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The Epistle to the Galatians


The Epistle to the Galatians may be divided into three parts:

I. Pauls Defense of his Apostleship, 1:1—2: 21. After the usual introduction the apostle states the occasion of his writing, 1:1-10. In defense of his apostleship he points out that he has been called by God himself and received his Gospel by direct revelation, and had no occasion to learn it from the other apostles, 1: 11-24; that the apostles showed their agreement with him by not demanding the circumcision of Titus and by admitting his mission to the gentiles. 2:1-10; and that he had even rebuked Peter, when this “pillar of the church” was not true to the doctrine of free grace, 2:11-21.

II. His Defense of the Doctrine of Justification, 3:1—4: 31. Here the apostle clearly brings out that the Galatians received the gift of the Spirit by faith, 3:1-5; that Abraham was justified by faith, 3: 6-9; that delivery from the curse of the law is possible only through faith, 3:10-14; and that the law has merely a parenthetic character, coming, as it does, between the promise and its fulfillment, 3:15-29. He compares Judaeism to a son who is minor, and Christianity to a son that has attained his majority, 4:1-7; admonishes the Galatians that, realizing their privilege, they should not return to the beggarly elements of knowledge, 4: 8-20; and says that the Jew is like the child of Hagar, while the Christian resembles the child of Sara, 4: 21-3 1.

III. Practical Exhortations, 5:1—6:18. The Galatians are exhorted to stand in their Christian liberty, 5:1-12, a liberty that is not license but obedience, 5:13-18. The works of the flesh and the fruits of the Spirit are described that the Galatians may avoid the former and yield the latter, 5:19-26. The right way of treating the erring and weak is pointed out, and also the relation of what one sows to what one reaps, 5:1-10. With a brief summary and benediction Paul ends his letter, 6: 11-18.


1. The Epistle to the Galatians has a great deal in common with that written to the Romans. They both treat the same general theme, viz, that by the works of the law no man will be justified before God. The same Old Testament passage is quoted in Rom. 4: 3 and Gal. 3:6; and the same general argument is built on it, that the promise belongs to those who have faith like that which Abraham had even before he was circumcized. In both Epistles Paul aims at reconciling his admission that the Mosaic law came from God with his contention that it was not binding on Christians. Besides these similarities there are also several verbal agreements and parallel passages in these letters. Of the latter we may mention Rom. 8:14-17 and Gal. 4:5-7; Rom. 6:6-8 and Gal. 2:20; Rom. 13: 13, 14 and Gal. 5:16, 17.

2. But however similar these Epistles may be, there are also striking differences. In the Epistle to the Romans Paul does not directly encounter such as are hostile to the truth or personal adversaries; hence it is written in a calm spirit and is at most indirectly polemical. This is quite different in the Epistle to the Galatians. There were those in the churches of Galatia who perverted the doctrine of the cross and called the apostolic authority of Paul in question. As a result this is one of the most controversial writings of the apostle; it is an outburst of indignant feeling, written in a fiery tone.

3. This Epistle abounds in striking contrasts. Grace is contrasted with the Law in its Jewish application, and especially on its ritual side; faith is placed in antithetic relation to the works of man; the fruits of the Spirit are set over against the works of the flesh; circumcision is opposed to the new creation; and the enmity of the world to the cross of Christ is brought out in strong relief.

4. The style of this letter is rather unique in that it unites the two extreme affections of Paul’s admirable character: severity and tenderness. At times he speaks in a cold severe tone, as if he would scarcely recognize the Galatians as brethren; then again his whole heart seems to yearn for them. It is hard to imagine anything more solemnly severe than the opening verses of the epistle and 3:1-5; but it is equally difficult to conceive of something more tenderly affectionate than appeals such as we find in 4:12-16,18-20. We find in this letter a beautiful blending of sharp invective and tender pleading.


The authorship of the Epistle need not be subject to doubt, since both the external and the internal evidence are very strong. The letter is found in Marcions canon, is named in the Muratorian Fragment, and from the time of Irenaeus is regularly quoted by name. But even if the external testimony were not so strong, internal evidence would be quite sufficient to establish the Pauline authorship. The letter is self-attested, 1: 1, and clearly reveals the character of the great apostle; it does this all the better, since it is so intensely personal. And though there are some harmonistic difficulties, when we compare 1: 18 and Acts 9: 23 ;—l:18, 19 and Acts 9:26;—1:18; 2:1 and A&ts 9:26; 11:30;

12: 25; 15: 2,—yet these are not insuperable, and, on the whole, the historical allusions found in the epistle fit in well with the narrative in Acts.

For a long time Bruno Bauer was the only one to question the authenticity of this letter, but since 1882 the Dutch school of Loman and Van Manen joined him, followed by Friedrich in Germany. The principal reason for doubting it is the supposed impossibility of so rapid a development of the contrast between Jewish and Pauline Christianity as this letter presupposes. But the facts do not permit us to doubt that the conflict did occur then, while in the second century it had died out.


Among the Epistles of Paul this is the only one that is expressly addressed, not to an individual nor to a single church, but a group of churches, ταῖς ἐκκλησίαις τῆς Γαλατίας, 1 :2. When did the apostle found these Galatian churches? The answer to that question will necessarily depend on our interpretation of the term Galatia, as it is used by the apostle. There is a twofold use of this appellative, viz, the geographical and the political. Geographically the term Galatia denotes one of the Northern districts of Asia Minor, a district that was bounded on the North by Bithynia and Paplagonia, on the East by the last named province and Pontus, on the West by Phrygia, and on the South by Lycaonia and Capadocia. The same name is employed in an official, political sense, however, to designate the Roman province which included Galatia proper, a part of Phrygia, Pisidia and Lycaonia. This twofold significance of the name Galatia has led to two theories respecting the location of the Galatian churches, viz, the North and the South Galatian theory. The former still represents the prevailing view; but the latter is accepted by an ever increasing number of scholars.

According to the North Galatian theory the churches of Galatia were situated in the geographical district indicated by that name. Since about 280 B. C. this territory was inhabited by a Celtic people, consisting of three separate tribes, that had migrated thither from Western Europe, and who constituted shortly before Christ the kingdom of Galatia. They were given to the worship of Cybele “with its wild ceremonial and hideous mutilations;” and were characterized by fickleness and great instability of character. “Inconstant and quarrelsome,” says Lightfoot, Corn. p. 14, “treacherous in their dealings, incapable of sustained effort, easily disheartened by failures, such they appear, when viewed on their darker side.” The adherents of this theory are generally agreed that Paul, in all probability, founded the Galatian churches in the most important cities of this district, i. e. in the capital Ancyra, in Pessinus, the principal seat of the hideous service of Cybele, and at Tavium. at once a strong fortress and a great commercial center. The South Galatian theory, on the other hand, identifies the Galatian churches with those founded by Paul on his first missionary journey at Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe, not excluding any other churches that may have been founded in the province.

The North Galatian theory is supported by the following considerations: (1) It is unlikely that Paul would address the inhabitants of Phrygia, Pisidia and Lycaonia as Galatians. That name could properly be given only to the Celts, the Gauls that lived in Galatia proper. (2) It is improbable that Paul would have referred to the churches founded by him and Barnabas jointly, as if they had been established by him alone. (3) The character of the Galatians, as it is reflected in this letter, is in remarkable agreement with that of the Celts whose changeableness was a subject of common comment. (4) Since in the Acts of the Apostles Mysia, Phrygia and Pisidia are all geographical terms, without any political significance, the inference seems perfectly warranted that the name Galatia, when it is found alongside of these, is employed in a similar sense. (5) “The expression used in the Acts of Pauls visit to these parts, ‘the Phrygian and Galatian country, shows that the district intended was not Lycaonia and Pisidia, but some region which might be said to belong either to Phrygia or Galatia, or the parts of each contiguous to the other.” (Lightfoot).

Now we are not inclined to underrate the value of these arguments, but yet it seems to us that they are not altogether conclusive. The first one impresses us as a rather gratuitous assumption. Taking in consideration that the Roman province of Galatia was organized as early as 25 B. C. (Cf. Ramsay, Historical Comm. on the Galatians, p. 103 ff. and J. Weiss, Real-Enc. Art. Kleinasien), and had therefore existed at least 75 years, when Paul wrote this letter, it is hard to see, why he could not address its inhabitants as Galatians. This is true especially in view of the fact that the apostle shows a decided preference for the imperial nomenclature, probably since it was the most honorable. Moreover in writing to the congregations in South Galatia he could not very well use any other name, if he did not wish to address them in a very cumbrous way.—In connection with the second argument we must bear in mind that this Epistle was written after the rupture between Barnabas and Paul, when, so it seems; the labor was divided so that Paul received charge of the South Galatian churches. It was but natural therefore that he should feel the sole responsibility for them.—On the third argument Salmon, who also advocates the North Galatian theory, would wisely place little reliance, because “it may be doubted whether Celts formed the predominating element in the churches of Galatia,” and since “men of different nationalities show a common nature.” Introd. p. 412.—We do not feel the cogency of the fourth argument for, granted that Luke does use the term Galatia in its geographical sense, this does not prove anything as to Paul’s usage. In fact the presumption is that the apostle did not so use it.—And the last argument is of rather dubious value, since it rests on an uncertain interpretation of the expressions τὴν Φρυγίαν καὶ Γαλατικὴν, Acts 16:, and τὴν Γαλατικὴν Χώραν καὶ Φρυγίαν, Acts 18: 23. The expression in 16: 6 can probably also be translated “the Phrygo-Galatic region,” referring to that part of the province Galatia that included Antioch and Iconium, and that originally belonged to Phrygia. In 18: 23, however, where the names are reversed, we must translate, “the Galatic territory and Phrygia,” the last name then, according to Ramsay, referring to either Phrygia Galatica or Phrygia Magna. In any event it seems peculiar that Paul, if in these places he has reference to Galatia proper, should speak of the Galatian territory rather than of Galatia.

The North Galatian theory is defended by Weiss, Davidson, Julicher, Godet and especially by Lightfoot. But the South Galatian theory also has able defenders, such as Renan, Hausrath, Zahn, Baljon and above all Ramsay, whose extended travels and research in Asia Minor, combined with great learning, enable him to speak with authority on questions pertaining to that district. This theory assumes that Paul used the name Galatia in its official political sense, and that the Galatian churches were those of Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe, e. a. Although we do not feel inclined to speak dogmatically on the subject, it seems to us that this theory deserves preference for the following reasons: (1) It was evidently Paul’s uniform custom to denote the location of the churches which he founded, not by the popular but by the official nomenclature. Thus he speaks of the churches of Asia, I Cor. 16:19; the churches of Macedonia, II Cor. 8:1; and the churches of Achaia, II Cor. 1:1. And that this was not something peculiar to Paul, is proved by the fact that Peter does the same in I Peter 1:1, where the term Galatia is obviously used in its political sense, since all the other names refer to Roman provinces. Even Light-foot admits that this is probably the case. (2) That Paul founded churches in the Roman province of Galatia is a well attested fact, of which we have a detailed narrative in Acts 13 and 14; on the other hand, we have no record whatever of his establishing churches in the district of that name. It is certainly not very obvious that Luke in Acts 16: 6 wants to convey the idea that the apostle established churches in North Galatia. The most that can be said, is that Acts 18: 23 implies such previous activity on the part of Paul; but even this depends on the correct interpretation of the phrase, “the country of Galatia and Phrygia.” Lightfoot himself regards it as “strange that, while we have more or less acquaintance with all the other important churches of St. Paul’s founding, not a single name of a person or place, scarcely a single incident of any kind, connected with the apostles preaching in Galatia, should be preserved either in the history or in the epistle.” Comm. p. 20. (3) The Epistle refers to the collection for the Judaean saints, 2:10 and in I Cor. 16: 1 Paul says that he commanded the churches in Galatia to take part in this. What is the meaning of the term Galatia here? From the Epistles of Paul we gather that the churches of Galatia, I Cor. 16: 1, Macedonia, II Cor. 8:1; 9: 2; and Achaia, Rom. 15: 26, contributed for this cause; while from Acts 20: 4 we learn that representatives from Asia also accompanied Paul to Jerusalem, according to the principle laid down in I Cor. 16: 3, 4. Now if we take the name Galatia in its official sense here, then all the churches founded by Paul are seen to participate in this work of charity; while if we interpret it as referring to North Galatia, the churches of Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe are not mentioned, and the impression is created that they did not take part. But this is exceedingly improbable, and the improbability is heightened by the fact that among the representatives accompanying Paul we also find Secundus and Gajus of Derbe and Timotheus of Lystra, while there are none to represent North Galatia. (4) From Gal. 4:13 we learn that Paul first preached the gospel to the Galatians through infirmity of the flesh. This may mean that Paul, traveling through Galatia, was detained there by sickness, or that he repaired to this district, in order to recuperate from some disease. But the road through North Galatia did not lead to any place, where Paul was likely to go, and its climate was very undesirable for an invalid. On the other hand the supposition is altogether natural that the apostle contracted some disease in the marshy lowlands of Pamphylia, and therefore sought restoration in the bracing atmosphere of Pisidian Antioch. (5) In this Epistle Paul repeatedly mentions Barnabas as a person well known to the Galatians, 2:1, 9, 13. Now he was Pauls co-laborer in establishing the South Galatian churches, but did not accompany the apostle on his second missionary journey, when the churches of North Galatia are supposed to have been founded. It is true that this argument is somewhat neutralized by the fact that Barnabas is mentioned also in I Cor. 9: 6; yet this is not altogether the case, since the references in Galatians are more specific. In 2: 9, where Paul seeks to establish his apostleship, he also seems to consider it desirable to vindicate the legitimacy of Barnabas mission; while in 2:13 he presupposes that his readers have knowledge of the stand taken by Barnabas with reference to the doctrine of free grace. We conclude, therefore, that the Galatian churches were in all probability those founded by Paul on his first missionary journey in South Galatia. Cf. especially Ramsay, The Church in the Roman Empire pp. 3-112; St. Paul the Traveler and the Roman Citizen pp. 89-151; and Zahns Einleitung II pp. 124-139.

The Galatian churches were mainly composed of Gentile-Christians, but also contained an important Jewish element. This can be inferred from the narrative in Acts 13 and 14. The Gentiles were eager to receive the truth, 13 : 42, 46-48; 14:1, while the Jews were very much divided, some believingly accepting the word of the apostles, 13 : 43; 14:1, and others rejecting it with scorn and maltreating the messengers of the cross, 13: 45, 50; 40: 2, 5, 19. The impression received from the narrative is corroborated by the Epistle, which in the main addresses itself to the Greeks who had not yet accepted circumcision, but had of late been urged to submit to this rite, if not to all the Jewish ceremonies, that they might share in the covenant blessings of Abraham. The apostle describes the whole congregation according to the majojrity of its members, when he says in 4: 8, “Howbeit then, when ye knew not God, ye did service unto them which by nature are no gods.” Yet it is evident from 3 : 23-25, 28 that he also bears the Jewish element in mind. We need not doubt, however, that the majority of the Greeks that constituted the Galatian churches had already for some time attended the synagogue of the Jews before they were converted to Christianity, and therefore belonged to the proselytes, the so-called devout persons of whom Acts repeatedly speaks. This may be inferred from Acts 13 : 43; 14:1, and from the fact that the apostle presupposes a certain familiarity in his readers with the patriarchal history, the Law, the Psalms and the Prophets.


1. Occasion and Purpose. After Paul had preached the gospel to the Galatians and had seen them well started on the royal road to salvation, Judaeizing teachers entered the field, jealous of their Jewish prerogatives. Probably they were emissaries from Jerusalem that abused a commission entrusted to them, or assumed an authority which they in no way possessed. They did not combat Christianity as such, but desired that it should be led in Judaeistic channels. Every convert to Christianity should submit to circumcision, if not to the whole ceremonial law. Their teaching was quite the opposite of Pauls doctrine, and could only be maintained by discrediting the apostle. Hence they sought to undermine his personal influence and to depreciate his apostolic authority by claiming that he had not been called of God and had received the truth at second-hand from the Twelve. It seems that Paul, when he last visited the Galatian churches, had already encountered some such enemies, 1: 9, but he now heard that their influence was increasing, and that they were successful in persuading the Galatians to forsake their Christian privileges, and thus virtually though perhaps unwittingly, to deny Christ who had bought them, 3:1; 4:9-11, 17; 5:7,8, 10. Hence he deems it imperative to write them a letter.

The purpose of the author in writing this Epistle was, of course, twofold. In order that his words might be effective, it was necessary, first of all, that he should defend his apostolic authority by proving that God had called him and had imparted the truth of the gospel to him by means of a direct revelation. And in the second place it was incumbent on him that he should expose the Judaeistic error by which they were led astray, and should defend the doctrine of justification by faith.

2. Time and Place. There is great diversity of opinion as to the time, when the Epistle was written. Zahn, Hausrath, Baljon and Rendall (in The Exp. Gk. Test.) regard it as the earliest of Paul’s Epistles, and assume that it was written during the early part of his stay in Corinth in the year 53. Ramsay thinks it was written from Antioch at the end of the second missionary journey, i. e. according to his dating, also in A. D. 53. Weiss, Holtzmann and Godet refer it to the early part of Paul’s Ephesian residence, about the year 54 or 55, while Warfield prefers to place it towards the end of this period in A. D. 57. And finally Lightfoot and Salmon agree in dating it after Paul’s departure from Ephesus. This great variety of opinion proves that the data for determining the time are few and uncertain. Those accepting the North Galatian theory are virtually confined to a date after the beginning of Paul’s Ephesian residence in the year 54, because the πρότερρον of Gal. 4:13 seems to imply that the apostle had visited the churches of Galatia twice before he wrote his letter; while it is for the same reason most natural that they who advocate the South Galatiari theory, find their terminus a quo in A. D. 52 (McGiffert notwithstanding), when Paul had paid a second visit to the South Galatian churches. Assuming, as we do, that this letter was addressed to the churches of South Galatia, we may dismiss the idea that the apostle wrote it during the third missionary journey, because this would imply that he had already visited them three times, in which case he would have used πρῶτον instead of πρότερον in 4 :13. Moreover if Paul wrote it from Ephesus, the question is naturally raised, why he did not visit the Galatians rather than write to them, seeing that he had a great desire to be with them, 4: 20. We are inclined to think that Paul wrote this letter on his second missionary journey, after he had passed into Europe, and probably during the first part of his residence at Corinth, for: (1) Gal. 4: 20 implies that Paul was at some distance from the Galatian churches; (2) The letter presupposes that some time had elapsed between its composition and the second visit of the apostle; and (3) The letter contains no greetings from Silas and Timotheus, who were both well known to the Galatians. Evidently they had not yet reached Corinth.


There has never been any serious doubt respecting the canonicity of this Epistle. It was received as authoritative in all sections of the Church from the very earliest times. There are allusions to its language in the apostolic fathers, Clement of Rome, Polycarp and Ignatius. Justin Martyr, Melito and Athanagoras seem to have known it; and some of the heretics, especially the Ophites, used it extensively. It is found in Marcions canon, is named in the Muratorian Fragment, and the Syriac and old Latin versions contain it. From the end of the second century the quotations multiply and increase in directness and definiteness.

This Epistle too has abiding significance for the Church of God. It is essentially a defense of the doctrine of free grace, of the Christian liberty of New Testament believers over against those that would bring them under the law in its Old Testament application, and would place them under the obligation to submit to circumcision and to participate in the shadowy ceremonies of a by-gone day. The great central exhortation of this letter is: “Stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free, and be not tangled again with the yoke of bondage.” The way of the ritualist is not the way of life, is the lesson that should be remembered by all those who are inclined to over-emphasize the outward form of religion to the neglect of its spirit and essence.

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