Earlier this month, Baker Academic published the first volume of Craig Keener magisterial commentary on the book of Acts. When all is said and done, Acts: An Exegetical Commentary will total four volumes of roughly 5,000 pages. It is safe to say that once volume four hits the shelf, Keener’s work on Acts will be the standard by which Acts studies will be compared to for generations to come.
This past June I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Keener in Chicago. We talked often about his work on Acts, his book on Miracles, and his many other commentaries and writings. When I contacted him about an interview he graciously accepted my offer. Below is part one of our interview. I hope you enjoy this conversation.
1. For those who may not know you, can you briefly tell us a little bit about your educational background, where you currently teach, and what subjects you teach?
I started teaching in 2011 at Asbury Theological Seminary and so far have been teaching New Testament introduction and PhD courses (one on Revelation and soon one on historical Jesus research). Until then I taught for fifteen years at Palmer Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, where I did most of the writing of the books now coming out. There, at the M.Div. level, I taught a required course in biblical interpretation and, toward the end, another one in Gospels and Acts; also occasionally Old or New Testament Introduction; and a range of electives (especially Matthew, Revelation, Acts, Life of Paul, Romans, 1-2 Corinthians). My educational background is diverse (sometimes determined by my geographical location at the time, but all helpful), from Bible college to seminary to a state university and a PhD at Duke, from different periods in my life. I learned valuable insights at each stage and got to know many wonderful friends along the way. Over the years I studied with Methodists, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, Baptists, Jewish scholars, agnostics, and others—it is helpful to learn from a range of perspectives and then see where the evidence leads.
2. You have written a number of commentaries on different NT books: the Gospel of Matthew and John, Romans, 1-2 Corinthians and Revelation, and now Acts. How do you decide which book you will write on next? Is there a method to your choosing?
Sometimes it has been based on what I was asked to write or where a series had an opening, but my large commentaries have partly followed my research. Some thirty years ago I started keeping information on index cards, eventually many tens of thousands of them. Although some were arranged topically, most were arranged canonically. The problem was that an index card with an ancient source relevant for, say, something in John, Acts, and Revelation would be filed under the canonically first reference, in John, though also marked for the others. I had to finish John before I could file it forward. Happily I now have a better system for accessing my more recent data, so when I go to Paul, Lord willing, I should be able to move more quickly.
3. Baker Academic just published volume one (there are a total of four to be published) of your Acts commentary. Can you tell us a little bit of how this magisterial work came to be, how long it took you to write, etc.?
I had always planned to make Acts one of my major undertakings, and to complete it some time after John. In fact my research file on Acts was much larger than on other books, but when I started writing this commentary, in 2000, I had no idea that it would mushroom to roughly three times the size of my two-volume John commentary. That is why the volumes have so many large pages with fairly tight type, especially in the footnotes. In each volume of Acts, one gets almost the amount of material one would get in one volume of my John commentary. After 2000, I kept thinking, “Just two more years and I will be finished with the rough draft,” or “with editing it into shape,” etc. Instead it kept stretching on and on, roughly a decade. As someone who is something like ADD, I have been frustrated with the extremely delayed completion and publication. Nevertheless, I loved Acts itself, and all the ancient sources I was able to use to bring its message to life for modern readers.
4. For some, the question of genre may not come into play while they are reading through Acts. But in your introduction you spend quite a bit of time establishing the genre of Acts. Can you explain why understanding the genre of Acts is important for understanding the message of Acts?
What you expect a book to be will influence how you read it. If I read a novel for entertainment, I am not expecting to learn accurate historical information. Genres have also evolved over time. Thus for example ancient biographies and histories were supposed to focus on genuine information, but were also supposed to be presented in a readable way that also offered insights (through positive and negative examples) for how to live. Using internal markers to see what genre of his day the author wanted the work to conform to guides us in determining how to understand what the author wanted us to do with the work.
5. One of first things the reader of your commentary notices is the interaction with key Greco-Roman and Jewish sources. What part do the writings of Pliny, Cicero, Josephus, and other contemporaries of Luke play in situating Acts in its first-century context?
I had loved Greco-Roman literature before I read the New Testament or (many decades ago) converted to Christianity. This part of the work came naturally for me, and I loved doing it. If we want to understand the information in Acts that the writer could take for granted, without explicit articulation, that his first-century audience would understand, we need to know about the first-century world. Sometimes scholars develop a competence in a single ancient source or sphere (say, Cynic sages or rabbinic literature) and then try to read the entire New Testament in light of these proposed backgrounds—somewhat analogous to a reader today wanting to understand 9/11 through aeronautic engineering, at best, or through the study of Melanesian cargo cults, at worst. It’s important to have a command of the full range of ancient sources, insofar as possible, to reach the highest probabilities of what first-century people did and thought. That is what I have worked to achieve, as best as possible.
6. As opposed to the works of Richard Burridge (biography) and Pervo (Novel), you argue that Acts is best read as history. Why do you believe that this is the best genre for Acts?
Richard and Charles Talbert make useful contributions to the discussion because there was a biographic way to do history, and Acts does focus on chief characters. One can even learn from some of Pervo’s literary insights from novels, since historical works, though meant to be factual, were ideally expected to be told in an entertaining or engaging way. But Acts cannot be a novel, even a historical novel. Where we can test Acts with sources external to Acts, which is in scores of cases, it nearly always corresponds to that data. Granted, Luke, like every other ancient (and modern) historian had his distinctive interests and emphases, but plainly he is writing about real people in real and relatively recent history. Novels normally involved characters of the distant past (usually romances involving fictitious characters, but even historical characters belonged to the distant past, not recent figures as in Luke-Acts). Luke also has a historical preface mentioning the subject of “what took place among us,” a historical kind of topic, and has other features characteristic of ancient historical monographs. It is with good reason that more Acts scholars view it as historiography than any of the other alternatives. (The proportion is even higher when we recognize biography as a special subtype of or related to ancient historiography).
7. The job of the historian is to present the facts as they occurred. How do modern historians differ from ancient historians in the way they not only present the facts, but also how they present them?
Modern historians tend to tell you up front: here are the possibilities for what could have happened in this scene, and sometimes are sketchy about details except for the ones that they can concretely document. Ancient historians agreed that history had to be about facts, but they narrated it differently. They were concerned about literary cohesiveness. So they would give you their best reconstruction of the scene, maybe also summarizing varying views where there were such, but often giving reconstructions. Rather than just telling you about history, they often narrated it. It is enjoyable to read. Also, while modern historians have their interests and their biases, those factors are often much more in your face in ancient historians. In the case of Acts, most Christian readers would share most of the author’s theological perspectives, and so would not find his emphases or interests disturbing.
Look for part two of my interview with Craig Keener later this week.