Introducing Galatians

Our church are about to embark on a teaching series on Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Here are some introductory notes.

When was the book written?

Nowadays it is usually viewed as an early letter, if not the earliest of Paul’s letters. Some reformers including Luther considered it to have been written later though, seeing it as summarising Romans.[1] Current views are that it was written somewhen between the  mid 40s – mid 50s AD.[2]  This depends on whether it was writer following Paul’s earlier trips to Jerusalem (see Acts 11:30 & 12:25) or whether Galatians 2:1-10 is a reference to Acts 15 and the Jerusalem Council.

Where was it written to?

There were two parts to Galatia. The north was  associated with settlements of Gallic/Celtic people (an alternative Gaul), who would be regarded as wild/lawless as a stereotype [3] Historically, this was assumed to be the recipient area but this may be simply because the southern boundaries were redrawn and those areas reallocated later.[4] Today the view is that South Galatia is more likely, it was more urban with better road connections meaning that there was likely to have been greater Gospel spread.[5] Additionally, there was a substantial Jewish population which might help explain some of the issues.[6] Barnabas is known to the recipients and he accompanied Paul in the south but not further north.[7]

If South Galatia was the destination  then it was intended for the churches planted in Pisidian Anticoh, Lystra and Derbe (Acts 14).[8]

Why was it written?

Paul writes in response to “opponents.” We don’t have their side of the argument.  It may be possible to work this out through “mirror reading,” establishing a construction of what do  think the mirror opposite of what Paul says would be?  We need to be cautious though about superimposing our own views.[9] However, from the text we might conclude that:

“Paul writes Galatians to combat people who are pressurising the Galatians to undergo circumcision and submit to the law of Moses as a means of completing their Christian experience.” [10]

However, this does not completely tell us everything about what the exact nature of the danger was.  Martin Luther and many protestant readers since saw this primarily in terms of a conflict between Law and Grace.  The Gospel they received was that they were sinners who deserved the penalty of death as God’s righteous judgement.  Religion could not save them, whether the rituals of their old way of life, or Torah observance. Therefore, Jews and Gentiles alike were saved and brought into God’s eternal kingdom through Jesus’ death and resurrection meaning that he bore the penalty for sin in his body on the Cross and in exchange, he has imputed (credited) his righteousness to all believers so that we are justified (declared right with God).  As Paul puts it elsewhere.

“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”[11]

What has become known as “the Old Perspective”, the Lutheran one assumed that the danger Paul was countering was from people seeking to “Judaize” Gentile converts. The perception of first century (sometimes known as Second Temple) Judaism was that it was a works based religion, people were brought into Covenant relationship with God by keeping his Law. 

The Judaizers then would be people who were themselves tempted to retreat to a legalistic understanding of salvation. If so, they would assume that the Galatian converts needed Jesus but needed more than that, they needed to become fully fledged, law observant Jews starting with circumcision as a sign of that transition and leading on to other aspects of law observance.  The Cross therefore gives Jews a second chanced to be true Jews and Gentiles an opportunity to become Jews, so again, it is a second chance at life.

This perspective however has been significantly challenged in recent years. This began with the studies of scholars such as EP Sanders and James Dunn which challenged assumptions about the nature of Second Temple Judaism.  Sander’s New Perspective was as much a New Perspective on Second Temple/Rabbinical/Pharisaic Judaism as it was on Paul but if it questioned the nature of opposition to Paul, then it would also question our understanding of Paul’s argument too.[12]

Sanders, followed by Dunn and NT Wright argued that the Jews of Jesus’ and Paul’s day held to what has become known as “Covenantal Nomism.”  Jews believed that they were part of God’s people because they were God’s chosen people, in other words, when Paul talked about “Election”, then this would be language they recognised. God has chosen them as a people and that was nothing to do with them being stronger or holier. It was purely because of God’s promise to Abraham. Therefore, the Covenant was all to do with election and grace.  However, God’s people had also been given the Law in order to identify them and put the boundary markers in place in order to help them to be distinguished as God’s people. It could also be argued that you came into the covenant by grace and election but you stayed in by keeping the law (hence nomism). 

If the New Perspective is right, then it means that the problem Paul faced was potentially different and Paul’s counter would be very different.  It would mean that the Judaizers would be essentially arguing that the Gentile believers were admitted into the covenant by faith and by grace but needed to observe the same boundary markers as Jews, circumcision and Torah. From this perspective, it is likely that Paul wouldn’t have a problem in principle with the idea that Gentile believers should be obedient to God, however, he would have had an issue with those boundary markers such as festivals, kosher dietary laws and most of all circumcision that he saw as specifically ethnic.  Paul’s issue would be that if the Gospel was for all peoples, then the boundary markers should not be so exclusive as to make it harder to draw them wide and include non-Jews.

I think there are some substantial problems with the New Perspective.  It does, however, help us to nuance our understanding of 1st century Judaism and if we see the issues, purely in terms of legalism then we may end up with a rather shallow understanding leading to an equally shallow application. 

However, we would also do well to remember the following

  1. That Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees seems to include issues with both ethnic and legalistic pride.  He did charge them with seeking to keep external laws in order to be holy and right with God.
  2. We need to be careful about over-conflating some Rabbinical teachings with the entire expression of Second Temple Judaism.  It is possible that those Rabbis were challenging presuppositions within their religion. It is also possible that ordinary Jews could have heard “Covenant-Nomism” as legalism. 
  3. That the distinction between “how you get in” and “how you stay in” can be over defined.  If we need to keep the Law perfectly for God to continue loving us then that does make for a legalistic religion.
  4. That it seems highly unlikely that Paul’s concern would be purely with some ethnic markers given that
    1. He saw Gentiles as ingrafted into Israel?
    1. That he was actually fairly relaxed about the possibility of Gentiles being circumcised for the sake of the Gospel (c.f. Timothy),
  5. Whether or not Paul would have been okay with Covenant-Nomism, so long as it didn’t require circumcision is up for dispute

A third proposal has been made recently by Neil Martin in his book, “Galatians Reconsidered.”  Neil argues that both Old and New Perspectives have something to offer and both are found wanting.  Key to his thesis is Paul’s concern that the Gentile converts were slipping back into their old lives.

So, he argues, the problem was not that they were being drawn into an unhelpful form of Judaism that undermined their faith.  Furthermore, if this was the case, then Paul didn’t really have a problem with the Law and with the rites and rituals of Judaism. His issue was not with Jewish Christians observing circumcision, sabbath days or food laws.  This was all well and good, indeed it might be helpful for those who understood what the laws and rituals truly meant. However, such things were toxic to baby Christians fresh out of pagan idolatry. They would be tempted to see the entry rites of Judaism as akin to the rites they followed in their past life and so be drawn back to the heart beliefs they had been rescued from, seeing Law observance as a means to appease Yahweh in exactly the same way as they had appeased Greek and Roman gods.[13]

I think that Martin is correct to be alert to the fact that something about the Judaizer’s offer risked not so much drawing the Gentile believers into a form of Judaism but rather back to their old beliefs. The letter should help us to see how.  Where Martin’s argument falls down is that when we look at Galatians, he doesn’t seem to see the Judaizers as well intentioned but unhelpful.  H sees them as dangerous opponents.

Furthermore, I think Martin misses the point that Paul sees their approach as being just as toxic for them and for fellow, mature, Jewish believers as it was to young Gentile Christians.  Jews and Gentiles alike were in danger of turning away from the Gospel back to their own ways.

So, it is my view that Paul recognised in his opponents that even if they attached their approach to covenantal grace, that “works religion” would win out.  The Gospel of Grace is precious and so has to be strenuously guarded.  As Paul would argue in another context, just a little bit of yeast will affect the whole batch of dough.  That was the danger in Galatia. 

We too need to be careful that we don’t allow the Gospel message to be contaminated in ways that so distort it as to change and destroy the message altogether. 

This then is the primary point and application of Galatians.  We must be on our guard against, even innocent sounding proposals that risk distorting the Gospel and distracting us away from Christ and the Cross. The result is that another Gospel is preached.  What this will look like will vary from context to context but we can learn from the experience of the believers in Galatia.

[1] Keener, 8.

[2] Keener, 7.

[3] Kenner, 15. See also Moo, 2-3.

[4] Keener, 18.

[5] Moo, 8. Keener, 20.

[6] Keener, 21. Moo 8,

[7] Keener, 21.

[8] Keener, 22. Both Keener and Moo lean towards the letter being Addressed to South Galatia.  C.f. Moo, 8.

[9] Kenner, 23.

[10] Moo, 19.

[11] 2 Corinthians 5:21.

[12] See particularly EP Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism. 

[13] See Martin, Galatians Reconsidered, 159-169.

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