Introducing the New Testament, 2nd Edition

A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey

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16. Galatians


This chapter should enable the student to

  • summarize what modern scholarship has to say regarding the historical background for Galatians, including information about the area to which this letter was addressed, the possible date of its composition, and the circumstances that prompted Paul to write the letter.
  • articulate what Paul has to say in Galatians about his own claim to apostolic authority and indicate how these claims serve as a response to charges made against him in Galatia.
  • outline Paul’s basic argument concerning why Christ has rendered commitment to keeping the law unnecessary, with reference to what Paul believes regarding justification by faith, God’s universal favor, the fullness of time, and the role of the Spirit.

Pedagogical Suggestions

1. Paul’s Use of Scripture and Allegory in Argument

Paul often uses biblical figures as evidence in his arguments. Abraham is a key figure in Paul’s arguments against Gentile circumcision. In Galatians 4:21–5:1, Paul uses Sarah and Hagar, Abraham’s wife and mistress, to construct an allegorical argument against circumcision.

Have students read this passage and outline Paul’s argument point by point. Then have students read Genesis 16 and 21:1–21. Paul knew the Hebrew Bible, through both oral tradition and written scrolls (Hebrew and Septuagint). How has Paul used these two traditions? What does he include and emphasize in his argument about circumcision? What does he leave out? How has he changed or shaped the tone of the stories?

Now read Galatians 3:6–18. How would you characterize Paul’s way of arguing here? His point seems to focus on the grammatical distinction between a singular noun and a plural noun. Why? What use does he make of this? Now read Genesis 15:1–6. How would you interpret this passage in Genesis? Is Paul’s way of reading the Hebrew writing similar to interpretations you have heard and seen?


This exercise looks at many different aspects of Paul’s mode of argumentation: allegorical argumentation, his use of Jewish scriptures as evidence for his argumentation, and his scriptural hermeneutic (not literal, but symbolic and allegorical). Students have to analyze the text, as well as reflect on the ways in which Paul is reading, analyzing, and interpreting the Jewish scriptures.

2. Paul’s Version and Luke’s Version: The Jerusalem Council

If the class has not yet looked at the historical event referred to as “the Jerusalem council,” you might use this exercise. Compare Paul’s portrayal of his meeting with the Jerusalem council (Gal. 2) with that described in Acts 15. What differences do you see? Can you detect the rhetorical purpose or editorial shaping of the authors? In other words, do you see the “why” in why they present the council meeting the way they do? Use your knowledge of the purpose of Luke-Acts and the problems in Galatia to help your thinking.


This exercise asks students to compare Acts and Galatians as historical witnesses to a single event. Students must discern rhetorical tone, purpose, and underlying ideologies in each text.

3. Issues of Circumcision Today

Is the question of circumcision over and done? How can we understand this very intimate and physical identity marker and the debates it produced in ancient Jewish and Gentile Christian communities?

In small groups, or individually, have students think of and work out a parallel modern context to the issue of circumcision in Paul’s time. To do this, they will first have to brainstorm and understand the ways that circumcision functioned in ancient Jewish society and Gentile aversion to the practice. Or, consider the following historical scenarios in the US experience.

In Southern California, for example, augmentative and plastic surgeries are quite common, given the competition for jobs on camera in Hollywood and the related cultural concern for physical appearance. Feminists have said in the past that women are “enslaved” to unattainable ideas of beauty encouraged by the entertainment media. How would Paul’s message apply here?

In past times, straightening one’s hair to assimilate to a predominantly white cultural view of beauty was common. African Americans then countered this cultural view with the “black is beautiful” movement of the 1960s that embraced the “afro” or natural black hair. Those who straightened their hair were often viewed as culturally “enslaved.” How would Paul’s message apply here?

Today, gang tattoos and other street “credentials” function as marks of belonging, indicate a particular way of life, are looked down on or judged by other cultural perspectives, and, if one tries to leave the gang life, function as chains that have “enslaved” one to street life. How would Paul’s message apply here?

These are a few examples of ways that alterations of the physical body function as “desirable” cultural signs that afford some prestige or value in a particular context. Although such physical alterations offered cultural prestige, other groups found that the physical alterations (as well as the prestige) enslaved rather than freed. Once students have thought through these scenarios and analyzed the parallel dynamics to Paul’s situation, students may come up with their own examples of visual symbols that can be said to enslave. (For example, purchasing a Cadillac Escalade and then having to pay for it!) The more creatively and broadly students can imagine and apply Paul’s thinking to contemporary issues, the more deeply they have understood the concepts.


Being able to translate one ancient cultural scenario into a contemporary and quite different cultural scenario allows students to better see what Paul is upset with and how he addresses certain problems. The issues related to Jewish law and circumcision may make little sense today, when circumcision is commonly performed on newborn males in US hospitals. Passionate ethical debates on circumcision now focus on female circumcision in Africa and the African Diaspora—a quite different topic, although perhaps with some very similar issues. To help students understand what the identity issue is for Paul and why the slave/free language is so prevalent, it can help to draw parallels to key cultural “debates” in US history. Finally, one doesn’t really understand a text until one can think with the ideas in another context entirely.

Discussion Prompts

  1. Paul describes life in the Spirit (of Christ) in 5:16–26 using standard virtue and vice language. In other words, the values of virtues and vices help Paul illumine the ways in which Christians should live their life in the Spirit of Christ. How does Paul then apply this ethic of “living in the Spirit” to practical life in the community in Galatians 6?
  2. In Philippians, Paul boasts (according to human thinking) that he is “circumcised on the eighth day.” What is Paul’s objection to circumcision in his letter to the Galatians? Use textual evidence to support your statements. What is Paul’s point about the rival preachers “boasting” in Galatians (4:17; 6:12–16)?
  3. Paul contrasts following the law with experiencing the Spirit and reminds the Galatians that they already have the Spirit. Why have they then, in Paul’s words, “gone back” to elemental spirits of the law after experiencing the greater freedom of the Spirit of Christ? In other words, why does the law appeal to the Galatians? Is it easier to follow rules than to live out of experience?