Book Reviews New Testament Paul

Book Review: Galatians (Craig Keener)

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Craig Keener Galatians Book Review

Asking to review a book by Craig Keener feels a bit like cheating. Everything he writes is quality, nuanced, well-read, and is usually massive. Even if you don’t agree with all of his conclusions, he is so well read you know his arguments don’t lack support. Who wouldn’t want to buy his books? Perhaps not everyone has heard of him, or they need some incentive to buy yet another commentary. Either way Baker Academic graciously sent me Keener’s new tome of a commentary on Galatians. His shorter version was released in April (see under my Lagniappe section), and Baker Academic had invited him to supplement that commentary with a longer version through them.

How massive are Keeners books? His four volumes on Acts came out only a few years ago running at 4,500+ pages. His two-volume work on miracles is over 1,000 pages, and his two-volume John commentary is over 1,500 pages. His commentary on Matthew is just over 1,000 pages, and his upcoming book on the reliability of the Gospels is over 700 pages. But Keener isn’t fluffing his way through his books. The actual commentary of this work is 588 pages, and the rest of the book’s 260 pages consists of bibliography and indices.

Growing up in the South, many social rules go unstated. You grow up seeing the silverware placed a certain way, watching people wave to each other as they drive through the neighborhood, the shifting of eyes when you make a social faux pas. If you do something wrong, people have a way of letting you know. You don’t always need to be told you did wrong to know you did wrong.

When I moved to Germany and England, I had to be explicitly told what not to do, say, or how not to act. It wasn’t a given that I would know the social cues and rules. Such is the case with Galatians. Paul and the Galatians knew each other well. But who are these Galatians? Why is Paul so upset with them? What arguments lie under the letter that Paul assumes he and the Galatians know, but which we do not know? Keener draws from a range of sources in his commentary, primarily those closer to Paul’s time and “geographic sphere of ministry” to better understand this small but highly debated letter (5).

A few dominant themes in Galatians are the gospel, law and promise, and the Spirit (to name a few).

The Gist

  • Author: Paul
  • Provenance: Possibly Antioch, though this isn’t as important as where the letter was sent.
  • Date: written after the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15
  • Audience: The Galatians were predominantly gentiles who were not yet circumcised, and they lived in South Galatia (the majority view). It includes areas Paul and Barnabas evagelized in Acts 13-14, and it “was far more populated in the first century” than the north was (20). More Jews lived in the south as well, making their presence felt on the Galatian church.
  • Opponents: They likely did not come from communities Paul started, but claimed “more direct links to Jerusalem” (26).
  • Cost: The cost of the papyrus and the scribe to write two copies (one was a backup) would have cost roughly 6.56 denarii, or $722.


  • Gal 1:8-9: Paul pronounces a curse, not on the Galatians, but on those who pervert the gospel. Paul’s use of himself and an angel as preaching a different gospel is hyperbole, though it is possible his opponents said he preached a different gospel. Paul received his gospel from Christ (Gal 1:12), and the Galatians received the Spirit as a result of Paul’s preaching and their acceptance of Christ (3:2-5; 4:6).
  • Gal 2:12: certain men came from James, but Paul doesn’t specify that they were “sent” by James. James is likely “mentioned  because he is associated in some way with the ensuing conflict” (146). He may not have commissioned the “certain men,” but the idea is that they would come back and relay what was going on, that Peter was eating with gentiles. The circumcision party criticized Peter in Acts 11:2-3, and perhaps he and James didn’t want to disrupt the conservative party again. When “certain men” came, Peter flip-flopped back to eating with the Jews only.
  • Gal 2:16: “works of the law” do refer to the entire law, but the issues in play are those which specifically defined someone as Jewish, and that features most prominently in Galatians as circumcision (188).
  • Gal 2:19-20: Christ lives in Paul through the Spirit, and Paul has died to the law through the law either because the law conflicts with Christ, it points to Christ, because it “revealed that its own purpose was not salvation,” or all three (194). Either way, I still don’t understand the phrase.
  • Gal 3:19: The law “was added because of transgressions.”Keener believes this means God gave the law to plainly identify what was sinful, identifying sin as transgression (279-80).  The law was not “God’s eternal ideal” (280). It was brought about because of sin. No sin = no law.
  • Gal 3:20: There are between 250 and 300 interpretations as to what Paul exactly means. Keener lists five options. Rather than listing them again, Keener opts for the last two:
    • (4) The law functioned like a contract between two parties (God and Israel), but God acted unilaterally when gave the promise to Abraham; (5) God gave the promise unilaterally to Abraham, but the law was mediated through Moses and angels.
    • Keener writes, “The one God (3:20) acts directly for the single progeny (3:16), whereas the law involved God delegating multiple layers of mediation for the people (cf. Rev. 1:1)” (283).
    • I wonder what Keener would think about Heiser’s view that the angelic mediator is the Angel of the Lord, thus explaining the “God is one” statement.
  • Gal 4:21-31: Paul’s use of allegory on these characters likely comes from the arguments of his opponents (399-400, 407). Dropping us into the middle of his introductory comments on this section, Keener writes, “Paul must now reverse his opponents’ line of interpretation. Because his opponents neglect the promise, the way of the Spirit, it is they who are Abrahamites outside of the covenant. They are spiritual Ishmaelites, circumcised yet missing the very fulfillment that the law had promised” (401).
  • Gal 5:25: “Living by the Spirit is equivalent to Christ living in and through believers (2:20) and thus living to God (2:19)” (526). Yet people of the Spirit can still stumble and be deceived by the unreasonable.
  • Gal 6:16: Who is “God’s Israel”? Those who believe in Christ. This includes believing Jews and the believing gentiles who have been grafted onto the “single eschatological people of God,” historic Israel (581).

Keener gives 34 excursuses (A Closer Look) throughout his commentary based on key terms and ideas in Galatians:

  • Conversion
  • Did Jews Eat with Gentiles
  • Justification
  • “Christ-Faith”
  • Law-Works
  • Magic
  • The New Perspective on Paul
  • Baptisms Meaning in Its Ancient Context
  • Castration and Eunuchs

Cutting to the chase, these are full and just what you would expect from Keener. Maybe I’ll write about a few of them within the coming months.

Keener also adds some Bridging Horizons sections throughout the commentary. Sometimes they are about God’s giftings, or how we (and the apostles) aren’t perfect, incivility and culture, union with Christ, Gal 3:28 and barriers of culture, status, and gender. There aren’t too many of these, but the few that are in place will help get your practical gears turning.


Keener’s commentary drips with erudition. How one can have the time to read so much, process it all, and to remember it is beyond me. Yet I am thankful for God’s gift in Keener, and for Keener’s diligence in wanting to know God through his word. This commentary is certainly for the academic and the teacher. The student could certainly make good use of this as well as the pastor (though the pastor may want to defer to the shorter volume).


  • Author: Craig S. Keener
  • Hardcover: 848 pages
  • Publisher: Baker Academic (May 21, 2019)
  • Check Out: Keener’s shorter Galatians commentary
  • A Scholar’s Devotion with Craig Keener

Buy it from Amazon or Baker Academic!

Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Academic. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255

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