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Suffering and covenantal hope in Galatians: a critique of the ‘apocalyptic reading’ and its proponents

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 January 2015

John Anthony Dunne*
University of St Andrews, St Andrews, Fife, Scotland, KY16 9QT,


This article addresses the so-called ‘apocalyptic reading of Paul’, taking the representative work of J. Louis Martyn and Martinus C. de Boer as its primary focus. The chief contention is that the ‘apocalyptic reading’ does not resemble the historical phenomenon of Jewish apocalyptic literature, although the scope of this article has been intentionally limited to Galatians. The present study is composed of two halves. The first half offers a critique of what it means for Paul to be an apocalyptic thinker according to Martyn and de Boer. Their emphasis is on discontinuity, duality and dichotomy, which coheres neither with first-century apocalyptic literature and its antecedents, nor with the letter to the Galatians. Their nuanced notion of apocalyptic has led to an unnecessary bifurcation between apocalyptic and covenant (not to mention Heilsgeschichte) in the interpretation of Paul. However, this article suggests that the dichotomy has been misplaced, both in relation to the discontinuity that Paul does articulate (i.e. with the law), and the dichotomy reflected in apocalyptic literature, namely, the division between the present evil age and the glorious age to come. Thus, it is argued that Martyn and de Boer's focus on discontinuity hardly constitutes apocalyptic in a first-century historical sense. Rather, their specific emphasis owes its articulation to the theology of Karl Barth. After arguing that the ‘apocalyptic reading’ lacks historical precision (and possibly theological forthrightness), the second half of the study argues that some neglected features of Galatians, such as suffering and persecution, cohere with the apocalyptic character of the letter, and are common features of apocalyptic broadly. In fact, the division between apocalyptic and covenant in scholarship on Galatians is bridged by the themes of conflict and crisis. This is because apocalyptic hope often arises in the absence of the realisation of covenantal promises and expectations; a covenantal disconnect is created and aggravated by crises and hardships of various sorts, hence the need for apocalyptic hope. Suffering therefore ties together the strands of apocalyptic and covenant in Galatians. If Martyn and de Boer's ‘apocalyptic reading’ was truly apocalyptic in a first-century historical sense, it would have integrated the imagery of suffering and persecution found in the letter.

Research Article
Copyright © Scottish Journal of Theology Ltd 2015 

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1 An earlier version of this article was presented at the 32nd Annual British New Testament Conference, King's College, London, Sept. 2012.

2 E.g. Matlock, R. Barry criticised the ‘apocalyptic’ reading in his Unveiling the Apocalyptic Paul: Paul's Interpreters and the Rhetoric of Criticism, JSNTSup 127 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996)Google Scholar. Yet his study was published a year before Martyn's commentary on Galatians came out, and focused primarily on the first wave of the ‘apocalyptic’ interpretation as espoused by Käsemann and Beker especially. Recently, with the publication of Douglas Campbell's The Deliverance of God, Matlock has responded with his own critique (‘Zeal for Paul But Not According to Knowledge: Douglas Campbell's War on “Justification Theory”’, JSNT 34/2 (2011), pp. 115–49), and a similar critique can be found from Grant Macaskill in the same volume (‘Review Article: The Deliverance of God’, JSNT 34/2 (2011), pp. 150–61). These critiques focus primarily on Romans and Campbell's estimation of ‘justification theory’.

3 For additional studies see de Boer, Martinus C., ‘Paul and Jewish Apocalyptic Eschatology’, in Marcus, Joel and Soards, Marion L. (eds), Apocalyptic and the New Testament: Essays in Honor of J. Louis Martyn, JSNTSup 24 (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1989), pp. 169–90Google Scholar; de Boer, , ‘Paul and Apocalyptic Eschatology’, in Collins, John J. (ed.), The Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism, 3 vols (London: Continuum, 2000), vol. 1, pp. 345–83Google Scholar; Martyn, J. Louis, Theological Issues in the Letters of Paul (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1997)Google Scholar.

4 Martyn, J. Louis, Galatians, AB 33A (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997)Google Scholar.

5 de Boer, Martinus C., Galatians, NTL 43 (Louisville, KY: WJK, 2011)Google Scholar.

6 By extension, the present study has implications for Douglas Campbell's recent tome, The Deliverance of God. Campbell wrote regarding Martyn's commentary on Galatians that it ‘is arguably one of the finest commentaries on Paul ever penned’ (p. 837) and notes regarding Martyn and de Boer's work, ‘our broad strategic goals remain identical’ (p. 846). See Campbell, Douglas, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009)Google Scholar.

7 Martyn, Galatians, p. 349.

8 Ibid., pp. 154, 164.

9 Martyn, J. Louis, ‘Apocalyptic Antinomies in Paul's Letter to the Galatians’, NTS 31 (1985), pp. 410–24CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

10 CD I/2, p. 280.

11 Martyn, Galatians, p. 389.

12 As Ashton notes, ‘Martyn invests the Greek word with a significance it did not have’. See Ashton, John, The Religion of Paul the Apostle (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), p. 25Google Scholar. Cf. Bauer-Danker-Arndt-Gingrich Lexicon (BDAG), p. 112.

13 Note the words of N. T. Wright, writing before the publication of Martyn's commentary, ‘The real problem is that much modern reading of these texts has taken place within a tacitly deist framework, in which one either believes (a) in an absent god [sic] and a closed space-time continuum or (b) in a normally absent god [sic] who occasionally intervenes and acts in discontinuity with that space-time continuum.’ Wright, N. T., The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), p. 298Google Scholar.

14 De Boer, Galatians, pp. 43–5; Martyn, Galatians, p. 112.

15 See Mußner, Franz, Der Galaterbrief, HTKNT 9 (Freiburg: Herder, 1974), p. 58Google Scholar. Cf. also Schlier, Heinrich, Der Brief an die Galater, KEKNT 7 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1951), p. 13Google Scholar; Dunn, James D. G., The Epistle to the Galatians, BNTC 9 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1993), p. 43Google Scholar; Georg Bertram, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT), s.v. ‘μεταστρέφω’.

16 Cf. my review of de Boer in JETS 55/2 (2012), pp. 439–42.

17 Hays, Richard B., The Faith of Jesus Christ: The Narrative Structure of Galatians 3:1–4:11, 2nd edn (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002)Google Scholar; Wright, N. T., Justification: God's Plan and Paul's Vision (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2009)Google Scholar.

18 Green, Garret offered a new translation of paragraph 17 from Church Dogmatics (On Religion: The Revelation of God as the Sublimation of Religion (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2007))Google Scholar in which he states, ‘the translation of the title – The Revelation of God as the Abolition of Religion – has left generations of English readers with the false impression that Barth thinks revelation simply replaces religion with something else’ (On Religion, p. viii). The German word rendered ‘abolition’ is Aufhebung, which Garrett suggests should be rendered as ‘sublimation’ (On Religion, p. ix), meaning that religion ‘will become higher and better as a result’.

19 One also notices the dearth of interaction with important scholarship on apocalyptic generally. Between the two commentaries there are only three citations of John Collins (Martyn, Galatians, p. 100, n. 55, p. 124, n. 115; de Boer, Galatians, p. 33), two citations of Paul Hanson (Martyn, Galatians, p. 96, n. 47; p. 98, n. 53), one citation of D. S. Russell (de Boer, Galatians, p. 32), and zero references to Christopher Rowland.

20 Collins, John J., The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), p. 5Google Scholar.

21 Rowland, Christopher, The Open Heaven: A Study of Apocalyptic in Judaism and Early Christianity (London: SPCK, 1982), p. 25Google Scholar.

22 See e.g. Käsemann, Ernst, ‘On the Subject of Primitive Christianity’, in New Testament Questions of Today (London: SCM, 1969), pp. 108–37Google Scholar.

23 In Beker's scheme, Galatians threatened to undo his understanding of God's imminent triumph as the coherent core of Paul's thought since ‘the eschatological present dominates the letter’. See Beker, J. Christiaan, Paul the Apostle: The Triumph of God in Life and Thought (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984), p. 58Google Scholar.

24 De Boer, Galatians, p. 262.

25 Martyn, Galatians, p. 29.

26 Martyn, Galatians, p. 33.

27 Martyn, Galatians, p. 347 (emphasis original).

28 ‘His exegesis is thoroughly punctiliar, in the sense that he sees a divine correspondence between two points, God's action in the birth of Isaac and God's action in the birth of the Galatian congregations’ (Martyn, Galatians, p. 444; emphasis original).

29 In Bruce Longenecker's attempt to reconcile covenantal and apocalyptic readings of Galatians, he asserts, ‘If in Galatians Paul does not defend a line of salvation-historical continuity leading from the covenant people of Israel and culminating in Christ, neither does he intend to repudiate that a form of covenant relationship existed between God and ethnic Israel prior to Christ’. Longenecker, Bruce W., The Triumph of Abraham's God: The Transformation of Identity in Galatians (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998), pp. 178–9Google Scholar. Yet I would make more positive statements about the importance of Israel's history in Gal 3–4.

30 Rowland, Open Heaven, p. 30.

31 Ibid., p. 38.

32 Wright, N. T., The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1991), p. 140Google Scholar.

33 Thielman, Frank, From Plight to Solution: A Jewish Framework for Understanding Paul's View of the Law in Galatians and Romans, NovTSup 61 (Leiden: Brill, 1989), pp. 68–9Google Scholar.

34 Starling, David I., Not my People: Gentiles as Exiles in Pauline Hermeneutics, BZNW 184 (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2011), p. 51CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

35 See esp. Wright, N. T., ‘The Seed and the Mediator: Galatians 3.15–20’, in Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), pp. 157–74Google Scholar.

36 For those who interpret Gal 6:5 as a reference to the final judgement, see Eastman, Susan, Recovering Paul's Mother Tongue: Language and Theology in Galatians (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), p. 167Google Scholar; Schreiner, Thomas R., Galatians, ZECNT 9 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), pp. 362, 368–70Google Scholar; Matera, Frank J., Galatians (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1992), p. 215Google Scholar; Mußner, Der Galaterbrief, p. 401; Bonnard, Pierre, L’Épitre de Saint Paul aux Galates, Commentaire du Nouveau Testament 9 (Neuchâtel; Paris: Delachaux & Niestlé, 1953), p. 125Google Scholar. Contra Betz, Hans Dieter, Galatians, Hermeneia (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979), p. 304Google Scholar.

37 Baasland, Ernst, ‘Persecution: A Neglected Feature in the Letter to the Galatians’, Studia Theologica 38/2 (1984), pp. 135–50CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Cf. also Goddard, A. J. and Cummins, Stephen Anthony, ‘Ill or Ill-Treated? Conflict and Persecution as the Context of Paul's Original Ministry in Galatia (Galatians 4.12–20)’, JSNT 52 (1993), pp. 93126Google Scholar.

38 Martyn, Galatians, p. 445; de Boer, Galatians, p. 307.

39 De Boer, Galatians, p. 180; Martyn, Galatians, p. 285.

40 See e.g. Oepke, Albrecht, Der Brief des Paulus an die Galater, THNT 9 (Berlin: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 1973), p. 101Google Scholar; Schlier, Der Brief an die Galater, p. 124; Longenecker, Richard N., Galatians, WBC 41 (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1990), p. 104Google Scholar; Vouga, François, An die Galater, HNT 10 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1998), p. 69Google Scholar; Witherington, Ben III, Grace in Galatia: A Commentary on Paul's Letter to the Galatians (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), pp. 214–15Google Scholar; Williams, Sam K., Galatians, ANTC (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1997), p. 85Google Scholar; Mußner, Der Galaterbrief, p. 209; Bonnard, L’Épitre de Saint Paul aux Galates, pp. 63–4; Silva, Moisés, Interpreting Galatians: Explorations in Exegetical Method, 2nd edn (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2001), pp. 57–8Google Scholar; Das, A. Andrew, Galatians, Concordia Commentary (St Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2014), pp. 296–7Google Scholar.

41 Dunne, John Anthony, ‘Suffering in Vain: A Study of the Interpretation of ΠΑΣΧΩ in Galatians 3.4’, JSNT 36/1 (2013), pp. 316Google Scholar.

42 Ibid., pp. 4–6.

43 For a defence of the position that ‘persecution’ in Gal 4:29 refers to the behaviour of the agitators towards the Galatians, see Dunne, John Anthony, ‘Cast Out the Aggressive Agitators (Gl 4:29–30): Suffering, Identity, and the Ethics of Expulsion in Paul's Mission to the Galatians’, in Kok, Jacobus (Kobus), Nicklas, Tobias, Roth, Dieter T., and Hays, Christopher M. (eds), Sensitivity to Outsiders: Exploring the Dynamic Relationship between Mission and Ethics in the New Testament and Early Christianity, WUNT 2/364 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014), pp. 246–69Google Scholar.

44 So rightly Schreiner, Galatians, p. 185. For suffering and pneumatology in 2 Corinthians see Hafemann, Scott J., Suffering and the Spirit: An Exegetical Study of II Corinthians 2:14–3:3 Within the Context of the Corinthian Correspondence, WUNT 2/19 (Tübingen: Mohr, 1986)Google Scholar.

45 Portier-Young, Anathea E., Apocalypse Against Empire: Theologies of Resistance in Early Judaism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011), p. 386Google Scholar. The work of Kenneth Jones is also noteworthy. He looked at various Jewish responses to Rome after the destruction of Jerusalem, including many apocalyptic sources (such as 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch, etc), and provided a study which is complementary to Portier-Young's, although, intriguingly, he concludes that the literature surveyed in his study is not ‘resistance literature’. See Jones, Kenneth R., Jewish Reactions to the Destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70: Apocalypses and Related Pseudepigrapha, JSJS 151 (Leiden: Brill, 2011), p. 278CrossRefGoogle Scholar. However, resistance is inevitable, though this need not be seditious or require a violent response. Through the medium of ‘apocalyptic’ the imagination is conditioned to resist the empire's broad-sweeping claims about itself, its subjects and the nature of reality. Cf. my review of Jones in Themelios 38/2 (2013), pp. 269–70.

46 Hellholm saw the social function of apocalyptic texts as central to defining apocalyptic and so he wanted to add a final clause to the Semeia 14 definition which read: ‘intended for a group in crisis with the purpose of exhortation and/or consolation by means of divine authority’. See Hellholm, David, ‘The Problem of Apocalyptic Genre and the Apocalypse of John’, Semeia 36 (1986), p. 27Google Scholar. A similar perspective on the importance of crisis for the function of the genre can be seen in the work of others, e.g. Hengel, Martin, Judaism and Hellenism: Studies in their Encounter in Palestine during the Early Hellenistic Period, 2 vols (London: SCM, 1974), vol. 1, pp. 194–6Google Scholar; Vielhauer, P., ‘Apocalypses and Related Subjects’, in Hennecke, E. (ed.), New Testament Apocrypha, 2 vols (London: SCM, 1974), vol. 2, p. 598Google Scholar; Hanson, Paul D., The Dawn of Apocalyptic: The Historical and Sociological Roots of Jewish Apocalyptic Eschatology (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979), pp. 25–6Google Scholar; Sanders, E. P., ‘The Genre of Palestinian Jewish Apocalypses’, in Hellholm, David (ed.), Apocalypticism in the Mediterranean World and the Near East, 2nd edn (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), 1989), p. 459Google Scholar; Wright, New Testament and the People of God, p. 288. On the other side of the spectrum is L. Grabbe who argues that apocalypticism does not necessarily arise in times of crisis and is not always the product of the oppressed. As an example of this, he draws upon evidence from social anthropology and notes the way that evangelical Americans incorporate apocalyptic thought into their religious beliefs. He concludes from this comparison that ‘apocalyptic thought may have little relation to the social or economic status of those who are part of the movement’. See Grabbe, Lester L., ‘The Social Setting of Early Jewish Apocalypticism’, JSP 4 (April 1989), p. 31Google Scholar. Cf. also Grabbe, , ‘Prophetic and Apocalyptic: Time for New Definitions – And New Thinking’, in Grabbe, Lester L. and Haak, Robert D. (eds), Knowing the End from the Beginning: The Prophetic, The Apocalyptic, and Their Relationships, (London: T&T Clark International, 2003), pp. 124–7Google Scholar. Yet American evangelicalism has questionable bearing on determining the social function of Jewish apocalyptic literature, because they are separated by two millennia. Twentieth-century apocalyptic outlooks among middle-class American evangelicals determine nothing about the Sitz im Leben of, say, Daniel or Revelation. All that is demonstrated is that these texts are influential in American Christianity. Furthermore, Collins notes judiciously that the idea of apocalyptic literature being written for oppressed groups can apply to Israel in her entirety (see Collins, John J., ‘From Prophecy to Apocalypticism: The Expectation of the End’, in Collins, (ed.), The Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism, 3 vols (London: Continuum, 2000), vol. 1, p. 158)Google Scholar and additionally, the crises and distresses being addressed should be understood broadly, encompassing many different scenarios (see Collins, Apocalyptic Imagination, p. 38). This broad approach to the functional role of apocalypses in regards to various crises is what I advocate in this study.

47 Beker, J. Christiaan, Suffering and Hope: The Biblical Vision and the Human Predicament, 2nd edn (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), p. 58Google Scholar.

48 Trans. by Wintermute, O. S., The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, vol. 1, ed. Charlesworth, James H. (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1983), p. 513Google Scholar.

49 Portier-Young, Apocalypse Against Empire, p. 347.

50 Martyn, Galatians, p. 388.

51 The four most convincing reasons for this interpretation are (a) the singular ὁ κληρονόμος in 4:1 is probably a collective reference to Israel with the article functioning anaphorically to refer back to κληρονόμοι in the previous verse in 3:29, (b) νήπιός in 4:1 is not a technical legal term for a minor, but is more probably alluding to the reflection on the exodus narrative in Hos 11:1 LXX, (c) κύριος πάντων in 4:1 is a Hoheitstitel referring to the Abrahamic promise of inheriting and ruling the world, and (d) τῆς προθεσμίας τοῦ πατρός is not a reference to the end of legal guardianship in Graeco-Roman custom, but rather the determined date of the exodus set by God, referring back to the 430 years of 3:17. See Scott, James M., Adoption as Sons of God: An Exegetical Investigation into the Background of Huiothesia in the Pauline Corpus, WUNT 2/48 (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1992), pp. 123–49Google Scholar. Hafemann tweaks (d) by suggesting that Israel is still experiencing an exilic-like slavery. See Hafemann, Scott J., ‘Paul and the Exile of Israel in Galatians 3–4’, in Scott, James M. (ed.), Exile: Old Testament, Jewish, and Christian Conceptions, JSJSup 56 (Leiden: Brill, 1997), pp. 331–49Google Scholar. Cf. also Keesmaat, Sylvia C., Paul and his Story: (Re)interpreting the Exodus Tradition, JSNTSup 181 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999)Google Scholar; Forman, Mark, The Politics of Inheritance in Romans, SNTSMS 148 (Cambridge: CUP, 2011), pp. 176–82CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

52 So rightly Keesmaat, Paul and his Story, p. 230.

53 So rightly Keesmaat, Paul and his Story, pp. 179, 181.

54 Contra Martyn, Galatians, pp. 391–2; de Boer, Galatians, pp. 265–6; similarly Mußner, Der Galaterbrief, p. 276.

55 This trend is also noticeable in the writings of other ‘apocalyptic’ interpreters. Commenting on Gal 4:19 that the use of ὠδίνω stems from apocalyptic texts about the birth pains of creation, Beverly Gaventa asserts that Paul's suffering birth pains ‘reflects the anguish of the whole created order as it awaits the fulfillment of God's action in Jesus Christ’. See Gaventa, Beverly Roberts, Our Mother Saint Paul (Louisville, KY: WJK, 2007), p. 34Google Scholar. Yet this attempt to correlate suffering and apocalyptic actually ignores the experience of suffering among Paul and the Galatians. In a similar study on maternal imagery in Galatians, Susan Eastman does correlate Gal 4:19 and other passages within the present experience of suffering mentioned throughout the letter. See Eastman, Recovering Paul's Mother Tongue. For this, Eastman's study is to be commended as one of the rare works on Galatians associated with the ‘apocalyptic interpretation of Paul’ which correlates apocalyptic with suffering. However, both Gaventa and Eastman are susceptible to much of the criticism marshalled against Martyn and de Boer in this article.