Paul’s short letter to the Galatians has been a running focus of mine for the past year and a half. This summer, Coram Deo has asked that Galatians and Exodus be read alongside one another by our students, families, and faculty. The combination of these two factors—along with the encouragement of some friends—has led me to put together what I consider to be five helpful ideas to understand before studying Galatians. This is clearly not an exhaustive list, but I do hope that it provides a framework for beginning to read and understand Galatians as it was meant to be read and understood.
Five Things to Know about Galatians
- Galatians is an epistle.
- Galatians was probably Paul’s first epistle.
- Paul is making one sustained argument throughout the epistle.
- Continuity with the Old Testament is crucial for Paul’s argument
- Discontinuity with the Old Testament is crucial for Paul’s argument.
Throughout his letter, Paul is making one sustained argument. And that argument could be boiled down to this: Paul is urging the Galatian Christians to reject the teaching of those who have come among them insisting that maintaining Jewish practices in addition to the Gospel is necessary for salvation. 1
So far these five major points have been building on each other. This one is no exception. In remembering this third point, you cannot forget that Galatians itself is an epistle. In keeping with the ancient practice of writing letters, Paul has a direct audience and a specific reason to write. You also cannot forget that Galatians is an early epistle. In it Paul is dealing with concerns he had early in his career. These three points—that Galatians is an early epistle containing one sustained argument—should impact our interpretation in many ways. I want to highlight one here.
Before you read part of Galatians and draw a conclusion about its meaning today, you must make sure that the conclusion you are drawing fits within the original purpose of the letter. For example, when you read that “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female” in 3:28, make sure that the full weight of the original argument is felt before you apply the verse to any ethnic, class, or gender disputes today. This is not and cannot be taken as a single-verse sweeping statement about equality. 2 Instead, if we are to be faithful to the text, this verse must be heard as part of Paul’s overall argument.
- There is much debate over what exactly is being argued. For what it is worth, I see much of the disagreement stemming from a desire to make Paul’s argument represent more than what it is. For example: some protestant interpreters tend to see Galatians as a systematic presentation of a reformation-flavored justification by faith without recognizing that the debates of the 16th century Western church were not the same as those found in 1st century Galatia. ↩
- This is not to say that there is nothing to learn about ethnic, class, or gender equality from Paul’s letter to the Galatians. It is simply a warning against seeing this as the primary argument of the verse or the letter. ↩