The Galatian Crisis.
In order to unravel Paul's main lines of argument in this letter, it is necessary to have some appreciation of the circumstances that led to its composition. Paul had preached in Galatia once (or possibly twice—see 4:13 ) before he wrote this letter. His initial visit was related to ‘a physical infirmity’ he experienced ( 4:13 ). Probably as the result of his ministry, house-churches were established. In spite of Paul's displeasure at the later turn of events, the warmth of his initial relationship with the Galatian Christians is reflected in several passages (e.g. 3:15; 4:12–20; 6:1 ).
At some point after Paul had left Galatia, agitators from elsewhere had undermined some of his central convictions by confusing the Galatians and ‘pervert[ing] the gospel of Christ’ ( 1:7 ). The clearest statements concerning the agitators' ‘false teaching’ are in 4:10, 5:7–12 , and 6:12–13 , though parts of those verses are difficult to interpret. The agitators are encouraging the Galatian Christians to observe the Jewish ‘special days, and months, and seasons, and years’ ( 4:10 ). They themselves are Jews who have become Christians; they have been urging the Galatian Gentile Christians to be circumcised, i.e. to become full proselytes to Judaism as part of their commitment to the gospel of Christ ( 6:12–13 ). Paul believes that they have been selective in their approach, i.e. they have not insisted that the Galatians observe all the Mosaic commandments ( 4:3 ).
It is possible to glean a little more about the claims of the agitators by ‘mirror-reading’ some passages in Galatians. But as Barclay (1987 ) has rightly emphasized, mirror-reading is a hazardous operation. Not all Paul's statements are necessarily direct refutations of the claims of the agitators, though some scholars have assumed too readily that this is the case. Hence many questions have to be left open. For example, it is difficult to be confident about the relationship of the agitators to the ‘false believers’ who caused havoc among the Jerusalem Christians ( 2:3–6 ) and to ‘the certain people from James’ ( 2:12 ).
Since Paul and the agitators shared a number of convictions, it is inappropriate to refer to them as Paul's ‘opponents’. They both seem to have used the term ‘gospel’ to refer to Christian proclamation ( 1:6–7 ). Like Paul, they believed that Jesus the Messiah was the fulfilment of the promises of Scripture. In all probability, in 4:21–31 Paul is responding to their interpretation of key passages in Genesis.
By mirror-reading 5:13–6:10 some scholars have claimed that Paul is opposing a second group in the Galatian churches, antinomians or Gnostics who have distorted Paul's proclamation of Christian freedom. However, in this section of his letter, Paul is far more concerned with general ethical principles than with false views. Paul is underlining two convictions: faith must be worked out in love ( 5:6 ); freedom is not an opportunity for self-indulgence, but for love of one another which is a bond as close as slavery ( 5:13 ).