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Bad News from Galatia

Meantime, trouble was brewing in an area which Paul had visited probably not more than a few months before he completed Letter L (1 Corinthians); a messenger from Galatia brought news of teachers, not authorized by Paul, and proclaiming a different gospel. They were seeking to impose Jewish ways upon the gentiles of Galatia, requiring circumcision and the observance of the Sabbath and of festivals in the Jewish calendar (and perhaps observance of dietary regulations as well; compare Galatians 2:11-14).

Galatians 1:6-9   6I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—7not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. . . . 9As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!
Galatians 4:9-10   9. . . How can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits? How can you want to be enslaved to them again? 10You are observing special days, and months, and seasons, and years.
Galatians 5:1-2, 12   1. . . Do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. 2If you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you. . . .12I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!
Galatians 6:12   It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that try to compel you to be circumcised . . . .   




A number of scholars place Galatians before Letter L (1 Corinthians). Not the least of the reasons for placing Galatians after Letter L is the fact that the collection is still viable in Galatia at the time of 1 Corinthians, whereas the dispute in Galatia, which precipitated Galatians, probably meant the end of work on the collection there—sooner than later, and permanently rather than temporarily; see Paul and Galatia (2)






What was Paul to do? To retrace his steps to Galatia so soon would seem futile, not to mention the fact that opportunities were opening up in Ephesus, and that he would like to wind up his work in the Aegean basin, complete the collection project, and move westward, toward Rome and Spain. A letter would have to suffice.




Refer to Romans 1:9-13; 15:22-24.


This letter occupies a special place in his collection of writings, by virtue of its forensic power, its theological depth, and its parental poignancy. Along with his anger and defensiveness, which lead him to use language he might later have regretted, we find a Paul who is virtually weeping, and sometimes thrashing about verbally, as he tries to deal with his difficult children. It is a letter which is peculiarly revealing of Paul, both in the external details of his life, the details which assist us in “connecting the dots” with some confidence, and in the rich inner life which was finally the source of his theologizing.

How was he to counter the plausible arguments of these teachers from abroad, whom we recognize as the rigorists (or their associates) of the Jerusalem conference and the Antioch episode?  Broadly speaking, in two ways:  by defending his independent authority as an apostle against the challenges of these teachers, and by setting out the theological grounds for his gospel, especially his ideas about how we get right with God, and the inner transformation which is the source of this new relationship. 

Apostolic Authority

“Paul an apostle–sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities . . . . ” (Galatians 1:1).

The strategy of the intrusive teachers was to question Paul’s law free gospel to the gentiles by undermining his authority as an apostle, doubtless claiming (as was true) that he was not one of the original Jerusalem apostles, that he was therefore dependent upon those apostles (not true), and that he could not claim apostleship because he had not shared in the Easter appearances (not true). Consequently, his version of the gospel, which did not require observance of the Jewish law, could not be trusted; hence these Galatians should reconsider their standing with God and heed the words of the Jewish scriptures (Paul’s presumed authority also), which set forth the way of righteousness and provided guidance in the observance of ritual requirements which would assure these gentiles that they were truly part of God’s people. So went the rigorist line.









1 Corinthians 15:8.

Paul's defense of his apostleship was simply to tell his story, with an emphasis to be sure on those elements which would demonstrate that his authority was derived directly from Jesus Christ, and that he was in essential respects independent of the Jerusalem apostles. His account also made clear that the conference in Jerusalem had approved missions both to the Jews and to the gentiles. Nothing by way of legal requirements had been added to his gospel, and not even the gentile Titus was obliged to be circumcised. Paul also recounted the Antioch episode, during which his apostolic prerogative was sufficient for him to be able to rebuke Cephas for his duplicity.

Galatians 1:11-17   11. . . The gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; 12for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. . . . 16[When God was pleased] to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, 17nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.
Galatians 2:3-14   3But even Titus, who was with me, was not compelled to be circumcised, though he was a Greek. . . . 6[Those who were of repute] added nothing to me [RSV] . . . . 9[The pillars] gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised . . . . 14[At Antioch] I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?”




Galatians 2:1-10


Galatians 2:11-14


Theological Authority

“. . . And we have come to believe in Jesus Christ, so that we might be justified . . . ” (Galatians 2:16).

Paul also responded to the rigorist teachers in a theological fashion, especially with his teaching on justification by faith, as it has usually been called. Whether he had taught or written about it earlier, or whether it was merely implicit in his law free gospel, here in Galatians this formulation does come to expression in no uncertain terms. It is arguable that the crisis in Galatia was the catalyst which prompted some of his most acute reflection on how we get right with God, and how that relationship is generated and nourished by faith in Jesus Christ. This is an important enough teaching in the letters, and in the history of the church, that we need to explore it in some detail.

   • We begin with the recognition of the metaphorical character of Paul's salvation language—even of the term salvation itself. (Other metaphors will be identified in later sections of this work.) Justification is a term taken over from a court of law, in which the defendant is acknowledged as worthy of condemnation but then is graciously acquitted.
Click also on Corinthians R.
   • Paul is emphatic in denying that justification comes by works of the Jewish law or by claims to self-righteousness of any sort:  “We know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law” (Galatians 2:16).

The NRSV footnote offers “the faith of Christ” as an alternative translation of the Greek pistis Christou in 2:16. This rendering of the Greek as a subjective genitive is currently supported by a number of scholars. But the reading in the NRSV text seems to be favored by the verbal equivalent, “to believe in Christ Jesus” (pisteuein eis Christon Iêsoun), where a subjective genitive is out of the question.




  • As this text (2:16) already shows, a person gets right with God by believing in Christ Jesus. Faith as Paul uses the term means not so much giving assent with the mind as the commitment of one’s whole being, and in this context commitment to Jesus Christ. Paul’s concept of faith is rooted in the Jewish Bible, and especially in the account of Abraham’s believing or trusting God that he would have a son and that his descendants would be numerous as the stars.



Galatians 3:6-9; compare Genesis 15:6.

   • The death of Christ is crucial to this new relationship with God. His death is a gracious act of self-giving, motivated by love:  “[He] loved me and gave himself for me.  I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing” (Galatians 2:20-21). This idea of vicarious suffering is not new with Paul, for it appears already in the summary of gospel tradition which Paul quotes in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, “3. . . that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures . . . .” 
   • While justification is a legal metaphor, it also has an inward aspect, i.e. the faith relationship with Christ so intimate that one recapitulates the death and resurrection of Christ. Christ becomes the new ego, the new center of life: “19. . . I have been crucified with Christ; 20and it is no longer I [Greek, egô] who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.  And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:19-20). 
   • But the actions of God’s grace by no means exclude good works; good works are no longer the root, but the fruit of the tree, as Luther expressed it.  One’s good works are actually energized by the recognition of God’s gracious influence, as Paul would have occasion to observe in the Philippian letter (2:12-13).


Theologizing about Christ

Two other themes are worthy of mention for their own importance, as well as for their contribution to the argument of the letter.  As part of our survey of Paul’s Christology, or theologizing about Christ, we note here a text which implies Christ's pre-existence, as well as his divine Sonship.

Galatians 4:4-5   4But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.



And we mention again the love/agapê principle, which now is identified as a summary of the law, as well as one of the virtues which is the fruit of the Spirit’s working.

Galatians 5:13-14   13For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love [agapê] become slaves to one another. 14For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love [agapân] your neighbor as yourself.”




Galatians 5:13-14, 22.   


The Reception of the Letter

We are not told whether the Galatian believers gave this remarkable document a favorable reception or not.  The reality is that we have no evidence of the resumption of the collection in Galatia, and hence no evidence that the dispute was resolved by this letter.





In Romans 15:26, Galatia is not included with Macedonia and Achaia as contributors. Click on Paul and Galatia (2).

Revised February 6, 2003
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