Matthew S. Harmon, Galatians (EBTC)

Harmon, Matthew S. Galatians. Evangelical Biblical Theology Commentary. Bellingham, Wash.: Lexham Press, 2021. xvi+531 pp.; Hb.; $49.99. Link to Lexham Press  Link to Logos

This new volume in the Evangelical Biblical Theology Commentary series combines detailed exegetical Galatians commentary with theological observations on theology drawn from one of Paul’s earliest letters. Matthew Harmon (Ph.D., Wheaton College) serves as professor of New Testament studies at Grace College and Theological Seminary in Winona Lake, Indiana. He previously contributed Rebels and Exiles: A Biblical Theology of Sin and Restoration in the Essential Studies in Biblical Theology series (IVP Academic, 2020).

Harmon, Galatians

In the twenty-four-page introduction, Harmon defends a southern Galatian view. Galatians 2:1-10 is a private meeting with the pillars during the famine visit (Acts 11:27-30). Paul wrote Galatians after returning to Antioch (Acts 14:26-28) and before the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:1-21). A date of 48-49 is most likely.

As is typical in Galatians commentaries, Harmon engages in mirror reading to flesh out the circumstances of the letter. After Paul returned to Antioch, opponents arrived in the newly established churches in Galatia. They argued that since Abraham was circumcised before the Mosaic Law, so too should the Gentile believers. The Mosaic Law provides the Gentiles with guidelines for living the Christian life. The opponents also question Paul’s status as an apostle. Since they are acting on the authority of the Jerusalem church, they claim a higher status than Paul. Paul reviews his relationship with Jerusalem, beginning and concluding with an assertion that his authority ultimately rests with God. If anyone preaches a different gospel than Paul has already preached, they are “under a curse.” Any leader can be wrong, as was Cephas in Antioch.

Paul’s theological response begins with justification. Abraham is his chief witness: he was made right with God before circumcision or the law. Since Christ has come, all are united to Christ by faith regardless of ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or gender. Paul gets to this hermeneutically by reading scripture differently than the opponents. Paul reads scripture through the lens of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

For Harmon, this is a “redemptive-historical” lens that evaluates earlier scripture in the light of later scripture. In Galatians, Paul reads Abraham through the lens of Isaiah 49-54. By redemptive historical, Harmon says that Paul sees both continuity and discontinuity between the pre-cross and the post-cross periods. The opponents see significant continuity and very little, if any, discontinuity (20). Regarding ethics, by choosing the Mosaic Law as an ethical guideline, one rejects Christ. Freedom from the law in Christ means an opportunity to serve one another in love and to live a transformed life free from the power of sin and death.

The body of the commentary (25-371) moves through Harmon’s exegetical outline of Galatians. Each unit begins with the CSB translation, followed by two paragraphs on context and structure. Harmon then exposits the text phrase by phrase. Although the commentary is based on English, he extensively uses Greek (without transliteration), using footnotes for lexical, grammatical, and syntactical issues. He also treats textual issues in the footnotes and refers to secondary literature. Each unit ends with a paragraph bridging the exposition to larger canonical and theological issues. The result is an uncluttered commentary useful for scholars, students, and laypeople.

On several occasions, Harmon deals with controversial topics in the study of Galatians, sometimes in two places in the book. For the troublesome phrase, “works of the law” (ἐξ ἔργων νόμου). He summarizes James Dunn’s views that the phrase refers only to certain boundary markers (primarily circumcision and food laws in Galatians) in a lengthy footnote (110). He then returns to the Works of the Law in the biblical theology section of the book (434-38) as part of a larger discussion of the Mosaic Law in Galatians. In that section, he discusses the background of circumcision, table fellowship and food laws, Sabbath, and Jewish festivals. He concludes, “There is good reason to conclude that the mosaic law demanded perfect obedience.” Paul, therefore, insists that anyone who submits to circumcision must keep the entire law, not only so-called boundary markers. For Harmon, this agrees in principle with James 2:10.

Similarly, he introduces the issue of “faith of Christ Jesus” in 2:16. In the commentary’s body, he briefly describes the issue: Is the phrase an objective genitive or subjective genitive? Should the phrase be translated as “faith in Jesus” or “faith of Jesus?” Does Paul refer to a person having faith in Jesus to be justified, or does he refer to the faithful act of Jesus on the cross? This has been a highly controversial topic in recent years and part of the so-called new perspective on Paul. He returns to the issue in the biblical-theological section (465-70). After summarizing the various sides of the issue, he concludes in favor of the objective genitive: Paul refers to the believer’s faith in Jesus Christ.

Like the Two Horizons commentary series, Harmon makes a series of biblical theology comments following his exposition (373-478). This is a robust biblical-theological section. It is, in some ways, a “theology of Paul through the lens of Galatians.” He begins with salvation history, or apocalypticism, in the apostle Paul. This has been a hot topic in Galatians studies since the commentaries of J. Lewis Martyn and Martinus de Boer. By salvation history, Harmon means a “gradual unfolding of God’s plan culminating in Christ.” The apocalyptic view focuses on God breaking into history through Christ, providing a sharp antithesis: before Christ and after Christ. These are not two opposing views; Harmon wants to integrate them into a more holistic reading of Galatians, not unlike N. T. Wright or Michael Bird, An Anomalous Jew (Eerdmans, 2017). he lists several of the apocalyptic antitheses or contrasts before and after Christ. For example, the present evil age stands in contrast to the new creation or the messianic age. Paul’s view is a modified version of the common Second Temple Jewish view that history is divided into the present evil age and a future messianic age (403). The modification is “already/not yet. Justification paves the way for the new creation, as evidenced by the activity of the Holy Spirit in this age.

Harmon includes several pages on the Abrahamic covenant, summarizing his monograph on the covenant in Second Temple Judaism, She Must Go Free (de Gruyter, 2010). Although the importance of the Abrahamic covenant was recognized in Paul’s day, there was a wide range of opinion on how to interpret it. In Galatians, there is a clear disagreement between Paul and his opponents on the relationship between the Abrahamic covenant and the work of Christ (386). The promise to bless all the nations is fulfilled in Christ. Those who trust in Christ are justified before God.

A second major topic in the theology for a Galatians commentary concerns the exile and return from exile. Paul quotes Deuteronomy 27:26 in Galatians 3:10, and in Deuteronomy, the ultimate curse is exile. Although Israel returned from exile, they did not experience salvation. For Harmon, Paul is reading Isaiah 40-55, especially the fourth servant song (Isaiah 52:12-53:12), through the lens of Jesus’ suffering under the curse of the law. For Harmon, “Isaiah consistently connects the promise of return from exile with the transformation of creation” (393), the gift of the spirit (394), and the blessing of the nations (395). Christ accomplishes the new exodus by becoming a curse for us. “Paul uses the sin-exile-restoration theme as a supplement to the larger framework of the Abrahamic covenant fulfilled in Christ” (401). Some of this material appears in Harmon’s Rebels and Exiles: A Biblical Theology of Sin and Restoration (IVP Academic 2021).

Paul’s view of the purpose of the Mosaic Law is one of the most challenging biblical theology issues in Galatians. For Paul, sometimes the law has a positive function, but in other cases, it is a negative function. The law is limited to a time and has a clear beginning and end. Other times, Paul repudiates the law, rejecting a specific aspect such as circumcision and food laws (Galatians 2:3-6; 2:11-14). Other times, Paul replaces the law with a new guideline, such as the law of love. In other examples, Paul re-appropriates the law, using it like wisdom literature or prophecy, so that the story of Abraham is read as a prophecy fulfilled in the work of Christ.

Justification and righteousness are central to the dispute between Paul and his opponents and are crucial for understanding Galatians. But, as Harman observes, this is no easy task. He, therefore, focuses on the Jewish background for justification, specifically the book of Isaiah (once again following his own monograph, She Must Go Free). He argues Isaiah 40-55 uses righteousness language in parallel with salvation language with strong eschatological overtones. In Isaiah, God is fulfilling his promises to set things right in the world, saving people from sin and bringing judgment on his enemies. This righteousness is forensic, dealing with a person’s status before a holy and just God in his court of law. But this status ought to lead to ethical righteousness. Paul closely tracks this view from Isaiah in Galatians. Christ is the means of justification through faith in Jesus, but there is an “already/not yet” aspect to justification. Both are present in Galatians, but Paul often has the future in mind (450). But Paul does not disconnect justification from present realities. The future or final justification shapes the believer’s life in the present age.

The biblical theology section of the book has shorter sections on God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), the servant of the Lord, seed/offspring, and the use of the Old Testament in Galatians.

Conclusion. Even if this book only contained Harmon’s detailed commentary of Galatians, it would be valuable. But his lengthy discussion of Paul’s theology drawn from Galatians makes this an especially welcome contribution to the study of Galatians.


NB: Thanks to Lexham Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

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One thought on “Matthew S. Harmon, Galatians (EBTC)

  1. Galatians has so many common phrases with Romans, that it seems to me that he is describing a split between Paul and the brothers of the Lord.

    Woodrow Nichols

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