Which Galatia?

GALATIANS 1 At the time Paul wrote his letter to "the churches in Galatia" (Gal 1:2), the Roman province by that name extended from north-central Asia Minor' (Turkey), where the Gauls (Galatians) had settled centuries earlier, to south-central Asia Minor, which had been incorporated into the province at the end of the first century B.C. Did Paul address his letter to believers in the north, who would have been ethnic Galatians, or to those living in the southern part of the Roman province?'

Acts indicates that Paul traveled to Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe during his first missionary journey (Ac 13:14-14:21).3 Although Luke did not refer to them as Galatian cities, they did belong to the southern part of that province. If Paul wrote this letter to believers in those cities shortly after that first journey, this would have been his first letter—and probably the oldest document in the New Testament. On the other hand, Acts 16:6 and 18:23 may indicate that Paul also traveled through northern Galatia during his second and third missionary journeys. If so, he may have addressed this letter to churches he had founded at that time.

This issue is important for determining the destination and date of Paul's letter to the Galatians, as well as for interpreting crucial passages that relate to the apostle's life.The "South Galatian theory" dates the letter to about x.0,49--50 and the"North Galatian theory" to the mid-50s. Some scholars believe that Galatians 2:1-10 refers to the Jerusalem council of Acts 15, while others see it as a reference to the famine visit of Acts 11.

Many scholars doubt that Paul would have referred to his readers as"Galatians" (Gal 3:1) if they were not ethnically Galatians.Others feel that it would have been the most appropriate term for believers of various ethnic backgrounds who all lived in that Roman province. Some interpreters argue that, in describing geographic locations and ethnic groups, Paul would have used the same terms that his contemporary and fellow Jew Josephus used. This famous historian appears to have considered all of the inhabitants of the Roman province of Galatia to be"Galatians." Today most scholars hold to the "South Galatian theory," believing that the letter refers to the churches Paul evangelized in that region (Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe). In fact, there is no clear evidence that Paul ever evangelized the northern Galatian region.

Antioch of Syria, center of Christianity

GALATIANS 2 There are two cities in the New Testament by the name of Antioch: Antioch of Pisidia in Asia Minor, evangelized by Paul (Ac 13:14-50),and Antioch in Syria, an early center of Christianity. Antioch of Syria was located on the Orontes River, about 15 miles (24 km) from the Mediterranean coast. Today this is the site of Antakya in southern Turkey, close to the border with Syria. Due to its status as a major commercial center at the junction of trade routes running eastward to Mesopotamia, westward to the Aegean and south to Damascus, Palestine and Egypt, it was one of the greatest cities in the ancient world.

Paul, in Galatians 2:11—,14, provided us with a look at church life in this early center of Christianity, a place where Jewish and Gentile believers came together. It became the base of the early church as a result of persecution, which forced followers of Jesus to flee there from Judea during the first century (Ac 11:19). Paul and Barnabas spent much time in Antioch preaching and teaching (Ac 11:25-26; 15:35); Paul embarked upon his missionary journeys from there (Ac 13:1-3; 15:36-41; 18:23);' and it was there that believers in Jesus were first called Christians (Ac 11:26). Excavations from 1932 to 1939 revealed the main street of first-century Antioch, flanked by broad walkways, temples, shops and baths. Herod the Great paved the street with marble, and Tiberius later added colonnades.

Paul's Jewish Opponents

GALATIANS 3 Throughout his Christian ministry Paul was dogged by Jewish opponents who sought to undermine his message. Some of these challengers were Jews who rejected the Messianic claims of Jesus and sought to halt the growth of the church by open persecution (Ac 13:45; 14:19), just as Paul himself had once done. On other occasions, however, Paul seems to have been opposed by Jews who were perhaps offended not so much by the fact that Paul preached Christ but that he did not require Gentiles to become proselytes (i.e., to embrace the ways of Judaism, such as circumcision, observance of the Sabbath and avoidance of non-kosher foods). It appears that the Christians in Galatia had been persuaded not to turn away from Christ but to become proselytes. For Paul this was an alarming development because it undercut the core message of the gospel; if salvation could not be attained without embracing Judaism,then the death of Christ was insufficient.

Scholars have become vitally interested in understanding Paul's Jewish adversaries, because this issue is key to understanding Paul. The traditional Protestant view is that Paul's Jewish opponents were "legalists" who believed that salvation is not received by grace through faith but must be earned by good works"(which in this case meant adherence to the ritual laws of Judaism).

Against this, some have recently argued that first-century Judaism was not really "legalistic" at all but that it held to the belief that forgiveness was obtained purely by the mercy of God. These scholars charge that Protestants have judged ancient Jews out of the context of the Protestant Reformation, when Luther faced the legalism of Roman Catholic masses and indulgences, rather than truly listening to the first-century Jews them-selves.To the contrary, such critics insist,faithful Jews believed that God had chosen them purely on the basis of his grace and that he required only that they regulate their lives according to the terms of his covenant. The "rules"of Judaism, according to this perspective, helped Jews to preserve their identity and faithfulness but were not a means for acquiring God's favor.

This viewpoint on Judaism has led to an altered perspective on Paul. If the early Jews were not in fact legalistic, then our interpretation of some of Paul's words needs significant revision.On the other hand, many believe that it is valid to claim that many first-century Jews did embrace an excessively moralistic and institutionalized view of religion and that Paul was reacting against this code. Scholars are currently involved in research to try to determine exactly what these early Jews believed about how God's favor was to be obtained.

Even so, it is probably unnecessary to prove that first-century Judaism was formally and theologically legalistic in order to demonstrate that many of Paul's opponents were legalistic in their approach to their religion.When Jesus opposed the Jewish leadership, he was concerned not so much with debating the Pharisees over hypothetical elements of theology as with their lack of repentance (e.g., Mt 23).2 When religious people are unrepentant, they often become harsh and judgmental, adhering to a letter-of-the-law code of moral and ethical standards.Their ability to perform religious rites and duties becomes a substitute for an authentic and personal knowledge of God. This is true in Christian communities as well, notwithstanding the fact that no one in these communities disputes that Christianity holds to salvation "by grace and not by works" as one of its core teachings.Thus, even though many of Paul's opponents may have formally accepted that forgiveness depends entirely upon the mercy of God, in their practical religious lives they may well have been legalistic.

The Gods of the Greeks and Romans

GALATIANS 4 The"religious marketplace" was extremely crowded during the Hellenistic era. The Olympian deities (and their Roman equivalents) still held a place in popular religion: mighty Zeus and his consort Hera, warlike Ares, erotic Aphrodite, prophetic Apollo, the virgin warrior Athena, Artemis the huntress,' Hermes the messenger of the gods, Hephaestus the smith, Poseidon of the sea, Demeter of the field and Hestia of the hearth. Pluto, the grim god of the underworld, was not always listed among the "Twelve" but retained a significant place in religious thinking. While these deities were certainly reverenced, they were seldom seen as admirable characters. To the contrary, myths described them as violent and lustful, as well as capricious and conniving in their dealings with humans and with one another (as is seen in Homer's Iliad and Odyssey and in Ovid's Metamorphoses). It is not surprising, then, that these deities and their stories were later sanitized by the philosophers.2 In some systems, for example, Zeus was equated with the organizing principle of the universe (examples are Cleanthes' Hymn to Zeus and Aratus's Phaenomena). This transformation of the idea of Zeus was so thorough that Jews and Christians could sometimes make use of material related to Zeus in their apologetic teaching in the Hellenistic world (as in Paul's reference to a poem by the stoic Aratus in Ac 17).

Foreign cults also proliferated in Greece and Rome during the Hellenistic age. The worship of the god Sarapis was particularly popular, even though it appears that he was invented as late as the third century B.c, drawing together characteristics from various Greek and Egyptian deities. Widespread stories of his offering help to his followers (deliverance from shipwreck, healing, etc.) compensated for his lack of a long history. Isis and Osiris, other Egyptian dieties, were also popular objects of worship.

In addition to these major deities, there remained a host of local spirits and gods that attracted generation throughout the empire. Household gods, preserving hearth and home, were especially popular among the Romans. Naiads were described as water-nymphs associated with fountains, just as Dryads were associated with trees and Nereids with the sea. Various spirits connected with the earth were thought to bring fertility to crops, as well as to be associated with death and the underworld.The terrifying goddess Hekate was particularly prominent and was frequently invoked in magic spells) Finally, heroes from the past, most notably Hercules, were thought to aid people in distress and sometimes to serve as spiritual mentors.

Magic in the Greco-Roman World

GALATIANS 5 Various types of magical practice flourished in the Greco-Roman world. Spells, charms, amulets, potions and even voodoo-type dolls were used to procure the favor of supernatural powers.The borders of magic were fluid; some "magical potions" may have been legitimate attempts at pharmacology,' while certain "magical spells" had a strong component of prayer and worship. Nonetheless, the idea of magic as manipulating supernatural beings for one's personal benefit still accurately represents this underground spirituality.

Various substances—anything from bits of the hair of a desired lover to baboon dung or drowned field mice—were employed in spells. These substances, combined with the "right" ritual practices and the proper magic words, supposedly guaranteed the compliance of the deity who was to accomplish the task.The words might be nonsense syllables or secret names of the gods. It was not unusual for such spells to end with an abrupt command such as"Quick! Quick! Do it! Do it!" While practitioners commonly called upon evil spirits of the underworld to do their bidding, any divinity was likely to be invoked. Some magicians even attempted to manipulate the God of Israel. Indeed, he is invoked frequently in the magical papyri, generally under the name "lao," a possible pronunciation of the name Yahweh by first-century Christians.