This is the third installment of an eight-part interview with Dr. Craig Keener, Professor of New Testament at Palmer Theological Seminary. Part One can be read here and Part Two can be read here.
Craig is co-editing, with Michael Bird, the New Covenant Commentary Series (Wipf & Stock) that is scheduled for publication from 2009 to 2014. He is writing the commentary on Romans for that series. Gordon Fee is contributing the volume on The Revelation.
Reviews and endorsements of Craig's commentary on The Gospel of John can be read here.
JR: Hendrickson Publishers is getting ready to publish your commentary on the Acts of the Apostles --- another massive commentary. What should a 21st-century reader make of the speeches in the Book of Acts, especially an elongated one like Stephen's?
KEENER: You have deliberately highlighted a big debate in Acts scholarship. (I wish you would have asked me a good Pentecostal question about tongues in Acts, or healings --- smile.)
I spend a few chapters of the introduction establishing that Acts is a work of ancient historiography and showing what ancient historiography was. It was of course similar in many respects to the way we write history today, but different. (There were also different kinds of ancient historiography. The elite historians often spiced things up rhetorically --- Josephus does that a lot. But no rhetorical historian would have speeches as short as most of those we find in Acts.)
One difference between ancient and modern historiography is that we want to narrate only clear information, whereas they wanted to really NARRATE their information, to tell a good story. That means that some historians took their genuine information about events and fleshed out scenes. If a historian knew that a speech occurred on an occasion, and something of what the speech was about, the historian would not normally just say something like, "Themistocles advised that they build some ships." They would be more likely to flesh out the speech based on both their direct information and their indirect information, that is, what they could infer that he would have said based on what else they knew. Some historians were more careful with speech material than others (some, in fact, mostly plagiarized earlier historians!) But whereas you can use the genre of Acts to say, "Since this is historiography, Luke reports genuine events," you can't so easily extrapolate from the genre for the speeches.
In fact, Luke does not flesh out the speeches much; most are pretty concise by ancient standards. There are many points where I think we can say Luke knew what was going on in the speeches. In Acts 20, where Luke was likely present in person, I found signs that Luke has condensed what must have been a longer speech (some implicit connections to a particular biblical passage, for example, that Luke never makes explicit). At the same time, no one claims that these speeches are verbatim. Even at the end of Peter's speech in Acts 2, Luke says, "and with many other words" Peter exhorted them. In other words, Luke has selected from the speech; he edits them to make part of his larger work. Everyone expected historians to do that. Also, they didn't have much choice in any case; they had to work with what was remembered of the speeches, or of the kinds of things that the speaker or speakers were known to have said. No one had tape recordings or verbatim transcripts to work from.
So we hear in the speeches both the voice of the speaker and the voice of the inspired author weaving together common gospel themes in these speeches in the Book of Acts. We can learn from the theology on a couple levels. Since my commentary is on Acts itself, my interest is especially in Luke's theological level, but because of the work's historical genre, I believe that he also invites us to hear the voice of the apostolic church.
I have just summarized about 60 pages of material in a few paragraphs and hopefully not done it too much injustice. But you might add the editorial comment regarding my Acts commentary, "and with many other words" he spoke (smile).
NEXT FRIDAY'S QUESTION: You have also written more slender commentaries. Given your proclivity to thoroughness, is that type of writing somewhat frustrating for you?
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