Galatians Introduction

The significance of the letter

The letter to the Galatians deals directly with the most basic theological question faced by the first Christian generation: How does the gospel of Jesus Christ affect the Jewish/Gentile division? The first Christians were Jewish, and at the beginning it was assumed by them that the special character of their nation, and thus the ceremonial observances related to it, would be continued. When Gentiles began to receive the gospel in significant numbers, those assumptions were challenged, and it took a prolonged period of reflection, adjustment and struggle to understand God’s purposes for Jew and Gentile.

No document is more important to uncover those struggles than Paul’s letter to the churches of Galatia. The Christians in that area had become the object of intense missionary zeal by certain ‘Judaizers’ who were convinced that the gospel did not set aside the Jewish ceremonies and that, therefore, the Gentile Christians must become Jews if they were to receive God’s promise given to Abraham. (Originally the Greek word ‘to Judaize’ was used to describe the adoption of Jewish ways by Gentile converts to Judaism.) Moved by the Judaizing arguments, these Galatians, who had initially been evangelized by Paul, began to observe the Jewish ceremonies. The apostle realized that such a turn of events undermined the very essence of the gospel of grace. His letter to them reveals Paul’s deepest convictions.

As he develops his arguments in response to the teaching of the Judaizers, the apostle touches on a variety of fundamental questions, such as the nature of apostolic authority, justification by faith, the Abrahamic promise, sonship, the role of the law of Moses, freedom, the work of the Holy Spirit and sanctification. It is not surprising that this letter has played a major role throughout the history of the church, most notably at the time of the Reformation in the sixteenth century, when Martin Luther leaned heavily on Galatians to attack the Roman Catholic doctrine of salvation. While the precise focus of controversy between Paul and his opponents—should the Gentiles be circumcised?—may appear to be a distant concern to most Christians after the first century, the central issue is nothing less than the basis of our relationship to God. The answer given by the Judaizers, on the surface, called attention to the Jewish ceremonies, but their deeper commitment—dependence on ‘the flesh’ rather than the Spirit—can find expression in many other ways.

It is claimed by some modern scholars that this so-called Protestant understanding of Galatians is invalid. However, although Martin Luther and the other Reformers may have missed certain nuances, they were not mistaken to see in this letter God’s answer to the issues of that day. Whatever else Galatians teaches, it certainly tells us in clear and vigorous language that our right standing before God can only be an act of grace received through faith in Christ. No church rituals and no human efforts can establish our justification. On the contrary, ‘The righteous will live by faith’ (3:11).

Historical setting

With regard to certain historical questions surrounding Galatians, there is very little doubt. Few scholars seriously question, for example, that Paul was the author. Again, the text makes it quite clear that certain individuals were creating spiritual sedition in the Galatians community by preaching a false gospel that pressured the Gentile believers to observe Jewish ceremonies, particularly circumcision (1:7–9; 5:2–3, 7–12; 6:12–13). On the other hand, considerable debate exists regarding the date, the recipients, and the precise occasion for the writing of this important letter.

Many scholars today identify the recipients of this letter as the churches founded by Paul and Barnabas in Iconium, Lystra and Derbe (Acts 14:1–23). They were located in the southern part of the Roman province of Galatia, in the interior of Asia Minor (modern Turkey). The name of this province comes from a region to the north, where the race of Galatians (originally from Gaul) had settled, and a minority opinion holds that the churches in question were located in this area—an opinion that affects the dating of the letter. Appeal is made to Acts 16:6 in support of the view that Paul founded some churches there, but this text is at best ambiguous, and other evidence is not strong.

A more complicated but related question has to do with the dating of the letter. The basic point of the debate is whether Paul wrote Galatians before or after the so-called Apostolic Council in Jerusalem. This event, recorded in Acts 15, is dated by most scholars in ad 49 (certainly no earlier than 48). Paul apparently refers to this council in Gal. 2:1–10, but many have argued that his description conflicts with the Acts narrative, especially since he fails to mention the decree reported in Acts 15:22–29.

Some scholars avoid the problem by arguing that Galatians was written before the council. (This argument assumes that the letter was written to churches in the southern part of the province. The view that the churches in question were located to the north prohibits this dating, since Paul did not evangelize the northern region until after the council.) According to this early dating, Gal. 2 does not conflict with Acts for the simple reason that at the time of writing this letter the council had not yet taken place. Paul’s comments, therefore, must refer to a different meeting (probably the one described in Acts 11:29–30). To other scholars this solution appears too easy, especially in view of the strong similarities between Acts 15 and Gal. 2. It is possible to argue that both passages refer to the same event and that the differences can be accounted for by recognizing the very different perspectives of the two authors. According to this view, Galatians must have been written after ad 49, and the preferred date is in the mid-fifties, while Paul was in Ephesus during his third missionary journey.

The controversy about the date of Galatians is not a mere scholarly game. Certain subtleties about the meaning of the letter—to say nothing about larger questions regarding the history of the early church—are indeed affected by one’s view of its relationship to the Jerusalem council. The present commentary assumes Galatians was written in the mid-fifties. Nevertheless, since it is not possible to achieve certainty on the question, it would be unwise to interpret the letter in a way that depends heavily on how it is dated. In particular, an effort must be made not to give key explanations that would be rendered invalid by the adoption of an alternate historical setting. Fortunately, the primary thrust of Paul’s argument is clear enough and does not revolve around our ability to identify the setting with precision.

Purpose and structure

What then is Paul’s argument? The apostle is very explicit when he states that he was moved to write the letter because the Galatians were in the process of deserting the gospel (1:6–7). They had, in fact, returned to ritualistic practices reminiscent of their earlier pagan experience (4:9–10).

Because the individuals who were causing problems in Galatia appear to have undermined Paul’s authority, the apostle devotes the first major section of the letter to defending the divine origin of his gospel (chs. 1–2; see especially 1:1, 11–12; 2:6–9). In the next two chapters, appealing to the OT itself, he demonstrates that God’s promise to Abraham is received, not by the works of the law, but through faith (cf. 3:6–14). Finally, he finds it necessary, in chs. 5–6, to spell out the practical implications of this gospel of freedom (see especially 5:13–26). These three concerns, however, are subservient to his one great purpose: preventing the Galatians from abandoning the gospel of truth and becoming apostates.

The threefold structure just outlined reflects a common and traditional way of reading Galatians. Recent studies, without necessarily discarding this basic perspective, have attempted to define more precisely the literary character of the letter by examining rhetorical techniques in antiquity. Some scholars view Galatians as an ‘apologetic’ discourse (something like a judicial defence), while others view it as a ‘deliberative’ piece (intended to persuade an audience to do something). Another perspective, focusing more on the structure of letters rather than on speeches, sees Galatians as consisting of two main parts, a rebuke section (1:6–4:11) and a request section (4:12–6:10).

Additional suggestions have been proposed by specialists in this field, and the insights of sociological and anthropological research make further contributions to our understanding of the way Paul constructs his arguments. Since a consensus has not been reached on these matters, the present commentary uses a fairly traditional outline to indicate the structure of the apostle’s logic. Whatever the precise literary pattern that may have influenced Paul’s writing, it is of great importance to interpret each verse or passage in the context of that logic. (See also article Reading the letters).

Further reading

J. R. W. Stott, The Message of Galatians, BST (IVP, 1968).

G. W. Hansen, Galatians, IVPNTC (IVP, 1994).

R. A. Cole, Galatians, TNTC (IVP/UK/Eerdmans, 1989).

D. Guthrie, Galatians, NCB (Marshalls/Eerdmans, 1973).

R. N. Longenecker, Galatians, WBC (Word, 1990).

F. F. Bruce, Commentary on Galatians, NIGTC (Eerdmans, 1982).

OT Old Testament

cf. compare

BST The Bible Speaks Today

IVPNTC IVP New Testament Commentary

TNTC Tyndale New Testament Commentary

NCB New Century Bible

WBC Word Biblical Commentary

NIGTC New International Greek Testament Commentary

Carson, D. A. (1994). New Bible commentary : 21st century edition. Rev. ed. of: The new Bible commentary. 3rd ed. / edited by D. Guthrie, J.A. Motyer. 1970. (4th ed.) (Gl 1.1). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press.