Commentaries on Galatians

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[Note: This is part of a larger project reviewing commentaries on each book of the Bible. Follow the links from that post for more information on the series, including explanations of what I mean by some of the terms and abbreviations in this post. This is not an exhaustive list, just the commentaries that I think are most worth paying attention to.]

Galatians is both well-served and not well-served in terms of commentaries. On the one hand, the commentaries that are on the market right now complement each other well, with some commentary or other existing for any particular focus or strength you might want in a Galatians commentary. The problem is that no one commentary seems to my mind to do enough of those things well for me to have an easy first choice, and most of my favorite commentaries on this book have serious shortcomings. I suspect that will be remedied once several of the forthcoming works on Galatians are complete (especially Carson and Moo, but several others in the list will add expertise and skills not well enough represented among the existing commentaries to satisfy me; see my list of forthcoming commentaries on Galatians below the published ones).

I do think F.F. Bruce's NIGTC is one of the better commentaries out there. It's getting dated, especially given the New Perspective on Paul that Bruce doesn't spend a lot of time interacting with, since it was pretty much brand new during the final years he was working on this volume. Bruce tends to be stronger on historical and language, especially on smaller details, and weaker on theology and broader structure. (Carson gives two examples of weaker areas: law/grace and old/new covenants.) Bruce defends the traditional Protestant approach that the New Perspective responds to, even if he doesn't spend a lot of time tackling the claims of particular proponents of the NPP. He argues for an early date and a South Galatian location, and he gives one of the most convincing accounts I've seen of how Galatians and Acts fit together, defending the historicity of both. Complementarians will be annoyed at his insistence on egalitarianism in Gal 3:28, which even a good number of egalitarians recognize as being about gospel equality rather than about what the implications of gospel equality are in marriage and in church governance. Most of the commentary isn't so ideologically-driven, however, and this is currently the first place I look on this book. I'm just not as inclined to look in only one place as I might be on other books.

Gordon Fee's recent commentary in the Pentecostal Commentaries series is very good. Fee has an outstanding reputation as a commentator, for good reason. He's one of the most respected Pauline scholars of our day, and he's especially pastorally-minded. One element Fee contributes that doesn't occur quite as much in the other commentaries I've spent a lot of time in is in the overall flow of thought of the epistle. He's constantly considering smaller passages in the light of the general train of thought Paul has over the course of the letter, and he's particularly good at the kind of structural issues that Bruce tends to be weaker on.

He's also theologically stronger than Bruce, especially on the matters he's spent the most time thinking about, which includes christology and pneumatology. Galatians is particularly important on the Holy Spirit, so it's nice to have Fee on this book for that alone. On historical issues, I'm less convinced by Fee's reconstruction of events than I am of Bruce's, but he himself doesn't seem as confident of his approach as some do. He does insist on the historicity of both Galatians and Acts, unlike some who depart from the more traditional approach represented in Bruce. On New Perspective issues, he strikes me as trying to maintain a moderating approach between the traditional Protestant view and the New Perspective. I tend to think he's moderated too much away from the traditional approach. Given my criticism of Bruce on Gal 3:28, I should say that Fee does not make the same mistake, even though he's strongly committed to egalitarianism. He rightly insists that egalitarians who try to extend its use to issues beyond the gospel itself are going beyond what the text says.

Given that this is from a series many people might not be familiar with, it's worth pointing out that this isn't intended to be an exhaustive commentary series, with lots of technical exegetical details, but it's also not just an applicational commentary or something like that. Fee himself might bemoan the fact that Pentecostals aren't as well-represented in biblical studies as he'd like, and Pentecostals sometimes have a bad reputation of focusing mostly on application at the expense of careful exegesis. But potential readers shouldn't let those facts discourage them from purchasing or reading this commentary. Fee does include most of the major issues that should come up in exegetical discussion, just not with exhaustive coverage of every option or with the level of detail you'll find in a more academic commentary.

Richard Longenecker's WBC is a lot like Bruce's NIGTC in some ways, but I'm less satisfied with it. I detest the format of the WBC, which doesn't help, but I also have more problems with how Longenecker carries out his task as a commentator. Like Fee, he tries to find middle ground between the New Perspective and the traditional view, and I thought he gave up more ground to the New Perspective than I thought the evidence warrants. I've seen reviewers criticize him of trying to reconcile the two approaches in a way that leads to outright contradictions, but I didn't notice anything like that myself in the parts I read. In any case, Longenecker has an excellent command of the Jewish background to this letter. He's been criticized (by D.A. Carson, for example) for being weak in his treatment of passages dealing with the Holy Spirit (something you certainly wouldn't find with Fee).

Longenecker supports a relatively early date for the epistle and the South Galatian provenance (which I think is almost certainly correct), but he works out the chronology in comparison with Acts in an idiosyncratic way, one that I'm unconvinced of (and not even sure if it works). He does defend the historicity and complementarity of both Galatians and Acts. Yet Longenecker thinks Paul unfairly caricatures his opponents, a view that I find at odds with the high view of scripture that he otherwise seems to hold.

Longenecker tries to read Galatians as a formal Greco-Roman oration (i.e. what's called rhetorical analysis), an approach that seems to me to be entirely arbitrary. It may well be that some of the forms of Greco-Roman argumentation affected Paul's training, which was largely Semitic teaching form the Jewish rabbi Gamaliel. But trying to fit the whole structure of Paul's letter into this kind of oration format seems a bit of a stretch to my mind. Until Fee, I considered this the second most important commentary to have, after Bruce. But I think Fee captures his strengths well enough that I'm considering selling this volume once I have Moo's BECNT.

J.L. Martyn's AB is too academically-important to ignore if you're doing academic work. I looked at it enough to gain a respect for his command of the letter and the literature on it. His approach is a bit idiosyncratic, but he's not as lone ranger. He's managed to influence Galatians scholarship significantly with this work. This commentary is incredibly detailed, even for an Anchor Yale Bible volume, and will be of a lot less use to someone just preaching or leading a Bible study on Galatians. He tends to side more with the New Perspective than with the traditional Protestant approach (but I believe he is Catholic himself), and he favors the later date and North Galatian location that are usually seen to conflict with Acts (and thus tends to dismiss the historicity of Luke's account in Acts). Carson says he's weak on salvation-historical elements and thinks he hasn't "got to the bottom of Paul's understanding of the relationships between law and grace". His approach emphasizes the corporate, even cosmic, aspects of the gospel so much that there's not much attention given to how the gospel affects individuals. He doesn't have much time for legal/forensic elements to the gospel.

James Dunn's BNTC is a standard New Perspective mid-level commentary. I haven't spent a lot of time in it myself, but Dunn's work is one of the more significant places to look for a New Perspective approach to Galatians. Dunn's key thesis is that Paul wasn't criticizing what we since the Reformation call works-based salvation. He was rather simply resisting the Jewish believers' claim that only Jews can be saved.

Timothy George's NAC is strongest on the theological message of the text, and he does a great job placing his discussion in the light of the history of commentary on Galatians. He's known as something of a Reformation historian, but his historical knowledge of church history as a whole comes out in this commentary. Unlike some critics of the New Perspective, he does treat their arguments explicitly at times, but he interacts a lot less with contemporary scholarship than most commentaries of this size would. In many ways this isn't a typical commentary, but I've found his comments helpful and a nice complement to a more traditional commentary. He is more concerned with the issues an expositor would care about than, say, Bruce or Longenecker.

Ronald Fung's NICNT defends the traditional approach (as opposed to the New Perspective), but I don't think he engages much with New Perspective supporters. I haven't looked much at it. This is a solid commentary, by all accounts, but no one seems to think it stands out in any way, and everything Fung is good at can probably be found in other commentaries. My one reason for still considering it would be that it may be more balanced than some of the commentaries that are strong in some ways but not in others, and it probably does offer more toward expositing the text than some of the more detailed works above. One reviewer criticizes Fung for relying too much on Kittel's word-studies.

Ben Witherington's socio-rhetorical commentary is strong on both Jewish and Greco-Roman background, and he's much better than most commentators at literary matters, but he tends to do a lot with the rhetorical analysis I've criticized above (see Longenecker). I haven't spent a lot of time in this commentary. I don't have a good read on how Witherington handles the New Perspective issues, but I know that he supports South Galatia and an early date for the epistle. If his approach to the historical issues and the difficult questions with how Acts fits with Galatians is anything like his treatment of those issues in his Acts commentary, I would expect it to be superb. Witherington is known for zooming through commentaries quickly, and I think that hurts the quality of his work. A commentary someone has been working on for over a decade is bound to have more long-term thought involved in it than one that takes a couple years. My biggest pet peeve with Witherington is that he's extremely fair to opponents whose assumptions about scripture are far from his own (e.g. theological liberals) but grossly unfair to those who share his high view of scripture but have reach theological conclusions (complementarians and Calvinists especially).

Walter Hansen's IVPNTC takes the unusual approach of holding to a later date and North Galatian location while trying to reconcile it with Acts. I'm not sure he succeeds. I have a hard time with this series, because it tries to play to two audiences, having a flowing exposition at the top and some footnotes not clearly tied to any location in the main text (as footnotes usually are), and the level of detail in the footnotes is significant but without sufficient space to do so properly, so it requires pick-and-choose approach to which exegetical issues will get coverage. This is D.A. Carson's favorite introductory-level commentary on Galatians, and that's even despite his disagreements with Hansen over the historical issues.

Philip Ryken's REC defends the traditional approach very well. This is more of a series of expositions, actually based on sermons, than a commentary, but it's expository preaching of the sort that centers enough on good exegesis that it's helpful.

Hans Dieter Betz's Hermeneia is the first to engage in the kind of rhetorical analysis I discussed above (see Longenecker). Betz also sees far more Greco-Roman background in general, at the expense of the Jewish background that seems much more obviously involved. This commentary is important for academic study of Galatians, since it's been so influential, but I don't think it's of much value to the expositor, because of its level of detail and its less helpful overall approach.

Scot McKnight's NIVAC displays some of the strengths of the series, which include (a) presenting the basic message of the book (which in McKnight's case is heavily leaning toward a New Perspective interpretation, where the conflict is seen as being about social boundary markers rather than whether obedience to the law justifies), (b) identifying areas where Paul's language or assumptions involve cultural baggage or historical background that contemporary readers need help understanding and working through ways to help contemporary Christians understand those issues in our own terms, and (c) finding applications for our own day based on how the principles behind the text get transferred into the new context. The series tends to be light on exegesis. I disagree enough with the New Perspective approach that I wouldn't recommend this commentary as much as I would other volumes in the series, but McKnight is a good writer who has thought a lot about how the gospel works itself out in our lives. One reviewer thinks his New Perspective interpretation makes it much harder for him to find contemporary application than it would be if he accepted the traditional approach.

Richard Hays gives a popular-level exposition of a New Perspective approach in the NIB. This commentary is bound with a number of others in a thick volume that makes it cumbersome to use, although it's not as expensive as some volumes of this size (900 pages for II Corinthians through Philemon). Many academic libraries have this series available for reference, but often they will treat it as a reference work and won't let you check it out. Hays is a good writer and often has insightful things to say, but I disagree enough with his general approach that I can't give it a strong recommendation. Hays sides firmly with the New Perspective, and he's been strongly influenced by Martyn's commentary. It might be a quicker read for someone who wants to get Martyn's sort of view without wading through the whole Anchor Yale Bible volume. This would be more helpful for someone teaching Galatians than Martyn or Dunn.

I'm aware of the following forthcoming commentaries on Galatians, some of which may be a long way off if they will ever appear:

D.A. Carson (PNTC)
Martinus de Boer (NTL)
David DeSilva (NICNT)
Katherine Greene-McCreight (BTCB)
Douglas Moo (BECNT)
Peter Oakes (PCNT)
John Riches (BBC)
Thomas Schreiner (BHGNT)
Thomas Schreiner (ZEC)
Graham N. Stanton (ICC)
Brian Vickers (NCC)
Robert Van Voorst (ECC)
Andrew H. Wakefield (SH)
Ronald D. Witherup (CCSS)
N.T. Wright (THNTC)

I'm especially looking forward to Moo and Carson. Carson and Moo have been among the most stalwart defenders of the traditional approach against the New Perspective. Moo has written stellar commentaries on Romans and James, so it will be interesting to see his work on Galatians as well. He said he was going to work on this commentary once he was done with Colossians and Philemon for PNTC, which has been out since August 2008 (and thus probably complete by mid-2007). I don't know how quickly he works, though. It might be a few more years.

This will be Carson's first commentary on a Pauline epistle, despite having written on Paul lots of times in other kinds of works. Carson has said that he will work on Galatians once his NIGTC on John's epistles is complete. A former student of mine told me in 1996 that it was almost done, and the series editor told me a couple years ago that he was hoping for the manuscript any time now, but he hadn't gotten any explicit word of when it would be done (and then it would take a full year to be published after he had the manuscript). So the Galatians commentary might be a while yet.

Schreiner is strongest in systematic theology, and he'll be develop a good defense of the traditional approach against the New Perspective. He also has a significant Romans commentary under his belt.

DeSilva's strengths are similar to those of Witherington above. That volume is supposed to be out this year, according to DeSilva's c.v.

Wright will defend a version of the New Perspective, probably the most tenable version out there, but I think his view still goes too far. Wright always has an eye for the practical, and this series has lots of theological reflection, which will give him plenty of space to explore his version of the NPP.

Stanton's ICC will be extremely detailed, useful for the academic but probably for no one else. Van Voorst will be more accessible but likely still far too detailed for most preachers and Bible study leaders.

Expect Wakefield to be popular-level but academically-priced, a stupid decision on the part of the publisher of that series that I've consistently criticized as immoral. I know nothing of the author, but I don't recommend this series.


Jeremy, you may want a look at Moises Silva's _Interpreting Galatians_ which does a number of things far better than any Galatians commentary to date has done. And indeed, perhaps some day his own impressive volume on this letter will see the light of day...though hope is fleeting.

hi jeremy,
if you are interested in william dumbrell's new covenant commentary i can email it to you as a pdf.


Yes, another commentary review!

I agree with your overall assessment of Galatians commentaries- good not great. And, like you, I anticipate the ones to come (especially Moo, for me) will be outstanding. I also haven't looked at Galatians commentaries much in recent times (except Fee, below), so I'm working off my impressions of a couple years ago.

When I took my Exegesis in Galatians class a few years back, we used Longenecker. I think I'd rate it ahead of Bruce (he just didn't seem to address some of the questions I had), but honestly, I could live without either one. I own Bruce and Witherington. This is one of Witherington's better works, in my opinion. You're right that he can be extremely unfair to certain groups, though I find that less true in his published works than on his blog (which tells me he needs an editor for his blog).

One book you don't have listed here isn't a commentary, but is a great companion when studying Galatians: Moises Silva's Interpreting Galatians. It's more of an exegetical how-to, using Galatians as the test case.

Recently I made my way up to the Gordon-Conwell library and perused Fee's commentary. I really liked what I saw. He doesn't interact a ton with other scholars, but I almost find it refreshing. I'm growing tired of commentaries on commentaries, it's nice to have someone attempt to stick closer to the text.

Anyway, Marcus Maher is studying Galatians right now, so I bet he'll have a ton to say.

Hi Jeremy,

Thanks for the reviews, they're helpful. I haven't looked at Fee's commentary at all but based on what you write I may have to pick it up.

I tend to be kinda in the middle on the NPP (I'm hoping that my current study will help me move more firmly one way or the other) so I think that affects my assessment of the commentaries. For instance, I find Dunn to be pretty helpful. I would give it top billing for a mid level commentary as long as one isn't strongly opposed to the NPP. I like his Galatians better than his Romans. I also like Hays commentary quite a bit too (but I'm a big Hays fan so I'm probably a bit biased).

I also think Martyn's commentary is underrated. As you note, his command of Galatians is excellent, and I think his commentary is a major achievement. His apocalyptic framework has definitely helped open up the letter for me, but he definitely tries to fit too much of the letter into that framework. I don't find it as intimidating as its size suggests either. You don't have to read the comments sections (of which there are many) if you're not interested in that particular topic, which I think makes the commentary as detailed as you want it to be.

I have mixed feelings on McKnight's. I feel his original meaning section is a bit brief. Given the position that he holds on the NPP i think his application is exemplary.

Hi Jeremy!

Was wondering if you actually know of any commentaries on James you'd recommend. It's sort of been my favorite book of the Bible (in a Pietistic sense at least) for a long time, and I figured you might be someone who'd have some ideas on that subject.

- Dan

Dan, I really like Douglas Moo's Pillar volume. He also did the Tyndale one, which is briefer and earlier, but the Pillar one is his more mature thought with more detail. My favorite popular-level commentary on James is the Bible Speaks Today volume by J. Alec Motyer. There's a new one just out by Craig Blomberg and Mariam Kamell that I expect to be good, in the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary series, but I haven't spent much time looking at it. Luke Timothy Johnson's Anchor Bible is very good also, which comes across to me as a very Protestant-friendly Catholic interpretation. I expect that would carry your interest a little as someone converting from Protestantism to Catholicism.

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