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

By W. M. Ramsay

Part 2

Historical Commentary

Chapter 26

Foolish Galatians

Now that we have fixed the precise sense of the word Galatians as “men of the Roman Province Galatia,” and therefore pointedly distinguished from “men of the Lycaonian, or of the Phrygian nation,” the question is as to the meaning and innuendo of the address “foolish Galatians”.

First, perhaps, one must notice the objection, that one ought not to lay too much stress on a mere name in an apostrophe of this kind. That is the objection of one who sits in a study and comments on the text, not of one who recognises what use the orator or the preacher can make of a name. The very rarity and unusualness of the word “Galatians” in the Pauline sense, the very fact that only Romans or persons speaking decidedly and pointedly from the Roman point of view employed the name in that sense, made it a word that arrested the attention of the audience, conveyed a wealth of meaning to them, and placed them at a certain point of view.

Let those who do not feel the force of the word “Galatae” in Paul’s mouth, imagine what difference it would make to an audience in this country whether a speaker used the word “English” or “British” as an apostrophe: it might make all the difference with some audiences between the success or failure of the speech.

The force of the name that Paul uses depends on the state of society and feeling in South Galatia at the time. The contest that was in progress there has been described elsewhere.1 On the one side was the native and national spirit, allied with the power of the priesthood and the great temples — the spirit of Orientalism, of stagnation, of contented and happy ignorance, of deep-rooted superstition. On the other side was the desire for education, the perception that Greece and Rome stood on a higher intellectual platform than the native religion and customs, the revolt from the ignorant and enslaving native superstition. It has been pointed out that the influence of the new religion of Christ was, necessarily and inevitably, on the side of Graeco-Roman education and order, and that it proved far more powerful than either Greek or Roman government in spreading the use of the Greek language (which was the chief agent in Graeco-Roman culture). The “men of the Province Galatia” are, therefore, those who desire education, who have shaken off the benumbing and degrading influence of the native magic and superstition, who judge for themselves as to the real value of the facts of life, who lay claim to insight and Noesis. There is a telling innuendo in the juxtaposition ἀνόητοι Γαλάται, “you who are showing yourselves devoid of Noesis,” “Galatae who fail in the first characteristic of Galatae”.

The apostrophe is, in short, a concentration into two words of the sting that lies in the whole paragraph, Gal 3:1-5. Your present conduct is irrational, you are sinking back to the old level of superstition and ignorance when you think to attain, perfection by the flesh, by the physical acts and works of man, after you had for a time been on the higher level of the spiritual life.

Yet, although the meaning of the Greek adjective here used is indisputable, and is universally recognised by ancient writers and commentators, the North Galatian theorists try to read into it an allusion to the fickleness and changeableness of Celtic and French peoples. Thus one of the greatest of them, after quoting Jerome’s interpretation — that the Galatians are here called fools and slow of understanding — remarks: “It is scarcely necessary to say that Jerome here misses the point of St. Paul’s rebuke. The Galatians were intellectually quick enough. The ‘folly’ with which they are charged arose not from obtuseness but from fickleness and levity; the very versatility of their intellect was their snare.”2

It would be hard to find a more glaring case of the distortion of a naturally sound and clear judgment by a prepossession in favour of a theological theory. First, it is assumed that the Galatians were going over to a Judaistic form of Christianity from mere natural volatility and changeableness; and then this Greek adjective, whose real force is “senseless,” “dully stupid,” is declared to indicate folly arising from fickleness and levity and versatility of intellect. Where is there any, even the slightest, justification for eliciting such an innuendo out of the Greek word ἀνόητος? Not the smallest justification exists: the adjective and its cognate words have a diametrically opposite connotation: they denote the stupidity that arises, not from versatility, but from deadness and impotence of intellect. Or is there any ground for charging Paul with using the adjective in a sense foreign to its real nature? There is none: his writing may sometimes be open to blame for pressing too closely the natural sense of words, but never for blindness to their natural sense. To charge him with using ἀνόητος; to indicate the folly due to versatility or over-subtilty or levity of intellect is to abandon all hope of interpreting him as a rational writer of Greek. In that case any word in his writings may mean anything.3


[1] See Sections 12, 14, 23; St. Paul the Traveller, chapter VI, etc.

[2] Lightfoot, p. 242 (tenth edition).

[3] Compare VII.

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