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 very 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. Over the coming weeks, I plan to explore these five concepts here. This post will introduce the Five Things, and will explain the first.
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.
Galatians is an Epistle
I cannot stress this enough, and will therefore state it bluntly: it is lazy and irresponsible to ignore genre when reading any piece of literature, especially literature that is labeled Scripture. To read a parable as historical narrative or poetry as scientific explanation is doing a disservice to Scripture, your own heart and mind, and anyone you happen to influence.
Now do not be too afraid—though a little bit of trepidation is appropriate when approaching a sacred text—you do not need to understand the deep intricacies of Ancient Near Eastern literary genre to learn from our Scriptures. But a basic understanding of the prominent genres of the New Testament and the specific text you are reading will, I think, prove quite valuable as you seek to encounter God in the Scriptures.
The book of Galatians is an epistle—a letter sent to a specific person or group of people—written by Paul to various churches in the region of Galatia (more on that later). Of the 27 books of the New Testament, 21 are epistles. The book of Revelation, one of the 6 non-epistle texts of the New Testament, actually contains 7 mini-epistles in its first three chapters. Understanding the genre of epistle is clearly important for understanding the New Testament.
Of all there is to know about the New Testament genre of epistle, a few key points are important to keep in mind. Like in any modern letter, knowing the author and audience is crucial to understanding. If I find a letter in the hallway after a passing period and assume it is written to me when it is not, I am most likely going to come to some absurd interpretive conclusions. (What do you mean Johnny doesn’t like my new haircut? I’ve had this same style for three years now. Guess I better shave my head.) In addition to understanding the author and audience, it is also crucial to know something about the occasion of the epistle. Why was the letter written? What circumstances led to this particular author addressing this particular audience? Let’s take a quick look at the author, audience, and occasion for the book of Galatians.
Paul was an adult convert to Christianity from Pharisaic Judaism. If you are not familiar with his conversion, it would be very helpful to read the three accounts found in the book of Acts (ch. 9, 22, 26) before reading Galatians. For the purposes of the epistle to the Galatians, it is significant to note that prior to his conversion, Paul was as devoted to Judaism as anyone else in his day.
There is actually quite some disagreement about the specific audience of this epistle. Galatia was a Roman province covering approximately the same land as modern day Turkey. When Paul wrote this epistle, Galatia referred to the entire region. By the end of the third century AD, only the northern region was referred to as Galatia. All that to say that we are not entirely sure to which specific region of the Galatian province Paul was writing. If you are curious, I tend to accept the southern Galatia hypothesis, which would link the epistle to the Galatians with Paul’s missionary journey of Acts 13-14. Regardless, the Galatian Christians were an ethnically and spiritually diverse people that had little knowledge of Judaism or the Old Testament before their conversion.
After Paul and Barnabas planted churches throughout Galatia (see Acts 13-14), a majority of the Christians in the region were Gentiles. Some time after leaving Galatia, Paul learned that a group of Jewish Christians had entered Galatia and began teaching that full Christian salvation must include observance of the Torah (the Jewish Law or Pentateuch), including circumcision, feasts, and the observance of Sabbath. In some of his most forceful language found in the New Testament, Paul pens Galatians as an argument against these Jewish Christian teachers.
III. Unique to Galatians
All of the writings in our New Testament that are believed to have been written by St. Paul are epistles. When comparing them to each other and to other known religious and non-religious epistles of his day, a quite interesting pattern arrises. Paul seems to be following a relatively standard pattern in his greetings at the beginning of each of his epistles. When this pattern changes, as we see in the opening verses of Galatians, something important is probably happening.
Paul introduces himself as an Apostle—which is very common in his epistles—and then spends portions of the first chapter defending his Apostolic authority—which is not very common in his epistles. His apostleship was not given to him by a human and was not made possible by a human. Instead, he was made an Apostle through a direct revelation and an appointment by Jesus himself (Gal 1:1). In addition to defending the authenticity of his authority as an apostle, Paul also notes that the epistle is from him and all the brothers who are with him. These two unique parts of his greeting—a defense of his apostolic authority and the joint-authorship of the epistle—set the stage for the forceful correction Paul gives to the Jewish Christian teachers throughout Galatia.