The background to Galatians


As I have argued on these web pages, the following events occurred before Paul wrote Galatians.

Paul and Barnabas evangelized south Galatia.

Some men from Judea (Acts 15:1-2) went to Antioch. These were the men "from James" of Gal 2:12. They told the Gentile believers there that they needed to be circumcised, even though the Jerusalem church leaders had not endorsed that teaching (Acts 15:24).

Paul, Barnabas, and Titus went up to Jerusalem to resolve the circumcision issue. They had a private meeting with the "pillars" (Gal 2:1-10) and later a larger meeting of all the elders was convened (Acts 15). Both meetings confirmed that circumcision was not required, and a letter was written to that effect (Acts 15:22-29).

Paul (with Silas and Luke) went to south Galatia and Paul circumcised Timothy there. At the same time he delivered the letter.

Paul later wrote to south Galatia.

I suggest, further, that the circumcision of Timothy and the delivery of the letter made the Galatian believers confused about what Paul actually believed. Paul circumcised Timothy to help him gain an audience with Jews, but Paul could not explain that that was his motive, for the Jews whom he hoped to bring to Christ would not have responded favorably. At some point after Paul left Galatia some there said, "Paul circumcised Timothy, so he must believe in circumcision, so it's OK for other Gentile believers to be circumcised. It is true that he preached Gentile liberty, but he must have done so only to please the Jerusalem church leaders who had written that letter. The real Paul believes in circumcision."

These rumors in Galatia explain the letter:

The three major passages that deal with the agitators are tabulated below. It is striking that in these passages Paul makes essentially the same sequence of arguments in the same order and this means that each verse should be interpreted in the light of the parallel verses in the other passages.

At the beginning of each passage Paul singles out himself as the one who is responsible for what is written. In 5:2 he writes, “I, Paul”; in 6:11 he takes the pen from the scribe; and in 1:1 he makes his first claim that his message is independent of the Jerusalem church leaders. In all three verses Paul takes personal responsibility for what he is writing, lest his readers assume that he is merely following the “partly line” and not writing out of personal conviction.

Galatians 1:1-10

1 Paul an apostle--sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead--

2 and all the members of God's family who are with me, To the churches of Galatia: 3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, 4 who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, 5 to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

6 I 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--

7 not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ.

8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! 9 As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed! 10 Am I now seeking human approval, or God's approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.

Galatians 5:2-11

2 Listen! I, Paul,

am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you. 3 Once again I testify to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obliged to obey the entire law. 4 You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. 5 For through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness.

6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.

7 You were running well; who prevented you from obeying the truth? 8 Such persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. 9 A little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough. 10 I am confident about you in the Lord that you will not think otherwise. But whoever it is that is confusing you

will pay the penalty.

11 But my friends, why am I still being persecuted if I am still preaching circumcision? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed.          12 I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!

Galatians 6:11-17

11 See what large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand!

12 It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that try to compel you to be circumcised--only that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. 13 Even the circumcised do not themselves obey the law, but they want you to be circumcised so that they may boast about your flesh. 14 May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.

15 For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!

16 As for those who will follow this rule--peace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God.

17 From now on, let no one make trouble for me; for I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body.


Paul emphasizes  that he is writing his own opinions

It is inconsistent to be circumcised but not obey the whole law.

Christ saves us

Paul repeats himself, lest they continue to believe that he does not mean it.

Circumcision is nothing

You have turned from the truth to the false teaching of the influencers

The influencers are confusing you

A curse on those who urge circumcision.

Paul corrects the view that he advocates circumcision (His persecutions demonstrate his commitment to Gentile liberty)

6:16 contains an implied curse on those who do not follow the rule (so Betz “The Galatians debate” Ed. M. Nanos p7).

5:11 reads, "why am I still being persecuted if I am still preaching circumcision?".  The Galatian believers thought Paul supported circumcision. Does the second "still" (ETI) in this verse indicate that Paul is admitting here that he had recommended circumcision to Timothy?

The table shows that 6:17 is located in a parallel position to 5:11, and it is not coincidence that both verses refer to Paul’s persecution. In 6:17, therefore, Paul is saying, "Let no-one question my commitment, for I have the wounds to prove it". Chrysostom understood this: .

1:8-9 should be interpreted in the light of 5:11 because a) both refer to Paul (hypothetically) preaching circumcision, b) both have the same context, as shown by the table (note that the same Greek word for “confusing” is used in 1:7 and 5:10). Therefore in 1:8-9, as in 5:11, Paul refutes the rumor that he actually supported circumcision. That rumor is the confusion that the agitators had spread.

1:10 reads, “For am I now seeking the approval of men....”. The Greek word, “GAR” (For) shows that 1:10 in some sense must explain 1:8-9. This confirms that 1:8-9 is primarily about Paul’s sincerity. The word “men” appears three times in 1:10 and is often taken to refer to the Gentiles to whom Paul preached, but this does not fit the context. The word refers to the Judean church leaders 1:11 and 1:12, as also in 1:1. Therefore 1:10 shows that Paul is concerned that his readers will assume that his letter is written not out of conviction but out of a desire to please the Judean church leaders.

In 1:11-24 Paul explains his statement of 1:10 (that he is not merely trying to please men) by emphasizing (overstating?) that he is not an underling of the Jerusalem church leaders. He makes it clear that he had preached his gospel even before he had had much contact with the Jerusalem leaders.

In Gal 2:1-10 Paul continues to demonstrate that he does not preach gentile liberty out of obedience to the Jerusalem church leaders. 2:6 reads, "And from those who were supposed to be acknowledged leaders (what they actually were makes no difference to me: God shows no partiality) - those leaders contributed nothing to me". Paul here shows that he is no sycophant of the pillars. He asserts that the pillars did not add the doctrine of Gentile liberty to his gospel.

In Gal 2:11-14 Paul selects an incident that must have been very atypical, since Acts and Gal 2:1-10 indicate that Paul and Peter were in agreement that Gentile liberty was important. Paul here asserts his own commitment to the cause of Gentile liberty: he opposed Peter "to his face" and "before them all", and he stood alone even after the other Jews fell away. Paul stresses here that his commitment to Gentile liberty is sincere. He had taken a stand against Peter himself on this very issue. He selects this incident because it shows that his support for Gentile liberty was not motived by a desire to please Peter.

I have argued above that Paul was worried that his readers would respond, “Paul doesn’t really mean what he wrote: he is just following the party line”. This explains why Paul resorts to overstatement, repetition, shock tactics, and embarrassing admissions:

Overstatement. Paul takes a more extreme position on the issue of the Law in Galatians than he does in any other letter (see Romans in particular). For example, 5:2 reads, "Listen, I ,Paul, am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be on no benefit to you." This is a strong statement.

Repetition. In 5:3 Paul repeats his assertion of 5:2 and explicitly mentions that he is repeating himself. He is refuting the rumor that he does not really believe in Gentile liberty. In 1:8-9 too Paul repeats himself and explicitly mentions that he is doing so. See the table above for several examples of repetition between the passages that deal with the confusion caused by the agitators.  The repetition confirms that the confusion spread by the agitators was that Paul did not believe what he said about Gentile liberty.

Shock tactics. Paul shocks his readers in 5:12. Also, in 1:6 he launches an attack at the point where his readers would expect to hear a thanksgiving or a blessing of God. In 1:8 he calls down a curse on himself. In 3:1 Paul calls his readers “foolish”. These statements are very strong. Since Paul is confident that the Galatians will agree with him (5:10), it is surprising that he should resort to such shocking statements. But it is all explicable if Paul needs to convince his readers that he believes what he is writing. Paul must escalate his language beyond that which any secret supporter of circumcision would be prepared to use. He writes that he wishes that the supporters of circumcisions would castrate themselves to show that he is not one of them.

Embarrassing admissions. Paul admits that it was three years before he went to Jerusalem (1:18). He admits that he had been worried that he had been running his race in vain (2:2), and this shows that he did not know in advance that the Judean church leaders would endorse his gospel. He admits to having had a quarrel with Peter (2:11-14). Paul makes these admissions to demonstrate his sincerity. No-one who preached gentile liberty just to please the Judean church authorities would go so far as to make such embarrassing admissions.

This understanding of Galatians reconciles the letter with Acts, which shows that the Judean church leaders supported Gentile liberty.

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