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 5

The Religion of Asia Minor

THE tone and spirit of the Anatolian land have been described in the following words, which I quote from the Historical Geogr. of Asia Min., p. 23: —

“The plateau from the Anti-Taurus westwards consists chiefly of great, gently undulating plains. The scenery, as a rule, is monotonous and subdued; even the mountains of Phrygia seem not to have the spirit of freedom about them. The tone everywhere is melancholy, but not devoid of a certain charm, which, after a time, takes an even stronger hold of the mind than the bright and varied scenery of the Greek world. Strong contrasts of climate between the long severe winter and the short but hot summer, a fertile soil dependent entirely on the chances of an uncertain rainfall, impressed on the mind of the inhabitants the insignificance of man and his dependence on the power of nature. The tone can be traced through the legends and the religion of the plateau. The legends are always sad — Lityerses slain by the sickles of the reapers in the field, Marsyas flayed by the god Apollo, Hylas drowned in the fountain — all end in death during the prime of life and the pride of art.”

The influence of these climatic surroundings on the mind of the people that dwell among them may be illustrated from an author who has observed human nature with the eye at once of a physician and of a man of letters. Narrating his experience in a ship, shut in the ice and waiting the single chance of a favourable wind to open a passage through the impassable barrier, he says: “At present we can do nothing but . . . wait and hope for the best. I am rapidly becoming a fatalist. When dealing with such uncertain factors as wind and ice, a man can be nothing else.”1

In the course of generations the influence of those surroundings on the race that dwells among them must be deep and powerful. Even on the individual who lives and works among them, they exercise a very perceptible influence.

In the preceding section it has been shown clearly that the one strong feature in the Phrygian character lay in their religion. Only through their religion and the accompaniments which it created — music, musical instruments, religious dances, religious societies — did the Phrygians impress or affect other races.

In 205 the Phrygian religion was solemnly welcomed into the Roman State from its old seat in Galatia. It was brought into Attica in the fourth and even in the fifth century B.C., and continued to be an influence there in spite of the ridicule of the comic poets, the scorn of philosophers, and the hatred of patriots.

How is it possible to recover any knowledge of the Phrygian religion at that early time?

We can do so, because that religion was so permanent and unchangeable over great part of Asia Minor. When Paul traversed the region of Phrygia, the religion was the same as that which prevailed when the Gauls entered Galatia. A cult of fundamentally the same character — the native Anatolian religion — prevailed over the whole vast peninsula before Gauls, or Phryges, or Greeks had entered the country. Those three immigrant peoples produced considerable effect on it within their own sphere; but the effect was more in the way of limiting its power than of changing its character. The brief allusions made to its rites by Demosthenes, Aristophanes, and many other Greeks who satirised it in the fourth and fifth centuries, show beyond question that it was fundamentally always the same.

Hence, with proper discretion, we can use the memorials of the Roman time for the illustration of the ancient period. The evidence is gathered slowly, point by point, from the monuments scattered over the country, illustrated by the references of ancient writers. The scattered fragments are all collected and studied individually in the Cities and Bishoprics of Phrygia. Here we can only give a brief outline of the facts needed (1) for the study of the Epistle to the Galatians, and (2) for the comprehension of the “Galatian Question”.

The accounts which have been transmitted to us of the Phrygian religion are most unfavourable. Demosthenes describes with the keenest contempt and sarcasm the Phrygian rites of which his great rival Aeschines, as he says, had been a celebrant.2  Certainly, with their loud cries or howls, and their grotesque ceremony of purifying the nude mystes with potter’s clay and bran, they lent themselves readily and deservedly to caricature as the irrational and degrading ritual of unwashed savages.

The Christian writers, and especially Clement of Alexandria,3  give a terrible picture of the repulsive and immoral drama of divine life that was acted before the initiated in the Phrygian Mysteries. The details cannot be quoted. The drama that was acted was the drama of humanity, as it was apprehended by a rude and primitive people, who regarded the mystery of life, changing from parents to children, yet remaining unchanged through its variations, as the great fact in which the divine nature was manifested. The divine parents give birth to the divine children; and the children are only the parents in another form. The daughter is the mother: Leto melts into Artemis, and Artemis into Leto: they are only two slightly differentiated forms of the ultimate divine personality in its feminine aspect: the continuity of life is unbroken: the child replaces the parent, different and yet the same.4  The feminine element is regarded as the fundamental one: the male god is its accompaniment to complete the cycle of life, but he is almost always regarded as the inferior, the servant, or the companion of the Mother-Goddess. From their union, which is represented as an act of violence and deceit, springs the daughter, Kora or Artemis in Greek names. Again from another act of violence and deceit the daughter bears the young god; and he is simply “the god” once more, different and yet the same: “the bull is the father of the serpent, and the serpent of the bull”.

The punishment for these horrors is the mutilation which the god perpetrates on himself, and which the celebrants often in religious ecstasy performed upon themselves.

To understand the relation in which the Epistle stands to this religion, we must observe the following points: —

I. The Anatolian religion was carried out in an elaborate and minute ritual. Demosthenes’ satirical description of the ceremony of purification in preparation for the celebration of the Mysteries,5 would be enough to show this. Also there was a separate kind of purification for bloodshed6 and there were regulations about sacred animals, distinction of prohibited and permitted food, and many other rules implying a highly artificial system of life.7

II. In the oldest Anatolian system, the divine power exercised through the priests was the chief, almost the only, ruling influence acting permanently upon the people.

There was no municipal system, nothing corresponding to the Greek city with its thinking citizens, acting on their own initiative, and interesting themselves directly in the fortunes of their state. The evils of the Greek city system, with its weakness in the central government and the law, and its over-stimulation of the half-educated individual, are apt to blind us at the present time to the immense gain that has accrued to the world from the healthy freedom that inspired the Greek citizen-states.8 We can imagine the contempt with which the free, thinking, acting Greek looked down on the enslaved, mindless, priest-guided Phrygian or Lycaonian.

The Anatolian social system was the village organisation. The villagers lived side by side, but apparently had no administrative rights. They looked solely to the religious centre for direction and for orders. The prophets and priests interpreted the divine will to the people; and “the command of the God (or Goddess)” is very often mentioned in the inscriptions as the motive for the villagers’ actions. Beyond this there was no education, and no state, and probably little or no formal law.9

There was probably in the earliest time a central rule of a king; but this was exercised, undoubtedly, in alliance with, and through the agency of, the priests at the great religious centres.

III. The Phrygian religion was the perpetuation of a primitive social condition, which the people in their ordinary life had long risen above. There was in that religion no marriage, but merely secret and fraudulent union of goddess and god. Hence there arose this dangerous situation that the religion of the country was on a lower moral standard than the ordinary life of society. In their religion the people learned that the divine life was the unrestrained existence of the wild animals, and that those who were serving the god, possessed by the divine ecstasy, or acting under the divine command, were bound lo act contrary to the social customs recognised in ordinary life.10

IV. The Anatolian religion was a glorification of the female element in human life. As has appeared in the preceding section, the national character is receptive and passive, not self-assertive and active. The character of the people was created and nourished by the genius of the land in which they lived; and their religion represented to them the female element as the nobler development of humanity, while the male is secondary and on a lower plane. The Goddess-Mother was represented in the mystic ritual as the prominent figure; the God comes in only to cause the crises in her life, and of his life we hear nothing more: the life of the Goddess is the fulness and the permanence of nature.

Among the peoples of the west it was very different.

The most complete and characteristic development of Hellenism — in Athens and in the great colonising cities of Ionia — was accompanied by a depreciation and subordination of the female element. The true glory of woman among them was to be as much as possible unheard of and unknown. She was, if honourable, to live a life of seclusion and repression: she could be educated and active only through dishonour and shame,

A race which, like the Phryges, forced its way into Asia Minor by violence and war, necessarily trusted to the qualities that are most easily developed and maintained in the male sex. A conquering race in a foreign land usually brings with it more men than women: it takes wives from the daughters of the conquered land, and the power of the male in the family is inevitably strengthened in such a condition of the nation.

It is natural, therefore, to find in the neighbourhood of the old Metropolis of the Phryges that the worship of Zeus the Charioteer and Zeus the Thunderer was predominant in the Roman period (p. 30). Beyond this, there was a considerable change produced throughout Phrygia (1) in the outward forms of religion, and (2) in social institutions.

(1) There were several personages in the divine family, whose interaction makes the drama of nature and life. One of these personages was commonly selected in each district as the most prominent in ordinary life; and, according to the qualities of the people and the influence of the natural surroundings, characteristics and powers, titles and epithets, were bestowed upon this divine personage. In the mysteries the entire divine drama of life was revealed; but in common life some one deity was usually appealed to. The power of the Phryges tended to give popular pre-eminence to the God, and to make the Goddess less conspicuous than she had formerly been.

(2) As we have seen, the Anatolian religion stereotyped a primitive phase in the social system of the country. It had taken form as the consecration and divine authorisation of that primitive system; and in its inner character it preserved the original features. The immigrant Greeks and Phryges and Gauls powerfully affected the whole fabric of society and law; Greeks and Phryges certainly modified the external aspect of the ritual; they made the inner mysteries of the Anatolian religion more secret, more mysterious, further removed from the light of day, and of course prevented it from being the universal guide and director of the people; they raised up alongside of it new motives to action; the Greeks, especially, circumscribed its power by imparting education, philosophic thought, political interests, and municipal ambition to part of the people.

V. The practical performance of the ritual was much connected with the grave; but the grave was regarded not as concerned with death, but as the opening of life: it is expressly stated on many gravestones, that the stone is “the Door,” and this was made clear by its shape or by the name “Door” engraved upon it.11  Every grave was a sanctuary, and the dead man was living in and with the divine nature; the making of the grave was regarded as the discharge of a vow to the God; the deceased is described on some stones as the “God”; common forms of dedication are “to the Gods beneath the earth and the deceased,” “to the deceased and to the God a vow”; a man often prepares his own tomb as “a vow to the God (or the Goddess),” “on behalf of his own salvation a vow to the God,” or even,” by (divine) command a vow to the God, and for himself while still living”.

Further, as the tomb was a sanctuary, so every sanctuary was closely connected with a tomb. The ancient Phrygian hero went back to the mother that bore him, for all sprang from the Mother-Goddess in some one of her various manifestations, whether she is the divine lake Koloe beside Sardis and the Naiad Nymph of the Troad,12 or appears in human form to her favoured Anchises. She is the Earth, the universal Mother, called Ma by all men. She is the life of Nature, the spirit of the lakes and forests and rivers and crops, the patroness of all wild animals, of everything that is free and strong and joyous. Beside her sanctuary is the burial-place of her sons. Wherever there was a shrine marking some holy place, it took the form of a great mound covering a grave, or a rock-sculpture forming the front of a grave, or rising high beside a grave. The same custom lives on to the present day under the Mohammedan veneer that is spread over it. Wherever the divine presence is indicated by any outward sign, such as hot springs, or even simply by the haunting presence of ancient life and civilisation amid their ruins, there is a shrine — always in the form of the grave of some hero, who now bears a Mohammedan name such as Black-Akhmet, or Uryan Baba, or Omar Baba, or so on. But of old the shrine and the hero were there; only they bore Phrygian, instead of Arabic or Turkish names.

Further, if the custom has continued to the present day, must it not have lasted unbroken through the Christian period? Paul expostulated with the Phrygians of Colossae about their devotion to the “worship of angels,” Col 3:12; this is usually represented by commentators as a Judaistic or Essene idea, but may it not be the Christianising form given to the worship of the dead heroes? In later time, if we knew more about the worship of martyrs in the country, we should probably find that it retained much of the ancient connection with the grave. That is certainly the case with the legend of Saint Abercius; but few Acta of the Phrygian Saints are preserved.

How easy and natural it was for any one brought up in the Jewish theology to identify the worship of the deified dead with the worship of angels is shown by the following comment on the remarkable passage of Luk 20:36, they are equal to angels, for they are sons of God, since they are sons of the resurrection. “The Jews shared in the common notion that the dead lived in the underworld. They also believed that some persons could escape from the dead and be taken directly to the abode of God, like Elijah. This was interpreted to mean that they became angelic members of the heavenly host (Ethiopic Enoch 12, 3, 4). Further, in Gen 6:4, angels are called sons of God. Luk 20:36, means, therefore, that when the resurrection occurs, all who participate in it are heavenly beings.”13


[1] Conan Doyle, Captain of the Pole-star, p. 23.

[2] De Corona, 259-260.

[3] Protrept. 2, p. 76.

[4] Taken nearly verbatim from Cities and Bish. of Phrygia, pt. I, p. 91.

[5] See above, p. 37.]

[6] Herod. I 35.

[7] Cities and Bish. of Phrygia, I, p. 134 ff.

[8] To have recognised properly this glory of the Greek system is Grote’s merit. Some more recent historians abroad have neglected it too much.

[9] On the village system see Cities and Bish. of Phrygia, I, pp. 124, 129; Anderson in Journ. Hell. St., 1897, p. 412.

[10] Compare the Church in the Rom. Emp., p. 397 f.

[11] On the Phrygian customs of burial, see Cities and Bish. of Phrygia, pt. I, p. 99, pt. II, p. 367, no. 226, p. 384, and J. G. C. Anderson in Journal of Hellenic Studies, 1899, p. 127. Noack has described the “door-stones” in Mittheil. Instit. Athen., 1894, p. 326. Illustration? also in Cities and Bish., pt. II, pp. 628, 661, 701.

[12](Iliad, II 865, XIV 444, XX 384.

[13] Professor Shailer Matthews in a notice of Professor G. E. Barton on the “Spiritual Development of Paul,” Biblical World, April, 1899, p. 279.

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