Acts of the Apostles: A Continuing/Renewed Focus
The arrival today of the third massive volume in Craig Keener’s commentary on Acts (details below) is only the latest of a number of indications of intense scholarly interest in this remarkable early Christian text. Acts of the Apostles is unique among known Christian texts of the three centuries in purporting to give a continuous narrative of early developments and figures in the first decades of the young Christian movement. Scholarly questions about, and interest in, this major text continue, and have even received renewed attention in recent years.
This latest volume in Keener’s major commentary project on Acts weighs in at 1,155 pages, bringing the total page-count thus far to 3,348, taking his coverage through Acts 23:35. Craig S. Keener, Acts: An Exegetical Commentary. Volume 3: 15:1–23:35 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014). There is a fourth huge volume to come that will complete the set.
Over the years, Acts has been the focus of previous multi-volume projects. Perhaps the most well-known is the still-important 5-volume work: The Beginnings of Christianity: Part 1, The Acts of the Apostles, eds. F. J. Foakes Jackson and Kirsopp Lake (London/New York: Macmillan, 1920-1933). This project included a volume on the “Jewish and Gentile Backgrounds,” another on key critical issues (e.g., authorship, date, etc.), a full volume on the text-critical issue (by J. H. Ropes), a volume of passage-by-passage commentary (by Lake and Cadbury), and a volume of “Additional Notes” that include some valuable studies of particular topics in Acts.
In the 1990s there appeared another multi-volume series with much to offer, The Book of Acts in its First Century Setting (published by Eerdmans): Vol. 1, The Book of Acts in its Ancient Literary Setting, eds. Bruce Winter and Andrew Clarke (1993); Vol. 2, The Book of Acts in Its Graeco-Roman Setting, eds. David W.J. Gill & Conrad Gempf (1994); Vol. 3, The Book of Acts and Paul in Roman Custody, a monograph by Brian Rapske (1994); Vo. 4, The Book of Acts in Its Palestinian Setting, ed. Richard Bauckham (1995); and Vol. 5, The Book of Acts in Its Diaspora Setting, another monograph, by Irina Levinskaya (1996). A projected 6th volume appeared as a separate book: Witness to the Gospel: The Theology of Acts, ed. I. Howard Marshall (1998).
There is yet another large commentary project by Justin Taylor, Les acts des deux apôtres (vols 4-6 covering the full text of Acts, published by J. Gabalda, Paris).
I mentioned Acts as unique. There were, certainly, other Christian writings that now bear the label “apocryphal acts,” but they tend to focus on one or another figure, are commonly thought to have emerged later than Acts of the Apostles, and at least some of them seem to be compilations of stories and smaller units of material, not having the character of Acts as a more unified narrative. For a good entrée into these texts, see Hans-Josef Klauck, The Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles: An Introduction (Baylor University Press, 2008). It is only with Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History (several editions ca. 290-325 CE) that we have another “joined-up” account of early Christianity. Note the title of Daniel Marguerat’s monograph: Daniel G. The First Christian Historian: Writing the “Acts of the Apostles” (SNTSMS, 121; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).
Acts is still usually regarded as a second volume by the author of the Gospel of Luke, and these two work comprise a major literary project in themselves, amounting to about 25% of the entire NT. The prefaces to Luke (1:1-4) and to Acts (1:1-5) reflect an author acquainted with and invoking literary conventions of his time. (For a good introduction to the literary setting of the NT, David E. Aune, The New Testament in Its Literary Environment, 1987.)
One of the major problems in the study of Acts is that there is significant variation in the form of its text. In particular, Codex Bezae (a Greek-Latin manuscript of the 5th century CE) has a Greek text of Acts that is quite distinguishable from the more familiar text-form. Often referred to as “the Western text” of Acts, as given in Codex Bezae it is about 12-14% larger, mainly due to longer variants at a number of points in the text. Some have championed the kind of text we have in Bezae as closer to the “original” text, but most scholars continue to judge the more familiar “Alexandrian” kind of text as superior. For some recent discussions of the matter, the following: Peter Head, “Acts and the Problem of Its Texts,” in The Book of Acts in Its First Century Setting, Volume 1: Ancient Literary Setting, eds. Bruce W. Winter and Andrew D. Clarke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 415-44; Christopher Tuckett, “The Early Text of Acts,” in The Early Text of the New Testament, eds. Charles E. Hill and Michael J. Kruger (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 157-74. There is also a concise discussion of the matter in A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Second Edition, by Bruce M. Metzger (Stuttgart: United Bible Societies, 1994), 222-36.
Other questions abound as well, such as what literary “genre” by which to characterize Acts, when to date it, even whether it was written by the author of Luke, the theological focus and purpose of Acts, its stance toward Jews, and still other matters. Evidence of this continuing scholarly focus is the recent multi-author volume: The Book of Acts As Church History. Apostelgeschichte als Kirchengeschichte: Text, Texttraditionen und antike Auslegungen, eds. Tobias Nicklas & M. Tilly (BZNW, 120; Berlin/New York: de Gruyter, 2003), which has a number of excellent analyses of major issues.