Introducing the New Testament, 2nd Edition

A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey


16. Galatians

Video Introduction


This chapter offers a brief overview of the contents of Galatians, followed by discussion of historical background and major themes.

In terms of historical background, the letter is written by Paul to Gentile Christians in the province of Galatia, though it is not clear where in that province the recipients lived. If they are true “Galatians” in the north part of the province, the letter would be dated late in Paul’s missionary career, but if they are simply “residents of Galatia” in the southern part of the province, the letter could be Paul’s earliest existing composition. In either case, Paul is angry with the Galatians because they are considering accepting circumcision and other Jewish laws in order to maintain or improve their relationship with God.

Before dealing with the crisis at hand, Paul needs to defend his apostolic authority against certain charges that opponents have made against him. In doing so, he reveals a bit about his autobiography and relates an incident at Antioch in which he opposed Peter and representatives of James. The point is that he answers to no one but Jesus Christ, even though Peter and James do in fact approve of his Gentile mission (something his opponents have apparently denied).

Paul argues from Scripture and his own theology that those who are in Christ do not need to be circumcised or to keep the Jewish law. They are justified or put right with God by faith, not by works of the law. God’s action in Christ has revealed that God’s favor is universal in scope, so there is no reason for gentile believers to become members of a now nonexistent “favored group.” Paul believes that a radical shift in history has occurred and that circumcision and the Jewish law belong to a bygone era “before faith came.” Furthermore, the Holy Spirit now produces in Christian believers what the Jewish law merely described but could not effect.

Study Questions

  1. What are the “north and south Galatian theories,” and what is the significance of those theories for (a) dating Paul’s letter to the Galatians and (b) resolving tensions between Galatians and the book of Acts?

  2. What is meant by the term “Judaizers” and how might Paul’s opponents in Galatia fit the description intended by that term?

  3. What two responses does Paul make to the charge that his version of the gospel was acquired secondhand and does not accord with the view of true apostles?

  4. Why did Paul react so strongly to Peter’s conduct at Antioch, and what was the basic substance of his objection to the “compromise” model adopted there by people like Peter and Barnabas?

  5. List four key points that Paul offers in making his case for why gentile Christians should not accept circumcision or commit themselves to the Jewish law.

Interactive: Paul’s Letter Openings

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Click to see Paul’s letter openings.