21. Galatians: Background

Course: New Testament Survey - Acts to Revelation

Lecture: Galatians: Background


When we talk about Philippians, we talk about the church at the city of Philippi; Colossians, the church at the city of Colossae; and Thessalonians, the church at the city of Thessalonica; but Galatians does not refer to a city. Galatians refers to either the province or territory, but it includes a group of churches, not just a single city. And the main question that comes up as to Galatia is the South Galatian Hypothesis or the North Galatian Hypothesis, which simply is, “Did Paul write to the Roman province that is called Galatia, or to the ethnic territory that was called Galatia?” Long before it became a Roman province designated by that name, there was a territory called Galatia, and the province would be for the south; the ethnic area is further north. Now if he’s referring to the province of Galatia, that would include the churches that had been established on the first missionary journey. Pisidian Antioch, Lystra, Iconium, and Derbe are all in the province of Galatia. Paul doesn’t really in the Book of Acts ever specifically establish churches in what we would call the north Galatian area, but in 18:23, this would be when that would have had to take place, “After spending some time there, he departed and went from place to place through the region of Galatia and Phrygia, strengthening all the disciples.” So that, if it is the northern area, then we have to say it’s after Acts 18:23. If it’s south Galatia, the Roman province, then it would be the churches established on the very first missionary journey. So it could have been written any time from AD 49 on.

I tend to favor what we call the South Galatian Hypothesis for a couple of reasons. In Galatians 2:13, Paul refers to Barnabas. Now, the impression that you get here is that they know Barnabas, “And with him the rest of the Jews acted insincerely, so that even Barnabas was carried astray by their insincerity.” They must know who Barnabas is. Even Barnabas was carried away by what was going on here. If you say that, they must know who Barnabas is. So if Barnabas is known, when was Barnabas with Paul? On the first Missionary journey. So, this would have to be the south Galatian group of churches. They would know who Barnabas was; the north Galatian churches might have heard something about Barnabas, if they knew stories about apostles, but they would never have known him personally. The Book of Acts never speaks of Paul having founded churches in the territory of Galatia; we just have to assume that when he passed through there, this took place. But nothing specifically is said.

Furthermore, Paul tends to use Roman political (not ethnic) designations for the places, and that would be right up his alley as a Roman citizen (and somewhat proud of being a Roman citizen and the benefits that it bestowed upon him). To use Roman political designations makes sense here.

Also, in 1 Corinthians 16:1, he refers to the Galatians having taken part in an offering that at the end of the third missionary journey is brought to Jerusalem. We’ll talk more about that. But at the end of his third missionary journey, Paul brings a missionary offering to the poor in Jerusalem. And when he writes 1 Corinthians, he refers to this offering (he refers also in 2 Corinthians to it), “Now concerning the contribution for the saints [meaning the poor in Jerusalem], as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you are also to do.” So he refers here to this offering that he has been collecting, and the churches in Galatia have given that offering. In Acts 20, at the end of the third missionary journey, Luke refers to people who go with Paul, (only later do we find that they went expressly bringing an offering) but he mentions various people. For instance, he says, “There he spent three months, … and he determined to return though Macedonia. Sopater of Berea, son of Pyrrhus, accompanied him; and the Thessalonians, Aristarchus and Secundus; and Gaius of Derbe, and Timothy ….” When he speaks of Gaius of Derbe, that’s south Galatia. So, these people bringing the offering with him to Jerusalem (and we’ll talk more about that next week), these people accompanying the offering, well the only Galatia that we know of is the province, and not the territory. So I think the South Galatian Hypothesis is the issue. And essentially, this is a historical question, and it doesn’t affect the interpretation of Galatians in any way.

It is interesting how lots of Germans who were critical of the accounts in Acts tend to argue for the North Galatian Hypothesis. But evangelicals have tended to argue for the South Galatian Hypothesis. It fits the account in Acts much better, and evangelicals may have a tendency to want to harmonize it and say “well, you know, Paul did establish a church in Galatia – in south Galatia – so why don’t we just accept that?” And some of the more critical scholars have a bias too. Many times I think they choose to find conflicts rather than harmony in that regard.

As to the date, if you accept the South Galatian Hypothesis, and that Acts 15 and Galatians 2 refer to the same event, it could take place any time after AD 50. In the North Galatian Hypothesis, it would have to be after AD 54. So the earliest date would be AD 50, or around 54. I believe it’s around AD 54, but I believe in the South Galatian Hypothesis. But the dating of Galatians is really difficult. I think Romans and 1 Corinthians are easy to date (around AD 55). For Galatians, some have argued that it’s Paul’s earliest letter. In other words, it’s even before the Thessalonian letters. There are no clues as to when after AD 50 the letter was written; it could have been the earliest of Paul’s letters. I think that the similarity between Galatians and Romans suggests that probably they’re dealing at about the same time with similar issues. So the similarity of Galatians to Romans, and also some of the arguments in 1 and 2 Corinthians suggest to me that it’s around AD 55. But again, it’s impossible to be dogmatic in that regard.

When we talk about Paul’s letters, we talk about their occasional nature. That means that they are written because of a problem. There’s an occasion here. Why did he write Galatians? Well, there are some problems. Now, the problems of Galatia that they faced, and the argument of Paul defending that, gives us the basis of one of the two most important letters of the New Testament teaching the doctrine of justification by faith. There seem to be people in Galatia that are troubling them from outside actually, but they are now in Galatia, troubling the Galatian Christians. One of those issues is the issue of circumcision. You may say, “Wasn’t that issue settled in Jerusalem at the end of the first missionary journey, in around AD 49, when the church in Antioch sent Paul and Barnabas there?” It seems that theologically it should have been resolved there, but the issue seems to have come up again. Some people raised it again, and here in Galatians 5:2, Paul says, “Now I Paul say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who receives circumcision that he is bound to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love.” And then in 6:12-13, “It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that would compel you to be circumcised, and only in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. But even those who receive circumcision do not themselves keep the law, for they desire to have you circumcised that they may glory in your flesh.” So circumcision is a key issue.

Another issue related to that is the emphasis on keeping the law. In 3:2, Paul asks them, “Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?” And in 3:10, “All who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, to do them.’” And in 3:24-25, “So that the law was our custodian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under that custodian.” And in 5:4, “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law.”

Also, there seems to be the involving of keeping certain Jewish feasts (4:10), “You observe days and months and seasons and years.” And so, theologically, the problem is a kind of ‘faith plus works’ redemption, with the works centering on circumcision, keeping the law, and observing various aspects of the law like feast days.

Paul is also personally attacked as being a sub-kind of apostle. One way they attack what Paul teaches is by attacking him. He’s not a real apostle, and the result is that they shouldn’t pay attention to him [the Judaizers argue], but they should listen to what they [the Judaizers] are teaching with regard to the need of salvation. Because he’s not a real apostle; the real apostles are in Jerusalem. And we come from Jerusalem, from James and others, who are teaching what supposedly they are saying they [James and the others] are teaching.

As to the anguish of Paul in writing the letter, it’s very apparent. Paul is very disturbed and troubled by this. Let me read to you the opening verses of all of Paul’s letters and then I’ll read you Galatians:

• Romans: “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through the prophets in the holy Scriptures [and he elaborates on that] … To all God’s beloved in Rome who are called by God: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” And then he has after that introduction, the typical word of greetings, and it goes this way (v.8), “First I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you.”

• 1 Corinthians: “Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and our brother Sosthenes, To the church of God that is in Corinth, …: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. [And then he goes on, even though there are a lot of problems in this church] I give thanks to God always for you.”

• 2 Corinthians [a little more brief]: “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, to the church of God which is at Corinth, with all the saints who are in the whole of Achaia: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ….”

• Ephesians [we’ll skip Galatians for a minute]: “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To the saints who are also faithful in Christ Jesus in Ephesus, [Ephesus is not mentioned in some of the earliest manuscripts specifically]: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus.”

• Philippians: “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints of God who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank God in all my remembrance of you.”

• Colossians: “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae: Grace to you and peace from God our Father. We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you.”

• 1 Thessalonians: “Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace. We give thanks to God always for you….”

• 2 Thessalonians: “Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and Lord Jesus Christ. We are bound to give thanks always for you ….”

• And now Galatians: “Paul, an apostle -- not from men nor through men, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead – and all the brethren who are with me, To the churches of Galatia: Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen. I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel.”

Every letter after its salutation expects some word of commendation or praise, “Blessed be our God”, “I give thanks always to God for you”, “Blessed be our God for …”, etc. When you come to Galatians, they expect that. That’s part of the normal form of a letter, and it’s not there. The first thing they hear after the salutation is not some sort of thanksgiving, but, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel.” I mean, they knew that Paul was upset. It violates the normal form of a letter, and that is very weighty. But he goes on, and he says, “Not that there is another gospel, but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, let him be accursed.” The Greek word here is anathema. To use language here that is perhaps more pointed: “…let them go to hell.” That’s what anathema means. And when you have just caught your breath after this statement, he says (v. 9), “As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.”

He’s very upset in the letter, and very agitated by all of this. In 4:11, “I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain.” Verses 12-20, “Brethren, I beseech you, become as I am, for I also have become as you are. You did me no wrong. You know that it was because of a bodily ailment that I preached the gospel to you at first….” The question of what that ailment is, is much debated. Some have suggested that Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” is being referred to, and the question is, “Well, what is the thorn in the flesh?” Well, they knew -- the recipients of his letters knew; we don’t. Some suggest it was poor eyesight, because he says in Galatians that he’s writing these with large letters for him. But it might just be like John Hancock when he signed the Declaration of Independence -- he just used large letters to emphasize a point. Some have suggested that he may have had malaria, and that’s why he came to Galatia, because Galatia’s in the mountains. And they had come from the port – from the lowlands, where malaria is more rampant. We just don’t know.

But he goes on to say (v.14), “But even though my condition was a trial for you, you did not scorn or despise me, but received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus. What has become of the satisfaction you felt? But I bear you witness to you that, if possible, you would have gouged out your eyes and given them to me.” Some have suggested that may reflect an eye disease that he had. Or it could be just an expression. “Have I become your enemy by telling you the truth? They make much of you, but for no good purpose. They want to shut you up, that you may make much of them. It is always good to be made much of for a good purpose, and not only when I am present with you, my little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you! I wish I could be present with you now and change my tone, for I am perplexed about you.” And then in chapter 5, he picks that up again, “Now I Paul say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you.” And then finally in 6:17, he goes on again, “Therefore, let no man cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.”

So he’s heartbroken over what’s happening in Galatia. He’s heartbroken toward them, but he’s furious toward the opponents because they are going to pervert people from following the Lord in this way. There’s one statement that’s kind of crude here, where he wishes something on those who are troubling him. He says (5:12), “I wish that those who unsettle you would mutilate themselves.” There are other translations that term this phrase, “…would castrate themselves.” So he has a pun here – it’s kind of a crude pun, but the circumcision party that is emphasized. “I wish that those emphasizing circumcision would go further and just castrate themselves.” He’s really upset. This is not a part of the text that you spend a lot of time on when you’re preaching from Galatians to the congregation.