Major Book Reviews -- Galations (Sacra Pagina Vol. 9) by Frank J. Matera

Article excerpt

It is intriguing that for nearly sixty years (from Burton to Betz) there were few significant commentaries in English on Paul's letter to the Galatians (exceptions being Duncan, Bligh, and the translation of Ridderbos). The 1980s and early 1990s, however, have proved a prolific period, and The Anchor Bible commentary by J. Louis Martyn is still to come. For my money, clearly the most helpful of the recent lot to this point is the contribution to Sacra Pagina by Frank J. Matera.

To label a commentary with a superlative warrants clarification since commentaries are written for a variety of audiences and serve different needs. Matera's work, for example, is not the most original. That designation would have to go to Betz, whose ground-breaking work in rhetorical criticism redirected the research on Galatians. But for precision in tracing the argument of the letter, for methodological clarity, for being abreast of the most recent scholarship on Paul, for balancing critical insights with theological observations, for a thoughtful reading of the text, Matera's commentary ranks at the top.

The format is in line with the schema of the series. Following the "Introduction" (dealing with the agitators in Galatia, Paul's response to them, the identity of the initial readers, a delineation of the traditional and "new" understandings of the letter, and a selected bibliography), the author provides a translation of each pericope. Matera's rendering is readable, fairly literal, avoiding some, but not all, of the gender-specific language. A section of "Notes" contains textual, linguistic, and grammatical comments on each pericope, an essential ingredient for a commentary on Galatians. Then in the unit entitled "Interpretation," the author includes structural, rhetorical, and theological comments on the text, concluding each section with a brief bibliography. There is one extended excursus--on "Galatians and the Acts of the Apostles."

Here are five commendable things about this commentary. First, though the author employs a variety of exegetical approaches, he maintains a methodological clarity without belaboring the issue of method. Matera can draw from historical, literary, rhetorical, and sociological criticism in sensitive ways, but not overwhelm the reader with mini-essays on the relative merits of one or another method. For example, in depicting the so-called agitators in Galatia, he clearly distinguishes between the actual agitators of the first century and the portrait of them found in the letter itself. He risks doing a bit of "mirror-reading," but is cautious about a speculative overreading of the text. His modesty in making historical claims is noteworthy.

Second, Matera is sensitive to one of the major problems of Galatians, namely, how the moral exhortations of the last two chapters relate to the torah-free gospel advocated and explained in the first four chapters. The problem has led some commentators to take the last two chapters as an unrelated addendum to the letter or as a section addressed to a different group of readers. Following the work of John Barclay (Obeying the Truth: A Study of Paul's Ethics in Galatians), Matera affirms the unity of the letter's argument and concludes that the parenetic material shows that those who walk by the Spirit do in fact fulfill the law. …