Book Review – Acts (I Howard Marshall)

The Tyndale Commentary series is written to “help the non-technical reader understand his Bible better”. The introduction presents Acts as a “sacred history” – an account of the fulfilmnent of Scripture – and volume 2 in Luke’s story of Christian beginnings. Some emphases he notes include a concern with the opposition that surrounds the spread of the gospel, and Christianity as the true Judaism.

One of Marshall’s chief interests is to defend the historicity of the book of Acts against what he views as unjustified skepticism, particularly from Haenchen. Hardly an episode goes by where he doesn’t note the criticisms that have been levelled at it, and attempts to provide a response. He resists the temptation to provide overly neat solutions to all problems though, preferring often to simply demonstrate that the events as described are not as unlikely as some have found them.

Despite his concern with historicity, the commentary does not get bogged down in incidental historical and geographical details as some more technical commentaries on Acts can tend to do. Marshall is concerned also to comment on theological matters, but he sticks strictly to what is directly discussed, rather than considering some of the extrapolated doctrines and practises that Christians have found in the book.

Each section is given a brief overview where Marshall retells the story of what happens in his own words, and indicates any particular issues that will be dealt with in the commentary. Then it is examined verse by verse (or couple of verses) with each of these subsections occupying a paragraph or two. His writing style is good, and the issues he chooses to raise are generally ones that are of interest to evangelical readers, so he maintains the reader’s interest throughout.

One theological issue that will be of interest to many readers early on in the book is how he handles the issue of baptism in the Spirit. He unflinchingly sees the baptism as always taking place at conversion, and thus sees extraordinary circumstances where it happens otherwise (e.g. Samaritans in Acts 8 to show solidarity; Ephesians in Acts 15 are not Christians in the first place). He does not interact at all with the view that says these are distinct but normally coincident experiences.

He argues that Acts 11 (rather than 15) and Galatians 2 describe the same incident. As the focus of Acts shifts more to Paul, Marshall notes how Luke demonstrates parallels between the lives of Jesus and Paul, although he is quick to dismiss any claims that Luke fabricated incidents and details to create this similarity. The many speeches in Acts are not to be understood as quotes verbatim, but rather Luke’s faithful retelling of the essence of what was or would have been said in the situation. At the end of the book, Marshall lists all the options for why we are not told what happens next, but prefers not to make a judgement on which is to be preferred.

Despite being written back in 1980, this commentary is still one of the most frequently recommended commentaries on Acts, and deservedly so. Its straightforward approach will help anyone preparing Bible studies or sermons to get clear in their minds what was happening, as well as seeing Luke’s purposes behind the way the story is told. The purpose of the Tyndale series is not to focus on application, and Marshall does not do so. At 430 pages with very few footnotes, it is just about a manageable length to read cover to cover, but any longer would push it into the realm of a reference book. Those who are not interested in hearing Acts defended historically might save themselves some time by reading a commentary with a more devotional outlook, but this remains a valuable tool to all students of the Word who want to understand it better so that they may apply it better.

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