This post is part of an occasional series. You can read more about that, and see other posts, here.
There are a million and one ways, I think, to read about any given book of the Bible. You could read a commentary, read an introduction, or a monograph on a minute aspect of linguistics. You might be frustrated by a dictionary entry, or just read it on it’s own. For each of those ways, publishers (like the one I work for!) have done something in a myriad of sizes. I love the letter from Paul to the Galatians – and so I was intrigued when Neil proposed this book, Galatians Reconsidered. He’d already published his Oxford doctoral thesis in an expensive, technical monograph series, but he’d found pastors and other folk interested in some of the idea’s he’d been exploring.
Galatians Reconsidered is an exciting example of a kind of book that I hope to publish more of. It takes the original ideas explored in the thesis, brings them to language that the average pastor can engage with, and pushes them in interesting pastoral directions. For those who read Neil’s first monograph, Galatians Reconsidered builds on it and extends it – and for those who can’t or won’t (the cost is pretty offputting!) we hope that this book makes it more accessible, as well as useful to the pastor or bible study group leader.
Here’s what some of Neil’s early readers wrote:
Might cultural habits and convictions of their pre-Christian past affect the way converts discern rival interpretations of their new-found faith? In this compelling and original study, Neil Martin argues from a wide range of ancient primary sources that this is what lies behind Paul’s puzzling warning to Gentile Galatians: having come to faith in Christ, their additional adoption of Jewish observance would for them entail going back to problematic patterns of their pre-Christian past. An excellent case study in how to bring the rewards of careful historical scholarship to the service of contemporary theological, pastoral and missional engagement!
Neil Martin has accomplished something to which few writers in the crowded field of Pauline research should even aspire: saying something both new and significant about as foundational a concept as the reason for Paul’s sharp invective in Galatians. Appropriating the best insights of the old, new, and radical new perspectives on Paul, Martin comes down squarely in none of those camps. Instead, he argues that Paul’s biggest fears were about Gentile believers adopting Jewish laws and regressing to their previous, pagan attitudes of trying to incentivize the gods to bless them. Searching questions arise about how Christians today may be unwittingly doing the same things when they imitate cultural forms in church practices that do not invite new Christians to make clear breaks from their past. Here is a book to read slowly and reflect on in detail.
When writing on Galatians, scholars face two temptations. The first is the conceit that despite centuries of interpretation, you have, at long last, finally discovered the interpretive key to Paul’s most controverted letter. The other is to get so buried in minutiae that you lose touch with its life-changing relevance. In Galatians Reconsidered, Neil Martin admirably resists both temptations. Creatively drawing on an understanding of the power of habit, and applying this insight to the concern Paul has for the Galatians’ regression to the patterns of their pagan past, Martin offers a reading coherent for Pauline scholars that is also compelling for twenty-first century readers. Galatians is so much more than sophisticated soteriology; it’s an actionable vision of Christian discipleship—as needed in Paul’s day as it is in ours. While one may take issue with Martin’s interpretation, this is a brilliantly executed argument and a pleasure to read. Highly recommended!
In Galatians Reconsidered, Neil Martin builds on the vast scope of Galatians scholarship and offers a new lens for understanding Paul’s arguments. Martin reframes the problem Paul is addressing in Galatians: not Jewish legalism or nationalism but Gentile regression. In this proposal, Paul is deeply concerned that Gentiles who have followed Jesus will take a stance toward the Torah that mirrors their own former, pagan law-keeping. A fresh and important contribution to the conversation.
How can Paul say that for the Gentile Christians to keep the Jewish law would be for them to return to their pagan past? Without either taking Sinai to be a covenant of works or denying the threat of legalism in the human heart, Neil Martin offers a fresh reading of Galatians that explains why keeping the good law of God would have been so dangerous for these converted Gentiles. In the course of exploring the context and content of the letter he communicates deep exegetical and historical work with engaging clarity and the pace of a whodunnit. But the real sting comes at the end of the book when he brings Paul’s warnings as he has explained them to bear upon the contemporary church. This section will open up new vistas of application for preachers far beyond the standard quest for the contemporary Gentile equivalent to circumcision. Taken seriously, its searching critique has the potential to upturn our entire approach to evangelism and Christian discipleship.
To some modern readers, Paul’s letter to the Galatians may appear to be more of a battleground for divergent perspectives within Pauline scholarship than a piece of pastoral communication. In Galatians Reconsidered, Neil Martin offers a fresh reading of Paul’s remarkable letter than engages carefully with the letter in its historical and literary context so as to highlight its pastoral and missiological impact. Martin argues creatively that Paul addresses not primarily the actual teaching of the Jewish ‘agitators’ but the way in which that teaching might have been understood by Galatians who were tempted to ‘regress’ to former pagan patterns of thought and behaviour. This is a fascinating study combining engaging prose with attention to detail. It has significance for understanding Paul’s ancient letter and for contemporary missiological practice. Students, preachers, and other serious readers will benefit from careful reading of this book.
Academically well researched, Neil Martin offers a reading of Galatians that reveals one of the key challenges of the churches in Paul’s era, yet often overlooked. I recommend this book to academics, pastors, and gospel workers who are interested in the shaping of communities that reflect great accommodation despite differences in the gospel community.
You can find Galatians Reconsidered on the IVP website, elsewhere online, or at your local bookshop (Christian or otherwise – you may have to order it in, but why not support a real shop?)