In the NT, the fourth of the letters of Paul. Was this epistle written to the Churches Paul is said to have visited in Acts in the province of Galatia, or to other unmentioned Churches in the ethnically Gallic northern part of the province, the ancient kingdom of Galatia? If the former (southern) destination is accepted, then the epistle will be the earliest of the Pauline epistles, hence the prominence in it of Barnabas, and the lack of any mention of Timothy, written perhaps in 48 CE to Churches he had evangelized; if the latter, then it is likely to have been written after 1 Thessalonians and before 1 Corinthians Much depends on whether Paul’s visit to Jerusalem described in Gal. 2 is that of the ‘Council’ of Jerusalem of Acts 15 (49 CE). If so, the epistle is late and is a robust response to opponents who alleged that his behaviour at Antioch was inconsistent with the agreement at Jerusalem. If not, then it is understandable that the decision of the council is never referred to, since it had not yet taken place. It is certainly possible that ‘the region of Galatia’ of Acts 16: 6 could be the northern district, distinct from the urban areas he had visited according to Acts 16: 1–5. There are therefore reasonable grounds for holding both views about the epistle’s date and destination: south and early (about 48 CE), or north and later. At any rate, Paul’s letter is ferocious in its language; clearly he felt his message and his status as an apostle were under threat. A group descended on Galatia (possibly they were Christian Pharisees) who argued that the Gentiles who had become Christians should also become members of the covenant people of God (Israel) and observe the Law, especially by male members being circumcised. It was not the only confrontation between Paul and these opponents: when he had gone to Jerusalem with a Gentile convert, Titus, certain ‘false brethren’ had then raised the issue of circumcision, which Paul resisted (Gal. 2: 3). They claimed too that Paul’s apostleship, such as it was, derived from the Jerusalem Church, and he had no authority to deviate from their teaching. Paul insisted that he was called by Christ himself. It was especially painful to Paul when Peter visited Antioch (Paul’s base) and reneged on his first intention to participate in a meal (possibly including a Eucharist itself) at which Gentiles were also present.
Paul held that the demand for Gentile converts to submit to the Law undermined his message that we are ‘justified’ by faith in Christ, not by the works of the Law. This fundamental theme was famously understood by Martin Luther in terms of his own religious experience and rejection of strenuous efforts to earn salvation by the discipline of a Catholic monk. He thus gave a wrong direction to exegesis ever since. Luther felt an enormous sense of relief when he shook off the burden of a profound sense of guilt: he read Paul’s words in Galatians and in Romans to mean that God reckoned a believer in Christ to be regarded as righteous by reason of his faith alone even though he was a sinner. Righteousness was imputed to him; he was declared righteous by a fiction in virtue of the mercy of God, though he remained a sinner.
However, Luther’s exegesis was mistaken. Paul was not obsessed with his sinfulness (Phil. 3: 6) but with the transfer from membership of the people of the covenant who responded to God’s grace by obedience to the law into a community of faith in Christ. People entered it not by circumcision but by baptism, and responded with an active life of love involving one’s whole being. It was a new dimension (2 Cor. 5: 17) for those made one with Christ (Gal. 3: 28).
Both his opponents and Paul agreed that the OT proclaimed that the God of Israel desired the salvation of all mankind, i.e. Gentiles as well as Jews, but the opponents urged that the Gentiles who accepted Jesus as the Messiah must first become Jews and obey the laws laid down in scripture, as explained in Gen. 17, for all the descendants of Abraham. Paul, however, maintained that the Genesis narrative about Abraham shows that what was primarily required of Abraham’s descendants was only faith (Gal. 3: 8). And what faith does for the Gentile converts is to make them one in Christ (Gal. 3: 26). It is the Christians who are now the true children of Abraham. If Jewish Christians wished to continue the practice of circumcision, it was up to them (Gal. 6: 15; 1 Cor. 7: 19–20). It was a matter of indifference. But on no account must the demand be imposed categorically on Gentiles (Gal. 2: 21). God’s chosen method of salvation was through Christ—his death and his resurrection—and it is appropriated by faith externalized in baptism. It confers the promises made to Abraham. Christians are freed from slavery to the law and have new life—but not a life of irresponsible abandon. Lev. 19: 18 continues as a guideline: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (Gal. 5: 14).
People, in Paul’s view, are not to be judged by their obedience to the Torah but on what they are and have received from Christ. Galatians is thus a preview of the sustained thesis of Romans. And this Pauline theology ultimately prevailed, though whether or not the recipients of the letter were persuaded is unknown. Certainly, the debate was to continue. In the middle of the 2nd century the Ebionites, a Jewish-Christian sect, are mentioned, not unsympathetically, by Justin and about 190 CE with asperity by Irenaeus.