Book review: Reading Acts Today
Steve Walton, Thomas E. Phillips, Lloyd Keith Pietersen, and F. Scott Spencer, eds, Reading Acts Today: Essays in Honour of Loveday C. A. Alexander, Library of New Testament Studies (London: T & T Clark, 2011)
Thanks to the kind folk at T & T Clark for a review copy of this tremendous collection of essays in the impressive Library of New Testament Studies series (formerly JSNTS).
This classy collection of essays is dedicated to the Rev Canon Prof Loveday Alexander, Prof Emerita in Biblical Studies at the University of Sheffield, and another one of those scholars who supports my hunch that the best New Testament academics have a background in classics! (To this list you could add names such as Tom Wright and Richard Burridge, so say no more). Her book Acts in Its Ancient Literary Context has been described as “magisterial”.
This book offers a helpful view into the state of modern research on Acts, and it does so, after an introduction concerning the honouree, Loveday Alexander, by dividing its essays into two parts: “Reading Acts in Its Ancient Context”, and “Reading Themes in Acts”.
Part 1: Reading Acts in Its Ancient Context
Rather than go through all of the essays, I will pick out a few personal highlights.
The first essay, penned by none other than the aforementioned Richard Burridge, explores the genre of Acts. After noting that the genre of Acts is in much dispute Burridge’s sophisticated and detailed analysis leads him to the conclusions that build on his well-known and massively influential thesis that the Gospels “share a similar profile of generic features and indicators with a wide range of ancient biographies”, and in particular that “the borders between the genres of historiography, monographs and biography are blurred and flexible”. Given that Acts is not a biography of one person, yet remains focused on certain early church leaders, he maintains that Acts is best described as a “biographical monograph”.
Dennis MacDonald’s essay maintains that Luke used Papias of Hierapolis as a source for narrating the death of Judas in such a way as to correct Matthew’s account. F. Scott Spencer analyses the tricky passage in Acts 5 concerning Ananias and Sapphira, which takes its cue from the double emphasis on “a great fear” (5:5, 11). He concludes: “Living in the fear of the Lord” is not, in the narrative of Acts, to be reduced to “some bland obligation of religious respect or reverence. There remains a genuinely fearful uncertainty about what the potent Lord God, Jesus Christ, and Holy Spirit might do — or not do — next” (80).
Barry Matlock entitled his essay: “Does the road to Damascus run through the letters of Paul?” This multifaceted essay demonstrates, among other things, that Pauline biography and theology cannot be neatly divided but rather integrated.
Part 2: Reading Themes in Acts
Joel Green’s essay, “Luke-Acts, or Luke and Acts? A reaffirmation of narrative unity” promotes greater appreciation for a canonical approach which, while admitting that certain historical analyses might lead one to question the unity of Luke-Acts, ultimately affirms a unified narrative representation of history through both the Luke and Acts.
James Dunn resurrects a 60-year-old thesis, penned by Olof Linton, which argued that “Luke deliberately painted a more conciliatory picture of Paul: he ‘wanted to correct Paul slightly in order to make him better’” (120). “This thesis”, Dunn argues, helps “explain the tensions between Acts and Paul’s letters, and provides a more sympathetic interpretation of Luke’s intention and methods” (121). He concludes that Luke deliberately presents Paul “in terms which more traditionalist Jewish believers who nevertheless sympathized with outreach to Gentiles would probably have preferred” (136).
Ian Howard Marshall’s helpful essay examines the place of Acts 20:28 in Luke’s theology of the cross. Having maintained that 20:28 is the Lukan equivalent of Mark 10:45b, Marshall rejects the proposal that Luke downplays the theology of the cross. Marshall’s understanding of what is entailed by “the theology of the cross” could, however, be challenged.
Steve Walton finishes off this volume with his wonderful essay “A Spirituality of Acts?” It ought to be pointed out that we are all eagerly awaiting Steve’s Acts commentary in the Word series! This essay will, I hope, whet the appetite of not just a few. He begins:
“‘Spirituality’: now there’s a vague, catch-all category! And yet, to engage with the New Testament writings, and more widely those of early Christianity, without considering how the early believers understood their engagement with God is to neglect a major dimension of the life of the earliest Christians. They understood themselves to be in communication with God and to be experiencing the life of God through the Spirit” (186).
Amen, indeed! Walton’s analysis, aware of the danger of using a word like “spirituality”, engages the material in terms of the divine initiative and human response. He concludes:
“The Christian life, according to Acts, is a life of walking with God in company with others in response to God’s initiative, but without always having a crystal-clear vision of God’s purpose in a specific place or time beyond God’s broad purpose to draw people to know him in Christ and by the Spirit” (201).
This is a lovely place to end a fine collection of essays in honour of our remarkable scholar. My one gripe is the price tag.