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Introduction to Paul's Letter to the Galatians

Julian Spriggs M.A.

Related articles

I: Argument from Testimony (1:1 - 2:21) II: Argument from Scripture (3:1 - 4:31)
III: Fruit of freedom (5:1 - 6:18)


There is little or no serious doubt that Galatians was written by Paul (1:1).


The Roman province of Galatia was in the central part of modern-day Turkey. However, there has been great debate over whether this letter was sent to the northern part or the southern part of Galatia. Paul visited the southern part of Galatia on his first missionary journey (Acts 13-14), when he and Barnabas planted churches in several cities. There is no record, in Acts, or in other writings, of him ever visiting the northern area. The description of what happened when the gospel first came to the southern area fits well with the references in the letter to the Galatians.

The planting of the churches in Galatia

Paul and Barnabas set out on their first missionary journey from Antioch in Syria and, after visiting Cyprus and Perga, arrived in another city called Antioch, in Pisidia (Acts 13). Pisidia was an older ethnic region, which formed part of the area administered by the Roman province of Galatia.

Antioch of Pisidia

As a Greek city, Antioch was founded during the reign of the Seleucid ruler, Antiochus I, about 280 B.C. Two and a half centuries later Augustus made it a Roman colony. The new settlers were veterans from central and northern Italy and could have numbered up to three thousand people. They became the new elite of Antioch. By Paul's time, the inhabitants consisted of Greeks, Latins, Phrygian, and Jewish peoples, with the Jewish sector having quite a strong influence over the others.

In the account in Acts chapter 13, Paul and Barnabas arrived in Antioch and preached in the synagogue (v13-16). Luke gives a full account of Paul's sermon (v16-41), which is typical of the messages he preached to Jews, showing that Jesus is the fulfilment of the predictions in the Scriptures, making people free from the law. As a result, many were saved, both Jews, and converts to Judaism (v42-43), and Paul urged them to continue in the grace of God. The whole town was affected, and all came to hear him (v44). However the Jews became jealous (v45), and Paul turned to the Gentiles (v46-49), resulting in persecution from Jews (v50-51). Paul and the team then moved on to Iconium (v51).


The modern name for Iconium is the city of Konya. It was considered the chief town of the area, a natural place for human activity, and a very beautiful city. Two hundred miles of fertile plain surrounded it, which was cool and well watered. It was allowed to be ruled as a Greek city, so it was governed by an assembly of citizens, and the Greek language was used in all its documents. In Acts chapter 14, Luke described Paul’s visit to the city. Again he started by preaching in the synagogue (v1). As a result, a great company believed, both Jews and Greeks, but the Jews poisoned the minds of the Gentiles (v2), so they stayed a long time, speaking boldly (v3). The Lord testified to the word of his grace by signs and wonders, which Paul refers to in Galatians (1:6). However, the city was divided and the people tried to stone Paul and Barnabas, who fled to Lystra (v6-7).


Lystra was a village built on a small hill, rising a hundred feet above the surrounding plains. It was not located on any great trade route. It had a fertile plain around it with two small rivers. In 6 BC the Romans made it one of their colonies. Augustus built roads between Iconium, Lystra and Derbe around 26 BC. These are the roads which Paul and Barnabas probably used. The inhabitants of Lystra were a few Roman soldiers, and Greek educated residents called Hellenes, who were an educated and generally well-to-do segment of the population. Timothy's father was a Hellene from this city, and his mother a Jewess (Acts 16:1). Most of the population were uneducated, who spoke their own local language (Acts 14:11).

In Acts chapter 14, Luke give an account of Paul and Barnabas at Lystra, where a crippled man was healed (v8-10). The people thought Paul was Hermes, and Barnabas was Zeus, and tried to offer sacrifices to them (v11-14). There was a tradition at Lystra that gods had come before, but people had been inhospitable to them, so they tried better this time. Paul used this incident to preach to a group of pagan Gentiles (v15-18), saying that he brought good news and that they should turn from these worthless things to the living God. In Galatians, he refers to them returning to elemental spirits (4:9). The Galatians gladly received the gospel (v18), but Jews came from Antioch and Iconium and won over the crowds against Paul and Barnabas (v19). Paul was stoned and left for dead (v19), but the disciples prayed and Paul was miraculously raised up (v20). They next day they left for Derbe (v20).


Derbe is the most easterly city visited by Paul and Barnabas in this area. Again they preached the Gospel there and made many disciples (Acts 14:21). They then returned through the places where they had been persecuted, visiting Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, strengthening the disciples and appointing elders (v22-23). Paul refers to his persecutions, by saying that he bears the marks of Jesus (Gal 6:17). They then returned to Antioch (of Syria).

Other references to the Galatian churches

On his second missionary journey Paul revisited these churches. It was from Lystra that Timothy came. He probably had seen or heard about Paul being stoned during his last visit, and joined Paul's team at this time. Paul delivered the ruling of the Council of Jerusalem to the churches (Acts 16:1-5). Paul then continued through Phrygia and Galatia, rather than travelling west towards Ephesus, as he was forbidden to speak the word in Asia (16:6).

On the third missionary journey Paul travelled through this region again, strengthening the disciples (Acts 18:23). The churches of Galatia were involved in Paul's second offering for the church of Judea (1 Cor 16:1). At the end of his life, Paul sent Crescens, one of his apostolic team, to Galatia (2 Tim 4:10). Peter's first letter was addressed to, among others, the churches in Galatia (1 Pet 1:1).

Date of the letter to Galatians

There is also a debate over the date of the book, depending on whether the book was addressed to churches in the north or in the south of Galatia.

Evidence from Galatians

In the book of Galatians, Paul said that the Galatians were "quickly deserting Him" (1:6), soon after they had first believed. He recalled that he preached in bodily weakness, and that his condition was a trial to them (4:13). He also gives a lengthy description of his contact with the church in Jerusalem (1:13 - 2:14). He described his former life in Judaism as a persecutor of church (v13-14), followed by a summary of his conversion and visit to Damascus (v15-16). He then said that he went to Arabia, before returning to Damascus (v17). After three years he made his first visit back to Jerusalem, staying for fifteen days, where he saw Cephas and James only (v18). After this he went to the region of Syria and Cilicia, probably to his home-town of Tarsus (v21). Fourteen years later, he made his second visit to Jerusalem to see James, John, and Cephas (2:1), and later opposed Cephas in Antioch (2:11).

Evidence from Acts

Luke gives many details of Paul’s travels in the Book of Acts: We first meet Paul, as Saul, approving of Stephen's death (7:58, 8:1), after which he persecuted the church (8:3). On his way to Damascus, he met the risen Lord Jesus (9:1-22). While in Damascus, he was let down the wall in basket (9:23-25). Paul then visited Jerusalem for the first time, when he was taken there by Barnabas, and where he argued with the Hellenists (9:26-29). He was then sent to Tarsus in Cilicia (9:30). Barnabas brought Paul to Antioch (11:25-26), from where they were sent to Jerusalem for the famine visit (11:26-27), his second visit to Jerusalem recorded in Acts.

Next he and Barnabas travelled to southern Galatia on the first missionary journey (13:1-14:25), and returned to Antioch (14:26-28). While they were in Antioch, Judaisers arrived from Jerusalem (15:1-2). Paul and others visited Jerusalem for the Council of Jerusalem (15:3-29), which was Paul’s third visit to Jerusalem in Acts. After this he returned to Antioch (15:30-35), before leaving for his second missionary journey (15:36 - 18:22), when they passed through Phrygia and Galatia (Acts 16:6)

Historical dates in Acts

Absolute dates are hard to establish in Acts, but some can be set fairly accurately: King Herod Agrippa died in AD 44 (Acts 12), and the famine under Claudius was probably in AD 46 (Acts 11:28). The edict of Claudius expelling Jews from Rome was about AD 49 (Acts 18:2). The proconsulship of Gallio in Achaia was from AD 51-52 (Acts 18:12), according to an inscription.

The date of the Council of Jerusalem can be fixed from these historical events, either forward from the famine in AD 46, or back from Gallio's proconsulship in AD 51. Paul and Barnabas had spent some considerable time in Antioch, both before (Acts 13:1), and after (14:28), the first missionary journey. The journey itself must have taken at least a year and a half, therefore it is safe to suggest three years in total, making the Council of Jerusalem around AD 49. Paul's trial before Gallio in AD 51 was during his eighteen-month stay in Corinth. Including the rest of the second missionary journey, a date for the Council of Jerusalem later than AD 49 seems improbable. Thus, the date of the council is fairly certain to have been around AD 49.

The date of Galatians

To establish this, we need to see how the two accounts of Paul's movements in Acts and Galatians fit together. The discussion here really lies in the second visit mentioned in Gal 2:1-10: Was the second visit the famine visit (Acts 11:26-27), or the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15)?

The following evidence supports the identification between Gal 2, and the famine visit of Acts 11. The account of the visit in Galatians 2 is very different than that recorded in Acts 15, as Gal 2 records a private meeting with Peter, James and John only, while Acts 15 is a public debate. The result was a private affirmation of Paul in Galatians, but a public statement in Acts. Paul does not refer to the decision of the Council of Jerusalem or the letter from James in the Book of Galatians, suggesting that the letter was written before the Council. Paul was seeking to give an accurate account of all his contacts with the leaders in Jerusalem, and even swears an oath (Gal 1:20). Therefore, if he omitted to mention a visit when he met the leaders of Jerusalem, he would be opening himself to accusation of telling lies. Paul states that he went up by revelation (Gal 2:2), which could refer to the prophecy from Agabus about the famine (Acts 11:28). At the same time the leaders requested that Paul remembered the poor (2:10). The confrontation with Peter in Antioch would not have happened after the council and the letter from James having been sent to the church in Antioch. Any men that came from Jerusalem teaching legalism would be shown the letter. The "certain men" (Jewish legalists) in Galatians 2:12 seem to correspond with the "some men" in Acts 15:1 and in 15:24. Also the "no small dissension and debate" with the Judiazers (Acts 15:2) would be describing the same occasion as the rebuke of Peter (Gal 2:11). In Galatians 2 Paul was humbly placing his Gospel before the leaders for inspection, but in Acts 15 he was fighting for the Gospel.

The following are suggested as evidence for linking the second visit with the Council of Jerusalem: Both accounts mention Antioch, represented by Paul and Barnabas, and Jerusalem, represented by Peter and James, and both addressed trouble from Jewish legalists, and show that victory went to Paul.

Timeline of Galatians and Acts

If the famine visit was in AD 46, then from the timing suggested in Galatians, Paul was converted in AD 32 (after fourteen years - 2:1), and made his first visit to Jerusalem in AD 35 (after three years - 1:18). If Galatians was written before the Council of Jerusalem, the date would be around AD 49, but if afterwards, the date of writing would be in the early to mid 50's.

Paul's former life in Judaism, martyrdom of Stephen AD 32 Gal 1:13, Acts 8:1
Paul converted, and at Damascus AD 33 Gal 1:15, Acts 9
Paul visits Arabia Gal 1:17
Paul returns to Damascus, and escapes over the wall Gal 1:17, Acts 9:25, 2 Cor 11:32-33
First visit to Jerusalem, sees James and Peter only Gal 1:18, Acts 9:26
Sent home to Tarsus in Syria and Cilicia Gal 1:21, Acts 9:30
Barnabas sent to Antioch from Jerusalem Acts 11:25
James martyred, death of Agrippa I, famine in Judea AD 44 Acts 12:1, 11:27
Second visit to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking gift to poor, private meeting with apostles AD 46 Gal 2:1, Acts 11:30
Paul and Barnabas return to Antioch Acts 12:25
First Missionary Journey to Galatia AD 47-48 Acts 13:1 - 14:25
Return to Antioch Acts 14:26-28
Peter arrives in Antioch Gal 2:11
Judaisers come to Antioch from Judea Gal 2:12, Acts 15:1
Paul confronts Peter in Antioch Gal 2:11-14
Letter to Galatians written (early date)
Council of Jerusalem. Paul's third visit to Jerusalem AD 49 Acts 15
Return to Antioch Acts 15:30-35
Letter to Galatians (later date)
Second Missionary Journey to Derbe and Lystra AD 50-52 Acts 15:36 - 18:22
Third Missionary Journey, again passing through Phrygia and Galatia AD 52-56 Acts 18:23

The False Teachers

Who were the False Teachers?

The evidence from within the book is rather vague, but they appear to be Jewish legalists. Paul refers to some who are confusing you, and perverting the Gospel of Christ (1:7), teaching a gospel contrary to the gospel that he had taught (1:8). He referred to false believers who were secretly brought in, slipped in to spy on the freedom we have in Christ, so that they may enslave us (2:4), and to certain people who came from James, the circumcision party (faction) (2:12). They had bewitched the Galatians (3:1), making much of them (flattering them), so that the Galatians would make much of them (probably financially) (4:17). He refers to some who are confusing them (5:10), and unsettling them (5:12). He says that those who want to make a good showing in the flesh compel you to be circumcised, but do not want to be persecuted for the cross of Christ (6:12). He notes that even though they are circumcised they do not keep the whole law (6:13), and that they desire others to be circumcised so that they may boast about your flesh (6:17).

The Gospel coming to Gentiles

The Book of Acts describes the process by which the Gospel first reached Gentiles and the reaction by the Judaisers. On the Day of Pentecost, the first believers were all Jews (2:5ff), including some proselytes (2:10). Temple worship still played a significant part in church life (3:1), shown by Peter and John attending the daily 3 o'clock prayers. Among the 'deacons', there were many nations represented, but all were Hellenists, Greek-speaking Jews (6:1ff). These included Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch (6:5). Stephen was confronted by the Synagogue of the Freedmen, who were Greek speaking Cyrenians, Alexandrians, others from Cilicia and Asia (6:9). So far, the Gospel had reached only Jews, including Greek speaking Hellenistic Jews.

The first barrier to be crossed was when the Gospel reached Samaria and the Samaritans (8:1), who were half Jews. The Ethiopian eunuch was saved (8:27), but he was a God-fearer, who was returning from worship in Jerusalem, and happened to be reading Isaiah.

It was a major step for a Gentile to become a proselyte, who needed to complete the following process: He was given instruction by a scribe, who taught him the law. He needed to be willing to keep the law, both the law of Moses, as well as the oral traditions. If he was male, he was then circumcised. After he was healed, he was baptised by immersion, marking a new beginning, a new life and a new status. After offering sacrifices in the temple, he was given a new name. After his baptism, the following was said to him: "Unto who have you given yourself, Blessed are you, you have given yourself to God, the world was created for the sake of Israel and only Israelites are called children of God.....". When these steps had been completed, the man's past was forgotten, even ties of marriage and kinship were seen as broken. Many Gentiles, who were attracted to the monotheism and high moral standards of Judaism, but who were unwilling to take the rather drastic step of becoming a proselyte, could attend the synagogue and were known as 'god-fearers'.

With this in mind, it can easily be seen how the early Jewish Christians considered that Jesus was for the Jews and if any Gentiles wanted obtain the blessing, they needed to become Jewish converts (proselytes) first. This concept would have been fortified by the strong prejudice Jews had against Gentiles, for example, they would never eat with Gentiles.

In Acts, Luke records the difficult process the church had to go through as they gradually realised that Gentiles too could enjoy the salvation brought through Jesus. Peter was dramatically shown by God that he was opening the door for Gentiles, without them becoming Jews (Acts 10). He had great difficulty accepting it, but the church in Jerusalem had a even harder time accepting it (11:1-18). A group called the circumcision party were the most resistant (11:2), and Peter had to defend his actions against them.

This group later travelled to Antioch to teach that Gentiles need to become Jews (proselytes) before they could be saved (15:1-2), insisting that they should be circumcised and keep the law of Moses. The Council of Jerusalem met to decide this issue and decided against the circumcision party (15:3-29), but Gentiles were to abstain from four things particularly offensive to Jews, the food laws and immorality (v20). Luke records that the circumcision party were from a group called the party of the Pharisees (15:5).

When Paul arrived in Jerusalem at end of his third missionary journey, some in the church accused Paul of forsaking the law of Moses (21:21). James advised Paul to join four men who offering sacrifices after making a vow to show his loyalty to the law of Moses.

We meet this group in many of Paul's letters. They were a group of Christian Jews who probably were Pharisees, who believed for a Gentile to become a Christian he needed to become a Jew first. This meant being circumcised and keeping the laws of Moses. As they travelled to Antioch (Acts 15:1-2), so they continually followed behind Paul seeking to spread their brand of doctrine in the newly founded churches, claiming that, as they came from Jerusalem, they had come from James and the other apostles.

What were they teaching?

It appears the false teachers were spreading a false doctrine, as well as making accusations against Paul, countering his apostolic authority.

They preached what Paul described as a different gospel, a perverted gospel, a gospel contrary to his (1:8-9). They claimed angelic authority (1:8, 3:14), saying that Gentiles should be like Jews and keep the law (2:14,16), and that justification is by the law (2:16,21, 3:10-11). They claimed to be the true sons of Abraham (3:7). They taught that the law was given by God, therefore must not be laid aside (3:14,24). They taught their followers to keep the Jewish Calendar (4:10), and that they should be circumcised (2:3, 5:2,11, 6:12), claiming to come from James and therefore have authority from the Jerusalem church (2:12).

There were probably making the following accusations against Paul. They accused him of not being a true apostle, and possibly of not being recognized by the apostles in Jerusalem (1:1,16). They probably claimed that Paul had changed his mind and was now preaching circumcision (1:8, 5:11), saying that he was a 'people pleaser' who changes his Gospel to suit his audience (1:10). They said that Paul's Gospel was not authentic, coming from men, and not from God (1:11). They pointed out differences between the teaching from Paul and the church in Jerusalem (2:1, Acts 21:17ff), and claimed that Paul's Gospel leads to licence (2:17, 5:16ff).

They attacked Paul in the areas of his authority as an apostle and the validity of his message, and of being a 'people pleaser', who changed his message. They taught the need to become Jewish proselytes first; that is to be circumcised and keep the law of Moses, claiming that Paul's Gospel of 'faith alone' was incomplete, and resulted in licence.

What was the result of their teaching?

The result was devastating. The church was brought into severe bondage and the blessing of salvation seems to be lost. Paul said that they were deserting God (1:6), and being troubled by the false teachers (1:7, 5:10), who brought them into bondage (2:4). They built up what Paul had broken down (2:18), nullifying the grace of God (2:21), and coming under a spell (bewitched) (3:1). Having begun with the spirit, they were ending with the flesh (3:3), their past experiences had become in vain (3:4), as they had returned to elemental spirits (demonic influences) (4:9). Paul said that they were shut out (4:16), coming under a yoke of slavery (5:1), by receiving circumcision (5:2) and were severed from Christ (5:4). They had fallen from grace (4:12, 5:4), and had stopped running well, being hindered from obeying the truth (5:7), and becoming unsettled (5:12). Their lifestyle and relationship were also affected, as they were biting one another (5:16), and were self conceited, provoking one another, and envying one another (5:26).

Related articles

I: Argument from Testimony (1:1 - 2:21) II: Argument from Scripture (3:1 - 4:31)
III: Fruit of freedom (5:1 - 6:18)