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

By W. M. Ramsay

Part 2

Historical Commentary

Chapter 56

The Faults of the South Galatic Cities

In the list of fifteen faults, there are three groups, corresponding to three different kinds of influence likely to affect recent South Galatian converts from paganism. Such converts were liable to be led astray by habits and ways of thought to which they had been brought up, owing to (1) the national religion, (2) their position in a municipality, (3) the customs of society in Hellenistic cities.1 We take each group separately.

1. Faults fostered by the old Anatolian religion. These are five: fornication, impurity, wantonness, idolatry, sorcery or magic. The first three are usually regarded by commentators as springing from the character of the individuals addressed, in whom sensual passion is assumed to have been peculiarly strong. But more probably and more naturally, Paul thinks here of the influence exerted by their old religion in patronising vice, and treating it as part of the Divine life.2 The subject is too unpleasant to enter on. Yet to understand properly the position of the new religion in Asia Minor, one must take into consideration that the old religion had remained as a relic of a very primitive state of society; that it consecrated as the Divine life the freedom of the beasts of the field; that it exhibited to the celebrants in the holiest Mysteries the relations of the Divine personages, who are the emblems and representatives and guarantees of that primitive social system amid which the religion had taken form; and that it regarded all moral restraint and rules as interference with the Divine freedom. The religion of the country was actually on a lower level than the tone of ordinary pagan society. Vice was not regarded as wrong in pagan society: it was regarded as necessary — the only evil lying in excess. But in the old religion it was inculcated as a duty; and service at the temple for a period in the practice of vice had once, apparently, been universally required, and was still imposed as a duty on individuals through special revelation of the Divine will. This extreme was looked down upon with contempt, but without serious moral condemnation, as mere superstition, by the more educated society of the cities. Yet even in the cities it certainly was far from having lost its hold; and to obey the Divine command and live the Divine life at the temple for a period caused no stigma on the individual, and was actually recorded publicly in votive offerings with inscriptions. See pp. 40, 201 f.

From this point of view the third fault — ἀσέλγεια — is illustrated. Lightfoot explains that it implies something openly insolent, shocking public decency. The act which was most characteristic of Phrygian religion in the eyes of the world was the public self-mutilation practised sometimes by votaries in religious frenzy (p. 38). The word ἀσέλγεια is the strongest term of its kind in Pauline usage; and acts like that public mutilation, or those alluded to in the last words of the preceding paragraph, merit it.

It is unnecessary to say a word about the faults of idolatry and magic. The latter stood in close relation to the native religion; and it is difficult to draw the line between religion and magic in the numerous class of inscriptions in which curses and imprecations of evil or death are invoked on personal foes and on wrong-doers.

We shall not rightly conceive the Asia Minor character, unless we remember that the excesses of which it is capable spring from religious enthusiasm. It is peculiarly subject to religious excitement. A passage of Socrates, that careful and unprejudiced historian, is valuable here, as illustrating both the Anatolian character and the influence exerted on it by Christianity. He says, Gal 4:28, that Phrygians exercise stronger self-restraint than other races, being less prone to anger than Scythians and Thracians,3 and less given to pleasure than the eastern peoples, not fond of circus and theatre, and hating fornication as a monstrous crime.

These were the people that eagerly followed Novatian in refusing the sacraments to those who had after baptism been guilty of serious sin. Like Paul’s Galatians, the Phrygian Novatians were eager to go to the extreme in religious matters; and like them, they tended towards Judaism,4 and made Easter agree with the Passover. It is precisely the same tendency of mind that caused both movements: not fickleness and changeableness, but enthusiasm, intense religious feeling, the tendency to extreme severity, and the leaning towards the Oriental and the Jewish forms.5 See p. 193 ff.

2. Faults connected with the municipal life in the cities of Asia Minor. Every one who reads this enumeration — enmities, strife, rivalry (so Lightfoot), outbursts of wrath, caballings, factions, parties, jealousies — eight out of fifteen — must be struck with the importance attached by Paul to one special tendency to error among the Galatians.

Partly, no doubt, the Judaizing tendency would lead to division and strife, for we can well imagine that it was not universal, and that there was at least a minority that continued faithful to Paul in the Galatian Churches. But it would be a mistake to suppose that Paul was thinking of that one fact only: that would not explain the striking prominence of the idea. He is here viewing their life as a whole, and is not thinking only of the Judaistic question.

First, the rivalry of city against city was one of the most marked features of municipal life in Asia Minor. The great cities of a province wrangled for precedence, until even the Emperor had to be invoked to decide between their rival claims for the first place. They invented titles of honour for themselves so as to outshine their rivals, and appropriated the titles that their rivals had invented. So in the Province Asia, Smyrna and Pergamos vied with Ephesus; in Bithynia Nicomedia vied with Nicaea; in Cilicia Anazarbos vied with Tarsos; and in Galatia we maybe sure that Iconium vied with Antioch. See p. 118 f.

As Mommsen says, “the spirit of faction here at once takes possession of every association”; and again, “the urban rivalries belong to the general character of Hellenic politics, but especially of the politics in Asia Minor.”6

But, if that was true of the unregenerate citizens, had the converts changed their nature? Surely not! The same characteristics existed in them as before. They were still citizens of Antioch or of Iconium. Throughout Paul’s Epistles we see that his converts had not changed their nature, but were still liable to fall into the errors of their pre-Christian life. We may feel very certain that there were strife and wrangling and jealousy between the Antiochean Church and the Iconian Church about precedence and comparative dignity.

Second, even within the cities there was room for jealousy and strife. There was in Antioch and Lystra the great division between Roman or Latin citizens of the Colonia and the incol or native dwellers: the burning subject of inequality of rights was always close at hand. We may be sure that there were both Roman and non-Roman members of the Church. No list of Galatian Christians has come down to us; but the Colony Corinth, where Latin names form so considerable a proportion7 of the known Christians, furnishes a pertinent illustration. In Iconium and Derbe, where no Roman element of any consequence existed, there was the other cause (not absent in the Coloniae) of difference in race — the native element, the Greek element, the Jewish element. Of these the native element was probably the weaker in the Churches, because the natives who were familiar with the Greek language usually reckoned themselves Greek: in fact the Greek element consisted mainly not of settlers from Greece, but of those Phrygian and Lycaonian families that had adopted Greek manners and education and dress.8

It is noteworthy that at Lystra those who are said to have spoken in the Lycaonian tongue were not Christians, but pagans (Acts 14). It was among the more educated classes that Christianity spread most rapidly (St. Paul the Trav., p. 133 f.).

With these causes at work, it is easily seen how caballing and jealousy should be a serious danger in the young Churches.

As Mommsen says again of Asia Minor: “Rivalries exist, as between town and town, so in every town between the several circles and the several houses”. There were no great political or patriotic interests to absorb the passions and powers of man, and so they frittered away their energies in petty jealousies and rivalries and factions.

Paul’s words seem, beyond any question, written with an eye to the ordinary Graeco-Asiatic city: “Let us not be vainglorious, challenging one another, envying one another, Gal 5:26”. Vainglory and pride in petty distinctions was the leading motive in municipal life; the challenging of one another to competition in this foolish strife was almost the largest part of their history amid the peace and prosperity of the Roman rule.

But that is not the type of the North Galatian tribes; the Gaulish element was an aristocratic one, and such are not the faults of an aristocracy.

If the Churches were thus liable to import the old urban rivalries into their mutual relations, what was Paul’s part likely to be? Would he not impress on them the excellence of unity, the criminality of faction and jealousy? Would he not, even in small things, avoid anything and any word likely to rouse their mutual rivalry? Would he not class them as one body of Churches, the Churches of the Province, and appeal to them as “members of the Province Galatia”. There was no other unity except that of Christian by which he could designate them. They lived in different countries, they sprang from different races. The one thing in which they were united was as members of the Empire, and their status in the Empire was as members of the Province, i.e., Galatae.

But when I pointed out that this term Galatae was the only common name by which Paul could address the four Churches, some North Galatian critics replied that there was no reason why Paul should sum up the four Churches in a common name. Surely that argument misses the character of the situation; it was urgently needful to sum them up as one body by one common name, recognised equally by all the four Churches.

The word φόνοι, introduced in most MSS. after φθόνοι, has been rightly rejected by many modern editors relying on its omission in the Vatican and Sinaitic and some less important MSS. It spoils the picture, and is merely a scribe’s reminiscence of Rom 1:29.

3. Faults connected with the society and manners of the Graeco-Asiatic cities. These are two — drinkings, revellings.

No comment is needed. The remains of the later Greek comedy, and the paintings on Greek vases, show how characteristic and universal such revels were in the Greek cities. Komos, the Revel, was made a god, and his rites were carried on quite systematically, and yet with all the ingenuity and inventiveness of the Greek mind, which lent perpetual novelty and variety to the revellings. The Komos was the most striking feature in Greek social life. Though we are too absolutely ignorant of the Graeco-Phrygian society to be able to assert that this Greek custom flourished there, yet it is highly probable that those who adopted Greek manners and civilisation adopted that characteristic feature, the Komos. It is too often the case that the vices of civilisation are the first elements in it to affect the less civilised races when brought into contact with it.

Thus the second and third classes of faults belong specially to the Hellenising section of Phrygian society, springing from the too rapid and indiscriminate assimilation of Greek ideas and Greek tone. The first class of faults was most characteristic of the less progressive section of society, the old native party. Both sections, doubtless, were represented in the young Churches: at any rate the faults were always blazoned before their eyes (p. 445, note), and the customs of society are apt to exercise a strong influence on all persons unless they are on their guard.


[1] The list 1Co 6:9 ff., is not exactly parallel, but near enough to be called by Steck the model after which this whole list of fifteen faults in Galatians has been forged. The contrast between them is remarkable. The Galatian list is narrowly defined: the Corinthian list ranges over the various crimes of human nature.

[2] Not so in Col 3:5 ff., where he is expressly speaking of the evil tendencies that lie in human nature and character.

[3] Taken as representatives of the northern barbarians.

[4] Novatian himself showed no tendency to Judaism.

[5] One might trace the tendency of the Phrygians towards Judaistic practices through the intermediate period, and in other parts of Phrygia. At Colossae Paul had to correct the inclination to “a feast-day, or a new moon, or a sabbath day” (Col 2:6), and to point out wherein lay the true circumcision (Col 2:11). In an inscription of about A.D. 200, which is probably Jewish-Christian, the name Azyma is used to indicate Easter (see Cities and Bish. of Phrygia, pt. II, p. 545 ff.; and there is now more to say about this inscription from recent discovery). On the Judaic-Christian inscriptions of Phrygia, see Cities and Bish. of Phrygia, part II, pp. 566, 652, f., 674 f., 700.

[6] Provinces of the Roman Empire, ch. VIII, vol. I, pp. 329, 357.

[7] Achaicus, Crispus, Fortunatus, Gaius, Lucius, Quartus, Tertius, Titius Justus. See Hastings’ Dictionary of the Bible, I, p. 480.

[8] See pp. 129 f, 180 f, 230 f.

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