theological spectrum. Many of the linguistic resources recommended are conservative (for example, David Alan Black; Robert D. Bergen 1987 JETS article, “Text as a Guide to Authorial Intention: An Introduction to Discourse Criticism”.

For the Logos Library version, there are inks to the glossary for key terms and scholars and movements. Float over the name Ferdinand de Saussure or the Prague School and Logos will show the entry for the glossary for the term. This is extremely helpful when reading the book on an iPad or desktop installation of Logos. As with other contributions to this series, Lexham could convert this glossary in a flash card format Study Blue, Quizlet, Cerego) or create a test-bank for professors. This would make the book more useful to students, especially of the book is adopted as a textbook.

I noticed a few typos (Rung for Runge, page 60), some malformed Greek, and a few formatting problems which may only appear in the electronic format for example. More critical is a citation of Stanley Porter on page 82. The quote has a footnote indicating it is from the second edition of Idioms of the Greek New Testament, (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1999), 55–56. This is actually from Porter’s essay “Prominence: An Overview” in The Linguist as Pedagogue, pages 55-56 (the book does not appear in this volume).

I assume all these will be reported, corrected, and updated copies will be pushed out to Logos users. I find the lack of page numbers in the iPad annoying, but the book has a detailed numbering system 5.4.1, and this numbering system appears in the upper right hand of the iPad version.

This brings me to a slight criticism. In the section on discourse analysis several works are recommended which are other Lexham products. Are these really the best resources? In this particular example it may be the case since there is nothing quite like The Lexham High Definition Old and New Testament. As for the influence of structuralism on lexicons, they cite A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains, The Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, the Semantic Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew, and the Bible Sense Lexicon. The last is a Faithlife production. There is nothing wrong with the Bible Sense Lexicon, but would it be cited along with Louw and Nida in another introduction to linguistics?

 

NB: Thanks to Lexham Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Book Review: James D. G. Dunn, Jesus according to the New Testament

Dunn, James D. G. Jesus according to the New Testament. Foreword by Rowan Williams. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2019. 211 pp. Pb; $20.   Link to Eerdmans  

Dunn observes in his postscript to his new book on Jesus that the impact Jesus initially made on his earliest followers continues to be felt today (p. 187). A study of Jesus cannot be simply a sequence of historical events or some ancient teachings with no significance for contemporary Christians. In fact, much of Dunn’s work has focused on the memory of Jesus among his earliest followers. See, for example, his magisterial trilogy Jesus Remembered (2003), Beginning from Jerusalem (2009) and Neither Jew nor Greek: A Contested Identity (2016), his collection of essays on The Oral Gospel Tradition (2016) or his earlier collection, Jesus, Paul, and the Gospels (2011). This new book targets a broader audience. It is written in a more popular style and Dunn does include many footnotes.

The book begins with “Jesus according to Jesus.” For most non-scholars, this seems like the likely place to start, but as Dunn observes, there is some skepticism concerning how much of Jesus’s teaching actually appears in the Gospels (p. 25). Dunn lists a series of “lessons” and distinctive features of Jesus’s ministry as recalled by his earliest followers. Most of these are not at all controversial, such as the Love command, Jesus’s priority for the poor and his welcoming sinners and other outsiders (including gentiles, women and children). That Jesus was a teacher who spoke in parables is in all strands of the tradition, as well as his exorcising evil spirits. Dunn does not include Jesus’s healing ministry here, although it is closely related to his exorcisms. He also surveys some of Jesus’s titles which imply he understood himself to be the messiah, the one who was sent by God, the son of God and the son of Man.

Dunn surveys the nuances of the three Synoptic Gospels in chapter two and John in chapter three. Since the canonical Gospels were written at least thirty to forty years after Jesus, Dunn briefly explains his view of the oral traditions about Jesus which circulated in this time. For each Gospel he briefly sums up their distinctive contributions (Mark’s messianic secret, Matthew’s focus on Israel, Luke’s focus on Jesus’s mission to sinners, John’s entirely different approach to demonstrating Jesus as the Messiah).

In “Jesus according to Acts” Dunn begins by comparing the commissions of Peter and Paul which may express Luke’s conviction that the greater mission to the gentiles was inspired by God (p. 77). It is the sermons in Acts which present the memory of Jesus, so Dunn examines these closely and makes note of the some disturbing absence of theology concerning the death of Jesus in the book. Luke presents the death of Jesus as fact, but it is not interpreted as it is in the Pauline letters.

Dunn includes two chapters on Jesus according to Paul, first focusing on the uniqueness of Paul’s Gospel as well as Paul’s own emphasis that his Gospel is not distinctive from the other apostles (with respect to the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus). Much of these two chapters reviews Paul’s metaphors for salvation as well as Paul’s view of the future. For the details, Dunn’s The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Eerdmans, 2006) is an indispensable resource.

The book of Hebrews is perhaps the most distinctive book in the New Testament with respect to how it understands Jesus. It is the only book which focuses on Jesus as a high priest. Dunn thinks it is remarkable the book was included in the canon not only because of its anonymity, but also for this presentation of Jesus as a Jewish priest. He observes that in Judaism priestly ritual gave way to expounding the word of God, but in Christianity the word was subordinated to the “revived priestly ritual” (155).

The contribution of James, Peter, John and Jude to the New Testament understanding of Jesus are combined into a single chapter. In fact, James has remarkably little to say about Jesus, at least directly. Dunn demonstrates James new the Jesus tradition, at least in its oral form, by drawing parallels between James and the Sermon on the Mount. So too for 1 Peter and 1 John (2-3 John are more or less ignored). Jude and 2 Peter are a troublesome pair of letters; Dunn asks “how much of Christianity would have been lost if Jude and 2 Peter had not been included in the canon?”

Finally, Dunn describes how the book of Revelation understands Jesus. This chapter is frustratingly brief considering how much Revelation says about Jesus. Dunn comments briefly on the initial vision of Jesus in chapter 1 and the letters to the seven churches before tracing the Lamb of God theme through the book. Much more could be said about how the end of the book presents Jesus as a conquering king who returns to restore God’s kingdom to the world.

Dunn hints this book could be extended into the early church (so, “Jesus according to Ignatius”), but also to any reader of the book (“Jesus according to Me”). Since everything we know about Jesus is due to the personal testimony of his followers, why not call on contemporary readers of the New Testament to continue to bear witness to the story of Jesus? This short book succeeds in laying a foundation for this contemporary reflection on Jesus.

 

 

NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

 

Book Review: Carl R. Holladay, Acts: A Commentary

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.

holladay-actsA 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.

 

Book Review: James D. G. Dunn, The Acts of the Apostles

Dunn, James D. G. The Acts of the Apostles. Foreword by Scot McKnight. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2016. 421 pp. Pb; $32.   Link to Eerdmans  

This is not a new commentary from Dunn, but a reprint of the 1996 Epworth commentary. Unfortunately the book has been out of print for many years and is often outrageously overpriced from some book sellers (this is not the case for any other out of print Epworth commentary as far as I can tell). I happened to buy my copy at a local store for a reasonable price, but for most the commentary has been inaccessible. Some material from that commentary ended up in Dunn’s Beginning at Jerusalem (Eerdmans, 2009).

When I published my Top Five Commentaries on the Book of Acts in 2012 I included Beginning at Jerusalem simply because it was more comprehensive and easer to purchase than the Epworth volume. With the reprinting of this Dunn-Acts-of-the-Apostlescommentary students of the book of Acts have access to a deceptively simple commentary on Acts. This is a commentary which provides what is necessary to understand the book of Acts without becoming overwhelmed a thousand details.

As McKnight says in his introduction, there are several massive commentaries available, including the exhaustive four-volume set by Craig Keener (Baker, 2012-2015). It is something of a shock to realize Dunn’s commentary is less than 10% of Keener’s page count, and Keener’s volumes are larger in page size. One might ask in the post-Keener world of Acts commentary, is anything left to say? Simply put, Dunn wrote before Keener was first published, so one might ask, was there anything left to say after Dunn? Although his commentary does not have the encyclopedic breadth of the Keener commentary, it is the sort of commentary a pastor or Bible teacher can use to prepare sermons and Bible studies. Dunn’s commentary is more like what commentaries looked like before publishers became willing to print 4000 pages on a book like Acts.

Every section begins on the same page as the earlier volume, so students will be able to check this new edition even if the older edition is cited. I noticed some very small differences in the typesetting where a single word or two at the end of a page runs over to the next, but this will not affect citation. After spot checking ten chapters late in the book, I noticed the copyright page indicates the book is retypeset and new maps added, but pagination is the same. In fact, this is neither a “second edition” nor a revised edition, it is a reprint of the original with very little change. The introduction is about a page longer (using Roman numerals), updating the bibliography to include many of the major commentaries which have appear since 1996.

In his brief introduction to commentary, Dunn recognizes Luke is a history, but not a history in the modern sense of the word. Luke went beyond simply reporting and passing along tradition; he felt free to elaborate, expand and interpret those traditions. This is not to say Luke has created unadulterated fiction. With respect to the speeches, Dunn concludes Luke followed the ancient conventions used by Thucydides and other historians. Like the Gospel of Luke, the theology of the book reflects early Christian preaching, but theology filtered through Luke’s unique concerns.

The body of the commentary progresses through the book in small units, sometimes a few verses other sections include whole paragraphs. His commentary is on the English text and he does not interact with the Greek at all. There are no footnotes or in-text citations in the commentary. This may be a cause for concern given recent plagiarism controversies, but this was the style of the original commentary. This makes for an extremely readable commentary. Since Dunn is not concerned with the minutiae of the text, one could read this commentary like a monograph. Although occasionally brief, Dunn using gives enough detail to help the reader make sense of what Luke is saying.

Conclusion. I agree with McKnight’s very brief forward to this volume recommending this short yet powerful commentary. Eerdmans is to be applauded for bringing this commentary back into print.

 

NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.