maandag 11 februari 2013

Review of: Martinus C. de Boer, Galatians: A Commentary (NTL), Westminster John Knox, 2011; in: Interpretation

Martinus C. de Boer, Galatians: A Commentary (NTL), Westminster John Knox, 2011

Review in: Interpretation 2012 66: 319
Review door: Ronald D. Witherup
Gevonden op:

Galatians: A Commentary
by Martinus C. de Boer
The New Testament Library. Westminster John Knox, Louisville, 2011.
461 pp. $60.00. ISBN 978-0-664-22123-2.

THIS LATEST ADDITION to The New Testament Library series is an admirable exposition of one of Paul’s most personal and emotional letters. Although the commentary is erudite, technical and sometimes dense, engaging in dialogue with other experts over disputed points of interpretation, it is nevertheless a very useful commentary for teachers, pastors, and seminary students because it is a largely successful attempt to understand Galatians on its own terms but for a modern audience. The commentary is unapologetically historical in nature. Martinus de Boer attempts to read Galatians in its historical context in order to discern how the first audience would have understood Paul’s message. Thus, the new translation offered in the commentary is as literal as possible but idiomatic where necessary.

De Boer believes Galatians was written around 51 c.e., probably from Corinth, to a group of Gentile Christians Paul had evangelized in the ethnic region of Galatia (modern day central Turkey). He thus opts for the North Galatia theory, despite the evidence seemingly offered in Acts 13–14. The precipitating cause of the letter was the arrival in Galatia of “new preachers” who dogged Paul’s footsteps in order to correct his gospel message and to insist on observance of the Mosaic law, especially circumcision, among the Gentile converts. These missionary opponents of Paul were likely allied to the Jerusalem church, and they could be persuasive and seductive in their own preaching (3:1), undermining Paul’s authority. Paul consequently writes a strong, polemical letter that oscillates in tone from stern reprimand and exasperation with the Galatians to parental affec­tion for them and exhortations to remain faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul is at pains to defend “the truth of the gospel” (2:5, 14) he had preached so effectively in Galatia, but which was now under serious threat after a relatively short time (1:6). At risk is the very freedom obtained by Christ, a point Paul had driven home to his converts.

Although de Boer does not ignore the rhetorical features of Galatians, his primary interest is the letter’s theological message. Thus, he painstakingly exegetes every passage, often listing various interpretative options succinctly but thoroughly. It is clear that de Boer engages many previous commentators, ancient and modern, but he acknowledges having benefited especially from the works of E. De Witt Burton, H.D. Betz, R.N. Longenecker, and J.L. Martyn. Nineteen superb excurses are scattered throughout the commentary. They offer detailed information on debated issues and also provide a convenient means to enumerate alternative interpretations, from which de Boer either chooses a preferred solution or adds a novel one of his own.

There is much to commend in this useful commentary. De Boer attempts to avoid reading Galatians through the lens of Romans, which is not easily done, given the thematic relationship between the two letters and the overwhelming influence of Romans in Pauline theology. Moreover, de Boer takes seriously the letter format of Galatians, avoiding the urge to classify it specifically as a particular type of rhetorical speech, whether deliberative, forensic, or epideictic. He rightly concludes that Galatians has a mixed format, which is also heavily influenced by an apocalyptic out­look through which Paul discerns a distinct discontinuity between the old age, characterized by the Mosaic law, and the “new creation” (6:15) rooted in justification by faith. The letter is Paul’s clar­ion call to the Galatians to come to their senses, shake off the seductive teaching of the new preachers, and return to the truth of the one and only gospel proclaimed by Paul. This is the thesis announced at the beginning of the letter (1:6–10).

Crucial to understanding Galatians is Paul’s central teaching of justification by faith. De Boer clearly sees a forensic meaning to the expression, thus rightly putting the emphasis on God’s gra­cious act of declaring or making the believer “righteous.” He also joins the growing number of exegetes who interpret the ambiguous expression “the faith of Jesus Christ” (pistis Iesou Christou, 2:16; cf. 3:22) as a subjective genitive—“the faithfulness of Jesus Christ”— despite the preference of many English translations for the objective genitive (NRSV, RSV, NIV, NJB, NAB). The excursus on this important expression is masterful (pp. 148–50). Indeed, de Boer holds that, for Paul, pistis in Galatians is always a shorthand designation for the full expression of pistis Christou (and equivalents), with the sole exception of 5:22, where the term clearly refers to human “faithfulness” as a virtue that flows from life in the Holy Spirit. What is essential for Paul is that Christ’s fidelity, especially through his suffering and death on the cross, is the gracious act whereby believers have been saved, justified, and set free to live apart from “works of the law” (2:16; 3:2, 5, 10) by means of the Holy Spirit. Paul is disgusted with the preachers who have tried to undermine this basic truth, which is why he becomes so impatient with his opponents and their insistence on circumcision, that he angrily wishes they would castrate themselves (5:12), knowing full well that such an act would be repulsive in the Galatians’ eyes.

One of the challenges of interpreting Galatians is what to make of Paul’s sometimes contorted argumentation, especially in chapters 3–4. De Boer points out that the “new preachers” most likely considered Scripture as the authoritative voice of God. Thus, it was essential for Paul himself to utilize scriptural argumentation to refute his opponents and to defend his own preaching as rooted in the same scriptural authority, as well as in the authority of his personal call by the risen Lord to be an apostle, clearly explained at the beginning of the letter (1:6–24). De Boer shows how Paul’s complex allegorical reading of the story of the two women (4:21–31), in which he contrasts being descendants of the free woman (Sarah) with the descendants of the slave woman (Hagar), is really an ingenious move to affirm the use of Scripture by Paul’s opponents, but turning their argument on its head: “Paul now concedes that the new preachers in Galatia and the church they represent are also Abraham’s offspring—but of the wrong branch!” (p. 288, emphasis original). In fact, de Boer captures well the emotion of Paul’s argumentation at several points in Galatians. Paul has a knack for pulling the rug out from under his opponents precisely by his creative, if sometimes confusing, exegesis of Old Testament passages. For there is nothing less at stake for Paul than his intense desire to halt the Galatians’ abandonment of the freedom they have obtained through the gospel of Jesus Christ to return to the “slavery” of the Law. Paul exhorts them strongly not to succumb to the attraction of reverting to circumcision. They need not become Jews in order to be disciples of Jesus Christ.

Some interpreters may well demure from certain interpretive decisions in the commentary. For instance, de Boer holds that the expression “church of God” (1:13) is likely the Jerusalem church, rather than the Christian community in general (p. 87). He rejects the three possible standard explanations of the terms en emoi in the expression, “[God] was pleased to reveal his Son [to, in, or within] me” (1:16) in favor of his own understanding, “in my former manner of life,” that is, as a persecutor of the church (p. 92). This may be going a bit farther than the text warrants. However, his explanation of the term “the Israel of God” (6:16) as a probable reference to law-observant Jewish Christians who are related to “the churches of Judea that are in Christ” (1:22) is convincing, given Paul’s recognition of the missionary outreach to Jews conducted by Peter and some of the other apostles (2:7–8). Also, his explanation of the “elemental spirits of the world” (ta stoicheia tou kosmou, 4:3, 9) as the physical elements of the universe (earth, water, air, fire), which in conjunction with observance of various calendrical feasts represent the Galatians’ former pagan religious views, is well taken. In every case, the reasons for such exegetical decisions are well explained, even if some points tend to be peripheral rather than central to his arguments. Most important is that de Boer has given readers a reliable and interesting commentary on Galatians through the optic of its first hearers/readers. It will help the letter continue its powerful reverberation through history, a great witness to Paul’s passionate, uncompromising defense of the gospel of Jesus Christ.


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