Introduction to the Book of Galatians

By Eric Johnson

Reading the Bible and interpreting its words in the way they were meant to be conveyed is the goal of the serious Bible student. While many–including some well-meaning Christians–would like to make the reader the primary focus on how to forge an interpretation, this “reading into the text” (also known as eisegesis) is the best way to misinterpret the Bible. Relying on one’s presuppositions (i.e., a person’s previous beliefs) and personal feelings taints the original meaning. False teaching—also called “heresy”—will no doubt corrupt the original message. This is a shame…no, a travesty.

In their classic work titled How to Read the Bible for all Its Worth, Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart explain how there are several steps to proper interpretation. On page 19 they write:

The first task of the interpreter is called exegesis. Exegesis is the careful, systematic study of the Scripture to discover the original, intended meaning. (Fee and Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993), 19).

They explain that there are “two basic kinds of questions one should ask of every biblical passage.”

  1. The historical context, which will differ from book to book, has to do with several things: the time and culture of the author and his readers, that is, the geographical, topographical, and political factors that are relevant to the author’s setting; and the occasion of the book, letter, psalm, prophetic, oracle or other genre. All such matters are especially important for understanding. (Ibid., 22).
  2. The literary context is what most people mean when they talk about reading something in its context. Indeed this is the crucial task in exegesis, and fortunately it is something one can do well without necessarily having to consult the “experts.” Essentially literary context means that words only have meaning in sentences, and for the most part biblical sentences only have meaning in relation to preceding and succeeding sentences (Ibid., 23)

They correctly add: “The goal of exegesis, you remember, is to find out what the original author intended.” (Ibid., 24).

The second task of the interpreter is hermeneutics. In fact, they write, “the only proper control for hermeneutics is to be found in the original intent of the biblical text” (Ibid., 25). Indeed, “a text cannot mean what it never meant” (Ibid., 26).

This introduction to the book of Galatians is meant to set the groundwork for a spring 2017 Viewpoint on Mormonism series where we will take a verse-by-verse look at this very important book.

A good translation

Few lay Christians whose primary language is English have the ability to utilize the original languages (primarily Hebrew and Koine’ Greek) for reading the Bible. Since that is the case,  we need to determine an English translation we can use in our study. In chapter two of their book (“The Basic Tool: A Good Translation”), Fee and Stuart talk about the King James Version of the Bible. Of course, this is the translation that is used officially by the LDS Church and is even used by many Christians today. However, it must be said upfront that this translation is very difficult for many modern people to understand.

Let’s be honest: A person could read an entire book of the Bible and not have much of a clue as to what it really says. We just don’t speak Elizabethan English any more.  For many years I taught high school Bible classes in a Christian school. One time I had a student who insisted on memorizing Proverbs 3, the assigned text, from the King James Version rather than the modern version I recommended. This meant that I had to give him oral quizzes. One time, I decided to “mess with him,” so when he recited verses 7 and 8 (“ Be not wise in thine own eyes: fear the Lord, and depart from evil. It shall be health to thy navel, and marrow to thy bones”), I asked him how he understood these words. He comprehended the first part (“it means don’t depend on your own wisdom, but rather fear God first and stay away from evil”). That was pretty straightforward. Yet when I asked him what the benefits were, he responded, “Well, if you don’t depend on yourself, then I guess God will give you good health, but it would be good to eat (navel) oranges so you can have healthy bones”!

Do you see how he came up with his interpretation? Of course! Yet this is not the message that this biblical author was trying to convey to his readers. It certainly is a far cry from how the NIV puts it: “This will bring health to your body and nourishment to your bones.” Or consider how the English Standard Version puts it: “It will be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones.” Both are fair translations of the Hebrew original and can even be understood in a 21st century context.

One KJV website defines navel this way:

NAVEL, n. The center of the lower part of the abdomen, or the point where the umbilical cord passes out of the fetus. The umbilical cord is a collection of vessels by which the fetus of an animal communicates with the parent by means of the placenta, to which it is attached.

The navel (we may refer to it as the belly button) is meant in reference to the whole body. How many modern readers understand that? As far as “marrow to the bones,” my student was a bit closer, but the word “marrow” is not typically used in modern language. The NIV does a far better job in saying “nourishment to your bones.” And the Bible was certainly not encouraging the reader to eat oranges to reach this state!

How would you interpret the following?

Sith the noise of the bruit of this school hath reached to thee-ward, we trust that our concourse liketh you well-particularly those who blaze abroad that there is error here. Whoso setteth thee against us-whoso saith we offend all-speaketh leasing. We be not affrighted, but withal, we are straightened in our bowels. We knoweth well that what thou wilst hear straightway wilt fast close up thy thoughts. With some we be abjects, some have defied us; but there has been no daysman betwixt us. They subvert the simple!

References: Ez. 35:6; Jer. 10:22; 1 Sam. 19:4; Prov. 1:21; Esther 8:8; Mk. 1:45; Prov. 25:14; Jas. 3:2, Psa. 4:2; Lk. 24:37; Acts 25:27; 1 Tim. 5:13; 2 Cor. 6:12; Mt. 4:20; Gen. 20:18; Psa. 35:15; Num. 23:8; Job 9:33; Gen. 31:37; Lam. 3:36; Prov. 14:15. Source 

And this comes from the 1769 edition. (Many may not realize that the original 1611 edition was edited several times. If you are a Latter-day Saint, I suggest picking a passage and then reading it here and see how much you understand. This, not the later versions, is the original King James!)

The way the translators took certain words can make it very difficult for a modern-day reader to understand. Referring to the KJV’s use of “and it came to pass,” Fee and Stuart write, “This is not used in normal English speech anymore, and it was rare even in the seventeenth century when the KJV was undertaken.”

Please don’t get me wrong. There are many Christians who love the King James Version. Those who do, I typically discover, grew up reading this version in their homes and churches. And I am not saying that it is foolish or even wrong to use this version. If that’s your preference, by all means, use it! However, archaic words and phrases can possibly cloud the meaning of what the biblical author intended, and I don’t want that to cloud the meaning for study.

With that as our background, I have chosen to use the English Standard Version throughout our study. By using this particular version, I am not saying it is the only or even the best Bible translation. It is a conservative translation and I think its wording can be easily understood.

An Analysis of the Book of Galatians

Before we can read the book, we need to consider some of the necessary background of Galatians. Using several commentaries and other tools, I would like to provide the notes that I used in the Viewpoint on Mormonism podcasts. The sources I will cite are as follows:

  • Keller, Timothy. Galatians for You ( The Good Book Company, 2013).
  • Luther, Martin. Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians (Public Domain).
  • Moo, Douglas. Galatians: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013).
  • The NIV Study Bible, general editor Kenneth Barker (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984)

Author of Galatians

NIV Study Bible: “The opening verse identifies the author of Galatians as the apostle Paul. Apart from a few 19th century scholars, no one has seriously questioned his authorship.”

Douglas Moo writes, “From the earliest days of the church, Paul’s authorship of Galatians has been acknowledged and never seriously challenged” (1).

Destination and Date

The NIV Study Bible: The date of Galatians depends to a great extent on the destination of the letter. There are two main views:

  1. The North Galatian theory. This older view holds that the letter was addressed to churches located in north-central Asia Minor (Pessinus, Ancyra, and Tavium), where the Gauls had settled when they invaded the area in the third century B.C. It is held that Paul visited this area on his second missionary journey, though Acts contains no reference to such a visit. Galatians, it is maintained, was written between AD 53 and 57 from Ephesus or Macedonia.

Moo: “This North Galatian view was defended by (Gordon) Lightfoot in his classic commentary (from 1881) and is still widely held, especially by German scholars” (4).

  1. The South Galatian theory. According to this view, Galatians was written to churches in the southern area of the Roman province of Galatia (Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe) that Paul had founded on his first missionary journey. Some believe that Galatians was written from Syrian Antioch in 48-49 after Paul’s first journey and before the Jerusalem council meeting (Ac. 15). Others say that Galatians was written in Syrian Antioch or Corinth between 51 and 53.

Moo: “This is the only letter that Paul addressed explicitly to a number of churches in a particular area. . . .” William Ramsey was a huge advocate of this position.

Moo: Combining destination and date, then, the main options that receive some significant support among scholars are the following:

  1. Paul wrote to churches in the southern part of provincial Galatia
    1. Just before the Jerusalem Council (AD 48);
    2. Early on the second missionary journey (AD 50-51);
    3. During the third missionary journey (AD 54-57).
  2. Paul wrote to churches in ethnic (North) Galatia
    1. During the first missionary journey (AD 50-51)
    2. Early on the third missionary journey (AD 54-5);
    3. Late on the third missionary journey (AD 57). (9)

Occasion and Purpose

The NIV Study Bible:

Judaizers were Jewish Christians who believe, among other things, that a number of the ceremonial practices of the OT were still binding on the NT church. Following Paul’s successful campaign in Galatia, they insisted that Gentile converts to Christianity abide by certain OT rites, especially circumcision. They may have been motivated by a desire to avoid the persecution of Zealot Jews who objected to their fraternizing with Gentiles (see 6:12). The Judaizers argued that Paul was not an authentic apostle and that out of a desire to make the message more appealing to Gentiles he had removed from  the gospel certain legal requirements.

Paul responded by clearly establishing his apostolic authority and thereby substantiating the gospel he preached. By introducing additional requirements for justification (e.g., works of the law) his adversaries had perverted the gospel of grace and, unless prevented, would bring Paul’s converts into the bondage of legalism. It is by grace through faith alone that man is justified, and it is by faith alone that he is to live out his new life in the freedom of the spirit.

Theological Teaching

The NIV Study Bible:

Galatians stands as an eloquent and vigorous apologetic for the essential NT truth that man is justified by faith in Jesus Christ—by nothing less and nothing more—and that he is sanctified not by legalistic works but by the obedience that comes from faith in God’s work for him, in him and through him by the grace and power of Christ and the Holy Spirit. It was the rediscovery of the basic message of Galatians that brought about the Reformation. Galatians is often referred to as “Luther’s book” because Martin Luther relied so strongly on this letter in his writings and arguments against the prevailing theology of his day.

Outline

  1. Introduction: The cross and the new age (1:1-10)
    1. Prescript (1:1-5)
    2. Rebuke: The Occasion of the letter (1:6-10)
  2. The truth of the gospel (1:11-2:21)
    1. How Paul received and defended the gospel: Paul and the “pillars” (1:11-2:14)
      1. Thesis: Paul’s’ gospel came through a revelation of Jesus Christ (1:11-12)
      2. Elaboration and proof: Paul’s gospel and the “pillars” (1:13-2:14)
        1. Conversion and early travels (1:13-17)
        2. First Jerusalem visit and further travels (1:18-24)
        3. Second Jerusalem visit: The “pillars” confirm Paul’s gospel (2:1-10)
        4. An incident at Antioch: Paul defends the gospel (2:11-14)
      3. The truth of the gospel defined (2:15-21)
  3. The defense of the gospel (3:1-5:12).
    1. Rebuke and reminder: Faith, Spirit, and righteousness (3:1-6)
    2. Argument: Abraham’s children through incorporation into Christ by faith (3:7-4:7)
      1. The blessing of Abraham (3:7-14)
      2. The law in salvation history (3:15-25)
      3. Sons of God in Christ (3:26-29)
      4. From slaves to sons of God (4:1-7)
      5. Appeal (4:8-31)
        1. Looking at the past: The Galatians’ slavery (4:8-11)
        2. Looking at the past: Paul and the Galatians (4:12-20)
      6. Looking at the present: Children of the promise (4:21-31)
      7. Exhortation and warning: Faith, Spirit, and righteousness (5:1-12)
        1. Justified by faith and not by the law (5:1-6)
        2. Resisting the agitators (5:7-12)
  4. The life of the gospel (5:13-6:10)
    1. The basic pattern of the new life: Serving one another in love (5:13-15)
    2. Implementing the new life: Walking by the Spirit (5:16-24)
    3. Some specific parameters of the new life (5:25-6:6)
    4. The urgency of living the new life (6:7-10)
    5. Closing: Cross and new creation (6:11-18)

      For commentary from each chapter of Galatians compiled by Eric Johnson, visit the following pages: