The Letter to the Galatians and the Issues it Contains
Paul's Letter to the Galatians is written in a very emotional and serious style. He addresses important issues, and there is a sense of urgency in his words. In the work he criticizes the actions of the Galatians, and gives them an ultimatum for the future. Some of the topics which are addressed in the letter include the Galatians lack of faith in Paul's teachings, justification through faith in Jesus Christ, and the circumcision of Gentile males.
The structure of the Letter to the Galatians is similar to most others by Paul except for the absence of a prayer of thanksgiving. In its place he states how amazed he is to find that they are straying from the Gospel they have previously accepted (1:6-10). The sense of urgency is due to his fear that the Galatians will abandon the Gospel he teaches and follow another Gospel. According to Paul these other Gospels and preachers are false and should be accursed. Paul's urgent plea is meant to get the Galatians back on the right track, and to reestablish that what Paul preaches is from God himself.
Although we don't have the arguments of Paul's opposition, we can look at the issues that they were concerned with. One issue that Paul feels strongly about is that these new teachers insist all male Gentiles who are converting to Christianity must be circumcised. Paul believes that Gentiles are equal with Jews already and therefore they do not have to convert to Judaism before becoming Christians. He thinks that those who are circumcised are going against the decisions made by the church leaders at the Jerusalem Council.
In the letter to the Galatians Paul stresses that through revelations God has "Revealed his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles" (1:16). Although the church was founded by Jews Paul believes it is now time for the religion to be expanded to non-Jews, or Gentiles. This is the inspiration behind Paul's whole mission. Therefore it is clear that anyone who believes Gentiles must convert to Judaism to become Christians will be opposing Paul.
These new teachers believe that doing works of the Law (In particular, circumcision) is important for one's standing before God (Ehrman 289). This idea enrages Paul and he claims "We know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ" (2:16). So those that are circumcised as well as the uncircumcised will be worthless without true faith in Christ. If a right standing before God was possible simply by living through the law then there would have been no reason for the death or really the life of Christ.
The language Paul uses to support his argument on this issue is somewhat confusing. Paul says "I have been and continue to be crucified with Christ, indicating an action in past time which continues to shape the present" (Cousar 61). Paul is living "in the flesh" (2:20) representing that Christians continue to suffer each day. But faith in Jesus, and being willing to live with pain guarantees a special place in the Kingdom of God.
One of the arguments Paul uses to defend his position is the example of Abraham and his covenant with God. Paul says that Abraham was righteous because he had faith in God, and not because he followed the Law. The scripture also foresees that God will justify the Gentiles through faith, and they will be blessed like Abraham (3:7-9). Paul tells the Galatians that those who try to obey all the things in the Law will actually fall under the curse that the Law pronounces (Ehrman 290). Paul instructs them to have faith like Abraham did and they will become justified.
It seems that Paul wanted to clarify himself further so that the Galatians would see what the "real" function of the Law was. He says the Law was written "because of transgressions" (3:19). These violations took place after the life of Abraham and before the birth of Jesus. The Law was therefore meant to be a "disciplinarian" (3:24) until the coming of Christ. Now that Christ has come and gone it is faith in him that will be most important, and this is what makes the Jews and Gentiles one. All those whether slave or free, male or female, Jew or Gentile can be justified through faith (3:28-29).
One other point Paul makes to convince the Gentiles can be interpreted as a warning. He says that they welcomed him as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus (4:14) when he fell ill in Galatia. They accepted his teachings and were freed from slavery by God. However, now they are turning their backs to God, and could be enslaved again. Paul urges them to be like him (4:12) and to continue observing his teachings. Although Paul is not in Galatia he assures them that he (as well as God) are always with them if they continue to have faith.
Throughout this letter there is a sense of nervousness, and anger in Paul's words. It is possible that Paul's opposition has criticized him, and questioned his authority. This is why Paul includes such a lengthy history of his travels and experiences. He tells them that his Gospel came to him from God, and not from another human. He did not get his Gospel from former Apostles, and he says that he only visited Jerusalem to convince the church leaders to allow Gentile-Christians. Paul seems very upset that the Galatians would question his authority, and so he establishes himself at the beginning of the letter.
The Letter to the Galatians has caused much controversy from the time it was written until the present-day. It has contributed to revolts and revolutions, and was used by leaders like martin Luther and other liberators of twentieth century cultures. The language and issues it contains makes the work complex, but interesting to evaluate. We know today that Paul succeeded to establish a great church that contained almost all non-Jews. His dedication and hard work paid off and he in a way is responsible for the spread of Christianity even after his own death.
1. C.B. Cousar, Galatians (Atlanta: 1982). BS 2685 .C68
2. B.D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical
Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (New York:
1997). P. 285-292.
3. B.M. Metzger, et al., eds, The New Oxford Annotated
Bible (New York: 1994). P. 264-271