The six relatively short chapters of Paul's letter to the Galatians have enjoyed a long and remarkably rich reception history. They have generated major commentaries, which have been the vehicle for a sustained debate through the centuries between many major theologians of the Christian church, at least until the eighteenth century. They have had a formative influence on the development of Christian communities in East and West up until the time of the global expansion of Christianity. They played a major role in the reconfiguration of medieval Europe at the time of the Reformation. Some of the letter's more striking phrases have caught the minds of theologians and mystics in such a way that they would return to them again and again. The phrase “faith working through love” intrigued Augustine and Aquinas and was a central text in the discussions of the Council of Trent which sought to state the Catholic Church's position after the Reformation. Paul's saying: “I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me,” has played a key role in the development of Christian mysticism and has fascinated the Kyoto school of Zen Buddhism for nearly a century. And the letter continues to reward historical studies with the insights it can provide into the development of early Christianity and also into the radically innovative nature of Paul's thought.

Date of Composition and Historical Context.

What is it about this book that gives it such power? Much of the impact must be attributed to the particular situation in which it was written. Paul is writing, probably in the 50s, to one of the churches which he has founded in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey). He had been preaching to gentiles (and Jews as well) and allowing them to become full members of the communities that were becoming known as Christian without being circumcised or observing Jewish dietary laws. His appears to have been a particularly effervescent form of Christianity accompanied by various spiritual manifestations (Gal 3:2–5). However, despite their early times of enthusiasm and fervor, by the time Paul writes the letter, the Galatian congregation has been taught new ways by other traveling missionaries, almost certainly teachers in league with Jerusalem, who insisted on circumcising non-Jewish male converts and on the observation of Jewish dietary rules and festivals. Paul writes in uncompromising tone to bring them back to “his” gospel, which, he insists, is the one true gospel (1:6–9).

This gospel had started as a movement of followers of Jesus of Nazareth within the Jewish community of the first century. Within a short time some of these followers became embroiled in sharp conflict with other Jewish groupings and this coincided with the message being preached to people outside the Jewish faith. This in turn led to conflict within the Jesus movement between those who demanded that all who were baptized should be law-observant and therefore circumcised and those who were willing to baptize gentile converts without imposing such conditions. This was a critical moment in the history of the movement and the resolution of this issue would determine its future course. Against those in Jerusalem who insisted on circumcision, Paul argued that they failed to realize the dramatic new turn in the history of the world (not Paul's phrase) which was taking place: “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything, but a new creation” (6:15).

But if the situation was a dramatic one, then so too was Paul's response to it. For Paul, the very truth of his gospel was at stake: no matter who should preach another view, he would anathematize him (1:9). His letter is a defense of his own position and authority as an apostle, a legitimate messenger of the gospel; it is also, at the same time, an argument in support of his own views and against those of his opponents (which, unfortunately, we can infer only with difficulty from what Paul says). And it is the vigor with which Paul defends his position that has given this letter such power. We are present at one of the turning points of the religious history of the world, one with huge consequences for both Christians and Jews.

Structure and Contents.

The content of the letter can be briefly summarized. Paul starts by affirming that he is an apostle “not from or through men but through Jesus Christ and God the Father” (1:1). This claim is spelled out further in a long section which starts at 1:11, after he has expressed his amazement at the Galatians' desertion of his gospel for another, which is no gospel. This section, which runs through into chapter 2, justifies autobiographically Paul's claim that he received his gospel by revelation and not through the teaching of others, particularly the apostles at Jerusalem. He speaks of the zeal of his life as a Jew and his former persecution of the church (themes found also in Phil 3) and then of his calling by God “from [his] mother's womb” and God's revelation of “his Son in me that I might preach him among the Gentiles” (1:16). There is no narrative account of this revelatory moment; but from that point on as he recounts the history of his early years in the faith, he emphasizes his independence, and how he had not initially consulted or received instruction from anyone, nor been up to Jerusalem. There were indeed subsequent visits to Jerusalem after three and fourteen years. At the first visit, he spent fifteen days in mutual discussion with Peter and apart from him saw only James, the brother of the Lord. At the second, he went up as part of a delegation from Antioch, where already they were permitting gentiles to be baptized without circumcision, and negotiated an agreement which he believed gave recognition to his mission to the gentiles (2:9–10). Finally he relates how this agreement unraveled at Antioch. Peter had been living as a gentile with the believers in Jesus in Antioch, eating freely with gentile believers, but “drew back” when “men from James came” (2:12). This led to a confrontation between Peter and Paul. We are not told the outcome, though it seems likely that the Antioch church bowed with Peter to the delegates from Jerusalem, while Paul withdrew and became an independent apostle. Paul certainly no longer can rely on letters of recommendation from the church that originally sent him out as a preacher of the gospel (2 Cor 3).

The story of the “Antioch incident” has no formal ending; instead it runs out into Paul's speech to Peter in the form of an impassioned proclamation of Paul's teaching about justification/righteousness, namely that “one is not justified by works of the law but by pistis Christou” (2:16) and in Paul's own declaration of his shared life with Christ: “I am crucified with Christ; nevertheless I live; yet not I but Christ lives in me.” (2:19–20) The phrase pistis Christou has most often been translated as “faith in Jesus Christ” but it can also mean “the faith of Jesus Christ.” The former sense could suggest that, as God's justification might be thought to be conditional on human fulfillment of the Law (except insofar as God forgives human failings), so now it is conditional on human faith in Christ. The latter sense, it is argued, lays the stress firmly on God's action in Christ. It is Christ's faithful death on the cross that effects our justification. Such faithful action on Christ's part may well elicit faith on our part and in that sense one might argue that the translation “by faith in Christ” catches much of Paul's meaning here. The important point is that such human faith is not itself the cause of justification. The life of believers is defined by the presence of Christ in their own lives (2:20).

This sets the scene for the argument proper about the truth of the gospel they have received which turns on the question: “Did you receive the Spirit by works of the Law or by the revelation that leads to faith?” (3:2) Again, this is a contrast not between two types of human attitude or behavior but between human action on the one hand and God's action and the response it provokes on the other.

Behind this contrast lies Paul's clearly polemical purpose: he wishes to emphasize the radically gracious nature of God's action in Christ. The new life in the Spirit that believers, both Jews and gentiles alike, are experiencing, is not conditional on their obedience to the Law but on the free action of God. This leads Paul to offer a set of images and metaphors to characterize the new life in Christ as contrasted with their former way of life. The former life was one of living under the curse of the Law (3:10); living in a prison, with the law as warder, till faith should be revealed (3:23); a life of slavery to the elemental spirits of the world, of bondage to beings that by nature are no gods (4:8). By contrast, believers are like those who have come into their inheritance, emerging out of a minority when they were no better than slaves (4:1–7). They are like slaves who have been redeemed (3:13; 4:5); they have been set free for freedom by Christ (5:1).

The contrasts between the old life and the new life in Christ are so stark that Paul is in danger of laying himself open to the charge that the former life of Jews was not part of God's purposes at all, or worse that it was the work of another God altogether. Is Paul rejecting his Jewish heritage? Paul had to face such charges and reacted with passion. The faith which Paul's gospel elicits from his hearers is the same faith which was shown by Abraham in response to God's promises. It is this faith response which provides the thread which runs through the long history of Israel, of which the Law was only a part, coming much later, until such time as faith should come (3:23).

Then in the final two chapters Paul sets out what the new life of liberty in the Spirit is like. “Stand fast therefore in the liberty with which Christ has made us free and do not become entangled again in the yoke of slavery.” (5:1) A number of key themes are set out here: Christians are to walk in the Spirit, to bear the fruit of the Spirit and not to perform works of the flesh. They are to embrace the new world which Christ has brought by being crucified to the world and the world being crucified to them.

Such is the outline of Paul's letter. It is written with brilliance, passion, and in the heat of the moment. Most of it is dictated; only the last few verses are written, in “large letters” (6:11), in his own hand. Maybe they are the most telling. Here Paul affirms his faith in the new creation which has been brought about by Christ's death and resurrection. It is a dramatic turning point in the history of the world, which is achieved only with great violence and at great cost. Paul's double use of the metaphor of crucifixion is remarkable. This radical turn of events means that the old age is now passing away and that the new is already here. The old powers are undone and a new world has come into being, the Israel of God (6:16).

Interpretation History.

This radical message has attracted commentators through the ages. Galatians is the book that has spoken to people in the great turning points of history. Augustine, Chrysostom, and Jerome all wrote commentaries on it at the transition from the fourth to the fifth centuries as Christianity moved into the center of public life in the empire. Yet though all three wrote within a few years and a few hundred miles of each other, they produced readings which have subsequently inspired very different forms of Christianity. Galatians was Luther's favorite book as he opened up a new world at the end of the Middle Ages. The book contains strong themes and strong metaphors and raises as many questions as it answers. Moreover, in the heat of the moment, Paul said/dictated much that was unclear and ambiguous. What precisely was it that Paul intended when he spoke of the desires of the flesh and the spirit being opposed “so that you may not do what you want”? (5:17). Did this mean that they would be able to resist the temptations of the flesh? Did it mean that they were so internally divided that they would be unable to do the good that they wanted, or indeed that they would be unable to exercise their will at all? The subsequent history of interpretation shows how Paul's radical thoughts continue to provoke some of the finest readers of texts to give new shape to his thought world. In what follows, I will attempt to give a few examples from that rich history.

1. The Antioch Incident.

The account of the dispute between Peter and Paul has, over the years, given great encouragement to those who found themselves at odds with church authorities and considerable difficulty to those who wished to uphold the authority and power of church hierarchies. Marcion, one of the earliest interpreters of Paul, who wanted to make a sharp distinction between the harsh (if just) creator God of the Old Testament and the unfamiliar and loving God of Jesus Christ, saw this dispute between the two apostles as supporting his view that the law-observant and the law-free parties in the early church held radically opposed views. More orthodox interpreters like Chrysostom and Jerome held that Paul was here engaging in a none too subtle stratagem, yielding to Peter's views on circumcision temporarily in order not to lose the Jewish believers. For Augustine, such views simply made Paul into a liar. Peter is being called back from committing “a piece of pernicious deceit.” In a remarkable exchange of letters with Jerome, he argued that to turn Paul into a liar in this way was wholly to undermine the authority of Scripture. Once that were allowed, then any passage which presents difficulties, either ethical or doctrinal, could be “classified as the deliberate act of an author who was lying” (Augustine 1930, pp. 61–63). Luther took great comfort from this passage in his conflict with Rome: “when Peter put a stumbling block in the way of the church on matters of faith, he would have deserved to have been removed from his office (prelatura), if he had not been corrected by Paul” (WA 2 302, Luther's Disputation with Eck at Leipzig in 1519). Later, as historical studies of the Bible were developed, this became a key text for the Tübingen school, who saw the Petrine and Pauline parties as two opposed forces out of which early Catholicism emerged.

2. The Purpose and End of the Law.

Paul's question in 3:19, “Why then the Law,” has engaged interpreters through the ages. Marcion, with his belief in two Gods, believed that the creator's giving of the Law caused human beings to sin, not just that it brought knowledge of sin (Tertullian, Marc. 5. 13; ANF 3:456–9). The Fathers argued against this. They claimed that the Law was there to instruct the Jews, and to guard them from sin. For John Chrysostom, it was a mere grammarian, whereas the Spirit which replaced it for the baptized was a true philosopher and guide. How then could the Galatians so degrade themselves as to go back to the Law? It is not “against the promises of God” but was given “to probe their wounds, that they might long for a physician” (NPNF1 13:29). Luther also recognizes a two-fold function of the Law, a civil use, for rulers to control society and a theological one: the Law may drive a person to the “promise of grace, and maketh the same sweet and desirable unto him” (Luther 1953, p. 304; LW 26:315). Other Reformers, like Luther's close colleague Melanchthon, believed that there was a third use of the Law for the instruction of believers. Calvin argued that Paul was not addressing this issue in Galatians but that he did so in Romans. For him, the third use of the Law was the Law's “principal use and…has respect to believers in whose hearts the Spirit of God already flourishes and reigns” (Instit. II, 7, 12, my italics), “that, by teaching, admonishing, rebuking, and correcting, it may fit and prepare us for every good work” (Instit. II, 7, 14). Calvin's lack of confidence in the Spirit as a guide may well have its roots in experience, not least the experience of dealing with the Radical Reformation and its literal, Spirit-inspired, readings of the Sermon on the Mount.

3. New Creation.

Paul's assertion, in his own hand, at the end of the letter that “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything but a new creation” captures the radical sense of urgency that fills Paul as he grapples to secure the revolution in religious life and practice which he believes himself to be uniquely called to bring to birth. Paul's commitment to the new age which is being inaugurated attracts radical spirits like Luther and gives the letter its subversive power. It also attracted radical spirits like Marcion who saw Paul as breaking altogether with the world of the Old Testament and announcing the dawn of a radically new creation springing from the God of Jesus Christ. The Fathers rejected such a view, arguing that what Paul was rejecting was the old ways of the world, “life and conversation according to worldly principles.” For Chrysostom, it was a call “to seek for things strange and marvelous and above the heavens.” This new rule is a new creature because it refers to “things to come, because both the heaven and the earth, and all the creation, shall with our bodies be translated into incorruption” (Galatians, NPNF 13: pp. 46–47). For Aquinas, while the new creature is first identified as faith working through love, there is a significant shift to seeing the new creature not so much as a rule or principle to be followed but rather as a new mode of existence, a life in union with Christ, such that those who enjoy it are themselves made new: “it [the new creature, faith working through love] is called ‘new’ because by it we are reborn into a new life by the Holy Spirit” (Aquinas 1966, 203–206). This emphasis on the transformation of this present world reaches new heights in Luther's concluding remarks in his great commentary. “Therefore a new creature is the work of the Holy Ghost, which cleanseth our heart by faith, and worketh the fear of God, love, chastity, and other [Christian virtues], and giveth power to bridle the flesh and to reject the righteousness and wisdom of the world.…These changes consist not in words, but are new operations of the flesh, so that the eyes, ears, mouth, and tongue do not only see, hear and speak otherwise than they did before, but the mind also approveth, [loveth] and followeth another thing than it did before.…This Paul calleth a new creature” (1953, p. 565). However, the discovery in the nineteenth century that many writings of Paul's era entertained vivid expectations of a dramatic transformation of the whole created order led scholars to see a more cosmic dimension in these verses. Albert Schweitzer, an early proponent of such readings, writes simply: “The Pauline assertion that he who is in Christ is a new creature (kaine ktisis, Gal. vi. 15, 2 Cor. V. 17) has nothing to do with the notion of rebirth. He who has his being in Christ is a new creature because, inasmuch as he has died and risen again in Christ, he belongs already in the new world” (1931, p. 15).

[See also PAUL, LETTERS OF.]


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  • Martyn, J. Louis. Galatians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. Anchor Bible 33A. New York: Doubleday, 1997.
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John Riches