Book review: The IVP Bible Background Commentary

by Craig S. Keener


I have huge respect for Craig Keener’s work ever since his 2003 two-volume commentary on the Gospel of John. It was largely instrumental in researching for my own book about John’s Gospel, and I believe has become the primary resource for Johannine studies. So when IVP sent me this brand new second-edition 800-page New Testament commentary, I was quite excited.

As a reference book, it doesn’t disappoint. Scholarly and interesting, each book of the New Testament is given a short introduction detailing authorship and setting, and then a verse-by-verse commentary. The verses are clustered and topical, so it’s easy to page through the book looking for topics of interest. Be aware that Keener’s emphasis differs from other commentaries; he is less interested in providing simple exegesis than in painting a picture of the first-century setting whereby a saying or statement can be understood. Note the title: this is a “Bible Background Commentary.” It is about the cultural background and what was going on in Bible days that colored the writings we read two thousand years later.

It’s this focus that gives this reference book its unique niche. A few examples of Keener’s focus will help explain what makes this a must-have resource for sermon development or (in my case) writing Bible commentary:

Matthew 5:22, about the “fires of Gehenna” for someone who calls his brother a fool: Keener doesn’t delve into the history of Gehenna but speaks to its metaphorical meaning as the opposite of paradise, and how some Jewish teachers envisioned eternal torture while others believed the wicked would be burned up.

Acts 2:1-4, about the arrival of the Holy Spirit: Keener explains the Jewish anticipation of the return of the Spirit and its outpouring as a sign of the Messianic age.

1 Corinthians 11:14-15, about a woman wearing long hair as a head covering, while long hair on a man is a disgrace: Keener points out how ancient writers, especially Stoic philosophers, loved to make arguments from nature. Nature taught them that men could grow beards, but women’s hair naturally seemed to grow longer. Paul is well aware of the exceptions to the rule (such as the Nazirites)  but draws on this observation more to make a point than to instruct his readers in how to wear their hair.

Intervarsity Press, © 2014, 816 pages

ISBN: 978-0-8308-2478-6


  1. Aleta Forsberg

    Interesting. I never understood how “nature” teaches what Paul is trying to advise about long hair.

    • Lee Harmon

      Yeah, these verses still intrigue me. I wrote about it a couple years ago:

      • I don’t think “cultural” has much to do with it – except to refer to what culture considered “shameful”. The principle is “glory” – whose glory is to be evident in the assembly. The woman is said to have her covering (hair), but since she is the glory of the man, she is to have a double covering – so that man’s glory is covered. The man is said to be the glory (word here means “representative”) of Christ in the assembly. The man’s head is to be uncovered – I.e. he acts as Christ’s representative. Therefore the symbolism of Christ is Head of the Church is demonstrated. Christ’s glory and Headship is to be demonstrated in the meetings of the Church. That is the principle. There is also the reference to ” angels”. The woman is testifying by her double covering she is now acknowledging authority in creation order whereas Eve stepped out from that. When women follow this pattern, they are showing to angels God’s order in the Church. Plus Paul says, We have no other practise, nor do any other churches. Hope this helps.

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