On Monday we offered part one of a conversation with Dr. Craig Keener. Today we conclude our interview and I want to again thank Dr. Keener for taking the time to answer a few questions about Acts and his new commentary just published by Baker Academic. If you have not yet gone a purchased a copy, I would strongly suggest that you do!
1.You describe your commentary on Acts as being “socio-historical and, in some cases, rhetorical in its focus.” For the reader who does not understand exactly what the term “socio-historical” means, can you explain for us how that looks and how it maybe differs from other approaches that have been taken by past commentators like Bruce, Barrett, etc.?
I try to set Acts and what happens in Acts as fully as possible in its first-century context. That means not just noting where events fit our knowledge of ancient history, but how the ideas, customs, relationships and so on map out in relation to the ideas, customs, relationships, etc. of the first century world. Ancient rhetorical principles, for example, can help make obvious Paul’s genius in his defense speeches in Acts; I believe that an ancient hearer would understand that Paul should have been immediately released after his speech in Acts 24, and was not released only because of the political complications of his case.
2. How do the speeches in Acts help shape the message of Acts? Are they complete speeches or does Luke edit them, or possibly create them for Acts?
They cannot be complete speeches, because Luke sometimes has speeches that are said to have gone on for hours, yet take a minute or two to read; in Acts 2, Luke explicitly says that Peter on this occasion added many other words that Luke has not recorded. The best practice in ancient historiography was to use whatever you knew (or your predecessors thought they knew or inferred) about a speech as a core, and then develop it into the kind of speech you would expect to have been given on the occasion. Interestingly, Luke’s speeches are short, not fleshed out like typical speeches in ancient historiography. No one had video recorders, but Luke does not appear to embellish his sources the way the genre allowed. He does use the historian’s right to select what is useful for the purposes of his larger work. Because preaching is central to his account, speech summaries appear fairly regularly in his narrative, and recount ideas of value for understanding how early Christian preachers communicated their message.
3. You mention that most of the alleged historical inaccuracies in ancient historical works center around speeches rather than narrative, would you say this is true of Acts also?
This is a generalization in the sense that historians could make mistakes in narratives and could also include very accurate information in speeches, but by and large, one tends to find more invention of history in speeches. In Acts, the focus of the speeches is the narration of Jesus already offered in greater detail in Luke’s Gospel. But one may note that the one historical point on which Acts has most been challenged appears in a speech in Acts ch. 5, and that speeches were the place where ancient readers would be least surprised by historical incongruities.
4. Besides the OT, what other sources does Luke rely on for his work?
Luke says that he has material going back to eyewitnesses (Luke 1:1-2); he (or on some views, his eyewitness source) actually was present during part of the action in Acts, particularly Paul’s Roman custody, which is narrated in detail. His primary theological sources, of course, are the OT, as you note, and also the account of Jesus that he already offered in volume 1. For Acts, I suspect that most of his sources were oral—Paul, Judean believers that Luke met during his time with Paul in Judea, and the like.
5. Where there any passages in Acts that you found to be particularly difficult to comment on (I am here thinking of historical, grammatical, geographical, textual, etc. difficulties)?
Various passages required special and extended attention because of their intersection with points of modern interest (e.g., worship in tongues in Acts ch. 2) or historical debate (e.g., debates about the speech in Acts 5). As for the grammar—students today will always wish that Luke wrote like John!
6. To what extent should the church take the book of Acts as normative? As in, how should the narrative of Acts shape our ecclesiology?
As a Christian I am interested in Acts not only for historical reasons but also for its message. Acts is rich in that way, especially with its focus on mission and how we should carry out the mission. In terms of ecclesiology, I believe that church leadership takes a variety of forms in Acts, some related to leadership forms already existing in the wider culture. They were more interested in what would be effective than in locking in one form for all time and all cultures. Nevertheless, there are principles even there. Certainly Luke places a high value on the unity of the church. The central, core message of Acts is the Spirit’s empowerment for our mission. The Western church today is very self-focused, and we would profit from hearing afresh Luke’s message: God’s Spirit has come to empower us for God’s mission.