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ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 56, 2008

FRANK J. MATERA, Galatians (Sacra Pagina 9; Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2007). Pp. xiii + 263. Softback. $US29.95.

Sacra Pagina is a multi-volume commentary on the books of the New Testament, which has established itself as an excellent source of sound, critical analysis of the biblical texts. Composed and compiled under the auspices of the Catholic publishing house, The Liturgical Press, this series presents fresh translations and modern expositions of all the books of the New Testament. Written by an international team of Catholic biblical scholars, it is intended for biblical professionals, graduate students, theologians, clergy and religious educators. Frank J. Matera’s commentary on Galatians is a valuable component of the series. Its primary strength lays in the fact that it is a work primarily of historical analysis that seeks not only to delineate the historical situation that led Paul to write his letter to the Galatians, but also to analyse the rhetorical structure of the letter and its theological message. As with other volumes in the series, Matera’s Galatians is notable in that it provides a new translation of Galatians, with critical notes on each verse of the text, and a careful commentary of the letter in light of Paul’s theology.

The present volume is a revised and reissued edition of the original 1992 edition. Unfortunately, the revisions amount to no more than an updated bibliography as an appendix (253–63). No attempt has been made to edit or rewrite the commentary in the light of Galatian scholarship of the intervening fifteen years. This period has seen a number of important developments in the study of Galatians, which are not covered by this commentary. Other significant commentaries and monographs have been published in this time period, such as J. L. Martyn, Galatians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (AB 33A; New York: Doubleday, 1997), M. D. Nanos, The Irony of Galatians: Paul’s Letter in First-Century Context (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002) and B. Witherington III, Grace in Galatia: A Commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Galatians (London: T. & T. Clark, 2004), to name only three. Matera’s response to and engagement with these recent contributions would have greatly enhanced this commentary.

With that caveat aside, I would still recommend Matera’s Galatians for the extent and detail of Matera’s scholarship. The introductory comments regarding the issues raised by Galatians and the methods employed in interpreting the letter remain some of the best, concise notes on these two subjects. His approach to interpreting the polemical nature of Paul's rhetoric and the identity of Paul’s opponents is cautionary, but far from negative. Matera (6–7) presents a set of five guidelines for reconstructing the crisis at Galatia that follow the established mirror-reading technique, while eschewing theories that focus only on individual verses. Consequently, Matera paints a picture of both Paul’s situation and that of his opponents that satisfies all the disparate aspects of the letter.

Currently there are many, often divergently different, theories on the question of Galatians, why it was written, what it says, and what the implications of that message are. What sets Matera’s commentary work apart is its attention to detail and the breadth of its scholarship. Matera grants significant space to considering alternative interpretations and present-day applications for the message of Galatians. Accordingly, this commentary postulates that the problem at Galatia was fundamentally both theological and social in character, and signals the first practical application by Paul of his doctrine of justification by faith. Paul was confronted by rival missionaries who were encouraging the Galatians to adopt the customs, practices and culture of Jewish believers. For Paul, the Galatian crisis was theological in character because, if righteousness depended on something in addition to what God had done in Christ, what God did was not sufficient for salvation. This problem had social implications, for, if the Agitators were correct, Gentile Christians could not share table fellowship with their Jewish Christian brothers and sisters unless they adopted a Jewish way of life. Paul’s response was to use his letter to establish a foundation for the unity of Jewish and Gentile Christians by arguing that all are justified by the faith of Jesus Christ.

Matera’s commentary may now be dated in terms of its interlocutors, but it remains a valuable resource for the study of Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Like other volumes in the Sacra Pagina series, Matera's Galatians is equally accessible to scholarly and popular audiences. It would make a worthy addition to anyone’s personal library.

Review by
Ian J. Elmer
Australian Catholic University
PO Box 456
Virginia QLD 4014