Galatians is written into a very particular situation. After Paul had founded the Galatian Christian community, a community that included both Jews and Gentiles, Jewish Christian evangelists had arrived arguing that those who wanted to follow Christ had to be Jewish and so needed to be circumcised. Paul’s vehement rejection of this message is what drives the letter to the Galatians, where he argues that it is faith in Christ, not observance of the Jewish law, that justifies people with God. It is faith and nothing else that allows them to participate in the dying and rising of Christ into a new way of being, marked by true freedom.
For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.’ (Galatians 5.1)
27As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3.27–28)
It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2.20)
22By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. (Galatians 5.22–23)
Galatians, like Romans, is said to be written by Paul alone – unlike many other letters which are attributed to Paul and one or more others.
Paul is probably the best known of all the early Christians. Before encountering Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus, he was a zealous Pharisee who sought to maintain the purity of Judaism. After his experience on the Damascus road, he turned his zeal to proclaiming Jesus Christ among the Gentiles. This brought him into conflict with some other early Christians, not least Peter, who thought that followers of Jesus Christ should convert to Judaism. He travelled around the Roman Empire (though primarily in Asia Minor – modern-day Turkey – and Greece), proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ and founding communities of Christians as he went. He also wrote a large number of letters, 13 of which are preserved in the New Testament.
Whenever the letter was written, the issue remains the same – whether followers of Christ needed to be Jewish in order to be part of the Christian community. This was a live issue at the time of Paul and caused various conflicts in the first Christians communities.
There will be lots of names you will not know; don’t worry if you can’t place them all. The key ones are given below.
Galatia, Damascus, Syria, Cilicia, Antioch, Asia Minor, Jerusalem, Judea, Mount Sinai, Syria
James the Lord’s brother, Cephas, Barnabas, Isaac, Israel, James (Jesus’ brother), John brother of James, Titus
Gentiles, Gospel, idols
It can feel as though, in Galatians, Paul goes on and on about circumcision. Circumcision refers to the way in which a man who is Gentile becomes Jewish. Paul often uses circumcision as shorthand for living according to Jewish laws and customs. Keep an eye out for the language Paul uses throughout the letter and remember that he uses it in the context of the specific question of whether the Gentiles need to become Jews in order to follow Christ.
Paul also talks a lot about living according to the Spirit – look out for this language and ask yourself what living according to the Spirit means for Paul.
Galatians gives us more autobiography about Paul than any other letter. Notice the details of Paul’s life that are given, especially in chapters 1–2.