Reading through Galatians
The Address ( 1, 1–5 )
This address, in which Paul greets the recipients, is abbreviated and assertive. It lacks the usual thanksgiving characteristic of the opening of a Pauline letter. Perhaps Paul's eagerness to get to the heart of his message explains this omission. Perhaps, too, he is so distressed at what he has heard about the events in Galatia that he cannot feel thankful. He asserts from the beginning that his credentials are not from any human source, but from God and Jesus Christ.
The Body of the Letter ( 1, 6–6, 10 )
In Galatians we see Paul on the defensive, strongly insisting on his loyalty to the gospel. This defense is occasioned by accusations that he seeks only to please other human beings. He develops several themes as part of his defense of the message he preached and that his authority came from God. Key themes in this defense are Paul's vocation, the coherence of his message with that of Jerusalem, and the biblical proofs of the truth of his preaching.
Defense of Paul's Preaching and Authority ( 1, 6–2, 21 )
Paul expresses amazement that the Galatians have so quickly deserted the one who called them and who remains faithfully rooted in Christ, while they have deserted to “a different gospel” ( 1, 6 ). He is about to prove to them that they and those who have taught them this way are wrong.
Paul's Vocation ( 1, 6–24 ). Apparently there were those who accused Paul of lying. They claimed that Paul neglected to inform the Gentiles that their baptism involved following prescriptions of the Jewish Law. According to these opponents, Paul did not fully explain the gospel to his converts. But Paul countered that it was the opponents, rather than he, who were perverting the message of Christ. There cannot be two versions of the true gospel message. Paul understood the challenge to his authority as also a threat to the message he preached. His appeal to the divine origin of his call serves to emphasize that there can only be one true gospel. Even if he himself or any other church leader or an “angel from heaven” ( 1, 8 ) would teach otherwise, the one true gospel is the one the Galatians heard from Paul. It does not need to be augmented with certain prescriptions from the Jewish Law.
Although we often speak about his conversion, Paul himself describes what happened as a “vocation.” This was not merely a personal call as we might think of vocation today. Paul's call from God involves also a mission specifically to the Gentiles. Paul insists that this call came from God and underlines its divine origin by contrasting it with the role played by human beings, including his own initial unwillingness to accept Christ. It is precisely because he was in conflict with many others, including leaders of the church, that Paul begins Galatians by emphasizing that his call is from God. Paul has received an “apocalypse” or “revelation.” He did not even go to Jerusalem nor meet any other apostle until three years after his call (which most scholars date around AD 34–35).
Paul uses language from the great prophets to describe his call, suggesting that he stands in their line. He claims that he was called from his “mother's womb,” echoing the description of Jeremiah's call (Jer 1, 4; see also Is 49, 1 ). Paul reviews his own efforts to destroy the church, insisting that it was zeal for the Jewish Law that caused him to seek the authority to bring to trial in Jerusalem his fellow Jews who believed in Christ. Paul insists that he did not consult nor compromise with “flesh and blood,” referring to the church authorities such as Peter, whom he did not even meet until later.
Paul and the Jerusalem Authorities ( 2, 1–21 ). According to the authentic gospel preaching, faith in Jesus as the Christ is sufficient for salvation, without any other obligations to the Jewish Law. The single gospel message, Paul argues in Galatians 2, 1–10 , was confirmed by a meeting in Jerusalem with all the leaders of the church. Scholars place this meeting around AD 50 (see Acts 11 and 15 ). The only stipulation the leaders expressed was that Paul and the Gentiles be mindful of the poor, which probably refers to the collection of money from the Gentile churches for a common fund in Jerusalem (see comment on 2 Cor 8 and 9 ). Paul insists that he was eager to do this. Nevertheless, the Gentiles probably needed to learn that concern for the poor was a priority of Christian life (see 2 Cor 8, 1–9, 15 ). The Gentiles would not have benefited from the long Jewish ethical tradition that mandated taking care of the poor. Although this just concern was part of Jewish Law, the Law is not the reason Paul gives for accepting this stipulation. Rather, he insists that there was neither discussion nor agreement about the Gentiles following any prescriptions of the Law. This account from Paul is quite at odds with the account of presumably the same Jerusalem meeting in Acts 15, 20.29 , where observance of Jewish marital and sexual customs and basic dietary laws are enjoined on the Gentiles. Scholars have always had difficulty with the two versions, some assuming that Luke invented the cultic observances that the Gentiles were expected to observe, others assuming that Paul ignored them. Here Paul insists that no restrictions were part of the accord but were only added after the Jerusalem meeting and only because of pressure from the Jerusalem church headed by James. In Galatians 5, 3 Paul will remind the Galatians that those who are circumcised must observe the whole Law, not just selected precepts.
The issue of imposing at least a minimal observance of the Jewish Law, including circumcision, on the Gentiles was introduced, Paul asserts, by “representatives from James,” only after the Jerusalem Conference. Paul accuses them of bad faith, saying that they had come to “spy on our freedom…in Christ Jesus” ( 2, 4 ). The notion of Christian freedom will be more developed in Galatians 5 . Here it is introduced as characteristic of Christians in the Pauline churches. Paul confronted Peter later in Antioch because Peter caved in to the pressure of the “Judaizing” delegation from James in Jerusalem. The picture Paul paints is of a change of mind on the part of James and Peter after the Jerusalem agreement, which had the impact of undermining Paul's authority in Galatia and elsewhere. The “Judaizers” of Galatia may have been witnesses to this discrepancy and thus felt authorized to challenge Paul's authority there. Paul had accused Peter of influencing the Gentiles to “live like Jews” in the observance of some basics of the Law, including circumcision. Peter, who had also baptized Gentiles (Acts 10 ), was beginning to compromise the Gentiles' freedom after the Jerusalem meeting.
This historical conflict provides the context for Paul's important concept of “justification by faith.” Within the framework of his conflict with Peter and James, Paul reminds Peter as a fellow Jew that “we who are Jews…know that a person is not justified by works of the [Jewish] law but through faith in Jesus Christ” ( 2, 15–16 ). Paul appeals to the faith he has in common with Peter and with other Jewish Christians. All Christians of Jewish descent share the belief that Jesus is the Christ. It is Jesus rather than the Jewish Law that justifies all. Generations later in the church, when the preponderance of believers were of Gentile rather than Jewish origin, the historical context of this dispute was forgotten. Since then, Christians have sometimes mistakenly interpreted Paul's message as somehow considering faith as opposed to works. Furthermore, the word “alone” was added to the formula “justification by faith,” and the phrase was understood in an absolute sense. So, for example, Luther portrayed the gospel as “law‐free” in his famous objection to indulgences, which were undoubtedly carried to extremes in his day. The Reformers used Paul's doctrine of justification by faith to oppose any notion of salvation as dependent on good works, such as they alleged the Catholic doctrine of salvation taught. They distorted the Catholic teaching of works as a response to faith. For their part, Catholics have sometimes exaggerated the role of meritorious deeds to gain grace. Both Protestants and Catholics have based their arguments on Paul, especially on Galatians and Romans, and both have distorted the Jewish understanding of Law observance as the response of the faithful to the gift of the covenant. As a result, some Christians erroneously read into Paul's message a dichotomy between faith and works that does not accurately interpret Paul's original meaning, and a theological anti‐Judaism that characterizes the Jewish way of life as oppressively bound in Law as contrasted to liberating Christian freedom.
We see in all of Paul's letters that his doctrine is consistently followed by ethical applications. Thus Paul teaches that faith is expressed in the moral life. Good works are a response to faith. Even in passages where Paul speaks of freedom (for example, in Galatians 5 ) he advocates at the same time the practice of good works. Paul's understanding of Christianity includes a highly developed ethic or lifestyle. He would see no opposition between faith and freedom on one side and good works and obedience on the other, as he will show in the next major section of Galatians.
Faith, Freedom, and the Scriptures (Gal 3, 1–4, 31 )
Here Paul begins his theological and biblical explanation of his gospel. He appeals first to the experience of the Galatians, then to the biblical exposition of several texts, then to several human examples.
Paul insists that his converts in Galatia have heard the true and complete gospel message from him and that, as a result of their conversion to Christ, they have received the Spirit of God. He asks them a question to which they all know the answer, in order to shame them into attention: did you receive the Spirit through Law or through faith ( 3, 2 )? They know it was through his preaching of faith without Law. In order to emphasize the importance of continuing to live the life of faith, Paul employs a contrast between the “flesh” and the “spirit” designed to show that these are mutually exclusive. Today's reader will find such a contrast problematic unless we understand the Greek philosophical mindset of Paul's audience and the special meanings he attaches to the words.
Today we tend to equate “flesh” with body or material existence, and to affirm the body as a positive and even essential expression of self‐fulfillment and human happiness. But the Greeks stressed the tension between the flesh and the spirit, which presupposed the superiority of the spirit and the inferiority of the flesh. For them, the spirit represented the immortal, life‐giving aspect of human experience, whereas the body or flesh signified the weaker, sensual, mortal aspect that had to be subordinated to the spirit in order to find happiness. Though the Hebrews did not generally share this mindset, still earlier biblical language will sometimes use “flesh” or “flesh and blood” to mean the weakness and vulnerability of human existence without the assistance of God (see even 1 Cor 15, 50 ). This is usually Paul's meaning for “flesh”: human arrogance that tries to live independently of God's grace. To further complicate our task of interpreting Paul's meaning, we note that Paul sometimes refers to the Spirit of God or Holy Spirit (at times simply called the “Spirit”), and at other times he designates the human spirit. Often it is hard for the reader to distinguish the two. In English translations God's Spirit is usually capitalized, but that is at the call of the translator, and sometimes the difference is not clear. Paul asserts that the Spirit of God was conferred upon the Galatians by faith, not by “works of the flesh” such as circumcision. Paul therefore concludes that it would be an absurd regression to “end in the flesh” what had begun in the spirit. Faith transferred the Galatians and all believers from the domain of the flesh to that of the spirit. The Spirit of God enables us to share fully in the inheritance of the promise made to Abraham and fulfilled now in Christ. Thus Paul moves from a review of the Galatian experience of the gospel to an illustration of the validity of that experience taken from the Scriptures.
Abraham, Father of Faith ( 3, 6–16 ). Paul reinforces his teaching on justification by faith by giving examples from the Scriptures showing that faith in Christ is sufficient for salvation. Using the exegetical methods in which he was trained, he draws out several biblical passages from different places and puts them together into a new argument to show that Abraham received the promise and was considered to have been justified in God's sight before he was given the precept of circumcision (Gen 12, 3; 15, 6 ). Then the crucified Christ took upon himself the curse of the Law by hanging on a tree (Dt 27, 26; Hb 2, 4; Lv 18, 5; Dt 21, 23 ). Paul relates the experience of Abraham and his sons to the experience of the Galatians. Through faith the Galatians (a predominantly Gentile community) became the “children of Abraham” ( 3, 7 ). “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness” ( 3, 6 ). God gave a promise to Abraham because of his faith. This promise included the “nations” or Gentiles who are blessed through Abraham. Now, Paul says, the Gentiles have received the blessing of Abraham. The promise has been fulfilled in Christ.
Example of the Human Will ( 3, 17–23 ). Paul then uses the example of a last will or testament (in Greek, the words, will, testament, and covenant are all the same, diatheke, which helps make the analogy in a way that is lost in English). Once made and ratified, it cannot be changed by something that comes along later. In like manner, the covenant with Abraham could not be altered by the Mosaic Law that came later. The original covenant through faith is the prior one that cannot be annulled, and this is the one in which all persons of faith belong.
Example of the Child‐Minder ( 3, 24–4, 11 ). The next human analogy that Paul uses would have been perfectly comprehensible to his contemporaries, but it needs some explanation today. The “custodian” was a slave in a wealthy family who had authority over the minor son and was responsible for his discipline and education. Once the son came of age and became the heir, the roles were reversed. Paul uses this example to argue that the Law was a temporary custodian until Christ came, which is the time set by the father for our spiritual coming of age. At that point, the Law has no more power over us.
As illustration for this maturity in Christ that we now have, Paul uses one of his most famous sayings, probably a baptismal formula that he quotes for effect. All who have been baptized in Christ have a new identity, so that there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female, but all are one in Christ Jesus ( 3, 27–28 ). We would like to know how seriously this proclamation was taken in Paul's day. The tension between Jew and Greek (that is, Gentile) continued, but it was precisely to this that Paul was devoting much of his effort. Nevertheless, Christian persecution of Jews increased rather than decreased in following centuries. Slavery certainly continued for centuries in Christian households and states. Problems between men and women in the church have not yet subsided. Disparities in treatment based on ethnicity, social status, and gender are perennial. This prophetic text remains a challenge for the church in every age.
Assurance of Paul's Affection ( 4, 12–20 ). In spite of the harsh things Paul had to say to the Galatians in the beginning of the letter, he now softens a bit to express his continued affection for them and his remembrance of how well they treated him when he was there. Verse 15 leads some commentators to suppose that Paul had some kind of eye disease that made him less impressive in person (see 2 Cor 10, 10 ), but this is speculation. He hopes to come again to be with them and to be able to speak more affectionately than he has had to do in this letter.
Allegory of the Two Wives of Abraham ( 4, 21–31 ). Paul goes on to illustrate his teaching with yet another scriptural example, namely that of Abraham's two sons by two women. The first, Ishmael, is the son of a slave woman, Hagar, whose name never actually occurs here (but see Gn 21 ). Isaac is Sarah's son, born free. Ishmael and his mother were expelled from Abraham's sight and did not inherit the promise. Paul develops his commentary as an allegory, understanding Ishmael and Hagar to represent slavery to the covenant on Mount Sinai. Isaac represents the promise fulfilled in the freedom of faith without the restrictions of the Law. The words originally spoken to Sarah, who had been barren, are fulfilled in the believers who inherit the promise ( 4, 27 ). Paul says of the Galatians that they, like Isaac, are children of the promise, that is, the promise of grace and with it, freedom from the Law. Thus Paul's reading of the Scriptures reinforces his insistence that the Galatians are justified without the Law and freed from the Law. Therefore, to return to the Law's restrictions would be a great foolishness (see 3, 1 ).
Exhortations for Christian Living (Gal 5, 1–6, 10 )
Paul draws implications for Christian living from his teaching. While insisting on freedom, he shows how faith has its consequences in Christian life. Chapters 5 and 6 exhort believers to exercise their faith in their relationships with one another. These exhortations focus on the responsibilities Christians share for developing the community. We are struck by Paul's emphasis on social responsibility. Note that Paul does not dwell on a believer's personal, interior life so much as on the relationships that should characterize the Christian community, which is living the blessings of the Spirit of God (see 5, 21–23 ). The term “freedom” recurs here ( 5, 1.13 ). For Paul freedom is not lawlessness but the liberty to live for God (see Rom 6, 4 ) and to serve one another through love (Gal 5, 13 ). The choice between slavery and freedom is the choice between the works of the Law and the works of the Spirit. For Paul, all humans are under some power— either of “sin” and the “flesh,” or of the Spirit of God and faith.
In 5, 2–12 Paul refers again to the specific problem that occasioned this urgent letter. The Judaizers are agitating the Galatians, trying to convince them to be circumcised and follow some of the elements of the Jewish Law. Paul reminds the Galatians of a principle certainly upheld by Jews, that circumcision of itself is nothing if not a sign of commitment to follow the whole Law ( 5, 3 ). The problem Paul confronts is the imposition of circumcision on the Gentiles. Galatians 5, 11 implies that Paul, even as a Christian, did “preach circumcision” for Jews; perhaps he did at one time earlier in his career, and the Galatians have heard of it. Paul does not dispute the role of the Law in Jewish life. Although some accused Paul of undermining the Law for Jews, he considers himself innocent of that charge (see Rom 9, 1–5; 1 Cor 9, 20; Acts 21, 20–26 ). The list of “works of the flesh” in 5, 20–21 show that Paul does not equate flesh with the body; many of them are perversions of mind.
In Galatians 6, 1–10 Paul continues to reflect on community life, advocating the virtues of charity, service, and humility. Christians are obliged to “bear one another's burdens.” Although they are also called to “do good to all,” even those outside the church, special priority is given to those in the family of faith ( 6, 10 ).
Conclusion ( 6, 11–18 )
Paul adds a final note for emphasis and concludes with a short prayer. He probably dictated this letter to a scribe. He adds his own closing remarks, beginning at verse 11. Here he adds a new dimension to the arguments against the agitators: they are insincere, since they themselves do not follow the Law. They are only trying to escape persecution by other Jews, or possibly the Romans (see note on 6, 12–15 ). Paul contrasts their cowardice and insincerity with his own boldness and consistency, referring to the “marks of Jesus” on his body. All that matters, Paul says, is that we are created anew ( 6, 15 ). He concludes with a prayer for peace and mercy, calling down a blessing on his brothers and sisters in Christ.