deSilva, David A. The Letter to the Galatians. NICNT; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2018. lxxix+541 pp.; Hb.; $55.00. Link to Eerdmans
Over the past few years Eerdmans has been replacing older volumes of the New International Commentary on the New Testament. In the case of Galatians, deSilva’s new commentary replaces Ronald Y. K. Fung’s 1988 commentary, itself a replacement of Herman Ridderbos’s 1953 work originally written in Dutch. Each generation of the commentary has grown, from Ridderbos’s 238 pages to Fung’s 342 pages, now deSilva’s 541 pages (plus 76 pages of bibliography). The new NICNT volumes are also larger size volume (6×9 as opposed to 5×7, Ridderbos has a larger font than the other two). Ridderbos had a thirty-eight page introduction, a half page subject index and no bibliography; deSilva’s introduction runs one hundred and eight pages, twenty-three pages of indices and fifty-one pages of bibliography.
What has happened in the study of Galatians since 1955 or 1988 to account for this kind of exponential growth in a commentary? First, Hans Deiter Betz commentary on Galatians was published in 1979. Betz was one of the first to analyze Galatians using ancient categories of rhetoric, arguing Galatians used judicial rhetoric and was an apologetic letter. Fung interacted with the rhetorical categories suggested by Betz and ultimately rejected the category of apologetic, deSilva presents a more nuanced interpretation of Paul’s use or ancient rhetoric (ethos, pathos, logos, for example). In his introduction deSilva offers twenty-nine pages on Paul’s rhetoric and letter writing in antiquity and another ten pages applying this material to the letter to the Galatians.
Second, New Perspective on Paul was still new when Fung wrote in 1988 so he does not address some of the more controversial New Perspective issues in any detail. Fung discusses the phrase “works of the Law” in a footnote to Galatians 2:16, deSilva has five pages with extensive footnotes. The same is true for pistis Christou, the “faith of Jesus” or “faith in Jesus.” deSilva has a nine-page excursus on this sometimes technical issue interacting with Dunn’s many articles on the issue as well as the response to Dunn. Fung simply notes the problem in a footnote.
Third, J. Louis Martyn’s Anchor Bible commentary used the category of apocalyptic to interpret Galatians. Martyn wrote an article on apocalyptic antimonies in Galatians just prior to Fung’s commentary, but it did not have much influence on the commentary.
Fourth, related to an “apocalyptic Paul,” there is far more attention in deSilva’s commentary on Paul’s imperial language. To give but one example, to use the language of peace in 1:3 is to use the language of imperial Rome. Augusts brought peace to the empire and Romans sacrificed on the “Altar of the Augustan Peace” and used coins which declared to all that the emperor was the personification of peace in the world (118). For Paul to talk of peace coming from another source, “Father God and Lord Jesus” implies global powers such as Rome are passing away. deSilva offers and excursus of nearly eight pages on the Imperial Cult and the Galatian believers.
With respect to the controversial issue of the destination and date of Galatians, deSilva favors a southern Galatian setting for the letter, although he recognizes the evidence is inconclusive on either side (29). He spends a considerable section of the introduction arguing for a southern Galatia destination based on the record of Paul’s missionary activity in the book of Acts. Commentaries on Galatians which take the book of Acts as a reliable witness to Paul’s missionary activity must deal with problem of Paul’s visits to Jerusalem. Acts records Paul visiting Jerusalem three times, Galatians mentions only two. Of critical importance is the private meeting of Paul and the Jerusalem “pillars” (Galatians 2:1-10).
The result of this meeting is a handshake agreement that Paul continue his mission n to the Gentiles and (most importantly) the pillars agreed the gentile Titus did not need to submit to circumcision. For many commentators, this meeting is what Luke records in Acts 15. DeSilva argues the private meeting in Galatians 2:1-10 is parallel to Acts 11:28-30, the famine visit (which he tentatively dates to A. D. 46-47). After Paul’s private meeting with the Jerusalem pillars Paul and Barnabas travel to South Galatia and establish a number of churches. After the return is the Antioch Incident (Galatians 2:11-14) and the visit of rival teachers to Paul’s churches in Galatia. Galatians was written after these events, either in A. D. 48 or 49, just prior to the meeting with the apostles in Acts 15. As deSilva says, “This is admittedly a tight schedule” (61) and it requires the book of Acts to be taken seriously as history. Those who reject Acts as accurate history may struggle to accept deSilva’s argument for an early date for Galatians, but it is compelling.
The introduction to the commentary includes a lengthy section on the rhetoric of letter writing in antiquity and Galatians as “persuasive communication” (61-106). DeSilva has contributed two commentaries which focused on rhetoric (Perseverance in Gratitude: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, [Eerdmans, 2000] and Seeing Things John’s Way: The Rhetoric of the Book of Revelation, WJKP, 2009). In this section of the introduction he traces Paul’s argument through the letter.
The body of the commentary follows the pattern of the recent NICNT volumes. Each section begins a short orientation and translation of the text with numerous notes on textual variations and translation issues. The commentary moves from phrase to phrase with technical details and Greek grammatical comments in the footnotes. When Greek words appear in the main body of the commentary they are transliterated so readings without Greek training will be able to follow the argument. It is important to observe this is not a Greek text commentary so there are fewer notes dealing with syntactical issues than in Eerdmans’s New International Greek Text Commentary. Most interaction with scholarship primarily appears in the footnotes, making for a readable commentary.
There are a number of extremely useful excurses in the body of the commentary. After his commentary on Galatians 1:11-17, deSilva includes a seven-page essay on Paul’s encounter with the resurrected Jesus as a “paradigm shift.” Before the Damascus Road, Paul would have considered Jesus as a failed messiah and in violation of the Torah (at least according to the Pharisaic interpretation of the Torah). The followers of Jesus declare Jesus as the Righteous One (Acts 3:14; 7:52) and a “prophet like Moses” (Acts 3:22-23, 7:37). If God raised Jesus from the dead, the he declared Jesus was the messianic heir to the throne of David. Paul reacted violently against the movement since the followers of Jesus proclaimed Jesus was indispensable for experiencing God’s covenant blessings. After seeing the resurrected Jesus, Paul’s center of authority shifted from Torah to Jesus (153). Since God was pouring his Spirit out into the Gentiles and reconciling Gentiles to himself, “it no longer made sense to Paul to try and make Jews out of the Gentiles” (156).
Conclusion. Despite his misgivings expressed in the preface, David deSilva’s commentary on Galatians is a worthy successor to Fung’s 1988 commentary and stands well alongside F. F. Bruce’s classic New International Greek Text commentary. Students of Galatians should consider this commentary a standard work on one of Paul’s most important letters. Although this is a professional, technical commentary, deSilva’s text is very easy to read and will be of use for both pastor and scholar.
NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.