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

By W. M. Ramsay

Part 2

Historical Commentary

Chapter 47

Cause the First Galatian Visit

It was because of bodily disease, “infirmity of the flesh,” that the Apostle had first preached the Gospel to the Galatians. Taking this expression by itself, we see that two explanations of it are possible: —

1. When I was in your country, but not intending to preach there, a disease caused me to change my intention and preach to you,

2. When I was not intending to enter your country, but had other plans of work, a disease caused me to change my plans, and thus led to my visiting you and preaching to you.

No third explanation seems open.

I. The first of these explanations has been adopted by all adherents of the North Galatian theory. It is perhaps not absolutely necessary for them to have recourse to it; but as they have unanimously adopted it, we need not discuss whether the other explanation would not be open to them.

Put in this bare and severely simple form, this explanation seems awkward. It is not at first sight probable that Paul would go across a country without any thought of evangelising there, unless there were some distinct impediment. He twice crossed, evidently without preaching in it, the land ruled by King Antiochus of Commagene and Cilicia Tracheia. But that was not Roman territory, and was therefore outside of his plans;1 and, moreover, on both occasions he was passing on to carry out a pressing work among his own Churches (Act 15:36, Act 16:1, Act 18:23). Again, he crossed Asia without preaching in it, but his plan of preaching there had been expressly prohibited by the Spirit (Act 16:6).

But, it is said, when he was at Lystra or Iconium, and found that his plan of preaching in Asia was prevented, he formed a new plan of preaching in Bithynia, and, as he was going thither, while crossing North Galatia, he was detained by illness, and to this detention “the Galatians owed their knowledge of Christ”.2

But the road from Iconium to Bithynia never touches North Galatia. It lies in Phrygia as far as Dorylaion, and then enters Bithynia. It is marked out by nature, and by immemorial use: that is beyond dispute. If Paul formed at Lystra or Iconium the plan of preaching in Bithynia, he would not traverse North Galatia as he went to his goal.

When this undeniable fact is pointed out, the reply is that Paul was going to eastern Bithynia and Pontus — “the east parts of Bithynia and of Pontus”.3

But our one authority says only Bithynia, and we have no right to add Pontus and to make Paul travel to Pontus, dropping Bithynia out of notice. The obvious meaning of our one authority is that Paul, prevented from his first aim of evangelising Asia with his great and civilised cities, be thought himself of the nearest country to it — Bithynia, with its great and civilised cities; Nicomedia, Nicaea, Caesarea, etc. He would never select second-rate remote places in the far corner of the Roman Empire, such as Tion, Sinope, and Amisos. There is no conceivable reason why he should traverse and neglect North Galatia in order to reach unimportant towns like those.

The course of the second missionary journey is quite too extraordinary on this supposition. First, Paul aims at Asia; then he aims at Pontus; then he falls ill on the way, and proceeds to evangelise North Galatia, founding there several Churches — a process which requires long time and much travel. Then he proceeds to carry out his previous intention and goes on towards Pontus; and in doing this he finds himself κατὰ τὴν Μυσίαν. Whether we translate this “beside Mysia” or “over against Mysia,” it is a plain impossibility, for the traveller going from North Galatia into “eastern Bithynia and Pontus” would be going north-east, with his back turned towards Mysia.

But it is needless to proceed, as I might, in the enumeration of the absurdities in which this hypothesis is involved.

Those who cling to the first explanation must be content to recognise here one of those “gaps” in the narrative of Luke which they so often find. They maintain that the “gaps” are numerous and puzzling, and one more added to the number will not be a serious addition.

2. On the second explanation there must have been some occasion, during Paul’s travels, when he changed his plans of work under compulsion of illness. He twice changed his plans on the second journey — first when he entered Asia, and next when he was approaching Bithynia; but in both cases the reason is distinctly assigned by Luke as the Divine guidance and orders; and we cannot admit, with Lightfoot,4 that the same action is sometimes attributed to Divine command and sometimes to the pressure of external conditions; none of his examples will bear examination (St. Paid the Trav., p. 154 f.).

On the first journey, however, there was an occasion when Paul changed his plans. The scope of that journey, as originally contemplated, embraced the lands which were naturally in closest relation with Syrian Antioch, viz., Cyprus and the Pamphylian coast. So long as these were the scene of work, John was a willing companion. But when Paul and Barnabas resolved to abandon Pamphylia and cross Taurus into the Galatic Province, John left them, and left the work. Luke does not state the motives of either party: he does not explain either why the two Apostles resolved to go to Pisidian Antioch, or why John refused to go. The reasons for his silence we can only conjecture; but two causes, both of which might be combined in his mind, seem both natural and adequate; he is little concerned with personal details, and he did not desire to dwell on an occasion when John had played a part which he probably afterwards regretted, and which deeply wounded Paul.

With regard to the situation, we may regard the following four statements as highly probable: —

(1). There was no express Divine command, for we can hardly believe that John would have disobeyed it; and, if he had disobeyed such a command, Barnabas would not afterwards have urged so strongly that John was a useful companion for a similar journey (Act 15:37).

(2) John considered the move into the Galatic Province as a change of plan, and justified his refusal by this plea. He was willing to go to Pamphylia, but not across the mountains; the former sphere of work had been contemplated from the first, the latter had not.

(3) The cause that made Paul and Barnabas change their original plan must have appeared to them strong and compelling. It was not that they simply began to consider the north side of Taurus a better field than the south side, for they had been sent forth by the Holy Spirit, and given leave of absence by the Church, with an eye to a distinct sphere of work; and mere human calculation of superior advantage would not have seemed to them a sufficient reason for changing the sphere. It was not that Pamphylia was found to be a hopeless district, because when they returned they preached there. There was some reason which made work in Pamphylia impossible at the time, but which, afterwards, on their return, was not operative.

Accordingly, we see what was the actual fact. They changed their plan, and they entered the Galatic Province; but the reason was not simple desire to evangelise there, it was some other compelling motive. Here the Epistle clears away all doubt. In it Paul clearly intimates, as his words must be interpreted, that his first visit had been caused not by a desire to preach to the Galatians, but by bodily disease. This cause satisfies all the conditions.

Thus, the way in which these two accounts mutually supplement and explain one another is a most conclusive proof of the honesty and direct simplicity of both.

Other points, as for example, that Paul’s circumstances in Pamphylia were such as to bring out any weakness of the system, do not directly arise out of the Epistle, and have been sufficiently treated elsewhere.5


[1] As Principal A. Robertson says in Expositor, Jan., 1899, p. 2: “I assume that the evangelisation of the Roman world as such was an object consciously before his mind and deliberately planned”.

[2] Lightfoot, p. 22. He, however, holds (as I have always done) that Paul traversed the Galatic region before he touched Asia or learned that he was not to preach there: see p. 478. Other supporters of the North Galatian theory, however, take the view stated in the text.

[3] Expositor, Dec., 1893, p. 415.

[4] On Gal., p. 125.

[5] Church in Rom. Emp., p. 63; St. Paul the Trav., p. 194 ff.

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