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The passage of Galatians unambiguously focuses on justification by faith, on the basis of which the protection of Christian freedom from any form of legalism is built. The separation between Christianity and Judaism happened at the early stage of the Church’s existence, and the meaning of Galatians (3:23-29) undoubtedly helps in clarifying the nature of this schism. This paper aims to conduct the interpretative analysis of the mentioned passage of the Scripture to understand its author and recipients, timeframe, and the geographical setting of the text.
The Epistle to the Galatians is written by Apostle Paul as the style and theological content of the excerpt is characteristic of him. Most of the points are autobiographical in nature and are in good agreement with the description of Paul’s life and ministry in the book of Acts of the Apostles (Klein, Blomberg, & Hubbard, 2017). From a theological point of view, it is consistent with what Paul taught in his other epistles, such as the Epistle to the Romans. It is essential to state that he was a Jew born in Tarsus in the Mediterranean diaspora belonging to the Hellenistic culture and had a home-based family education and taught to sew tents (Hansen, 1994). He was brought up in the tradition of Pharisee piety and received Roman citizenship that is a sign of the high status of the family. From the chronological perspective, he had four apostolic journeys and was murdered by the emperor Nero in Rome.
The contextual background of Paul is associated with the ancient Christian tradition that is shared by the Orthodox and Catholic Churches – the authorship of fourteen letters in the New Testament to the apostle Paul. Specifically to the Epistle to the Galatians, it should be noted that believers from the Jews, seeking to be teachers, inspired the Galatians (Wendt, 2016). The former stated that the latter should be circumcised and observe the Sabbaths and the new months since the disciples of Peter did not forbid this.
Paul, who is often assigned the status of the second most important figure in Christianity, refers to the Galatians, but the question is to whom. He could write to the Celtic, also known as Gallic, people who lived in the northern part of Galatia. However, he could also appeal to residents of the whole province of Galatia located in the central part of Asia Minor. Following the routes of Paul’s first and second missionary journeys, one may note that Paul visited Pisidian Antioch, Iconium (Hansen, 1994). In general, the majority of scholars consider that the message was addressed to the ethnic Galatians who lived in the north of the province. Since the Galatians were uncircumcised pagans, the agitators argued that to save themselves, they must not only believe in Christ but also be circumcised (Wendt, 2016). For their part, the Galatians showed interest in hearing about the Apostle Paul and in the new form of evangelism. By the time Paul took up the pen, the Galatians were already moving away from true evangelism and, therefore, from God. This transition to another gospel apparently caused disagreements in the community.
In the given epistle, there is an indication of the first and second visits to Galatia by Apostle Paul (Galatians 4:13). Since he expresses astonishment that the Galatians pass so quickly to another gospel from having called them by the grace of Christ, it probably means that the message was written shortly after the second visit. It is known that this author spent about three years in Ephesus and completed the missive during his third apostolic journey. Based on the events in the life of Apostle Paul, it is possible to assume with a greater degree of probability that this epistle was written in 56 AD (Hansen, 1994). No specific ruler is mentioned, and one may assume that the author might guess about the context while the readers were unaware of it.
Other theological scholars pinpoint that the message was written from Antioch of Syria around the year 48 AD, shortly before the Jerusalem Cathedral (Moo, 2013). Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch after the first missionary voyage. False legalistic teachers who denied the apostolic authority of Paul and taught that circumcision is necessary for salvation penetrated the southern Galatian churches. Paul quickly and decisively responded to the danger of Galatian believers slipping to legalism and wrote this strict message before heading to the Council of Jerusalem (Wright, Elliott, Hafemann, & Frederick, 2014). In other words, the historical and political situation was associated with changing attitudes towards religious practices and related difficulties.
To identify the events of that period, it is important to focus on the historic issues depicted by the Scripture. The Judaists who entered the Galatian churches discredited not only Paul but also preached a false gospel (Fee & Stuart, 2014). Paul faced the need to defend both his apostleship and teaching, to which he dedicated the first two chapters of the Epistle. In this autobiographical section, he convincingly shows that both are the result of the revelation he received from the risen Christ. These events are critical to understanding that Christian liberty does not sanction permissiveness. Therefore, the Galatians were approached to assist them in a dangerous situation: his goal was to keep the first Christians from returning to the Mosaic law, directing them to the sphere of grace and faith (Fee & Stuart, 2014; Wright et al., 2014). It contains a statement imbued with conviction and a strong feeling that salvation is not given due to actions but as a result of faith. Today, this position is just as relevant and true as when it was first formulated.
The most relevant geographical location targeted by Paul in the discussed epistle is Pisidian Antioch, Iconium.
No specific crops or animals are identified in this epistle. The commentaries to the book of Galatians demonstrate that they were aware of their geographical position, and Paul also used this as a way to reach their understanding of his message. The willingness to adopt foreign teaching is noted by the Apostle, which probably appeared from the desire of the population to establish peace in their urban environment and promote a relatively free and stable society (Moo, 2013). The tradition of circumcision is significant to comprehend Paul’s explanations that the law was given to address crime so that the people would not indulge in vices and live righteously, while all of them should come to God through faith. Thus, through this tradition, the Apostle reflects on the role of the Lord in the lives of believers and emphasizes that the most ingrained yet untrue practices need to be eliminated.
To conclude, the epistle to Galatians was created by Apostle Paul with the idea of leading them on their journey to God. The key message promoted in this passage is that faith is the true merit of a person compared to the rule of law. It was addressed to the Galatians living in Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Asia Minor. The exegetical analysis of the available sources shows that it was written approximately between 50-60 AD.
Fee, G., & Stuart, D. (2014). How to read the Bible for all its worth (4th ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Hansen, G. W. (1994). Galatians. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
Klein, W., Blomberg, C., & Hubbard, R. (2017). Introduction to Biblical interpretation (3rd ed.). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.
Moo, D. J. (2013). Galatians (Baker exegetical commentary on the New Testament). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
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Wendt, H. (2016). Galatians 3: 1 as an allusion to textual prophecy. Journal of Biblical Literature, 135(2), 369-389.
Wright, N. T., Elliott, M. W., Hafemann, S. J., & Frederick, J. (2014). Galatians and Christian theology: Justification, the gospel, and ethics in Paul’s letter. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.