Top Galatians Commentaries
I’m nearly halfway through the first college course I’ve ever taught at Lincoln Christian University (the Las Vegas extension). Since the course is on Galatians, which is what my PhD research at the University of St Andrews under Prof. N. T. Wright focuses on, I thought it might be a good idea to provide a few comments on the commentaries I find most helpful for those of our readers who are planning on working through Galatians for either personal devotions, group Bible studies, small groups, or pastoral ministry.
Here are my top English-language commentaries on Galatians (in alphabetical order).
James D. G. Dunn (BNTC) provides a semi-technical commentary from a ‘New Perspective’ perspective. Dunn has condensed his top-shelf scholarly research into a very readable and insightful commentary. If you are allergic to the New Perspective on Paul (or if your denomination is) then I wouldn’t make this your go-to resource. But I do think it’s important to realize how thoroughly Protestant and Evangelical the New Perspective position can be, and James Dunn demonstrates this.
Richard Longenecker’s (WBC) commentary on Galatians is regarded by many to be the best (and for good reason). It is certainly the most technical and most thoroughly researched commentary. A good knowledge of Greek is a must. Longenecker’s key contribution is his attention to epistolary devices within the letter in comparison with ancient letter-writing. These details are both helpful and intriguing (though not necessarily convincing at every turn).
Thomas Schreiner‘s (ZECNT) commentary comes from an evangelical and broadly Reformed perspective. It is scholarly and pastoral with a layout that is very reader-friendly (unlike the WBC). While I disagree with Schreiner’s perspective on ‘works of the law’ and a few other minor issues, I find this to be a wonderful commentary. This is the commentary I’ve required for my Galatians course and I anticipate doing the same in the future.
Ben Witherington III may have written my favorite commentary on Galatians. I don’t agree with everything (especially his insistence on Galatians as a piece of deliberative rhetoric), but I often find myself nodding my head in agreement quite often as I read his commentary.
There are several other notable English-language commentaries that are also worth mentioning here — those by H. D. Betz (Hermeneia), F. F. Bruce (NIGTC), Scot McKnight (NIVAC), E. D. W. Burton (ICC), Frank Matera (Sacra Pagina), and others — but more importantly, there are some commentaries that I would not recommend for pastors and devotionally-minded laypeople. These are the commentaries of J. Louis Martyn (Anchor Bible) and Martinus C. de Boer (New Testament Library). These two scholars represent what is commonly called the apocalyptic reading of Paul. The distinct emphasis of these writers is a Barthian sense of God’s radically new activity in the cross and the outpouring of the Spirit, and thus, a discontinuity with salvation history (i.e. Israel’s story). Additionally, both Martyn and de Boer place less emphasis on human responsibility to believe and embrace the gospel personally. Salvation is viewed as a cosmic rescue mission (rectification), and whereas such a scope is undoubtedly consistent with Paul (cf. Rom 8), it contains a quasi-universalist soteriology in the commentaries of Martyn and de Boer. If one is interested in academic research on Galatians, then these commentaries ought to be engaged seriously and critically (of course, these commentaries are not wholly devoid of insight). But if one is ultimately interested in commentaries for preaching the text of Galatians, or for similar purposes, then I would recommend that these commentaries be avoided.
I’d also say that if you’re interested in reading commentaries from church history you should check out John Calvin first (though, of course, I don’t like everything he says). I’m not a big fan of Augustine’s commentary, and even less so in regards to Martin Luther (whose 400 page commentary essentially tries to argue that every verse in Galatians is about justification by faith). From the patristic era, I found St. Jerome’s commentary to be very enjoyable.
In the near future commentaries from D. A. Carson (PNTC) and Douglas J. Moo (BECNT) are due out, which I anticipate to be more-or-less in line with Tom Schreiner’s commentary; N. T. Wright will have a commentary in the Two-Horizons series; Marion L. Soards, whose commentary will likely be very similar to J. L. Martyn and Martinus C. de Boer, is due to have a commentary in the Smyth and Helwys series; and also, commentaries by Matthew S. Harmon and Joel Willitts, two younger scholars who have written valuable studies on Galatians already, are anticipated.
If there was such a thing as a Biblical Studies Genie I’d wish for Mike Bird to write a Galatians commentary! : )