Top 5 Monographs on Galatians
I am currently in the midst of that delightfully anti-climatic state of liminality that comes with submitting a PhD thesis. Of course, once you’re done with the thesis, you’re not actually done at all because you still have to defend it. And so, that means that I basically still need to be working on my thesis in a sense—at least in terms of preparing for the viva. Thus, with Galatians on my mind, I’ve decided to write about studies on Galatians like I’ve done in the past.
So far I’ve made a list of my favorite commentaries on Galatians (“Top Galatians Commentaries”) and a list of the commentaries that I think have been the most influential in scholarship (“Most Influential Commentaries on Galatians”). People often ask me what the absolute best commentary on Galatians is. This is hard to answer because as interpreters we all have our pet exegetical quirks that make us like or dislike certain commentaries. Naturally, there’s much that I disagree with in the commentaries I regard as ‘my favorite.’ I don’t think that I can pick one of these as the best though. To me the best commentary on Galatians hasn’t been written yet; I feel like I need to make a monument to the “unknown commentator” like in Acts 17.
This time around, instead of looking at commentaries, I wanted to create a list of the top 5 monographs on Galatians. For this list I have taken 2 monographs that I do in fact regard as the best studies on Galatians, and the remaining three are those that I would describe more as favorites of mine. The list is obviously subjective and is tailored to my own interests in Galatians. But I suspect that my top 2 would make nearly any top 5 list.
The two monographs that I regard as the absolute best are these:
(1) John M. G. Barclay, Obeying the Truth: Paul’s Ethics in Galatians (Regent College, 2005). Barclay’s study has demonstrated that Galatians is to be interpreted as a unified letter addressing the same issues and concerns throughout. Prior to Barclay’s treatment, scholarship had made a major mess of the letter, especially as it pertains to understanding the relationship between chapters 3–4 on the one hand and chapters 5–6 on the other. How does an argument against “works of the law” in one part cohere with an emphasis on right behavior in another? Some scholars had supposed that Paul was fighting on two fronts against opponents who were legalists and libertines respectively. Others modified this by suggesting that Paul was curtailing two possible tendencies that were equally to be avoided: legalism and libertinism. Against these bifurcations Barclay rightly put away the older disjointed understanding of the letter by arguing that chapters 5–6 address issues of community conflict arising internally from the prospect of receiving circumcision.
(2) Richard B. Hays, The Faith of Jesus Christ: The Narrative Substructure of 3:1—4:11 (2nd ed.; Eerdmans, 2002). In Hays’ study he famously argued for a subjective genitive interpretation of pistis Christou, meaning that justification is accomplished by the ‘faith/faithfulness of Christ.’ While I have never been persuaded of this interpretation, Hays undoubtedly makes a strong case for his reading. But regardless of this aspect of his understanding of Galatians, he has rightly shown how Paul’s letters presuppose a narrative about Jesus (contra Bultmann). In particular, the narrative of the Christ-event itself and all that Christ accomplished is the substructure upon which the argument of Gal 3.1—4.11 is built. This was a major step forward in Pauline studies and a significant contribution to the interpretation of Galatians.
In a nutshell: these two studies are required reading for anyone interested in Galatians. They are top notch and one cannot get away with studying Galatians for any length of time without reading them.
I don’t know if there are any other monographs on Galatians that deserve to be in the same category as Hays’ and Barclay’s studies, which I would say are the best monographs on Galatians. I suspect that most scholars who have studied Galatians at length would agree with my inclusion of Barclay and Hays, but they might have an entirely different final three monographs. And that’s totally fine. This is largely due to the fact that we all find different aspects of the letter more crucial (or more interesting). As well, we regard different studies as making greater contributions than others. Here are my final three below.
(3) Philip H. Kern, Rhetoric and Galatians: Assessing An Approach to Paul’s Epistle (SNTSMS 101; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998). Due to the major influence of H. D. Betz’s 1979 commentary on Galatians, which was the first major analysis of any New Testament text according to ancient rhetorical handbooks, scholars continued follow Betz’s footsteps in attempting to precisely categorize Galatians as a whole and all of its component parts according to ancient rhetoric. Even when scholars rejected Betz’s analysis of Galatians as a piece of forensic rhetoric, many continued to make suggestions regarding the rhetorical structure of the letter and propose a different rhetorical genus (usually deliberative). However, Kern’s monograph really undermines this whole enterprise, and with serious force. His study has confirmed to me that analyzing Galatians according to ancient rhetorical handbooks is unfounded. Because rhetorical criticism is so popular, and because it largely started with Galatians, Kern’s study ought to be included in a list of the top 5 monographs on Galatians.
(4) Justin K. Hardin, Galatians and the Imperial Cult: A Critical Analysis of the First-century Social Context of Paul’s Letter (WUNT 2.237; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008). Hardin’s study offers the best analysis of the Roman Imperial context of Galatians and sheds important light on the possibility that the crisis in Galatia included local pressures from civic authorities arising from the issue of cultic observances. Hardin argues that the Galatians were in the midst of maintaining their participation in the imperial cult as they waited to decide whether they should be circumcised or not. He makes this case primarily from Gal. 4.8–10 and 6.12–13. Readers will evaluate his interpretations differently, but he has no doubt succeeded in demonstrating the importance of the cult in the Roman province of Galatia and has made a compelling case for all historical reconstructions of the Galatian conflict to incorporate this material.
(5) Matthew S. Harmon, She Must and Shall Go Free: Paul’s Isaianic Gospel in Galatians (BZNW 168; Berlin: de Gruyter, 2010). Harmon has provided a wonderful study on the influence of Isaiah in Galatians, which contributes greatly to our understanding of Paul’s use of Israel’s scriptures. In particular, Harmon’s study has the advantage of focusing primarily on Paul’s use of one text from the OT (Isaiah) for a particular occasion (the Galatian crisis). Harmon has succeeded in showing just how important Isaiah was for Paul as he wrote Galatians and he makes several important observations along the way. His synthetic work buttresses his case since he is able to show how the use of Isaiah follows a noticeable pattern.
My final three monographs are great studies that I have benefited from tremendously. I have chosen them, not only because I like a great deal of what they have to say, but also because they address large topics surrounding the study of the letter. I suspect that if someone who wants to dive into Galatians starts with these 5 monographs they will not only have read 5 great studies on Galatians, but they will have a well-rounded introduction to the wider issues surrounding Galatians including the history of scholarship on the letter.
So together these are my top 5 monographs on Galatians. What would you all say are the top 5 best, or, your top 5 favorite monographs on Galatians?