The Letter of Paul to the Galatians - Introduction
By the middle of the first century CE, although the early Christian movement was still connected to Judaism, an increasing number of its members were Gentiles. The tireless missionary activity of Paul, who saw himself as the apostle to the Gentiles ( 1.16 ), had fostered this development. The relationship between these new, non‐Jewish converts and Jewish Christians, and between the emerging Christian movement and Judaism, created major challenges. One critical issue concerned the law of Moses. Should Gentile Christians convert to Judaism in the process of becoming Christians? Were they required to observe the Jewish law, at least in part? The Letter to the Galatians advocates for Paul's solution to this controversy and articulates a view of the Jewish law that would have far‐reaching consequences.
The date of the letter's composition is not given. It was written some time between the late 40s and early 50s CE. Paul would develop his views on the law further in the Letter to the Romans. Although Galatians follows the form of a letter to specific churches, there are no references to individuals and little information about Paul's mission in the region. Rather, the letter is Paul's defense of his Gentile mission as a whole and the understanding of the law on which it is based. The addressees are an unspecified number of “the churches of Galatia” ( 1.2 ), a Roman province in central Asia Minor where, according to Acts, Paul had preached (Acts 13.14–14.23; cf. 16.6; 18.23 ).
The letter falls naturally into three parts. In the first, after an opening greeting ( 1.1–5 ), Paul reviews his life ( 1.6–2.14 ): his missionary relationship to the Galatians ( 1.6–12 ); his past, including his own call ( 1.13–24 ); and his relationship with the Jerusalem church and the other apostles ( 2.1–14 ). The second section ( 2.15–5.1 ) is a complex and densely argued presentation of Paul's vision of the gospel: the opposition between faith and works of the law ( 2.15–21 ); the conversion of the Galatians ( 3.1–5 ); the promise to Abraham and his inheritance ( 3.6–18 ); the purpose of the law ( 3.19–25 ); baptism ( 3.26–29 ); the inheritance of the children of Christ ( 4.1–7 ); the danger of slipping back into bondage ( 4.8–11 ); the close relationship of Paul and the Galatians ( 4.12–20 ); and an allegorical argument based on the story of Hagar and Sarah ( 4.21–5.1 ). The third section ( 5.2–6.18 ) presents the practical application of Paul's view: reasons against the requirement of circumcision ( 5.2–12 ); true Christian liberty ( 5.13–26 ); moral exhortation ( 6.1–10 ); and a postscript ( 6.1–18 ).
Paul does not discuss the status of the law of Moses for Gentile Christians in the abstract. Prior to writing Galatians, Paul had been involved in discussions of Gentile observance of the law with the leaders of the Jerusalem church ( 2.1–10 ). This meeting may be identical with the council at Jerusalem, reported in Acts 15.1–29 . Paul's account of his visit to Jerusalem is very different from the one in Acts. In Galatians Paul insists that no demand was made for Gentiles to observe the law. Subsequently, a conflict in Antioch ensued over table fellowship of Jews and Gentiles ( 2.11–14 ). Paul names as his opponents in Antioch “certain people‐… from James ( 2.12 ),” the brother of Jesus ( 1.19 ) and leader of the Jerusalem church, and “the circumcision faction,” but it is unclear whether the two groups are the same. Nonetheless, they persuaded the rest of the Jews, including Peter and Barnabas, to break off table fellowship with Gentile believers. Paul repeats his accusation against Peter that Peter himself no longer observed Jewish law and customs, yet he could be pressured to impose them on Gentiles.
Now, facing a concrete situation in churches he had founded, Paul argues passionately that his view is crucial both to his mission in Galatia and, more important, to Christianity generally. In the confrontation with Peter, Paul had held that the demands of the Jewish law were an unnecessary burden for Gentiles when even Jewish Christians did not always observe them ( 2.11–14 ). Now he argues that the observance of the Jewish law by Gentile Christians is incompatible with acceptance of the gospel ( 2.15–21 ). Paul does not address the question of whether Jewish Christians should still keep the law. In an allegorical argument based upon the story of Hagar and Sarah ( 4.21–31; see Gen 16; 21.1–21 ) Paul suggests that the Sinai covenant and the community based upon the observance of the law is at odds with the authentic Israel, the community united with the one true heir of Abraham, Jesus Christ (Gal 3.16 ). Earlier in the letter Paul spoke about the law as a provisional measure, a means to discipline those who would inherit Abraham's promise ( 3.24; cf. 4.1–6 ). These passages imply that Judaism is redundant, perhaps even an obstacle to God's plan for human salvation. Paul does not draw this conclusion, and in Romans 9–11 he explicitly rebuts it. Paul agrees that Peter and James are “entrusted with the gospel for the circumcised” ( 2.7–8 ), and observance of the law was preserved at this time in Jewish Christian communities.
The context of Paul's formulations was a bitter struggle with opponents in Galatia. The content and sharp polemics of the letter were worked out in reply to what Paul knew of his opponents' teaching and of their attacks upon him. Despite the efforts of scholars to identify and reconstruct the arguments of Paul's opponents, they remain a shadowy group. Most commentators describe them as Judaizers because they insisted on circumcision. Whether they belonged to the same opposition that Paul had faced in Antioch or during his visit to the Jerusalem leaders (the “false believers” in 2.4 ) cannot be decided from Paul's letter. We also have no evidence that they were missionaries sent by the Jerusalem church and representing James, notwithstanding Paul's earlier conflict in Antioch. Nevertheless, the effect of their controversy with Paul is unmistakable. The opposition forced him to develop a defense of his mission to the Gentiles which would provide the rationale for a Christianity independent of its Jewish roots.