Galatians is the only Pauline letter written as a circular letter to various churches of a geographical region rather than an urban center. The old territory of Galatia comprised a large central and northern area of Asia Minor. The Roman province of Galatia, to which Paul probably refers, included some of the cities, such as Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe, in which Paul worked, according to Acts.
Paul's tone in the opening lines of Galatians is defensive and emotional, shown by the absence of the usual prayer of thanksgiving following the address, which is a common characteristic of Paul's letters. Paul sees the problem in the Galatian communities as a great threat not only to his own reputation and mission but to the gospel itself. Other missionaries, whom scholars commonly call “Judaizers,” came into Galatia after Paul and claimed that Gentiles must follow some aspects of the Jewish law, including circumcision, in order to be fully Christian. Perhaps they said that Paul taught the fundamentals, and they would now give the Galatians the full Christian message. They were undermining Paul's authority and the sufficiency of faith in Christ that Paul preached. Consequently, he writes heatedly to convince the recipients that he has the full truth. From the emotional tone of chapters 1 and 2 , he passes to the complex biblical demonstrations of chapters 3 and 4 , finally into the ethical teaching of chapters 5 and 6 .
The issues of freedom and faith, diversity of teaching and different understandings of the gospel message, and the relationship of Christianity to Judaism are as important to us as they were to Paul's addressees in Galatia. Yet today's reader of Galatians must see past the combative tone of this letter, the circumstances of its writing, and the historical context in which Paul first developed his dichotomy between faith and works. These tasks are well worth the effort if we are to understand this important epistle of Paul. It is also essential to realize that this letter in which Paul talks the most about freedom is also the letter in which he most identifies with the cross of Christ. Freedom is for the sake of service.
Jews and Gentiles in the Pauline Churches
We cannot adequately comprehend Galatians without recognition of an important historical issue that was at the basis of Paul's missionary perspective. That issue involves the relationship between Judaism and the infant church that struggled to integrate the non‐Jews or Gentiles into a new “Israel of God” (Gal 6, 16 ), and between Jews and Gentiles in that church. Although this may seem like a remote issue unrelated to the problems the church faces today, it is actually quite relevant for us with our increasing ethnic diversity and ecumenical concerns. The question of “Who shall belong?” had to be resolved differently than it was in Judaism, where circumcision was the sign of initiation, and obedience to the Mosaic Law signified membership.
Those Christians who were already ethnically and religiously Jewish saw the message of Jesus largely within the context of Judaism. Indeed, Christianity might have remained as a sect within Judaism had it revolved only around belief that Jesus was the Messiah. Early Christianity, however, was almost immediately open to the conversion of the Gentiles (sometimes called the “nations” or the “pagans” in translations). We must also remember that before his conversion to Christ, Paul the Pharisee was so zealous for the observance of the Law that he persecuted the church (Gal 1, 13 ). According to Acts, Paul obtained authorization to hunt down and bring to trial in Jerusalem those fellow Jews who had become convinced that Jesus was the Messiah (Acts 9, 1–2 ). As a strict Jew, Paul had perceived along with many others that the message of Christ was a threat to Jewish claims to a unique access to the one true God through the covenant. The Pharisaism to which Paul belonged already was open to Gentile membership, based on the universal vision of the later prophets, especially Second and Third Isaiah, but with the requirement that they convert to Judaism. After Paul had accepted the messianic identity of Jesus through revelation and had begun to proclaim it as a missionary ( 1, 15–16 ), he held the conviction that this new movement must be able to absorb both Jews and Gentiles, but in a new way. His own special attraction, based on a personal revelation, was to preach the gospel to Gentiles, an attraction that he says the leaders in Jerusalem accepted ( 2, 7–9 ). Through his pastoral experience, he had come to the conclusion that the only way to integrate Jews and Gentiles fully into the churches was to eliminate the need for conversion to Judaism on the part of the Gentiles.
In other words, Paul reassessed, as a result of his vocation, the role of the Jewish Law to which he had always been devoted. In light of his God‐given vocation to preach the message of Christ to non‐Jews, Paul began to see the Law as superseded. According to the Law as it was then understood, the Gentiles had been excluded from salvation. Through Christ, Paul taught, they are included‐and on their own terms, not as converts to Judaism. As a result of a revelation from God, Paul identified himself as an apostle to the Gentiles. Consequently Paul felt as committed to the Gentile mission as he ever had felt formerly with regard to the Jewish Law.
The Gentile mission, however, did not begin with Paul. Stephen (see Acts 6 ) and others, including Peter (Acts 10 ), had preached to Gentiles and baptized them before Paul. Nevertheless, not all of the early Christian leaders felt the same degree of freedom from the Jewish Law as Paul did. Nor did everyone agree that Gentiles who were becoming part of the church should neglect the prescriptions of the Jewish Law. Peter and James, for example, who were recognized Christian leaders, both felt that some observance of Jewish Law should be required of the Gentiles. James was a very significant figure in the Jerusalem mother church. Peter, of course, was one of the Twelve and a leader of the Jerusalem community as well as a known authority in the predominantly Jewish Christian community at Antioch. Representatives from James apparently were preaching at least a minimal observance of Jewish Law and gaining a significant hearing among the Gentile converts (see Acts 11, 1–26; Gal 2, 1–10 ).
The matter was confusing for several reasons. Christianity incorporated the monotheism and the high ethical principles of Judaism, which were very attractive to many Gentiles. The appeal of these basics of Judaism made more reasonable the position of those who “Judaized” (a verb Paul uses only in Gal 2, 14 , where it is translated “live like Jews”). The “Judaizers” claimed that Gentiles should fulfill some basic requirements of the Jewish Law, particularly circumcision and some dietary restrictions, in order to demonstrate that they had actually converted from pagan ways. But from the beginning of the Christian preaching, faith in Jesus crucified and raised from death by God had been the only requirement for baptism. Even Peter testified that the Gentiles, like the Jews, were saved through faith and that “God shows no partiality” (Acts 15, 9; Gal 2, 6 ). Paul vehemently opposed any additional requirements for the Gentiles. He believed that these additions would, in fact, constitute deviation from the firm conviction that salvation is a work of God accomplished through grace that is accepted by faith in Jesus as the Christ.