An American Commentary on the New Testament

Edited by Hovey, Alvah

Introduction to the Epistle to the Galatians

There are a few general questions in respect to such a writing as the Epistle to the Galatians which should be answered, if possible, before attempting an explanation of its language, paragraph by paragraph, and verse by verse. They relate to the writer, the readers, the occasion, the structure, and the date of the Epistle, together with the influence which it has had upon Christian doctrine and life, and the use which has been made of it in modern controversy. Correct answers to these questions will lighten the interpreter's work, and render it more useful to the reader.


This Epistle purports to have been written by the Apostle Paul (1:1), and it is numbered by Eusebius among his undisputed writings. "The epistles of Paul are fourteen, all well known and beyond doubt. It should not, however, be concealed that some have set aside the Epistle to the Hebrews, saying that it was disputed as not being one of Paul's epistles." ("Hist. Eccl.," III. 3.) This statement deserves full confidence, for Eusebius was acquainted with a considerable body of Christian literature produced in the first three centuries, and current at the beginning of the fourth, but since lost, and his account of the estimate which had been but upon the several books of the New Testament, down to his own time, has never been successfully impeached.

His statement is also confirmed by the earliest versions, for this Epistle is found, in connection with the other epistles of Paul, in the Syriac and Old Latin Versions which are assigned to the Second Century, and in the Egyptian, which was probably completed before the middle of the Third. It is clearly recognized in the Muratorian Canon not later than A. D. 170, and is contained in all the early manuscripts of the epistles of Paul, (E. g., אABCDEFG.)'

The statement of Eusebius is still further confirmed by the language of Irenĉus "Against Heresies " (111.13:3; 6:5; 7:2; 18:7; 21:1; 22:1; V. 3:5; 11:1; 21:1; 32:2), according to the old Latin translation, which is, of course, less decisive than the original Greek would have been; by the argument of Tertullian, in his treatise "Against Marcion" (V. 2-4), which attributes the Epistle to Paul, and reasons from it as if it were accepted by Marcion, who rejected many books of the New Testament; by quotations from it in the writings of Clement of Alexandria ("The Pedagogue," I. 6, 11, and "Stromata," III. 15), who sometimes mentions the name of Paul, and, at others, calls him simply "the apostle"; and by the words of Origen (e. g., on Rom. 3:27, 29) as translated by Rufinus. Jerome says that Origen "wrote five volumes on the Epistle of Paul to the Galatians," but only three fragments of this commentary have been pre- served in a Latin translation,

Having such evidence of its genuineness, we need not appeal to traces of an acquaintance with this Epistle on the part of the Apostolical Fathers, who do not specify the New Testament books from which they quote. Yet their writings furnish a degree of proof, not altogether unwelcome, that this Epistle was extant at the beginning of the Second Century. (See Clement of Rome ad Corinth. 3:1; Ignatius ad Polyc. 1; Polycarp ad Phil. cc. 3, 5, 6, 12.)

It is well known that the Epistle to the Galatians is one of the four which were recognized by F. C. Baur as genuine, and that the principal writers of his school have agreed with their master in this respect. To say nothing of other reasons for their opinion, it must be admitted that the character of these four epistles affords the clearest evidence of their genuineness, for they are intensely real and practical. "They deal with specific evils; they refute definite errors; they repel particular slanders; they check given disorders; they assert special rights; they prescribe rules for the treatment of distinct offenses. Sharp logic, open rebuke, fervid appeal, generous praise, follow one another in quick succession. What love to those addressed glows in the writer's language! What readiness to be spent in their service! What downright honesty, fidelity, and greatness of soul breathe in every page! These sentences were called forth by the wants of living men, or we may close up the volume of history. Whoever can look upon them as spurious, must have lost the sense of reality, the power of distinguishing between the actual and the ideal, and may well despair of finding anything trustworthy in all the records of the past." (Quoted from the author's sermon in "Madison Avenue Lectures.") It is incredible that either of these letters was written by any other man than the Apostle Paul.


The churches addressed by Paul in this Epistle were located in Galatia, a middle province of Asia Minor, one third larger than Palestine west of the Jordan, and inhabited by a mixed population of Phrygians, Gauls, Greeks, Jews, and Romans. Speaking in a general way, the Romans were there as civil or military officers, with their attendants and soldiers, and naturally formed a class by themselves, superior to the rest of the people, and distinct from them in social life. The Jews were there, as in all parts of Asia Minor, for traffic; and, to accomplish the purpose of their foreign residence, they must have mingled in business with men of every class. The Greeks also were there for a somewhat similar purpose, and in such numbers that their language became the medium of general intercourse, being understood by all the more intelligent people. But all these were, nevertheless, to a certain degree foreigners. On the other hand, the Phrygians were the original possessors of the land, yet, since B. C. 241, if not 279, a period of not less than three centuries, they had been a subject race in Galatia, less influential, and perhaps less numerous, than the Gauls; for the latter, a restless swarm from the full Celtic hive of Western Europe, had given their name to the province conquered by them, and, it is believed, had also imparted somewhat of their special temperament to the Christian churches founded among them by Paul.

"Galatia," says Lightfoot, " was parceled out among the three tribes of which the invading Gauls were composed in the following way: the Troemi occupied the easternmost portion, bordering on Cappadocia and Pontus, with Tavium, or Tavia, as their chief town; the Tolistobogii, who were situated to the west, on the frontier of Bithynia and Phrygia-Epictetus, fixed upon the ancient Pessinus for their capital; the Tectosages settled in the centre, between the other two tribes, adopting Ancyra as their seat of government, regarded also as the metropolis of the whole of Galatia." All these tribes were subjugated to the Roman power by the Consul Manlius in 189 B. c, and the whole territory was made a Roman province by Augustus in 25 B. C. This was its civil status when visited by Paul, three quarters of a century later, the Eastern Gauls having learned, with their Western kinsmen, the futility of resisting the might of Imperial Rome.

But what were the characteristics of the Celtic race, as described by classic writers? And how do they agree with the traits which appear to haves distinguished the Galatian Christians addressed by Paul? The Roman and Greek writers speak of the Celts, or Gauls, as men of large stature, white skin, blue eyes, and light-colored hair. They refer to their ingenuity and versatile talent; to their warlike spirit and desperate courage; to their restless activity and predatory life. But they accuse them of fickleness, intemperance, and superstition. Yet a competent modern scholar affirms that "a braver set of men never faced the enemy than the Galli with whom Caesar fought. Most of them were children of poverty, brought up to suffer and to die. We often read, at earlier periods, of their losing, through intemperance, the fruits of a hard-fought battle; but nothing of this kind appears in the Gallic wars." (George Love, in "Diet, of Gr. and Rom. Geog.," page 904.) Caesar remarks that they were "a nation greatly given to superstitions" (religionibus). And it will hardly be denied that, as a race, they were ardent, impulsive, and brave, but at the same time rash, unstable, and, perhaps, volatile. This description, drawn from classic sources, accords in a very striking manner with the suggestions of the Epistle to the Galatians as to the character of the persons who received that Epistle.

But it may be presumed that some of those addressed were of Phrygian descent, and the question may be asked, What sort of men were the Phrygians? As previously stated, they appear to have been the earliest inhabitants of Central Asia Minor. "Their disposition was peaceable. No one of their traditions or legends points to a heroic period in their history, but all have a somewhat mystic or fantastic character. Agriculture was their chief occupation, and they never took or exacted an oath. Their proper divinities were Cybele and Dionysus, called by them Sabazius. With the worship of these deities were connected the celebrated orgiastic rites, accompanied by wild music and dances, which were subsequently introduced among the Greeks. All that we hear of the religion of the Phrygians during the historical times appears to show that it was a mixture of their own original form of worship with the less pure rites introduced by the Syro-Phoenician tribes." (Quoted freely from Leonhard Schmitz, in "Diet, of Gr. and Rom. Geog.," II., page G23.) It may then be conjectured, from all that is known of the mixed population of Galatia, that the churches founded by Paul were composed chiefly of persons of Gallic or Phrygian descent, the former being far more influential than the latter, while there was in all of them a small fraction of Greeks, Jews, and possibly Romans.


In his second missionary journey (A. D. 51 or 52) Paul preached Christ for the first time in Galatia. (Acts 16:6.) The people received the apostle with great kindness and respect (Gal. 4:13, 14), many of them becoming followers of the Lord Jesus. About three years later (i. e., in the autumn of A. D. 54, or early in A. D. 55), he revisited the churches of this province (Acts 18:27), and was led by what he saw to warn them in strong language against perversions of the gospel which he had preached to them (Gal. 1:9.) Already, therefore, it may be presumed, had Judaistic doctrines been broached among them, and listened to with some degree of favor. But the apostle's urgent protest against those doctrines seemed to be effectual, and he left them, doubtless, with the feeling that any danger to their faith had been averted.

Yet he was mistaken. The Judaizing zealots ere long resumed their efforts, asserting that Gentiles could not be saved without being circumcised and obeying the law. Their influence was so great that, within a comparatively short time (Gal. 1:6), many were almost persuaded to submit to the rite of circumcision. They must have impugned the apostolic authority of Paul, partly by laying stress on the fact that he had never been taught by Christ himself, but had obtained his knowledge of the gospel at second hand, and partly by saying that his doctrine was different from that of Peter and James, who observed the Jewish law.

How many adversaries of Paul appeared in the Galatian churches, it is impossible to ascertain; but it is safe to conclude that they were Jewish Christians, rather than simply Jews, for the latter would have urged the Galatians to renounce Christ and obey Moses, instead of teaching them to supplement the gospel with the law. We may also assume that this movement did not spring from the churches themselves, but that it came to them from abroad, and perhaps from Palestine. Compare Acts 15:1; Gal. 2:12.

But whether these perverters of the gospel were few or many, were from Palestine or some other place, they were so plausible in their criticism of Paul's authority as an apostle, or so persuasive in their reasoning for obedience to the law as a condition of acceptance with God, or so earnest and urgent in their assertions and appeals, that their Celtic hearers were greatly moved, and on the point of yielding submission to the new doctrine. This was the emergency which called for the Epistle to the Galatians, and with assertion most direct, and argument most powerful, and appeal most tender, did the apostle meet the emergency.


This was evidently determined by the object to be accomplished, and, viewed in that light, it is perfectly logical and clear. Indeed, it would be difficult to find anywhere a better specimen of cogent and persuasive writing. The first two chapters assert and establish Paul's claim to a knowledge of Christian truth as original and complete as that of the earlier apostles. It had been received by him from Christ by direct revelation, and it comprised all the facts and principles essential to the gospel of the grace of God.

The next two chapters verify the truth and sufficiency of that gospel by an appeal to the experience of his readers when and since they received it, by an exposition of the way of life according to the ancient Scriptures, and by a statement of the relation of the law of God to his promise, of Mosaic legalism to justification through faith in Christ.

And the last two chapters warn the Galatians against any misapprehension or abuse of his doctrine by explaining the operation of faith and exhorting them to a holy life in the freedom which belongs to sons of God.

A fuller and beautiful analysis of the apostle's course of thought is quoted, in connection with the successive paragraphs of the Epistle, from an article by Dr. Hackett in the "Christian Review" for October, 1861, pages 577-584.


This may be placed without hesitation after Paul's second visit to Galatia, on his third missionary journey (Acts 18; 23), and either during his residence of more than two years in Ephesus (Acts 19:8, 10, 22), or his visit to Macedonia and Corinth thereafter. (Acts 20:1-3.) In this period the most interesting group of his epistles was written; namely, those sent to the Corinthians, Galatians, and Romans. And the question to be answered is this: Was the Epistle to the Galatians written in the first part of his residence in Ephesus, or during his visit to Macedonia and Corinth? Was it written before the two Epistles to the Corinthians, or after them? For careful interpreters agree that the Epistle to the Romans was probably written later than any other belonging to this group. The principal argument for dating it in the early part of his sojourn at Ephesus is drawn from Gal. 1:6 — ''I marvel that ye are SO SOON removing from him that called you in the grace of Jesus Christ unto another gospel" — for "so soon" (οῦτως ταχέως) is thought to imply that only a short time had passed since his last visit to them, or, possibly, since their conversion. A change taking place after three years would not have been thus characterized. Indeed, most of those who rely on this argument believe that only a few months could have elapsed between the earlier events which the apostle has in mind and the change in the state of the churches which called forth his letter — i. e., between his last visit to them and the letter he was writing.

But the inference from these words seems to me precarious. (1) Because the terminus a quo is by no means certain. It may have been the time when the Judaizing teachers began, or resumed, their efforts to shake the confidence of the Galatians in the apostle and his gospel. If anything in the context forbids this, it must be the words, "from him that called you in the grace of Jesus Christ," which refer to their conversion more than three years (if not six) previous to his writing this Epistle. But Paul's reference to their conversion, as a work of God's grace in Christ Jesus, agrees with the whole strain of argument in the Epistle, and can easily be accounted for without assuming that it was the date from which he reckoned in using the words "so soon." (2) Because, as Lightfoot remarks, "it is possible that 'soon' (ταχέως) here may signify 'readily, rashly,' that is, 'quickly' after the opportunity is offered, a sense which the present tense, are turning renegades (μετα-τίθεσθε), would facilitate. See 1 Tim. 5:22; 2 Thess. 2:2. In this case there will be no reference to any independent point of time." The sole reference would be to the quickness or rapidity of the change. Hence the argument from ταχέως is untrustworthy.

But the reasons for thinking that this Epistle was written a short time before the Epistle to the Romans appear to me of real weight. And the most important of these is the remarkable coincidence of thought and expression in many passages of the two letters. The following instances of similarity are adduced by Lightfoot in his Introduction to this Epistle:(1) Gal. 3:6=Rom. 4:3; Gal. 3:7=Rom. 4:10, 11; Gal. 3:8=Rom. 4:17; Gal. 3:9=Rom. 4:23; Gal. 3:10=Rom. 4:15; Gal. 3:ll=Rom. 3:21, seq.; Gal. 3:12= Rom. 10:5; Gal. 3:13, 14=Rom. 4:23, 24; Gal. 3:]5-18=Rom. 4:13, 14, 16; Gal. 3:I9-21=Rom. 7:1-3; Gal. 3:22=Rom. 11:32; 3:9, 10; Gal. 3:23-26=Rom. 7:1-3; Gal. 3:27=Rom. 6:3; 13:14; Gal. 3:29=Rom. 9:8; Gal. 4:.5, 6, 7= Rom. 8:14-17. (2) Gal. 2:16=Rom. 3:20. (3) Gal. 2:19=Rom. 7:4, cf 6:2-5; Gal. 2:20 (cf 5:24; 6:14)=Rom. 6:6, 8, 1 1. (4) Gal. 4:23, 28=Rom. 9:7, 8. (5) Gal. 5:I4=Rom. 13:8, 9, 10. (6) Gal. 5:16=Rom. 8:4; Gal. 5:17=Rom. 7:23, 25; Gal. 5:17=Rom. 7:15; Gal. 5:]8=Rom. 8:2. (7) Gal. 6:2=Rom. 15:1. These parallels render it extremely probable that the two epistles were written about the same time, or within two or three months of each other.

And it is no less evident that the Epistle to the Galatians was written before, rather than after, the Epistle to the Romans, for the former reads like a first draft, and not like a condensation of the latter. The ampler and calmer unfolding of doctrine in the Epistle to the Romans agrees with all the circumstances of the case, if we assume: (1) that the Epistle to the Galatians was written under the excitement of intense anxiety occasioned by a sudden and dangerous crisis in the churches addressed; (2) that those churches were saved from apostasy, and fixed in their adhesion to Christ as the only Saviour, by means of this letter; and (3) that, two or three months later, relieved of his extreme anxiety concerning the church at Corinth and the churches of Galatia, yet sensible of the un wearied activity of the Judaizing party, and wishing to forestall its work in Rome, he wrote the greatest of his epistles to the Christians of that city, and set forth in it with elaborate care, on the lines which he had sketched in his earlier epistle, the gospel of the grace of God through the death of Christ for the sins of men.

It seems probable, therefore, that the Epistle to the Galatians was written early in A. D. 58, soon after Paul's arrival in Corinth, or while he was on his way to that city.


As students of the German Reformation are aware, Martin Luther prized this Epistle very highly, and commented on it frequently. In it he discovered the marrow of the gospel: the doctrine of justification through faith in Christ. "It is very necessary," he wrote, " that this doctrine be kept in continual practice and public exercise, both of reading and hearing. It can never be taught, urged, and repeated enough. If this doctrine be lost, then is also the doctrine of truth, life, and salvation, lost and gone. If this doctrine flourishes, then all good things flourish; religion, the true service of God, the glory of God, the right knowledge of all things which are necessary for a Christian man to know." (Preface, page 130.) The Epistle to the Galatians has been one of the clearest sources of evangelical truth since the Bible was put in the hands of the people.

But it has also been compelled to serve those who deny the divine origin of the gospel which it teaches. "The earliest form of Christianity," it is argued, "was a modified Judaism. The distinctive features of the system current under this name were added by St. Paul. There was an irreconcilable opposition between the apostle of the Gentiles and the apostles of the Jews — a personal feud between the teachers themselves, and a direct antagonism between their doctrines. After a long struggle, St. Paul prevailed, and Christianity — our Christianity — was the result." (Lightfoot, Introduction, page 66.) An impartial study of the Epistle will, however, lead to a different conclusion — a conclusion that the account which Paul gives of his relation to the other apostles is worthy of entire confidence. And, if so, there was no personal feud between the apostles, and no radical difference between them as to the true way of life through Christ, but, on the contrary, a full recognition, after suitable proof, of Paul's apostolic mission and doctrine, on the part of James, Peter, and John, together with an amicable division of the work of evangelization between them and him. To build upon this Epistle such a theory as that of Baur is, therefore, I am persuaded, a misuse of its language which will not bear the test of unbiased criticism.

Note. — Among the works consulted with profit in the preparation of this commentary, besides the grammars of Winer and Buttmann, are the commentaries of Lightfoot, Ellicott, Jowett, Howson, Sanday, Schaff, Beet, and Luther (translated) in English, with those of Sieffert-Meyer, Rüekert, De Wette, and Wieseler in German, and those of Calvin and Bengel in Latin, while, in studying some of the doctrinal passages, the works of Usteri ("Der Paulinische Lehrbegriff "), Messner ("Die Theologie der Apostel"), and Weiss ("Theology of the New Testament"), have been examined. The writer is also greatly indebted to his former teacher, Dr. H. B. Hackett, not only for the Analysis which he published first in the "Bibliotheca Sacra," and later, with additions, in the "Christian Review" for 1861, 577-584, but also for his articles in the "Bibliotheca Sacra," XIX., 211-225, and XXII., 138-149, on the translation of several passages of the Epistle, and for the eloquent oral exposition of the whole Epistle which he gave to the class of 1848 in the Newton Theological Institution, as preserved in notes and a paraphrase written at the time.