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Paul and Galatia (1)

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This article is an inquiry into what we can determine, on the basis of the letters alone, about the relationships between Paul and Galatia. We shall seek to clarify these questions: the founding mission in the sequence of events; the Jerusalem conference and what it meant for the Galatians; the Antioch episode and its significance for the Galatian controversy; the possibility of a return visit by Paul to Galatia; and finally the collection in Galatia and its relationship to the controversy there.

The methodological procedures which are to be followed are already set forth in other parts of this web site; click on Letters Based Chronology (1) to (4). In particular, it is of crucial importance to avoid harmonizing Acts to the letters, or, more seriously, the letters to Acts.1 Various Galatians commentaries formally acknowledge the priority of the letters, or the dubiousness of depending upon Acts, but the picture which emerges in each case is to one degree or another distorted by an overlay of Acts information.2 

We can agree, one would hope, that a methodology provides cleaner results when we correlate sources only after we reach conclusions about each independently. Let us first do a letter chronology, or chronologies—for chart [A] click on Letters Based Chronology (3), and for chart [B] click on Letters Based Chronology (4); and let us do an Acts chronology—click on Acts as a Source (2).Then we may assess what each can contribute to our knowledge of early Christianity, and of Paul, in particular.3 But we are not yet at that point: in this paper we shall try to clarify what the letters tell us about Paul’s relationships with the churches of Galatia, leaving Acts to one side.4

The present paper will also provide a further occasion for testing hypothesis [A], that the founding missions in Galatia, Macedonia and Achaia were completed before rather than after the Jerusalem conference. At the same time, we should be aware that an alternative letters chronology [B] can be constructed which places these founding missions in the period after the conference.5

  * This article is a revision of “Paul and Galatia,” Proceedings: Eastern Great Lakes and Midwest Biblical Societies 13 (1993) 55-69.
  1Click on B. W. Bacon, for a warning from 1907 against the dangers of harmonization!
  2See below, Detached Note, “The Use of Acts by Various Commentators,” with reference to: Richard N. Longenecker, Galatians, WBC 41 (Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1990); Dieter Georgi, Remembering the Poor: The History of Paul’s Collection for Jerusalem (Nashville: Abingdon, 1992); Dieter Lührmann, Galatians: A Continental Commentary (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992); and Hans Dieter Betz, Galatians: A Commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Churches in Galatia (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979).
  3For a modest attempt in this direction, click on Acts as a Source (4).
  4There are substantial reasons for excluding Acts from consideration in reconstructing Paul’s career; click on Reasons.
  5Click on Option B.

Detached Note: “The Use of Acts by Various Commentators”

We are reviewing here the question of the use of Acts in the work of four authors: Richard N. Longenecker, Dieter Georgi, Dieter Lührmann, and Hans Dieter Betz (see note 2 above). There is much that is methodologically sound in their writings. Longenecker (lxxiii) and Lührmann (21) acknowledge explicitly the priority of the letters. Lührmann declares Luke wrong about Paul’s persecuting activity in Jerusalem and about the famine visit. Betz doubts that Acts had reliable or complete information about Paul (9-10), and resists attempts to harmonize Acts and Galatians in discussions of the resurrection appearance to Paul and of Paul’s visits to Jerusalem (63, 84). Georgi is skeptical (21) about the trustworthiness of Acts 15.

In varying degrees, however, these four commentators portray Paul’s career in ways which show significant accommodation to Acts. We find surprisingly positive assessments of the historical reliability of Acts. Longenecker assumes the basic reliability of Acts (lxxviii-lxxix). Georgi characterizes Luke as the first historian of Christianity (126) and declares that Acts probably gives a historically correct report of the events leading up to the apostolic conference (23, n. 14). Betz remarks on how much seemingly reliable historical information is contained in Acts 15 (84, n. 253).

Beyond a general assent to the trustworthiness of Acts, the four interpreters find particular pieces of information in Acts reliable. Lührmann (21) and Betz (3) affirm Paul’s Roman citizenship, despite convincing arguments to the contrary offered by Stegemann; click on Roman Citizen. Lührmann has Paul beginning his work in a given city by making contact with the synagogue, as portrayed in Acts (40, 77). Betz represents Paul as a delegate to the apostolic conference from Antioch (82, 84). Betz also makes Barnabas the former mentor of Paul (104). Georgi (111) and Lührmann (41) shade the reconstruction of the collection project to Acts 20:4, which is interpreted as listing delegates to accompany the collection—even though Acts is apparently unaware that the purpose of the journey to Jerusalem is to deliver the collection which Paul has been gathering.

In sum, we see a puzzling inconsistency between the professed caution of these authors about Acts, on the one hand, and their perhaps over-generous assessment of the usefulness of Acts, on the other hand. Something of this same ambivalence toward Acts is evident in J. Louis Martyn’s otherwise impressive commentary on Galatians; click on Paul and Antioch (1).

The cumulative effect of the kinds of dependence upon Acts which we have noted is to encourage harmonization, and in subtle ways to distort what Paul himself has to say about his career.

The Founding Mission in Galatia

There is not very much we can say from the letters about the circumstances surrounding the founding mission, except that Paul came to Galatia because of illness (Galatians 4:13-15). Paul speaks of the warm welcome he had received from the Galatians. On the hypothesis of pre-conference founding missions in the West, he had recently been working in Syria and Cilicia, following his first Jerusalem visit (Galatians 1:21).6 Nothing in the texts suggests that he was accompanied by a companion or companions, though by the time he had completed his work in Galatia, had traveled through Macedonia, and had reached Corinth, his co-workers were Silvanus and Timothy (2 Corinthians 1:19); it is possible that one or both had been with him in Galatia.

Paul’s mission among the gentiles of Galatia (Galatians 4:8-9) was in response to his commissioning as an apostle to the gentiles (1:15-16). At the center of his message was Jesus Christ, who was publicly portrayed as crucified (3:1), whose death was for people’s sins (1:4), who had been raised from the dead (1:1), and who would rescue God’s people from the existing evil age (1:4). Paul became a kind of father to the people in these Galatian communities (4:19). They shared with him in the life of Spirit as they came to faith in response to the Christ whom he was preaching (3:2-4). It was probably at the founding visit that Paul also gave these converts from a pagan way of life the solemn warnings about the kind of vices which would exclude them from the kingdom of God (5:17-21).7

The “truth of the gospel” proclaimed by Paul at the founding visit had given participation in the people of God to these gentiles without their being required to undertake observance of the Law. It was this truth which Paul was committed to maintain for the Galatians at the Jerusalem conference (2:5) and in Antioch (2:14).

  6Galatians 1:21 is a difficult text, and views will vary on whether it allows or forbids pre-conference founding missions in the west. At least Paul does not say that he worked only in Syria and Cilicia during the fourteen years between the first and second Jerusalem visits. His rhetorical strategy seems to have required brevity, and hence he is obliged only to demonstrate his distance from Jerusalem in time (fourteen years) and space (at least as far away as Syria and Cilicia), without providing a full list of the places he has visited in the intervening period. For a fuller discussion, click on Letters Based Chronology (2), where I have presented more fully the arguments for chronology [A].
  7See Galatians 5:21, “. . . kathôs proeipon [as I warned you before].” It is less likely that the previous warning in 1:9, “hôs proeirêkamen [as we have said before],” about false teachers, took place at the founding visit, since it is questionable whether competing preachers would have made their way to the Galatian congregations so early. Such a warning appears more likely during a return visit, if there was a return visit.

The Jerusalem Conference

According to the hypothesis we are testing, Paul left Galatia and proceeded to Macedonia, and then on to Achaia.8 Paul had thus succeeded in establishing three of his four major missionary foundations before he looked eastward again, for the Jerusalem conference. In the fourteen years since his first Jerusalem visit, he had founded congregations in Galatian territory, in Philippi and Thessalonica, and in Corinth; and he had composed the letter which we call 1 Thessalonians. 

     The Occasion. We can only speculate about the circumstances which might have convinced him that he should travel up to Jerusalem, fourteen years after his first visit (Galatians 2:1).9 

Had zealous law-observant Christians infiltrated one or more of his congregations, with a view to imposing circumcision and cultic purity?10 In this case, Paul would be going to Jerusalem to obtain some kind of agreement on a missionary strategy which would curtail attacks against his law free gentile mission. Or,


Was Paul trying to secure his position in Jerusalem before his westward mission to Spain by way of Rome?

Whatever the situation may have been, Paul believed that he had received direct divine guidance to make the trip (2:2). To this we may add the observation that the greater the extent of Paul’s apostolic labors before the conference, for which we have made due allowance in our present hypothesis, the greater the risk was that his efforts might be for nothing (2:2);11 hence, he submitted for review in Jerusalem the gospel which he had been preaching to gentiles in Galatia, Macedonia and Achaia.

  8An alternative route—from Syria/Cilicia to Macedonia by sea, and thence to Achaia and then to Galatia—is conceivable, but fails to explain why Paul might have bypassed Asia Minor to reach Macedonia. The possibility of a founding mission in Asia/Ephesus before the Jerusalem conference may be left open, but is not required by the present hypothesis.
  9We can probably exclude the explanation that he was summoned to Jerusalem. We shall also put to one side the explanation provided by Acts, where we are told that law-observant Christians from Judea urged circumcision for the gentiles in Antioch as a condition of salvation, and that Paul and Barnabas were appointed to represent the interests of these gentiles before the apostles and elders in Jerusalem (Acts 15:1-3). The Acts account may contain reliable reminiscences of Judean interference at Antioch, but we must be cautious in using the narrative as it stands because of: (a) uncertainty whether Acts has placed this interference in the right sequence; (b) uncertainty whether Acts has accurately defined the point at issue; and (c) the tendency of Acts to withhold from Paul apostolic rank; from the point of view of the author, the apostles are in Jerusalem, they have seen Jesus during the forty days, and they are twelve in number—and Paul does not qualify on any of these points. H. D. Betz throws his usual caution to the winds when he uses Acts 15:1-2 as the basis for describing the occasion of the conference (Galatians 85) and succeeds, so far as this issue is concerned, in thoroughly harmonizing Galatians and Acts.
  10In W. O. Walker, “Why Paul Went to Jerusalem: The Interpretation of Galatians 2:1-5,” CBQ 54 (1992) 503-10, we find the interesting proposal that the false brothers of Galatians 2:4 have instigated their intrigue at some point before the conference—at Antioch, in Syria or Cilicia, or (one might also suggest) in one of Paul’s other missionary foundations, such as Galatia, Macedonia, or Achaia.
  11It is difficult to estimate what exactly Paul sees the risk to be: his disqualification as an apostle? the existence of two separate bodies of believers? the mass re-conversion of his gentile congregations?

     The Route. The journey to Jerusalem may well have originated in Corinth, though we have no direct information; click on Corinth. Whatever the point of origin, Paul could have joined Barnabas at some pre-arranged place such as Antioch or Caesarea and then completed the trip up to Jerusalem.12 Titus could have joined them in Antioch, but more likely was a convert from one of Paul’s missionary foundations.

     The Meeting. Paul gives his version of the conference to convince the Galatian readers of his independent apostolic authority and of the legitimacy of the law-free gospel which he had been preaching among them and among other gentiles.13 There are various ways of formulating the problem which was to be addressed at the meeting; it is sufficient to indicate that the central question was whether gentile converts were obliged to submit to circumcision and to the observance of Torah. It is understandable that, from the side of the Jewish Christian mission, believers had been law-observant from the beginning, and thus that they saw Paul’s law-free gospel for the gentiles as taking liberties without due authorization. It is equally understandable that, from the side of the gentile Christian mission, the imposition of Torah upon gentile converts seemed to be unrelated to the new life which they had experienced in Christ. Given this alignment of the parties to the discussion, it is not surprising that certain zealous types attempted to impose circumcision upon Titus, nor is it surprising that Paul resisted this attempt (2:3-5).

     The Results. Probably neither party was completely satisfied with the agreement which was reached.14 When Paul says that Titus was not circumcised, and nothing was added (to his law-free gospel, i.e. no additional conditions were imposed upon gentile converts), we are probably to conclude that Paul’s view prevailed (2:6). This part of the agreement was not good news for the Jewish Christian mission. On the other hand, the comity arrangement which was worked out (2:7-9) salvaged as much as was possible for the Jewish Christian position, in that a part of the church was permitted to remain law-observant, i.e. the law-free gospel was not to be imposed upon Jewish Christians. At the same time, this dual mission concept, strategically useful as it was for the continued spread of the gospel, contained within it (as we can see in retrospect) the seeds of controversy: it had not addressed the problem of table fellowship between Jewish and gentile Christians, as events at Antioch were to show; and it had left open circumcision and law observance as a credible alternative to the law-free gospel, as the approaching storm in Galatia was to prove.15

Finally, the agreement that Paul and Barnabas should remember the poor (2:10) was on balance a well-conceived and even statesmanlike move. It provided the opportunity for gentile believers to relieve human need, and at the same time to make a gesture of good will, signifying respect and appreciation,16 toward Jewish believers in Jerusalem. It was thus a step in the direction of mitigating the divisive effects of the dual mission system.

  12Click on Paul and Barnabas.
  13Paul’s participation in the Jerusalem conference does not of course guarantee the objectivity of his report; he was no impartial observer, but a passionate advocate for his vision of the gentile mission. But if his version of the proceedings is to be corrected, it is to be corrected on the basis of the letters, and not Acts.
  14Paul is somewhat imprecise about the findings, so that one suspects that he was not quoting from a formal conference document.
  15The comments of Betz on the alignment of the parties at Jerusalem, and later at Antioch, are stimulating and instructive, even if I do not follow him in every detail.
  16See Georgi, Remembering the Poor 33-42.


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