§1 Approaching Galatians (session 1, part 2)—Paul’s Letter to the Galatians: A Presbyterian Adult Spiritual Formation Series

[The following resumes, in medias res, the same session as recounted in the first post in this series.]

Participant: I have one question about Martin because you were mentioning he looks at Paul through the apocalyptic lenses. I’ve heard there’s some open debate on whether or not Jesus himself had an apocalyptic world view. I’m curious if Martin has a position on that.


McMaken: I don’t know if Martin he worked on Jesus. He is certainly best known for his work on Paul. I think Jesus did have an apocalyptic view of the world because it springs up way too quickly in the Jesus following community. But I’ll get into a little bit into the scholarship that leads to Martin later on.


4. Historical Context


a. Author & Date


Alright. Who wrote the book of Galatians?


Participants: Paul


McMaken: Right. That’s who the text tells us is the author. For instance, it says at one point, “look how big the letters are when I write with my own hand.” And virtually no one argues about whether this one was written by the apostle Paul. There are books that people argue about: Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians all of those get argued about. Only very conservative readers think that the Pastoral epistles—1 & 2 Timothy and Titus—were written by Paul. But pretty much everyone agrees that Galatians is Paul, whoever Paul was.

The next question is: When did he write it? Early to mid 50’s CE. So it’s one of the earlier texts that we have in the New Testament cannon. And in terms of locating it with Paul’s other letters, it’s somewhere after 1 Thessalonians and before Romans. We generally take 1 Thessalonian as the earliest text in the New Testament. So that one is first, and then Galatians comes after that but before Romans. The rest of how you put Paul’s letters together—1 & 2 Corinthians, Philippians, and Philemon—on that timeline depends on a lot of other commitments you have. For example, one big question is how accurate you think the book of Acts is for talking about Paul, and there are arguments about that. But, in terms of Galatians, scholars are pretty confident that it comes after 1 Thessalonians before Romans. If we track some of the other things going on in Paul’s life, it makes us think he writes Galatians in the early to mid 50’s CE.

Does anyone know what the first Gospel written was?


Participant: Matthew?


McMaken: We thought that in the past, and that’s why it appears first in the order of New Testament books.


Participant: Mark.


McMaken: Yeah, it’s Mark. Probably right around 70 CE. So here in Galatians we’re a couple decades before any of the Gospels we have in the cannon. Galatians is one of the earlier texts.

One other key thing to think about in terms of the background to Galatians is that Paul and Barnabas split up. Do y’all recognize the name Barnabas? Early on in Paul's career, if you track it in Acts, he’s got this buddy named Barnabas. They are missionaries together sent out by the church in Antioch. And then, eventually, they split up. Does anybody remember why?


Participant: Was it  a big argument over Gentiles?


McMaken: We’d like to think that, right? We want to think that surely the reason that these two guys parted ways was a real significant important reason.


Participant: Was it about somebody who was with them?


Another Participant: Yeah, who they didn’t like?


McMaken: Yeah. It was Mark. There was a guy named Mark who’d been traveling with them. At one point he bailed on them and then he came back, and Paul was like: “Oh, no. I’m not dealing with this.” But Barabas was like: “We should be forgiving and bring him along,” and so on. That’s why Paul and Barnabas split up. It’s al in Acts 15, if you want to look it up.


Participant: Well, Paul was one of those people who was laser focused, right? And wasn’t really interested in dealing with nonsense.


Participant: Either all in or you’re all out.


McMaken: Yeah. He Wasn’t interested in dealing with folks who were not.


Participant: I said he’s probably an 8 on the enneagram.


McMaken: Oh, I don’t know the enneagram so I’m open to the idea that he’s an 8.

In any case, if you look in Galatians chapter 2, Paul mentions his old partner, Barabas. Paul doesn’t get into why the two parted ways, but Barnabas does show up in chapter 2 verse 9. They were both missionaries both sent and supported by the church at Antioch. And one of the things that I think it’s easy to lose, at least it is for me—I guess because of the way I was trained to read the Bible as a young person in churches—is to not think about the kind of institutional entanglements, you might say, that go along with some of these things. So, we tend to think of Paul and Barnabas are out there preaching the Gospel. But when you really think about it, what they’re doing is they’re planting daughter churches, to put it in the kind of language we’d use today. These are churches that are more or less reporting back, and there’s something like a denominational structure tying things back, to Antioch. Antioch is the mother church, and it has these other satellite churches kind of tied in with them, under their influence, and with their support and their guidance. 


Participant: Who was in charge of the church of Antioch at the time?


McMaken: We don’t know.


Participant: Oh yeah that’s kind of unusual, isn’t it?


McMaken: Not really. A lot is unclear about those first decades. Acts 11 has some un-named Jesus-followers going to Antioch (among other places) due to persecution they were facing, presumably in Jerusalem. So the leaders of the church in Antioch was whoever the elders in Antioch were. And Antioch is interesting because it became important in spreading the message.

So, Paul and Barnabas are out there planting daughter churches for Antioch, being supported by the church there. We can think about them being on Antioch’s payroll, or in terms of Antioch being the place where they raise their money and who sends them out. And then, Paul and Barnabus split up and Paul seems to have broken ties with Antioch. Then, by the time he’s planting the Galatians church, he’s—according to Martin, and this is his language—“something of a lone wolf evangelist” (p. 17). He’s out there on his own, not tied in with any of the other churches. And he’s planting churches without that kind of institutional backing. But, like we said, Paul’s laser focused. It doesn’t seem to have slowed him down or given him pause that he wasn’t tied in. And he stayed very much committed to his understanding of the Gospel. 

This is how J. Louis Martyn articulates Paul’s understanding of the Gospel, and I think this is really compelling language. I have two sentences. The first is: “God was making things right in the world by the faithful death of Christ.” The second one is: “God was creating his worldwide church, both from Jews and from uncircumcised Gentiles” (p. 18). That’s the two-pronged focus that goes into Paul’s thinking about why Jesus is important and what God’s up to in the world through Jesus. And preaching the message is important because God’s doing these things. God’s fixing the world as a result of, and through, Jesus’s faithful death. The way God is doing that is by making a single worldwide people of God. It’s got Jews in it. And it’s got uncircumcised Gentiles in it, in Paul’s view. This is the framework for the Gospel that he’s preaching to the church in Galatians.

Because Paul was institutionally unaffiliated, the churches in Galatia were originally independent rather than daughter churches. Think about those dynamics. Has anybody here ever been in an independent church that wasn’t part of a larger denomination? That’s how I grew up. For the most part, it’s an interesting dynamic because you’re just kind of out there. There’s not a lot to tell you how to do things one way or the other, right? You’re not really reporting to anybody, and that can be both liberating and terrifying, if you think about it. And I suspect that while Paul was there, it was exciting. But then when Paul left and it got to be terrifying. You have got these folks and they’re like: “Okay, were doing this Christianity thing. But are we doing it right? What do we do about this? What do we do about that?” And then, here comes some teachers from Jerusalem who say: “Hey, we can plug you in to this bigger thing.” So, there’s interesting institutional dynamics going on and you can imagine at least some of the folks at Galatia being like: “Oh yeah, that sems like a great idea. We need help.” And we can imagine other folks being like: “Wait a minute. That doesn’t seem like what Paul was telling us.” And now you’ve got a problem.

Keeping this kind of context in mind as a frame of reference for Galatians is interesting. I think the people in Galatia viewed the unaffiliated status, the independent status, sometimes in certain senses as positive and in other senses as negative. I think those teachers who come from Jerusalem that we hear about very early in the book as the reason that Paul is writing—I think they made it seem like a bad thing.


b. Audience


So, who were the Galatians? Galatia was a Roman province in central Anatolia, which today we call Asia Minor or Turkey. So, this is where you’ve got that handy map. The cities listed there in the middle of Asia Minor are in the Galatia region. And notice there is a cluster in the north and a cluster to the south. Scholars argue about whether this book is targeting northern Galatians or southern Galatians. The southern cities of Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe are mentioned in Acts 16, although there isn’t clear evidence in that context to associate them with the people receiving this letter.

We must also think about the Gauls. They were Celts that originally lived in Gallia, which is roughly where France is today. Julias Cesar famously fought them, and he published his memoirs with the title: Commentary on the Gallic Wars. The Celts were a large people group across northern Europe. In addition to France, they lived all through Britain, Germany, and so on. They were a huge people group. Prior to our time period, a group of them had come down to Asia Minor and settled in that northern region. The Gauls were concentrated more in the northern part of the region, and the cities in the south of the region were decidedly less Celtic even though they were in a province named after the Celts from Gaul.

Given the evidence in Acts, it isn’t clear whether Paul would be writing to the more northern part of the province or the more southern part of the province, and scholars argue back and forth about this. Bedford’s approach is to look at the province as a whole and describe it as a melting pot of Gauls, Romans, Hellenes (the Greek speaking folks), Phrygians, and the diasporic Jews—the “diaspora” refers to Jews not living in Palestine. She reads Galatians as written to people colonized and dominated by imperial Rome. There are Romans in the province, but the vast majority are these Gauls, the Hellenes, Phrygians, diasporic Jews, and so on. These are all people under Rome’s thumb. Then, thinking especially of the Gauls and Phrygians, Bedford calls these folks “quintessential barbarians” (p. 3) in the Roman sense of people without culture, people without law. As you know, the theme of law focuses very front and center in the book. This is land of “others” and uncivilized people in the Roman imagination. So Bedford’s interpretation of the book focuses on how cultural otherness factors in and how we can interpret Galatians with a sensitivity to people wo are culturally and ethnically different than us. And that’s really important.

That said, Martin does it a little differently. I think Martin, speaking strictly historically, is probably more precise, and following Martin just requires a slight modification to what Bedford lays out. He points to Galatians 3:1 where Paul says: “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?” Is that making friends and influencing people? Great language. “You foolish Galatians!” But he uses the ethnic term “Galatai” in Greek, which is the word that “Galatians” comes from. Importantly, this is an ethnic term, which seems to suggest that he’s writing to the ethnic Gauls, the Celts, the northern Galatians folks. I find that point pretty compelling. So, following Martin, I think we’re probably talking about those northern cities. He’s thinking Ankyra and Pessinus, and maybe Tavium but primarily the other two. There would have been few ethnic Gauls, or Celts, in the south. They’re all up there in the north. So it would be weird to address a group of people in the south, a mixed group, by calling them Gauls because there are hardly any Gauls. It makes more sense to be talking to the folks up north.

This is important to help us understand the book because, just like there aren’t many Gauls in the South, there aren’t many Jews in the north. The historical evidence at this time does not attest any settled Jewish communities in northern Galatia. We have to keep this in mind to understand what Paul says about Jews and about the law in Galatians. When he’s talking about Jews and the law, he’s not talking about non-Jesus-following Jews. The only Jews in question, that the people in Galatians have had any opportunity to deal with, at any kind of length, are himself and the folks from Jerusalem. When he’s talking about these things, it’s within the context of Jesus-following Jews and Jesus-following Gentiles—and, specifically, within the context of differences of interpretation among Jesus-following Jews about how to handle Jesus-following Gentiles.

So, when Paul talks about the law in Galatians, it’s about how the law applies to Jesus-following Gentiles. When we keep this in mind, we’ll see that his comments hit a bit differently. As we go along, we can look at his comments about Jews and say: “Okay, how does this hit differently if he’s talking about all Jews or if he’s talking about Jesus-following Jews who are making arguments about the Galatians?” This is an important frame of reference that Martin’s historical research helps us see and identify.


Participant: Am I correct in thinking that Paul was just fine with Jews who were following Jesus continuing to practice the Jewish law? He just was not in favor of imposing Jewish law on Gentile believers?


McMaken: That is a line of interpretation that is increasingly popular.


Participant: Okay.


McMaken: I’m not 100% sure. I’m going to say more about that because there seems to be some development in Paul between when he wrote Galatians and when he wrote Romans. I think Paul thinks Jesus means something as well for Jews who are not Jesus-following, but I don’t think Paul thinks that God is somehow done with Jews who are not Jesus-following—which is the supersessionist claim.


Participant: Right, right.


McMaken: There’s that passages in Romans that says “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (11:29, NRSVue[1]). He’s talking about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and the calling of Israel. Paul says that God doesn’t go back on this calling even though it seems really complicated in Paul’s moment. So the line of interpretation you bring up is a current line of interpretation that has a lot of traction, and I think it is right in really important ways.


c. Setting the Scene


What I’m going to share next is a reconstruction for Martin. It really struck me when I read it because it helps get us into the mindset of what’s going on because we’re all reading a letter. We have a lot of our own experience that we bring to what it means to receive and read a letter, but what the Galatians experienced is very different. So, here’s the scene.

Paul ends up in Galatia due to an illness. You can read about that in 4:13–14. We don’t have a lot of details, but he preaches the gospel as a Jew to these primarily Celtic Gentiles, barbarian Gentiles, who didn’t have many other Jews around. When he does this, Paul does not require these barbarians to become Jews in order to follow Jesus. That’s what the whole deal with circumcision and following the law is all about. In Second Temple Judaism, which is the kind of non-Jesus following Judaism we have at the time, it is possible for Gentiles to go all he way and become Jews through being circumcised and following the law. Gentiles who did this were called “proselytes.” There were also Gentile folks called “God-fearers” who hung around the Jewish communities, respected the Jewish God, wanted to learn, wanted to practice some of it, etc., but who didn’t go all the way and become a Jew.  Paul doesn’t make the Galatians do that to get in on the Jesus thing.

So Paul founds these churches and there seems to be real affection between him and his converts, which you would expect. This guy has shown up and preached a message that they find compelling and want to get involved with. They’re going to like the guy. Then it seems like he trains teachers to carry on when he departs. This is hinted at in 6:6, and it’s the logical thing to do. Paul’s not just going to up and leave. He’s going to try to make sure there are some folks prepared to lead in his absence. But he does leave at some point. Quickly after that, it seems. Jewish Jesus-followers come from Jerusalem and argue with the Galatians that Gentiles must become Jewish in order to follow Jesus—they must be circumcised and they must follow the law, including the dietary restrictions. The dietary restrictions will be a key part in Paul’s argument.

So these Jewish Jesus-following folks come and have this weight of authority from Jerusalem. Maybe they say: “Who’s this Paul guy supposed to be? He doesn’t have any backing. He’s a free agent. We’re from the place where it all happened.” The weight of their authority from Jerusalem and their arguments prove convincing to these Gentiles, or at least to a large portion of them who may feel as though a larger Jesus-following world is opening up to them.  They didn’t necessarily know about Jerusalem or the wider Jesus-following network that these folks from Jerusalem can tell them about and plug them into—including these other apostles who had known Jesus back in the day. This might be an “Oh my gosh! We didn’t realize this was such a big thing!” kind of moment.  

Someone, perhaps one of the teachers that Paul trained, sees what is happening, isn’t thrilled, and makes sure Paul gets told what’s going on. So a messenger comes to Paul. Paul reacts. Paul writes a letter and send a messenger with the letter, probably the same person who comes to Paul to tell him what’s up. That messenger shows up and reads the letter aloud to the congregation. Why? Because very few people can read, at least in the sense we think about reading long discursive sentences. But if this messenger is reading the letter aloud to the congregation, who else is probably there? The people from Jerusalem. Imagine that dynamic. This guy gets back—almost certainly a guy, unfortunately, let’s be honest—with Pual’s letter and says: “Hey, everybody. I talked to Paul. He wrote us this thing  for me to read about those guys right over there.” And in the middle of this dynamic you get this particular letter, which is a confusing letter. Paul’s not easy to understand especially when he’s worked up.

Martin describes Galatians as a “volatile letter” (p. 28). Just think of that one line: “You foolish Galatians! Who’s bewitched you?” (3:1) Someone cast a spell on you! You guys are being nuts! It’s a volatile letter. And you can imagine it being read out and everybody just being dumbfounded and thinking: “What just happened?” Then, here are the folks from Jerusalem, ready to help, saying: “Don’t worry you guys. We can help you understand this thing. We here to help.” 

This letter might have backfired on Paul and ended up strengthening the folks from Jerusalem. They can offer themselves as interpreters because this letter probably surprised and probably hurt a large portion of the congregations in Galatia. There would have been the diehard Paul people who were like: “Yeah, let ‘em have it, Paul!” But other people would have reacted with: “Oh my gosh! We didn’t expect this reaction. What is going on? Why is he so angry with us?” And the Jerusalem folks are there with explanations and figurative shoulders to cry on.

It seems like they were successful in turning this situation to their advantage. One of the key things that you see looking at Paul’s letters is that he was very deeply committed to taking a collection of money to send back to Jerusalem. There were famines and things going on and the congregation in Jerusalem was really struggling. So Paul was out in the broader world trying to collect money and prove that we’re all one in Christ, that we’ll send our recourses to Jerusalem to help these folks out. When Paul writes Romans, he talks about the congregations who are pulling money together. Guess who’s not on the list. Galatians. This is especially surprising because, in 1 Corinthians 16, Paul mentions instructions he sent to Galatians about the collection. Since the Galatians aren’t mentioned in Romans, they might be ignoring his instructions. It doesn’t seem like everything planned out as Paul had hoped.

On the other hand, the folks from Jerusalem couldn’t have been entirely successful or else we would not have this letter. There must have been some folks who stuck with Paul in that context, at least enough to save the letter. Perhaps those loyal to Paul, especially among the teachers that he trained, left Galatia to find faithful Pauline congregations elsewhere and took the letter with them. Perhaps something else happened. Maybe they just had different communities there in Galatia where they preserved the letter. We don’t know what happened but it seems to have been a very fraught kind of situation.

[This is an edited transcript from an adult spiritual formation group that met at St. Charles Presbyterian Church in St. Charles, Missouri. It was transcribed and edited with the help of a student worker at Lindenwood University who wishes to remain anonymous, but who was also a big help. Click here to find an index of the full series.]

[1] All biblical citations in this series are taken from the NRSVue unless otherwise noted. 



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