Reconsidering Galatians: Exegesis

This is the first of two posts on Galatians by Neil Martin, who was previously Tutor in Biblical Studies at the Pastors’ Academy.

Consider with me an important but under-explored puzzle in Galatians: ‘Why does Paul consistently describe his correspondents’ problem as going back to something they have done before?’

Galatians was written to a group of recently-converted pagans in Asia Minor under pressure to keep the Jewish law. They weren’t just being urged to show up at the synagogue on Saturdays or to revere Moses like the ‘Godfearers’ we read about in Acts. They were being urged to get circumcised – to express exclusive allegiance to the God of Israel. And yet Paul describes all this as going back to something with which they were already familiar.

This is the point where Augustine famously throws his hands up in horror and incomprehension: ‘When [Paul] says “turn back” he [can’t mean] they’re “turning back” to circumcision – they’d never been circumcised!’ (Com. Gal. 33.3). And yet ‘turning back’ stands at the heart of Paul’s diagnosis from chapter 1 all the way to the end. 

Galatians 5:1 is probably familiar to us:

It’s for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.

But what’s going on with that word, ‘again’? In what possible sense could Paul have imagined they were enslaved like this before?

Or think about the great illustrations of conversion in chapters 3 and 4. Their whole point is to highlight the fact that going back from maturity to immaturity (Gal 3.23–29), or from majority to minority (Gal 4:1–7), or from being a child of the free woman to being a child of the slave woman (Gal 4:21–31) is not a sensible thing to do.

But the clincher is Galatians 4:8–9, where regression language crops up four times in the space of a single verse in the Greek original:

Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods. But now that you know God – or rather are known by God – how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable stoicheia? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again?

What on earth is going on here? Is Paul really equating the traditional norms of Judaism with pagan idolatry?

Many attempts to resolve this difficulty have been proposed over the years. Robert Jewett thought the Galatians had gained a taste for spiritual perfection under pagan gods in the past and were now being sold circumcision as a way to reach perfection in the present. Martinus De Boer draws a parallel between busy Jewish and pagan religious calendars. Perhaps Paul was worried that observing regular Sabbaths and festivals would feel just a little too familiar? But none of this comes close to justifying the extremity of his warnings as the letter develops. ’If you let yourselves be circumcised,’ he writes in Galatians 5:2, ‘Christ will be of no value to you at all.’

One of the most familiar passages in the whole letter, however, might suggest an unfamiliar way through the maze. 

In Galatians 2:15–16, interpreters are largely united in assuming that Paul sets out a contrast between two different strands in Judaism as he knew it:

We who are Jews by birth, and not sinful Gentiles know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.

The verse, they argue, presents a compact summary of the difference between Paul and his opponents; between Paul – who believed in justification by faith, and the law-observant ‘Agitators’ – who believed in justification by ‘the works of the law.’ 

But that’s not actually what Paul says. Paul is talking to Peter here and his argument stresses what they have in common. ‘Jews like us know,’ he says, ‘that justification depends on faith.’ And in chapter 3, he goes further still. He tells us Jews have known this going all the way back to Abraham. The point of the verse is not about how Jews differ from one another, then, but about how Jews differ from Gentiles.

‘We who are Jews by birth – and not sinful Gentiles – know that a person is not justified by the works of the law but by faith.’ That’s what Paul actually says. However thoroughly it had – or had not – been obscured in Judaism as Paul knew it, he was still persuaded that the Jewish religious tradition was permeated with grace. The God of Israel couldn’t be induced to bless – he couldn’t be influenced or manipulated. But the same thing could not be said of pagan gods. And it was this specific feature of paganism that I think Paul saw being reawakened in Galatia.

Picture the scene: Enthusiastic law-observant missionaries had arrived in the region, with the aim, perhaps, of ‘completing’ what they saw as Paul’s half-baked proclamation of the gospel that, in Christ, Gentiles were now welcome to join the Abrahamic family. They introduced the Galatians to Jewish feasts and festivals, to Jewish food laws, and to circumcision as the quintessential Abrahamic ‘identity marker.’ And then what happened?

The most probable answer requires us simply to remember that his readers were recently converted pagans. You see, as pagan coverts, the Galatians had a pre-existent paradigm for demands like this. Paul describes their former life as ‘[enslavement] to those who by nature are not gods’ (Gal 4:8). But even if he hadn’t, the archaeological evidence would require the same conclusion. We can’t be sure exactly what cocktail of traditional, local, and imported gods they worshipped. But whichever way we cut the data, the Galatians would have been deeply familiar with pagan religious rites – with purity laws and dietary restrictions, with vows and costly offerings – and all packaged with the sense, however boldly or tentatively it was embraced, that human beings had cards to play in the divine-human game and that playing them well maximised their chances of blessing and minimised their chances of being cursed.

Offer them Jewish laws to keep, then, and what would be the obvious result? They would accept them with the same expectations that marked their acceptance of pagan religious laws in the past and – whether the Agitators intended it or not – they would think of these things as ways to play their new God on side, just as they had hoped to play their former gods on side before Paul arrived.

Why then did Paul accuse the Galatians of going backwards? The answer is that he was demonstrating acute pastoral intelligence. Yes, of course, he believed in the power of God to transform the human heart. But that didn’t mean he discounted the tenacity of the expectations that had grown up around certain types of religious action in a person’s past. 

Step back to 1 Corinthians 8 with me for a moment and you can see him doing exactly the same thing. However intellectually persuaded the believers in Corinth were about their new monotheistic convictions, Paul warned them that ‘some [were] still so accustomed to idols that when they [ate] sacrificial food they [thought] of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their [consciences were] weak, they [were] defiled’ (1 Cor 8:7). 

When they ate food that had been sacrificed to the city’s many gods, the weak believers in Corinth were drawn off into the same old complex of fear and reverence that had accompanied their eating in the past, only grasping the spiritual implications in the rear-view mirror when their faithfulness to Christ had already been compromised. Paul’s warnings about ‘spiritual destruction’ in Corinth are closely parallel to his warnings in Galatians. Pagan practices and the pagan expectations that went along with them were so tightly and intricately interwoven that re-exposure to the former was reawakening the latter with catastrophic effects, whether the subjects wished it or not.

And that, I think, is exactly what Paul was worried about in Galatia. Paul didn’t fear the Galatians embracing Jewish law with Jewish expectations. He feared them embracing Jewish law with the pagan expectations that had been drilled into them from infancy as participants in pagan cults. Paul feared the Galatians would embrace food laws, and festivals, and circumcision, as means to secure divine goodwill – as means to persuade God that they deserved preferential treatment, as means, in short, to be ‘justified’ in a manner entirely antithetical to the central message of his gospel. 

And that’s an interesting conclusion. Because, reading Galatians that way, justification retains the same fundamental meaning it always had under the ‘old perspective’ – right standing with God that is given in Christ, not cultivated by human actions – but without positioning Jewish law itself as the problem, the folly of which has been highlighted so effectively by the ‘new.’

Dr Neil Martin is a member of the pastoral staff at Oxford Evangelical Presbyterian Church and a Research Associate in New Testament at Keble College, Oxford, having previously served as Biblical Studies Tutor at the Pastors’ Academy. His new book, Galatians Reconsidered, is published by IVP/Apollos. Visit and enter code Galatians20 before 2nd December to receive a 20% discount.