Monday, December 19, 2016

Robert Stein on Luke. Luke Johnson on Acts.

I just want to register a few reactions to a set of commentaries I have begun to use in supplementing my study of Luke-Acts. I have studied through the Luke-Acts duo in the past; but the motive was as a family devotional study. Thus, my study was centered around teaching my children. This time, I am studying the books for me and I want to go into a little more depth. I picked up Robert Stein's New American Commentary on Luke on the merits of online reviews. I picked up Luke Timothy Johnson's Sacra Pagina Commentary on Acts on the good reputation of Luke Timothy Johnson.

Stein's comments are quite excellent. He has an astounding command of the Old Testament especially as it relates to a reader's understanding of the book of Luke. He does not get bogged down in modern denominational doctrinal quibbles. His aim is to help us understand what Luke's account meant to a first century reader, notably a man named Theophilus (Luke 1:3; Acts 1:1). Stein's comments are outstanding.

He does, however, occasionally succumb to modern consensus. A careful reader notices when a writer takes a doctrinal stand without Biblical proof or with weak proof. The particular poorly stance of which I speak is the modern view that "God is in control." As much as a modern reader is inclined to accept that particular theology, I have never seen adequate Biblical support for it. Stein makes the claim in in his introductory remarks and continues to make it in the commentary proper. He makes the claim in his comments on Luke 1:9, which reads,
he [Zechariah] was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense.
Stein's comments:
This indicates that God's providential leading caused Zechariah to be chosen. For Luke this was not the result of "chance" or "fate." God was clearly in control of this event.
Stein includes this footnote:
This example and the fact that the selection of Matthias (Acts 1:26) was preceded by prayer (Acts 1:24-25) make clear that that act should also be understood as taking place according to God's providential will.
I'm sorry. I need Stein to present for me a better argument. I don't see either one as God controlling how the dice are rolled, or how the straws are drawn, or however they took their lots. If there is a suggestion of providence, it sure is not clear!

Stein's "God is in control" assumption motivated me to peek ahead at Luke 22:31-34 to see what Stein says about Jesus' prediction of Peter's denials. The text reads:
31 “Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, 32 but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” 33 And he said to him, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death!” 34 Jesus said, “I tell you, Peter, the cock will not crow this day, until you have denied three times that you know me.”
Stein comments on the clause, "I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail."
Jesus, as well as Luke's readers, knew that Peter would deny the Lord (Luke 22:34, 54-62). Thus the content of this prayer should not be understood as a prayer that peter would not deny Jesus. If this were so, then Jesus' prayer failed completely. Rather the prayer was that Peter would not disavow his allegiance and loyalty to Jesus. This Peter did not do; and the reader, who is aware of Peter's leadership role in the early church, knows that Jesus' prayer for Peter was answered.
"When you have turned back...."
The issue was not whether Peter would repent but what he would do after he repented. Jesus foreknew that Peter's faith would not fail but that after his denial he would repent because he prayed for him.
I don't see definite foreknowledge here and I am not convinced that Luke's main reader, Theophilus, necessarily saw it either. I am not convinced that Jesus got everything he prayed for either. Maybe so. I'll think about it harder when I get to that passage in my study. At this point in my study, the passage looks more like an indicator that it is possible for a person to be restored to ministry once he has fallen away. It does not look to me like an indicator of the infallibility of Jesus' prayer.

It may sound like I am not a fan of this commentary. So far, it is pure gold with only a few impurities. Another example. This one regards the virgin birth of Jesus (Luke 1:34). Stein mined ancient tradition to find an antecedent of a virgin birth upon which Luke's report may have been based.
Yet we find no evidence anywhere of a Jewish expectation that the Messiah would be born of a virgin.

Footnote: Isaiah 7:14 was not interpreted in the intertestamental period as teaching a messianic virgin birth. It is much more likely that after the origination of the virgin birth traditions, Isa 7:14 began to be used to support the traditions rather than that it created this tradition.
That's good writing. It is also very insightful.

Since I plan to consult Luke Timothy Johnson in my Acts study, I thought I would check out how he handles passages that lean towards determinism. The exercise should be profitable since both commentaries comment on the companion book. That is, Stein has a lot to say about Acts in his commentary on Luke. Likewise, Johnson has a lot to say about Luke in his commentary on Acts. My test passages is Acts 13:48.
When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and praised the word of the Lord; and as many as had been destined for eternal life became believers.
 The context shows that the people who "had been destined" were so destined by their own choices and attitudes (Acts 13:42). Let us see what Johnson says.
The verb tassō ("set/appoint") in the perfect passive participle takes on the sense of "destined/allotted." The language reminds us of that used at Qumran for those slotted for everlasting light or darkness, life or death (see CD 3:20; 1QS 3:18-4:1). The term "eternal life" picks up from Acts 13:46, the only other time it occurs in Acts. The Jews "rejected the word of God" and judged themselves "unfit for eternal life"; in contrast, the Gentiles show that they are destined for eternal life by "glorifying" this same "word of the Lord."
That is not bad. Johnson emphasizes the method by which the Jews and Gentiles in this account found themselves destined. It was by their respective embrace of the word of the Lord. That may motivate me to pick up Johnson's companion volume on Luke.

Matt Skinner has written a book on Acts. I appreciate Skinner's perspective in the few things I have read from him. Unfortunately, he has not written anything that I can find on Luke.

A final word about these two commentaries. Sometimes in commentary series such as those that include Stein and Johnson's commentaries, there are rigid format requirements. Stein's comments begin with a few pages discussing "Context" followed by verse-by-verse comments and then a few pages focusing on "Message." That format makes for a little tedium when using the book as a reference. To answer what Stein thinks about a particular verse, one must read all three sections, for Stein may have commented on the verse three times in three different places. I would prefer to see all of his various thoughts on a particular verse located closer together.

The Sacra Pagina commentary format has a section of verse-by-verse comments followed by an "Interpretation" section. I am finding that format much more friendly than the New American Commentary structure.

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