Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Law and Gospel: An Introduction to the Book of Galatians (part 1)

[continued from here]

The book of Galatians — an epistle written by the apostle Paul, and the only one in which there is no commendation of any sort as compared to all of the other Pauline epistles. Written to the church in Galatia, the epistle was definitely written during or after the time of Paul's second missionary journey and thus after the proceedings of the Jerusalem Council.

Establishing the historical context

The internal evidence in Galatians, Gal. 4:12-14, indicates that Paul came to the Galatian believers personally and preached to them in the past, while verse 13 indicates that he has came to them at least once prior to the writing of this epistle. Historically as we read through the narrative, the first time the apostle Paul came to the region and province of Galatia was during his first missionary journey in the cities of Pisidia (Antioch), Iconium and Lystra, and he had returned to Syrian Antioch along that route in encouraging the churches after turning back at Derbe (Acts. 14:20-21). Upon his return to (Syrian) Antioch, the Judaist opposition to the Gospel of grace began as detailed in Acts 15:1-2. After the great Jerusalem Council precipitated by this crisis described in Acts 15 had been settled in their favor, the delegates from the Jerusalem Church, Judas and Silas, were sent out to the churches "in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia" (Acts. 15:23) to proclaim the rulings of the Jerusalem Council to the believers there. Sometime later, Paul would embark on his second missionary journey through the province of Galatia (and Phrygia) all the way westwards to Mysia and Troas (Acts 16: 7-8), and then across the Aegean Sea all the way to Philippi in Greece.

Such historical background would help us to see that the internal evidence in Galatians itself suggests that the epistle must be written after Paul's first missionary journey. Furthermore, since the Judaists arose while Paul was in (Syrian) Antioch, and the Jerusalem Council had settled on the Gospel's and Paul's side, it is highly unlikely that Paul would write a letter to the churches in Galatia when Judas and Silas were going to deliver the "authoritative pronouncement" as it were of the mother church in Jerusalem together with all the Apostles. Paul in his second missionary journey went through the province of Galatia himself so that would not be a good period to place the writing of this epistle while he was on his way to visit them. Therefore, the epistle to the Galatians should be placed after Paul's visit to the Galatian churches during or after his second missionary journey. Louis Berkhof places the writing of this epistle during Paul's time in the city of Corinth[1], of which one notable reason he deduced this was that Silas' and Timothy's names were not present on the epistle although they were known to the churches of Galatia. Since the only duration whereb Silas and Timothy were not present with Paul was during Paul's stay in Athens (Acts 17:16-34) and the first part of Paul's stay in Corinth (cf Acts 18:5), Berkhof inferred that Paul wrote Galatians while he was in Corinth. It can of course be seen however that Athens is another distinct possibility. Regardless of when the epistle was exactly written, the scriptural and historical evidence points us to the conclusion that the Epistles to the Galatians was written quite some time after the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, and thus we must interpret what it says in light of the historical context of the struggles of the early church in order to grasp its teaching more firmly.

With that said, let us therefore look into the historical theological context of the book of Galatians.

Historical theological context of the book of Galatians

Knowing therefore the historical background, we can look at the theological development and issues that were faced by the early Christians during that period, as Paul certainly did not write his epistle in a theological vacuum. This is especially so since even a cursory read through the epistle shows that Paul is addressing some issues within the Galatian churches, which we have previously assumed to be the problem of the Judaizers and would now give more proof for it.

So what exactly is the theological climate of the period of the writings of Galatians? The Jerusalem Council was over and its proceedings and judgments disseminated to the churches throughout the world wherever the Gospel spread, especially to the region of Asia Minor at least initially in Cilicia. Such being the first and only apostolic authoritative church council, its pronouncements would certainly be highly regarded and revered as like the infallible ruling of Christ Himself on this issue, which it most certainly is since the account and judgment is found in the Canon of Scripture.

This alone however may be irrelevant to our study into Galatians, if not for the fact that the subject matters treated in both cases are so similar. For example, the word "circumcision" is mentioned 8 times in the book of Galatians. Furthermore, every time it is mentioned, circumcision was part of the topic under discussion and not a fact mentioned merely in passing. The antagonists also seem similar, with Paul calling them the "circumcision party" in Gal. 2:12, contrasted with the record of the Jerusalem Council antagonists who proclaimed "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved" (Acts 15:1b). In fact, as it will be proven later, the antagonists in both cases are exactly the same group of people and the issue remains the same also. Suffice is it for now however to say that such similarity between the antagonists and the issues faced in both instances means that great attention must be given to the Jerusalem Council to provide the needed background to understanding the book of Galatians.

With that said, let us therefore look into the Jerusalem Council. What exactly was the issue at hand, and what was the apostolic and biblical answer to it?

[to be continued]


[1] Louis Berkhof, Introduction to the New Testament (Eerdmans, 1915). As accessed on Christian Classic Ethereal Library here.


The Heretic said...

Funny that you should pick the book of Galatians. I just started my own personal study of Galatians a couple of weeks ago. I'm still in chapter 1 and looked at vv. 13-14 this morning. I look forward to reading more of your insights to Galatians. Great post, Daniel!

PuritanReformed said...


Galatians is one of the foundational books for the Gospel, so I am using that to expound a bit on the Gospel. But yes, it is a good book to read, study and meditate on.

Btw, is there any other name I can call you besides "the heretic"?

The Heretic said...

Daniel, sorry about that. My name is Steven.