M.C. de Boer’s Galatians Commentary (Review)

Personally, I was never really attracted to the book of Galatians in my younger Christian years. There was too much anger and annoyance and hair-splitting (so I thought) in that letter over “justification.” This was a scholar’s debate and caused me to be soporific. Then I discovered the so-called New Perspective and I saw this text as something very relevant and a “big deal” in its own time and had great relevance for our time as well.

I read Richard Hays’ very excellent commentary on Galatians in the New Interpreter’s Series which bursts with narrative and theological energy. While I still prefer Philippians and 2 Corinthians, thanks to Hays (and Wright and Dunn), I am more appreciative of what Galatians has to offer now.

So, it was with some enthusiasm that I obtained Martinus de Boer’s new Galatians commentary in the NTL (WJK, 2011) series. It is probably one of the weightiest volumes in the still-unfinished collection – at about 450 pages. That is about 50 pages more than the Revelation commentary, while Galatians itself is much shorter than the book by St. John the Divine!

In any case, one might wonder, is there anything new to say? I wondered the same, but I am happy to report that Boer brings a fresh reading to the text, quite unique and engaging. This can be quite jarring at times, as he experiments with various new theories, but for those of us who have trudged through many a commentary on Galatians, it is like a breath of fresh air to see a scholar thinking outside the box and offering new readings of old texts.

Anyone who has read Boer before knows that he neither favors the Lutheran/traditional camp on Paul, nor the so-called New Perspective, but a “Paul and Apocalyptic” camp that has people like Ernst Käsemann, Lou Martyn, and Chris Beker as forefathers (and current campers like Beverly Gaventa, Douglas Campbell, and John Barclay; I would say people like Mike Gorman and Jimmy Dunn [and me] are “apocalyptic-lite” – warm to these cosmic issues, but not “full-blown”). Indeed, Boer does a rather fine job of taking something like Martyn’s perspective on Galatians in his Anchor commentary and distilling it, while still offering some unique insights on particular verses.

Here are some distinctives of Boer’s commentary

Gal 1:3-5 – Boer has an excursus on “Galatians and Apocalyptic Eschatology” which is one of the finest short essays on this “apocalyptic” perspective I have read (31-35). One distinctive of this view is seeing evil powers, and “Sin” and “Death” in particular, as the enemies of God from whom he liberates enslaved humanity: “For Paul, the problem that needs to be addressed is not so much ‘sins,’ transgressions of divinely given commandments, as Sin, a malevolent enslaving and godlike power under which all human beings are held captive” (p. 35).

Gal 1:16 – Was God pleased to reveal his Son to Paul (focusing on his recognition of Christ), or to reveal his Son through Paul (as Gospel herald)? Boer says: neither! Boer reads this as God being pleased to reveal his Son within Paul, meaning that the revelation of Christ inside of Paul brought an end to Paul’s former life, and launched a whole new life as a part of new creation: “God entered into the life of Paul, the persecutor of God’s church and an extremely zealous, law-observant Pharisee, in order to bring that manner of life to a complete and irrevocably end…One manner of life had been utterly destroyed, and new one had taken its place” (93). While this reading fits Boer’s apocalyptic stance, I am not sure all of that can be read into this statement.

Gal 2:16 – pistis Christou – it probably will not surprise you that Boer prefers the subjective genitive reading of the “faith of Christ,” as many apocalyptic-Pauline interpreters (like Martyn and Campbell) have a similar approach. From Boer’s perspective, the new age has been ushered in by the “faith[fullness] of Christ” – “his atoning death on a cross” (p. 150).

One of the challenges in the apocalyptic frame of interpretation is that it focuses too much on discontinuity with the OT/Judaism, while people like Dunn might appear to be guilty of the opposite – too much continuity. Boer, in my opinion, goes too far in saying that Paul was concerned with the law (Torah) because it was, itself, “one of these cosmic powers” that enslaved mortals (p 210). There was no way to obey it because it was a cursing entity, according to Boer. Later, Boer tries to have Paul make this case by (the apostle) modifying the LXX of Deut 21:23 to say that “Accursed is everyone who hangs on a tree” rather than “Cursed by God is everyone…” (see p 212). Again, Boer has noticed something I never have before (the missing “by God”), but to conclude that Paul himself is demonizing Torah is a stretch, I think. Again, he argues that Paul viewed the law as “illegitimate tampering by a third party” (i.e., angels, see 228-29).

Boer has a creative way of dealing with Paul’s more positive statement about “fulfilling the law” (5:14). He argues that Paul does not mean the Mosaic “Law,” but the promises of God (to Abraham and others) in Scripture. Thus, Boer sees Paul separating Scripture into two kinds of “law” – Moses-law and Promise-law (see 344). Again, this seems far-reaching and creates more problems than it solves, although Boer shows a remarkable consistency in his approach. For example, in regards to 5:6 “faith working through love,” he does not read this as our (human) faith, but rather as “Christ’s faith(fullness) becoming effective through his self-giving love for us” (p. 318). This fits his apocalyptic, Christo-centric hermeneutic, but I find it rather strained, as Paul has a normal interest in the faith and love of his converts (see 1 Thess 1:3; 3:6; 5:8; Philemon 5). What Boer does have in his favor is coherence with his own reading of Gal 2:20, where he reads this in reference to the “faith(fullness) of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Whether this is a convincing enough grounds for how to read 5:6 I will leave up to you.

conclusion

I have read and reviewed a number of volumes of the NTL series (e.g., Philippians, Colossians, 1-2 Timothy, 1-2 Peter) and have felt, overall, that none of these were distinctively fresh readings, but competent representatives of standard interpretations (with Sumney’s work on Colossians, perhaps, standing out a bit as exemplary). Boer has, I think, produced a truly unique volume. I very much appreciated his creativity and “close reading” of the text. While I tended to disagree with him on most occasions, it was a polite disagreement, except for his one-sided demonization of Torah in Paul’s eyes.

Is this commentary worthy of acquiring? I would say that if you own Martyn, you will probably get something similar out of this. However, if you don’t, it is worthwhile because it is helpful to see the “apocalyptic” perspective, alongside the NPP and traditional ones, because it is a third perspective that has valid criticisms of both of the other camps.

A note about the series itself: it is rather tough to read because it follows paragraphs and pericopes, not individual verses. Also, there is little (if any!) discussion of “theology” or “application.” It is pretty much straight-up social/literary/historical exegesis. At times, I wish Boer would have drawn out implications of his readings (esp on the faithfulness of Christ, and criticism of law as evil power), but if you go in with such hopes, you will be disappointed. This is not a criticism of Boer, but a warning that the NTL is quite strictly historical-critical. If you acknowledge that in the first instance, you can read it for what it is.

In the end, the margins of my copy have many question marks, but I also found Boer remarkably adroit and provocative (mostly in a good way)! We should be willing to read commentaries that take alternative positions and learn within a community of scholarship. I try to read any piece of scholarship hoping to learn something, and when I do that, I often come away with good food for thought — and in this case I thank Boer for that.