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

By W. M. Ramsay

Part 2

Historical Commentary

Chapter 8

Paul as a Judaistic Preacher (Gal 1:6-10)

We have remarked in V. on the intense feeling shown in this paragraph. Any topic that is touched on in these verses must be taken as a point of transcendent importance in the Galatian difficulty. Why, then, does Paul lay such stress on the supposition that he1 may begin to preach a different Gospel? Can anything be more improbable? Why does he waste time on such a possibility? What part does that supposition play in the Galatian difficulty?

We are bound to the view that the supposition here introduced in this emphatic position was really a serious element in the Galatian trouble: i.e., the Galatians had acquired the opinion that Paul had somehow been conveying a different message, a new Gospel,2 contrary to the Gospel which they received from him on the first visit. This opinion, of course, had been instilled into them by the Judaistic emissaries, who had been preaching in the Galatian Churches since Paul’s second visit. In Gal 5:11 Paul returns to the same topic. “If,” he says, “I still preach circumcision.” Here there is an unmistakable reference to an assertion made by the Judaistic preachers that Paul himself had been preaching the Gospel of circumcision; and it is noteworthy that here again Paul uses an expression of the most vehement indignation, “I would that they which unsettle you would even cut themselves off.3 It was this accusation of having preached an anti-Pauline Gospel that hurt Paul and made him use such strong language in both places where he refers to it.

But was not the accusation too absurd? It was, however, believed by the Galatians, for otherwise Paul would have suffered it to “pass by him as the idle wind”. Its danger and its sting lay in the fact that the Galatians were misled by it. Now they could not have believed it merely on the bare, uncorroborated assertion of the Judaisers There must have been a certain appearance of difference in Paul’s teaching on his second visit, which gave some support to the statements and arguments of the Judaistic teachers, and so helped to mislead the Galatians.

We turn, therefore, to the history, as recorded by Luke, and ask whether it can explain how the Gospel which the Galatians received on the former visit could seem to them discordant with Paul’s subsequent action and teaching on his second visit. Then we see that in Acts 16, Luke, as always, is offering us the means of understanding the Epistles. On the second journey Paul came delivering to the Galatians (Act 16:4) the decree of the Apostles in Jerusalem. That might fairly seem to be an acknowledgment that those Apostles were the higher officials, and he was their messenger. He circumcised Timothy. That might readily be understood as an acknowledgment that the higher stages of Christian life4 were open only through obedience to the whole Law of Moses: in other words, that, as a concession to human weakness, the Gentiles were admitted by the Apostolic Decree to the lower standard of the Church on the performance of part of the Law, but that the perfecting of their position as Christians could be attained only by compliance with the whole Law. It is clear from Gal 3:3 that this distinction between a lower and more perfect stage of Christian life was in the minds of the persons to whom Paul was writing. However different Paul’s real motive was in respect of Timothy, the view of his action suggested by the Judaistic teachers was a very plausible one, and evidently had been accepted by the Galatians. The action, in truth, was one easy to misunderstand, and not easy to sympathise with.

Moreover, the Decree itself was quite open to this construction. “It seemed good to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things” — this expression can plausibly be interpreted to imply the ellipsis, “but, if you voluntarily undertake a heavier burden, we shall praise you for your zeal in doing more than the necessary minimum,” To zealous and enthusiastic devotees, such as the Asia Minor races were,5 this interpretation was very seductive. They doubtless had heard from Paul of Peter’s speech (Act 15:10), in which he protested against putting on them a yoke too heavy; but, under the stimulus of enthusiasm, they responded to the Judaists that they could and would support that yoke, however heavy.

Moreover, the Galatians had been used to a religion in which such ritualistic acts (τὰ στοιχεῖα τοῦ κόσμου, Gal 4:3) were a prominent part; and it was natural that they should again “turn to the weak and beggarly elements”. The result of the whole series of events described in Acts would naturally be that the Galatians were predisposed to follow the Judaistic emissaries, and to think that Paul on his second visit was preaching another Gospel, and that this second Gospel was the true Gospel, as being brought from the real Apostles, the pillars of the Church.

This misinterpretation of his conduct, with all the danger it involved, Paul had to meet at the outset. It was fundamental; and until it was put out of the way he could make no progress in setting the Galatians right. He meets it, not by mere denial and disproof (which is always rather ineffective), but by the intense and vehement outburst: “If Silas or I, or an angel from heaven, preach to you any Gospel other than that which Barnabas and I preached unto you, a curse on him!”

On the South Galatian theory the language of Paul here is quite naturally and probably explained. Now let us compare the North Galatian view.

It is quite allowed by North Galatian theorists that the foundation for the misrepresentation of Paul’s teaching alluded to in Gal 1:6-10 and Gal 5:11 lay (as we also assume) in his action on his second journey.6 Thus they are face to face with a serious difficulty. Holding that the Galatian Churches were converted on the second journey, they have to show how Paul’s teaching on the third journey (Act 18:23), could appear to the Galatians more Judaistic than his teaching on the second (Act 18:1-5). They cannot do so, and they do not attempt it.

It does not seem permissible to think that Paul’s supposed teaching in the North Galatian cities could be materially different in spirit from his action and preaching in South Galatia a few weeks or months previously. The words of Act 16:5 must be taken as a proof that throughout the second journey Paul charged all his hearers to observe the Apostles’ Decree; and, considering the ease and frequency of communication between the various Jewish settlements in Asia Minor, the North Galatian Jews must have known from the first about Paul’s action to Timothy: in fact, the intention was that they should know. It would therefore be absurd to suppose that it was only after the third journey that their Galatian pagan neighbours came to learn what Paul had been doing in South Galatia on the second journey, and to draw their conclusions therefrom.


[1] ἡμεῖς, Paul and his companion in preaching,. As Lightfoot says, “St. Paul seems never to use the plural when speaking of himself alone”; yet cp. 2Co 6:11.

[2] So Lightfoot, and (I think) almost every one.

[3] See below, LII.

[4] On the predisposition of the Galatians to recognise two stages, lower and higher, in religious knowledge, see XXVII.

[5] See pp. 36 ff, 196.

[6] See, e.g., Lightfoot’s note on Gal 2:3.)

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