Top Five Galatians Commentaries

Introduction. Because of the situation behind this letter, Commentaries on Galatians are at the forefront of the discussion in the New Perspective on Paul. Like Romans, the main theological context of Galatians is salvation by grace through faith in Jesus. But what “justified by faith” means is a central point in the New Perspective discussion (see here on the pistis christou issue). A major implication of understanding Judaism in the Second Temple Period better is that the so-Called Judaizers may not be the proto-Pelagians they are often made out to be.

This One Did Not Make the List

Another impact the New Perspective has made on the study of Galatians is the proper understanding of the phrase “works of the Law.” Until recently, this phrase was taken to mean “The Law,” or complete Torah observance. In the light of the publication of 4QMMT and the work of Dunn and Wright, many now take the phrase to mean “boundary markers” which set Judaism apart from other worldviews. These boundary markers are circumcision, food laws, Sabbath observance and monotheism.

An additional complication is placing the letter into a chronology of Paul and the book of Acts. One problem is the relationship of Paul’s own testimony of his visits to Jerusalem and Luke’s reporting in Acts. Is the meeting Paul describes in Galatians 2 the same meeting Luke describes in Acts 15? Where does the so-called Antioch Incident fit into the chronology of Acts? A commentary usually will begin with a lengthy (and sometimes dry) discussion of the South vs. North Galatia theories. While this may seem to the layman to be a rather obscure point, it really is important with respect to the chronology of Paul’s mission, and will effect how the scholar approaches the opponent in Galatia.

Richard N. Longenecker, Galatians (WBC; Dallas: Word, 1990). The introduction is excellent on the various suggestions for understanding the Judaizers, perhaps this essay should be read to orient one’s thinking. Like all commentaries in the WBC, the exegetical sections are based onthe Greek text without any transliteration, all citations are in-text. Longenecker includes several excellent excursuses, “Antioch on the Orontes,” “Abraham’s Faith and Faithfulness in Jewish Writings and in Paul,” and “The Hagar-Sarah Story in Jewish Writings and in Paul” are all particularly good. The last is rich with Jewish sources and very helpful for understanding that difficult passage.

Ben Witherington III, Grace in Galatia (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1998). This commentary is almost worth the price for the introduction alone. (It happens that I agree with much of what he says, so that may color my perceptions just a bit!) I find Witherington’s view of the agitators to be well-written and clear, informed by a dialogue with James Dunn yet not he is not simply parroting “new perspective” ideas. However, the emphasis on Paul’s rhetorical style is less helpful (to me), although it seems as though Witherington makes good use of the Greco-Roman rhetorical styles for interpreting the text. A real highlight in this commentary (and others in the Socio-Rhetorical series) is the section entitled “Bridging the Horizons.” Here Witherington attempts to apply his exegesis of Galatians to contemporary theological issues – how does tihs book really apply to the church today?

Ronald Y. K. Fung, The Epistle to the Galatians (NICNT; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1988). This commentary replaces the venerable NICNT by Herman Ridderbos (1953). That volume was written from a thoroughly traditional perspective, Fung’s approach is biblical-theological, following his teacher, F. F. Bruce. His introduction to the book is excellent, dating the book before Acts 15, written to southern Galatia.  He deals with major arguments for and against this view, creating an efficient and readable argument. Like most of the NICNT series, Greek is relegated to footnotes, permitting the layman or busy pastor to use the commentary without too much difficulty. In fact, some of his footnotes interact with other views in such detail it is hard to imagine why the material was placed there instead of the main  text! I particularly enjoy his “additional comments,” brief excursuses on topics that go a bit beyond the text. I find these brief yet extremely helpful. Fung has written a major Galatians commentary in Chinese, something which I see as extremely promising.

Timothy George, Galatians (NAC; Nashville: Broandman & Holman, 1994). This commentary is a bit different than others in the NAC series in that George is a professor of Theology and Church History. As such, his commentary is a “work of theological exposition” (p. 13). This does not mean that there is no exegesis in the commentary. On the contrary, George’s theological reflections are solidly based on the text of Galatians. Even so, the commentary is rich with observations from classic Reformation and Puritan writers.

Mark Nanos, The Galatians Debate (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2002). Similar to The Romans Debate edited by K. P. Donfried, Nanos’s collection of essays are drawn from a wide variety of journals and collections. Unlike that previous volume, these articles are collected thematically, illustrating various approaches to Galatians: Rhetorical, Epistolary, Autobiographical, and Socio-Historical. Eight essays are devoted to the “Galatian Situation.” I personally have found the four essays under the heading of Socio-Historical approaches to be the most helpful for my own research in the book of Galatians, especially Dunn’s classic essay on the Incident at Antioch (which was revised for Beginning at Jerusalem) and Nanos’s own article on Eating with the Gentiles.

Conclusion. There are a few books I left off this list to keep it to five. (What! No F. F. Bruce?! Where’s J. Louis Martyn ?) I would have liked to include Martinus C. de Boer’s recent commentary from Westminster/John Knox, but I have only recently purchased a copy and have yet to really read enough to make comments. (James Dunn reviewed the book  for RBL). Doug Moo has a commentary coming out in the BECNT series which should be good.  I know a few classics are missing, but that is why I stuck to five – this give you (the reader) a chance to let me know what you have found useful in your preaching and teaching.


Index for the Top Five Commentary Series


Introduction to Series on Commentaries

On Using Commentaries 

Matthew        Mark        Luke        John        Acts
Romans        1 Corinthians         2 Corinthians
Galatians         Ephesians        Philippians        Colossians
1-2 Thessalonians        Pastoral Epistles         Philemon
Hebrews        James         1 Peter         2 Peter & Jude 
Letters of John         Revelation

Conclusion:  Last Thoughts on New Testament Commentaries

15 thoughts on “Top Five Galatians Commentaries

  1. Interesting, only one I have in common is Longenecker. My other 4 are F.F. Bruce, NIGTC: GALATIANS; Leon Morris, GALATIANS (Basic, but very good); Thomas R. Schreiner, ECNT:GALATIANS; and the classic JB Lightfoot: GALATIANS (dated, but worthwhile).

    • I thought that I had to either have Bruce or Fung, since Fung is such a follower of Bruce. I have been reading his book quite a bit recently and I am quite enamored. Oddly enough, I do not think I have a copy of Morris. You are right, Lightfoot is well worth consulting, even if his north Galatia arguments have fallen on hard times.

  2. I own Longeneckker, but two of my go-to commentaries aren’t here: James D. G. Dunn in the Black’s series and Frank Matera in the Sacra Pagina series. Dunn is good for a thorough exegesis and presenting all of the relevant arguments. Matera is very clear and engaging.

    • I should really get Dunn in my library, that is an omission I will admit. I have paid less attention to the Sacra Pagina series, although there are some excellent volumes. Good suggestions both.

  3. Where’s Luther’s commentary on Galatians. DeWitt once told me he thought every theology student should read Luther’s work on Galatians — and of course, I would agree. Transforming.

  4. I’ve started on de Boer and it looks quite good. I’m inclined to think that either Martyn or de Boer should be on the list, as the apocalyptic perspective is an important one. Being in the more liberal camp, I’m surprised that the evangelicals among you haven’t latched onto Fee in the Pentecostal series. It is really quite good, and refreshing! Spiritual empowerment is a central aspect of the letter but can easily be missed, which of course, Fee does not do.

    • I probably dropped the ball omitting Martyn, and I had only just obtained de Boer when I wrote that. I just picked up Moo in the Baker series, as well as Schriener. (Pointing out the need to update this commentary series soon!)

  5. Galatians has lots of good commentaries many listed above. Here is a few additional thoughts. Glynn 10th edition has an interesting comment on martyn. Andrew Das on galatians has just come out and looks very good. Silva 2nd edition has alot to offer as dose Fesco lecto continua. Sermon prep can be stimulated by Terry Johnson mentor series and Josh Moody has a good sermon series at college church.

  6. Definitely, Galatians (The Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries) by J. Louis Martyn. Also, Galatians (Hermeneia: A Critical & Historical Commentary on the Bible) by Hans Dieter Betz is a bit dated but still good.

  7. A series that rarely gets mention is the New Testament Library (WJK). Although their reference books have been on my reading lists since University, their commentaries have, more often than not, been passed over for either the Anchor Bible or Hermeneia series on my shelf. However, when I wanted a commentary on Galatians, I found myself dissatisfied with Martyn and I’d already read Betz’s fine commentary in collage. Luckily, I checked the NTL and discovered a new commentary by Martinus C. deBoer that has really fit my persnickety theological and historical needs.

    deBoer seeks to “understand and to expound what the apostle was attempting to communicate to the very first users and interpreters of the letter…in the middle of the first century C.E.” His working assumption is to understand Paul on his own terms, and to his first intended readers, before seeking modern applications of those terms and meanings. As with the letter to the Romans, deBoer assumes Paul’s letter to the Galatians was not opaque, and that he would not have written anything the receivers of the letter could not understand. All together, deBoer seeks to “understand Paul’s theology as it unfolds in this letter, and as the Galatians will probably understand it when they receive it.” For this reason, deBoer writes in the present tense in regards to Paul, and the near future tense with regards to the Galatians, putting the reader as close to the action as possible.

    Of particular interest is his literal, but idiomatic to English, translation. His purpose is to be as faithful to the Greek as possible and the results are interesting. One early example: Gal 1:15-16:

    (NRS) “But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being…”

    deBoer: “And when [God], the one who set me apart from the womb of my mother and called me through his grace, was pleased to apocalyptically reveal his Son in me, that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately confer with flesh and blood…”

    While the meaning may essentially be the same, the more literal translation of the Greek heightens, in this instance at least, the drama of Paul’s words. Also, there is a noted difference in “reveal His Son to me…” (RSV) and “reveal his Son in me…” that I personally find rather profound.

    There are no less than 19 excursuses covering what, I can only imagine, is almost every topic from “The Title ‘Apostle'” (1), to “Paul’s Language of Apocalyptic” (6), to “The Elements of the World” (13), to “The Flesh as a Cosmic Power” (16) and, finally, “The Israel of God” (19).

    The commentary is divided into six sections: The Letter Opening, The Origin and Truth of the Gospel, The Spirit and the True Heirs of the Promise Made to Abraham, The Grave Dangers Confronting the Galatians, Life at the Juncture of the Ages, and Epistolary Closing.

    deBoer’s writing is suitable for general reader and scholar alike, but mostly it is the exercise of placing the reader among the first readers of the letter that truly captivates, making the commentary feel both immediate and vital.

    A current downside to WJK is that they quickly replace their first print books with editions of dubious quality. I was lucky enough to get a proper first edition with a cloth cover and dust jacket. These are usually replaced with laser print-to-order TPB editions or laser print-to-order editions with strange rubbery-coated cardboard covers. If you’re a book lover, this may be an issue. If you’re content with digital there’s no problem.


    • Thanks for the review of De Boer. In my defense, it was out less than a year when I wrote the original post, so I was unfamiliar with it at the time. I have since purchased a copy and would likely include it on a revised list.

      You are right I did not pay much attention to the NTL when I wrote the original series. Some of the older OTL commentaries have not aged well, or were not very detailed int he first place (Hertzberg on 1-2 Samuel, for example), although the older volumes are being replaced (Deuteronomy by Von Rad was replaced by Richard D. Nelson in 2002, for example).

      The WKJ New Testament Library has added several excellent volumes lately, Marianne Meye Thompson’s on John and Eugene Boring on Mark are both worth the investment, as is Stephen Fowl on Ephesians and Luke Timothy Johnson on Hebrews. I have not seen John T. Carroll on Luke yet, but if the trend is consistent, I expect it is good.

      I agree the print-on-demand copies are terrible. I had a 1-2 Samuel paperback that simply disintegrated on use. Split right down the center. I think the Anchor paperbacks are bound better, but who knows how long before the glue in the spine starts to break down (and keep them out of the sun!)

    • Great suggestion. Douglas Moo would certainly be on the list today. His commentary was published November 15, 2013, this list was created June 14, 2012. My views on prophecy prevented me from included him. . . !

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