A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles. International Critical Commentary

By C. K. Barrett
Edinburgh : T. & T. Clark (1998). xxv, cxvii + 1272 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Keith Essex
13.1 (Spring 2002) : 101-103

 C. K. (Charles Kingsley) Barrett, Emeritus Professor of Divinity in Durham University, England, is a well-known NT scholar. Among his voluminous writings are commentaries on the Gospel of John, Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, and the Pastoral Epistles. He is also the compiler of the very helpful collection of background documents The New Testament Background: Selected Documents (Harper, 1961, 1989). From this wealth of background, Barrett has written this extensive commentary on Acts in the prestigious ICC series. These volumes at once take their place as the standard English commentary on Acts written from the historical-critical perspective.

Like Luke/Acts, this work has been issued in two volumes. Volume one begins with an introduction that includes material germane to both volumes (i-xxv). Page numbers in the commentary proper are continuous (vol. I, 1-694; vol. II, 695- 1272). Before commenting on the biblical text, Barrett provides a preliminary introduction to his volume(s) (1-58). This “introduces Acts to the reader by setting out the tradition by which the book has reached us” (1-2), namely, a discussion of the textual history and testimony of the early church concerning Acts (1-48). The preliminary introduction concludes with a presentation of the author’s conclusions concerning the sources, plan, and contents of Acts 1–14, the chapters discussed in volume one (49-58). According to Barrett, the four sources Luke used were Philip the Evangelist, Caesarean Christians, the Antioch church, and Paul (50-52). However, this is pure speculation on the commentator’s part since Luke nowhere in Acts specifies the written or oral sources he used. Volume two begins with an introduction that includes added bibliographic references and material on the text of Acts not included in the first volume (i-xxiii). Further, a discussion of the supposed sources and contents of Acts 15–28, the focus of the commentary in the second volume, is included (xxiv-xxxii, cxix-cxx). The major part of the introduction of volume two is given over to Barrett’s views concerning the historicity, authorship, dating, purpose, and theology of Acts (xxxiii-cxiii). These conclusions should logically be read, according to the author’s design, after working through the commentary proper.

In the author’s preface, Barrett states that this commentary is not aimed at the beginning student of Acts (I, ix). The reader needs to work through the Greek text of Acts and become familiar with the secondary literature on the book before wading through these volumes. Also, because the author has sought to produce a readable product, the commentary proper is not footnoted and foreign quotes are given in the original languages (Greek, Hebrew, Latin, German, or French) without English translation. This puts an additional barrier before the beginning student.

For the commentary on Acts, Barrett has broken the book into sixty-five units that he discusses consecutively (59-1253). There is no outline of the book of Acts given because the commentator does not see an overall literary or historical plan to the book (49-58). For Barrett, the great theme of Acts is “the spread of the Gospel into the Gentile world” (II, cxix), ultimately bound up closely with the work of Paul. To this end, the biblical author “made it his business to collect stories of early contacts with Gentiles wherever he could find them” (50-51). Barrett concludes, “It was not Luke’s intention to create a narrative in which every section should be in due proportion with the rest, delighting the reader’s eye by its skilful arrangement and his mind by its chronological precision” (57). Rather, since Luke knew of the expansion of the gospel in terms of places [Jerusalem, Samaria, Caesarea, Antioch, and beyond] and outstanding men [Peter, Stephen, Philip, Paul], “he set down, one after another, the traditions he had collected on this basis” (57). This approach to Acts is in opposition to the current trend to see a literary unity/organization/plan in the book, especially when read against the background of Greco-Roman histories of the same period (see Bruce W. Winter and Andrew D. Clarke, eds., The Book of Acts in Its Ancient Literary Setting [Eerdmans, 1993]).

Each of the sixty-five units of commentary has the same kind of structure. A unit begins with Barrett’s translation of the biblical text. This is followed by a bibliography, citing works that discuss the section of Acts under consideration. The majority of a unit is then devoted to Barrett’s commentary on the passage. The commentary begins with a discussion of the whole. Here, the commentator seeks to demonstrate the parallels (and many times, the contradictions) with other biblical passages and sources the biblical author (supposedly) used. The bulk of the commentary section, the most valuable to the reader, then treats the Greek text of Acts with verse by verse, phrase by phrase, word by word annotations. As in all ICC volumes, Barrett’s work in the annotations is thorough and meticulous. However, the reader confronts, even in his annotations, the commentator’s skepticism. For example, in Acts 5:37, after showing possible harmonies between the biblical author and Josephus, Barrett concludes, “W e may go for the simple solution that Luke, writing Gamaliel’s speech, . . . made a mistake, either unaware of the true date of Theudas or confusing him with some other rebel” (296).

Barrett’s skepticism is clearly articulated in his introduction to the book. He writes, “Read on the surface, as generations of Christians have read it, Acts presents the history of the Christian mission in its first three decades” (II, xxxiii). However, a more searching inquiry unearths problems that cannot be ignored, according to Barrett. The most telling problem, according to author, is the difficulties that arise when Acts is compared with the Pauline letters concerning the Jerusalem Council (II, xxxvi-xli). Although he admits that most students of Acts throughout church history have sought to harmonize the accounts, his conclusion differs. He states his basic principle in these words: “[O]ur sources (alongside Acts must be placed the Pauline epistles) do not tell the same story, and the historian’s task is not to harmonize them but to set them over against one another” (II, lxxiii). Such a fundamental presupposition mars this commentary. Though Barrett usually does justice to what the text says (the commentary’s great strength), he then sits in judgment as to whether the text is historically and theologically reliable. Because of this, the reader needs to exercise great discernment in using these volumes.

Flowing from the supposed contradiction between Paul and Acts, the author concludes that the first generation of the church was contentious, reflected in Paul, while the second generation w as a period of consensus, as seen in Acts. Luke, writing in the 80s (Barrett’s date), sought to read the history of the early church in the context of his own day, and so his record is historically and theologically suspect. However, “Luke did not write as he did with the intention of conveying a false impression of the church in its first age. He wrote as he did because his understanding was coloured by the period in which he lived” (II, xl). This conclusion also influences Barrett’s reading of the theology of Acts (II, lxxxii-cx). Luke, as a second generation Christian, recognized the existence of an interval between the resurrection and the parousia. This understanding of Luke’s eschatology is reflected in his approach to the Holy Spirit, Christ, the church, baptism and the Christian meal, early catholicism, the Jews, Gentiles and the Gentile mission, and ethics.

This new ICC commentary on Acts cannot be ignored by the conservative exegete/expositor. Unfortunately, nothing from an evangelical perspective compares with the scope and depth of this work. However, it should be used in concert with other volumes on Acts. The evangelical should first use Richard N. Longenecker (“Acts of the Apostles,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 9) and F. F. Bruce (The Book of Acts [NICNT]) to gain a more reliable historical and theological perspective on Acts. With this perspective, better use can then be made of the insightful annotations in Barrett’s Acts.