Galatians, Epistle to the
GALATIANS, EPISTLE TO THE
Paul's letter to the Galatians is a relatively brief writing. Its authenticity has seldom been put in doubt. It is often assumed that the addressees are, for the most part, believers converted from paganism; they live in Galatia, a region in central Asia Minor. Paul has visited and evangelized the population during his second missionary journey. Those "who trouble" (1:7) the Galatians are considered to be Jewish Christian missionaries who keep contact with the Jerusalem authorities. These opponents of Paul are compelling the Galatians to be circumcised and to observe (parts of) the Mosaic law. They also attack the legitimacy of Paul's apostleship. Paul tries to win back the Galatians who seem to side with his adversaries.
The letter to the Galatians was written, according to this common view, some time during Paul's third missionary journey in the mid-fifties, either during his stay at Ephesus or somewhere in Macedonia. The following outline provides a general overview of the letter's contents:
1:1–10 Salutation and Rebuke
(1) 1:11–2:21 Autobiography (Paul's apostleship)
(2) 3:1–4:31 Reflection (the Mosaic law)
(3) 5:1–6:10 Exhortation (freedom in love and Spirit)
Overview of the Letter
Salutation and Rebuke (1:1–10). Paul introduces himself to the churches of Galatia and wishes them "grace and peace." He is an apostle sent not by humans but by God the Father and Jesus Christ (1:1–5). Paul omits his customary thanksgiving and at once expresses his astonishment that the Galatians, under the influence of troublemakers, are turning to a different gospel (1:6–10).
Autobiography (1:11–2:21). Paul's gospel came to him through a revelation of Jesus Christ. Paul relates how he was zealous for the traditions of the fathers and became a persecutor of the church. Yet God called him and revealed to him his Son so that he might preach Jesus Christ among the Gentiles. Only after three years did he go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him but 15 days; other apostles, except James the Lord's brother, he did not see (1:10–24). After 14 years he went up to Jerusalem a second time, in response to a revelation. He explained his Torah-free gospel privately to the three "pillars," James, Cephas, and John. They did not compel Titus, who came with him, and Barnabas to be circumcised, notwithstanding the pressure from the false brothers. Furthermore, the division of the apostolic work was recognized: Peter had been entrusted with the gospel for the Jews and Paul had been sent to the Gentiles. Paul, however, should remember the poor of Jerusalem (2:1–10). Later in Antioch Paul saw that, after the arrival of certain people from James, Cephas and with him other Jews and even Barnabas drew back and ate no longer with the Gentiles. According to Paul, Peter was no longer acting consistently with the truth of the Gospel. Therefore, Paul addresses Peter and emphasizes that Jews and Gentiles alike are justified by faith in Christ, not by works of the law (2:11–21).
Reflection (3:1–4:31). Already in 2:14b–21, the address to Peter, Paul was arguing in a theological way. At the beginning of chapter 3 he suddenly writes: "You foolish Galatians." Did they receive the Spirit by works of the law? Paul refers to Abraham who believed; his faith was reckoned to him as righteousness. So those who believe are the descendants of Abraham. Those who rely on works of the law are under a curse because they do not observe all the requirements of the law. But Christ redeemed us from that curse and in him the blessing of Abraham comes to the Gentiles (3:1–14). In fact, the promises made to Abraham belong to Christ, his only offspring ("seed" in Gn 12:7 is in the singular). The law came 430 years later than the covenant and cannot annul it. That law was added because of transgressions. The law was our custodian until Christ came: we were all imprisoned under the law. But now, since the Galatians belong to Christ, they are Abraham's offspring. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female: the Galatians are one in Christ Jesus (3:15–29). We are no longer slaves and, as children, we are heirs of God. We were enslaved to the ruling powers of this world. But God sent his Son in order to redeem those who were under the law so that all might receive adoption as children. The Spirit of the Son cries in our hearts: "Abba! Father." Paul asks: how can you want to be enslaved again? He is afraid that his work will have been in vain (4:1–11). Paul now points to his first arrival in Galatia. Because of an ailment he remained there and preached the gospel. The Galatians received him with great love. He can testify to them that they would have torn out their eyes and given them to him. Has he now become their enemy? The opponents are courting the Galatians and want to separate them from Paul. But the believers are his children; he is again in childbirth until Christ be formed in them (4:12–20). Many Galatians desire to be under the law. But what is written in the law? Paul refers to the slave woman Hagar and the free woman Sarah and sees in them two covenants. Hagar, the covenant from Mount Sinai, bears children for slavery and corresponds to the present Jerusalem. The other woman corresponds to the Jerusalem above: she is free and is our mother. Like her child Isaac we are children of the promise and consequently heirs (4:21–31).
Exhortation (5:1–6:10). In 5:1 Paul begins his explicit exhortation: "For freedom Christ has set us free." The first item is: let yourselves not be circumcised, for you would cut yourselves off from Christ. In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is faith working through love (5:1–12). The second item is: do not use your freedom as an occasion for the flesh but through love be enslaved to one another. The whole law is fulfilled in the one word "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." The Galatians must live by the Spirit and not gratify the desires of the flesh (5:13–24). In 5:24 Paul once again urges: "If we live by the Spirit, let us also follow the Spirit." The unifying factor of this section is the interweaving of mutual help and individual attentiveness, two complementary injunctions which throughout manifold themes dominate Paul's parenesis here. Bearing one another's burden is fulfilling the law of Christ (5:25–6:10).
Postscript (6:11–18). A final autograph warning against those who are trying to compel the Galatians to be circumcised comes at the end. Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything. Believers are a new creation. Paul himself carries on his body the marks of Jesus. Wishes of peace and mercy as well as a blessing form the conclusion of the letter.
The interpretation of Galatians is conditioned by the types of solutions one offers for the hermeneutical problems found in the letter. The second part of this article will deal with the rhetorical approach, addressees, and date of the letter, the identity of the so-called opponents, Paul's use of Scripture in this letter, and justification not by works of the law. Much more than a state of the questions cannot be offered. By way of conclusion a word about the current value of this letter will be said.
Rhetoric. Since about the 1970s the rhetorical approach to Galatians has been very much in vogue (cf. H.D. Betz). In writing his letter Paul uses persuasive language and is dependent on Greek rhetoric. Due attention must be given to the figures of style. As applied to Galatians, rhetorical criticism asks two basic questions: (1) To what kind of rhetoric does Galatians belong? (2) Is it possible to detect a rhetorical structure (dispositio ) in the letter?
With regard to the first question few among those who favor this approach still defend the classification of Galatians as an apologetic letter. It would seem that a sustained deliberative rhetoric is present. Paul tries to persuade his addressees not to submit to the opponents' pressures. As to the second question, an example of rhetorical structure is proposed here. Within the epistolary frame (prescript and postscript) one finds an exordium (1:6–10), a narratio (1:11–2:10), a propositio (2:15–21), a probatio (3:1–4:31) and an exhortatio (5:1–6:10).
Yet many doubts remain. To what degree was Paul trained in Greek rhetoric? If so, does he apply the speech structure deliberately? Is a rhetorical division not forced upon the text? Moreover, there is a plethora of diverging structural proposals. Where does one find the propositio? Is Galatians not primarily a spontaneous and emotional letter? Does not Paul's way of reasoning and using Scripture indicate more Semitic than Greek influence?
Addressees and Date. There is no absolute certainty about the identity of the addressees. According to the North Galatian or territory hypothesis—the more traditional view—the Galatians are the inhabitants of the region Galatia (central Asia Minor) and Celtic by race. According to the more recent South Galatian or province hypothesis (cf. W. M. Ramsay), the addressees are the Christians about whom Luke writes in Acts 13–14. In Paul's time, the Roman province of Galatia included parts of Lycaonia, Pisidia, and Phrygia. During his first missionary journey Paul was in Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe. The territory theory assumes that Paul preached the gospel in Galatia on his second missionary journey; that region (but no preaching) is mentioned in Acts 16:6 and, again, in Acts 18:23 at the beginning of the third journey. Yet not all consider the information found in Acts as trustworthy. Some exegetes are of the opinion that the first missionary journey took place after the Jerusalem conference and the Antioch incident (Gal 2:1–21) and that Acts 15—with its compromise decree that Paul does not mention—is from a later date. An early date for the letter has been proposed; some scholars even see Galatians as Paul's first letter.
It would seem that in Gal 4:12–14 Paul indicates the region, not the province, on his second journey (cf. Acts 16:6); moreover, proteron (former) in 4:13 possibly refers indirectly to the other visit (cf. Acts 18:23). Most probably the letter to the Galatians was written not long before that to the Romans that takes up the controversy about the law. So a preference for the North Galatian hypothesis and a date around 55 may be justified.
Opponents. The difficulty in identifying the opponents is because one has to rely on Pauline information alone (cf. 1:7; 3:1; 4:17; 5:7, 10, 12; and 6:12–13). Mirror reading is unavoidable; reconstruction proves delicate. The discussion about another name (e.g., agitators) is of minor importance. The opponents are hardly Gnostics. They do not consist of two categories or manifest a twofold, partly conservative and partly spiritual and liberal, mentality. They appear to have been Jewish Christian missionaries who arrived in Galatia after Paul and tried to impose circumcision and other Jewish regulations on the Gentile Christians. Therefore, they are called Judaizers; they may have had connections with the authorities in Jerusalem. According to Paul, the opponents are perverting the gospel of Christ.
Scripture. The way Paul uses the figure of Abraham for his main argumentation is disturbing to say the least. Paul's Jewish contemporaries assume that the works of Abraham, e.g., circumcision and the sacrifice of Isaac, are an integral part of his faith. He does more than just "believe" as Paul seeks to prove by means of Gen 15:6 cited in Gal 3:6. Jews are even more irritated by Paul's so-called allegory of Hagar and Sarah in Gal 4:21–31.
The question arises whether Paul's forced use of these Scripture passages is not caused by a previous use of them by the opponents against his understanding of faith. The same may perhaps also apply to the quotations present in Gal 3:10–13 (Dt 27:26; Hb 2:4; Lv 18:5; Dt 21:23).
Justification by Faith. In the traditional interpretation of Galatians, Paul was opposed by Judaizers who were legalists. They insisted upon "the works of the law," e.g., circumcision and other works prescribed by the law. The Galatians require more than faith in Christ in order to be saved. In accordance with the Jewish tradition, the Gentile Christians of Galatia must also earn their salvation by doing the works of the law. For Paul, however, one is justified by believing in Christ, by faith alone (i.e., by faith working through love, Gal 5:6).
It has been suggested that in Paul's days Judaism was not a legalistic religion of self-righteousness. For Jews the covenant is first of all grace and gift, and only then also human answer and work (E. P. Sanders). Furthermore, today many exegetes maintain that the problem in Galatia was not individual salvation but social discrimination: how can Galatians of pagan origin become true Christians? The opponents' answer is: by doing the works of the law that perhaps may be understood as specific signs of Israel's identity, such as circumcision, food prescriptions, and calendar regulations (J. D. G. Dunn). Paul's reaction is clear. One does not need to become a Jew in order to be an authentic Christian; one is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Christ (cf. 2:17).
Although the social dimension must not be neglected and it should not be assumed that Paul is criticizing Jewish pride and legalism, in Galatians the apostle reflects on the sinful condition of Jews and Gentiles alike. Christ alone is our redeemer, not the law. A final note: most probably the expression pistis Christou does not mean "Christ's faithfulness" (subjective genitive) but "faith in Christ" (objective genitive).
Galatians Today. Paul's letter to the Galatians constitutes one of the most basic documents of the New Testament. The letter offers a range of autobiographical details about Paul. Galatians emphasizes God's initiative in Christ, as well as justification for all peoples on the same condition. Last but not least, Galatians will remain the Magna Charta of Christian liberty.
Bibliography: j. m. g. barclay, "Mirror-Reading a Polemical Letter: Galatians as a Test Case," Journal for the Study of the New Testament 31 (1987) 73–93; Obeying the Truth: A Study of Paul's Ethics in Galatians (Edinburgh 1988). c. k. barrett, Freedom and Obligation: A Study of the Epistle to the Galatians (Philadelphia 1985). h. d. betz, Galatians (Philadelphia 1979). j. buckel, Free to Love: Paul's Defense of Christian Liberty in Galatians (Louvain 1993). j. d. g. dunn, The Epistle to the Galatians (London 1993); The Theology of Paul's Letter to the Galatians (Cambridge 1993). i.-g. hong, The Law in Galatians (Sheffield 1993). m. d. howard, Paul: Crisis in Galatia: A Study in Early Christian Theology (Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series 35; Cambridge 1990). p. h. kern, Rhetoric and Galatians. Assessing an Approach to Paul's Epistle (Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series 101; Cambridge 1998). l. j. martyn, Galatians (Anchor Bible 33A; New York 1998). f. j. matera, Galatians (SP 9; Collegeville, Minn. 1992). w. m. a. ramsay, A Historical Commentary on St. Paul's Epistle to the Galatians (New York 1900). b. witherington, Grace in Galatia: Commentary on St. Paul's Letter to the Galatians (Edinburgh 1998).
[j. lambrecht, s.j.]
"Galatians, Epistle to the." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 20, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/galatians-epistle
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