“To the churches of Galatia” (Gal 1:2b).
Such a short phrase has erupted into one of the biggest debates of the New Testament. Who were the Galatians? Centuries of argument will not be solved in this short blog post, but at least a summary of some of the major positions might help sort through the difficulties.
Until the 18th century, nearly everyone assumed that Paul wrote his epistle to the Christians living in northern, ethnic region of Galatia, where the Gaul’s settled several centuries earlier. Acts 16:6 and 18:23 provides two possible times when Paul could’ve planted or connected with churches in this region.
Sir William Ramsay questioned this theory in the 1800s and provided a different hypothesis, which now seems to be the critical consensus. Ramsay pointed to the southern, Roman provincial area known as Galatia where Paul was known to do mission work on his first missionary journey with Barnabas (Acts 13-14).
The issue is important because it, in part, relates to the question of how Acts 15 corresponds with the letter to the Galatians. Acts 15 records the events of the Jerusalem Council, which convened to deal with the issue of whether or not Christians needed to be circumcised in order to be true believers. This is similar to the issues addressed in Galatians. Paul mentions a trip to Jerusalem in both Gal 1:17-18 and 2:1, the latter one taking place over 14 years after the first. Is Galatians 2:1 speaking of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15? This might fit well with a Northern hypothesis, which would date the letter later in Paul’s life and ministry. But if the Southern hypothesis is accepted, the letter was likely written just before the Council, which might correspond Galatians 2:1 with Paul’s famine visit to Jerusalem in Acts 9:26 rather than the Council visit.
The issue is much too complex to treat in detail here (excellent summaries and arguments can be found in Longenecker, Galatians, lxii-lxx; Carson & Moo, Introduction to the New Testament, 458-61; DeSilva, Galatians, 28-33, 46-48; Bruce, Galatians, 5-17; all the authors mentioned favor the Southern view). But here’s a summary of some of the arguments I found to be most convincing in favor of the Southern Galatian view:
1) There is clear evidence Paul spent significant time planting and ministering to churches in this area in Acts 13-14 on his first missionary journey.
2) There’s a lack of clear evidence Paul spent significant time in Northern Galatia. Acts 16:6 specifically says that Paul “passed through” and the Spirit told them not to spend time ministering there. Acts 18:23 says much the same.
3) Barnabas accompanied Paul on his first missionary journey in Southern Galatia. Paul mentions Barnabas numerous times in Galatians, which indicates they knew him well (Gal 2:1, 9, 13). Barnabas did not accompany Paul on his second trip which passed through Northern Galatia, so there would be no explanation of why they knew him so well if that was indeed when the book was written.
4) Evidence exists in other Pauline letters that he tended to use “Galatia” as a Roman provincial name, rather than an ethnic (northern) term. Compare 1 Cor 16:1, 5, 15, 19.
5) In Galatians 4:14, Paul says the Galatians received him “as an angel of God.” Acts 14:11ff shows that when Paul was in southern Galatia, the people had trouble separating him and his coworkers from Greek deities and celestial beings.
6) Galatians is silent about the Jerusalem Council decree. If the Council happened before the writing of the book (which a Northern Galatia theory would demand), it would be exceedingly strange that Paul didn’t at least reference or mention it in support of his arguments for the needlessness of circumcision for a believer.
There are, of course, other arguments for this theory (and a series of rebuttals and counterarguments for each!), but these were the most compelling pieces of evidence. Assuming this theory to be true, the order of events would be as follows:
A) 33 AD – Paul’s first visit to Jerusalem as a believer (Ats 9:23-25; Gal 1:18)
B) 47 AD – Paul’s famine visit to Jerusalem (Acts 11-12; Gal 2:1-10)
C) 47-48 AD – Paul’s first missionary journey with Barnabas (Acts 13-14)
D) 48 AD – Paul writes Galatians
E) 49 AD – The Jerusalem Council These dates should be considered estimates and the theory held humbly with respect to other scholars that differ. Ultimately, whether one chooses to see Galatians written earlier or later, to north or south Galatia, the Gospel of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ by God’s grace remains the same.