• J. Louis Martyn
  • Jan 1, 1998
  • Series: Volume 1 - 1998

J. Louis Martyn, Galatians. [Anchor Bible] New York and London: Doubleday, 1997. xxiv + 614 pp. $39.95.

The Anchor Bible may hold the record among modern commentary series for reflecting the greatest variation in quality, length and format among individual volumes. In recent years, with a few exceptions, the quality and length have substantially improved, with such exegetical standards as Fitzmyer on Luke and Romans, Furnish on 2 Corinthians and R. Brown on the Epistles of John. This newest offering on a New Testament book proves similarly substantial but equally innovative in format. Martyn, professor emeritus of Biblical Theology at Union Seminary in New York (like Brown) is an internationally respected scholar, especially of Paul and John, but is not known primarily for commentary writing. Now he will be!

The major distinctive of this volume on Galatians, familiar to those who have followed Martyn's previous scholarship on Paul, is that of a consistent and elaborate "mirror reading" of the epistle. Martyn believes that from all of Paul's admonitions and self-defense one can reconstruct down to the most minute detail what the false teachers (the Judaizers) in Galatia were saying, how they had distorted earlier Pauline teaching and how Paul's words in this epistle correct the false teaching and further elucidate Paul's own thought. Large parts of the commentary on each discrete section of the epistle are often subdivided precisely along these lines. There are seldom places where Martyn's presentation of Jewish background, initial Pauline teaching, the false teachers' distortions and Paul's next round of teaching is not plausible, but what is never squarely confronted is how speculative the whole process is. If, for whatever reason, Paul at any point includes material in his letter not primarily to rebut explicit teaching of the Judaizers, then the chances are that Martyn has considerably over-exegeted the text.

There are other scattered weaknesses that the evangelical reader will probably detect. No reference to F. F. Bruce appears anywhere in the book, despite his numerous articles defending the early date and South Galatian hypothesis for the epistle and despite his substantial commentary in the New International Greek Testament series. Nor are any other of the major treatments of that position (e.g., Hemer, Longenecker, Riesner, Witherington) ever seriously interacted with, leading Martyn simply to re-adopt the rather unlikely (though common) view that Gal. 2:1-10 corresponds to the Apostolic Council of Acts 15 and that Galatians was written to ethnic Galatians in the north of Turkey in the early 50s.

So, too, without much clear explanation Martyn rejects a forensic background for the metaphor of "justification"and its cognates, preferring instead the non-judicial, non-moral term "rectification." Like many recent writers (but again without response to Bruce's persuasive arguments to the contrary), Martyn takes pistis Christou and related formulae as subjective rather than objective genitives ("the faithfulness of Christ" rather than our "faith in Christ"). He also seems to link the Judaizers more closely with James and the Jewish-Christian leaders in Jerusalem than the text itself demands. And, at several points, Martyn too quickly concludes that both Paul and the Old Testament simply contradict themselves in key places.

At the same time, the volume has numerous strengths and fresh contributions to make to an exegesis of Galatians. Fifty-two "comments" or excursuses are interspersed throughout the commentary. One could almost limit a reading of the volume to these sections alone and still grasp the heart of Martyn's views on virtually every significant or controversial exegetical-theological issue. The apocalyptic heart of Paul's thought is regularly demonstrated, an important reminder in a revisionist age that increasingly tends to make wisdom rather than apocalyptic the "mother" of Christian theology. Martyn rightly rejects the mystical interpretation of expressions about the believer being in Christ (or Christ in the believer) in favor of "the dominant motif" of "the resurrected Christ's powerful invasion, seen on a personal level" (p. 258).

Martyn also skillfully weaves the reader through Galatians 3:10-14 (arguably the most opaque section of the epistle), stressing that Paul's argument is not merely that no one can keep the Law fully and that therefore no one can be saved by the Law. Rather, even if one did keep the Law fully, one would not be (eternally) saved for that was never the purpose of the Law and surely not now that the age of the Law has passed. Christ alone brings salvation. This leads to what seems to be a correct assessment of the more positive statements about the Law throughout Paul's letter, namely that they are pointers to and fulfilled in Christ. Leviticus 19:18 is the apex of the Torah and, filtered through the grid of the Christ-event provides the hermeneutical key for understanding "the Law of Christ" and the nature of Pauline ethics more generally. The Christian life is fundamentally not nomistic, a new set of rules to be obeyed, but Spirit-inspired living as epitomized by the "fruit" of 5:22-23.

Martyn's treatment of 3:28 seems particularly balanced, as he stresses the revolutionary social implications without camping on gender questions as so many modern readers do. In context, Paul's primary concern in quoting this traditional triad is the obliteration of the divisions between Jew and Gentile in the church. The puzzling stoicheia ("elemental principles"?) of 4:3 and 9 are also well dealt with--the shock value of Paul's discussion was his claim that the Jewish Law enslaved its followers every bit as much as pagan philosophy or even demonic influence! By way of contrast, 4:3-5 forms "the theological center of the entire epistle" with its good news that God sent his Son to redeem us from all this bondage (p. 406).

This commentary will not be the first one I turn to for help on a passage of Galatians; Longenecker (Word) and Bruce (NIGTC) retain that position for me. As for historical background and literary structure, Betz (Hermeneia) remains unsurpassed. But Martyn now appears fourth on my list overall, while for at least plausible speculation about the theological fine points in the debates between Paul and the Judaizers, he clearly ranks first.

Craig L. Blomberg
Professor of New Testament
Denver Seminary