Review of Peter von der Osten-Sacken’s New Commentary on Galatians

In this blog post, I will provide a review of Peter von der Osten-Sacken‘s 2019 commentary Der Brief an die Gemeinden in Galatien (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer). Together with Klaus Haacker’s commentary on Acts, Osten-Sacken’s commentary represents the most recent addition to the respected series Theologischer Kommentar zum Neuen Testament. This series stands in the tradition of classical historical-critical New Testament scholarship, while giving special attention to themes relevant to Jewish-Christian dialogue, feminist-theological discourse, and social-historical lines of questioning. While Osten-Sacken’s commentary reflects all of these emphases, it is especially distinguished by its sustained focus on issues relevant to Christian-Jewish dialogue.

I. Let me begin by commending the commentary to a wide range of readers. Due to its combination of accessible form and substantive content, I think it can and will be read with profit by New Testament scholars, theologians, pastors, participants in Jewish-Christian dialogue, and other interested readers within and outside the Christian tradition. It is marked by historical-critical expertise and robust material-theological reflection. It is a commentary to which I will gladly return and a work that motivates me to read Osten-Sacken’s collected essays on Paul, i.e. Der Gott der Hoffnung (For Osten-Sacken’s English publications, see here).

What I like most about the commentary is the fact that one is guided from start to finish by Osten-Sacken’s clear and distinct voice. This is not to say that other voices are absent. On the contrary, Osten-Sacken consistently develops his interpretation in dialogue with others and can be counted on to weigh in on exegetical debates. Such issues, however, do not take on a life of their own, but are skillfully situated in relation to Osten-Sacken’s interpretation of the primary text in question within the framework of his overall reading of the letter.

II. The headings of the introduction and conclusion already give the reader a sense of the impressive intellectual breadth of the author and commentary:

A. Introduction (11-47). 1. The Author: Apostle of the Messiah for the Nations (11-18). 2. The Addressees (18-22). 3. Situation and Problem of the Letter (22-24). 4. The Document: An Apostolic Community Letter (24-28). 5. Galatians in the History of Theology and Church History (28-34). 6. Hermeneutical Questions (34-45). 7. Structure of the Commentary and Reception of Literature (45-46). 8. Reading Aids (46-47).

C. Summary and Reflections (320-350). 1. The Inheritance Promised to Abraham and Inherited by Christ and Those Who Belong to Him: Contours of the Letter (320-322). 2. Global Orientation and Lived Location of the Pauline Gospel (323-324). 3. First Comes the Human Being and Then the Confession: The Turn Since the Enlightenment (324-326). 4. Human Dignity and Human Rights in Theological-Ecclesial Perspective (326-331). 5. Characteristics and Perspectives of the Pauline Gospel (331-350).

From this material, let me highlight a few notable points. a) Due to the close connections between Galatians and Romans, Osten-Sacken thinks it is likely that Galatians should be placed in temporal proximity to Romans (20). While he is somewhat noncommital with respect to the location of the addresses, he seems to favor the region/territorial hypothesis over the province hypothesis (20-21, 61, 132, 210). Due to the northward extension of the province, he regards the terminology of North Galatia/South Galatia to be potentially misleading and suggests that it should therefore be abandoned (19n28). b) In the valuable section on hermeneutical questions, Osten-Sacken challenges the tendency to disclose the meaning of Galatians through the antithesis “law and/or gospel” and suggests that it is similarly problematic to characterize the core issue with the juxtaposition “faith and/or law” (35). In support of the latter point, he writes: “The exact antithetical term to ‘faith’ or ‘tidings (hearing) of faith’ is – in the common, though at another point to be questioned rendering – ‘works of the law,’ and, correspondingly, the opposition to the verb ‘believe’ is the verb ‘do.’ The implications are far-reaching. If one juxtaposes faith and works of the law (instead of faith and law), then it is clear from the outset that the problem lies in the realm of action and this means with the human being and not with the law taken by itself” (35; see also III.f and IV.c below). c) In this same section (p. 40), Osten-Sacken includes a notable critical exchange with Ulrich Luz with regard to the latter’s talk of the Bible’s “claim to truth” (Wahrheitsanspruch). d) Osten-Sacken relates his earlier research and his present commentary to what F. Tolmie characterizes as an “evaluative approach” … “according to which Paul’s strategy is not merely described, but also scrutinized critically” (28). This feature of his work is directly related to the form of his commentary, which comments on the text of Galatians under three rubrics, namely “Überblick” (overview), “Einzelexegese” (detailed exegesis), and “Vertiefungen” (deepenings). The first rubric enables Osten-Sacken to present his overall assessment of the meaning and function of a unit, the second allows him to take up specific questions pertaining to individual verses, and the Vertiefungen give him space to grapple with material-theological questions and to engage with Paul’s argument in Galatians critically, especially with a view to the coherence of Paul’s thought and to issues relevant to Jewish-Christian dialogue (28, 42-43). To give the reader a feel for these different sections, I will translate an excerpt from each of these rubrics at the end of my review.

III. Osten-Sacken structures his interpretation of Galatians as follows: pp. 48-68: The Beginning of the Letter (1.1-5). 59-72: Curse Instead of Thanksgiving: The Proem (1.6-9). 73-129: I. The Origin of the Gospel for the Nations and the Struggle of the Apostle for its Preservation (1.10-2.21). 130-240: II. The Gospel and Scripture: The Son and Those Who Belong to Him as Heirs of Abraham (3.1-4.31). 241-304: III. Gospel and Law: The Gift of Freedom as Inheritance (5.1-6.10). 305-319: Without Greetings to Galatia: The Conclusion of the Letter (6.1-18).

Once again, let me highlight just a few notable points: a) Osten-Sacken interacts throughout with major commentaries on Galatians in both German and English. Among others, he frequently engages the commentaries of Eckert, Lietzmann, Schlier, Klaiber, Betz, Bruce, and Dunn. Given the particular influence of J. L. Martyn’s commentary in the English-speaking world, it may be helpful to list out the references to his commentary here: 186, 188, 208, 214-216, 272, 275, 293, 297, 310. Special mention should also be made of his interaction with Martin Luther at many points (see the subject index, p. 382). b) In terms of structure, I think that Osten-Sacken convincingly argues that 5.1-12 should be taken more strongly with what follows than with what precedes (241-242). c) In terms of specific verses, I found Osten-Sacken’s interpretation of the phrase “born of a woman” in Gal 4.4 to be especially noteworthy (see IV.b. below). Special mention may also be made of his discussion of the designation for and content of the “Pneuma- and Sarx- catalogues” in Gal 5:19-23. d) Since I have tended to side with interpreters who have sought to relate Paul’s use of “we” and “you” in multiple texts to Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians, I found it significant that Osten-Sacken, like J. L. Martyn and others, argues against this interpretive tendency at multiple points with admirable clarity, detail, and argumentative rigor (e.g. 154-55, 170, 192). e) In terms of broader themes, Osten-Sacken unsurprisingly gives considerable attention to Paul’s diverse statements and perspectives on the law. This is developed both in relation to his discussion of specific texts (e.g. his comments on 3:19-25, esp. p. 167, and his comments on 5:14, esp. 259, 260-63), in his Vertiefungen (e.g. 70-72, 282-284), and in various summarizing-systematizing statements (e.g. 282, 340-42). As a point of criticism, while I think Osten-Sacken justifiably emphasizes the significance of the hina clause in Gal 3:22 (cf. also 3:24) for thinking about Paul’s view of the law, I do not think that this justifies assigning more than a temporal meaning to Paul’s use of eis in 3:23 and 3:24—as Osten-Sacken appears to do (see p. 167 and 282)—and correspondingly translating eis with “auf hin” in 3:23, 24 rather than with “bis” as in 3:19. Instead, as indicated by the purely temporal force of the same preposition in 3:19 and the temporal marker “before” in 3:23, the preposition eis should be translated with “until/bis” in 3:19, 23, 24. Despite this criticism, I think that Osten-Sacken’s larger point remains valid and important: In comparison with 3:19, Paul does assign a more positive role for the law with his use of hina clauses in 3:23-25. f) Let me conclude my comments on the body of the commentary with a comparison of Osten-Sacken and John Barclay in relation to a specific point (while Osten-Sacken himself interacts with Barclay’s earlier work, he unfortunately does not engage with Paul and the Gift). Within the context of a footnote justifying his translation and interpretation of Gal 3:11, Barclay writes: “There is no reason to find here a generalized contrast between the conditional Torah (which demands “doing”) and the promise (which requires only “faith” in God’s unconditional saving act; so F. Watson, Paul and the Hermeneutics of Faith [London: T&T Clark, 2004], pp. 16-63, 276-77; developed in P.M. Sprinkle, Law and Life: The Interpretation of Leviticus 18:3 in Early Judaism and in Paul [Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck 2008, pp. 133-64). Paul makes it clear that faith also involves action (5:6), arising from and made possible by the Christ-gift (2:20), and that in such action eternal life is at stake (5:21; 6:8). The Torah is problematic for Paul, not for setting conditions, or for demanding human action prior to God’s, but because it stands apart from the promise fulfilled in Christ and is incapable of producing either the righteousness or the faith to which the promise points” (Paul and the Gift, p. 406n40). On the one hand, like Barclay, Osten-Sacken strongly emphasizes that faith involves action that arises from and is made possible by the the action of God, Jesus Christ, and the Spirit (e.g. 261) and notes that we also find a poiein and ergazesthai in the life of the Christian (161). Moreover, like Barclay, he takes the threat of judgment and its relation to the conduct of the Christian in 5:21 and 6:8 very seriously (see 274 and 299-304). On the other hand, Osten-Sacken nevertheless argues with reference to Gal 3:11-12 that for Paul “the nomos is now rejected as medium of justification and deliverance in general (generell), because it is oriented in general (überhaupt) to poiein, doing, and not to pistis” (114; not sure how best to translate überhaupt here). In other words, while he shares much in common with Barclay and his interpretation should not be equated with the specific emphases of Watson or Sprinkle that Barclay is rejecting, Osten-Sacken does think that Paul presents an opposition between “faith” and “doing” in Gal 3:11-12 and in other key texts in Galatians and Romans (cf. also II.b. above and IV.c. below).

IV. To give the reader of this post a true taste of the commentary, I will now translate an excerpt from Osten-Sacken’s three types of material: Überblick, Einzelexegese, Vertiefungen:

a) Überblick/Overview (p. 149, on Gal 3:13-14):

ET: The two verses 13-14 give the impression that they would bundle once again all the load-bearing terms of the preceding context and lead them to their goal. At the same time, the statements in 3:1-14 appear as a considered ring composition. It begins with the reminder of the proclamation of the crucified one by the apostle in the Galatian communities (3:1), and it concludes with the recourse to his liberating deed on the cross (3.13-14). What is new in 3.13-14 is the term promise (epangelia, 3:14), which occurs for the first time in the letter here. It is taken up especially in the second half of the third chapter and therefore in 3.14 resembles a springboard into the following statements of the apostle.

GV: Die beiden Verse 13f. erwecken den Eindruck als würden sie noch einmal alle tragenden Begriffe des vorausgehenen Zusammenhangs 1,1-12 bündeln und zu ihrem Ziel führen. Zugleich erscheinen die Ausführungen in 3,1-14 wie eine überlegte Ringkomposition. Sie beginnen mit der Erinnerung an die Verkündigung des Gekreuzigten durch den Apostel in den galatischen Gemeinden (3,1), und sie schließen mit dem Rekurs auf seine befreiende Tat am Kreuz (3,13f.). Neu ist in 3,13f. der hier zum ersten Mal im Brief begegnende Begriff der Verheißung (epangelia, 3,14). Er wird vor allem in der zweiten Hälfte des dritten Kapitels mehrfach aufgenommen und gleicht deshalb in 3,14 einem Sprungbrett in die anschließenden Darlegungen des Apostels.

b) Einzelexegese/Detailed exegesis (p. 191, on Gal 4:4)

ET: For a long time already, interpreters have postulated behind this expression [genomenon ek gynaikos/born of a woman] the Hebrew syntagm yelud isha, which occurs in both the Bible of Israel and in the texts of the Dead Sea. With this designation is connected statements that describe human life in a way in its creaturely frailty, which evoke associations that it is verhängt [not sure how to translate verhängt here: doomed? fated? punished? something else?] and in this sense subjected to stoicheia tou kosmou as enslaving conditions of existence. … The previously suggested understanding has the advantage that it interprets v. 4 also with its first participial specification genomenon ek gynaikos (and not first with the second genomenon hypo nomon) in close connection back to v. 3. The expression means, as a first illustration of the enslavement under the world elements, participation in human existence above all in its frailty or also in its Verhängtheit [also unsure how to translate the noun: doomed condition? fatedness? punishment?]. In this sense, the son is subjected to the same conditions of existence as the ones for whose sake he is sent.

GV: Man hat hinter dieser Wendung [genomenon ek gynaikos/geboren von einer Frau] schon seit langem die hebräische Verbindung jelud ischa vermutet, die sowohl in der Bibel Israels als auch in den Texten vom Toten Meer begegnet. Mit dieser Bezeichnung verbinden sich Aussagen, die das menschlichen Leben in einer Weise in seiner kreatürlichen Hinfälligkeit beschreiben, die die Assoziation hervorrufen, es sei verhängt und in diesem Sinn stoicheia tou kosmou als versklavenden Existenzbedingungen unterworfen. … Das zuvor vorgeschagene Verständnis hat den Vorzug, dass es v. 4 auch mit seiner ersten Partizipialbestimmung genomenon ek gynaikos (und nicht erst mit der zweiten genomenon hypo nomon) in engem Rückbezug auf v. 3 deutet. Die Wendung meint, als erste Veranschaulichung der Versklavung unter die Weltelemente, Teilhabe an menschlicher Existenz vor allem in ihrer Hinfälligkeit oder auch in ihrer Verhängtheit. In diesem Sinn ist der Sohn denselben Existenbedingungen unterworfen wie die, um derentwillen er gesandt ist.

c) Vertiefungen/Deependings (p. 70-72, on Gal 1.6-9; cf. II.b. and III.f. above)

ET: Revelation and Prerogative of Interpretation: Paul and the Rabbis

GV: Offenbarung und Deutungshoheit: Paulus und die Rabbinen

ET: The clearest material connection between Gal 1.6-9 and and b. Bava Metzia 59b lies in the firm rejection of a mixing in of the heavenly world in the shaping of the teaching of the apostle or the rabbis. …

GV: Die deutlichste sachliche Verbindung zwischen Gal 1,6-9 und bBava Mezia 59b liegt in der dezidierten Abwehr einer Einmischung der himmlischen Welt in die Gestaltung der Lehre des Apostels bzw. der Rabbinen. …

ET: Thus, the prerogative of interpretation of the apostle refers not only to the gospel received and proclaimed by him, but—as its basis—also to the Holy Scriptures of Israel, above all to the Torah.

GV: Die Deutungshoheit des Apostels bezieht sich mithin nicht nur auf das von ihm empfangene und verkündigte evangelium, sondern – als dessen Grundlage – auch auf die heiligen Schriften Israels, allen voran die Tora.

ET: In this respect, we can speak then not only of an analogy between Paul and the rabbis, but unquestionably also of a relation of divergence.

GV: In dieser Hinsicht lässt sich dann nicht nur von einer Analogie zwischen Paulus und die Rabbinen sprechen, sondern fraglos auch von einem Divergenzverhältnis.

ET: While the rabbis bring to the fore the Torah not exclusively but indeed with special weight as halakah, Paul interprets it as witness for Jesus Christ, a clear indication of the entirely different presupposition from which he comes since his calling to proclaim the gospel.

GV: Während die Rabbinen die Tora nicht allein, aber doch mit besonderen Gewicht als Halacha zur Geltung bringen, legt Paulus sie als Zeugnis für Jesus Christus aus, deutliches Indiz für die völlig andere Voraussetzung, von der er seit seiner Berufung zur Verkündigung des Evangeliums herkommt.

ET: The divergence becomes most impressively visible in the interaction with the last verse of the section Deut 30:12-14. The rabbis let it stand as it is: “The word is near in your mouth and in your heart, to do it.” Paul, by contrast, breaks off the quotation before the infinitive clause and continues: “This is the word of faith, which we proclaim” (Rom 10:8).

GV: Am eindrücklichsten zeigt sich die Divergenz an dem Umgang mit dem letzten Vers des Abschnitts Dtn 30,12-14. Die Rabbinen lassen ihn stehen, wie er ist: “Nahe ist das Wort in deinem Munde und in deinem Herzen, es zu tun.” Paulus hingegen bricht das Zitat vor dem Infinitivsatz ab und fährt fort: “Das ist das Wort des Glaubens, das wir verkündigen” (Rom 10,8).

ET: What is juxtaposed/opposed with all this is not gospel and Torah—after all, Paul reclaims the Torah as a witness for the gospel and thereby draws it to his side—but rather gospel and halakah.

GV: Gegenüber stehen sich mit allem nicht Evangelium und Tora – Paulus reklamiert die Tora ja als Zeuge für das Evangelium und zieht sie damit auf dessen Seite –, vielmehr Evangelium und Halacha.

ET: In terms of substance, this juxtaposition/opposition [not sure how best to render Gegenüber here and below] also grasps the conflict in the Galatian communities and its theological processing by Paul much better than the frequently used antithesis of gospel and law, which we have already raised questions about.

GV: Dieses Gegenüber erfasst in der Sache auch den Konflikt in den galatischen Gemeinden und seine theologische Bearbeitung durch Paulus viel besser als die bereits problematisierte, oft bemühte Antithese von Evangelium und Gesetz.

ET: It makes clear terminologically that while the Pauline statements about the understanding of the law on the side of his opponents grasp a fundamental aspect of the law, they do not grasp the fullness of its significance in Judaism.

GV: Es macht begrifflich klar, dass mit den paulinischen Aussagen über das Verständnis des Gesetzes aufseiten der Gegner zwar ein wesentlicher Aspekt, aber nicht die Fülle seiner Bedeutung im Judentum erfasst wird.

ET: Thus, this—the juxtaposition/opposition of gospel and halakah—is probably the most important insight that is to be drawn from the recourse to b. Bava Metzia for the interpretation of Galatians.

GV: So dürfte dies – das Gegenüber von Evangelium und Halacha – die wichtigste Erkenntnis sein, die aus dem Rekurs auf bBava Mezia für die Auslegung des Galaterbrief zu ziehen ist.

V. Let me conclude by reiterating my great appreciation for Osten-Sacken’s commentary and by thanking him also for including both an index of ancient sources and an index of terms, subjects, and persons, which will be of particular help to his English readers!

For more German commentaries on Galatians, see here.

For a complete list of my blog posts, please see here.

For tips on how to use this blog, please see here.

Facebook Page: To receive notifications of future blog posts, please subscribe to this blog and/or like my facebook page here.

German Mondays: Thank you for making it to the end of this blog post! I hope to be able to write at least one Monday blog post each month. Best, Wayne


Gerd Theissen’s Critique of the New Perspective on Paul

The topic of “Paul and the Law” and the long-standing debate around the strengths and weaknesses of the many different versions of the “New Perspective on Paul” have continued to be of interest to many scholars of Early Christianity. Within the blogosphere, for example, many posts at Near Emmaus and various Patheos Blogs have been devoted to the admittedly Now-Not-So-New Perspective on Paul, and a recent post by Shawn Wilhite has helpfully drawn attention to James Dunn’s latest attempt to clarify his position in Early Christianity 4 (2013).

This post will attempt to contribute to the discussion by highlighting a key quotation from Gerd Theissen’s 2007 book Erleben und Verhalten der Ersten Christen: Eine Psychologie des Urchristentum (Experience and Behavior of the first Christians: a Psychology of Primitive Christianity), and by pointing readers to one of Theissen’s English publications on the topic in my analysis section.

Translation (wmc): “It is correct that Judaism was proud of the Torah. But precisely for this reason critical voices were massively pushed back and suppressed, which can be documented.  Paul is only one example of these voices. It is also correct that Paul was not conscious of any sin in his pre-Christian period; he persecuted the Christians out of conviction. But this does not rule out [the view / thesis / possibility / likelihood / fact] that he repressed a critical voice in himself that first broke through with the Damascus vision. It is finally correct that intra-Christian, Judaistic opponents first impelled Paul to grapple with the problem of the law. But this does not rule out [the view / thesis / possibility / likelihood / fact] that he fought against a part of his own life in these opponents. In my view, he grappled once more with the Jewish fundamentalist that he himself once was. He fought in them a part of himself – and it was precisely for this reason that the controversy with them was so heated. But in everything Paul is a representative of Judaism, both in his zeal for the law and in his criticism of the law.”

Erleben und Verhalten der ersten Christen (p. 468-9): “Es ist richtig, dass das Judentum auf die Thora stolz war. Aber eben deswegen wurden kritische Stimmen massiv zurückgewiesen und verdrängt, die sich belegen lassen. Paulus ist nur ein Beispiel für diese Stimmen. Es ist ferner richtig, dass sich Paulus in seiner vorchristlichen Zeit keiner Sünde bewusst war; er verfolgte aus Überzeugung die Christen. Aber das schließt nicht aus, dass er eine kritische Stimme in sich unterdrückte, die erst mit der Damaskusvision durchbrach. Es ist schließlich richtig, dass erst innerchristliche, judaistische Gegner Paulus genötigt haben, sich mit der Gesetzesproblematik auseinander zu setzen. Aber das schließt nicht aus, dass er in diesen Gegnern ein Stück seines eigenen Lebens bekämft hat. Er setzt sich m. E. noch einmal mit dem jüdischen Fundamentalisten auseinander, der er einmal selbst war. Er bekämpft in ihnen ein Stück von sich selbst – und eben deshalb war die Auseinandersetzung mit ihnen so heftig. In allem aber ist Paulus ein Repräsentant des Judentum, in seinem Gesetzeseifer wie in seiner Gesetzeskritik.”

Selective grammatical analysis: The second sentence reads awkwardly. One could perhaps repeat the word voices for clarification (“But precisely for this reason critical voices were massively pushed back and suppressed, voices which can be documented) or move the relative clause forward (“put precisely for this reason critical voices, which can be documented, were massively pushed back and suppressed). I am also uncertain whether it is preferable to translate “verdrängt” as “suppressed” or “repressed”, and the same question applies to the translation of “in sich unterdrückt “ in sentence 5. [In response to the facebook link to this post, Ben Wiebe noted that “‘verdrängt’ might literally be translated to press or crowd out; ‘unterdrückte’ to press or push under”.] The translation of “das schileßt nicht aus, dass” is difficult, since in English one would probably need to supply something before “that”, e.g., “the view that”, “the thesis that”, “the possibility that”, “the likelihood that”, or “the fact that”. ” I also have questions about the translation of “judaistische” in sentence 6. I have chosen the non-word “judaistic” since it is unclear to me whether the intended sense is “judaizing”, for which reason I have avoided this term. It is always difficult to translate auseinandersetzen – I have used “grapple with” for the verb here (“confront” would also have been possible) and controversy for the noun.

But here just two of them: “verdrängt” might be literally translated to press or crowd out; “unterdrückte” to press or push under

Substantive analysis: For better or for worse, my own relationship to the wide-ranging discussion surrounding the “New Perspective on Paul” is complex. Being strongly influenced by the diversity of approaches represented by my teachers, especially Peter Stuhlmacher, James Dunn, and Markus Bockmuehl, I have come to appreciate both the insights/arguments of its protagonists and the objections/concerns of its detractors, which is not to say that I have been able to attain to a clear or balanced position in the process! Against this background, I have included this “key quotation” from Gerd Theissen both because I regard it as a significant line of argumentation and because I think that it arguably merits more substantive engagement than it has received thus far. For further explication of this “key quotation”, I recommend beginning with the additional page references that I provide at the end of my RBL Review of Erleben und Verhalten, as well as Theissen’s 2007 article “The New Perspective on Paul and Its Limits: Some Psychological Considerations”, which appeared in the Princeton Seminary Bulletin. For a work that positively takes up Theissen’s line of thought, see Daniel Marguerat, Paul in Acts and Paul in his Letters. Tübingen: Mohr, 2013, p. 207-208.

For a complete list of my blog posts, please see here.

For tips on how to use this blog, please see here.

For three interviews with me about the BMSEC series, see here, here, and here.

Facebook Page: To receive notifications of future blog posts, please subscribe to this blog and/or like my facebook page here.

German Mondays: Thank you for making it to the end of this blog post! In an effort to provide a sense of regularity and predictability for this blog’s readership, I plan on writing a new post each Monday. So hopefully I will ‘see’ you again in a week’s time. Best, Wayne.