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

By W. M. Ramsay

Part 2

Historical Commentary

Chapter 17

The First Visit to Jerusalem (Gal 1:18-20)

As to the first visit in the third year, there is little to say. Paul tells that he was desirous of visiting Cephas; and he eniploys the word which was “used by those who go to see great and famous cities”.1 He is careful to state quite frankly his motive, even though it slightly tells against his argument. It puts Peter on an elevation of importance and dignity, and himself on the level of the tourist who goes to see the great man. But also it makes the situation clear: he went to Jerusalem to see Peter specially, as a distinguished and great man, whom a young convert like himself regarded with peculiar respect, but not to seek authority or commission from the Apostles as an official body. He recognises fully and honourably a certain rank and weight that belonged of right to Peter in the Church; and he desired to make acquaintance with him on that account.

The visit was short. He continued in relations with Peter fifteen days, i.e., if he saw Peter for the first time on the first day of the month, his last interview with him was on the fifteenth. As his object was to see Peter, that must be taken to imply that his stay in Jerusalem was limited to that time: he repaired to Peter as soon as was convenient after his arrival, and left immediately after he last saw him. Of the other Apostles he saw only James, and the most natural explanation is that the rest were absent on various duties. It is not a natural or in itself probable inference that, though others were present in the city, Paul was kept apart from them by Peter, or himself avoided them. If he desired to meet Peter it would be merely irrational to avoid the others, and would be rather like a skulking criminal than a straightforward man.

Then follows the solemn oath: “Now, touching the things which I write unto you, behold, before God, I lie not” (Gal 1:20). The position of this solemn assurance at this point implies that the truth about the first visit was particularly important. But in the details that are mentioned, there is nothing that seems in itself important. In fact the account is tantalisingly empty; it does not even assert positively that Peter taught Paul no part of his Gospel at that time. But the importance of the account lies in the preceding events. The Judaising party had given a different account of that visit. What their account was we cannot say precisely; but clearly it slurred over the interval from the conversion, and represented the first visit as being the occasion when Paul received a commission and instructions from the body of the Apostles; and the brief statement of years and hours and names disproved it without further words. As to learning from Peter, Paul had probably always openly affirmed — what is here tacitly implied in the phrase “to visit Cephas” — that he had gained much from Peter’s knowledge and experience.

If there existed so much misapprehension — or even perhaps falsification, though we personally see no reason to think such had been practised — about the first visit, we should naturally suppose that there was also misapprehension about Paul’s other visits, as if these had been frequent and had always the same object of getting instruction and the solution of difficulties from the source of authority in Jerusalem. Such had been the object of one visit, described in Acts 15 : no one could deny that; least of all would Paul deny it. The Judaisers generalised from that visit, which was recent and familiar to all. They represented to the Galatians — doubtless they really believed — that the other visits were undertaken from similar motives. Hence Paul states so carefully in each case what his motive really was. His statements are all intended to correct false conceptions.


[1] Lightfoot, from Chrysostom.

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