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

By W. M. Ramsay

Part 2

Historical Commentary

Chapter 18

The Second Visit to Jerusalem (Gal 2:1-10)

This visit is described much more fully than the first visit. The narrative is most difficult to understand. The Galatians could understand it, because it to a considerable extent merely recalled to them what they knew already. Modern readers find it obscure, because they have no certainty as to the facts that are alluded to. Every modern commentator holds some theory as to the correspondence with Acts; he identifies the visit described by Paul with some visit described by Luke, and reads into Paul’s narrative the spirit and even the incidents of Acts. Paul’s narrative is broken by the omission of words essential to strict grammatical construction. Each commentator naturally fills up the gaps according to his own theory and his conception of the events. Thus, for example, Lightfoot makes out of Paul’s words a story very like the account given in Acts 15; but most of the resemblances are inserted bodily to complete Paul’s broken clauses.

It is specially necessary in this case to carry out our principle;1 to add nothing, to rigidly restrict ourselves to the actual words of Paul, and to elicit from them only what fairly and certainly lies in them. To do so, one must exercise self-restraint — one must confess that in several places want of knowledge of facts known to the Galatians leaves us in uncertainty.

The following pages are written without a fixed theory. Mr. Vernon Bartlet, in a paper now in type but unpublished, has convinced me that there is a tenable hypothesis, which in my previous discussion of the subject2 was not taken into account: we have no assurance that Luke describes all Paul’s visits to Jerusalem: he had to omit many things from his very concise history: it is perfectly conceivable that Paul and Barnabas may have been ordered by revelation to go up to Jerusalem at some point such as Act 11:26 or elsewhere, and that Luke left this visit unmentioned (as he did the Arabian visit), because he considered it to lie outside of the thread of his historical purpose. That is a fair theory, which at present I dare neither reject nor accept; and therefore in the ensuing discussion there lurks no identification with any visit described by Luke.

As to the general character of Paul’s narrative, we must bear always in mind that his intention is not to give a history of his visit, or to tell why he made the visit and how he carried his primary object into effect. The narrative is introduced because of its bearing on the question now at issue in the Galatian Churches. Paul’s point in Galatians 1, 2, lies in this, that he is the Apostle charged by God to the Gentiles, that he was accepted as such by the chief Apostles, that he gave a message direct from God to the Galatians, and that he was not commissioned or instructed by the older Apostles to deliver any message to them at first, though at a later stage he was commissioned to deliver to them the Apostolic Decree.

In the account which we have now to study, the essential and fundamental fact emerges clear to every reader that in the fourteenth year from the epoch-making event3 Paul communicated in a certain way to certain Apostles in Jerusalem the Gospel which he preaches, everywhere and always, to the Gentiles, and that they approved his Gospel. This communication was an event of the utmost importance. We must lay the utmost stress on it, as Paul evidently did. It is the essential proof of the vital harmony that existed among the four great Christian leaders. Paul tells us of the manner in which the communication was made, and the cause that brought it about, and his intention in making it, and the reception which the three chiefs gave to it. Such fulness in this brief historical retrospect is proof of the cardinal importance of the communication. The whole history of the early stages of that first great controversy in the Church lies before us in that sentence. When the sentence is rightly understood, it disproves conclusively many laboriously spun modern theories as to the dissensions between the four leaders, “the discrepancies of Petrine and Pauline tradition,” and all the rest of those airy cobwebs. Those theories all depend on misconstruction and mistranslation. And many more theories will have to be abandoned for the same reason, before the essential unity and perfection of early Christian history is appreciated.

It is not our purpose, however, to touch on any of those theories; but simply to determine what Paul meant the Galatians to gather. Only we must plead against the fixed belief entertained by many that the interpretation is now certain, and that discussion is closed. The Tübingen scholars founded their theory on a false interpretation. The present dominant interpretations are all founded on a theory of identification with Luke, and differ in many details from one another. We cannot see that the now dominant theory is any more certain than the Tübingen interpretation.4

In fact the dominant interpretations seem to be all too much influenced by prepossessions derived from the Tübingen theories. Those theories have deservedly and rightly exercised a strong influence on all thinking minds. There was a natural and healthy tendency even among opponents (at least the best of them), not merely to assimilate the lofty and noble qualities of the Tübingen criticism, but also to adopt as much as possible of its results. In regard to this passage in Galatians, this prepossession has had unfortunate results, which will last for some time yet.

Here once more, as in many other points, our first duty is to protest against the closed door by which so many scholars try to bar our investigations. History in all departments is being rewritten in the present age. The most important, and one of the most difficult, episodes in history is the early stage in the growth of Christianity. Here of all places it is unsuitable to assume certainty, and to refuse to reconsider without prejudice dominant theories.

We, at any rate, shall try to write here without any theory in the mind on this point.

What a sentence it is that we have to study! Involved and perplexed, taking up one point, abandoning it, resuming it, explaining, correcting, returning on itself. Never was such a sentence penned by mortal man before or since. Never has so much been said in so few words; and never has it been said in such defiance of ordinary construction, and yet on such a high intellectual level. The one thing on which all commentators are agreed is the terrific, awe-inspiring nature of that portentous sentence; for though one may thrust in a period here or there, it is really one sentence that runs through the Gal 2:1-10.

But at least the spirit of the narrative is clear. The spirit is unity, concord, hearty agreement between Paul and the great Apostles, “the acknowledged leaders”. That is the impression which any one who reads the words of Paul without prepossession by Luke’s accounts must derive. Paul consulted them; they heard: they gave the right hand of fellowship to the two new Apostles to the Gentiles: they made a formal partition of the work that lay before the young Church — Barnabas and Paul to the Gentiles, the older Apostles to the Jews.

That being so, is it permissible to suppose that Paul succeeds in conveying that impression by omitting all the facts which showed disagreement between himself and the older Apostles? This question ought to be fairly faced and answered by all commentators. But certainly some of them do not face it; they unconsciously hide it from themselves. Here on our principles we must answer “No”. It is not open to us to think that Paul attained his effect by omitting what told against him. His solemn oath before God that he is telling the truth is not needed to convince us. We know that he rested on the truth for his influence on men’s minds, that without the truth his moral power was lost.

In passing, we notice the really almost comic — were it not almost tragic — argument in Meyer-Sieffert that Paul’s solemn oath, Gal 1:20, refers only to the preceding part of the narrative.5 The apparent implication is that Paul was not so careful to tell the truth in the rest of his narrative. Hence they, and all who found their interpretation on the theory that Paul is telling of the visit which Luke describes in Acts 15, assume that Paul omits various incidents, which were not so clearly in his favour as those that he mentions. Hence they insert in the breaks of Paul’s hurried and disjointed narrative such facts as the disagreement between Paul and the Three on the question whether Titus should be circumcised: see below, p. 297.

Accordingly, our first principle in approaching Paul’s narrative is this: we must be slow to interpolate in the breaks of his story facts contrary to the spirit of what he explicitly relates.

Another essential preliminary to the right interpreting of the narrative is to apprehend correctly the distinction between the tenses. This is very subtle throughout the whole historical retrospect, Gal 1:11 to Gal 2:10. Paul distinguishes carefully between those actions which belonged to a definite point in the series of past events (aorist), those actions which continued for a period but are not thought of as continuing at the moment of writing (imperfect), and those actions which are marked as permanent and true down to the moment of writing (present). This distinction is well brought out in Gal 1:15 : “And when it seemed fit (aorist) to God, who set me apart from my birth and called me through His grace (aorists) to reveal His Son in me (aorist), so that I preach Him (present) among the Gentiles”. When the due moment arrived, God revealed His will to Paul and called him. These are two definite acts which produced certain lasting consequences, but were themselves momentary. But the purpose and the result of the call was that Paul became, and continued until the moment of writing to be, the preacher among the Gentiles. Again in Gal 1:22 : “I continued unknown (imperfect) by face to the churches of Judea” (this is not said to be true at the time of writing, though it lasted for many years); “and they continued to hear reports (imperfect) that ‘our persecutor6 is now preaching (present) the gospel which formerly he was attempting to destroy ‘(imperfect), and they continually expressed their (imperfect) admiration of God’s action in my case”. Such was their conduct for a number of years: the writer does not indicate that they continue now to do so (partly, such reports were no longer needed, and his conduct was no longer a cause of wonder and special attention; partly, many in the Judaean churches were now opposed to him, and would no longer praise or admire what he was doing for the Church).

When we apply this principle to the hard passage Gal 2:1-10, several of the difficulties disappear, and some misconceptions are cleared away.

A special contrast is indicated between a present and an aorist in the following cases: —

Gal 2:2, “I laid before them (aorist) the gospel which I continue preaching to the present day among the Gentiles (present)”.

Gal 2:2, “To prevent the work of my whole life (present), or my work then (aorist), from being ineffectual”.

Gal 2:10, “Only (they instructed me) to remember permanently (present) the poor, which I then made it my object to do (aorist)”.

A difficult contrast between present and imperfect occurs in Gal 2:6 : “it matters not in my estimation (now or then, or at any time, present) by what conduct and character they were marked out before the world for their dignified and influential position (imperfect).”

The necessity for the imperfect here becomes clearer if we substitute the present, and observe that the change gives an inadmissible sense. “What their permanent character is matters not to me” (ὁποῖοί ποτε ἦσαν οὐδέν μοι διαφέρει) would be a sentiment unsuitable to the argument, and hardly becoming in Paul’s mouth. The sense of what he says is, “I grant that their conduct had been noble and their prominent position was deserved, but God, who respects not persons, had chosen to communicate directly with me and through me to the Gentiles; and I could not put myself under their directions”.

Still more clear does the necessity for the imperfect become if we take the sense preferred by Lightfoot: he says, “it does not mean ‘what reputation they enjoyed,’ but ‘what was their position, what were their advantages, in former times, referring to their personal intercourse with the Lord’”.

The many aorists of this passage are clear: each of them denotes an act in the drama, which is described. They need no elucidation or comment except the following in Gal 2:5 : “we resisted them then that the truth of the Gospel might continue (aorist) for you”. Here it may seem that the aorist expresses an action that continues to the moment of writing. That, however, is not so: the action belonged to the moment, though its result lasts down to the time of writing; and this becomes clear if we put the proposition in another form, “we resisted them then that the truth might not by our compliance be interrupted and prevented from continuing for you”. The aorist is required to express “might not be interrupted,” and it is therefore required to express “might continue”.

Now let us review successively the points that are clearly stated in Paul’s account of the visit, remembering always that nothing is mentioned except what had a bearing on the Galatian difficulty.

In company with him were Barnabas and Titus. The mention of Barnabas as a companion is probably intended to recall past events to his readers. Barnabas was well-known to them.7 The companionship of Titus is mentioned, because something important for Paul’s purpose among the Galatians was connected with him.

In what capacity did these two go up? The expressions used imply that the two did not stand on the same footing. Barnabas and Paul are spoken of as if they were conjoined and equal: “I went up with Barnabas”. Titus was only a subordinate, “taking also Titus with us”. This word, “taking,” in the three other cases8 where it occurs in the New Testament, is applied to a private companion or minister, who is not sent forth on the mission as an envoy, but is taken by the envoys on their own authority. Here Barnabas and Paul were official messengers; and Titus is taken with them on their own responsibility.

The translation “taking Titus with me” is unjustifiable, and wrongly imputes to Paul an assumption of superiority over Barnabas.9 The use of the participle in the singular is necessitated by the form of the sentence: “I went up with Barnabas, taking Titus”. The case is precisely analogous to Act 15:37, “Barnabas wished to take with them John also”.10 It would be as reasonable there to translate, “Barnabas wished to take John also with him,” as it is here to translate “Paul took Titus also with him”.

What is the force of “also Titus”? In this detail, too, Act 15:37 furnishes a perfect analogy: “Barnabas wished to take with them also John”. In that case there is no other possible sense than “in addition to themselves”; and so it is in this case. Titus was taken in addition to the official envoys.

The reason for the visit lay in revelation. This statement must be taken as a denial that the visit was undertaken for the reason alleged by the Judaisers, see p. 281 f. Paul says nothing as to the recipient of the revelation. A Divine revelation to one man was binding on all whom it concerned.11 Of course the a priori presumption is in favour of this revelation having been made to Paul himself: but we cannot safely say more than this: a Divine revelation was made, necessitating the journey of Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem, and the journey was not taken by Paul through desire to get instruction or commission from the Apostles.

Paul gives no hint as to the immediate purpose of that visit. The incidents which he relates as occurring during the visit are described as arising out of the circumstances existing in Jerusalem,

Lightfoot connects closely, “I went up by revelation and laid before them the Gospel which I preach,” giving the appearance that the setting forth of Paul’s Gospel had been the object of his journey. He agrees with the Authorised Version, with Tischendorf and others. But the Revised Version and the text of Westcott and Hort are right in separating the two statements by a colon — “and I went up by revelation: and I laid before them my gospel, but privately”.

Paul laid his Gospel before them (i.e., those in Jerusalem), but privately, before them of repute (whom afterwards he names, Peter and James and John). “The wide assertion is forthwith limited by the second clause” (Alford). This had an important bearing on the misrepresentations of the Judaisers: he did not lay his Gospel officially before the assembly of the Apostles, but privately before the Three. It is merely unreasonable to understand with some that Paul made both a public exposition before the whole Church, and a private esoteric exposition before the Three.

The question which underlies this whole historical retrospect is whether or not Paul had sought official guidance and official authorisation from the Apostles in regard to his message to the Galatians. He maintains and asseverates that it came from God alone, and was delivered to them from God through himself. It would be absurd, and worse than absurd, that Paul should assure the Galatians that he consulted the Three privately, if he also laid it before them in public in their official assembly. We must understand Paul to imply that he made no public consultation on this subject.

The verb used, “laid before them,” is interpreted by Lightfoot as “related with a view to consulting”. He quotes Act 25:14, “Festus laid Paul’s case before the king,” and remarks that there the idea of consultation is brought out very clearly by the context, Act 25:20, Act 25:26. It is unnecessary to quote corroborative examples from other Greek literature: they are numerous.

Paul, therefore, asked the advice of the three great Apostles as to the Gospel which he proposed to preach, or was preaching, among the Gentiles. It is difficult to suppose that he asked their advice about a Gospel which he had already been preaching — that, after delivering the message from God to the Gentiles, he asked the counsel of any man about that message. When that Gospel was still hid in his own mind, when he had not yet full confidence that he fully comprehended it, he might consult the three leaders about it. After it had fixed itself in his nature as the truth of God, so that he had proclaimed it broadcast to the Gentiles, he no longer “conferred with flesh and blood”.

We are therefore placed in this dilemma: either Paul consulted the Three before he promulgated his Gospel in its fully developed form, or there is no idea of “consultation” in the verb which he here employs. The second alternative seems to me excluded. All readers must judge for themselves.

That Paul’s Gospel to the Gentiles was not fully matured until shortly before the beginning of the first journey (Act 13:1) will be set forth more fully elsewhere. That it was fully matured when he preached in South Galatia on that journey will hardly be disputed by any unprejudiced reader.

Accordingly, we conclude Paul consulted the three leaders privately and apart, not in public council; as friends, not as authoritative guides. What a revelation is this as to the forethought and statesmanship with which the diffusion of the Gospel through the civilised, i.e., the Roman, world was planned! We cannot here dilate further on the immense significance of that private12 interview between the Four — the head of the Church in Jerusalem, and the Three who in succession controlled and counselled the Church in the Roman world. I hope to do so elsewhere at an early date.

Next Paul states his object. “I consulted them — but privately — to prevent my work as it continues now, or my work then, from being ineffectual.”13 Does Paul mean that he consulted them for that reason, or that he consulted them privately for that reason? Clearly the former: he consulted them to avoid future misunderstanding, to ensure unity, in the plans and views of the Church. But he took care to do it privately, by reason of the false brethren,14 as he explains in Gal 2:4.

Now Paul diverges from the path of the proper topic. It bears on the Galatian interest that not even Titus, his companion, Greek as he was, was compelled to accept circumcision.

The question here rises, was Titus’s case made the subject of an open discussion and decided in the negative? Many commentators assume that the extreme party formally contended that Titus must submit to the rite, and that it was decided that he should not be forced to submit. This seems not to be the natural force of the passage, but rather to be forced into it through the inclination to read into this passage as much as possible out of Acts 15.

The plain meaning of the Greek words is that the question was not formally raised, nor publicly decided: Titus was left free and unconstrained: nobody compelled him: he was let alone.

Had the question been raised formally, it would have been a test case. Titus was distinctly a person of standing in the Church; and if the Apostles had solemnly and officially decided, after the question had been formally raised and discussed, that Titus need not accept the rite, that would have practically decided the present case in Galatia. The Apostolic Decree in Acts 15 did not constitute a thorough decision, for it was too general and was open to misconstruction;15 but the judgment about a person in the position of Titus would have been decisive, and Paul could hardly have avoided mentioning more clearly the judgment, if there had been one.

But most entirely opposed to the plain sense of the Greek is the interpretation that the question was raised; that the extremists contended that Titus must be circumcised; that “concession was even urged upon Paul in high quarters as a measure of prudence to disarm opposition;” but he “did not for a moment yield to this pressure”.16 That sense is got by bringing together statements which Paul keeps separate. And how utterly does it sacrifice the unity of feeling and thought and aim among the Four, which is the plain implication of the passage, when read without the purpose to squeeze it into conformity with Acts 15. The whole harmony and beauty of the picture is destroyed by the interpolated idea.

After the parenthetic remark about Titus, Paul again takes up the thread, employing the particle δέ to indicate resumption of the topic after a digression. “Now it was because of certain insinuating sham brethren, who crept into our society, without avowing their real intentions, to act the spy on our freedom, which we true Christians enjoy in Christ Jesus, in order to enslave us (to their ritualistic acts):” Paul means, “It was because of them that I acted thus,” but he is led on away from the grammatical form into an account of his relations with the false brethren: “to whom we did not for a moment yield by complying with their suggestions, our object being to ensure that the Gospel in its truth should continue for you to enjoy”.

The interpretation seems clear. During the stay in Jerusalem, certain brethren came about them, and observed with disapproval the relations of Paul and Barnabas to Titus, and mentioned their opinion on the subject; but the two Apostles of the Gentiles firmly resisted them; and, warned by this experience, Paul (with or without Barnabas17) laid their whole scheme of a Gospel for the Gentiles privately before the Three.

Paul’s sense of right is shocked by the conduct of those brethren: his words distinctly imply that they came to visit as pretended friends, and used knowledge acquired in private social intercourse to injure Paul among others.

The result of the communication follows: “but from the recognised leaders — how distinguished soever was their character matters not to me: God accepteth not man’s person”. Here once more Paul breaks the grammatical thread, and resumes with γάρ and a different grammatical construction — “the recognised leaders, I say, imparted no new instruction to me; but, on the contrary, perceiving that I throughout my ministry have been charged specially with the non-Jewish mission as Peter is with the Jewish — for he that worked for Peter towards the apostolate of the circumcision worked also for me towards the mission to the Gentiles — and perceiving from the facts the grace that had been given me, they, James and Cephas and John, the recognised pillars of the Church, gave pledges to me and to Barnabas of a joint scheme of work, ours towards the Gentiles, and theirs towards the Jews. One charge alone they gave us, to remember the poor, which duty as a matter of fact I then made it a special object to perform.”

The final words, on account of the aorist, must on the principles laid down above, p. 290 f, be understood as “an act in the drama which then occurred”. If Paul meant that he subsequently was and still continued to be zealous in that way, he would have used the present tense: the aorist denotes something that was actually part of the incidents in Jerusalem. Paul therefore was helping the poor in Jerusalem — which we may take it as certain that he did on every visit, as e.g., Acts 21.

The analogy of Eph 4:3 18 might lead us even further. The same verb is there used to indicate the prominent object, “giving diligence to keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace”. Does it here indicate that charity to the poor was the main object of the visit — not merely an act in the drama, but the principal act?

Some commentators attribute a depreciatory sense to δοκοῦντες, “the so-called leaders”. This is not justifiable. The Greek word means “the recognised or accepted leaders”. Lightfoot quotes examples of a depreciatory sense for δοκοῦντες, but in them all the depreciatory innuendo comes from the context and not from the word. To attribute such a meaning to it here is out of keeping with Paul’s courteous tone to the leaders, and is also opposed to the spirit which we have recognised in this narrative (see p. 289).


[1] See p. 280 f.

[2] In Expositor, August, 1895, p. 105 ff, also the papers in Expositor, March, July, 1896.

[3] The epoch, as we hold, § XIII, was his conversion.

[4] It is not meant that all the “Tübingen School” agreed exactly, but that there is a general agreement in character.

[5] Abschliessend nur auf das Vorige, vv. 18, 19. Lightfoot expresses no opinion; but his interpretation of 1:20, “I declare to you that every word I write is true,” tells rather against Meyer-Sieffert.

[6] The participle διώκων permits no inference; present and imperfect coincide in the participle. The only distinction in the participle is between aorist 2:1, 7, 9, and present-imperfect.

[7] See §§ III, IV.

[8] συνπαραλαβών, Act 12:25; Act 15:37-38.

[9] Meyer-Sieffert explicitly claim that Paul is here assuming his superiority to Barnabas.

[10] Gal 2:1, ἀνέβην . . . συμπαραλαβὼν καὶ Τίτον, Act 15:37, ἐβούλετο συμπαραλαβεῖν καὶ τὸν Ἰωάννην.

[11] Act 11:28.

[12] Meyer-Sieffert’s rendering is abgesondert, privatim.

[13] On the tenses, see p. 290 f.

[14] Meyer-Sieffert translates the clause μήπως κ.τ.λ. quite differently.

[15] See §§ VIII, XXVII.

[16] Quotations from Lightfoot, p. 105.

[17] In this passage Barnabas, assuredly, is to be assumed as throughout united with Paul; but the special purpose requires Paul to use the singular.

[18] σπουδάζοντες τηρεῖν τὴν ἑνότητα, Eph 4:3, ὃ καὶ ἐσπούδασα αὐτὸ τοῦτο ποιῆσαι, Gal 2:10.

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