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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

Galatians - Introduction

Galatians was sent as a circular letter to a group of churches in Galatia, where it would have been read aloud, perhaps on several occasions in the context of worship ( 1:2 ). This is the most passionate of Paul's letters; only 2 Cor 10–13 is partly comparable. There has never been any doubt about the authorship of Galatians: here we meet Paul's pugnacious defence of ‘the truth of the gospel’ ( 2:5 ), as well as his exposition of the significance of God's disclosure of Jesus Christ ( 1:12 ). Paul's letter is carefully crafted, though in places the modern reader wishes he had clarified some of his statements. We do not know whether Paul's attempt to fend off the threat of the agitators who had infiltrated the Galatian churches met with immediate success. In the long run, however, Paul was successful: his insistence that Gentiles need not observe the whole Mosaic law (including circumcision) as an integral part of their commitment to Christ won the day, but the debates on this issue rumbled on in some circles well into the latter part of the second century (cf. Justin Martyr, Dialogue, 47), and even occasionally thereafter.

In places Paul uses strong language which must have made some of the first listeners to this letter wince (cf. 3:1; 4:30; 5:12 ). Occasional scholarly attempts to ‘improve’ Paul's line of argument by removing some verses as later non-Pauline additions have not won support. We can be confident that the letter we have is very similar to the letter Paul dictated to an amanuensis before adding the final section in his own handwriting (cf. 6:11 ). In view of the extent to which some of Paul's key points are expressed more judiciously in some of his later letters, it is perhaps surprising that the early scribes who copied it did not make more strenuous efforts to harmonize it with the ‘later’, more moderate Paul.

Galatians was written to quite specific circumstances which are difficult to reconstruct in detail, though the main issues at stake are clear. Paul's dispute with the agitators elicited some of his most profound theological statements. Only Romans has made a greater impact on later Christian thinkers and believers. In modern times Galatians has surpassed even Romans in the role it has played in reconstructions of the history of earliest Christianity. Interpretation of Paul's accounts of the Jerusalem ‘council’ ( 2:1–10 ) and of his clash with Peter at Antioch ( 2:11–14 ) is always prominent in discussion of the tensions within early Christianity.

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