Introduction to Galatians

by Maxim Cardew


Paul’s letter to the Galatians is concerned with whether the Christians of Galatia are right to be circumcised and obey the Jewish law. The letter begins with a greeting (Galatians 1:1-5), which notably lacks his usual thanksgiving for the letter’s recipients. In Galatians 1:6-2:21, Paul briefly refers to the situation in Galatia, and gives an account of his “conversion” (or, better, “call”) and his confrontation with Peter over whether Jews should eat with Gentiles. In Galatians 3:1-5:12 he proceeds to the main issue, the question of whether Gentiles should obey the Jewish law, especially by being circumcised. In Galatians 5:13-6:18 he provides ethical guidance to the Galatian churches, and a concluding blessing.

Destination and Date

To whom is Paul writing this letter? The answer might seem obvious: “To the churches of Galatia” (Galatians 1:2), but there is much disagreement over whether Paul is writing to the “Celts” in the north (the “North Galatian Hypothesis”) or to the churches in the Roman province that included the south (the “South Galatian Hypothesis”). Many scholars argue strongly for one possibility or the other, but the arguments on either side are finely balanced, and it is difficult to come to a firm conclusion. Paul’s address in Galatians 3:1 (“You foolish Galatians!”) might point to the North Galatian Hypothesis, as “Galatian” really means “Celt,” which would most appropriately be applied to those in the North. It has been pointed out, however, that Paul here could deliberately be using a term that would annoy an audience in the South, so this argument is inconclusive.

In favour of the South Galatian Hypothesis, scholars look to the Acts of the Apostles for support. According to Paul, Galatians 2:1-10 describes his second visit to Jerusalem (the first is mentioned at Galatians 1:18-19). If Acts is reliable (in which case, the meeting in Acts 11:27-30 is to be identified with Galatians 2:1-10), then this would mean that Paul had only visited the south of Galatia at the time of writing his letter. The problem with this argument is that Galatians 2 seems much closer to Acts 15:1-35, and so it is not clear that Acts can be used to reliably determine the destination of the letter.

The question of date is closely bound up with the issue of destination, and is likewise inconclusive. If the Acts of the Apostles provides a reliable record of Paul’s missionary journeys, then on the North Galatian Hypothesis the letter would be written after he had evangelized these areas, and therefore in the mid-50s (after 1 Thessalonians and 1 Corinthians, but before Romans). If the South Galatian Hypothesis is correct, then the letter would have been written before Acts 15, and therefore be the earliest of Paul’s letters. Given the apparent correspondence between Acts 15 and Galatians 2, however, this very early date is unlikely.

The Problem and Paul’s Response

There is much greater agreement on the problem that Paul is trying to deal with in Galatia. Nearly all scholars agree that after Paul had left Galatia, Jewish-Christian missionaries had arrived and were trying to persuade the Galatians to be circumcised (Galatians 2:3-5; 5:2-12; 6:12-13). These missionaries were Christians, as they too had a “gospel” (Galatians 1:6-9), and (according to Paul) were seeking to avoid persecution “for the cross of Christ” (Galatians 6:12). Not much more about them is known, though some scholars try to reconstruct the argument of these “missionaries” in more detail by examining the arguments that Paul uses in response to them, especially his arguments about Abraham (Galatians 3:6-9) and the allegory of Hagar and Sarah (Galatians 4:21-31).

The point at issue between Paul and these opponents seems to be Paul’s view that “a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (Galatians 2:16), which the opponents seem to have regarded as inadequate (and hence they were attempting to persuading the Galatians to be circumcised). There is some disagreement as to what Paul means by “works of the law,” and some recent scholars (those of the “New Perspective”) have argued that Paul is not here attacking the Jewish law itself, but only a particular interpretation of the Jewish law that excluded Gentiles. In any case, in response to the position of his opponents, Paul employs a variety of arguments, appealing especially to the example of Abraham (Galatians 3:6-9) and the difference between Hagar and Sarah (Galatians 4:21-31), interpreted as a contrast between being a “slave” under the law and “free” in Christ.

Despite Paul’s emphasis on “faith” (see Galatians 2:16 and throughout), Paul clearly still expects certain behaviour from the believers in Galatia, as seen in chapter 6. And despite his apparent attack on “works of the law,” he refers positively (but mysteriously) to “the law of Christ” in Galatians 6:2. In resolving the question of Paul’s views on the relationship between law and faith, many scholars emphasise the necessity of looking also at Paul’s epistle to the Romans, which many regard as a more measured statement of his position in the letter to the Galatians.

Further Reading

For free online introductory materials for Paul’s letter to the Galatians, begin here:

You will find an annotated list of good online starting points for the discussion of Galatians. When you have looked at these introductory materials, you can explore further by going to the Galatians Books and Articles page.