A letter addressed by Paul to “the churches of Galatia” is fourth in the usual arrangement of the Pauline letters in the New Testament. It is a sustained and passionate expostulation with a group of churches that Paul had planted, whose members were in danger of abandoning the gospel that they had received from him. They were inclined to pay heed to certain teachers who urged them to add to their faith in Christ some distinctive features of Judaism, particularly circumcision. These teachers also endeavored to diminish Paul's authority by insisting that he was indebted to the Jerusalem church leaders for his apostolic commission and had no right to deviate from Jerusalem practice.
An autobiographical account follows. Paul received his gospel not from others but when God revealed his Son to him. Before that, he had become an expert in the study and practice of Judaism; he showed his zeal by persecuting the followers of Jesus. But when he received his revelation, together with the commission to preach Christ among the gentiles, he began to fulfill his commission at once without consulting the Christian leaders in Jerusalem. Not until three years later did he go to Jerusalem for a fifteen‐day visit to Cephas (Simon Peter), during which he also met James, the Lord's brother. After that visit he went to Syria and Cilicia, and continued preaching the gospel there (1.11–24).
Several years later he visited Jerusalem with Barnabas and had a conference with the three pillars of the mother church, James, Peter, and John. They recognized that Paul and Barnabas had been specially called to evangelize gentiles, whereas their own responsibility was rather to evangelize their fellow Jews; they agreed to an appropriate demarcation of the two spheres of missionary activity. But they conferred no authority on Paul: he was in no way commissioned by them (2.1–10).
Indeed, his independence from them was shown during a visit paid by Peter to Antioch, when Peter withdrew from sharing meals with gentile Christians because of representations made to him by messengers from James in Jerusalem. As Paul saw it, Peter's action compromised the gospel by implying that there was some difference in principle between Jewish and gentile believers. In fact, Paul maintained, there was none; both had been accepted by God through faith in Christ, not through the Jewish law (2.11–21).
Paul wonders whether the Galatians have been hypnotized: how otherwise could they imagine that the saving work was to be completed by their own endeavors when it had begun with their reception of the spirit of God through faith (3.1–5).
Abraham in his day received the promise that through him and his offspring all the gentiles would be blessed. Since it was on account of his faith that Abraham received this promise, it is on the basis of faith that the gentiles are to experience its fulfillment. The Law brings no blessing; instead, it brings a curse on those who fail to keep it, but from that curse Christ has redeemed those who have faith (3.6–14). When the promise to Abraham speaks of his offspring, Christ is meant. The promise is like a deed of covenant, whose terms cannot subsequently be modified by codicil (3.15–18). The Law was given in order to bring the latent sinful propensity of humanity into the open in the form of specific transgressions, during the interval before the coming of the expected offspring. The Law was like a guardian, keeping children under restraint until their coming of age. With the coming of Christ and the exercise of faith in him, the people of God attained their maturity and enjoy their liberty as his fully grown sons and daughters (3.19–4.7).
But the Galatian Christians are turning their backs on their liberty and placing themselves in bondage to legal ordinances. Paul appeals to them to remember the affection they showed for him when he first visited them: he is not jealous because they are listening to other teachers but concerned because those teachers are robbing them of their liberty. They are trying to make them accept circumcision, but Paul warns them that, if they submit to this demand, they must keep the whole Jewish law. Those who have seduced them into this false course will have much to answer for (4.8–5.12).
Christian liberty means liberty to live according to the spirit of Christ, to fulfill the comprehensive commandment to love one another. The way of the spirit is the way of life; the “works of the flesh” lead to destruction (5.13–26). Mutual helpfulness is the hallmark of men and women of faith. Those who do good to others reap the harvest of eternal life (6.1–10).
Let others boast of their achievements; Paul will boast of nothing but the cross of Christ. The scars he has received in his apostolic service mark him as Christ's property (6.11–17). With this he takes his leave of them (6.18).
None of the letters bearing Paul's name is so indubitably his as Galatians. Galatians is, indeed, the criterion by which the authenticity of other letters ascribed to him is gauged.
The “churches of Galatia” addressed in this letter were situated in the Roman province of Galatia (Map 11:F3), but which part of the province is a matter of dispute. Until 25 BCE the area had been the kingdom of Galatia. The original Galatians were Celts from central Europe who invaded Asia Minor and established themselves there in the third century BCE. But the rulers of Galatia extended their authority over neighboring territories populated by other ethnic groups; these groups were included in the province of Galatia and were Galatians in the political but not in the ethnic sense. To some of these groups belonged the cities of Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe, which were evangelized by Paul and Barnabas around 47 CE (Acts 13.14–14.23). One view is that the churches of those cities were recipients of the letter. Another view is that the recipients were churches established later in the northern part of the Roman province, among the ethnic Galatians. It is true that Acts makes no mention of Paul's visiting north Galatia, but Acts does not give a complete account of his missionary activity. The precise identity of the recipients does not greatly affect the argument of the letter.
The date of the letter has been fixed at various points between 48 and 55 CE. If it was sent to the churches of Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe, a date around 48 CE is possible, even probable; if it was sent to churches in ethnic Galatia, its date would be later. The affinity between Galatians and Romans has been thought to point to a date not long before the writing of Romans (early in 57 CE). The affinity should not be exaggerated, however; Paul's assessment of the Law, for example, was considerably modified between Galatians and Romans. Again, wherever Galatians may be dated within the limits mentioned, one's appreciation of its argument is affected only slightly.
The traditional view, accepted here, is that those against whom Paul polemicizes in Galatians were judaizing intruders, eager to make the churches in Galatia, which were mainly gentile in composition, conform to the Jewish way of life and probably also to bring them under the control of the church of Jerusalem.
Other features, however, have been discerned in the situation implied in the letter. If Paul warns his readers not to pervert their liberty into license (Gal. 5.13–21), it might indicate that a campaign on two fronts has been simplified by one line of interpretation, according to which the one target of Paul's attack is a form of christianized Jewish gnosticism. If it is objected that Paul gives no clear hint of this in the letter, the answer is that he did not fully understand the nature of the teaching being urged on his converts. But this is not plausible. Our sole source of knowledge about the opponents and their propaganda is found in Paul's argument; if these references cannot be trusted, there is no other source of information.
The letter can be read against the background of revived militant nationalism in Judea in the years after 44 CE. These militants (who came to be called Zealots) treated Jews who fraternized with gentiles as traitors. Jerusalem Christians were sensitive to the charge that some of their leaders, if not they themselves, practiced such fraternization. Hence, perhaps, the representations to Peter at Antioch, which made him break off his table fellowship with gentile Christians in that city (Gal. 2.11–14); hence too, perhaps, the judaizing mission to Galatia. For if gentile converts could be persuaded to accept circumcision and conform to Jewish customs in other ways, for example, by observing the sacred calendar (Gal. 4.10), the militants (it was hoped) would be pacified.
What effect the letter had in the churches to which it was sent we do not know. Paul's insistence on gentile believers' equal status with Jewish believers, his refusal of any procedure that compromised his converts' liberty, isolated him in large measure from his peers in the Christian movement as a whole. He was disillusioned when “even Barnabas,” hitherto his closest colleague, joined those who found it expedient to stay aloof from association with gentile Christians at Antioch (Gal. 2.13). He continued to feel affection and respect for Barnabas, but confidence was no longer possible. He made no further use of the church of Antioch as a base for his missionary work, and he and the leaders of the Jerusalem church never again felt totally at ease with each other.
As for the churches of Galatia, their response to the letter is unrecorded. Certainly, circumcision soon ceased to be an issue throughout the gentile mission field. This could have been due in part to Paul's argument, but it may have been due even more to a ruling by the church of Jerusalem that circumcision was not to be required from gentile converts (Acts 15.23–29; see Apostolic Council). When Paul began to organize a relief fund for the church of Jerusalem, toward the end of his Aegean mission, he sent instructions to the churches of Galatia about their participation in this effort (1 Cor. 16.1), but it is not clear whether they made a contribution. Perhaps some of them did: one of Paul's companions on the journey to Jerusalem to hand over the contributions was Gaius, a man from Derbe (Acts 20.4).
F. F. Bruce