by Ed Gallagher
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh.Galatians 5:16
It is not certain where Paul was when he wrote to the Galatian churches, or when he wrote to them, or to which Galatian churches he wrote. Paul did not write this letter to one church only, but to a group of churches inhabiting the region of Galatia (note 1:2, “to the churches of Galatia”). But which Galatian region? There are two options: (1) a northern region occupied by people called Galatians, and (2) the Roman province of Galatia, which overlapped with the territory of the Galatian people but also included more southern areas.
Scholars divide over which Galatia Paul addressed. The main point of the debate is to establish the date of the letter: the South Galatia View (i.e., Roman province) means the letter is early (late 40s or perhaps in 50), the North Galatia View means that it must be later (mid 50s). Paul traveled through south Galatia on his first missionary journey and established several churches (Acts 13–14, map), but he did not go through north Galatia until his second (cf. Acts 16:6) or third missionary journey (cf. Acts 18:23). Most scholars today opt for the South Galatia View and consider this letter to be among Paul’s earliest surviving letters. In this case, Paul wrote the letter during his second missionary journey, perhaps from Macedonia (Thessalonica or Philippi) or Greece (Corinth).
How does Paul usually begin his letters? After naming himself and his addressees, he customarily includes a thanksgiving on behalf of his addressees (cf. Rom 1:8; 1 Cor 1:4; Phil 1:3; Col 1:3; 1 Thess 1:2; 2 Thess 1:3; 2 Tim 1:3; Phlm 4), more rarely a blessing (2 Cor 1:3; Eph 1:3). The exceptions are the personal letters 1 Timothy and Titus (where Paul clearly had warm feelings toward his addressees), and this letter to the Galatian churches. Why would Paul not include a thanksgiving here? This is Paul’s most aggressive letter. He has grave concerns about the apparent apostasy of the Galatian churches, so instead of a thanksgiving for their faith, he begins immediately with his amazement at their lack of faith (1:6).
Paul writes here a longer-than-usual introduction (1:1–5). What themes does he highlight in it? He stresses his own legitimacy as an apostle (1:1) and the self-giving act of Jesus (1:4).
Why would he feel the need to stress his apostleship? Paul’s authority is a major issue in this letter (just as it is in 2 Cor 10–13, discussed in the previous lesson). Just as in Corinth, so also in Galatia there have been other teachers that have arrived since Paul’s departure; he calls them “agitators” or “trouble-makers” at Galatians 5:12. Paul warns that they are teaching a different gospel (1:6–9), and he compares them to some other “false brothers” (2:4) that he has known in the past who also corrupted “the truth of the gospel” (2:5).
What sort of gospel did these “trouble-makers” in Galatia teach? Unfortunately, we don’t have any writings for this group of Christians, so we can assess their teachings only from Paul’s refutation of it. (Here is a famous academic article attempting to “mirror-read” the doctrine of Paul’s opponents out of his letter to the Galatians.) Judging by Paul’s arguments, these false teachers must have been emphasizing the importance of the Law of Moses even for Gentile Christians, with a specific stress on circumcision. See esp. 6:11–16, and then also 5:2–6.
Why would some Christians think that circumcision is so important? Circumcision was a sign of a covenant relationship with God, established first with Abraham and his family (Gen 17; cf. Lev 12:3). If Christians are also children of Abraham—a teaching Paul himself affirms (Gal 3:6)—then shouldn’t they all (the male ones, anyway) be circumcised as a sign of the covenant?
Why does Paul think this teaching is a perversion of the gospel? Considering circumcision an entrance requirement into God’s covenant people diminishes the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice and faith in him. Acceptance of circumcision is a repudiation of Christ (5:2). Paul refused to circumcise Titus (2:3). Circumcision is one of the works of the Law that had marked out the people of God. (This phrase, “works of the Law [or Torah],” appears at 2:16; 3:2, 5, 10; and also Rom 3:20, 28.) Paul argues specifically against Gentile circumcision. He does not argue here against Jews circumcising their sons. (Further reflections here.) The issue for Paul (and his opponents) was whether Gentiles needed to keep the Torah and whether they needed to become Jews. The “trouble-makers” said Gentiles needed to keep the Torah, and Paul said that God justifies people not based on “works of Torah” but on “the faith of Jesus Christ” (2:16). (For debate about the meaning of this last phrase, see here, here, and here.)
[The teacher who wants to learn about the New Perspective on Paul—a very complex and controversial but relevant subject—could start with Wikipedia, or this series of blog posts.]
According to Paul, the one who would accept circumcision must keep the whole law (5:3), which he describes as a yoke a slavery (5:1), and he accuses the “trouble-makers” of not keeping the law (6:13). He wishes that the “trouble-makers” would concentrate on themselves (5:12)!
The two themes of the letter’s introduction (Paul’s apostleship and Christ’s death) reappear in the letter’s body. First, he stresses that he received his gospel straight from Jesus (1:11–17) and is in harmony with the apostles in Jerusalem (1:18–2:10), and he opposed even Peter on a related issue (2:11–14). Then he reflects on the sufficiency of Christ’s death. Paul is dead to the Law (2:19), having been crucified with Christ so that now Christ lives in him (2:20). Even though Christians are not under law (5:18), Paul’s gospel has strong ethical implications (despite Rom 3:8!). Christians live by the Spirit, and therefore do not practice the things of the flesh (5:13–26). Life in the Spirit means practicing love within the community of Christians (6:1–10), which is the fulfillment of the Law (5:14). The point of Christianity has nothing to do with circumcision and everything to do with “faith working through love” (5:6) and “a new creation” (6:15).
Paul argues strongly that Christ’s death needs to be supplemented by nothing, not even the ancient covenant of circumcision. His death is sufficient, and it forms Paul’s only boast (6:14), but it also calls on Christians to live not according to the world (6:14), the flesh (2:20), but according to the Spirit (5:16).
Additional Questions for Discussion
Why does Paul think it is valuable to relate to the Galatian Christians how God called him to become an apostle to the Gentiles (1:11–17)? Why does he tell this story in this particular letter?
What problem did Paul find in Peter’s behavior (2:11–14)?
Does Paul view the Law positively or negatively at 3:19–25? Look at different translations for 3:23–24.
What does life “in the Spirit” look like, according to Paul (5:13–26)?
What is the “law of Christ” (6:2)?
Here is N.T. Wright (famous New Testament scholar) on Galatians, followed by the Bible Project video on this letter.