Wright, N. T. Galatians. Commentaries for Christian Formation. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2021. xix+419 pp. Hb; $39.99. Link to Eerdmans
This new Galatians commentary is Eerdmans’s first in the Commentaries for Christian Formation series, edited by Stephen E. Fowl, Jennie Grillo and Robert W. Wall. The goal of the commentary is to serve the church by “showing how sound exegesis can underwrite preaching and teaching, which in turn forms believers in the faith” (ix). This is not a homiletical, pastoral commentary. The commentary does serious exegesis and thoughtful reflection on the text. Considering the general editors, this series may look like a theological commentary like the Two Horizon series (Eerdmans, with contributions by Fowl and Wall). Unlike the Two Horizons volumes, Wright integrates his theological observations into the commentary itself rather than in a second section. Wright is not doing “theological interpretation of scripture” as practiced in that series. For example, he observes Galatians could teach “there is one holy, catholic, and Apostolic Church,” and Paul would agree with this statement. Yet Wright thinks we should never substitute a “creedal checklist” for the specificity of Paul’s own argument in his own situation (5).
Galatians is a dense argument and theologically challenging. As Wright explains in the introduction to the volume, his goal is to “get inside those tight packed paragraphs and see what makes them work as they do, or at least as Paul hopes they will” (xiv). How does all this relate to Christian formation? Wright assumes “Christian formation means the shaping of communities, and individuals within them, so that they reflect more fully and faithfully the fact that the Spirit of Messiah Jesus is dwelling in their midst (corporately) and within them bodily (individually)” (3). Christian formation is more than the spiritual or theological equivalent to a team building day at work, or a football coaching session. It is discovering, sometimes through painful practice, what it means to be the Messiah’s people, a single anointed community. This requires more than a rational analysis of the text, the “what did it mean at the time,” although it requires that hard work be done properly. What it meant must move toward what it means now through prayerful and pastorally sensitive work of pastors and teachers.
In the introduction to the commentary, Wright states Galatians is not about “how to be saved from sin in order to go to heaven.” In fact, Paul hardly mentions sin in the letter and salvation is not mentioned at all. The book of Romans is about sin and salvation, but these are not the main topics of Galatians. Galatians is about who should be counted as a part of the single family of God (9). That Galatians is about sin and salvation results from the Reformation’s response to the medieval Catholic view of purgatory and indulgences. All this is classic N. T. Wright, drawing from previous work on Paul’s theology, in his more popular level Surprised by Hope. As he says, “if you change your eschatology, everything changes.” If Galatians is not about “life after death” but that the new heavens and new earth are “here and now,” then the book is no longer about medieval purgatory and salvation from sin. Galatians is about “how you can tell, in the present time, who were the people of God; who will be vindicated as the true Israelites in the new age to come” (14).
But it is not as though he does not believe that God saved people from their sin. This is absolutely clear from the book of Galatians. God demonstrated his love by sending his son for our sins. “This love—freely given, greatly returned, lavishly shared—is at the heart of Christian formation” (21).
Wright devotes the second half of the introduction to the situation in Galatia. He states his view that the book was written to southern Galatia, to churches visited by Paul on his first missionary journey in Acts 13-14. Paul wrote Galatians after the first missionary journey but before the Jerusalem council in Acts 15 (21). This differs from some other recent commentaries (Keener, for example, argues for southern Galatia, but dates the book after the Jerusalem council). Wright does not offer any arguments in favor of this view, but refers interested readers to several historical and archeological studies as well his Paul: A Biography for the details. (See also my comments on Galatians and Act 15.)
Instead of engaging in protracted arguments about the destination of the letter, Wright wants to think more deeply about “the social and political situation,” what he calls “the real-life situation” of the Galatian readers. He sees Roman imperial ideology and the demand to worship Caesar as Lord as a serious challenge for gentile believers in Jesus as Messiah. Jews were exempt from these demands, so gentile Galatian believers could claim to part of the Jewish exemption from the imperial cult. They are not part of a new religion, but part of an ancient (and exempt) religion. This view worked in Corinth (Acts 18), but it did not work in southern Galatia. A new group of non-Jews claiming the Jewish exemption would threaten that exemption for the local Jews. Local Jews would therefore want to separate from the gentile Christians. Even some zealous Jews from Jerusalem, the men from James, could see Paul’s mission to the gentiles as “colluding with Pagan wickedness” (28).
The solution was to compel gentile believers to convert fully to Judaism, starting with circumcision. This showed that the new movement was indeed genuinely Jewish and showed the “puzzled or suspicious local pagan authorities that the claim to the exemption from normal imperial religious practices was genuine, however unexpected and unwelcome it might have been” (29).
Paul’s answer is not to offer Christianity as a superior alternative to Judaism. That reading reflects eighteenth century History of Religions thinking (and I would add, those categories really didn’t even exist as alternatives when Paul wrote Galatians). Instead, Paul insisted on offering a messianic eschatology, resulting in personal and communal transformation (32). Wright develops this in three main points found in Galatians:
- First, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob has done what he has always promised: he has launched his new creation (32). The present evil age is coming to an end and the age to come has already begun with the death and resurrection of the Messiah. Therefore, to get circumcised denies the new creation has really begun (33).
- Second, God’s Messiah Jesus has fulfilled the divine purpose for Israel in his death and resurrection and has accomplished the new exodus. This is the ultimate rescue from the ultimate enemy, sin and death. It would shock Jewish readers to learn that Israel finds its fulfillment through a crucified Messiah. But even more shocking, the Torah has done its job and is now set aside. The Torah accomplished its purpose, and its time is complete. To force non-Jewish believers in Jesus as Messiah to keep Torah for its own sake, or to look like good Jews to the Roman magistrates or to the anxious, zealous Jews from Jerusalem must be firmly resisted (36).
- Third, God has given his spirit to be the transformative energy for his new people. The spirit is an advanced gift from the future inheritance (38). As a result, all of God’s people belong at the same table. The church’s Jewish neighbors would not understand this, and maybe even other Jewish believers in Jesus as messiah would not understand. Even the “men from James” from Jerusalem didn’t understand the importance of the unity of all believers, whether Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free.
The main body of the commentary begins with a new translation drawn from his The New Testament for Everyone. Unlike some exegetical commentaries, Wright does not comment on lexical or syntactical issues, along with his translation. In fact, his translation is periphrastic, occasionally sounding more like The Message than the NRSV. This is not a problem since the goal of the translation is to express Paul’s ideas in language “for everyone.”
After a brief introduction to the main theme of the unit, the commentary precedes paragraph by paragraph divided into verses and clauses. Although there are occasional references to Greek, these are always in transliteration and will not distract readers who do not know Greek from understanding the commentary. He occasionally interacts with modern secondary literature in footnotes. But as he says in the introduction, he does not engage in “zealous footnoting that is now common in commentaries.” He recommends recent commentaries by Moo, deSilva, and Keener for that sort of thing. His primary goal is to explain what Paul meant, and then what it might mean for today. This book is not a compendium of what other commentaries have already said.
Even though this is a “Christian formation” commentary, it is thoroughly historical, sociological commentary. Wright does the exegetical work required (“what did Paul say”) and places Paul in the proper historical context, both in terms of Jewish backgrounds and the Greco-Roman world of the Galatian churches. More than most commentaries, reading the introduction is critically important. Wright consistently ties his exegesis back to the three main points from the introduction describing the situation of the Galatian churches.
Because this is N. T. Wright, prose is well-written and will be enjoyed by both laypeople and academics. He highlights main points with judicious use of italics and bold print. The lack of argument in the book will frustrate some academic readers, but footnotes to Wright’s many other books on the Apostle Paul are sufficient. However, it is unnecessary that one reads the 1500-page Paul and the Faithfulness of God to understand this commentary. Although it helps to have a working knowledge of the last 40 years of Pauline studies, one can appreciate the argument of this commentary without working through Wright’s Paul and his Recent Interpreters.
In the end, this Galatians commentary achieves the goal of clearly explaining the text of Galatians as it would have been understood in the original historical and cultural context (as described by Wright). The commentary does make a significant contribution toward Christian formation by challenging readers to hear and apply the text in a modern context.
NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.