Introduction to Galatians

Galatians: Introduction

 The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast March 8, 2009


Introduction:                        Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I hope that it has been a good week for you and that the snow was something to enjoy rather than a burden. The snow gave my students at WFU a reprieve on their mid-term, but the day of reckoning still came. I’ve got a stack of theology papers I need to grade over spring break this week, but that’s what they pay me for. There’s not much to report from the Atwood household. Like many people we woke up without power on Monday, and so we huddled by the gas fire, which was nice. Here at Home Church we had a rummage sale on Saturday raising money for missions. We’re in the midst of a major capital campaign here at the church raising money to renovate facilities. There is a beautiful scale model of the planned new sanctuary in the church office if you’d like to see what things are going to look like. We’ll be worshiping in Fellowship Hall after Easter while work is going on in the sanctuary.


Paul:                        For the next several weeks we will be examining Paul’s letter to the Galatians, which has been one of the most important works in the history of Christianity. Since this is the first one of Paul’s letters I’ve discussed in this class, it might be helpful to begin by introducing Paul and his distinctive style of writing. Like most of the first Christians, Paul was a Jew living in the Roman Empire. Unlike Jesus and the first disciples, Paul did not live in Palestine. He was from Tarsus in Asia Minor, and he was fluent in Greek. Paul was one of the many thousands of Jews living in what was called the Diaspora or Dispersion. Beginning with the Babylonian Exile in the 6th century BC, Jews began settling outside of Judea. After Alexander the Great defeated Egypt and Persia, he established a Greek empire in the eastern part of the Mediterranean. Jewish communities gradually grew up in most of the cities of the empire, and the synagogue was the center of Jewish life in this Diaspora. Most of these Jews spoke Greek, and they used a Greek translation of the Scriptures. They also adapted Jewish law to apply outside of the original Promised Land.


Like many of us today, Paul lived in multiple worlds. He was a Jew, but he was also a citizen of the Roman Empire. No one knows how Paul’s family was granted citizenship, but it was presumably for some service to the empire. Citizenship was often granted for making an important gift for the public or rendering some particular service to an important official. It is possible that Paul came from a prominent family in Tarsus, but we do not know for sure. What we do know is that all his life Paul had a dual identity as a Pharisee and as a Roman citizen. This is crucial for our understanding of Galatians, which addresses the question of whether Gentiles must become Jews in order to be saved. Christians see Paul as an Apostle, but from a Jewish perspective he could be seen as an Apostate who went too far in embracing the Gentile world.


We know that Paul was an artisan who worked with his own hands, but we do not know for sure what his trade was. Older biblical translations call him a “tent-maker,” but it is more likely he was some type of leather worker. The key point is that he was neither a landowner with servants nor a poor peasant farmer. He was a man of the city who had a trade that allowed him to travel freely about the empire. Though he worked for a living, he was also a scholar. Paul provides us with ample evidence in his letters that he was educated not only in Judaism but also basic Greek philosophy. Intellectually he lived in multiple worlds as well, and he brought together philosophy and theology in a creative synthesis that profoundly shaped the development of Christian doctrine.


Galatia:             Paul’s letter is addressed to the churches in Galatia, which was a province of the Roman Empire between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. What used to be called Galatia is now in central Turkey. The city of Ankara in Turkey was originally called Ancyra, which was the capital of ancient Galatia. The name Galatia comes from the Greek form of the word Gaul or Celt, and it referred to three Celtic tribes that migrated to Asia Minor about 280 years before the birth of Jesus. They were closely related to the more famous Celts in Western Europe, and they continued trading with their cousins to the West for centuries. The Galatians were fierce warriors who never adjusted well to city life. The Greeks considered them barbarians, but various Greek kings made alliances with the Galatian tribes from time to time. One of my favorite ancient statues is called the Dying Gaul. There is an ancient copy on display in Rome, but the original was made in Greece, and the Gaul who inspired the sculpture was probably a Galatian warrior.


Eventually, the Galatians were granted possession of the lands they had settled in Asia Minor and were incorporated into the Greek and, later, the Roman Empires. The Roman province of Galatia included lands to the south that were not settled by the Galatians. South Galatia, as historians sometimes call it, included several cities that are mentioned in the Book of Acts as places where Paul preached. The reason I mention this is that biblical scholars do not know for sure whether Paul was writing to the churches in Galatia proper where the Galatians lived or to the churches in the cities in the south where Acts says that he preached. Since Paul addresses his audience as “Galatians,” it is most likely that this letter was intended for Celts in Asia Minor who had become Christian. The fact that Acts does not tell about Paul conducting missions among the “barbarians” in Galatia should not bother us too much. We know that Acts does not give us all of the details of Paul’s missionary activity. It is interesting that Paul’s hometown of Tarsus in Cilicia was just to the south of Galatia.


The uncertainly about the destination of the letter is coupled with uncertainty about the dating of the letter. I won’t bore you with all of the details, but the question hinges on the relationship of Paul’s description in Galatians of a meeting with the other apostles in Jerusalem and the account of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. Are these the same meeting or two different meetings? They are very similar, but differ on some crucial details that we will discuss when get to that passage. If these are the same event, and Acts is basically correct in its chronology, then the letter the Galatians was written rather late in the career of Paul, perhaps as late as 56 AD. If these were different events, then Galatians may have been written before the Jerusalem Council and would be earlier. In fact, it is possible that the Jerusalem Council was needed because of the issues Paul raises in this letter.


According to the information Paul provides in the letter, it was written at least seventeen years after his conversion on the road to Damascus, which most scholars think was about 33 AD. So the earliest the letter could have been written was 50 AD, but it was probably a few years after that. Some scholars think that Paul was writing from prison in Rome, but there is no hard evidence to support this claim. For the most part, scholars agree that Galatians was written later than the letters to the Thessalonians and before the letter to the Romans. It may have been written around the same time as either of the Corinthian letters. Many of the things discussed in Galatians are discussed in more detail in Romans and Corinthian, but there are some issues that are unique to the situation in Galatia. 


Letters:            Paul wrote more of the New Testament than any single writer, but the only type of literature we have from him is letters. He did not write a gospel or an apocalypse, for instance, nor did anyone produce a collection of his sermons. Paul’s letters follow the standard conventions of ancient letter writing, such as the opening greeting that identifies the writer and the recipient, and gives a blessing or wish for health. The form was like this: Craig, a professor of theology at Wake Forest, to the Adult Bible Class and all who listen by radio, life and health to you. Letters in the ancient world were not like email or even letters today. We think of letters as private correspondence, but up until modern times letters were often published for others to read. They were considered an art form as well as a form of communication. And they were generally read out loud rather than silently. The practice of silent reading was popularized in monasteries and from there it spread to schools in the Middle Ages. Before that people wrote and read the way they spoke, especially people who were trained in rhetoric, as Paul was.


Paul intended that his letter would be read out loud in a service of worship in all of the churches in Galatia, especially those that he had helped establish. He would have expected that copies would be made of the letter and delivered to other churches. Even though he appears to have been angry when he wrote this letter, he did not simply fire this off without thinking about it. It is a carefully written letter that reflects Paul’s training in Greek rhetoric as well as his education as a Pharisee.


In the ancient world, the physical act of writing was different than the act of composing something to be written. Professional scribes put things down in writing, such as contracts and letters. Typically you dictated what you wanted written. It would have been unusual for someone to sit down and “write” a letter the way we do. This meant that composing a letter (or epic poem) was more like speaking than writing. We know from Paul’s other letters that he employed an amanuensis to put his words on paper, much like secretaries used to take dictation. He ends the letter to the Galatians by adding comments in his own hand – in large letters.


It took time to write a letter, and the sender had to keep a copy since it was quite likely that the letter would not reach its destination due to the exigencies of ancient travel. It might take weeks or months for a letter to reach its destination, so writers tended to focus on very important things, not trivialities. Frequently, Paul’s letters were written to resolve conflict in the church, but these were not minor conflicts. They were things that threatened the very identity of the church. When reading old letters, including the letters of Paul, it is important to recognize that even though they were not private in our sense of the world, they were still written to flesh and blood humans living in a particular context.


It is unlikely that Paul ever anticipated that his letters would still be read and discussed in churches nearly 2000 years later. He did not know he was writing Scripture, but his letters were deemed so useful that they were collected and distributed widely among ancient churches. By the end of the first century, Paul was considered an authority for all churches, and people began attaching his name to letters he did not write. Some of these, like the Letter to the Laodocians and III Corinthians, were excluded from the New Testament. Some may have been included. Scholars are pretty sure that Paul of Tarsus did not write Hebrews, I & II Timothy, Titus, and II Thessalonians. There has been a long debate over whether he wrote Colossians and Ephesians, and today most scholars think these were written by followers of Paul. The seven letters of Paul that are undisputed are Galatians, Philippians, I Thessalonians, Philemon, I & II Corinthians, and Romans.


Salutation:                        Since this is a letter, Paul begins with a standard salutation that identifies the sender and the receiver of the letter. This opening address asserts Paul’s authority as an apostle and leader of the Galatian church. We should not assume that Paul was bragging about his status or looking for the Galatians to honor him as their leader. He was trying to impress upon them his right to speak forthrightly about the problems he perceived in their church. Keep in mind that the world was different in Paul’s day. The hierarchy of priest – bishop – archbishop had been established yet, and church leaders had no status outside the church. In claiming the title of an apostle, Paul had become a wandering preacher with no home.


All of the demographics that modern historians, sociologists, and economists consider most important were rejected by Paul. He refused to be defined by his age, gender, ethnicity, or education. His true identity was found in Jesus Christ, and the Church had become his true family. According to Jewish and Roman standards, Paul was a fool and failure. He often reminded his audience of his low status in the world. He was poor, persecuted, and physically suffered from unknown ailments. Though he was once a Pharisee and a Roman citizen, he had lost his place in the synagogue and secular society by becoming a Christian. He was a voluntary exile, a pilgrim in the Diaspora. He had no children to care for him in his old age or to pass on his family name.


It was his status in the church that was important. He was an apostle of Jesus Christ. He did not have to define this office for his audience since they had received him as an apostle years before. The word “apostle” basically means someone who has been sent on a mission. The first apostles were disciples of Jesus that had been sent into the world after his resurrection. Traditionally there were Twelve apostles, but that was a symbolic number identifying the apostles as the patriarchs of the New Israel. Many years after the time of Paul, the church was still naming individuals as apostles. Patrick, for instance, was the apostle to the Irish. Apostles were not only preachers, they were responsible for organizing churches and teaching people how to live as Christians.


Authority:            What made Paul unique as an apostle in the 40s and 50s was that he had not been a disciple of Jesus before the resurrection. Unlike Peter and Thomas, Paul had never known Jesus. He became a follower of Jesus after a mystical experience on the road to Damascus, and he believed that Jesus had spoken directly to him from heaven. Paul’s conversion to Christianity included his commission to preach. He tells the Galatians that his authority as an apostle came directly from the resurrected Christ and not from any human authority.


The sociologist Max Weber calls this type of authority “charismatic authority.” It is authority that is self-authenticating rather than bestowed by an institution. Paul did not complete a course of study leading to a degree in apostleship, nor did he apply for the position of apostle and meet with a search committee. He did not inherit the office from his father, nor was he appointed by another apostle. He certainly was not elected to the office. He had no claim to be an apostle other than the claim itself. The only validation for his authority was the fact that people believed him. In other words, his claim to authority was intertwined with his preaching and its effect on others. He was an apostle because he was a servant of the gospel.


No Thanksgiving:            Paul begins with this issue of authority because unnamed people from Jerusalem had appeared in Galatia claiming to be authoritative teachers, but their teaching contradicted the message that was the foundation of the church in Galatia. Paul responds to this threat with an impassioned letter. He is so upset by the news he has heard from Galatia that he omits a key part of the standard salutation. In all of his other letters, Paul begins with a word of thanksgiving that praises the faith of the recipients, but there is no thanksgiving at the beginning of this letter. He launches directly into admonition. He is almost like an ancient lawyer arguing a legal case against someone. He is trying to convict the Galatians of their foolishness and urging them to change their ways.


Next week we will discuss chapter 1.


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  • Jacob Mary  On August 27, 2009 at 12:04 pm

    very eager to continue reading the commentary on Galatians (The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast March 8, 2009)- was only able to get the Intro. Anyone know where I might find the rest? Thanks.

    • theflamingheretic  On August 27, 2009 at 7:24 pm

      On the first page, go to the category menu. Choose Galatians and you will see the first few sentences. Click to read more. Or you can look under April-June 2009.

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