The Acts of the Apostles. Anchor Bible, vol. 31

By Joseph A. Fitzmyer
New York : Doubleday (1998). xxxiv + 830 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Keith Essex
14.2 (Fall 2003) : 333-335

Joseph A. Fitzmyer, a Jesuit priest, is a prolific writer in biblical studies who has served as president of both the Catholic Biblical Association (1970-71) and the Society of Biblical Literature (1979-80). He has earned degrees in Semitics and Greek. Although his teaching has been predominately in NT, he has also taught Aramaic and Hebrew. Among his many writings are works dealing with NT background, especially Palestinian Aramaic and the Dead Sea Scrolls [for biographical details, see CBQ 48 (1986):375-78]. During the past quarter century, Fitzmyer has contributed several volumes to the Anchor Bible [AB]: Luke (1981, 1985), Romans (1993), Philemon (2000), published in his eightieth year, and, the focus of this review, Acts (1998). Fitzmyer’s commentary on Acts replaces the previous 1967 AB volume by Johannes Munck.

Within the AB format, Fitzmyer attempts to present a modern commentary on the book of Acts in the classic style. “It has been written from the standpoint of the historical-critical method, seeking to expound not only the literal meaning of the Lucan text with a view to setting forth the religious and theological message that the author sought to convey, but also that message in actualized form” (xiv). The volume begins with the commentator’s translation of Acts (1-43). This translation reappears at the beginning of each section of commentary and is the basis of Fitzmyer’s comments and notes concerning the biblical text. The translation incorporates the interpretive decisions made by Fitzmyer as spelled out in his notes. For example, the translation of Acts 4:12b reads, “for there is no other name in the whole world given to human beings through which we are to be saved” (7, 294). In his notes on the text, the author states that the text literally translated would read, “there is no other name under heaven given among humans by which we must be saved” (302). He interprets “under heaven” as here meaning “in the whole world.” Further, “we must be saved” is softened to “we are to be saved.” The reader must always go to the author’s notes to discover a more literal translation.

Following the initial translation, Fitzmyer provides the reader with a lengthy introduction to Acts (45-152). He takes “Acts” to mean “historical monograph” (49), regards the Luke of church tradition as the best candidate for author (50-51), and thinks that the date and place of composition has little impact on the interpretation of the book (55). Luke’s purpose in Acts is “to pass on to a postapostolic age of Christians an account of the Jesus-tradition, which is intimately related to the biblical history of Israel of old, and to insist that it is only within the stream of apostolic tradition, represented by Peter and by Paul, that one finds this divinely destined salvation” (60). The Western text is not considered the original text-form of Acts, but Fitzmyer does give its translation, after his translation which is based on NA27, in each section of commentary (72). Although the commentator admits that finding sources in Acts is largely a speculative question (80), this does not stop him from stating the sources Luke used for every section of the book (85-88). He concedes that Luke has imposed his own style and language on the sources so that Acts is a “thoroughly Lucan composition” (85). Based on his source material, Luke has composed the speeches that make up about a third of the narrative of Acts (103- 8).

Fitzmyer provides valuable discussions of the use of the OT in Acts (90-95) and the language and style of Acts (114-18). Concerning the historical character of Acts, the author concludes that while every statement or episode is not necessarily historical, “what is recounted in Acts is substantially more trustworthy from a historical point of view than not” (127). The historical value of every episode has to be carefully checked. Fitzmyer states categorically that Luke had not read the letters of Paul (88); thus in minor details Acts does not correspond to the picture of Paul seen in his letters (129). When there is a discrepancy, the Pauline information is to be preferred (133). Five differences between the Pauline and Lucan data are discussed, but the correlation of much more of the data is significant to show the general trustworthiness of Luke’s record (136-38).

An extensive general bibliography (153-87) precedes the commentary and notes (189-799). The general bibliography is in addition to the supplemental bibliographies that Fitzmyer appends to his discussions throughout the volume. In the commentary proper, the author progresses through the book of Acts narrative by narrative. Each section begins with the author’s translation. Then comes the “Comment” in which a discussion of the passage’s sources, structure, theological perspective, and essential message are presented. The “Notes” come next and discuss specific items of historical background and grammatical analysis. The Greek references in the notes are transliterated. A “Bibliography” for the passage concludes the section. The commentary is written from the critical perspective. Indexes of subjects (801-9) and commentators (810-30) conclude the volume.

The release of the AB volume on Acts shortly after the completion of C. K. Barrett’s two-volumes in the ICC invites comparison between the two [see TMSJ 13/1 (2002):101-3]. The AB has definite advantages for the beginning student and expositor of Acts. First, the material is more simply presented. Second, an outline of the book of Acts guides the commentary. Third, all of the foreign language material is translated for the English reader. Fourth, the bibliographies contain evangelical works and all the items are much more accessible in the American context than those listed in the ICC volume. However, the AB does not match the ICC in length and breadth of exegetical discussion. If one has the ICC, the AB does not add enough to make an investment in Fitzmyer prudent; if one does not have the ICC, its essential material is in the AB at a greatly reduced cost. However, the expositor does not need both; one historical-critical commentary is enough to discover how those who deny the inerrancy of Scripture interpret the book.