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Australian Biblical Review


ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 56, 2008

TODD A. WILSON, The Curse of the Law and the Crisis in Galatia (WUNT 2/225; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2007). Pp. xi + 175. Paper. €44.00.

Few subjects in New Testament studies have attracted as much attention from scholars as that of the so-called “crisis” in the Galatian churches that impelled Paul to write his letter to the Galatians. Debate has centred on the identity of Paul’s opponents, even on the title by which they are called: Judaisers, Agitators, Teachers or Influencers. Much of this dispute has centred on naming the faction from which these opponents derived: Law-observant Jews and/or Christian Jews, Proto-Gnostics or libertine Gentile Christians. Methodology, too, has been the subject of intense debate, with commentators arguing the validity of “mirror-reading” Paul’s polemical comments in order to reconstruct the identity and message of his opponents.

Todd A. Wilson offers an important contribution to these debates. He keeps his focus narrow, exploring the rationale for Paul’s four references to the Law in Galatians 5:13–6:10 in light of a fresh evaluation of the Galatian crisis. He avoids the debate about the identity of Paul’s opponents by accepting the reconstruction offered by J. L. Martyn in his commentary, Galatians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (AB 33A; New York: Doubleday, 1997). Wilson, however, contributes to and extends Martyn's analysis by establishing the significance of Galatians 5:13–6:10 for the rest of the interpretation of Galatians as a whole and for the situation in Galatia. Wilson’s analysis, however, challenges some of Martyn’s conclusions and his study offers a refined understanding of how Galatians functioned in its original setting. Taking Galatians 5:13–6:10 as the key to unlocking the nature of the crisis, Wilson argues that it was Paul and not the Agitators (as Martyn would have it) who first confronted the Galatians with the straightforward choice between blessings of Spirit and the curse of the Law.

Wilson’s approach to the subject matter is founded upon a straightforward historical reconstruction of the “author’s intention,” as well as the “exigencies of the situation as a complement to our understanding of the author's perception of the situation” (16–17). Wilson adopts the “mirror-reading” technique first proposed by J. M. G. Barclay (“Mirror-Reading a Polemical Letter: Galatians as a Test Case,” JSNT 31 [1987] 73–93). But he does so in a critical fashion, modifying the technique in the light of the more recent discussions of method offered by J. L. Sumney (Identifying Paul’s Opponents: The Question of Method in 2 Corinthians [JSNTSup 40; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1990]).

Using this method, Wilson proposes that Paul intended his four references to the Law in 5:13–6:10, not as a way of denying the validity of the Mosaic Law for Christian living, but as a confirmation of the adequacy of the Spirit to empower the Galatians to fulfil the Law and thereby avoid the Law’s curse. From this analysis, Wilson draws several important conclusions.

First, the curse of the Law is the leitmotif of the entire letter appearing not only earlier in the letter (Gal 3:10–14; 3:23–29; 4:1–7; 4:21–31), but also and most obviously in the section (Gal 5:13–6:10) under consideration (141). Second, for Paul, redemption from the curse of the Law is not a fait accompli (142–43). Paul argues that the cursing voice of the Law will only be silenced if the Galatians walk by the Spirit and resist the “desire of the flesh” (5:16–18). In Galatians, Wilson suggests, Paul places less importance upon the superfluity of the Law, and more upon the Law’s powerlessness to mediate righteousness (2:15–21; 3:21; 5:5–6), its incompatibility with “faith” (3:11–12), and its power to curse (1:8–9; 3:10, 13).

Wilson’s treatment of the Galatian crisis establishes beyond doubt that the crux of the dispute at Galatia is the Law and its continuing relevance within Christianity. What he does not address is the broader question concerning Paul’s attitude to the Law vis-à-vis its application to Christians; nor, for that matter, does he adequately deal with earlier events, such as the Jerusalem Council and the Incident at Antioch, which are described by Paul (Gal 2:1–14) and are clearly relevant to the discussion. Examining the Galatian Crisis in isolation from other similar disputes in the early Church can lead to a myopic and limited appreciation of Paul and his opponents. Still, Wilson needs to be congratulated for this significant work, which serves to add further pieces to the puzzle that is the Galatian Crisis.

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