The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary

By Ben Witherington III
Grand Rapids : Eerdmans (1998). xlviii + 875 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Dennis Swanson
10.2 (Fall 1999) : 318-320

The author, the well-known New Testament scholar of Asbury Theological Seminary, has produced a massive commentary on the Book of Acts. The author’s purpose for producing yet another commentary on Acts is stated as “the rhetorical dimension of Acts has not been much explored in recent commentaries on the book, in part because of the waning influence of classical studies on biblical studies in this century. Nor for that matter has sufficient attention been paid in commentaries to how similar Acts is to other ancient Hellenistic historiographic works” (x).

The author claims that the outstanding bibliography he provides is “not intended to be exhaustive” (xiii), but it does cover 37 pages and is one of the most comprehensive that this reviewer has encountered. There is a fine index of authors and Scripture, but remarkably no subject index. The work is massively footnoted, and though not numerous, helpful pictures, maps and charts are incorporated. The reviewer’s main criticism in terms of formatting would be directed toward the publisher who simply shortchanges the customer by placing this massive a work in a paper binding. In fact, the review copy already had the spine split in several places. Most would gladly pay the extra cost for a hardcover binding which would remain serviceable for years instead of months.

The author begins the work with over 100 pages of introductory material. He covers every aspect of introduction, with lengthy discussions of “Acts and the Question of Genre” (2-39) and Luke-Acts as rhetoric (39-49). One of his key points is that “ancient historical works were meant to be heard primarily and read only secondarily, and this meant that considerable attention had to be given to the aural impression a work would leave on the audience” (41). Thankfully, the author does an admirable job of demonstrating that the goal of the “aural impression” should not leave one to believe that Luke either invented material or simply put disconnected events or speeches together to fabricate a point. He points out that ancient historians with whom he compares Luke were careful with factual information (49). The author also presents a useful time-line of the events in Acts, starting with an AD 30 crucifixion and Paul’s death at the hands of Nero between AD 65-68 (although strangely, despite the extensive bibliography, he does not reference either Harold Hoehner’s doctoral dissertation on Chronology of the Apostolic Era or his book Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ). He affirms two Roman imprisonments for Paul (contra Paul Jewett) and, with some disclaimer, accepts Pauline authorship of the Pastorals, working the historical events detailed there into the period between the release from his first Roman imprisonment and his final arrest and execution. In the commentary portion the author further develops his idea of “Acts as Rhetoric,” spending a great deal of time with the various speeches, trials and other official pronouncements that Luke records. He develops the background of these and attempts to demonstrate how they fit into the overall scheme of Luke’s rhetoric. In this regard the author is often forced into some rather subjective speculation on the text, but never outrageously so. He has numerous asides, which he labels as “A Closer Look” on various aspects of background subjects (e.g., “Gentile Godfearers,” “Travels and Travails in Antiquity,” “Justice, Citizenship and Appeals in the Provinces,” etc.), which are quite helpful and well documented.

This is a commentary that will be of great benefit to those studying the Book of Acts. It contains a wealth of information, interesting observations, and stimulating thought. The student or pastor will want to supplement this volume with something more exegetically driven (such as Cranfield’s two volumes on Acts in the International Critical Commentary series), but the author has enriched the field of study on the Book of Acts with this fine production.