Summary Galatians in toto

Galatians as a whole is qualitatively different from 1 Thessalonians.  In Galatians, there was much less of the pastoral sort of exhortation than was found in 1 Thess. Now, this isn’t meant as a definitive, conclusive pronouncement, but sort of a general observation.

Overall, Galatians is an argument. As in, it’s a case set out, with premises and evidence intended to convince the reader (hearer, in ancient times) of a particular point of view.

What appears to have happened is that Paul converted pagan Galatians. That the latter is true rests on internal evidence, especially the whole issue of circumcision. This would not have been an issue for Jews who would already have been circumcised.

After this conversion, probably some time after, new representatives of Jesus followers attempt to sway the Galatians to another gospel. This horrifies Paul beyond belief, and he writes this letter to bring the Galatians back to their senses, and to the true gospel that he preached to them.  This alternative gospel, in all probability, was that of, or closely related to, that taught by the Jerusalem Assembly. This would have meant pretty much following the Jewish Law, including submitting to circumcision.

To demonstrate this point, Paul engages in some autobiography.  He tells us of his conversion, telling us that he is on par with James and the others because Paul experienced the risen Christ just as they had. That he hadn’t know the living Jesus doesn’t matter to Paul. Whether this is because for Paul, as Akenson argued, Jesus did not become the Christ until the resurrection.

Then, like an attorney establishing standing, Paul tells us the story of the Council of Jerusalem, when he went to Jerusalem and met with the pillars of the community there. This included James, the brother of Jesus, Cephas, and John. The last two figure prominently in the gospels. James, however, was neither James, the son of Zebidee, nor the other James, surnamed The Lesser. IOW, this James was not a member of Jesus’ followers while Jesus was alive.

The outcome of this ‘council’ was that Paul’s mission to the Gentiles was given official recognition and sanction by James and the leaders of the Jerusalem Assembly. In exchange, Paul agreed to collect what was, essentially, the temple tax expected of all Jews, the proceeds to be paid to the Jerusalem Assembly.

Paul does this, I believe, to demonstrate that he has jurisdiction over Gentile converts. As such, the new preachers are cutting into turf that rightly–per the agreement made–belonged to Paul. As such, they had no business intruding into the Galatian assembly and sowing dissension. Both by virtue of receiving his gospel directly from God, and by virtue of the agreement of Jerusalem, Paul is the pre-eminent authority here.

After establishing his standing, and the superiority of his jurisdiction, Paul then goes into a very long, very complex metaphor. The basis is the distinction between the Law, given to Moses, and the promise, given to Abraham, four-hundred and some-odd years prior to the Law. This temporal precedence is meant to demonstrate the spiritual superiority of the Promise over the Law.

The Law was a necessary evil, something to take care of ‘us’ while we were spiritual minors. The Law was a pedagogue, a tutor, a trustee charged with watching over us until the coming of The Christ.

There are comparisons, dichotomies, distinctions between following Jesus and following the law.  The difference is no less than that between freedom and slavery.  Abraham had two sons; one of a slave, the other of a free-born woman. Followers of the Christ are the descendants of the free woman, Sarah; followers of the Law are the descendants of Hagar, the slave.

Another significant dichotomy that Paul sets up is that between flesh and spirit.  To the best of my knowledge, this concept owes more to the Graeco-Roman thought world than it does to the Judaic/Hebraic one. However, I don’t know enough about the latter to say that definitively. The point is, flesh is bad, spirit is good, and the Law is likened to the flesh, and the Christ-faith is of the spirit.

So, the point is, Galatians is a remarkably cohesive,  very well-presented case for why following the Christ is preferable to following the Law.


Unbelievably, I forgot perhaps one of the most important themes of this letter.  It’s the idea of the Law vs. Faith. Abraham was given the Promise because he put his faith in God and obeyed God’s injunction to sacrifice his only son. Abraham thus demonstrated the priority of faith over the Law.  This idea in Paul would form the basis for Martin Luther’s doctrine of salvation through faith, and not through works.  Faith is believing and trusting God; works, OTOH, are what the Law prescribes.

Faith is superior to the Law and to works.

About James, brother of Jesus

I have a BA from the University of Toronto in Greek and Roman History. For this, I had to learn classical Greek and Latin. In seminar-style classes, we discussed both the meaning of the text and the language. U of T has a great Classics Dept. One of the professors I took a Senior Seminar with is now at Harvard. I started reading the New Testament as a way to brush up on my Greek, and the process grew into this. I plan to comment on as much of the NT as possible, starting with some of Paul's letters. After that, I'll start in on the Gospels, starting with Mark.

Posted on November 11, 2012, in epistles, Galatians, Paul's Letters, Summary and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I spent an hour a day in Religion class in Catholic school and didn’t learn a tiny fraction of what I have learned about Christianity from your review of this one epistle. Your explanations of the Greek and its translation into Latin and English has enriched all of my historical readings.

  2. Thanks. Glad to help. The problem is that the nuns were not terribly interested in teaching you about the religion. The agenda was to make you believe–or maybe fear–the religion.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: