Lesson 3 of 6
In Progress

Background of Galatians

rev. by Kristofer Phan Coffman (03/2023)

To gather from his letter, Paul had founded the Galatian churches somewhat by accident, when illness overtook him during travels through Asia Minor, and the Galatians welcomed him and nursed him back to health (4:13-16). They also welcomed with enthusiasm his message that in the cross of Christ they were liberated from the demonic powers of this world and became adopted children of God. Sometime after Paul’s departure, other preachers apparently arrived with a different message. They argued that Paul’s version of the gospel was deficient, asserting that according to the Jewish Scriptures the promises of God belong to the children of Abraham and that one becomes a child of Abraham through circumcision. Notice of this controversy within the Galatian churches came to Paul, and he was compelled to write with some urgency and passion (1:6; 4:20; 5:12) to reassert the integrity of his commission as an apostle and of the gospel that he preached. It is faith in Christ that makes one right with God, and it is the promise of God in the cross of Christ and not the doing of certain works, such as circumcision, that makes one a child of God with Abraham. Those who assert the necessity of circumcision have “severed” themselves from the grace of Christ.

The letter’s address to “the churches of Galatia” (1:2) implies a number of communities, but interpreters of the letter have disagreed over these churches’ location. According to the “south Galatia” theory, Paul refers to a territory reorganized by the Romans as a province including the original kingdom of the Galatians to the north. This theory assumes that these congregations were founded during Paul’s so-called “first missionary journey” (compare Acts 13-14) and has the advantage of harmonizing the letter with the Acts account. According to a competing “north Galatia” theory, Paul writes to churches located in the original territory of Galatia. Those favoring this theory note other discrepancies between the narrative of Acts and Paul’s own letters and point to the fact that Paul’s use of the ethnic term “Galatians” for these people would fit better with a more traditional regional identity. The majority of scholars support this north Galatian theory.

Opinions about the location of these churches also have implications for the dating of the letter. Those who favor the south Galatia theory tend to date it early among Paul’s surviving writings, assuming that the churches’ founding is to be associated with Paul’s first missionary journey. Those, however, who support the north Galatia theory assume that the founding is associated with another journey through Asia Minor and accordingly date the letter later, toward the middle of Paul’s letters and thus around 55 C.E.