The Book of Acts as Story: A Narrative-Critical Study

David R. Bauer. The Book of Acts as Story: A Narrative-Critical Study. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2021. xii + 284 pp. $32.99 cloth.

Bauer, a faculty member at Asbury Theological Seminary since 1984, has produced a book that has two parts. The first quarter is an explanation of narrative criticism and a justification of its usefulness related to Acts. The second three-quarters is a pericope-level commentary on Acts almost exclusively focused on narrative-critical insights.

The first quarter includes an excellent explanation of the discipline of narrative criticism as understood in the academy. As opposed to source, form, and redaction criticism, narrative criticism brackets out questions of the veracity of historical claims and simply assumes the stated events and characters are part of the “narrative world.” Narrative criticism is focused on what the “implied author” wants the “implied reader” to understand by analyzing especially plot, characters, and settings. Another emphasis is noting the difference between the “story” (what is told) and “discourse” (how it is told, e.g., use of repetition, direct characterization vs. showing character traits, flash backs).

Bauer’s excellent explanation of narrative criticism has four commendable aspects. (1) It is reasonably brief. (2) The major scholars in both the non-biblical and biblical versions of narrative criticism are referenced. (3) Bauer uses all the standard narrative-critical terms and does not “reinvent the wheel.” (4) The examples to help explain narrative-critical concepts are primarily taken from Acts.

According to Bauer and many others, the genre of Acts is “ancient historiography” (p. 8). Bauer notes that this genre does have a “concern for historical accuracy and reliability” but does also have a tendency toward “aesthetic embellishment,” “fill[ing] in details missing,” and inserting “what the speaker probably said” (p. 9). He concludes that it is “obviously critical to read Acts according to the standards of expectations of historiography of the first century” (p. 10). I disagree here with Bauer. I prefer to emphasize that Acts’ genre is most influenced by its being a canonical book (i.e., it is Scripture) and thus OT narratives are the best parallel. Given my view of Scripture, some of the above-mentioned negative aspects of ancient historiography (e.g., inserting what the speaker probably said) do not apply. I note that in Bauer’s commentary portion these negative aspects play no explicit role.

Bauer’s justification for an Acts commentary that highlights narrative criticism is “the ultimately narrative character of the book,” which in turn “warrants a primary focus upon its narrative dynamics” (p. 12, emphasis mine). Here, Bauer overstates the case. Of course, Acts is a coherent narrative and considering this is important. But Acts is also presenting true history that is part of a larger redemptive-historical timeline. In addition, it includes theological realities and doctrines along with exemplary real-life people (not just characters) and exemplary church actions. On the other hand, although I disagree with Bauer as to level of importance of the “narrative dynamics,” I nevertheless agree that they are important.

For Bauer, the primary plot of Acts is the “conflict between the exalted Christ and the Church over against those . . . who oppose the Church’s message and mission” (p. 15). The primary opposition (antagonists) comes from Jewish opponents, although gentile and demonic opposition does occur. As to the protagonist, Bauer has a nuanced view with a “complex protagonist: Christ and his Church,” but of the two, the “exalted Lord Jesus Christ is the most significant actor in the narrative of Acts” (p. 15, emphasis his). This focus on the exalted Christ is consistent throughout the book and insightful. Bauer also sees a “subordinate plot centering on strife within the Church” (p. 23).

Given the primary plot above, Bauer’s outline is an outworking of Acts 1:8, “you shall be my witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.” His outline is as follows: “The Promise and the Preparation” (1:1–26); “The Witness in Jerusalem” (2:1–8:1a); “The Witness to All Judea and Samaria as Far as Antioch” (8:1b–12:25); and “The Witness to the End of the Earth” (13:1–28:31). Using Acts 1:8 for the outline is now quite common, and I agree.

The commentary portion of the book does look at every pericope in Acts and addresses appropriate narrative-critical issues. It is very well researched as to narrative-critical Acts scholarship and also includes occasional comments from more traditional older commentaries (e.g., Barrett, Bruce, Conzelmann, Fitzmyer, Haenchen, Kistemaker). A typical commentary section will quickly summarize the pericope or group of related pericopes and then make various narrative-critical implications. For an example taken at random, concerning Peter’s ministry in Lydda (Acts 9:32–35) and Joppa (Acts 9:36–43), Bauer notes the similarities between the two pericopes and partially concludes that (1) the inclusion of obscure small towns show “the witness is not confined to large cities” and (2) the interaction between the two congregations of Lydda and Joppa shows “the narrator is presenting a connectional Church” (p. 148–49). In general, compared to other narrative critics, Bauer’s exegetical and narrative insights tend toward more conservative conclusions. This commentary portion is full of miscellaneous narrative-level insights that are helpful to any evangelical pastor or professor.

Two concluding questions: Is narrative criticism itself worthwhile? Even though many, but not all, narrative critics have a very low view of the historicity of Acts, their methodology of bracketing out historical questions and assuming the “narrative world” dovetails in many respects with an evangelical who has a high view of the historicity and considers the narrative as the real world. Thus, I agree with Bauer that insights from narrative criticism are significantly more useful than those that can be gleaned from source, form, and redaction criticism. (Full disclosure: My dissertation was primarily a narrative-critical analysis of the characterization of Barnabas in Acts, and Tannehill [see below] was the outside reader.)

Is Bauer’s book worth getting for a study on Acts? Tannehill set the standard for narrative-critical-focused commentaries in 1990 with his The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts: The Acts of the Apostles (vol. 2). Since then, many more traditional Acts commentaries do explicitly include narrative-critical insights into their exegesis (e.g., Witherington III, Peterson, Johnson, Pervo). My view is that Bauer’s commentary portion is a good secondary resource beyond the traditional commentaries to ensure that one’s exegesis of each pericope is taking into account the broader plot. Having a commentary solely focused on narrative issues is worthwhile. Tannehill does that very well, but Bauer is now more up-to-date. In addition, if one is not up-to-speed on narrative-critical terminology and concepts, Bauer’s first-quarter of his book is a bonus.

Robert J. Cara
Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte