A Historical Commentary on St. Paul's Epistle to the Galatians

By W. M. Ramsay

Part 1

Society and Religion in Central Asia Minor in the Time of St. Paul

Chapter 1


The Epistle to the Galatians is a document of the highest importance for students of history. Not merely is it a peculiarly important authority for all who study the early stages in the Christianisation of the Roman Empire: it also throws much light on the condition and society of one of the Eastern Roman Provinces during the first century of the Empire — a difficult subject and an almost unknown land.

The study of this document is encumbered with a great preliminary difficulty. It is not certain who were the persons addressed. While some scholars maintain that the " Churches of Galatia," to whom the Epistle is addressed, were planted in the four cities of Southern Galatia, Derbe, Lystra, Iconium, and Pisidian Antioch, others assert that those Churches were situated in North Galatia. These two opposite opinions are conveniently designated as the South Galatian and the North-Galatian Theory.

This doubt as to the destination of the Epistle hardly affects the study of its dogmatic or doctrinal value, with which we are not concerned.

Even as regards its historical value, small importance might seem on a first superficial view to attach to the question whether the Churches addressed were situated in the south of the province or in the north. The distance of Pessinus, the nearest in the northern group, from Iconium in the southern is only about 120 miles. From Pessinus to Antioch is about 30 miles less as the crow flies, but almost as much as the traveller goes.

Similarly, the question has been discussed whether the so-called " Epistle to the Ephesians " was addressed to the Church of Ephesus or of Laodicea, or is a general Asian letter. The distance by road from Ephesus to Laodicea was 91 Roman miles. But it makes no very serious difference even to the historical student whether the letter was addressed to the one or the other city: no question as regards the time of composition, or the order of Paul's travels, or the history of the Church as a whole, is affected by the doubt.

But the doubt as regards the Galatian Churches stands on a quite different footing. The date when the letter was composed, the order and facts of Paul's travels, several important questions of general Church history, are all affected by the doubt. To the student of Roman history and society there are also serious differences between the two theories. The North-Galatian cities belong to quite a different line of development from the South-Galatian. See Sections 15, 17.

In this case, as in all other historical questions, the doubt is due to insufficiency of knowledge. The countries both of North and of South Galatia are most obscure. A good deal has been done by modern scholars to illuminate the history of North Galatia in the pre-Roman period by collecting and comparing the references in literature; but little has been done for the Roman period. South Galatia was no more than a name, and hardly even a name, until within the last few years.

It might have been expected that, in a question so important and so obscure, all investigators who approached the subject would have begun by carefully studying the condition of both districts, North and South Galatia; and thereafter would have reached a conclusion based on adequate knowledge.

That method, however, has not been practised. The commentators on the Epistle, with the single exception of Lightfoot, have had little inclination to the historical side of their subject. The dogmatic and doctrinal overpowered every other aspect in their view. Where they touched on the historical questions that are involved, they did so unwillingly and as briefly as possible. As a rule, having made up their minds beforehand that Paul wrote to the Churches of North Galatia, they took a hasty glance into the history of the country and people, and selected a few facts that seemed to suit their foregone conclusion, when taken apart from the surroundings. In their prepossession any facts that were unfavourable to their view remained unnoticed. They did not even observe that Juliopolis, which many of them pitched upon as the site of one of Paul's Churches, was a city of Bithynia, not of Galatia.1

Even as regards Lightfoot, his historical faculty is not shown at its highest level in his Galatian commentary. He began his great series of Pauline commentaries with perhaps the most difficult Epistle, certainly the one that is most widely decisive as regards Pauline history. It might have been a more fortunate choice if he had first practised his method on one or two Epistles which determine fewer questions beyond their own scope, and then applied his perfectly trained powers to Galatians. Comparing his introductions to Galatians and Colossians, one sees how much more thorough and well-balanced the latter is. In his Galatians he devotes a quite disproportionate space to the question whether the European invaders of Asia Minor belonged to a Germanic or a Celtic stock: the answer to that question makes practically no difference to the right understanding of the Epistle.

It is remarkable, considering how delicate the balance of evidence seemed to him and how much he was able to say on the opposite side in several places, that he seems never to have re-opened the case. The reason doubtless was that no new evidence became available until the last years of his life. The study of Asia Minor is, pre-eminently, one in which the scholar at present must never consider his opinion final, and must be prepared to modify and change it as new evidence is discovered.2

It is a duty here at the outset to make clear my attitude towards that great scholar, who necessarily will be so often mentioned in the following pages.3 I have been charged with " holding up to ignominy " as " intellectually or morally discreditable " his opinion on points on which we differ. The charge is peculiarly painful to me. For Lightfoot's work I have felt and often expressed to friends the highest admiration since my undergraduate days; for his personal kindness to me as a beginner in the path of learning I feel gratitude that grows stronger and warmer as the years pass by. But his immense and well-deserved influence is now supporting an error, which could only have arisen in his mind about an unknown land. An example from another topic will make clear my relations to him on this subject. In the traditional epitaph of Avircius Marcellus, Lightfoot rightly caught the ring of genuineness amid all the corruptions that defaced it. Rightly maintaining its authenticity, he attempted to disprove the arguments which seemed to older scholars, like Tillemont and Garrucci, to be conclusive proof of its spuriousness; but his discussion of the evidence was wrong throughout.4 Fortunately he lived to recognise the complete change which better knowledge of the country necessitated; and in the latest edition he cut out the whole of his erroneous discussion, and substituted a brief reference to the real facts; yet, had he died a few years earlier, I should have had to struggle long against the almost universal belief in England that his discussion of that subject must be correct. So now, had his life been prolonged a few years more, he would have been the first to see (long before I saw) the bearing of the new information about Phrygia, Lycaonia, and Galatia, on the foundation of the early Church in Asia Minor; he would have himself corrected the errors about the history and geography of these countries that were inevitable, when his earlier works were written; and I should never have been compelled to assume the position of criticising him, but have been free to be in external appearance, as I always have been in reality, his humble admirer.

For a number of years the present writer has maintained that the North-Galatian Theory is seen to be impossible, as soon as one makes oneself properly acquainted with the history and character of the people, and the geography of the country. That theory seemed to be possible only so long as no clear conception of the facts existed; but when the facts were collected and looked at in their entirety, it lost any appearance of justification. To collect the historical and antiquarian evidence bearing on the question, to try to show Galatia as it really was about A.D. 50, is the proper method of treating this subject.

In these circumstances, the necessity is entailed of prefixing to this commentary on the Epistle a careful study of a district where the Apostle Paul never set foot, and to which he never wrote. The process may seem strange; but in the progress towards truth the first step is often the elimination of errors.

Further, it may appear that the introductory study is too elaborate, even if it had been devoted solely to the country where St. Paul travelled and to whose people he wrote. But it is much more difficult to dispose of an inveterate error than it would be simply to illustrate the Epistle, if the task were encumbered by no erroneous prejudice. An illustration of this may here be quoted: —"In every department of historical investigation," says Professor R. Engelmann, the distinguished archaeologist, " examples may be quoted to show how long errors that have once established themselves in the ordinary teaching may last, and how even the noblest and best scholars give themselves the toil of championing them and demonstrating that they are the only truths." 5 He goes on to exemplify from the department of Greek architecture this remarkable tendency to cling to an error that one has been taught from childhood. He shows how the view that Greek temples as a rule were open above to the sky, founded on a mistranslation of a passage of Vitruvius6 and supported by misinterpretation of several other passages — though vigorously combated by one or two investigators on grounds that are now seen to be correct — established itself in general opinion, was taught in every school, and dominated archaeological research for fifty years. Only recently has it been successfully attacked; and some time must pass before it disappears from the lecture-room and the ordinary manuals. So blinded were some excellent investigators by the prejudice created in their minds, that they found in the modern discoveries of the last twenty years conclusive demonstration of the accepted theory, and on the result of modern excavations they exultingly declared that their few opponents were demonstrated to be strangers to the realities of Greek Art.

Similarly, the North-Galatian Theory, which was possible only because of the obscurity of the subject and the general misapprehension of historical facts, established itself in current opinion and was taught in every school and in all ordinary text-books. Though always denied and contested by a few, yet it was practically master of the field of instruction; and thus it could create a presumption in its favour in almost every mind. The vast majority of readers never heard of any other theory; and it became known to individuals usually through some contemptuous reference made by some revered teacher, who glanced at it only to dismiss it. Finally, distinguished and deservedly respected scholars deduced from the epigraphic results of modern research conclusive proof of the accepted theory, and declared that the opposite view was now finally ejected from educated minds.

These facts and the analogy just quoted, show how carefully and deeply laid the foundation must be on which the South-Galatian Theory is to rest. It is not enough to state in a brief summary the general bearing of the facts, geographical, political, historical, legal, which disprove the current North-Galatian view. That has been done, and the North-Galatian champions meet some one statement with a flat denial, and treat the rest with silent contempt: then, dislodged from their first defence, they deny some other statement, and again necessitate a laborious demonstration.

It is therefore best to attempt to picture the state of Central Asia Minor, at the time when Paul and Barnabas crossed the great belt of the Taurus mountains, and to show how the racial, political, geographical and religious facts of previous history had contributed to produce it. Some of the historical facts mentioned in the following sections may seem at first sight remote from the Epistle; but all have a real bearing on the argument. Our aim is to make the student judge for himself on the " Galatian Question ".

Instead of describing the character of the Galatians — a method which always is liable to seem too subjective, over-coloured to suit the argument — we attempt to exhibit the Galatians in action and in history, so that the reader can judge of their character for himself.

The account of the Galatian wars and raids (which occupy most part of the existing treatises on Galatia) has been cut down as much as possible, but may even yet be considered too long. It was however necessary to bring out the fact, which has not been noticed previously, that the mixed Galatic State was much stronger than the unmixed Gaulish armies; and that Galatia increased in influence over the surrounding countries, and reached its highest importance as a power in Asia Minor during the Roman period. Commonly, the history of the Gauls in Asia Minor is painted as a process of steady decay from initial power. Really, the Gaulish element ruled an immensely wider tract of country in the first century B.C. than it had ever done before. In the third century the Gauls were fighting for existence: in the first century Gauls ruled Galatia proper with parts of Lycaonia, Paphlagonia, Pontus, and Armenia.

The " Galatian Question " should not be taken in too narrow a sense. It is not merely a question of Pauline interpretation and chronology. Under it is concealed the great subject of the Christianisation of the entire inner Asia Minor, and the relation of the new religion to the older religion, society and education of those many regions and countries, Phrygia, Upper Lydia, Upper Caria, Lycaonia and Isauria, Cappadocia, North Galatia, Pontus. He that desires to understand the " Galatian Question " thoroughly will not be content with dipping into books on the history and antiquities of Asia Minor, in order to pick out, with least trouble and in the shortest time, illustrations of the Epistle and arguments to support a foregone conclusion as to its meaning and scope. He will first acquire as good a conception as possible of life, religion and society in inner Asia Minor before Paul entered the country; and he will then proceed to study the history of the country under the new influence. The subject is very obscure, and the authorities deplorably scanty. At present we must be content with tentative and inadequate results. But we can at least make a foundation, on which exploration and discovery will build, and we can lay down principles by which both present study and future exploration may be guided.

In this preliminary study of pre-Pauline society and life in inner Asia Minor, the settlement of the Gauls in the country is a critical epoch. As Monsieur Theodore Reinch says, the Gauls were un lment destin pendant trots sicles j'ouer un rle prpondrant dans I' histoire de la pninsule7 To study even South Galatia one must study the relations of that warlike and proud Gaulish people, " the noblest of barbarians," as Plutarch calls them, to the oriental peoples around them. From every point of view the student of central Asia Minor must make North Galatia his starting point.

Note. — Dr. Hort on the Galatian Question. In Dr. Hort's posthumously published works (taken from his university lectures), there are some indications pointing to a development in his views on this question. In his Lectures on i Peter, delivered in 1882 and the following years, he takes one view: in those on Ephesians, 1891, he expresses a different opinion.

In the former he points out that St. Peter included as Churches of Galatia " the Churches founded by St. Paul in Galatia proper, in Lycaonia and in Phrygia "; but he declines to admit that St. Paul reckoned the latter as Churches of Galatia, on the sole ground that Lightfoot has proved the contrary.8

But in the later series of lectures he says that, in the journey described in Acts XVIII 23, St. Paul "visited . . . Antioch, where he stayed some time, and then followed his old course through southern Asia Minor, and this time was allowed to follow it right on to its natural goal, Ephesus ". That sentence contrasts Paul's uninterrupted route through Cilicia, Derbe, Lystra, etc., to Ephesus in XVIII 23 with his previous attempt, XVI 1-5, to reach the same goal, which was interrupted in the middle9 No one could speak thus who held the North-Galatian Theory, for that theory inexorably implies that, in Acts XVIII 23, Paul did not traverse southern Asia Minor, but took a new route from Cilicia northwards to Tavium, Ancyra, and Pessinus.

Hort had evidently become a " South-Galatian " between 1882 and 1891, already seeing the bearing of recent discoveries in Asia Minor. Death prevented him, as it had prevented Lightfoot, from being the pioneer of the South-Galatian Theory in England. 


[1] It was attached to Galatia about A.D. 295; and most of our authorities for the northern limits of Galatia are later than that date. Hence the error.

[2] See below, note on p. lo.

[3] This paragraph is adapted from Expositor, May, 1896, p. 344, in answer to a charge made in the preceding number, p. 254.

[4] See his edition of Colossians, p. 54 ff.

[5] Quoted from his admirable resume in Vossische Zeitung, Beilage, 26th March, 2nd April, 1899.

[6] 3:1.

[7] Rois de Bithynie, p. 8,

[8] See pp. 17, 158, etc. The views on the Provinces were probably left unrevised after 1882, see Expositor, Jan., 1899, p. 46.

[9] See the preceding part of the paragraph.

Book Navigation Title Page Preface Table of Contents Religion in Asia Minor      ► Chapter 1      ► Chapter 2      ► Chapter 3      ► Chapter 4      ► Chapter 5      ► Chapter 6      ► Chapter 7      ► Chapter 8      ► Chapter 9      ► Chapter 10      ► Chapter 11      ► Chapter 12      ► Chapter 13      ► Chapter 14      ► Chapter 15      ► Chapter 16      ► Chapter 17      ► Chapter 18      ► Chapter 19      ► Chapter 20      ► Chapter 21      ► Chapter 22      ► Chapter 23 Historical Commentary      ► Section 1      ► Section 2      ► Section 3      ► Section 4      ► Section 5      ► Section 6      ► Section 7      ► Section 8      ► Section 9      ► Section 10      ► Section 11      ► Section 12      ► Section 13      ► Section 14      ► Section 15      ► Section 16      ► Section 17      ► Section 18      ► Section 19      ► Section 20      ► Section 21      ► Section 22      ► Section 23      ► Section 24      ► Section 25      ► Section 26      ► Section 27      ► Section 28      ► Section 29      ► Section 30      ► Section 31      ► Section 32      ► Section 33      ► Section 34      ► Section 35      ► Section 36      ► Section 37      ► Section 38      ► Section 39      ► Section 40      ► Section 41      ► Section 42      ► Section 43      ► Section 44      ► Section 45      ► Section 46      ► Section 47      ► Section 48      ► Section 49      ► Section 50      ► Section 51      ► Section 52      ► Section 53      ► Section 54      ► Section 55      ► Section 56      ► Section 57      ► Section 58      ► Section 59      ► Section 60      ► Section 61      ► Section 62      ► Section 63      ► Section 64