John T. Carroll’s Luke Commentary in the NTL (Review)

John T. Carroll is familiar to me as co-author of an excellent book called The Death of Jesus in Early Christianity. Thus, it was with great anticipation that I ordered his new commentary on Luke in the WJK NTL series. His commentary is rather short compared to other recent commentaries on Luke (Bock’s two volumes in BEC amount to about 2000 pages!; Joel Green’s NICNT is 1000+), but the NTL series tends to produce succinct commentaries that follow the flow of the text with concern for historical matters, exegetical conundrums, literary concerns, and theological ideas expressed in and through the biblical work. Carroll does all of this adroitly. The text also includes a fresh translation, in this case being a particular benefit because Carroll puts a lot of work into this, trying to be precise as well as stimulating. Thus, he translates (what we tend to see as) “kingdom of God” as “God’s reign.” Also, he renders the “Son of Man” language as “Son of Humanity.” This is a notoriously thorny issue (how to interpret the language of the “Son of Man”) and I don’t think Carroll’s solution is fully satisfactory, but I admire his attempt to translate it in a meaningful way beyond the tradition phrase.

In terms of authorship, Carroll finds the traditional association with Luke neither careless nor provable. Rather, he prefers to examine the gospel itself to determine a kind of “profile” of the (encoded) author: a Gentile, committed to God, the Jewish Scriptures, and the community of the Jewish people. So, this very well could be a God-fearer (p. 2).

A far as what this Gospel is about and why he wrote it. Carroll is not alone in thinking that this helps to establish a stable social identity for believers at the end of the first century:

Who are we as a people in light of recurrent conflict within synagogues and increasingly Gentile membership? How is Israel’s story—how are its Scriptures, its hopes, its future—still ours to claim? And with the embarrassment of our founder (Jesus) and his prominent successor (Paul) put to death through Roman judicial process, what place do we have in the Roman social order? The story Luke tells (in both Gospel and Acts) appears to take aim at precisely this sociorhetorical exigency: the need of early Christian audiences in urban centers of the Roman Empire to answer such questions, whether their own or those of others around them, and as the people for whom Jesus is Christ and Lord, to connect their own story to the ancient story of Israel. (4)

In terms of genre, Carroll follows Sterling by appealing to “apologetic historiography” (p. 5). As Carroll works through the text, though, he maintains a focus on the flow of the narrative itself – Luke’s story and how it shapes identity and teaches the community through a social, theological, and ethical vision.

The NTL typically features excurses peppered throughout the commentary. I was surprised that Carroll only included 4 of these, but they are certainly important ones: “Parallel Birth Announcements,” “Women in Luke’s Narrative,” “Poverty and Wealth in Luke’s Gospel,” and “The Reign of God and the Roman Empire in Luke’s Gospel.” In each of these discussions (of the second, third, and fourth topics), the conversations tend to be polarized in the history of scholarship. It is all the trend to see Luke as promoting women, focused on the poor, and anti-Rome. Carroll avoids this either-or in view of the complex nature of the third gospel. For example, pertaining to possible anti-imperial sentiments in Luke, Carroll says this:

Luke’s audience is introduced to, and invited to participate in, a counterreign defined by alternative practices and a fundamentally different notion of power and status, in a third space not dominated by the ideology of Rome, even if this counterrealm does not translate into overt revolution. And it is a space liberated from the malevolent, distorting rule of Satan. Yet for all of this, and despite Satan’s clam to have conferred power over the nations (4:6), the narrative does not paint Rome in unambiguously negative colors. (402)

Furthermore, Carroll says

As a third space, liberated from Satan’s control, this is a community whose identity is bound up with a crucified and risen Lord and whose character and future are defined in terms set by the reign not of Caesar but of God. Yet the movement that Luke terms ‘the way’ continues to navigate that Roman Empire, for the most part, peaceably, from within. (404)

What this means, in the end, is that Rome can easily be viewed as a destructive power in league with Satan. However, we also see signs that “God can make use of imperial power to accomplish purposes of liberation and salvation” (404).

As a whole, this commentary is very helpful when trying to work through the wider narrative of Luke , and you get Carroll’s take on the major exegetical problems in Luke. On the word-by-word or verse-by-verse level, space prohibits detailed discussion from Carroll, so if you go looking for a word study, you will be disappointed. This is a quick-and-easy-access commentary, but far from exhaustive. Carroll is a good reader of the text, sensitive to Luke’s story-telling mind. Carroll admits that he only scratches the theological surface of meaning and application, and then leaves it to others to take the ideas further. I recommend, if you use this commentary, to compliment it with other longer ones such as those by Culpepper (NIB) or Green (NICNT).

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