AUSTRALIAN BIBLICAL REVIEW
BOOK REVIEW Published in Volume 60, 2012
BRENDAN BYRNE, Galatians and Romans (Strathfield, NSW: St Paul's Publications, 2010). Pp. 200. Paperback. $19.95.
What could possibly be written about Galatians and Romans that has not already been said, in a slim volume with no footnotes and a bibliography of six books? Why bother to review such a publication in a scholarly journal such as this? Fair questions, but this is a book by an author who has researched and published on the New Testament at all levels and that alone should make it worth a second glance. Whether we have read his other ‘lite’ or ‘fat-reduced’ books on Matthew, Mark and Luke (also from St Paul’s Publications) or his ‘full cream’ Sacra Pagina commentary on Romans, we know that Professor Byrne will not be dodging the issues in order to make his considerable scholarship more readable for a wider audience.
Clearly the book is intended to be as accessible as possible (and succeeds), but the inclusion of a very helpful glossary of Pauline terms (12 pages of clear explanations), italicised Greek terms (used and explained), and of a full translation (the NAB) of both letters together with the commentary, make this an excellent primer for students beginning study of these letters. This will be especially true for those coming into tertiary studies from a non-English-speaking background. It will also be a helpful Bible-study guide for a group wanting to read and discuss the letters in an informed and relevant way.
The history of interpretation of both Galatians and Romans bristles with polarised positions and dogmatic sectarianism. Dr Byrne’s commentary graciously guides us through the landmines littering the way, but not by avoiding them—rather, by disarming and even harmlessly exploding them. He states in the introduction that the Second Vatican Council “represented a recapturing on the part of the Catholic Church of a Pauline legacy that had largely become the prerogative of the churches of the Reformation” (vii). We might add that his own publications have embodied the very best of post-sectarian scholarship, engaging all interpretive traditions with a gracious forthrightness that has yielded profound and reconciling results. This book is no exception.
The “sharply polemical” letter to Galatia is explored first, followed by the more “measured, expansive and diplomatic” letter to the Romans, “designed perhaps to correct an image of Paul created by the earlier letter” (vii). Notable puzzles in the interpretation of Galatians (context, dating, identity of the ‘intruders’) are given brief, but insightful treatment, always with a view to the main game of interpreting the text as it is.
In the commentary on Gal 2:16, the ‘faith in/of Christ’ debate is not avoided, but helpfully reframed in the description of Paul reminding Peter that they have “become righteous by allowing themselves to be drawn, through faith, into the saving act of Christ on the cross, in which God was graciously offering reconciliation to a world of sin” (20). The treatment of the major arguments against the intruders is underpinned by a very helpful analysis of Paul’s reclamation of the Abraham traditions, with a wonderful centrepiece focussing on the New Creation identity found in Christ (and by ‘putting on Christ,’ like an actor in full costume), such that ethnic, social and gender barriers are radically overcome (Gal 3:28, p. 29).
The interpretation of Romans is also a model of judicious and insightful commentary. For example, given our current context, can anything helpful really be said about one of the few clear references to same-sex behaviour in the NT (Rom 1:26–27) in just over a page? Yes! (See 71–72).
What about the extraordinary proliferation of literature on the sacrificial imagery Paul uses in Romans 3? Will the good Doctor have anything to say about such matters as vicarious-penal-substitutionary-atonement, we wonder? Much, in every way: “Paul, I suspect, would be surprised by that development and would remind us, I’m sure, not to wring too much theology in a rigorous systematic sense out of the images he used,” and “the statements about Christ’s death are not the main point. The main point is the assertion that, in the face of universal human alienation from God and the impotence of the Jewish law to do anything about it, God in Christ has opened up to the entire world a new possibility of righteousness through faith” (Byrn’s emphasis, 85).
Space does not permit the listing of the many other pearls of wisdom to be found in this wonderful little book, but they are there to be discovered in the comments on the groaning of creation (Rom 8), God’s faithfulness to Israel (which still stands, p. 77 and Rom 9–11), and about the many women listed in Rom 16—amongst many others.
Wisdom distilled and spoken plainly out of a life lived exegeting and teaching the Scripture is a wonderful gift to the church and the wider world. We hope that Professor Byrne continues to produce these books on the rest of the New Testament in the years to come.
Whitley College, MCD University of Divinity