There has been much anticipation among Acts scholars for the subsequent volumes of Keener’s commentary following the release of volume 1 in 2012. That Baker press has been able to publish volumes 2 and 3 in subsequent years is a tribute to their editorial team, especially as these volumes are generally well proofed. (As Keener notes in vol. 1, p. xv, the commentary was finished in 2007, but its publication was delayed due to changes in publishers.)
The commentary is structured on the narrative scenes of Acts with each section having numerous subsections that are broken down almost by verse. (Regarding this, the table of contents as well as the running headers are incredibly helpful for navigating the works.) Keener views Acts as a work of ancient historiography with an apologetic aspect (pp. 51–115, in vol. 1) and this perspective is defended throughout the work, particularly in the argument of Luke as an eyewitness of certain events of Paul’s ministry (see the discussion of the “we” passages at 16:10, pp. 2350–74, vol. 3). This does not mean that Keener does not discuss narrative or theological features; he does, but the majority of his commentary seeks to situate the Acts narrative in its first-century social and historical settings.
Keener takes a fairly maximalist approach to historicity offering various reasons why certain events/details were included in the text. Each event is rated on a spectrum: very probable, probable (more probable than not), possible, plausible, improbable, and implausible (I did not see any example of Keener saying an event was “impossible”). One of the most common explanations for something to be included in Acts is that some memory of the event was preserved and retold within the Christian community. Thus, for example, Keener questions some of the traditional arguments for authenticity in the Acts 3 speech (see esp. p. 1079), although he does agree that the author of Acts had traditions of the early apostolic preaching. Additionally, Keener actively challenges the scepticism of some biblical scholars who doubt the veracity of certain reports in the text that cannot be verified by outside sources (e.g., Pilate’s amnesty, pp. 1088–90). Keener rightly points out that many scholarly reconstructions of history are supported by singular references and that the biblical text has sometimes been treated too harshly. This, of course, is not an argument for accepting the event’s historicity, but part of a larger methodological debate over how one handles and treats ancient sources and evidence.
Related to this discussion of historicity is Keener’s engagement with scepticism over the existence of miracles and/or God’s involvement in the world. In a number of places Keener provides modern parallels to argue that a miraculous event in the text could plausibly have happened. For example, Keener claims (p. 1044) that he has personally witnessed an elderly woman re-gain the ability to walk and that he knows people who saw someone come back to life through the prayers of believers (pp. 1712–13). Some might struggle with claims of personal experience as evidence for ancient miracles or that any such discussions have a place in modern scholarship. However, this is part of Keener’s wider aim of challenging modern (especially western) scepticism and presuppositions towards supernatural phenomena (pp. 320–82, in vol. 1; see further Keener’s Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts, 2 vols. [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011]).
It is not possible to engage in depth with over 2,300 pages of detailed commentary in such a limited space. However, there are some notable themes that emerge in Keener’s work that warrant engagement. First, it should almost go without saying that the books are very large and can be quite heavy. This is in spite of the fact that the indices are not printed but given in CD form (regarding which, there are over 750 pages of indices: a four-page subject index; a 103-page index of modern authors; a 119-page scriptural index; a 232-page index of ancient sources; and a 297-page bibliography). Despite their size, it is worth acknowledging that the books are very reasonable in price and for this Baker deserves to be praised.
For such a substantial work it is sometimes surprising that there are items that are not thoroughly discussed. For example, though Keener regularly discusses Greek terms, there is little engagement with grammatical or text-critical issues. Similarly, Keener only sporadically discusses codex Bezae (the so-called “western text”) and does not reference the four-volume Bezae commentary by Read-Heimerdinger and Rius-Camps (which may not have been available to Keener when he was preparing the manuscript for his commentary). Likewise, there is little in the way of reception history or modern ideological approaches. Keener is well aware of these limitations (pp. 5–16, vol. 1) and, though acknowledging their validity, recognizes that it was best for him (along with the publisher and readers) that he limit himself to his areas of strengths.
In this regard, by far the greatest contribution of this commentary is its wealth of primary references. For every topic in the commentary Keener provides a litany of Greek, Latin, and Jewish sources that illuminate the passage and provide greater depth of insight. And while many would desire for even more discussion at points and some might question whether or not references to classical Athens are pertinent to discussions of first-century Jerusalem, there is no doubt that all readers will be spurred on to greater discussion and future investigations by the passages his cites. This aspect alone makes the commentary worthy of consulting for Acts scholars.
In addition to the substantial commentary, Keener provides extensive excurses (twenty in vol. 2 and eighteen in vol. 3) on related subjects (e.g., Samaritans, magic, Nabatean opposition, Greco-Roman baths, philosophical schools, etc.). Most of these entries are a few pages in length; however, some are very long and could be considered articles in their own right (e.g., slaves and slavery, pp. 1906–42). These entries are a real strength of the work as Keener provides detailed investigations on topics that not only directly impact our understanding of the Acts text, but provide a broad understanding of specific issues from an ancient perspective. As a result, they will be of use to anyone wishing to learn about these topics, regardless of their interest in the Acts text.
Overall, although it is a commentary aimed primarily at scholars, I would highly recommend these books for anyone interested in understanding the Acts text or the first century Christian context more broadly.