Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Commentary Review: Galatians

There are a glut of Galatians commentaries on the market. Memo to publishers, no more traditional commentaries on Galatians for ten years, please! An entry from the Brazos or Two Horizons series would be welcome, though. With there being so many on the market, there are a few that I haven't looked at much and hence will not review (e.g., Bruce, Matera, and Witherington). It's not that I don't think that they're up to the level of the ones below, I just had to draw the line somewhere. As usual, if you're unfamiliar with any of the series, please visit my commentary series overview page.

In my opinion, one commentary stands above them all on Galatians, James Dunn's, even after almost twenty years. Anytime I had an interpretive question, Dunn's was the first commentary I turned to. It contained enough detail to be thorough but it wasn't excessively long. It's also not just a commentary for New Perspective on Paul (NPP) fans, which I think is a major misconception. Of course his understanding of works of the law has a significant impact on the commentary, but it's far more than a defense of the new perspective. Dunn is solid in his discussion of every portion of the letter and I consistently found it to be one of the two most helpful commentaries, no matter which passage I was studying. Interpretive decisions were always careful weighed and well reasoned. Alternative views are considered carefully, but the discussion never gets bogged down in the process. Dunn's writing is clear and he avoids wasting space with unnecessary filler. Every student of Galatians would benefit from reading Dunn's work, and for me it was the one that got me fully on board with the NPP. 5 stars out of 5.

While Dunn's commentary is in a class of it's own, there are two other commentaries that are top notch. The first we will look at is Richard Hays' entry in the New Interpreter's Bible Commentary series. Unfortunately it's not sold as a stand alone, which makes it a bit pricey to own for a short commentary. Fortunately the other volumes that it's bound with are pretty good so it's not a waste to invest in. This commentary is a model for writing brief commentaries. Hays does a wonderful job of summarizing recent Pauline scholarship, merging together the best of both the NPP approach of Dunn and the apocalyptic reading of Martyn and adding in some of his own twists. If I were to rate commentaries solely in terms of my agreement with them, Hays would be at the top of the list. The reflections at the end of each major section also should not be ignored. I found a lot of good material to ponder and many of his points could definitely bolster some sermons. Hays' 1 Corinthians commentary receives all of the adulation, but I think his Galatians is more helpful to the teacher and preacher even if not more original. 5 stars out of 5.

Note: At a later date I reviewed de Boer's commentary and gave it a 5 star rating. You can find the review here.

Unfortunately, Gordon Fee's commentary on Galatians very quickly ceased to be sold on Amazon and scarcity has made the used market get out of hand. You can still find it somewhat reasonably at CBD. This one comes in a little longer than Hays and a little shorter than Dunn. Fee is his usual self here. You can't box him in or label him as either traditional or NPP. He seems to be a bit of both. Just when you think that he's going down the New Perspective path in chapter 2, he explains the works/faith contrast in very traditional terms. No surprise, Fee is by far the best on the Holy Spirit in Galatians, a central theme. His comments on the Spirit were critical in helping me see how the whole letter worked together (the Holy Spirit is a more important theme in Galatians than justification by faith). His comments were so penetrating that at times I found myself wanting to quote him by the paragraph (I actually did, once). At every point his exposition was careful, and even where I disagreed (like on his understanding of pistis Christou) he forced me to wrestle with what he had written. It's definitely a good one to consult and think it would be a favorite among those who largely favor a more traditional interpretation of Paul. 4.5 stars out of 5.

J. Louis Martyn has written by far the most thorough commentary on Galatians at over 600 pages. But it rarely felt long, as Martyn's exegesis was fascinating even though it was not always convincing. Martyn utilizes the comment section in a unique way in what really are excurses (there are 52 total!). From an organizational standpoint this is great because the main comments in the commentary are no longer than Dunn, enabling you to get through the main point relatively quickly and giving you the option to read the sometimes very lengthy excurses or not (they're mostly worth reading). Martyn's commentary is written from a thoroughgoing apocalyptic perspective. At times this helps at times it's a hindrance. Martyn also does more mirror reading than any other commentary on the market coming up with an elaborate reconstruction of the background of Galatians. On chapters 1 and 2 I found it to be brilliant. I think he's less successful after that. Still, though, Martyn has written a great commentary that is the strongest on the market on the first two chapters. Hays has incorporated the best of his insights, but is brief enough that it's definitely worth going back to the source. 4.5 stars out of 5.

Schreiner's volume in the ZECNT series is the newest Galatians offering on the market and is the most thorough of recent volumes from the traditional Protestant position. This commentary came out too late for me to utilize it in my studies, but I did spend some time with it in the library. In term of detail it's on par with Longenecker and surpassed only by Martyn. The strength of Schreiner's contribution lies in his detailed presentation of opposing view points (something he does well in his Roman's commentary. Where he does not excel, however is in his refutation of them. For example, Schreiner devotes more than a page to Sanders' and Dunn's understanding of works of the law and second temple Judaism. The summary is excellent. The problem is that he offers a two sentence dismissal that the situation is more varied than Sanders and Dunn allow and then comfortably unpacks his position  with the NPP out of mind.

Overall I thought Schreiner's work on Galatians was good. He does take on board some of the advances that have come from a renewed study of Paul in light of second temple Judaism, particularly their identification of a/the major issue of the letter being the identity of the people of God. On some issues I found him to be far too "Lutheran" in his reading for my taste. Additionally, I did not feel that he utilized the unique ZECNT format as well as some other contributors to the series. 4 stars out of 5.

Richard Longenecker's commentary on Galatians is best described as workmanlike. Of the commentaries I used, it was the most detailed in its discussion of the Greek. The 'Form/Setting/Structure' section was the most helpful portion of the commentary. Longenecker performs a thorough but chastened rhetorical analysis on the letter. For the most part I found it to be helpful, particularly in developing an outline of the letter, and I never felt like he forced the text into a mold that was absolutely foreign to it. With that said, I'm not sure that I followed his classifications of every single passage. The 'Notes' was thorough, but rarely eye opening, and the explanations were a bit brief (not much longer than most of my blog posts). The other major strength of the commentary was the background material in the introduction. I thought his discussion of the wider background that precipitated Peter's behavior and gave the rationale for the arrival of the Teachers and their insistence on following the Torah was so helpful. Overall it's a solid commentary and for help on technical matters it was the first commentary I turned to and was glad it was in my arsenal. 4 stars out of 5.

Scot McKnight's commentary is a good entry in the NIVAC series. It's probably the first commentary that tried to bring the results of the NPP to the average person in the pew. His applications were built off of his new perspective reading and for the most part were very strong, though at times a little dated (a lot has changed in the world since 1995). Even there I think they give good examples we can relate to having experienced in the past and get us thinking on the 'right track.' The original meaning sections were a bit briefer and less technical than some others in the same series, but that's probably a positive given the intended audience. Definitely make sure to check out his lengthy discussion of legalism in his introduction. It's excellent, as is the rest of his discussion of legalism throughout the applications section of the commentary. Until something surpasses it, I would rate McKnight's commentary as the best option for the lay person. Preachers and teachers also would benefit from seeing how McKnight works out his applications of the text. 4 stars out of 5.

The last of the modern commentaries that I'll cover is Cousar's in the Interpretation series. I acquired this one late in the game so I didn't dig into it in quite the same way I did most of the above. Overall I thought Cousar's commentary was adequate. Occasionally he had insight that I didn't find in other commentaries (it seems to be largely ignored by recent commentators), though on the whole I don't think it added a lot that I could not have gotten elsewhere. In the portions I read his explanation was fairly traditional and as it was written more than twenty-five years ago, one does feel some distance from the author at times. I personally would recommend dropping the extra money for Hays before electing for Cousar, though it's certainly not a bad commentary. 3.5 stars out of 5.

In addition to the modern commentaries above I also used three commentaries that drew on material from earlier in the history of the church. My personal favorite was the Bible in Medieval Tradition series. This volume contained a translation of all of or portions of the Latin commentaries for six significant Medieval theologians: Haimo of Auxerre (complete), Bruno the Carthusian (complete), Peter Lombard (ch. 2), Robert of Melun (questions on Galatians), Robert Grosseteste (Ch. 3), and Nicholas of Lyra (Ch. 4). I particularly enjoyed Bruno's commentary. In addition to the commentaries you get a seventy page introduction, which alone was worth the price of the book. It provided a lengthy discussion of Medieval theology and theological method and gave an overview of the lives of each of the commentators listed. Medieval Catholic theology is misunderstood and gets a bad rap at times. If all of your information on it is from Luther and Calvin, you're definitely getting a skewed picture. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of this commentary! 5 stars out of 5.

Luther's commentary is difficult rate. For impact on subsequent understanding of Galatians it's obviously a 5 out of 5. However, I found myself frustrated with the commentary early on. What I realized in the end is that this commentary is an excellent work of systematic theology, or perhaps better put, the type of exegesis done by someone primarily concerned with systematic theology. Luther saw real problems in the church of his day. He saw how Paul's letter addressed those issues and pointed him in another direction doctrinally. What needs to be recognized is that this is all Luther's commentary is. It's not an example of critical exegesis so it shouldn't be evaluated the same way as other commentaries. We also need to make sure that even if we are within the Lutheran tradition that we don't force his view of what Paul was saying to be normative. At the end of the day I did find Luther brilliant, and I do have to force myself to remember that his sitz im leben is greatly different than my own. With that said, I'm not sure how helpful this commentary is to pastors and teachers today. I don't think that there's anything here that you can't get somewhere else. It's on that basis that I'll go with 3.5 stars out of 5.

Last and certainly not least is the ACCS volume. Galatians seems to have been a popular epistle in the early church, so most of the greats commented or preached on the text at some point. Selections were made from Chrysostym, Augustine, Jerome, Ambrosiaster, Marius Victorinus, and others. On the whole I enjoyed Ambrosiaster's work the most, to the point that I almost picked up the full text of his commentaries on Galatians-Philemon. It was nice to read what some of the early church fathers thought on the text. What I most appreciated were the comments that applied the text. I often found them to be very thought provoking and on a couple of occasions spurred me on to find the full comments by that person on the section. Seeing how brief each section is (I usually could complete reading it in ten minutes), I don't think one should pass up reading it. 4.5 stars out of 5.

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