Good News for Ancient Anatolians


Raphael, St Paul Preaching in Athens (1515)

Good News for Ancient Anatolians

David A. DeSilva, The Letter to the Galatians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, Eerdmans, 2018. Pp. I-LXXIX, 1-542. $55.00

Interesting historical relics turned up in the 19thcentury. In 1834, a Frenchman named Charles Texier discovered the ruins of Boğazköy in Anatolia. Cuneiform tablets were found there in 1893 by Ernest Chantre. Professional excavations began in 1906. Aside from notations in the Bible, little was known about the Hittites. Their hieroglyphic inscriptions were hard to understand, but Bedřich Hrozný, Professor of Cuneiform Studies and History of the Ancient Orient, finally grasped the idiom of the Hittite language in 1915. Another door to a once concealed world in antiquity was opened. Inhabitants of modern Anatolia are quite unlike the inhabitants of ancient Asia Minor. The religion of today differs from the religions of yesteryear. In Greco-Roman times Galatia comprised parts of what is known today as central Anatolia. There was Jewish settlement in the district. Diversely populated, belief in god(s) was prevalent.

The diffusion of Christianity around the Mediterranean Sea was slow; it followed the footprints of devotees who traveled. By the time of the Apostle Paul, religion was still of importance. His several missionary journeys, recorded in the text of The Acts of the Apostles, evidence how important it was to him. The resistance he met in select places proves how much Judaism and Greco-Roman cults meant to others. His encounters with people in Galatia (Acts 16:6) were noteworthy: some of them believed his preaching and exchanged the god(s) of their ancestors for a newfound faith which centered upon a man named Jesus. The book under review deals with one of the oldest of Paul’s Greek letters to communities of Christians in ancient times.

DeSilva is familiar with the material, having produced an earlier volume Galatians: A Handbook on the Greek Text (2014). Other books of his on the Apocrypha and the Epistle to the Hebrews prove his familiarity with the New Testament era. And his proficiency in Greek grammar is undeniable. For the NICNT series, he continues its tradition of large scale analyses. The ‘Introduction’ is well over 100 pages long. The ‘Text and Commentary’ on the six chapters of Greek text extends to over 400 pages.

In the Greek language, the polemical material that Paul discussed regarding the Galatian Christians’ acceptance of tenets that were incompatible with the form of the Gospel he proclaimed is unrivalled in the canon of Christian writings. Galatians is a partisan text, not inclusive of a variety of opinions which purport to denote how to construct a pleasing relationship with God. For Paul, Jesus is the only foundation for such success, and the prolongation of certain Jewish rites, in his opinion, undermines the results of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and the resultant effects upon a believer’s deliverance from the yoke of Jewish Law. In a broader sense, and in terms of Jesus’ redemption, Paul adjudges all supposedly salvific facets of other religions to be either antiquated or irrelevant.

In the General Editor’s Preface readers are told:

“First and foremost we are concerned with the text of scripture. It does not mean we are not concerned with the history of scholarship and with scholarly debate. It means, rather, that we strive to provide a commentary on the text and not on the scholarly debate” (p.xiii).

Untrue. This book is encyclopedic, and steeped in discussion on the history of scholarship and abstracts of scholarly debates; though DeSilva prefers NRSV type readings, the translation gives evidence of originality.

According to DeSilva, the volume has been in the making for over a decade (p.xvii). It is a formidable body of research, one that will find use among select academics. The strength of the book undoubtedly is the linguistic notes and comments tied to them. Wide-ranging reader that he is, DeSilva is able to exploit critical tools at his disposal and to compare lexical forms to elucidate his views. Boldly, he does not shy away from classifying ‘the Jewish law’ as ‘Torah’ and vice versa (p.8). His exposition of stoicheia=regulatory principles in chapter four is creative. Chapters four and five have a number of interesting ways to read Paul: e.g., pp.390-406 make clear Paul’s anagogic application of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar to deal with the law/gospel dichotomy; and see pp.428-431 where he argues that since Paul did not employ phrases like ‘grace alone’ or ‘faith alone’ that the Reformers seemed to have made distinctions without making a difference: DeSilva often censures the Reformers’ beliefs. The section on ‘The Spirit’s Sufficiency to Nurture Righteousness’ is useful (pp.443-473). Chapter six contains his best work because the exposition is straightforward and not given to so much fanciful exegesis.

INTRODUCTION: speaking of the “widespread affirmation of Pauline authorship”, he claims that:

“It tends (rightly) to be privileged as a historical source over Acts of the Apostles when it comes to reconstructing the complexities of how to incorporate gentile believers into the predominantly Jewish Jesus movement” (p.1; but also see pp.35-38).

I believe he exaggerates the worth of consensus views, which are of little value when one is editing or commentating on a critical text. After those comments readers are informed that Paul’s polemical statements shouldn’t be taken at face value. He argues that Paul “selectively shares and shapes the episodes he  tells….”.

Maybe; but that claim could be leveled too against any commentator’s selection of ideas he notes or cites. Nowhere in this book is Paul proven to have lied in any of his [other epistles] texts. So I disagree with the author’s assumption that the prejudices of Paul were so great (cf. p.127). As a founder of the fellowships, Paul merely described and later argued against the intrusion of beliefs that contradicted what previously he had told his followers about the boundaries of Christ’s redemption, just as any good pastor would do. One may disregard his statements, but why impeach his character without outlining sufficient reasons for doing so?

TEXT AND COMMENTARY: the first line of translated text says “Paul, an apostle not sent out from human agency nor through a human being’s agency”. It is infelicitous. And why are the gender-neutral forms “human being” and “human agency” used in verse one for  ἀνθρώπων/ἀνθρώπου, when the gendered term “brothers” (ἀδελφοί,) is used rather than “brethren” or ‘brothers and sisters” in verse two (the same Greek word is given a gender-neutral form at 6:1)?

DeSilva’s explanations of ‘grace’ seem contrary to scripture, particularly when he writes (p.254):

“Paul developed his theology of grace and preached about the generous favor of God in Christ in a socioeconomic environment very different from the emerging mercantile economy of the Reformation period or the modern economies that have arisen since.”

Readers may be at a loss to understand what business, trade and financial affairs in ancient or modern times have to do with forming notions about Pauline impressions of grace. It is clear that DeSilva wants to be innovative and has in mind as his targets the Reformed Theologians of the later period (Luther, Calvin etc.), who he understands to have interpreted ‘grace’ as a commercial transaction (loc. cit.). Oddly though, he cites Seneca’s description of The Three Graces (On Benefits, p.255) to help contextualize Paul’s meaning of grace. But Paul conceived of grace in ways whose connection to Jehovah/Yahweh cannot be expounded correctly by simply citing in proof-text form the interactions of Romans who adhered to principles of polytheism and revered Greco-Roman deities and their individual cults.

Again, to use DeSilva’s illustrations from Roman society with its rich and poor villagers (p.255): the wealthy who donate to underprivileged persons were praised by citizens and given honors. But in Judaism (and Christianity) that class of citizenry should not be lauded so. It was their duty to help others in need – as per the biblical precepts. In addition, how a person attained to certain stations in life is relevant in determining whether an act should be deemed gracious. Affluent persons may have gotten their wealth through deceit, and the poor could have been impoverished on account of their ignorance and/or honesty. By what kind of grace is the latter made better when the former group gives to the poor what they acquired unlawfully? DeSilva’s analogy is unsatisfactory, as it lacks the characteristics necessary to depict the attributes of a holy God of grace who does not dispense his kindness on the basis of obligation or merit. Whatever one may argue about the effects of ‘reciprocity’ (p.257;260) in the reciprocal framework of one’s experience of grace, one thing is certain: God extends his grace only to beneficiaries whose regenerated faith resides solely in him. Therefore it is better to use biblical illustrations to define biblical language rather than the speech of Roman authors whose terminological use is wholly unconnected to Jewish monotheism.

In the excursus, what does Paul Mean by “Seeking to be Justified” and “Being Justified” (pp.216-224), DeSilva assumes that Paul uses a courtroom term (p.217); although in no place in Galatians does Paul refer to a juridical connotation of the term – as also noted by DeSilva (loc cit.). Despite that, the inferences DeSilva draws are open to question since he alleged the Reformers erroneously made false distinctions when imagining that ‘grace alone’ or ‘justification by faith alone’ was expressed in the passages. Not everyone will agree with his view that:

“at no point in Galatians does he speak of “justification” or “acquittal” as an already-accomplished fact” (p.218).

Mostly, DeSilva treats of the topic of justification acceptably. He engages prominent scholars but his views carry futuristic overtones. When he states on page 219 that dikaiosynē/justice-righteousness “was one of the four cardinal virtues of Greco-Roman ethics”, the statement is of little consequence because he does not demonstrate how Paul’s usage of the term is in line with Aristotle’s (384BC-322BC). The fact that one widely known Greek term is utilized by two popular figures is not a signal that its meaning was invariable in different circumstances across four centuries.

In places DeSilva fails to disentangle his turns of phrases from the nebulous idiom spun in the web of New Perspectives on Paul. Again, speaking of the “unwelcome bugbears of the Reformation and its traditions” (p.222), and not wanting to sound any anti-Semitic notes, he writes on page 228:

“Living in line with Torah was not typically seen as a means of earning God’s grace, but rather as the grateful covenant relationship, and a means by which to remain within that covenant relationship and enjoy its blessings. Doing what Torah prescribed, as the means by which one made a grateful response, was also the means by which to continue to encounter God as benefactor for the future.”

That clarification undermines his formulation of how ancient Jews abided by the precepts of Torah. I.e., if nothing could be done to warrant God’s favor, no response would be needed at all. The fact that a response, be it grateful or otherwise, is required, implies that the response needed to be done in a way that would accord with God’s accepted precepts. When Israel did not do ‘what Torah prescribed’, then the benefactor motif fell apart anyway. This reason accounts for the many recorded captivities of Israel in scripture. God raised up nations to chastise them because of their failure to comply with his commands. The book of Judges is proof that obedience was consequential to their enjoyment of any favorable disposition from God, however distasteful that might be to modern readers.

Notwithstanding, DeSilva offers a sensible conclusion when he writes:

‘The principal problem with the Torah was that its term had expired and that what was its strength prior to Christ was now its greatest flaw—the maintenance of the boundary between Jew and gentile on the pretense that the former retained “favored nation” status before God.”

Textual critics will not find his reasoning on variants to be entirely secure; but on occasion he discloses readings that are not widely circulated in other commentaries on Galatians. DeSilva’s writing style is lucid. The comprehensive researches into historical settings made by him will not go unnoticed. One wishes that he had done for Paul’s theology what he tried to do for Greek terms used by Paul. DeSilva did not situate the theology of Galatians amid the expansive theology of Paul in his other writings (p.xv); but he did seek to correlate the theology of Galatians to the wider features of ancient Greek and Roman philosophy. Some discussions inserted into his discussions are irrelevant to his treatment of a particular topic: e.g., on Torah (see p.11, n.24).

As for the form of Paul’s letter, see the excursus ‘Paul, Rhetoric, and Letter-Writing in Antiquity’ (pp.62-91): in its present outline that section cannot and does not plausibly associate Demosthenes or Cicero’s forms of composition to the structure of Galatians. How could it? They are dissimilar in every way. In defining ‘peace’ at 1:3 he explicates the term by means of the Res Gestae Divi Augusti (pp.117-118). But why use it? It does not shed light on anything of Pauline derivation in the opening lines of Galatians. The same can be said for DeSilva’s attempt to explicate Paul’s use of ‘anathema’ by describing words from in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex (p.128,n.20).

In the main, where non-canonical Greek and Latin texts are cited in this volume, the conclusions drawn from them should be treated with caution, as he undertakes philological debates about ancient terms in which he consistently shows little expertise. Paul’s epistle is a polemical piece. Paul’s expressions are forthright, never favorable to his antagonists. DeSilva refers to the pretenders (to grace) who intruded into the fellowships making fallacious claims as “rival teachers” all the way through his commentary. It is a designation that Paul would not have used. Although in Galatians he does not name the false teachers, in other epistles he does (I Tim. 1:19-20; II Tim. 3:8).

DeSilva’s classification positions them equally with Paul – but on different sides, a thing that Paul would have been loath to do considering he believed he was an Apostle of Christ and that they were presenting dubious facts and a false Gospel (1:6). At 1:7; 5:10,12 Paul labeled their acts troubling and disturbing, that they were a people who pervert the Gospel, thrusting individuals into a state of confusion. His language of course is caustic (cf. 1:8-9).

Presumably writers should be given a free hand in the making of a commentary. However, for future volumes in this series, a General Editor should prune the text of extraneous matter, so as to be able to adhere to the ideals he notes in his preface, that the NICNT “is written above all for pastors, teachers and students.” That sentence appears in 90% of commentaries published these days. Yet DeSilva’s Galatians does not forge an intermediate path between the critical commentaries and homiletical commentaries referred to on page xiv. It resembles the former completely.

As a work of scholarship this commentary is a pacesetter. The author has omnivorous reading interests. Current trends toward larger commentaries likely will continue until publishers realize that sometimes smaller works of controlled scholarship are better, that sometimes less is more. Students reading this book will need a guide. Teachers must balance their reading of it with other commentaries on Galatians. A learned Pastor/Scholar with an M.Div or equivalent should be able to digest some edible grapes on these vines. A New Testament scholar with a sound control of ancient Greek also could use it to benefit his or her students as they seek to verify specific nuances. But classicists reviewing early Christian literature in light of Greco-Roman contexts will look askance at vast portions of it.

Abbreviations (pp.xix-xxiii); Bibliography (pp.xxv-lxxix); Introduction (pp.1- 108); Text and Commentary (pp.111-517); Index of Subjects (pp.519-521); Index of Authors (pp.522-527); Index of Scripture and Other Ancient Texts (pp.528-542).

Darrell Sutton is a Pastor who resides in Red Cloud, Nebraska (USA). He publishes widely on ancient texts, both biblical and secular    

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