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The Core Curriculum

Historical Context for Galatians by Paul

Relates to: 

  Saint Paul Writing His Epistles by Valentin de Boulogne, c. 1620 (Wikimedia Commons) Saint Paul Writing His Epistles by Valentin de Boulogne, c. 1620 (Wikimedia Commons) Paul’s journey from persecutor to apostle, wherein he comes to embrace Jesus as the Messiah along the road to Damascus (Acts 9), sets the stage for his missionary and epistolary activity. The former, which is narrated in the latter chapters of Acts (15-21), attempts to provide a holistic narrative to the rather piecemeal and fragmentary nature of the Pauline epistles. The authentic letters of Paul are, above all else, situational and occasional writings. They are not systematic treatises on theology or exhaustive records of Paul’s intellectual thinking, but actual communications between himself and the communities with whom he had a relationship (Philemon is a notable exception; it is a letter addressed to an individual rather than a community). Paul’s letters attempt to right problems within these communities, problems of sufficient magnitude that they merited further instruction from Christ’s foremost apostle. Indeed, what troubled Paul about Galatia was not necessarily the same as what troubled Paul about Rome or Corinth or Philippi.

The recipients of Paul’s letter to the Galatia remain, geographically speaking, elusive. While we know that the region of Galatia was located in north-central Asia Minor, its expansiveness and Paul’s lack of specificity means we cannot identity precisely where within Galatia his letter was sent. The occasion, however, of the letter, written in the late 40s or early 50s CE, is altogether clear. In wake of Paul’s departure from Galatia, a party of Christ believers (often called the circumcision party) has convinced gentile members of the church, whom Paul had brought into the faith, that true believers in Christ must follow the Jewish Law in its entirety. Paul has been alerted to this development and his letter outlines quite angrily his opposition to gentile adherence to the Jewish law, as embodied in the practice of circumcision. Paul’s letter reveals the difficulty in negotiating the relationship between being a Jew or Gentile and simultaneously being a follower of Jesus. Furthermore, Paul’s introductory remarks suggest that the circumcision party has challenged his apostolic authority. Unlike the other prominent apostles, Paul never met Jesus, a charge that may have compelled his response that his gospel came directly from Christ and not from human hands.

Written by Todd Berzon, Department of Religion, Columbia University


Works Consulted & Further Reading:

Bart Ehrman’s textbook, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, remains the best source for basic information about the entire New Testament

Boyarin, Daniel. A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997

Gager, John G. Reinventing Paul. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000

Sanders, E.P. Paul and Palestinian Judaism. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1977

Segal, Alan F. Paul the Convert: The Apostolate and Apostasy of Saul the Pharisee. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990