Introduction to Galatians

Author

The author of the Letter to the Galatians identifies himself as “Paul the Apostle” (1:1), and the letter is full of corroborating personal references. Paul defends his independent apostleship by narrating his conversion/call and his early relationships with the Jerusalem apostles (1:11-2:10). He describes a difficult confrontation in Antioch with Peter (and Barnabas; 2:11-14). Paul reminds his readers of his earlier ministry with them (4:12-20). He cites his own attitudes and decisions as matters for the Galatians to emulate (2:18-21; 5:11; 6:14; perhaps 1:13-16). And he seeks to move his readers to embrace again the gospel he first preached to them by means of personal and even emotional appeals (1:6-10; 3:1; 4:11; 5:2-3; 6:17). Only 2 Corinthians and the Pastoral Epistles rival Galatians in degree of personal reference.

From the earliest days of the church, Paul’s authorship of Galatians has been acknowledged and never seriously challenged. Only the more mechanical aspect of authorship is debated. In 6:11, Paul says, “See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand!” This claim probably applies only to 6:11 and following and not to the entire letter (on this issue and the reason why Paul might say this, see the commentary). A natural, though not inevitable, corollary is that someone else has “written down” the rest of the letter on Paul’s behalf. We know, both from general ancient testimony and from Paul himself (Rom. 16:22), that he often—indeed, perhaps always—used what was called in the ancient world an “amanuensis” to perform the work of physically writing out his letters (R. Longenecker 1983; Richards 1991). Amanuenses were given varying degrees of freedom as far as their own involvement in the composition was concerned. An amanuensis who was a trusted confidant might be responsible for much of the actual wording of a letter based on a more or less detailed outline of content provided by the true “author” (many interpreters think that such a situation could explain the differences in vocabulary and style among the Letters of Paul; see, e.g., Carson and Moo 2005: 334-35). If Paul used an amanuensis in writing the bulk of Galatians (which is probable), the strongly personal nature of the letter argues for a situation closer to word-for-word dictation.

The Occasion for the Letter

The basic situation Paul addresses in Galatians is clear enough from the opening of the letter body. Omitting any thanksgiving for the Galatians, Paul immediately decries their flirtation with “another gospel” (1:6-10). This counterfeit gospel is being propagated by false teachers who are “confusing” the Gentile Galatians (1:7; 5:10) by insisting that their faith in Christ be supplemented by submission to circumcision and other elements of the Mosaic law (esp. 5:2-4). Paul responds to this challenge in three stages. First, he uses his own experience to illustrate the relationship between “the truth of the gospel” (2:5, 14) and the law of Moses (1:11-2:21), with a particular focus on his relationship to the Jerusalem apostles (1:17-2:14). Second, he uses the Galatians’ own experience and especially Scripture to argue that the justification that accompanies belonging to the “seed” of Abraham is by faith, apart from torah observance (3:1-5:12). Third, he shows that conduct pleasing to God is secured by that same faith and the work of God’s Spirit apart from torah (5:13-6:18).

The Destination and Date of the Letter

The general circumstances that gave rise to Paul’s Letter to the Galatians are not a matter of debate. But the specifics are much less clear. Who were the people “agitating” the Galatians by proclaiming a different gospel? And who were the Galatians? We will take up this second question first.

The destination of Galatians is one of the best-known and most intractable problems in NT introduction. To be sure, it is not the question of destination per se that is so important but the related question of the date of the letter. This latter issue bears on a range of significant issues, from the meaning of some specific verses in Galatians to the development and shape of Paul’s theology, the historicity of the book of Acts, and the course of early Christian history. Why is there so much disagreement over this issue? Very simply, it is because the location of the Christians that Paul addresses in the letter is unclear, and no other NT text settles the matter.

Paul addresses this letter to “the churches of Galatia” (ταῖς ἐκκλησίαις τῆς Γαλατίας, tais ekklēsiais tēs Galatias; 1:2); and note 3:1, “you foolish Galatians” (ὠ ἀνόητοι Γαλάται, ō anoētoi Galatai). This is the only letter that Paul addressed explicitly to a number of churches in a particular area (although his references in several other letters to believers in general could imply more than one congregation [probably in Rom. 1:7; perhaps in Eph. 1:1; less probably in Phil. 1:1 and Col. 1:2]). The name Γαλάται originally referred to a group of Celtic people from Gaul who migrated into Anatolia in central Asia Minor in the third century BC. (In addition to Γαλάται, these people were called Κέλτοι or Κέλται; in Latin, Celtae, Galli, or Galatae; see, e.g., Josephus Ant. 17.344; J.W. 4.547, 634; 7.88.) The predominance of this ethnic group in the region led the Romans to name a province in central and southern Asia Minor “Galatia” in the first century BC. In Paul’s day, then, “Galatia” had both an ethnic/geographical and a political/geographical referent.

Options

Paul could not have written this letter any earlier than the date at which he would have been able to visit the cities in question at least once. If, as we will assume, the book of Acts provides reliable (though not, of course, exhaustive) information about Paul’s missionary travels, we can use specific references in Galatians to locate Paul within this narrative.

First, the earliest that we find Paul in provincial Galatia is during the first missionary journey of Acts 13-14. The Roman province of Asia covered a wide swath of central Asia Minor, extending from almost the Mediterranean Sea in the south to almost as far as the Black Sea in the north. Included within the province were the cities where Paul planted churches on this first missionary journey (Pisidian Antioch, Lystra, Iconium, Derbe; see Acts 13-14). A destination to provincial Galatia allows, then, a date as early as immediately after this first missionary journey. This is true even if Gal. 4:13 implies that Paul had made two visits to the Galatian churches before writing the letter. The meaning of this verse is debated (see the commentary) because Paul refers to his earlier visit(s) with a word (πρότεπρον, proteron) that could mean either “first” (of three or more) or “former” (of two). In other words, it is unclear whether this verse implies that Paul had made two visits to the Galatians before writing this letter or only one. Most scholars assume or argue that he is implying two previous visits, although we think it more likely that only one is in view. However, our point here is that our decision on this matter does not seriously affect the issue of destination and date. Even if we posit two visits to Galatia before the writing of the letter, a date immediately following the first missionary journey is still possible. For Luke tells us that Paul and his companions, after their initial evangelistic journey through South Galatia, retraced their steps to strengthen these new converts (Acts 14:22-25).

On this general reading of the data, then, Galatians could have been written before the meeting of the Jerusalem Council, perhaps around AD 48. Because the churches of the first missionary journey are located in the southern part of provincial Galatia, this view of the destination and date of Galatians has become known as the “South Galatian” theory. This understanding of the destination and date of Galatians was vigorously defended by William Ramsay and popularized by F. F. Bruce. It should be stressed, however, that a South Galatian destination does not lock us into an early date of the letter: Paul could have written to these churches anytime after his initial visit. A fair number of scholars, then, while convinced of a South Galatian destination, argue for a date after the Jerusalem Council.

If, on the other hand, we think that Paul wrote to ethnic Galatia, a somewhat later date is required. This is because it appears unlikely that Paul could have entered the region of ethnic Galatia, in north-central Asia Minor, before the beginning of the second missionary journey. Indeed, Luke tells us that, after revisiting the cities of the first missionary journey (Acts 16:1-4), “Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia” (Acts 16:6). Thus if Paul wrote to ethnic Galatia, the earliest date for the letter would be sometime after this visit—around AD 50 or so. And if 4:13 is taken to refer to two visits to Galatia, an even later date would be necessary. This second visit would plausibly be identified with Luke’s claim in Acts 18:23 that, at the beginning of the third missionary journey, “Paul... traveled from place to place throughout the region of Galatia and Phrygia, strengthening all the disciples.” Hence the classic “North Galatian” theory holds that Paul wrote to ethnic Galatia, with its key cities Ancyra, Pessinus, and Tavium, sometime during the third missionary journey (perhaps around AD 55-56). This North Galatian view was defended by Lightfoot in his classic commentary and is still widely held, especially by German scholars.

Although related, the questions of destination and date are independent. We will first look at the question of destination and then consider the matter of date.

Destination

The two options for the destination of the letter are more properly termed the “tribal” or “regional” (German Landschaft) view and the “provincial” view (see, e.g., Esler 1998: 32). In practice, however, since advocates of the “provincial” view identify the destination of the letter with the cities of the first missionary journey, the traditional “North” versus “South” nomenclature is the most useful. Dozens of arguments for and against these views are found in the literature. Many of them are inconclusive or too subjective to be of much use. And in any case, we need not evaluate or even list these many arguments, which are covered very adequately by NT introductions and other commentaries (see esp. Guthrie 1990: 465-83; R. Longenecker 1990: lxi-lxxxviii). We instead will focus on two issues that, we think, are the most significant in deciding this question: (1) the meaning of “Galatia/Galatians”; and (2) the route of Paul’s travels. The first issue is usually cited in favor of the North Galatian view, the second in favor of the South Galatian view.

1. The meaning of “Galatia/Galatians.” As we noted above, Γαλατία (Galatia, Galatia) in Paul’s day referred both to a region in north-central Asia Minor and to a Roman province. Nothing in Galatians makes clear to which of these Paul refers in the address of the letter (1:2). The referents in Paul’s other two uses of the word are also unclear: in 1 Cor. 16:1, he encourages the Corinthians to follow the example of “the churches of Galatia” (NRSV) in their generous giving to the collection; and in 2 Tim. 4:10 he mentions that “Crescens has gone to Galatia.” The only other occurrence of Γαλατία in the NT comes in the address of 1 Peter: “the elect exiles of the dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia” (1:1 ESV). It is almost certain that these names refer to Roman provinces (as most scholars agree; and note NIV and NLT). The word Γαλάται (Galatai, Galatians) occurs only in Gal. 3:1 (see also 1 Macc. 8:2; 2 Macc. 8:20). The referent of the adjective Γαλατικής (Galatikēs, Galatian), which occurs twice in Acts (16:6; 18:23), is also debated (see below on point 2).

Advocates of the North Galatian hypothesis argue that “Galatians” would naturally refer to people who were Galatian by ethnicity (see the data in BDAG 186-87). Indeed, to refer to other ethnic groups who were “Galatian” only because the conquering power, Rome, had imposed the name on them would have been both impolitic and unlikely (see, e.g., Lightfoot 1881: 19). On the other hand, C. Hemer (1989: 299-305) has shown that “Galatians” was, in fact, used to refer to people of various ethnic origins who lived in the southern part of the Roman province. And it is difficult to know what other word Paul could have used if he wanted to refer to all the Christians living in the cities of the first missionary journey (e.g., Burton 1921: xxix). Advocates of the South Galatian hypothesis note further that Paul generally uses provincial rather than ethnic names (Ramsay 1900: 147-64, 314-21). But this is not entirely clear (Kümmel 1975: 297; Rohde 1989: 7-8). The argument about the terms “Galatia” and “Galatians” is therefore inconclusive: they could refer either to the Roman province and people living in that province or to an ethnic region and to the people living in that region.

2. What might we learn from Paul’s travels about the likely destination of the letter? No one doubts that Paul evangelized cities in the southern part of the Roman province of Galatia: the South Galatian hypothesis has no problem on this score. The real question is whether Paul evangelized in the cities inhabited by ethnic Galatians in the north-central part of Asia Minor. Evidence from within the Pauline Letters is inconclusive. Of course, Paul rarely refers to his actual itineraries, and when he does, he does so in such passing fashion that little can be concluded about his routes. As we have seen, he refers twice to Galatia outside the Letter to the Galatians (1 Cor. 16:1; 2 Tim. 4:10), but neither reference enables us to locate the area. He refers to the South Galatian cities of (Pisidian) Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra in 2 Tim. 3:11 and never to any cities in north-central Galatia.

Evidence from Acts appears, at first sight, to be more helpful. Luke, of course, provides considerable detail about Paul’s initial evangelistic work in the cities of South Galatia (chaps. 13-14). But he also refers twice to Paul’s travels in the “Galatian” region. The former comes in Luke’s description of the beginning of Paul’s second missionary journey. Paul began this journey in the provinces of Syria and Cilicia (15:41), moved on to the cities of Derbe and Lystra (16:1), and then “traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia [διῆλθον δὲ τὴν Φρυγίαν καὶ Γαλατικὴν χώραν, diēlthon de tēn Phrygian kai Galatikēn chōran], having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia” (Acts 16:6). The second reference occurs in Luke’s narrative about the beginning of the third journey. “After spending some time in Antioch, Paul set out from there and traveled from place to place throughout the region of Galatia and Phrygia [διερχόμενος καθεξῆς τὴν Γαλατικὴν χώραν καὶ Φρυγίαν, dierchomenos kathexēs tēn Galatikēn chōran kai Phrygian], strengthening all the disciples” (18:23). Paul then took the road “through the interior,” arriving ultimately in Ephesus (19:1).

Advocates of the North Galatian hypothesis typically cite these verses to substantiate a ministry of Paul in the ethnic region of Galatia, usually arguing that these two texts refer to the two visits that Gal. 4:13 is thought to indicate. Yet it is unclear here again whether “Galatia” in these texts refers to the ethnic region in the north or to the southern part of the province. In favor of the former is the sequence of movements suggested by Acts 16:1-6. Verse 1 depicts Paul’s ministry in Derbe and Lystra, towns in the southern part of the province. We would then expect that the resumption of the travel narrative in verse 6 would refer to ministry in some other territory. Moreover, the aorist participle in verse 6b (κωλυθέντες, kōlythentes, being prevented) could suggest that the Spirit’s intervention to keep Paul, Silas, and Timothy from preaching in the province of Asia took place earlier and indeed may have been the reason why they “traveled throughout Phrygia and Galatia” (so most English versions; and see, e.g., Barrett 1998: 768-69; Haenchen 1971: 483-84; Peterson 2009: 454). A glance at a map of first-century Asia Minor shows that this sequence of movements makes better sense if “Galatia” refers to the northern region; southern Galatia would be too far behind Paul and his companions to make it a likely place to go after being kept out of Asia. Moreover, the reference to “preaching the word” in the second part of the verse could suggest that Paul and his companions traveled throughout Phrygia and Galatia for the purpose of evangelism—an assumption that appears to find confirmation in 18:23, which says that Paul and his companions were “strengthening all the disciples” when they next traveled through “the region of Galatia and Phrygia” (Brown 1997: 476). But southern Galatia was, of course, already evangelized. If Acts 16:6 is interpreted as a reference to northern Galatia, then, it is likely that the similar combination of “Galatia” and “Phrygia” in 18:23 would have the same meaning. This interpretation of “Galatia” in Acts receives some support from Luke’s tendency to refer to traditional regions rather than to more recent Roman political entities. As Brown (1997: 475) notes, Luke uses these traditional regional names—not “Galatia”—when he locates the cities of the first missionary journey (Acts 13:14; 14:6).

These considerations make it quite possible that Luke refers briefly to evangelistic work by Paul in northern Galatia. Yet this is not the only interpretation of these passages. Ramsay, in his classic defense of the South Galatian view, argued that the phrase τὴν Φρυγίαν καὶ Γαλατικὴν χώραν referred to “the Phrygian territory incorporated in the province of Galatia” (Acts 16:6; as Bruce [1988: 306] puts it [a shift from his earlier view in 1952: 309-10, 350]; see Ramsay 1893: 74-89; and also, e.g., Riesner 1998: 285; see esp. the discussion in Schnabel 2004: 1132-34). On this view, both geographical names are adjectives, and the single article associates the two together as coordinate descriptions of one “region” (χώραν). The problem of the sequence of movements is erased if the participle in verse 6b is taken to describe actions simultaneous to, or even future to, the action of the main verb in verse 6a (see HCSB; Ramsay 1893: 89). The differently worded phrase in 18:23 is then taken to refer to two regions, “the Galatian country” of the first missionary journey and “Phrygia” (distinguished in this case from “Galatia” because the reference is to the part of Phrygia that lay in the province of Asia [Riesner 1998: 285-86; Schnabel 2004: 1199]).

A decision between these two interpretations of “Galatia” in Acts is difficult. We slightly prefer the South Galatian reading; but the evidence is too finely balanced to justify any great degree of probability. However, three other general considerations bear on the question of a Pauline ministry in northern Galatia: First, Paul generally focused his evangelistic work on cities with a strong Roman culture and used Roman roads to make his way from city to city. But North Galatia was not very Romanized in the first century (Ramsay 1893: 99), and major Roman roads were not constructed in north-central Galatia until the 70s and 80s of the first century (S. Mitchell, ABD 2:870). Second, it has been argued that the agitators were seeking to integrate the Gentile Christians of Galatia into existing synagogues; yet we have no firm evidence of Jewish influence in North Galatia until the third century (Breytenbach 1996: 140-48). This argument is not, however, compelling because (1) our knowledge of first-century North Galatia is fragmentary; and (2) it is not clear that the agitators’ program required any local Jewish residents (see Schnabel 2004: 1134). Third, evidence for a Pauline mission in northern Galatia in the book of Acts is, as we have seen, uncertain. Yet in other cases Luke seems to have included explicit information about Paul’s evangelistic work in churches to which he wrote letters (Guthrie 1990: 468-69). It appears, then, that evidence for a Pauline mission in South Galatia is explicit and unquestioned; evidence for such a mission in North Galatia is uncertain. Mitchell goes so far as to claim, “There is no evidence in Acts or any non-testamentary source that Paul ever evangelized the cities of N Galatia by any means” (ABD 2:871). As an expert in this part of the ancient world, Mitchell must be heard, but it appears that this claim may be exaggerated. Yet it is a salutary balance to the tendency among some scholars to assume a Pauline mission in North Galatia virtually without argument.

While, then, arguments about the meaning of “Galatia/Galatians” are inconclusive, the probable movements of Paul and his companions slightly favor a South Galatian destination of the letter. But we cannot say any more on this matter until the related question of date is dealt with.

Date

Our decision about the destination of Galatians inevitably will affect our decision about its date. But the opposite is, of course, true as well, so that we cannot simply assume a view of destination as we look at the matter of date. Some discussions of Galatians, however, operate with an overly simplistic assumption about the relationship of these two issues—as, for instance, when it is assumed that a South Galatian destination means an early date for the letter, or a North Galatian destination means a late date. In point of fact, as we noted above, a South Galatian destination requires only that the letter be dated sometime after Paul’s initial visit to the churches. Thus Paul could have written Galatians any time after the end of the first missionary journey (AD 48 or later). This remains the case even if one interprets Gal. 4:13 as a reference to two visits: Paul and his companions visited the churches of South Galatia a second time as they retraced their steps (Acts 14:21-23). A North Galatian destination, however, shifts the possible date of the letter forward only a year or two. Paul’s initial visit to the churches would have taken place early on the second missionary journey (Acts 16:6), and he could have written the letter any time after that (AD 50 or later). If, however, 4:13 is thought to require two visits before the letter, then the date is shifted forward several years, because it is unlikely that Paul would have returned to North Galatia before the beginning of the third missionary journey (Acts 18:23). In this case, the letter could have been written no earlier than about AD 54. And this is the option that almost all defenders of the North Galatian hypothesis choose.

Combining destination and date, then, the main options that receive some significant support among scholars are the following:

1. Paul wrote to churches in the southern part of provincial Galatia

a. just before the Jerusalem Council (AD 48);

b. early on the second missionary journey (AD 50-51);

c. during the third missionary journey (AD 54-57).

2. Paul wrote to churches in ethnic (North) Galatia

a. during the first missionary journey (AD 50-51);

b. early on the third missionary journey (AD 54-55);

c. late on the third missionary journey (AD 57).

A decision among these options depends on two major issues and several minor ones.

1. The first major issue is the way in which Paul’s autobiographical remarks in Gal. 1-2 fit with the narrative of Acts. In apparent response to the claims of the agitators, Paul emphasizes in 1:11-2:14 his independence from the apostles in Jerusalem. To establish this point, he goes into some detail about the course of his ministry experience from the time of his conversion to the time at which he wrote Galatians. As we often do in trying to pin down some of the circumstances in which Paul wrote his letters, we can take the information that Paul supplies in Galatians and try to match it with what Luke tells us about Paul’s life and ministry in Acts. In this case, unfortunately, the correlation is not obvious, in particular with reference to the visits of Paul to Jerusalem. A chart of the respective sequences of events will provide a foundation for our discussion. (Events mentioned in both the Galatians and Acts columns in bold type are ones that most scholars agree in identifying; those highlighted in bold italics are the events whose identification is debated and critical to the issue.)