Turning the World Upside Down: Studies in the Acts of the Apostles
Edmund Janzen. Luminaire Studies. Winnipeg, MB: Kindred, 2005. 303 pages.
Writing a commentary restricted to only three hundred pages on a book as substantial as Acts presents the challenge of having to decide which exegetical insights warrant inclusion and which do not. The challenge was compounded for Edmund Janzen, Prof. Emeritus of Biblical and Religious Studies and former president of Fresno Pacific University, due to the format of the Luminaire Studies series. This series requires a significant amount of space be devoted to points other than the exegetical insights which fill the pages of more conventional commentaries.
Each chapter of the commentary consists not only of exegetical points, but also has a section entitled “The Flow and Form of the Text” and two sections on issues of present-day application. And given that each chapter covers a whole chapter of Acts (sometimes even two), and no chapter exceeds fourteen pages in length (and some are as short as six), space for exegetical issues is extremely limited. As a result, some stretches of the text receive no exegetical illumination—coverage of these sections consists of mere summarization of the events—which is perhaps inevitable given such tight space restrictions.
The exegetical insights Janzen does provide are often helpful, though his exegesis sometimes suffers from a failure to recognize recent socio-scientific research into the biblical world. For example, he insists that the baptism of the Philippian jailer’s family was not just because the jailer—as head of the household—had become a believer (170), but this does not take into account research into the dyadic, as opposed to individualistic, personality of non-Enlightenment peoples.
A strength of this volume is “The Flow and Form of the Text” material which places events under consideration into the context of events already encountered. In particular this highlights the story dimension of Acts, something not often found in other commentaries (for another series that does highlight this dimension, see the Believers Church Bible Commentary, Herald Press). It is lamentable, however, that Janzen does not utilize the tools developed in the field of biblical narrative criticism to explore Acts as story more fully.
The final two sections of each chapter address the relevance of Acts to life today, and in this material lies the greatest benefit of this commentary. First, it often reflects a strong Anabaptist orientation, a relative rarity among published works on Acts (for perhaps the only other example, see Chalmer E. Faw, Acts, BCBC [Herald, 1993]). And the connections Janzen makes between the biblical text and present-day life are consistently insightful and thought-provoking.
This “application” material, along with the content of “The Flow and Form of the Text” sections, make this volume a valuable reference for preparing sermons and leading Bible studies. Yet the preacher or study leader would be well served to use this book together with a strong exegetically oriented commentary, such as Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Eerdmans, 1997).