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Who Were the Galatians?

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Who were the Galatians?

If someone was to ask you who Paul wrote his epistle to the Galatians to, how would you respond? If you’re like most people, you’d probably answer that it was written to the church at Galatia, and—technically—you’d be right.

But did you know that there’s actually quite a bit of discussion around whether Paul’s letter was written to those in northern or southern Galatia? Does knowing who Paul was writing to affect how we read it? Not necessarily, but it does change the way we look at the book of Galatians in regards to Acts.

In his online course on Galatians, Thomas R. Schreiner helps us understand a little better about who Paul was writing to. The following post is taken from Schreiner’s course.

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Who were the recipients of Paul’s epistle to the Galatians?

Was Paul’s letter to the Galatians written to south or north Galatia? Why does it even matter? It should be said at the outset that the destination of the letter does not fundamentally change its interpretation. Where it makes a difference is in terms of history. The destination of the letter determines how we correlate Galatians with Acts.

For instance, did Paul’s confrontation with Peter (Gal 2:11–14) take place before the apostolic council of Acts 15 (according to most who support the south Galatian theory), or after that meeting (according to the north Galatian theory)? In this context, it does affect interpretation to some extent. Does Paul omit mentioning any of his visits to Jerusalem in the letter to the Galatians ? (More on this below.) How do we correlate the Pauline visits to Jerusalem with his visits as they are recorded in Acts? The issue is of some importance because we have a historical faith and believe that the events of biblical history are significant.

Galatia became a Roman province in 25 BC, and the province included people from many ethnic groups, including the “Celts” or “Galatians,” who had migrated to Asia Minor by 278 BC. In Paul’s day, the province was a large area that touched the Black Sea in the north and the Mediterranean in the south. As time passed, however, the province changed. “Vespasian detached almost all of Pisidia from Galatia in AD 74 and about AD 137 Lycaonia Galatica was removed and added to an enlarged province of Cilicia. In AD 297 southern Galatia was united with surrounding regions to form a new province of Pisidia with Antioch as its capital.”[2]

Hence, commentators in early church history naturally thought Galatians was written to the province as it existed in later Roman history, and therefore, virtually all scholars believed that Galatians was written to the ethnic Galatians in the northern part of the province. But the work of William Ramsey and others in the twentieth century has provoked scholars to reexamine the destination of the letter, for scholars are now apprised of the dimensions of the Galatian region during Paul’s day. Therefore, the identity of the recipients of the letter has been debated intensely in the last century.

Supporters of the north Galatian theory maintain that the letter was sent to ethnic Galatians located in the northern part of the Galatian province. As Philip Esler remarks, the north Galatian theory could be described as “tribal” Galatia since on this view the letter was sent to those who were ethnically Galatians.

The south Galatian view proposes that the letter was sent to the cities Paul visited on his first missionary journey in Acts 13–14. The interpretation of the letter is not affected significantly by whether one holds to a north or south Galatian hypothesis, though one’s view on the destination of the letter has major implications for Pauline chronology.

Support for the North Galatian Theory

I begin with arguments supporting the north Galatian theory, but will also note the counter-arguments of those who support the south Galatian theory.

  1. The character of the epistles’ Galatians suggest the north. J. B. Lightfoot supports the north Galatian view by contending that the temperament of the Galatians fits with what we know about the Gauls, that is, that they were fickle and superstitious. This argument is hardly convincing, for fickleness and superstition were not limited to Gauls.
  2. Acts 16:6 and 18:23 likely refer to north Galatia. These two visits square with Gal 4:13, where Paul says that he preached to the Galatians when he was sick “formerly [the first time]” (πρότερον). Now if Paul visited the Galatians a first time, then he also was present a second time, and this fits with Acts 16:6 and 18:23.Again, this argument is hardly decisive. Acts 16:6 says nothing about founding new churches, and the Greek word can be translated “at first” and does not necessarily imply two visits. Further, even if there were two visits, Paul may have counted the retracing of his steps in Acts 13–14 as a second visit. Finally, in Acts 16:6 the word “Phrygian [country]” is likely an adjective, specifying the part of Galatia in which Paul traveled, and Acts 18:23 describes Paul’s travels in southern Galatia and Phrygian Asia.
  3. Differences in Luke and Paul’s nomenclature. It is important to observe that the churches visited in Acts 13–14 are not identified as Galatian churches by Luke. But we must be careful here, for Luke’s terminology is not necessarily the same as Paul’s. Paul typically refers to Roman provinces, whereas Luke refers to ethnic groupings in the provinces, though the issue is complex and cannot be resolved simplistically.
  4. Paul would not use the term “Galatians” to describe those living in south Galatia, for they were not “Galatians” ethnically. The ethnic Galatians were the Gauls who lived in the north, and secular writers regularly use the term “Galatians” to refer to the north Galatians.But what other term would Paul use to describe the Galatians, for those living in the province of Galatia came from many ethnic groups? Only the term “Galatians” would be sufficiently comprehensive to include all of them.
  5. The opening of Paul’s letter suggests it was written to the northern Galatians. If Galatians were addressed to churches founded on Paul’s first journey, Paul would not have written in Gal 1:21, “Then I came into the regions of Syria and Cilicia,” but instead, “Then I came to Syria and Cilicia and on to you.” But this argument fails to recognize that 1:21 does not refer to the first missionary journey but to the interval between Acts 9:30 and 11:25.
  6. The relationship between Acts 15 and Gal 2:1–10 suggests it was written for northern Galatia. This is one of the strongest arguments for the northern-Galatian view. Those who support the north Galatian view argue that Acts 15 refers to the same events as Gal 2:1–10.On this view, the chronology of Paul’s visits to Jerusalem was as follows: Acts 9:26–28 = Gal 1:18; Acts 11:30/12:25 is skipped in Galatians; Acts 15:1–35 = Gal 2:1–10. The arguments for identifying Acts 15 with Gal 2:1–10 are quite impressive.
    1. The subject in both texts is the same: circumcision.
    2. The place is the same: Jerusalem.
    3. The people are the same: James, Peter, John, Paul, and Barnabas.
    4. The decision was the same: circumcision was not required.
  7. Paul in Gal 2:1–10 presents himself as the leader of the missionary team of Paul and Barnabas. But if Gal 2:1–10 is equivalent to Acts 11:27–30/12:25 (as most who support the south Galatian view claim), Gal 2:1–10 occurred before the first missionary journey.Luke consistently lists Barnabas before Paul at the beginning of the first missionary journey (Acts 13), suggesting that Barnabas was the leader at the time. But if the south Galatian view is true, Barnabas should be listed before Paul in Gal 2:1–10. So, the mention of Paul first in 2:1–10 suggests that he is the leader of the team, and therefore (say those who support the north Galatian theory) 2:1–10 reflects the events after the first missionary journey.[18] But this argument also fails to convince, for Paul naturally relays the visit to Jerusalem from his perspective, and this accounts for Paul’s prominence.
  8. According to Gal 2:1–10, Paul is recognized as an apostle. But if the south Galatian theory is true, on what basis was Paul acknowledged to be an apostle? For, according to the usual south Galatian theory, Paul had not yet been on the first missionary journey. If anybody would be called the apostle to the Gentiles, it would seem to be Barnabas, not Paul—if the south Galatian theory is true.Those who support the north Galatian destination point out that it makes perfect sense for Paul to be acknowledged as an apostle if the first missionary journey had already taken place (Acts 13–14), and Gal 2:1–10 is equivalent with Acts 15:1–35. But those who support the south Galatian theory have a good counter-argument. An acknowledgment of Paul’s apostleship in Gal 2:1–10 is scarcely surprising, for he had presumably done missionary work during his years at Tarsus. In any case, he and Barnabas had ministered together among the Gentiles in Antioch for a year, and Paul could have been identified as an apostle on the basis of his work in that city.
  9. The similarity of subject matter in Galatians and Romans suggests that they were written at roughly the same time. If Galatians were written to north Galatia, it may have been written between AD 50–57 and Romans is probably between AD 55–57, and hence the two are rather close together. But trying to assign a date based on the similarity of subject matter is precarious.Indeed, there are some significant differences between Galatians and Romans as well, and hence trying to assign a date based on the similarity of content is arbitrary. Furthermore, even if the letters do overlap significantly in content, we can hardly establish a date on such a basis. We could just as easily argue that Paul’s theology on the law remained stable over the ten to fifteen years that he wrote letters. We all know people whose views have not changed in any significant way over twenty to thirty years, and there is no reason to doubt that Paul may have been the same, especially when we consider that he had served as a missionary for fifteen years or more before the writing of his first canonical letters.
  10. Most scholars throughout church history have argued that the letter was written to north Galatia. This argument loses much of its force when we realize that south Galatia was separated from north Galatia and incorporated into Pisida in AD 74. Those who lived in subsequent generations did not realize, therefore, that south and north Galatia were part of the same province when Paul wrote the letter, and this may explain the dominance of the north Galatian hypothesis historically.

Support for the South Galatian Theory

Though I favor a south Galatian destination, the supporting arguments are not clear enough to remove doubt. We are reminded here of the tentativeness of the historical task since we lack enough information to reach a secure conclusion. If Paul wrote to south Galatia, then he likely wrote to the churches evangelized in Acts 13–14. Here I focus on some of the remaining arguments supporting a south Galatian destination, but I note some of the weaknesses of these arguments as well.

  1. Paul wrote in Greek, which was not the mother tongue of the north Galatians. This argument is not a strong one, however, since Greek was the lingua franca of the Greco-Roman world. In what other language would Paul write to communicate with all the Galatians?
  2. Paul uses Roman imperial terms when there are geographical references, and hence “Galatians” would refer to the Roman province of Galatians. Again, this observation, though true, does not prove a south Galatian destination, for the north Galatians were part of the province of Galatia as well.
  3. Acts 16:6 and 18:23 do not refer to the the founding of churches in north Galatia. Though it is possible that Paul established churches in north Galatia, we have no firm evidence that he did so, whereas we know that he planted churches in south Galatia. Furthermore, the reference to Phrygia may simply designate the ethnic area of Galatia that Paul traveled through according to Acts 16:6. This may be supported by the one article for both the Galatian and Phrygian region. In any case, both Acts 16:6 and 18:23 may not even report on any travels of Paul to north Galatia.
  4. Paul refers to Barnabas as if the Galatians know him personally (Gal 2:13), and we know that Barnabas traveled with Paul when the south Galatian churches were evangelized (Acts 13–14). There is no indication, however, that Barnabas ever evangelized the north Galatian churches, and hence the personal reference seems superfluous.We must admit, however, that the argument presented here is from silence. Paul refers to Barnabas in 1 Cor 9:6, and yet we have no evidence that Barnabas visited Corinth either. Barnabas may have visited north Galatia, though there is no record of the visit.
  5. Acts 20:4 implies that the south Galatian churches contributed to the collection for the poor saints in Jerusalem (cf. Rom 15:25–28; 1 Cor 16:1–4; 2 Cor 8:1–9:15), but nothing is said about a contribution from north Galatian churches. It must be noted, however, that this also is an argument from silence, for it is possible that north Galatian churches participated, though it remains unmentioned.
  6. Some point to the enthusiastic reception given to Paul at Lystra, where he was acclaimed as the Greek god Hermes (Acts 14:11–18), and the statement that Paul was received as an angel of God in Gal 4:14. This is surely a thin reed on which to base an argument, for in the same text in Acts the people turned against Paul and stoned him!Further, it seems difficult to believe that Paul recalled the people hailing him as the Greek god Hermes when he said that the Galatians received him as a messenger of Christ. According to Acts, Paul and Barnabas were dismayed that they were celebrated as gods. The response of the people was not identified as a mark of spiritual insight.
  7. Paul concentrated on main cities and trade routes in his evangelism, and north Galatia was far from these main trade routes. Once again, this argument is not compelling, for Derbe and Lystra were not large cities, and Ancyra and Pessinus in north Galatia were some of the most important cities in Asia Minor.
  8. The Jewish-Christian missionaries who opposed Paul would more likely have traveled to the nearer south Galatia than to the more inaccessible north Galatia. Once again, however, it is difficult to determine what zealous proponents of a theology antagonistic to Paul would do. We must admit that they may have been motivated to travel to north Galatia as well.
  9. Peter’s lapse in Galatians (2:11–14), it is claimed, makes better sense before the apostolic council of Acts 15 (AD 48). Some think it unlikely that Peter would fail after matters were ironed out at the apostolic council in Acts 15. This argument has some merit, for it seems less likely that James would send messengers to the church after the council in Acts 15.Still, history is full of surprises, and debates have ensued after formal agreements many times in history. Further, we know that human beings are prone to fail and to live hypocritically even after formal agreements have been reached.
  10. The failure to mention Timothy may indicate that the letter was written before the events of Acts 16. After all, Timothy is mentioned in every letter except Ephesians and Titus, but this again is an argument from silence.
  11. Paul would not have neglected any of his visits to Jerusalem in Gal 1–2 since he wanted to demonstrate his independence from the Jerusalem apostles. This is one of the strongest arguments for the south Galatia theory.If he omitted any visit, he would open himself to the charge that he failed to mention an occasion when he was influenced by the apostles in Jerusalem. If this is the case, then Gal 1:18 is equivalent to Acts 9:26–28, and Gal 2:1–10 is matched by the visit to Jerusalem in Acts 11:27–30 and 12:25.[24] On this reading the visit to Jerusalem recorded in Acts 15:1–35 is omitted in Galatians because the council described in Acts had not yet occurred when Paul wrote the letter.

What about the argument over circumcision?

We have seen above that the most serious objection to the southern theory is that Acts 15:1–35 and Gal 2:1–10 are remarkably similar. At both meetings circumcision was debated and the apostles decided that circumcision was not required for the salvation of Gentiles. Is it possible that the same meeting took place on two occasions? Many defenders of the south Galatian hypothesis respond by emphasizing that the meeting in Gal 2:1–10 was of a different nature than the council in Acts 15. The former was a private meeting, while the latter was a public discussion. In Acts we see official deliberations and a formal decision, while in Galatians we see an informal and private judgment. Further, south Galatian proponents claim that Paul would have informed the Galatians what the council decided if the events of Acts 15 had already transpired. Why would he refrain from informing the Galatians about such an important decision?

We must admit that untangling the knots in deciphering the destination of Galatians is difficult. It is possible that Acts 15:1–35 and Gal 2:1–10 record the same meeting from different perspectives. The debate over circumcision may have lasted several days or even longer, and we see a compressed summary of what occurred in both Galatians and Acts. Furthermore, it’s possible to hold to a south Galatian destination and to argue that Gal 2:1–10 and Acts 15:1–35 refer to the same event. One could argue that Paul did not record every visit to Jerusalem but only included visits in which he had significant private discussions with the apostles. Hence, he may not have included visits to Jerusalem where he was with the apostles in public settings. We notice in Galatians that he limits his description to a private meeting with Peter and James (Gal 1:18–19), and to his private meeting with James, John, and Peter (2:1–10).

It is possible that the substance of what was decided by the apostolic council of Acts 15 is summarized in a compressed form in Gal 2:6. Paul does not cite an official document but declares that nothing was added to his gospel, showing that the apostles agreed with his theology. Paul, in other words, relayed the events of the meeting from his perspective.

Identifying the recipients of Galatians is important for Pauline chronology and history, but it is not determinative for the interpretation of the letter, and the meaning of the letter does not change dramatically whether we opt for a north or south Galatian hypothesis.

This post is adapted from Thomas Schreiner's Galatians online course. To learn more about the Galatians, sign up for the course today.

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