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Acts of the Apostles: A Continuing/Renewed Focus

September 24, 2014

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.



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  1. Hi,

    The Message of Acts in Codex Bezae (Vol 2), 2006 by Josep Rius-Camps, Jenny Read-Heimerdinger is part of a series of writings that are a surprising omission in the two blog posts.

    The authors say about the Theophilus proposal :

    The Message of Acts in Codex Bezae (vol 2): A Comparison with the Alexandrian Tradition (2006)

    “In view of the strongly Jewish perspective of Acts in Codex Bezae, it is most probable that Theophilus was a sophisticated Jewish person with an intense interest in what he had witnessed taking place among the Jesus-believers. The High Priest of this name, third son of Annas and brother-in-law of Caiaphas (Jn 18.13), appointed by Agrippa I to serve between 37 and 41 CE, could have been that person.5 As a Hellenistic Jew who had had close contact with the people and
    events of the early Church, it is plausible that he should have had questions about what he had seen and heard and that Luke should write to inform him about everything from a Jewish point of view. …”

    The footnote references:

    5. The case for Thephilus being the High Priest has been made by R. Anderson, ‘À la recher-
    che de Théophile’, in Saint Luc. évangeliste et historien (Dossiers d’Archéologie 279 [2002-31). . pp.64-71; see also R. Puigdollers i Noblom.’ His grans sacerdois jucus des de I’epoca d’Herodes el Gran fins a la guerra jueva”. RCalT 30 (2005), pp. 49-89 (67-69).

    The Richard H. Anderson paper is available in English, the Rodolf Puigdollers writing has not been given much note. And there has been a rich vein of auxiliary writings and studies since its publication.

    Do any of the other commentators have helpful information on this aspect? This would pinpoint the date of the writing to close to 60 AD (putting aside later recension concepts)

    Steven Avery

    • Steven: My omission of the works by Ruis-Camp and Read-Heimerdinger are only a few of MANY not mentioned in a post that was never intended to be taken as anything close to exhaustive. I did mentions that Acts is preserved in two editions, Codex Bezae the major witness for the so-called “Western” text of Acts. I would have to say that their “take” on Codex Bezae (that it is more “primitive” and superior to the so-called “Alexandrian” text) is regarded as . . . well, their own view, and not endorsed by most other text critics.

  2. What is the best single volume treatise on Acts?

    • What a difficult question! But I’m not sure what the question is. There are different genres of books on Acts (and other NT writings): commentaries (and commentaries for different kinds of readers, those able to read the Greek text, those unable, general readers, students), and there are scholarly monographs (which typically focus on some one theme such as the theology of Acts or its literary genre), and there are introductions for students.

  3. Patrick permalink

    What Luke does not write about might be important in dating this material . Luke does not mention Paul’s death and yet Paul is where he focuses his attention.

    He does not mention the 70 AD destruction of Jerusalem, yet that would have been a major dialectic point between Jewish Christians and other Jews it seems to me.

    He does not mention Peter’s death. He does mention Stephen’s martyrdom.

    I find it hard to imagine he would not include something on these events if he wrote it after they occurred.

    • Yes, Patrick, you rehearse just the sort of arguments made by those who propose an early date for Acts. But those who argue for a later date (e.g., 80s CE) propose that the author had reasons for limiting the account and not referring to Paul’s death. I refer you to standard NT introductions for discussions of the matter. It’s not something I wish to get into here.

  4. Any chance this is the kind of work you would review? I’m considering picking up Keener’s set, but wow they’re pricey, which means they aren’t a spur of the moment purchase.

    • To review the work would = reading the several thousand pages, but I can’t spare the time in view of other pressing commitments. So, I suspect that I’ll simply consult it (along with other works) as I have need.

  5. Jim permalink

    May I ask if you have gone through Acts and Christian Beginnings (The Acts Seminar Report)? If so, would you recommend this summary of the deliberations on Acts by this group? Thanks.

  6. andrewmarkhenry permalink

    Dr. Hurtado,

    Long time lurker, first time poster (also one of David Frankfurter’s Ph.D students at BU). I’m curious what your thoughts are on the dating of Acts. I’ve always assumed it was late 1st-century, but there seems to be a growing scholarly opinion that places it much later…well into the 2nd century. I’ve heard this might have something to do with Marcion, but I haven’t been able to track down the articles or books that champion this position.

    ~Andrew Henry

    • Here’s a recent publication relevant that treats the issue: Ruben R. Dupertuis, and Todd Penner, eds. Engaging Early Christian History: Reading Acts in the Second Century (Durham: Acumen PUblishing, 2013).

      • Another book that might help Andrew Henry is Joseph Tyson’s, “Marcion and Luke-Acts: A Defining Struggle” that makes the case for dating the canonical edition of Luke and the book of Acts to 130 CE as a response to Marcion. However, other early second century daters who follow Richard Pervo’s “Dating Acts” in seeing it closer to 115 CE do not bring Marcion into the equation, but the arguments are based on rethinking whether the author of Acts was aware of a collection of Paul’s letters and Josephus’ Antiquities and the parallels to the developing ecclesiology of some early second century writers. I think it is still a minority view, but it is growing.

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