Reviewed by Jarvis Williams
Before his death in November 11, 2013, the Roman Catholic scholar Jerome Murphy-O’Connor was one of the world’s leading authorities on the writings of Paul. He served as a professor of New Testament at the École Biblique of Jerusalem from 1967 until his death in 2013. In his collected essays on Galatians, Murphy-O’Connor offers his perspectives on selected narrow and neglected areas in the letter. In this review, I will summarize the contents of the book and offer a brief critical interaction.
In Murphy-O’Connor’s collected essays on Galatians, he offers contributions to years of scholarship on an old (and in his view, a very old) letter. The book has 10 chapters. Since the book is a collection of essays, he does not advance a singular thesis, but each chapter develops its own thesis.
In chapter 1 (Missions in Galatia, Macedonia, and Achaia before the Jerusalem Conference), Murphy-O’Connor discusses Paul’s early missionary work before the Jerusalem conference (pgs. 1-36). This chapter reexamines “the chronological presuppositions which, consciously or unconsciously, serve as the basis for all reconstructions of Pauline theology” (p. 1). Here Murphy-O’Connor offers a detailed evaluation of the contributions of recent works on Paul’s 14 years, which Gal 2:1 states separated Paul’s first trip to Jerusalem as a Christian and the Jerusalem conference (p. 1).
Chapter 2 (Paul in Arabia: Gal 1:17) discusses Paul’s trip to Arabia mentioned in Gal 1:17 (pgs. 37-47). In this chapter, Murphy-O’Connor reframes the question from “where was Arabia” to “what would the term Arabia have suggested to a Jew who lived in first-century Judea” (p. 37)? Based on references to Arabia in Josephus, Murphy-O’Connor argues that a 1st century Jew would have understood Arabia to refer to the “Nabataean territory” (pgs. 37-38), and he suggests that Paul’s purpose there was to make converts since after his departure from Arabia the Nabataean authorities continued to pursue his life (e.g. 2 Cor 11:32-33) (pgs. 38-39). By means of a concise historical reconstruction, Murphy-O’Connor argues that Arabia was hostile to Paul’s preaching upon his arrival due to the conflict caused by Jews and led by Herod Antipas (pgs. 40-42). Accordingly, the Nabataeans would have thought Paul (a Jew) was preaching another form of Judaism. Nabataean locals would have perceived converts to Paul’s preaching as a weakness to the Nabataean kingdom, which had experienced much bloodshed years earlier at the hands of Jewish force.
Chapter 3 (Names for Jerusalem in Galatians) discusses the different names for Jerusalem in Gal 1:17-18; 4:25-26 (pgs. 48-53). He argues that Paul uses different names for Jerusalem as a polemic against his opponents (p. 50). Chapter 4 (To Run in Vain) focuses on Paul’s remarks in Gal 2:2 about presenting his gospel to the apostles lest he ran in vain (pgs. 54-60). He argues that Paul’s remarks in 2:2 are a rhetorical statement against the opponents who accused Paul of operating independently of the Jerusalem apostles (p. 59).
Chapter 5 (Nationalism and Church Policy) discusses Gal 2:9 (pgs. 61-77). He argues that “Gentile hostility to Jews is the key to understanding the apparently conflicting decisions of James” (pgs. 64-73). Chapter 6 (Whose Common Ground?) discusses Gal 2:15-16a (pgs. 78-87). He develops the thesis of earlier scholars that “ in Galatians 2:15-16 Paul attributes to Christian Jews a theological position that they should have defended, not the one they actually maintained” (p. 81). Chapter 7 (The Irrevocable Will) discusses Gal 3:15 (pgs. 97-114). He argues that Paul’s purpose in making this statement is to “clarify the relationship between the promise to Abraham and the Mosaic law by insisting that the latter cannot annul or significantly modify the former” (p. 97).
Chapter 8 (Galatians 4:13-14 and the Recipients of Galatians) discusses Gal 4:13-14 (pgs. 115-22). Here Murphy-O’Connor argues for the Northern Galatian theory while rejecting older arguments in favor of this thesis (e.g. p. 116). Chapter 9 (The Unwritten Law of Christ) discusses Gal 6:2. Murphy-O’Connor argues that the phrase “law of Christ” refers to Christ who is the law (p. 143). Chapter 10 (The Origins of Paul’s Christology: From Thessalonians to Galatia) discusses Paul’s Christology (pgs. 144-74). This chapter argues that Paul’s Christology in the Thessalonian correspondence is different from that in Galatians. This chapter also answers the question why it is different, which Murphy-O’Connor argues has to do with Paul’s own perception of the Messiah before he converted and external conflict after he was converted (pgs. 148-72).
Brief Critical Interaction
Murphy-O’Connor was a giant (although he was very small in physical stature) in the field of New Testament scholarship. His numerous monographs and articles on Paul established him and set him apart as one of the foremost leading authorities in the field. In these essays on Galatians, he demonstrates a masterful handling of primary source material and exegetical precision in his explanation of minor points of Galatians. Although I disagree with his exegesis and conclusions at a few points, I recommend this book to New Testament scholars and doctoral students who are working in the area of early Christian Origins so that they can see a masterful biblical scholar put to use sound historical method of how extra-biblical literature and geography illuminate the biblical text. The book is well-written, saturated with precise exegetical and historical analyses, and it provides postscripts at the end of each chapter wherein Murphy-O’Connor responds to specific scholars.
In addition to scholars and doctoral students, advanced biblical studies graduate students and learned pastors would profit from the book. However, pastors and Christians without formal theological training and without a working knowledge of Greek and extra-biblical literature would find very little use for this book because of its narrow scope. Murphy-O’Connor writes about narrow aspects of the letter as a scholar to scholars, and he attempts to correct (what he thinks are) scholarly misinterpretations of certain aspects of the letter.
Jarvis J. Williams, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of NT Interpretation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY, and Review Editor for New Testament here at Books At a Glance.
Buy the books
Keys To Galatians: Collected Essays