Acts: A Commentary, The Revolution of the Intimate by Willie James Jennings; The Mystery of Acts by Richard I. Pervo
Reviewed by John Strikwerda
The Acts of the Apostles, usually called Acts, is the second of a two-part work. The first book is the Gospel of Luke which shows us Jesus’ ministry, and this is followed by Acts, relating how the followers of Jesus spread their beliefs throughout Asia Minor, Greece, and finally to Rome. It reads like history and is the only book of its kind in the New Testament. We have four Gospels, many letters of Paul, but only one Acts.
Here I review two books centered on Acts, one a commentary and the other a scholarly and readable analysis.
In Acts: A Commentary, The Revolution of the Intimate Rev. Willie James Jennings looks at Acts through the lens of the experience of American Blacks. It is a very insightful book, offering connections between early Christian conflicts among Jewish and Gentile believers and conflicts in our contemporary society.
Jennings stresses that Christians today are, like those in Acts, at odds with the power structures that govern our world. Although American Blacks see this more sharply than others, it applies to all those attempting to follow Jesus in making this a better world.
The recent rise of Black Lives Matter has shown the importance of understanding the Black experience in our society. This is true for Christians as individuals and for predominantly white churches. Acts, with its conflicts over integration of Jewish and Gentile believers, has much to teach us in this regard. Jennings does this in dramatic fashion. I highly recommend the book for its ideas.
But the delivery is not up to the ideas. According to his online biography, Willie James Jennings is a dynamic speaker and I’m sure that if I heard him speak, I’d be moved by his words. But a commentary is not a speech and this book reads like a series of speeches.
Jennings is verbose. This makes it difficult to tell when he is presenting a new idea or rephrasing a previous one. I found it exhausting reading and had to take it in small chunks.
I highly recommend Jennings’ book when used as a regular commentary. That is, start with a specific section of Acts, read Jennings’ thoughts on this section, then apply them to your context. You will almost certainly find interesting ideas and ways of viewing the Church’s mission for today.
One minor criticism of Jennings is that he states that Acts is not a history, but he never questions the historicity of any event in Acts. In his preface he mentions recent Biblical scholarship concerning Acts, but I found no reference in the text where traditional scholarship adds to his commentary.
The second reviewed book on Acts, a short one, is The Mystery of Acts by Richard Pervo. This is an analysis, not a commentary, revealing what Biblical scholars are discovering about this important book of the Bible. Pervo reminds us that Biblical writers wrote to advance a point of view. The Gospels are not biographies. Acts is not history. Luke, the writer of Acts, has a point to make and makes it so well that it’s hard to see that it doesn’t quite hang together. As Pervo states, “Acts is a beautiful house that readers may happily admire, but it is not a home in which the historian can responsibly live.”
Pervo frequently uses the language of detective novels to highlight what he calls Luke’s "perfect crime," which is that Luke justifies Pauline Christianity with a myth that reads somewhat like history. As analysis, The Mystery of Acts seems like a lot of poking around and myth demolition. Pervo suggests that the myth advanced by Acts helped the church survive. Communities need powerful myths.
An interesting case with which to compare both books is the Council of Jerusalem discussed in Acts 15. Pervo advances reasons why this council might not have actually occurred. Jennings uses the disagreements of the council to discuss segregation in our society and churches, in line with Luke’s apparent creation of the event. Despite this insight, I think it is a defect of a modern commentary not to mention the dispute about the historicity of this event.
Both writers increase my appreciation for the Council of Jerusalem. Pervo shows that it serves Luke’s purpose of showing unity in the church while Jennings uses it to discuss the "seduction of segregation," an example of disunity. Jennings points out that the discussion about accepting Gentiles into the Jesus sect was dominated by the Jewish adherents. The Gentiles are spoken about, but aren’t spoken with. This absence is far too common in church discussions. We can easily state what ‘they’ must do, but we don’t let ‘them’ speak.
One idea that Jennings emphasizes, in agreement with Pervo, is that the early Christian church was a group of outsiders in a larger society. In this sense, American Blacks face struggles within American Christendom similar to those of early Christians within both the Jewish religious community and the Roman Empire. Jennings spends a lot of energy on this sense of estrangement. This is important because most American white Christians can’t fully appreciate the experiences of powerless outsiders.
In summary, both books add to my understanding of the early Christian church and how I, as a Christian, should act in society. I recommend them both: Acts: A Commentary as a commentary and The Mystery of Acts for background information about this important book of the Bible.