New Testament Commentary Reviews: Acts

Commentary Reviews: Acts

Thousands of commentaries have been written about the Bible, and it’s easy to become confused because these resources are written to various audiences. Choosing the “best” will depend upon the kind of analysis you desire. Commentaries are often divided into three categories:

  • Devotional/Introductory–the primary focus is application of the Word and growing in Christ. Lots of “how to” questions are answered.

  • Pastoral/Intermediate–these commentaries also contain application but are more information oriented. Some go deep into the history or cultural background of the text, while others pay more attention to linguistics. Lots of “what does it mean” questions are answered. Useful for any Christ follower and especially helpful to those who teach.

  • Technical/Advanced–primary value is to teachers and advanced students. Some technical commentaries focus on textual criticism (the reliability of the text), while others address linguistics (the text itself). Lots of minutiae. These commentaries contain Greek text (sometimes transliterated, sometimes not) and require familiarity with Koine Greek to extract their full benefit, but even those with no knowledge of Greek will find these commentaries useful.

My recommendations identify which category each book falls into. Some commentaries overlap; when they do, both categories will be noted (e.g., Pastoral/Technical). The recommendations are listed in order of their helpfulness to Bible students, teachers, and pastors.

The Acts of the Apostles

The Book of Acts has some of the best commentaries in the Bible. Choosing the best of the best is challenging; below are six excellent resources.

  • The most complete treatment of Acts is by Craig Keener in Acts: An Exegetical Commentary, (Baker Academic, four volumes, 2012/2013/2014/2015). Technical/Pastoral. The depth and breadth of this commentary is amazing, but it will not be the first choice for everyone. It has lots of technical jargon, and the Greek and Hebrew text is not transliterated, but for intermediate and advanced students, Keener’s commentary is a treat. A comprehensive 638 page introduction takes up more than half of the first volume. Much of the fourth volume is devoted to works cited, secondary sources, a subject index, an author index, and a massive index of ancient sources. The remaining 3000+ pages are devoted to exegesis of the text. Three highlights from the first volume: a multi-faceted explanation of the Pentecost event that empowered the church, a holistic explanation of glossolalia, and a sublime description of community life in the early church. The second volume examines the apostolic leadership in Jerusalem (3:1–5:42), the Hellenist expansion (6:1–9:31), Peter’s ministry beyond Jerusalem (9:32–12:24), and a portion of Paul’s diaspora missions (12:25–14:28). I appreciate the extensive background information on Samaria and the 36-page excursus on slaves and slavery. Volume three examines Paul’s diaspora missions (Acts 15–19) and the first part of Paul’s journey to Rome via Jerusalem (Acts 20–23). There are helpful excursuses on circumcision, dreams, patronage/reciprocity, hospitality, demons and demonic possession, and suicide. Volume four looks at the final part of Paul’s journey to Rome and the end of the Book of Acts. Each volume contains a cd of works cited and indexes for that volume.

  • If you’re looking for something that is technical but more concise, I recommend Darrell Bock in the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Baker, 2007). Technical/Pastoral. This 880-page commentary can only be called “concise” when compared to Keener’s tome. Bock has written what I believe to be the best commentary on the Gospel according to Luke, and his work in Acts is just as good. He focuses on exegesis and theology, and I find his insights consistently helpful. Like other commentaries in this series, there is lots of attention given to the Greek text, but transliterations are provided alongside the text, and intermediate students will find it very accessible. Highly recommended.

  • My third recommendation is by David Peterson in the Pillar New Testament Commentary (Eerdmans, 2009). Pastoral. Peterson’s PNTC volume is about the size of Bock’s BECNT, but more user friendly for those not familiar with Greek. Everything is transliterated and the few technical comments are limited to the footnotes. Peterson says this book took fifteen years to write, and his familiarity with the history of the early church is evident on every page. Easy to understand and assimilate. Pastors and teachers will love this commentary.

  • Another solid recommendation is Ben Witherington’s The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Eerdmans, 1997). Pastoral. Witherington has written several socio-rhetorical commentaries; this is one of the best. The high standard is set in the introduction; in addition to the areas typically covered in intros, Witherington provides a chronology of both Acts and Paul’s life and letters. One of my favorite features are his “closer looks” at key subjects, like the social status of early Christians or how Luke incorporated the Old Testament in his writing. The Greek text is not transliterated, and knowledge of the language will help, but don’t let that stop you from checking out this commentary.

  • Advanced students will appreciate the two-volume commentary by Charles Barrett in the International Critical Commentary (T&T Clark, 1994/2004). Technical. Barrett takes a moderately critical position, but discerning readers will find much to appreciate. His comments are insightful and provide some real jewels, particularly in the realm of theology. I also appreciate Barrett’s determination to stay with the text and his willingness to bypass the esoteric bunny trails so many scholars like to explore. On the downside, the hardcover edition is out of print and expensive on the secondary market, and the two paperbacks will set you back more than $100. Is it worth it? Once upon a time I would have said, “yes,” but nowadays I am inclined to point folks to Keener’s new opus (his four-volume set is less than $150 in hardcover). Nevertheless, Barrett’s commentary is weighty and worthy of your consideration.

    Lagniappe: There is an abridged single volume that does away with most of the technical comments, but I recommend getting the two-volume set.

  • My final recommendation is by F.F. Bruce in the New International Commentary on the New Testament (Eerdmans, Rev. ed., 1988). Technical/Pastoral. This book is brief (568 pages) and dated (the 1988 revision of the 1954 original is slight), but don’t let that dissuade you from considering it. Bruce was an excellent historian, and his overview of the early church reflects that.

Did I miss a commentary you are interested in? Drop me a line. These are not the only resources I am familiar with–these are just my favorites.

Next: Recommended commentaries on Romans.

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