Review in: JOURNAL OF THE EVANGELICAL THEOLOGICAL SOCIETY 41/1Review door: William J. Larkin, Jr.
A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on The Acts of the Apostles. Vol. 1: Preliminary Introduction and Commentary on Acts I–XIV. By C. K. Barrett. ICC. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1994, xxv + 693 pp., $69.95.
This magisterial volume on the first half of Acts crowns a life of erudition. It reveals a breadth of learning from ancient and modern sources and a depth of exegetical insight that we have come to expect from this consummate practitioner of the historical-critical method. As the first volume in this series, Cranfield’s Romans, immediately established itself as the standard of reference in the English-speaking world for the exegesis of Romans, so this work is destined to do for Acts.
After a 25-page section filled with abbreviation lists for bibliography consistently cited throughout the text and climaxed with a map of the eastern Mediterranean world listing all the provinces with boundaries, ethnic regions and places relevant to the events in Acts, Barrett presents a 58-page “Preliminary Introduction.” The writer immediately tells the reader he intends to deal with traditional introductory matters after he has dealt exegetically with Acts. What he does evaluate in detail is the manuscript evidence for the text of Acts and the external evidence for authorship. He asserts that Acts’ internal evidence calls into question the traditional identification: Luke, the physician, the traveling companion of Paul. His positive conclusion is that Acts was probably known in the first half of the second century.
Returning to Acts itself, Barrett discusses the author’s sources and plan in writing. He asserts that because of narrative inconsistencies and historical inaccuracies the writer was not an eyewitness to any of the events of Acts 1–14, but received them second- or third-hand. He did use sources and always tried to rely on information to write up his account. Any composing he did should not be viewed as a production of fiction, but rather a filling in of details necessitated by the nature of his sources. Chapters 1–7 and 13–28 present one strand of narrative, while chaps. 8–12 give us four. The “Preliminary Introduction” concludes with an outline of Acts 1–14, which has nine major sections containing a total of 37 continuously numbered subsections. The former are repeated in the body of the commentary only as headings, while the latter are the commentary units.
Each commentary unit contains the writer’s English translation; a list of bibliography, mainly periodical articles and essays, keyed by abbreviation either to the master list or to other commentary sections; an introduction to the unit as a whole and then a verse-by-verse, even word-by-word or phrase-by-phrase, commentary on the text. Following his longstanding practice, inspired by his Durham forebear, J. B. Lightfoot, Barrett’s verse-by-verse commentary uses not footnotes but incorporates all primary and secondary references into the text itself.
Barrett’s translation stands midway between the freedom of the idiomatic translation (e.g. NIV) and the discipline of a formal correspondence rendering (e.g. NKJV). He footnotes other major ecumenical and Roman Catholic English translations, though not versions commonly used by North American evangelicals: NIV or NASB. The introduction to each commentary unit discusses matters of literary structure and analysis, then considers sources, the historicity of the content and finally Luke’s theological purposes. The commentator’s assessment of the evidence stands squarely in the mainstream of the historical-critical method, building on its “assured results.”
The ample space allotment means that the verse-by-verse commentary sections give consistent attention to the full range of exegetical concerns: text-critical, grammatical and literary, historical and lexical, theological and sometimes applicational via the history of interpretation. No issue of even minor importance for a full and precise understanding of Acts escapes Barrett’s exacting hold on things ancient and modern.
The commentary’s strengths and weakness should be discussed in three areas: preliminary introduction, documentation and methodology/results. The commentator is to be commended both for the comprehensive way the external evidence is presented and for the desire to develop the conclusions to introductory matters inductively from the exegesis. What mars the approach, however, is the basically skeptical stance adopted concerning the author’s connection with or access to detailed information about events (pp. 50–51). This grows out of the discovery of a nest of historical di—culties that the Acts narrative allegedly generates. Many of these di—culties show themselves to be more apparent than real, if a “hermeneutics of goodwill” and a legitimate practice of harmonization is pursued.
The commentary contains ancient source documentation with text when discussing background parallels and historical problems. The reader has what he needs for assessing the commentator’s analysis of such material. The only drawback is the consistent rendering of the sources in their original language, especially Latin, which is not very serviceable for North American readers, who generally lack a classical education. Secondary source documentation is also ample. What other commentary contains a listing of eleven explanations of the significance of the Son of Man’s position: “standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:59; pp. 384–385)? Both the twentieth-century scholarship on Acts up to the 1980s, as well as key figures in the history of interpretation (Augustine, Bede, Calvin) are consistently and appropriately cited. Again the purposeful retention of quotes in Latin, German or French means that they are lost on many North American readers. British evangelicals such as F. F. Bruce and I. H. Marshall are consistently referenced. The commentary, however, enters into less dialogue with North American evangelical scholars, e.g. Richard Longenecker. There is little or no interaction with North American Lukan studies, particularly volumes produced over the years by the SBL Luke-Acts Seminar and its members.
Barrett’s rigorous, yet deft, application of the historical-critical method to Acts produces a curious mixture of results, some supportive of, some antithetical to a conservative evangelical inerrantist understanding of Acts. Many times he is quite moderate, even appreciative, in his estimate of Acts’ historical value. Concerning Acts’ report of Paul’s conversion he says, “In essentials, the three Acts narratives agree with one another and with evidence of the epistles” (p. 443). He eschews a use of reason in dissecting the text that leads to a mechanical understanding of Luke’s redactional procedure. On Acts 6:8–15 he comments, “It would be a mistake to suggest that Luke has combined sources in the manner of a jig-saw puzzle so that they may be disentangled and rearranged so as to produce two distinct stories” (p. 321). The commentary reflects many times a judicious, common-sense approach to the probability of an event’s authenticity and Luke’s method of composition.
What consistently mars the commentary, however, is the skeptical approach, a “hermeneutics of suspicion,” which the practitioner of the historical-critical method believes the modern reader demands. The commentator views this stance positively as the demand for objective critical rigor in assessing the material (pp. 306–307). Though such rigor is indeed welcome and necessary, it can not fulfill its proper function when it is combined with a consistent refusal to view “harmonizing” of Biblical data with each other or with extra-Biblical data as a legitimate procedure (e.g. Matthew’s and Acts’ accounts of Judas’ demise, p. 92; “Judas and Theudas” in Gamaliel’s speech, p. 295). In the latter case, Barrett observes that “the simplest explanation of Luke’s text, and the only one that does not involve him in some kind of error, is the view that there was another Theudas, otherwise unknown, who did take up arms at some point before Judas. This is of course possible; it does not seem probable” (pp. 294–295). He does not go on to explain why such a solution cannot be raised to the level of possibility. Maybe it is the lack of independent confirmation of the existence of that other Theudas. In the end he goes on to another “simple solution”: “Luke, writing Gamaliel’s speech (for the Christians can hardly have had inside information of what was said in the Sanhedrin after v. 34—unless Gamaliel’s pupil, Saul of Tarsus, was present!), made a mistake either unaware of the true date of Theudas or confusing him with some other rebel. An author who could misread a plain passage in Josephus could mistake any other source of information” (p. 296).
Indeed, Barrett’s reconstructions consistently involve so interposing Luke’s compositional hand, sources, and traditions between Acts and the events that often very little is recoverable of the actual detail of the historical events themselves (e.g. Pentecost, p. 109). He does exegesis on the assumption that supernatural features are beyond the ability of the historical-critical method to assess (p. 422). They are assigned either to the tradition or to Luke’s desire to present an idealized picture of the Church of the first generation (pp. 478, 305).
In the end, Luke has only sources with scanty information (pp. 50–52) and is possessed of a temperament and outlook of a historian/theologian. This does not permit him to distinguish critically between the views of his subjects, the apostles and those of the Church in his day (p. 132). He cannot seem to avoid inaccuracies as he develops his idealistic edifying picture of the early Church (p. 258). He lacks the profundity of a Paul when it comes to articulating the great truths of the Christian faith (p. 132). It appears to me that this picture owes more to the historical-critical method’s skepticism and limits that the commentator has embraced than to the character of Acts’ internal evidence.
This commentary is now the premier technical—exegetical and critical—commentary on Acts in English. It supersedes F. F. Bruce’s The Acts of the Apostles: The Greek Text for documentation of primary sources. It is the first summary in English of the historical-critical discussion of Acts through the mid-1980s. Other critical commentaries— Haenchen, Conzelmann (Hermeneia), and Luke Timothy Johnson (Sacra Pagina)— will be challenged by the more moderate approach taken to historical matters. The challenge to conservative evangelicals is to assess and respond to the arguments and negative judgments concerning Acts’ historical accuracy and the authenticity of reported events. The value of Luke as a theologian is also in need of rehabilitation. I hope that Ward Gasque (NIGTC), Scott Bartchy (WBC) and Darrell Bock (Baker Exegetical Commentary) are not too far along in their commentary projects in Acts to interact with it.
William J. Larkin, Jr.
Columbia Biblical Seminary and Graduate School of Missions,