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Nijay K. Gupta
Portland Seminary

Course: Introduction to the New Testament or Introduction to Pauline Literature
Intended Audience: undergraduate students
Syllabus Section: Galatians


By completing this lesson, students will:
  1. 1. Understand the background and context of Paul's letter to the Galatians
  2. 2. Understand the basic outline of the letter to the Galatians
  3. 3. Explore the modern interpretation of Galatians with relation to the New Perspective on Paul and other contemporary readings

Outline of Lesson Plan:

Pre-Class Readings and Assignments

Class Session/Lecture (design three lecture blocks)

Additional In-Class Exercises

Further References

Pre-Class Readings and Assignments:

The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Ethics entry on Galatians (Andrew Das)

The Oxford Encyclopedia of Biblical Interpretation entry on Anti-Judaism and Anti-Semitism in the New Testament and Its Interpretation (Raimo Hakola)

The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and the Law entry on Theology of Law: New Testament (Thomas Kazen)

The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and the Law entry on Righteousness (James D.G. Dunn)

The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies entry on Letters (Judith Lieu)

Optional Pre-Class Assignment

#1: Galatians is one of Paul's letters where scholars are certain that interlopers have tried to convince the Galatians that Paul's teaching was deficient. While we know nothing directly about these interlopers, we can do some educated guesswork by attempting to reconstruct their identity, motives, and teachings based on what Paul writes in Galatians (this is called 'mirror-reading'). Read carefully through Galatians and note anywhere where you believe there is a clue to the identity and/or teachings of the interlopers. Because this exercise is necessarily speculative, divide your observations into three category: certain (you are confident that this information describes or reflects the interlopers or their teachings), probable, and possible.

#2: Read Gal 4:21-31 and compare Gen 16-21: How is Paul reading and using the Old Testament? Try to answer these questions as well: How would the interlopers respond to Paul's interpretation of the Hagar/Sarah story? How would the Galatians receive Paul's interpretation?

Class Sessions

Lecture 1: The Background of Galatians

Lesson Guide: The study of the Galatian situation is complex. It is unclear exactly who and where the Galatians are. While most scholars put Galatians towards the earliest period of Paul's letter-writing, the exact year of composition is debated. And while some of the details of Paul's dispute with the interlopers are clear (especially regarding circumcision and [non-]reliance on Torah), there is ongoing discussion about what exactly Paul means by 'works of the Law' (and other terms such as 'faith' and 'justification'/'righteousness').

Most scholars read the situation in this way: Paul wrote Galatians in view of the problematic influence of certain interlopers (probably Jewish Christians) who were relatively successful in persuading the Galatians that they had to be circumcised and keep the commandments of Torah in order to be fully included in God's Abrahamic family.

For the sake of reference, the introduction to Galatians in the Oxford Bible Commentary succinctly reviews the relevant issues related to:

Questions for Student Notes:

  • What were the problems that Galatians addresses?
  • Who were the Galatians?
  • When was Galatians written?

Lecture 2: The Text of Galatians

This lesson can be devoted to reviewing the content of Galatians, chapter by chapter.

Warm-up Activity: Tweeting Galatians:

A helpful and fun way for students to learn to summarize biblical texts is to boil a section or chapter down to a 'tweet' (technically 150 characters, but you might just say 20 words). Have the students work in groups or pairs, and each group take one chapter from Galatians. In ten minutes, they must come up with a one sentence summary of the idea or message of their chapter. After that, each group presents and the tweets are combined (and put up on the big screen or dry-erase board). Do they flow together? Is something important missing?

Lesson Guide for Lecture 2: As a whole, Galatians does indeed flow rather well as a single letter, which is why partition theories are almost nonexistent. Here are some tips as you teach through the sections of the letter. There are many ways to divide up the text of Galatians, but you might use Graham Stanton's simple structure from the Oxford Bible Commentary.

  • Introduction (1:1-9)
  • Paul's Story (1:10-2:21)
  • Main Arguments (3:1-4:31)
  • Ethical Exhortations (5:1-6:10)
  • Conclusion (6:11-18)

Key items to highlight in the lecture are as follows:

  • Why does Paul assert his independent apostleship? (1:1); see Apostle in The Oxford Companion to the Bible (Otto Betz)
  • Note that Paul skips the normal inclusion of a thanksgiving section (see 1:6)
  • Paul is concerned about the teaching of :another gospel: (1:6)
  • Paul refers to his former life in Ioudaismos. Underscore that this is not differentiating 'Judaism' from 'Christianity' (1:13-14).
  • For a helpful thumbnail sketch of Jewish life, practices, and perspectives see Judaisms in the First Century CE, in The Oxford Companion to the Bible
  • What is the relationship between the 'gospel' Paul was given to proclaim to the Gentiles, and the non-circumcision of Titus? (2:2-3)
  • Why was Paul so upset about Peter's (Cephas's) withdrawal from table fellowship with the Gentile believers in Antioch? (2:11-14)

On the importance of food and shared meals in the biblical world, see: Food, in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Ethics (R. Alan Streett)

What does Paul mean by (not) 'justified by works of the law' and by 'justified by faith'? (2:16) See Righteousness,in The Oxford Encyclopedia of The Bible and Law (James Dunn)

Why is Abraham so important to Paul as a figurehead of true faith? (3:6-16) See Abraham, in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Theology (Bruce Chilton)

How does Paul express the purpose and roles of the Jewish Law? What does this mean for his message about faith, Christ, and the Spirit? (3:24-29) See Biblical Law, in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and the Law(Robert Matthew Calhoun)

How does Paul use the Old Testament text about Sarah, Hagar, and their sons in Galatians 4:21-31? What is Paul's point? How would this interpretation be received by the interlopers? By the Galatians? By the Jerusalem apostles? (4:21-31) For a helpful overview of Intertextuality, see Oxford Encyclopedia of Biblical Interpretation (B.J. Oropeza)

How is Paul using the word 'freedom' in Galatians 5:1 (5:1-6) See Freedom, in The Oxford Encyclopedia of The Bible and Ethics (Wayne Coppins)

How is Paul using the word 'flesh' in Galatians 5:16-26? (5:16-26)

See the essays on Flesh in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Theology (Richard A. Wright) and The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Ethics (Pieter Botha)

How would circumcision prevent persecution for believers? (6:12)

Why is the cross so important to Paul's message in Galatians? (6:14-17) See Crucifixion, in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Ethics (David W. Chapman)

Questions for Lecture 2:
The above questions serve well as questions for students to consider.

Lecture 3: The Interpretation of Galatians

Galatians has remained one of the most influential texts in the history of Christian thought, not least for people like Martin Luther and, more recently, James D.G. Dunn and J. Louis Martyn. A lesson on the interpretation of Galatians helps students to understand how a reader's time period, location, and culture shape how the words of the text are viewed. For a helpful overview see J.K. Riches, Galatians through the Centuries (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012). One could develop a concise study of the interpretation of Galatians as follows:

Martin Luther:Luther treated Galatians as the most important book in the Bible because it expounded clearly and passionately a theology of justification by faith in Jesus Christ over and against reliance on works for justification. An instructor might read selections from Luther's commentary on Galatians. More on Lutheran Interpretationcan be found in the Oxford Encyclopedia of Biblical Interpretation (Walter Sunberg)

E.P. Sanders and James D.G. Dunn:. Sanders famously argued that evidence from Palestinian Jewish texts of antiquity do not show the Judaism of Paul's time to be a religion of works, but rather one that assumes the grace and mercy of God through the covenant. Dunn applied some of Sanders' insights about the Judaism of Paul's time to the study of Galatians. Dunn argues that when Paul refers to 'works of the law', he is not talking about some kind of Jewish reliance on meritorious works. Rather, these appear to refer to signs of covenantal membership, 'badges' such as circumcision, food purity, and observance of holy days. The work of Sanders and Dunn led to a revolution of the study of Paul (with Galatians especially in view) now called the 'New Perspective on Paul'.

In recent years there have been a number of critics of the New Perspective, especially those who maintain a Lutheran reading of Paul and also those who consider Paul a thoroughly :apocalyptic thinker:, where pure divine agency defines Pauline soteriology. In the last few years, John M.G. Barclay has attempted to chart a new path beyond the New Perspective and also the apocalyptic Paul by focusing on Paul's use of grace-language within and beyond the conventions of gift-giving of his time.

For two helpful sketches of the modern study of Paul, see: Paul, Letters of, in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Books of the Bible(Magnus Zetterholm) Paul, in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Theology (Morna D. Hooker) For more information on John Barclay's study on gift and grace in Paul, see his book Paul and the Gift (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015). For quick summaries of his argumentation and thought see " Interview with John Barclay, by Wesley Hill Grace, in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Theology (John Barclay)

Student Questions:

  • What is distinctive of a Lutheran reading of Paul?
  • What is the 'New Perspective on Paul'?
  • What is 'covenantal nomism' according to E.P. Sanders?
  • How does James D.G. Dunn explain Paul's use of the language of 'works of the law'?

Additional In-Class Exercises

#1: Galatians and 1 Thessalonians: Amongst the undisputed Pauline letters, scholars tend to believe that the earliest two extant letters are Galatians and 1 Thessalonians. Students would benefit from comparing these and consider how they are similar and how they are different in tone, themes, use of Scripture, and style.

#2: Abraham in Galatians and Romans: Have students read Galatians 3 and Romans 4. Compare and contrast how Paul appeals to Abraham. If time permits, include James 2:14-26.

Further Reading


Das, A.A. Galatians. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing, 2014.

Dunn, J.D.G. The Epistle to the Galatians:Black's New Testament Commentary. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1993.

Hays, R.B. 'Galatians: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections' Pages 181-348 in The New Interpreter's Bible. Volume 11. Ed. L.E. Keck et al. Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2000.

Martyn, J.L. Galatians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary Anchor Yale Bible. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997.

Oakes, P. Galatians Paideia New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015.

Riches, J.K. Galatians through the Centuries Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008.


Barclay, J.D.G. Obeying the Truth: A Study of Paul's Ethics in Galatians Edinburgh: T. T. Clark, 1988.

Barclay, J.M.G. Paul and the Gift Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015.

Dunn, J.D.G. The New Perspective on Paul: Collected Essays Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008.

Dunn, J.D.G. The Theology of Paul's Letter to the Galatians New Testament Theology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Eastman, S. Recovering Paul's Mother Tongue: Language and Theology in Galatians Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007.

Longenecker, B.W. The Triumph of Abraham's God: The Transformation of Identity in Galatians Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1998.

Sanders, E.P. Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977.

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