I recently finished D. Thomas Lancaster’s new book, The Holy Epistle to the Galatians. Reading the whole book basically confirmed the sentiments I had last week upon reading the first few chapters: The Holy Epistle to the Galatians is one of the most important commentaries on Galatians ever published, and certainly a key text for the burgeoning Messianic Jewish movement.
About the Book
Lancaster’s commentary comprises a collection of sermons, but his sermons are not simple homilies. Though he does not include the scholarly apparatus one would expect from an academic commentary, his familiarity with scholarly literature is obvious to anyone who is well read. Lancaster’s ability to distill the best work of the complex world of academia into a format that can be understood by anyone puts his commentary in a unique position; it is not merely devotional or pastoral, but neither is it cluttered with footnotes, textual apparatus, and argumentation with other scholars’ positions. His argument comes through clearly and it is easy to understand.
Lancaster’s prose is beautiful and at times even captivating, but what makes his commentary so important is not his writing style or his ability to interact with scholarly literature. It is his fresh ideas, based on the most recent scholarship, which set his commentary apart. Lancaster has perceived a critical error in the scholarly consensus of his day and has been able to solve that error by developing a new, logical, sensible understanding based on a new way of looking at the text.
Though his commentary is fresh and unique, don’t think that Lancaster has made an unwarranted, unsupported departure from established scholarship on Galatians. One of his most controversial theses – that Paul distinguished between what was normative in Jewish Christian practice and what was normative in Gentile Christian practice – is hinted at in other Galatians commentaries as well. No less a conservative stalwart than Richard Longenecker wrote:
What [Paul's opponents] evidently failed to appreciate is that Paul made a distinction between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians… while he saw it as perfectly legitimate for Jewish Christians to express their faith in Jesus through traditional Jewish practices, he strenuously opposed the imposition of these practices on Gentile Christians either for full acceptance by God or as a normative way of life. (Galatians, WBC 41 [Dallas: Word, 1990], xcviii)
While Longenecker does not follow through with this conviction the way Lancaster does, his admission that Jews and Gentiles practiced different forms of Christ-belief in the first century prefigures Lancaster’s insistence that these differing practices not only existed, but were ordained as such by the Apostolic community. In other words, the continuing Torah-observance of the early Jewish community was not merely legitimate, as is allowed by many conservative commentators, but was in fact the only legitimate outworking of an authentic Jewish faith in Messiah.
Similarly, though Longenecker and Lancaster both understand Galatians 5:3 to mean that one who is circumcised is bound to observe the rest of the commandments, Longenecker never explores the ramifications of that precept for the rest of Paul’s argument beyond stating that it is an isolated disincentive to circumcision. Lancaster, on the other hand, understands that Paul took for granted the fact that all who are circumcised (meaning conversion to Judaism, not elective surgery) are beholden to the Law, even if they are believers in Christ (as his addressees in Galatia certainly were).
So while Lancaster’s commentary does not contain the extensive front matter, lexical issues, and textual and scholarly apparatus that characterizes more academic commentaries; his apprehension of the text, its message, its context, and its ramifications is superior to that of some of the best published commentators. Furthermore, since most serious Bible students who have the capacity to appreciate the scholarly accoutrements of an academic commentary will already have access to one, it would have been somewhat redundant for Lancaster to include similar material in his commentary.
Theological Background – the “Messianic Jewish Approach”
Lancaster’s approach to Galatians is based on the idea that Paul was not confused or inconsistent (see Raisanen or Sanders), nor was he “arbitrary and manipulative”, as Nanos accuses the traditional Christian Paul of being (The Mystery of Romans [Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996], 6). Instead, like Nanos, Lancaster sees Paul as completely faithful to the Judaism that remained his religion until his untimely martyrdom.
Lancaster’s Paul is suddenly consistent and believable; at no point did I feel, as I do when reading most other works on Paul, that the author was forcing Paul into their own theological paradigm. Instead, Lancaster has adopted Paul’s paradigm, in which everything Paul says and does finally makes sense. Instead of the marginalized passages and forced readings of important texts I encountered in, say, F. F. Bruce’s famous 1977 work Paul, Apostle of the Heart Set Free, we have here a Paul who was faithful not only to Jesus Christ, but to the Old Testament, to the Apostolic community, to the Torah, Jews, Judaism, and the Temple.
According to Lancaster, the stumbling block of Paul’s ministry – the one thing that caused him to be rejected by synagogues all over the known world – was his teaching that Gentiles could be accepted by God as Gentiles, without conversion to Judaism or full Torah observance, through their faith in Jesus Christ. He used the first person possessive pronoun of this message, calling it “my gospel” as it was revealed to Paul personally by Christ Himself.
While this gospel was Paul’s unique message and personal revelation from God, he did not preach it in opposition to the Jerusalem church. Though the Apostolic community retained its Jewish character and Torah observance as it reached out almost exclusively to Jews, they were not in opposition to Paul’s ministry (as Baur argued). In fact, during the famine relief visit of Galatians 2/Acts 11, Paul submitted his gospel to the Twelve (and James) for their approval, and got it.
Lancaster identifies the influencers in Galatia (called by most Christian commentators “judaizers”, though “judaize” is derived from an intransitive Greek verb – that is, you can judaize [yourself], but you can’t judaize someone else, cf. Nanos, The Irony of Galatians [Minneapolis, Fortress, 2002], 116) as Gentile proselytes to Judaism who are anxious to secure their status in the Jewish community by influencing believing Gentiles to also become proselytes. His thesis makes more sense than Nanos’s (in which unbelieving Jews are the influencers) due to Nanos’s difficulty with Galatians 6:12.
Lancaster writes that the “different gospel that is not really a gospel” being peddled by these influencers is the message that Jewish identity and full Torah observance were necessary conditions for entrance into the believing community and access to the World to Come. This message was attractive for the Galatian Gentile believers because as liminals, they existed between two worlds.
Recent scholars (Dunn, Nanos, Zetterholm, and Esler among them) have recognized the complex social situation of the Galatian Gentiles. They would have been reckoned as non-Jews by the wider Roman world, which would have obligated them to mandatory cultic worship of the Emperor and the Roman pantheon from which only Jews were exempt. However, they desired to join the Jewish community in covenant with God and abandon pagan worship due to their fidelity to the God of the Jews. The conditions for entry into this community had already been established: circumcision and obedience to Torah. But Paul forbade them from fulfilling these conditions, leaving them in a theological and social “no-man’s-land” between Roman paganism and Jewish ethnocentric monotheism.
Why have traditional Christian commentators failed to realize the importance of the social situation in the Galatian churches? Besides the fact that social approaches to the Bible are relatively new, Christians have historically tended to read their full-fledged religion back into the Biblical text, as if the Galatians were meeting in church every Sunday and having communion once a month.
In reality, there was no such established organization as the Christian church, and the fledgling community of Gentile believers existed on the fringe of both Jewish and Roman society. They illegally practiced a form of Judaism but without Jewish identity, a situation that to Paul was theologically and eschatologically necessary but which was barely tenable from a social standpoint. Zetterholm’s Formation of Christianity in Antioch addresses how this fledgling group of social outcasts eventually formed a religion designed to be antithetical to Judaism. In the meantime, though, their struggle for acceptance is the context for much of what we read in Paul.
Lancaster takes full advantage of the recent findings of modern scholarship in his argument that Paul, as a practicing Jew, taught that both Jew and Gentile should retain their unique identity in the body of Christ. Rather than teaching that the Torah was abolished, God forbid, or that the new Christian church was a replacement for the Jewish people, God forbid, Paul taught that Gentile believers should practice a form of Messianic Judaism suited to their situation as Gentile believers in the God and Messiah of the Jews. This Judaism was practiced alongside the Jewish community of faith and in much the same manner, but with the relaxed halacha the Apostles had laid down for believing Gentiles in Acts 15. Jewish believers were to continue in strict Torah observance, as the Twelve continued to teach in Jerusalem.
While traditional Christians who have forgotten their roots in Second Temple Judaism may find this point of view radical, it is the only one I have found that can interact honestly with the text of Galatians. While it is tempting to read Scripture with the foregone conclusion that what we believe and practice is already correct and in no need of correction, we cannot continue to sacrifice solid exegesis on the altar of dogma and still maintain that our religion is one hundred percent Biblical.
Others in the Hebrew Roots movement may disagree with FFOZ’s differentiation between Jew and Gentile, specifically in the area of Torah observance. Tim Hegg, who has taken a strong anti-FFOZ stance since he vocally separated himself from First Fruits of Zion a few years ago, has recently re-released his own Galatians commentary in printed form, with a whole excursus dedicated to arguing against FFOZ’s interpretation of Galatians 5:3. I imagine the rest of his commentary takes a similar stance.
Despite strong resistance from some sectors, though, FFOZ’s theology has continued to mature. I can’t imagine Lancaster being able to write this book five years ago, when FFOZ was teaching (in contradiction to Paul and Galatians) that Gentile believers were covenantally obligated to the entire Torah in the same way that the Jewish people are. They have emerged from the “One Law” controversy as a stronger and more Biblically faithful organization and have demonstrated to me by their personal witness and attitude that they continue to humbly seek the will of God and the truth of the Scriptures, even if it means reversing a stance once held.
Those who have separated themselves from FFOZ would do well to read this book for themselves. More than any other resource they have published on the subject, The Holy Epistle to the Galatians powerfully illuminates how FFOZ’s “divine invitation” position is more faithful to the Scripture than their previous position. Anyone who has read the anti-FFOZ propaganda floating around the Internet and in other ministries owes it to themselves and their communities to read this book, get the story straight from the source, and consider the evidence for themselves. It is not fair or righteous to make judgments about a brother or a ministry based solely on what someone else has said about them. “Judge with right judgment.”
I enjoyed the whole book, but some parts jumped out as especially helpful. Lancaster’s chronology of Paul’s life and ministry based on Galatians 1 and 2 is a great read, especially for anyone unfamiliar with Paul’s relationship with James, Peter, and the Twelve. His treatment of key words and phrases like “works of the Law”, “faithfulness of Christ”, “justification”, and “under the Law” is helpful and necessary to those who don’t know what they mean, or worse, think they know and are wrong.
Lancaster’s interaction with important sections of Romans, James, and Corinthians really helps to flesh out his argument. Furthermore, when dealing with difficult texts in Galatians that appear to contradict his thesis – for example, 4:10ff – he does not leave the reader feeling like the text is still difficult after his explanation. His exegesis of these passages is not forced or warped. Rather, he gives the traditional Christian interpretation, explains its weaknesses, and provides a new interpretation – one that does not require hermeneutical gymnastics to reconcile it with the rest of the Bible.
For example, in Galatians 4:10, Paul castigates the Galatians for observing “days, and months, and seasons, and years.” While the text simply states that the Galatians are observing a calendar, Longenecker (along with most Christian commentators) jumps to the conclusion that it is the Jewish calendar (making sure to include the world “cultic”). Lancaster gently reminds the Christian reader that such a cavalier handling of the text could equally be used to condemn the Christian liturgical calendar; if it is wrong to observe days, months, seasons, and years, then we are all in trouble.
Lancaster handily contextualizes Galatians 4:10 within the social world of the early Gentile believers. Because calendars were tied to worship, the only two calendar options available to these social liminals were the Biblical (Jewish) calendar or the pagan (Roman) calendar. Since they were not being accepted into the Jewish community because of their refusal to convert, they may have felt that their only other option was to “nominally observe the calendar of the imperial cult.” Paul strongly admonishes them for this in Galatians 4:10.
It is refreshing to see Lancaster return a passage to its original purpose that has been made to say exactly the opposite of its intended meaning. To see it happen over and over again put a huge smile on my face. The key is knowing the context; Lancaster outlines it clearly at the beginning of the book and refers back to it throughout.
Lancaster’s chapters are sermons, which makes this book wonderful for someone who only has a few minutes a day to read. A chapter a day would be easy to fit in, and Lancaster usually starts each chapter with a short recap of the previous chapter.
The cover (a Rembrandt), binding, printing and typesetting are all of high quality, and the content is spectacular, leaving little room for faults. In fact, the only flaws I encountered were a few typographical errors, which I find in nearly every book I take a thorough look at.
In conclusion, anyone even remotely interested in Biblical studies should pick up one of these commentaries. As soon as possible, preferably, as there is currently a “buy one get one free” sale. Give your free copy away to a friend, pastor, or local church library. As Galatians is the “hinge on which Christianity turns”, The Holy Epistle to the Galatians is probably the best book on the market right now for introducing Christians to a truly Messianic Jewish approach to Scripture.
This article appeared in Messiah Journal 108 (Fall 2011), 80-84.