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

By W. M. Ramsay

Part 2

Historical Commentary

Chapter 49

Sequence of Thought in (Gal 4:12-20)

The expression in this paragraph is rather disjointed and awkward. It can be best explained on the supposition that Paul is here catching up and turning to his own purposes certain phrases used by the Galatians.

The meaning is: “I beseech you, brethren, set yourselves free, as I am, from the slavery of ritual, for I made myself as a Gentile1 like you in order to preach to you”. He had put himself on an equality with them; and did not, like the Judaistic preachers, claim to be on a superior level.

“You say with truth in your letter that you ‘do not wrong2 me,’ but are conscious how much you owe me, even although you have to modify your attitude towards my teaching.” Paul repeats the word employed by them, and dwells on the thought. “I bear you witness that you did not in the past ‘wrong me’ or act unkindly to me. On the contrary, as you know well, you treated me more like a messenger of God,’ though your inherited ways of thought would naturally have made you regard one afflicted like me as accursed and consumed by the messenger of the underworld. You would have put at my disposal what was dearest to you, had it been possible to benefit me thereby.

“But I do not admit your explanation that you ‘are not wronging me’ now. You are indeed wronging me: you are troubling me (Gal 6:17). What is the reason? Evidently you regard me as an enemy, that you treat me so. Is it because I spoke the truth to you on my second visit, and warned you of some faults among you, that you now look on me as an enemy?”

The Galatians also seem to have conveyed to Paul their sense of the extreme zeal and interest that the Judaistic missionaries had shown in their welfare, and to have used the phrase “they take a keen interest in us” (ζηλοῦσιν). Hence Paul plays upon that word, “They ‘take a lively interest’ in you, as you say; but they do it in no good way. In reality they desire to make you think that you are outside the pale of Jewish pride and birth and privilege in order that you may ‘admire and envy’ them,3 who are within the pale. It is not true zeal for your interest that prompts their action. It is their deep-seated Jewish pride which refuses to regard you as really their brethren (whereas, as I said, I always regard you so): they will not put you on an equality with themselves (as I do): they seek to mislead you into the belief that they are a superior class by right of birth (whereas you can become as truly sons of God and sons of Abraham as they).

“I regret my absence and inability to show you face to face my interest in you; and I should think it good if there were always some one present with you to take such interest in you (provided it be in a good way), so that you should not be dependent on my presence for a true friend. My own children, I would I were present with you now, and speaking with the old tone of mutual affection, not in the tone you have forced on me; for I am troubled about you.”

When the last sentence is read rightly, it is seen not to spring from some special cause, which makes it impossible for him to come to the Galatians now. He is not explaining that he cannot go to see them (as some commentators imagine). He is merely regretting that he is writing far away and in an unwonted tone. The messenger who carried his letter would announce his coming visit.

Read thus, as catching up the words and excuses of the Galatians, the paragraph ceases to be disjointed, and becomes simple. But whether the Galatians’ words were reported by Paul’s informant, or written in a letter by the Churches, is difficult to determine ( LIX). Only the word “enemy” was evidently reported, not written, to Paul.


[1] Compare 2:14.

[2] Lightfoot says of these words, “Possibly the true explanation is hidden under some unknown circumstances to which St. Paul alludes”. Paul alludes to the use of the words by the Galatians.

[3] He repeats the word ζηλόω in a different sense.

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