The Latest on Galatians: An Interview with Craig Keener on His Recent Book, Galatians: A Commentary

The Latest on Galatians: An Interview with Craig Keener on His Recent Book, Galatians: A Commentary August 10, 2020

Our first interview  focused on Jesus, and in this second interview with fellow New Testament scholar, Craig S. Keener, we now focus on some teachings of the Apostle Paul through Craig’s recent book, Galatians: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019). He actually has two commentaries on Galatians; the first one was published earlier in the New Cambridge Bible Commentary Series (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018). The commentary from Baker is the more thorough of the two.

As a Pauline scholar I am deeply interested in what Craig has to say about the apostle and this letter. Recently, he has contributed to my co-edited volume, Scripture, Texts, and Tracings in 1 Corinthians (Fortress Academic/Lexington Books, 2019) with an essay entitled, “Overrealized Eschatology or Lack of Eschatology in Corinth?” Together with my essay from the same volume—“Corinthian Diversity, Mythological Beliefs, and Bodily Immortality Related to the Resurrection (1 Corinthians 15)”—we go a long way in critiquing a prominent viewpoint that the Corinthians did not believe in a future resurrection due to their perspective of eschatology being fully realized. These essays reflect a new trend that sets out to overturn an entire generation of biblical scholarship on the issue.


Now to Galatians: Here are my questions and Craig’s answers

B. J. Oropeza: Galatians is a very popular New Testament letter, and there are quite a number of commentaries written on it. What makes your approach and interpretation of Galatians distinctive?

Craig Keener: I should note that when I write a commentary, my main objective is not to be distinctive. I did try to be distinctive, however, when it came to the translation, since I didn’t want any translation owners trying to sue me! As I consulted translations and tried to be different, though, I noticed considerable overlap among them, and I suspect that most of their owners haven’t sued each other. My main objective in the commentary is to understand the biblical text in its original context as best I can.

Having said that, neither could I justify investing months or years in a project that simply competes with what someone else has already done. Years ago, for example, I thought of writing a book on Jesus’s own Christology, and then Ben Witherington’s book on the subject came out.* (This was before we were colleagues.) It was so good that I abandoned my own plans; I was happy to have saved a year of my life for a different project. I thought of writing a book on racial reconciliation, but when I saw another book that said better what I would have said, I promoted that book instead of writing another one. Years ago I wrote a booklet on basic Bible interpretation for beginners, but it made no sense to compete with the abundance of fine resources already out there. I wanted to make mine available for free in parts of the Majority World where people who could not afford to buy books through a traditional publisher. It’s also free online on my website:

Anyway, returning to Galatians: I am sitting on mounds and mounds of research that I’ve never had time to publish, which I am publishing as quickly as I can. The most distinctive element of this research, that is, where it makes a distinctive contribution, is from my having read through most extant ancient Jewish literature, much of the ancient Greco-Roman literature (e.g., most of the Loeb Classical Library), etc. So, in this commentary I could draw on that material and provide a fresh infusion of those sources to the commentary tradition; I want to be as thorough as I can there. I also can bring that to bear as I evaluate scholarly arguments for various positions, which sometimes rest on too narrow a selection of ancient sources.

Although again not absolutely unique, I try to keep in mind ancient rhetorical conventions as I study Paul’s argument and then compare it with his more developed case in Romans. I see the two letters as compatible, but I think we need to take into account the polemical situation at hand in Galatians. Paul is fighting for the spiritual life of his converts. He is not nuancing every argument by saying, “I understand that what my opponents are abusing you with can often be used in a more appropriate manner.” When we allow Romans (and other letters) to inform Pauline theology and fill in some gaps in Galatians, Paul actually builds on Scripture in a way that favors more continuity than I think Luther emphasized in his own more polemical moments. Polemical discourse can speak truth, but it is not always designed to speak the whole truth on what even the writer or speaker believes on a subject.

Another way that the commentary is distinct from many commentaries is that I am sufficiently convinced of the Southern Galatian approach and of the reliability of the Book of Acts. I make more use of Acts in my Galatians commentary than many scholars do. I feel that I gave enough evidence for that approach in my Acts commentary so that I didn’t need to apologize for it in Galatians. This also contributes to my reconstruction of the situation, though I tried to keep that general and open to the various approaches that do take into account all the evidence, without (I hope!) straying into the kinds of speculations that have sometimes abounded in scholarly reconstructions.

I try to be fair to the various positions and learn what I can from a range of scholars, but of course that aspect is not so distinctive (hopefully most scholars try to do this). I try to keep the text simple and keep the big picture in mind as I introduce sections, framing the many more detailed discussions so as to help readers see how this all fits into the larger picture. Again, I’m not alone in this approach, though some commentaries focus only on one or the other.

B. J.: Well said. Your many references to Greco-Roman literature is in fact one of the main things that prompts me to consult your commentaries.

As you know, Galatians 2:16 is one of the most discussed verses in the letter. The “old” Protestant perspective (Martin Luther) considers the “works of the Law” in this verse to be referring to Moses’s law in its entirety­—that we cannot be justified by keeping the Law. No one could keep it perfectly; salvation is by faith alone, not works. The “new” perspective (N. T. Wright, James Dunn, with credit to E. P. Sanders) interpret this passage more along sociological lines. The “works of the law” in this context focus on ethnocentric rules, such as circumcision and Jewish dietary regulations, which divided Jewish and gentile Christians from fellowshipping together. Where do you stand on this issue?

Craig: I think the phrase is more general, even in the Dead Sea Scrolls, 4QMMT (which has sometimes been cited for the sociological approach). Although “works of the law” may not surface much as a specific phrase in the Hebrew Bible, the cognate verb phrase “doing the law” is clearly there. But having said that, Paul’s specific focus is probably on boundary markers; though circumcision doesn’t appear early in the letter, it is quite plainly a central issue in Galatians 5–6. Eating with gentiles figures in Paul’s specific narrative in Galatians 2:11-14.

I do think that the debate over this issue is not as heated (or polemical?) as it may have once been. A sort of consensus seems to be emerging, at least at the time I was writing the commentary. For example, scholars who argue (I think rightly) that the phrase “works of the law” designates the entire law (I would think here e.g., of Douglas Moo and Thomas Schreiner) are not opposed to seeing matters such as circumcision as a primary presenting issue. Likewise, James D. G. Dunn, who emphasized its role in boundary markers, subsequently emphasized that he was not denying that the phrase could refer to the entire law. He was simply emphasizing its focus on boundary markers. I wish all interpretive foci in Galatians would host such rapprochement!

Let me also mention that both approaches are represented among the church fathers. That is, this is not a question raised only by modern scholarship, but one that arises as we try to see how Galatians fits with the OT and with Paul’s other letters.

B. J.: Indeed there is continuing rapprochement between perspectives, as the mature exchange between various all-star biblical scholars evinces in the very soon-to-be released, Perspectives on Paul: Five Views (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020).

Another controversy in Galatians 2:16 centers on the notion that justification is by “faith in Christ” (Luther, Calvin, Wesley, and most older Bible translations). Some of the newer Bible versions (CEB, NET, NRSV [footnote]; and N. T. Wright, Richard Hays, etc.) translate the phrase as “faithfulness of Christ.” The translation hinges on the Greek pistis Christou and whether this phrase is to be understood as an objective genitive (“faith in Christ”) or a subjective genitive (“faith[fulness] of Christ”). So are we justified (and thus saved) by our faith directed in the person of Jesus Christ, or by Christ’s own faithfulness exemplified by his obedient life that resulted in his death on the cross?

Craig: The debate remains more lively regarding this one! Much as I would like to be trendy, I tried on the “faithfulness of Christ” approach a few decades ago and wrestled with it as much as I could but could not persuade myself that it fit what Paul was saying. It just did not seem to me to make the best sense of the passages where it appears. What some see as potential redundancy, I see as rhetorical emphasis. While noun and verb cognates do not always refer to the same thing, I think they do in this case, and that Paul uses them together on occasion that way. Paul is speaking of trusting in Christ. There are some good arguments for the subjective genitive reading, not the least of which is that Paul elsewhere uses the same construction to refer to God’s faithfulness. But on the whole I think “faith in Christ” has the better arguments.

Having said that, Paul’s understanding of faith is not simply passive assent, as, say, in nominal Christianity. When you are staking your eternity on something, forsaking other gods or other ways of life, that is serious faith. It may not be perfect— Abraham’s faith grew a lot between Genesis 15:6 (recast as saving faith in Romans 4) and when he offered up Isaac (Genesis 22). But it is serious. We don’t have contradictory New Testament soteriologies, such as, you can either repent or believe, you can either be born again or justified by faith. When we are really justified, we are also regenerated. They may be theologically distinguishable, but you don’t have a person who is one without the other.

Moreover, faith is only as good as its object. It is not enough to say, “I believe in something out there.” Faith in Christ matters precisely because it is faith in Christ—we trust him because he’s trustworthy; we rely on him because he’s reliable; we have faith in him because he is faithful. These are different ways of saying the same thing. So while I support the objective genitive interpretation of the phrase, theologically the two positions don’t have to be as divided as they are exegetically. The phrase means faith in Christ, but of course, we are also saved because of his faithfulness. The good news in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4 is what Jesus did for us by his death and resurrection; we trust in what he did. Otherwise we get too wrapped up in asking, “Do I have enough faith?” It takes only a mustard seed to move mountains. We don’t need to trust our trust or have faith in our faith; we trust in Jesus Christ and his death and resurrection on our behalf in fulfillment of the Scriptures.

B. J.: As for the liveliness of this debate, Craig, you’ll be glad to know that I recently wrote an article on the faith in/of Christ issue. It is slated for publication in the Journal of Theological Studies, so stay tuned.

Perhaps my favorite passage in the letter is Galatians is 5:14-25. Paul talks about ethics, the Holy Spirit, and the fruit of the Spirit vs. the works of the flesh. What do you think it means to “walk in the Spirit” (5:16) and how does a believer “keep in step with the Spirit” (5:25)?

Craig: I do think Paul develops the image of walking by the Spirit (probably echoing Old Testament language about walking according to God’s law; walking as “behaving”) with being “led by the Spirit” (echoing God’s Spirit leading in the OT, and God leading his people in the exodus) in Galatians 5:18 and putting our steps where the Spirit goes before us in 5:25. By the way, I think maybe my chiastic structure in this passage’s context is another distinctive contribution, though usually I am skeptical of proposed chiastic structures!

Throughout Galatians Paul has been warning that we cannot put ourselves right with God by “works” related to the law. He also sometimes contrasts the flesh (our animal existence, us as physical creatures dominated by physical desires) with God’s Spirit (see Galatians 3:2-5). In 5:19-21, Paul addresses the works of the flesh—the best that human existence, including human religion, can do without God’s empowerment is pretty abysmal. Like some other ancient authors, Paul pairs his vice list with a virtue list; both are just samples, and in both cases he says, “such are these.”

But “fruit” (5:22-23) is consistent, as Jesus taught, with the character and nature of a tree. Because God’s Spirit lives within believers, we produce the fruit of God’s character. This isn’t a work achieved by the flesh, whether we think of the flesh in terms of human effort, circumcision, ethnicity, or all three. It’s just part of God’s nature at work in us, assuming we don’t quench it. The fundamental fruit, at the head of the list, is love (5:22), which fulfills the law (5:14). Against such fruit, there is no law (5:23). So someone led by God’s Spirit, walking in the way of the Spirit that bears such fruit, is not under the law (5:18). This fits beautifully Paul’s larger argument in Galatians. Serving one another fulfills the law of Christ (6:2). The image of fruit continues in 6:7-8: if we sow to the Spirit, we reap eternal life; those who sow to the flesh reap the natural end of mere flesh.

Paul is saying that we depend on Christ and the Spirit to put us right with God to begin with. Having begun thus in the Spirit, we are not completed by the flesh (Gal 3:2-5). The same Christ and Spirit working within us also lead us to live the right way. Whether we are speaking of salvation, fruit of the Spirit, gifts of the Spirit, etc., it is God’s work in us from start to finish. He gets the credit for what he’s making us!

B. J.: And in Galatians 6:7-8, the “natural end” of the flesh is eternal destruction, the converse of eternal life. Paul is pretty blunt about this. Maybe that’s a quality to be admired about him. Anyway, thank you, Craig, for sharing insights from your commentary. This book is definitely worth buying! All the best wishes to you.

* Ben Witherington’s Christology of Jesus (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990) is meant (I’m assuming).

Picture from Craig Keener (used by permission).



About B. J. Oropeza
B. J. Oropeza is Professor of Biblical and Religious Studies at Azusa Pacific University. Among his many publications are Perspectives on Paul, Exploring Intertextuality, and commentaries on 1 and 2 Corinthians. You can read more about the author here.

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