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Acts of the Apostles (Sacra Pagina) Paperback – 1 Aug 2006
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Johnson follows the unfolding of this narrative in a sequential manner, dealing with the significant portions of the Greek text in each verse. It is Johnson's custom to comment on the Greek by noting constructions that are important for understanding Luke's point. Most of the time his comments have less to do with Greek semantics and grammar than with how a word's meaning fits in with the context of the point Luke is making. Important connections regarding a word's meaning are visible as Johnson lists how Luke uses certain words throughout Luke-Acts. So when Luke uses the word "joy" in Acts 8:39, Johnson makes the connection with Luke's use of the word in sixteen other places in Luke and once elsewhere in Acts (J.157). In this manner, a full sense of Luke's intention is much sharper. Johnson also makes connections with key words and its usage elsewhere in the NT, the LXX, the Apocrypha, other ancient writings (Josephus, Epictetus, Lucian, et al), and early church writings (e.g. Chrysostom). These sources provide a richer picture of the historical context. So when commenting on the crowd's response to Alexander (a Jew) in Acts 19:34, Johnson uses Josephus, Against Apion, to support the notion that Jews and Christians were often indistinguishable to the casual Gentile observer (J.349).
Johnson's comments on each verse place the verse's meaning within the context of Luke's writings, the rest of scripture, and more broadly other important writings of Luke's time. Johnson places these notes at the beginning of each pericope with an interpretation afterwards. The interpretation not only places the comments from his notes into a single purpose, but it is here that Johnson also comments on various literary considerations. Among these would be why a given section is shorter or longer than would otherwise be expected. So when commenting on the length of Luke's retelling of Paul's perils at sea in Acts 27, Johnson points out several possible connection points that might help explain the section's length. He notes literary markers such as Luke's use of "we" as explaining the detailed character of the narrative, but goes on to discount this explanation by noting Luke's use of "we" in Paul's sea journey to Jerusalem which is treated much more summarily. Johnson also discusses the merits of treating this section as allegory, which he quickly dismisses as inconsistent with the rest of Luke's writings. The third approach Johnson details is to treat the inclusion of dangerous sea travel as an obvious Hellenistic literary motif that is "fictional". By fictional Johnson explains that these were, "techniques [used] even when they were relating events that had every claim to be considered historical, since narrative of any sort requires both strong selection and shaping if it is to yield an meaning at all" (J.457-458). While holding "fictional" techniques as plausible, Johnson ultimately rejects such a conclusion as being problematic for a section so long and detailed. Ultimately, Johnson finds a solution that fits Luke's purpose in writing Acts with sound literary considerations, namely that the length of this section allows the reader to appreciate just how grave the situation is for Paul and how, at the same time, God is in complete control over the events of history.
I appreciated much of the work that went into placing Acts within a context which shows that Luke's writing is not mere history, but is purposeful. Johnson's analysis of Luke's word usage in Luke-Acts shows that Luke chooses words that create connections with other passages. These connections make the strongest point for a uniquely Lukan take on the historical events he writes on. An example of such a connection comes up in Acts 1:8 where the category of "witness" comes up from its antecedent text in Luke 24:48. Johnson goes on to note further connections with Jesus' prophecy of his followers being witnesses in Acts 6:3; 13:22; 14:3; 23:11.
Johnson also brings word connections alongside a number of other biblical passages that neatly fit Luke's conclusions alongside those of other biblical writers. So in Acts 9:22 where the Greek verb endunamoo is used, Johnson carefully explains the meaning as more than the textbook definition of "strength". He does this by appealing the verb's meaning in the LXX texts of Judg 6:34 and 1 Chr 12:18, where it used in speaking of the Spirit coming upon one set apart for a special work of God. He also shows the verb's usage by Paul in speaking of his own ministry (Phil 4:13; 1 Tim 1:12; 2 Tim 4:17) and his delegate Timothy (2 Tim 2:1) (J.171). In addition to showing that the later scribal additions to the text "in the word" are not needed, these associations with the LXX and Pauline writings add clarity by showing that Paul's "strength" was for the purpose of fulfilling God's purposes in a manner consistent with his working in OT Israel. These connections are very helpful in finding a key word's meaning, especially in the case where a textbook definition does not match the context of text.
Even comments on certain Hellenistic literary themes that are mirrored in Acts are not in themselves problematic and actually allow us to better understand the culture of Luke's day. Johnson comments on the use of Paul's apologia in Acts 22:1-29 and brings alongside the works of Thucydides, Josephus and Aphrodisias which all support the importance of forensics in shaping the culture. Nowhere do we read that Luke likely borrowed these in order to make a more compelling point. Rather, it seems Johnson is showing us that Luke is selecting aspects of history that his audience would be able to readily understand and relate to. Far from showing disingenuous motives, it helps us see that Luke had is audience in mind and wished to reach them in a language they could understand.
For all of Johnson's helpful insights in identifying Luke's key themes in Acts, there are a few recurring areas that are problematic, namely that it is difficult to delineate where Johnson would have actual history end and Luke's rhetorical purposes begin. The biblical writers are always engaged in writing into real life situations with real purposes in mind. This means that the biblical writers are choosing what to include and not to include based on what is important in making their point. A clear proof of this would be John claiming that the whole earth could not contain the books written if every word of Jesus was recorded (cf. John 21:25). So in looking at Acts we see that Luke is including details that that support his thesis. Johnson comments on the brevity of Paul's sea journey to Jerusalem compared to the details highlighting his later journey to Rome as consistent with Luke's literary goals, and in such a case I agree. So while such authorial shaping would be understood as consistent with the divinely inspired nature of scripture, there are limits to what can be understood as authorial shaping. Methods whereby the author is implied to have possibly added large segments of facts that may not have happened to the narrative would seem to imply more than mere authorial shaping. Johnson tells us, "...our author is concerned less with "what happened" than with what "should have happened" (J.270). As an example he comments on Acts 21:27-40, "Perhaps the only unlikely element in the account is the part Luke is leading to, namely Paul's apologia delivered on the steps leading to the barracks. It is barely possible that a Roman officer would be impressed enough by Paul's show of sophistication to allow him a word, but it is far less likely that a crowd so wrought up would have silenced itself for the speech that Luke has Paul deliver" (J.385). The problem here is that Johnson is limiting our options in understanding historic events to two; either an event happened in a manner consistent with other historical sources, or the event was shaped (fabricated) to whatever degree necessary to fit the rhetorical ambitions of the author. Creating a false disjunction, as Johnson does here, is problematic for two main reasons. First, it introduces an anti-supernatural element to the text. Recall that the key purpose of Acts itself is to explain something super-natural, namely how God's saving activity in the world began with the Jews and moved to the Gentiles. So Johnson holds to a thesis that is predicated upon a super-natural work of God to move history forward in a manner surprisingly different from anything to be expected by Jew or Gentile. But at the same time he questions the historicity of an event because it is displays a circumstance that would be different from what one would expect based historical (and naturalistic) considerations. Yet that's just the point--God's entire work in Acts is of a surprising an unexpected nature. From the very beginning of Acts we see the apostles struggle with the fact that Jesus is not in their day going to restore the kingdom to Israel. Peter struggles with the fact that God is bestowing salvation on Gentiles in a manner that places them on an equal footing with Jews. So surprising is the working of God that the greatest persecutor of the church becomes the man most portrayed as the tireless missionary of the gospel. All this is happening despite the fact there was little if any human expectation that these things were likely, or even possible. So what we find in the case of Acts is that Luke is shaping an evident, that is unlikely to have happened, but yet did happen--that seems to be too prominent of a theme to dismiss.
In conclusion, I found Johnson's work to be a useful tool for the exegete. His exegesis of the important Greek words and phrases avoided any obvious fallacies in semantics. His appeal to other texts was carefully handled and didn't lead to the reader to think that secondary sources were on equal footing with the NT and LXX texts. I would recommend this book to a seminary student or serious student of the word. For the average layperson however, Johnson's emphasis on "picture" leads him to certain conclusions which drive a wedge between history and the biblical text--this could have the effect of either turning the person off to everything Johnson is saying (good included), or leading one to read scripture as a work of pure human motives and therefore stripping it of its power. In the right hands this book is a very useful tool, for the average layperson it probably amounts to biting off more than you can chew.
- Unlike numerous other biblical commentaries, Johnson does not devote much space arguing with other scholars. He has done most of this work off the pages. This makes for an engaging reading experience and for a more original commentary. LTJ chooses rather to interact with ancient writers (such as Josephus and the major Latin and Greek poets, historians, and philosophers) and other books of Scripture. This multiplicity of voices helps to put Acts in its ancient context and allows readers to appreciate Luke's narrative gifts by comparing his style to other writers. This commentary absolutely excels in this way. It does not overwhelm the reader with full quotations of pertinent passages but rather directs the reader to them. This keeps the commentary from being bogged down with details that are tedious to wade through.
- Throughout this work LTJ remains more concerned in the flow and purpose of the narrative of Acts rather than critical issues about the author and levels of redaction. LTJ remains thoroughly engaged with all critical discussions while avoiding detracting from the excitement of the narrative.
- As a believing Catholic, LTJ gives the believing reader a refreshing reading of the Book of Acts as it was written for the benefit of the whole Church.
- The Sacra Pagina format is very easy to use (even though the Greek is transliterated). LTJ gives an excellent, original translation which is followed by individual verse textual notes. In these notes LTJ addresses important Lucan vocabulary/syntax and theological themes. He also relates matters of style, vocabulary, theology, and history to other ancient writings. Then follows usually a few page "interpretation" section where he deals with the text holistically, relating it back to the Gospel of Luke and the overall narrative of Acts. The book itself is well made and is a pleasure to use.
- LTJ comments extensively on Codex Bezae (D), a 5th century Greek text that interestingly adds much to the Book of Acts not found in other manuscripts.
Overall this is the most readable and engaging commentaries on Acts that I have used. I use it along with C.K. Barrett's ICC volumes, Bede's commentary, Willimon's volume in Interpretation, Soard's book which looks at the speeches in Acts, and occasionally I. Howard Marshall's book in the Tyndale series. I love this work the most because of LTJ's engaging writing style, linkages he makes to other ancient (biblical and non-biblical) writings, and great sensitivity to narrative and language. This is highly recommended. I look forward to the Acts volumes that are forthcoming in the Concordia series, Word series, and Two Horizons series.