This letter was written as a circulating letter to the churches of Galatia, which is not a city but a larger area, a province. The occasion for its writing was that the area was being evangelized by missionaries who were teaching that the men of these Gentile Christian communities must be circumcised, and presumably then (along with the women in the community) keep other parts of the Mosaic law as well. This contradicted what Paul had taught them, and contradicted the terms by which Paul’s mission to the Gentiles had been endorsed by the mother church in Jerusalem, when he’d met with James, John, and Peter.
To Paul’s distress, it appears many of the Galatian men are believing this message and becoming circumcised. He harshly upbraids them, even satirizing the usual thanksgiving portion of the letter with a curse-giving instead, and attempts to persuade them with stories from his own (and their shared) life, with analogy, and with allegory that the circumcisers are wrong, and that the Galatians should return to the original gospel that he preached to them.
This letter is of particular interest with respect to church history. It sheds light on the knotty problem of how to bring the Gentiles into the primarily Jewish community. If the Christ event and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit even on the Gentiles is a fulfillment of the grand vision described by the prophets that “the nations” shall come to worship the LORD, then this letter gives us a view into the difficulties faced in actually implementing how this is supposed to work, and the fact that the infant church was not all of one mind and heart on this issue.
This was an influential letter during the Reformation. Martin Luther and later Reformers saw in this letter an opposition between faith and works, equating the ecclesiastical law of the Roman Catholic church that required Catholics to conform to various behaviors with the Law of Moses that Paul condemns here as not only superfluous but actually a rejection of the freedom given to us through Christ’s sacrifice as children and heirs of God. Catholic scholars today acknowledge that there were excesses in the RC church at the time that may have blurred the teaching, held then and now, that works are the result and response of authentic faith. Although the RC teaching on freedom is grounded in natural law, it is also clearly consistent with Paul’s admonition in 5:13-14 on how we are to use our freedom.
The letter poses difficulties for those concerned with contemporary Jewish-Christian relations. It seems clearly to be the basis for the traditional teaching of supercessionism that has fostered antisemitism. I wondered whether Paul’s teaching against circumcision was only for Gentile Christians, or applied to Jewish Christians as well: were Jewish Christians still having their infant sons circumcised? Would Paul preach against that? Does Paul see the halakhah as a cultural practice, suitable for Jewish Christians among themselves but not when they were among their Gentile sisters and brothers? Does he see it, perhaps, as equivalent to eating meat sacrificed to idols (1 Cor)?
The circumcisers were teaching that faith in Christ was necessary, but so was circumcision: thus circumcision supplemented faith in Christ. According to Gorman, Paul sees this as supplanting, not supplementing, the gospel; and therefore to be rejected.
I wonder whether Paul was concerned that the formerly pagan and presumably polytheistic Galatians were at particular risk of confusion by this talk of supplements. After all, in a pagan polytheistic worldview, no single god is sufficient: it’s logical to sacrifice to many gods, each with their own particular areas of influence — I heard one speaker compare this to our modern practice of getting vaccinated for multiple diseases, or buying insurance for multiple hazards. It was how you got some security against the dangers of life. I wonder if Paul was worried that any supplement might, for the Galatians, function as supplanting, because it would subtly seduce them back towards that kind of thinking.
4:21-31 is also a difficult text: as a Christian text, it is a reappropriation of the Jewish story of Hagar and Sarah that has been used against the Jewish people. (If one understands Paul to be writing as a Jewish Christian, one cannot quite describe him as reappropriating the story, himself; Gorman suggests that he’s engaging in a typical rabbinic form of exegetical creativity.) Letty Russell has a good discussion of this in her essay “Twists and Turns in Paul’s Allegory”, in the excellent book Hagar, Sarah, and Their Children.
I was struck by the suggestion (in 6:12) that the circumcisers are preaching the necessity of circumcision in order to avoid persecution, instead of embracing persecution as an inevitable consequence of and participation in the cross — a theme that is central to Paul’s gospel.
And I was intrigued by the analogy comparing the Mosaic law to the paidogogos (3:24-5, translated “disciplinarian” in the NAB), the slave who escorted a child to and from school, as one who not only restrained and guided but also protected the child. This reminded me of the image in Psalm 23 of the shepherd’s rod and staff, which are basically tools with which the shepherd protects the sheep. (The Anglicans read the larger passage containing this analogy, 3:23-29, on Christmas 1, making a very nice connection with the “Before faith came”/”now that faith has come” text.)
Finally, I’ll note that the tone of this letter does not exactly seem compatible with the humility and self-emptying that Paul emphasized when writing about division and unity in his letter to the Philippians! It’s not entirely absent – 6:2-5 sounds that note of humility and bearing one another’s burdens – but it’s not exactly prominent, either. While it’s clear that he is distressed for the sake of the Galatians, it also sounds like his ego has been pricked as well. He seems to be taking it personally as a challenge to his authority. (Or maybe I’m just reading that in…)