The Epistle to the Galatians is the strongest polemic against the attempt of the Judaizers to impose on the New Testament church the ceremonial aspects of the Old Testament law. At stake was much more than the circumcision of the Gentiles. The epistle dealt with the question of the law, whether one is justified by faith in Christ Jesus alone or is righteous in the keeping of the ceremonial law. The gospel of this epistle expresses the antithesis between bondage under the law and liberty in Jesus Christ.
In the epistle itself, Paul addresses the recipients as “the churches of Galatia” (1:2). That designation seems simple in itself; but the attempts to identify these churches have produced two different answers. Some Bible scholars insist that they are churches in Northern Galatia, others in Southern Galatia. Connected with the position taken on this question is also the attempt to date the writing of the letter. The determination as to which group Paul addressed in this letter has bearing on the date of the epistle in this way: if he had in mind only the southern group, he probably wrote it soon after the first missionary journey; if he included the northern group, he probably wrote it after the second or even third journey.
The name Galatia is derived from the Gauls, a people of Celtic origin that invaded north central Asia Minor and settled in three centers, Ancyra, Pessinus, and Tavium about three centuries before Christ. This territory became a Roman province known as Galatia about 25 B.C. It included a northern part which was originally inhabited by the Gauls, and a southern part which included Antioch of Pisidia, Iconium, Derbe, and Lystra. Paul visited these cities and established churches there on his first missionary journey.
Other references to the Galatians by Paul and Luke are not decisive on this point. In the letter here (1:2 and 3:1) only the name Galatians is used and there is no clue beyond that. In I Corinthians 16:1 Paul speaks of the “churches of Galatia” who were asked to contribute for the poor in Jerusalem. In the context, Macedonia, Achaia, and Asia are referred to as provinces. One would think that in such a context, Galatia would also be referred to as a province. In Acts 16:6 Paul mentions his going to the region of Phrygia and Galatia, a territory west of Asia and Mysia which the Holy Spirit forbade them to enter. In Acts 18:23 we read of the “region of Galatia and Phrygia,” the reverse order of Acts 16:6, which in turn must refer to the same region known as Galatia. These broad references are to the entire region. One cannot be sure if it was north or south or both.
The debate as to which group is intended in this letter has a long history among Bible scholars and is well documented. We are impressed with the arguments of Wm. Hendriksen in Bible Survey, which arguments we summarize.
1. The book of Acts does not indicate that Paul ever founded any church in Northern Galatia. It does refer to churches in Southern Galatia—e.g., Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe (Acts 13:14). On the second missionary journey Paul visited some of these churches a second time (Acts 16:1).
2. It would seem that Paul hurried from the marsh lowlands of Perga and went to Galatia for his health (Gal. 4:13). The climate of Southern Galatia was more conducive for this purpose.
3. In Galatians 2:5 it is clear that the churches addressed were established before the Jerusalem conference. The text refers to the Jerusalem conference at which time the issue of circumcising the Gentiles was considered and decided.
4. In Lystra, Paul circumcised Timothy, whose mother was a Jewess and father a Greek (Acts 16:3). The charge that Paul was inconsistent (Gal. 5:11) must have come from the Judaizers of the Lystra-Derbe region. They observed Paul’s act and accused him of not preaching what he practiced. This assumes that the readers of this epistle were from that region.
5. In Acts 20:4 we find a list of names of responsible men who were to carry the money collected at Antioch for the Jerusalem poor. Included in that list are Gaius and Timothy, men from the southern region; but none on the list are from the northern region.
6. The epistle refers to Barnabas (2:1, 9, 13). Only the southern churches would have known him, since he went with Paul on the first missionary journey and separated after that.
AUTHOR AND DATE
We can state without any need of argument or proof that the Apostle Paul is the author of this epistle. As was his custom, he identified himself at the opening of the letter, “Paul, an apostle (not of men, neither by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised Him from the dead), and all the brethren which are with me” (1:1, 2). Though his apostolic authority was questioned by some of the Gentiles in Galatia and Paul had to deal with that in the letter, no conservative Bible student questions whether Paul wrote this epistle or not.
In light of our observations made so far, we take the position that Paul wrote to the churches of the south region of Galatia which were already established on the first missionary journey. This would allow for the early dating of the letter.
This still does not solve the problem of dating. Even though it allows for early dating, we still need to try to determine how early. In consulting commentaries and Bible study manuals, we find a disparity for the date of writing—anywhere between A.D. 48–A.D. 57.
The problem in dating this letter is connected with the chronology presented in it. In Galatians 4:13 Paul referred to the fact that he had preached the gospel to the Galatians “at the first.” This implies that he preached to them twice. Some suggest that it refers to the two times he preached to them on the first missionary journey (once on the way out and then on the way back). Others say this refers to the first missionary journey and then on the second journey. This seems to us more plausible and would therefore place the date of the letter sometime after the great conference in Jerusalem (Acts 15).
In addition to this, we must try to identify the two Jerusalem visits that Paul mentions in Galatians 1:18 and Galatians 2:1ff. In the former passage, Galatians 1:18, we learn that Paul went to Jerusalem three years after his conversion and visited with Peter. This seems to refer to the same visit recorded in Acts 9:26 where we learn that the saints in Jerusalem were afraid of Paul, so Barnabas had to calm their fear.
Then in Galatians 2:1ff we have the reference to the second visit which was fourteen years after the first. In trying to identify this visit, we learn from Acts that, in addition to the visit mentioned in Acts 9:16, Paul also went to Jerusalem with the money for the poor (Acts 11:31), and for the great council to settle the question of the law and the Gentiles (Acts 15). The problem is this, should we identify the visit mentioned in Galatians 2 with the visit of Paul carrying the money for the poor, or with the visit of Paul to the Jerusalem conference.
After much discussion in trying to piece together a chronology of the life of the Apostle Paul, Bible students differ as to which position to take. If the view that the Galatians 2 visit is to be identified with the Acts 11:30 one, then the date for the writing of the letter to the Galatians could be as early as A.D. 48, which would place it prior to the Jerusalem conference. The difficulty with this view is that, in the context of Galatians 2, Paul makes reference to the successful labor among the Gentiles (2:2). Such reference would be impossible if the visit was for bringing the money for the poor, for that took place prior to any of his missionary journeys. We favor the position that Galatians 2:1 refers to the time when Paul attended the great council. We could ask, if that be so, why Paul did not make much of this decision in his letter. Would not the authority of that decision have been convincing? Luke in Acts 15, makes much of this, implying that it decided once for all this issue that was dividing the churches. Paul, however, is concerned with the attack upon his apostolic office by the heretics in Galatia. In addition, he intended to dispel their attack by showing from the gospel itself that the circumcising of the Gentiles was a denial of the liberty in Christ. This is not to say that no reference is made to the conference at all (see Gal. 2:2-5).
Our conclusion is that evidence points to Paul’s having written the letter to the Galatians while at Corinth during his second missionary journey. The approximate date was the year A.D. 53.
OCCASION FOR THE EPISTLE
Paul had preached to the Galatians that a person became a child of God and a true son of Abraham by faith in Christ alone. There was no need for any observance of ceremonial laws. This was the liberty of the Gospel of Christ. The Christians in Galatia rejoiced in this word.
The Judaizers, however, influenced the church of Galatia. They insisted that it was not as Paul preached. They maintained that it was necessary for the converted Gentiles to become Jews first of all, that is to be circumcised and brought under the restrictions of the Old Testament laws of Moses such as eating of meats, observing holy days, etc. Then, if one did that, one could partake of salvation in Jesus Christ. They did not deny outright the necessity of Christ; rather they placed human laws as requisites for believing in Christ. Here we see the basic doctrine of justification by faith once again attacked. Is Christ’s perfect work the ground for justification, or must we still keep the law for righteousness?
When Paul heard that this lie was being promoted in Galatia, and that his missionary work was being undermined, he was angry. Righteous indignation led him to write this fiery letter to expose this serious error which some in the church began to follow. We must keep in mind that Paul’s wrath was not a personal retort against those who attacked him personally. True, they attacked his apostolic office, they questioned whether he should be an apostle, they accused him of making it too easy for the Gentiles to become Christians. I suppose they said that as a missionary he was compromising on the gospel just to get results. This angered Paul, to be sure, for he was a faithful missionary of the Word. His anger, however, was directed against the lie and those who would propagate it. The sharpness of this letter is proof that the Apostle Paul determined to expose this error for the sake of the truth. Nothing must take away the glorious liberty that the believer has in Christ Jesus.