N. T. Wright, Galatians (Commentaries for Christian Formation)

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).

N. T. Wright, Galatians CommentaryGalatians 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.

Galatians 6:11 – What Big Letters!

Although Paul signs this letter in Galatians 6:11 in his own handwriting, it is unlikely the rest of the letter was written by Paul himself. Letter-writing was normally done through a secretary called an amanuensis. This secretary may have had freedom to express the thoughts of the author in better language than was originally dictated. It was common practice for the author of the letter to add a personal greeting at the end of the letter. Perhaps this adds a personal touch to the letter, but it might very well signify approval of the contents of the letter. This is something like a busy executive having a his secretary draft a letter then adding a personal greeting by hand at the end.

P.Oxy 265

P.Oxy 265

Witherington (Galatians, 440) cites P.Oxy 265 as an example of a concluding note added to a document. If you following the link to you can see a photograph of this practice of adding to the end of a document. Even if it is “all Greek to you,” look at the document, you can clearly see the larger handwriting at the bottom of the contract. This document is a wedding contract, written during the reign of Domitian (A.D. 81-96).  After 37 lines of regular handwriting, a second hand adds several lines, and a third adds the final three lines in much larger handwriting. It is hard to make much sense of these lines since they are fragmentary, but the last two lines includes the words “my husband” and “by her in my name.”  Perhaps the first hand is from the father, the second is form the mother. These brief additions (threats?) to the end of a marriage contract are in their “own handwriting.”

What does “large letters” mean? The Greek word (πηλίκος) can indicate the importance of something or even the length of the letter itself. The phrase might mean something like “look at the length of this letter!” The noun gramma (γράμμα), “the letters” (dative plural) indicates the means by which Paul was now writing, with larger handwriting. Like the P.Oxy 265, the original copy of the letter to the Galatians included this conclusion personally written by Paul. It was noticeably different than the rest of the letter, and gave a personal touch to a rather contentious letter.

Why write in large letters? Zeisler thought this meant the reader of the letter should turn the letter to the audience so that they could literally see the words Paul was writing (Galatians, 98).  It is also possible these large letters indicates emphasis, the “ancient version of bold print” (Witherington, Galatians, 441). While either of these is a possibility, the most common suggestion is that the largeness of the letters was due (in part) to Paul’s poor eyesight. Galatians 4:15 seems to indicate that Paul had some sort of eye trouble, perhaps he still struggles to see clearly and simply wrote in a larger hand because he was not able to see very well.

In the light of the papyri fragment above, this reference to large letters may simply indicate that Paul was following normal contemporary letter-writing practice by finishing the letter himself, adding a final word to sum up the whole letter.

Doing Good to All – Galatians 6:9-10

If the one who is walking in the Spirit is supporting the local Christian community, how was that community supposed to use the support?

“Doing good” might refer to doing things that were considered a civic virtue in the community.  In a Jewish context “doing good” might refer to giving to the poor, protecting the widow and orphan, even burying the dead. Since the theme of giving money is prominent in this chapter, it is possible Paul’s command here was applied to a community fund which was collected and distributed to those in need.  How did the early church distribute funds?

Paul warns his readers not to become weary in doing these acts of goodness. The phrase appears in 2 Thessalonians 3:13.  The word Paul uses here (ἐγκακέω) sometimes refers to discouragement, or losing heart, perhaps even afraid.  The final phrase uses another verb (ἐκλύω) which refers to being exhausted or worn out. It appears in several military contexts to indicate losing one’s nerve. Why would someone become discouraged or afraid of doing good deeds?Image result for rich ignoring poor

One option is that there is no response from those that are helped.  To extend the sowing and reaping metaphor, if a farmer sowed seed in a field and nothing ever grew, he might give up sowing that particular field. If you volunteer at a homeless shelter, you can do many good things for people. But there might be little or no response from the people you are trying to help. That can be very discouraging!

A second option is that someone in Paul’s churches was afraid to do good works such as helping the poor in a community where helping the poor was not considered a virtue.  Early Christians often helped people who were very sick, even when their lives were a risk.  It is possible that this is a real fear people felt when doing acts of mercy.

A third option is that people who are busy doing good do in fact get tired of the work. Paul may very well have in mind physical exhaustion from serving people in the community! This is a danger in any kind of service, but it if someone is serving in a ministry where they are working hard and never see any results, they naturally become discouraged.

The fact that Paul includes a condition in verse 9 (if we do not give up) is an indication that the harvest or reward does not happen automatically (Witherington, Galatians, 433). It is hard work to be a member of God’s family, but it is ultimately rewarding.

Doing good begins with the “household of faith” and moves outward to everyone else.  This may be people in need within the household of God because they have a burden they cannot bear.  It also includes those who have been called by God to teach the Scripture in the local church.

Bearing One Another’s Burdens – Galatians 6:2-5

In the context of verse 1, this “bearing a burden” may refer to a burden carried by the brother caught in sin. But the language could also refer to financial burdens. This is possible since the next paragraph deals with helping others financially. There is a great deal in this paragraph that indicates Paul has money in mind here, although it is not good to limit the “burdens” to only financial distress.

Image result for bear another's burdenThe warning in verse 3 is significant since it implies that the person who is not willing to help other believers carry their burden deceive themselves by thinking that they are “something.” Perhaps someone might think that they are too important to help the poorer members of the congregation. They may think that they are “above” that sort of thing. Paul’s preference in v. 5 is that everyone takes care of their own “load” (φορτίον, a word that can refer to cargo, Acts 27:10). This is similar to Paul’s teaching that people ought to work hard to provide for their needs (1 Thess 4:11-12, 2 Thess 3:12; Eph 4:28)

By bearing one another’s burdens, the believer “fulfills the Law of Christ” (v. 4). What is the Law of Christ?

One possibility is that the “Law of Christ” is at least a portion of the Mosaic Law, perhaps the moral aspects of the Law. It is hard to believe, however, that Paul would say that the Gentile believers in Galatia could do part of the Law by helping those who struggle with sin.

A second possibility is that this refers to the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels. This is attractive since Paul taught the churches in Galatia about the Life, death and resurrection of Jesus. But it is hard to point to a verse in the Gospels (which were written after Galatians), such as the greatest commandment (Matt 22:34-40) as “the Law of Christ.”

A third way to read this verse is that the “Law of Christ” stands in contrast to the Law of Moses. Romans 3:21-26 makes this point by contrasting the law of works (the Mosaic Law) with the righteousness obtained through the death of Jesus. In this view, the Law of Christ is equivalent to the New Covenant (1 Cor 11:23-26), the law of the Spirit (Rom 8:2), and walking by the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23).

Yet another way to look at the Law of Christ is to read it in the light of “bearing burdens.” Christ bore our since in his body, if we are to be like Christ then we should be ready to bear the burdens of others who are in Christ.

To “fulfill” (ἀναπληρόω) this Law is to carry out a responsibility or obligation. The word occasionally means “to complete a work” (Josephus, Ant. 8.58; TDNT 6:305). Members of the Galatian churches wanted to fulfill the Law of Moses, yet they could never actually keep the whole law, let alone “complete it.” Paul now tells them that they can fully complete the Law of Christ by bearing the burdens of their brothers and sisters.

As a general rule, Paul thinks that people ought to support themselves, but he also knows that there will always be people who cannot do so. Circumstances are such that they are unable to meet their obligations. In those cases a “mature spiritual community” will be “able to distinguish those loads which individuals must bear for themselves and those burdens where help is needed” (Dunn, Galatians, 326).


Restoring Others Gently – Galatians 6:1

Paul described what those who “walk by the Spirit” look like in Gal 5:22-26. In the first part of chapter 6 Paul gives another example of walking in the Spirit from Galatians 5. There is a contrast between bearing the burden of the Law (Acts 15:10, 28) and bearing one another’s burdens. These burdens may be spiritual, but there are real physical burdens in mind here as well. The household of God is called to do good to all people, beginning with those in the household who cannot carry their own burdens.

Those who live by the Spirit will restore one another when they are “caught in sin.” What does this mean? To be “caught in sin” sounds like the person is caught red-handed, in the act of a sin. Sometimes people think that if they are not caught, it does not count against them (like speed limits, for example).  But the word Paul uses (προλαμβάνω) translated “overtake” in the aorist passive, as in hunting down an animal (T.Judah 2:5, for example).

Image result for hester prynneIf a person is caught, they are to be restored (καταρτίζω), returned to their former condition. The verb is used for folding and mending nets in Matt 4:21, or to complete what is lacking in 1 Thessalonians 3:10. The restoration is to be done gently (πραΰτης), the same word Paul used as part of the fruit of the Spirit in Gal 5:23. This means that the church is not arrogant or inconsiderate when dealing with a public sin, they seek to restore the person to fellowship without humiliating the person who was caught by a sin. The goal of any correction in this verse is a restoration of the brother who has sinned. Paul is not creating some sort of inquisition here.

But Paul also warns the reader not to think too much of themselves. His main concern is conceit and self-deception. Like Gal 5:26, Paul is concerned that the one who “walks by the Spirit” will be tempted, thinking that they are spiritual when they are not. By helping another believer deal with their own burden of sin, someone might become conceited, thinking that they are better than the one caught in sin. There is a balance between confronting a brother or sister in Christ who has a problem and meddling in things that are not your business.

Self-examination is therefore critical for a community of believers. While Paul has encouraged restoring a brother caught in sin, he is not inviting the congregation to investigate the private lives of members of the church looking for potential sins. This verse does not call for an inquisition which investigates church members looking for potential sins.

On the contrary, the first (and only) person that a believer ought to investigate is himself! In verse 1 he says that the spiritual ones who are trying to restore a person caught in sin ought to examine themselves first (σκοπέω). In verse 4 he says that each believer ought to test (δοκιμάζω) their own work. Both words have the sense of critical examination.

Contrary to popular belief (and practice), Christians are not called to a life of critical examination of the lives of other people. After carefully examining their own loves they may be able to restore a brother or a sister in Christ who struggles with sin, but there is no warrant in the New Testament for the sort of judgmental attitude associated with Christianity.

If this balance between self-examination and gentle restoration were practiced regularly, how would it transform the church?