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Making Sense of scriptures is a complicated and often confusing task. We can explain easily what the Bible says but find it harder to agree to what it says. Also, often even more disturbing, modern Christians differ widely as to how, if anything, the words of the Bible should influence their lives today.
The Bible is God’s word, but it has come to us through human means. The commands of God appear to be absolute, yet they are placed in such diverse historical contexts that we find it difficult to see how normative they can all be.
The Scriptures present the message that God wants us to hear, but that message is conveyed over a vast period within a complex literary landscape with varied genres.
This paper will discuss the background settings of the New Testament as well as the Historical settings, Literary context and interpretation challenges of the New Testament. The theme of the Greco-Roman world and the New Testament letters (epistles) are of most emphasis in this paper.
“In the course of the thirty years or so which elapsed between his conversion outside Damascus and his imprisonment in Rome, the apostle Paul travelled widely through the Empire as an ambassador of Jesus Christ” (Stott 2011, p. 17). Stott adds that it was during this time on three missionary journeys that he planted churches in and around the provinces of Galatia, Macedonia, Achaia and Asia. Paul’s letters helped to supervise the churches he formed as the epistle to the Galatians as found to be addressed “To the churches of Galatia” (Rom. 2).
The book of Galatians has been unanimously agreed upon by scholars to have been written by the apostle Paul. The date of writing, however, has been subject to some debate about the timing compared to other Pauline epistles. Keener (2014, p. 523) claims that scholars argue that Galatians was one of Paul’s first written letters. He claims that “Galatians may thus date to the latter half of the fifties, probably sometime before Romans”.
Other scholars such as Fee and Stuart (2002, p. 340) agree that the fifties would most likely be the date, but also claim that it could even be as early as A.D. 47 – 48.
Kenner (2014, p. 523) gives insight on the difficulties Paul was facing in Galatia; most were Jewish Christian converts who were still practicing the law of circumcision on the Gentiles, alienating them from their culture. He adds that “unlike Paul, a more seasoned missionary, these missionaries want to impose their own culture on the Galatians” (Keener 2014, p. 523). Paul address the state of affairs from the opening of his letter to the Galatians. Moo (2013, p. 15) explains that Paul promptly writes to the Galatians regarding there flirtation with “another gospel” (Gal. 1:6-10). He continues to add that “This counterfeit gospel is being propagated by false teachers who are confusing the Gentile Galatians by insisting their faith in Christ be supplemented by submission to circumcision and other elements of Mosaic Law” (Moo 2015, p.15).
Origin, Composition, Inspiration and Canonicity
The origin of the letter from Paul to the Galatians is well known. McKnight (2015, p. 3) explains that after Paul had effectively evangelized the southern districts of Galatia and set up some churches on his first missionary trip, that he then returned to Jerusalem. He then adds that “While there he caught wind of some Jewish Christian teaches who infiltrated these Galatian churches with a polluted message that was, according to Paul, endangering the entire gospel” (McKnight 2015, p. 3).
From the outset in Galatians one can see that Paul thinks the Galatians are turning away from the true gospel. “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel” (Gal. 1:6). Jervis (2011, p. 2) states that “as we read the letter, we see how dangerous Paul considers such a move”.
Weidmann (2003, p. 6) explains that the subjects addressed in the letter to the Galatians include, to name a few, “the Law,” “Grace,” “Faith,” “the Jews,” and “Abraham”. Each of these is regarded to be Paul’s characteristic and vital to his message.
Galatians demonstrates that the faithful are not under law any longer, but only through faith are they saved, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1). Hagner (2012, p. 234) simply states that the letter to the Galatians was to “establish the Christian’s freedom from the law of Moses”.
Mears (2011, p. 560) explains how Paul fell to an illness, which kept him in Galatia (Gal. 4:13) but although he was sick it did not deter him from preaching the good news of the gospel. “The theme of his sermon was Christ crucified, and he succeeded in founding the Christian churches in Galatia”.
Duvall and Hays (2012, p. 443) explains that “Inspiration can be defined as the process by which God directed individuals, incorporating their abilities and styles, to produce his message to humankind”. In his Letter to the Galatians one finds that the apostolate of Paul and the gospel of grace are vindicated against the Judaizers. The letter opens with Paul, “apostle not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ, and God the Father who raised him out of the dead, and all that brethren with me” (Gal. 1). Although he was rejected at first for not being a part of the original twelve, or even ordained by them, Paul confronts this head on explaining that it was the Lord Jesus and God the Father who called him to the apostleship.
The book of Galatians is the tenth book of the New Testament. Grudem (2015, p.62) explains that “we have most of the New Testament in the cannon because of the direct authorship by the apostles”, he also goes on to conclude that by A.D. 397 the western part of the Mediterranean agreed with the eastern churches and the cannon was complete. According to Riches (2015, p. 122) “Galatians presents us with one of sharpest statements in canon of the giftedness of Christian existence, its dependence not on human effort but on gratitude and faith in God’s grace in Christ, a life lived in union with Christ”.
Historical and Cultural Context
According to Constable (2019, p. 1) “Galatians has been the least disputed of any of Paul’s epistles”. Galatians was written to be a “definitive statement” of Paul’s understanding of what was occurring in the provinces of Galatia with the false gospel of salvation which was of keeping the law (Hagner 2012, p. 221).
Constable continues to explain that the dating of the epistle is critical to understand the occasion of the writing. He adds that Paul would have mainly written to stem the tide of the heresy being taught by the Judaizers. In Galatian chapter 2 the apostle Paul tells the Galatians that “to them we did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be presented to you” (Gal. 2:5). Paul is reminding them that the sending of the Holy Spirit is the outworking action of God in Christ, and that it is by the Spirit that a believer is changed into Christlikeness and not due to any power from keeping the law.
Even though it is commonly known that Paul’s letter is for the churches at Galatia, who are called ‘Galatians’, it is not as easy to identify who these people actually were or where they actually lived. Constable (2019, p. 2) explains that even though the logical opinion is that they lived in the geographical area known as “Galatia”, which was located in the north part of the province which is also called “Galatia” or Asia Minor, would then allude to that it was on Paul’s second mission that these churches had been founded.
Constable (2019, p. 2) continues that the accepted view today, which has been held since around the eighteenth century, “maintains that Paul wrote to the churches, located in the Roman province of south Galatia, that he founded on his first missionary journey”. Elwell and Yarbrough (2013, p. 279) explain how these two different theories will result in difference of dates and places of origin for this letter, they explain how this would “also result in different understandings of how Galatians relates to Acts”.
Deciding weather, the audience is north Galatia or south Galatia comes down to trying to base the information from the book of Acts within the book of Galatians but, still doesn’t answer the question regarding the date of the letter. Jervis (2011, p. 245) explains how it could be possible that the letter is from Paul’s earliest journey and just written later, or it is possible that it was written shortly after Paul’s second journey, which would then make the letter to the Galatians one of his earliest.
Approaches to study, interpretation and critical analysis
According to Constable (2019, p. 6) the most distinctive impression of this epistle is its severity. Paul penned it emotionally, but never let his feelings cloud his logic. His dominant matter was for the truth to set the Galatians free, and when compared to the Corinthian letter, Galatians also is corrective in nature, however, the emphasis of Galatians is different.
“Galatians has been called the “Manifesto of Christian Liberty.” This epistle explains that liberty: its nature, its laws, and its enemies” (constable 2019, p.6). He adds that this little letter, throughout church history, has called the people of God out of the bondage of legalism back into the “liberty of freedom.” It has also been labeled “the cornerstone of the Protestant Reformation”.
Galatians central message is a decree relating to freedom. Constable (2019, p. 7) sums up what he believes the three main major revelations in Galatians are;
- By receiving the Holy Spirit through faith in conversion, one receives new life and not anything, but faith is necessary for salvation. (Gal. 3:5; 14)
- The development in which every Christian’s spiritual transformation grows is the “desire of God’s Spirit” who lives within (Gal. 5:17)
- The fruit that Christian’s produce is the “evidence of God’s Spirit triumphing” overcoming the flesh (Gal. 5:22)
“Galatians is not only a proclamation of liberty, it is also a protest against legalism” (Constable 2019, p.7). This letter to the Galatians was to warn against adding any customs, sacrament or any type of ritual to faith with the purpose of achieving God’s approval. “Having begun salvation by the Spirit, we will certainly not attain God’s goal for us by the flesh”.
The Galatians are overwhelmingly upsetting Paul, because one inevitably neglects faith whenever they add anything to faith for salvation. If one creates something supreme apart from faith, then they set up a sacrament. When a rite is established, that ritual practice becomes the religion’s message, where morality is then divorced from religion and there lacks motivation for living a righteous life. This is one distinction between all other religions and Christianity. All other religions have creeds, rites and ceremonies, but no supernatural presence and life.
“I would summarize the message of the book as follows: Salvation is by God’s grace through faith plus nothing” (Constable 2019, p. 10).
According to Elwell and Yarbrough (2013, p. 281) Paul writes the letter to the Galatians with the purpose of calling the churches back to the true gospel, that the gospel they are following was not the true gospel. The only true gospel was the one preached by Paul, which was the revelation of Jesus Christ outworked through the Holy Spirit. This was the same gospel that was preached by the other apostles. Elwell and Yarbrough see the letter to the Galatians as that “the message that salvation lies in Jesus has been entrusted to Jews like Paul as well as to non-Jews who will receive it”. They also show how the book of Galatians has many similarities to Paul’s sermon in the thirteenth chapter of the book of Acts, one of these being the reference used of Abraham which is used eight times in the third chapter of Galatians.
“Galatians was central to the Protestant Reformation with its reassertion of the sole sufficiency of divine grace to liberate the imprisoned human will” (Elwell & Yarbrough 2013, p. 283). They also explain how the rules or laws abandon the message of grace found thought the gospels as written by Paul in the letter to the Galatians, “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by law; you have fallen away from grace” (Gal. 5:4).
Elwell & Yarbrough (2013, p. 286) also unravel how Paul carefully clarifies the true intent of the letter, focused on Christ’s atoning death foretold by prophets of the Old Testament. Reveling that the main theme of the book is that “salvation is God’s free gift”, as well as understanding that the “gospel of grace rules out the use of mere rules or a code of conduct as a means of self-justification.
According to Youngblood (2014, p. 421) the book to the Galatians is one of Paul’s most dominant epistles, believing that its paramountcy far outweighs its size, he claims that “In it he forcefully proclaims the doctrine of justification by faith alone”. As news spread of a perverted gospel amongst the Galatians, Paul needed to quickly challenge the Judaizers in so producing the letter to the Galatians. Paul also had to defend himself to the Judaizers for suggesting that he was an inferior apostle with no authority, by zealously defending his conversion (Gal. 1:11-17) and the approval he had from the leaders (Gal. 1:18-2:10). Paul’s main argument is that the Jews and Gentiles are justified by faith alone. Youngblood compares Galatians 3:6 with that of Genesis 15:6 showing how “this plan can be traced to the beginning of Israel’s history”, for Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness” (Gal. 3:6).
The law did not come till 430 years after Abraham and therefore was never intended to substitute justification through faith. The law was meant to show the believer of their need for Christ (Gal. 3:24). “Christ, therefore, is the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham” (Youngblood 2014, p. 423).
Youngblood also interestingly claims that if the apostle Paul wasn’t acknowledged in his claim for “justification by faith alone”, Christianity would have remained a division of Judaism, rather then becoming the all-embracing way to salvation.
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but 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 (Gal 2:20).
It poses a considerable challenge to understand the original context of the passages of the Bible, together with the need to identify the principle that applies to all times and places and to understand our own time and situations where these principles are applied today. This challenge can only be met if we try to understand more fully the original world of the authors of Bible texts and the original meaning of the authors of the Bible. Therefore, to enhance one’s understanding of the Bible understanding, the background settings are sometimes necessary. This should lead to further study the word of God diligently. Thank God that we have plenty of resources to help us along the way.
Constable, TL 2019, Dr Constable’s Notes on Galatians, https://planobiblechapel.org/tcon/notes/pdf/galatians.pdf
Duvall, SJ & Hays, DJ 2012, Grasping Gods Word: A hands on approach to reading, interpreting and applying the Bible, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI.
- Elwell, WA & Yarbrough RW 2013, Encountering the New Testament, A Historical and Theological Survey, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, MI.
- Fee, GD & Stuart, D 2002, How to read the Bible book by book, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI.
- Grudem, W 2015, Systematic Theology; An introduction into Bible Doctrine, Inter Varsity Press, Nottingham, England.
- Hagner, DA 2012, The New Testament; A Historical and Theological Introduction, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, MI.
- Jervis, LA, 2011, Galatians (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series), Baker Publishing Group, Grand Rapids, MI.
- Keener, CS, 2014, The IVP Bible Background commentary, Inter Varsity Press, Downers Grove, IL.
- Mears, HC 2011, What the Bible is all about, Regal, California, USA.
- McKnight, S 2009, The NIV Galatians Application Commentary, Zondervan Academic, Grand rapids, MI.
- Moo, DJ 2013, Galatians, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, MI.
- Stott, J 2011, The message of Galatians, Inter Varsity Press, Downers Grove, IL.
- The Holy Bible: ESV Systematic Theology Study Bible (ESV), 2017, English Standard Version, Crossway.
- Weidmann, FW 2003, Galatians, Westminster John Knox Press, USA.
- Youngblood, RE 2014, Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary: New and Enhanced Edition, Thomas Nelson Inc, Nashville, USA.
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