Review: Between History and Spirit

Between History and Spirit, Craig S. Keener. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2020.

Summary: A collection of the author’s journal articles on the book of Acts

Craig S. Keener is a prolific biblical scholar. One of his most magisterial works is a four volume commentary on the book of Acts. Writing such a work involved him deeply in studies of context, exegetical matters, and other questions surrounding the book of Acts resulting in numerous shorter articles. This work brings a number of these works together in a single volume. It displays both his erudite scholarship (34 pages of abbreviations of ancient and modern sources referenced) and his missional passion.

The collection is divided into three sections and I will highlight a few from each part to offer a taste of the rich fare the reader interested in such matters will find within.

A Question of History

“Luke-Acts and the Historical Jesus” examines what kind of writing is Luke-Acts and the accuracy of his sources. He concludes this is a form of first century historiography with biographic and rhetorical interests and that Luke draws upon reliable first generation accounts. We wonder if the writer of Acts was actually an eyewitness and participant in some of the events narrated because of the “we” language. Keener explores possible explanations and concludes that the “we” language with the omission of the author’s name reflects the practice of other ancient historians who participate in the events they narrate. “Paul and Sedition” considered the purpose for including so much material defending Paul against charges of sedition and the importance of the defense for the early church. Other essays consider the growth reports of the church in Acts, the novel official of Acts 8:27, whether troops were really stationed in Caesarea during Agrippa’s reign and the character of Paul’s ministry in Athens.

A Question of Context

Interethnic marriage has been considered problematic in many cultural settings including that of the New Testament. Given this, in “Interpreting Marriage in Acts 7:29 and 16:1-3, Keener argues that the only problematic instance of marriage in the New Testament is for believers to marry non-believers and that interethnic marriage of believers is not problematic “within the church. He offers a wonderful study on “Turning from Idols in Acts: 14:15-17 in honor of our shared mentor Ben Witherington III. He offers a careful study of Acts 16:8-10 and the crucial transition from Asian to European ministry by Paul and his team. There is also a wonderful short article proposing Acts 21 and the temple controversy as a backdrop for Ephesians 2:11-22 with it tearing down of dividing walls. A couple essays deal with language and rhetoric focused on Paul’s rhetorical techniques. He considers the charge of insanity in Acts 26:24-25. He also offers a fascinating article on fever and illnesses in Acts and ancient medicine.

A Question of Spirit

Keener has done extensive research on miracles, making the case for the plausibility of miracles in the biblical accounts. His article on “Miracles and History in Acts and the Jesus Tradition” is a great summary of this research. Keener’s work is especially worthy of reading if you are skeptical about miracles but open to argument and evidence. Several of his essays consider the work of the Spirit in empowerment for mission in Act. His study of spirit possession in Acts 16:16-18 and 19:12-16 comparing these accounts to modern anthropological accounts is remarkable for its even-handed discussion of Christian and other perceptions of spirit possession and the anthropological evidence for the universality of this phenomena. He recognizes the beginnings of ancient African Christianity in Luke’s encounter with the Ethiopian and expands of the early development of east African Christianity. His reviews of other works that conclude the section reveals a scholar gracious with those he differs and capable of learning from them.

Anyone who has studied or is studying Acts will find in this collection a treasure trove of insights. It is good for whetting one’s appetite for Keener’s commentary on Acts (at least it was for me if I could fit it into my budget and bookshelves!). It models well the fusion of evangelical conviction and scholarly rigor and careful textual and contextual study. I also find in his writing jargon-free clarity that makes this work useful beyond the scholarly guild. Finally, I value the fine balance between historical and contextual questions, and the unavoidable presence of the Holy Spirit in Acts that both accounts for much of the history in Acts and the empowerment of the missional momentum of that history.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

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