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

By W. M. Ramsay

Part 2

Historical Commentary

Chapter 59

Was There a Letter From the Galatians?

The question arises, how did Paul learn what was occurring in Galatia? Obviously, the news had just reached him, when in the first excitement he wrote this Epistle. Some messenger must have brought the news. But the messenger may have merely brought letters from the Galatians, or he may have given a report of his own observations, or he may have done both. The last alternative seems most natural.

According to the theory already stated,1 the messenger was probably Timothy, who, landing at Ephesus, had gone up to Pisidian Antioch and his own home at Lystra, and then rejoined Paul at Syrian Antioch, bringing with him grave intelligence.

But, whoever the messenger was, there is certainly a probability that he brought with him a letter, or a series of letters, from the Galatian Churches: possibly, each Church separately wrote to its founder. It is not probable that any of Paul’s Churches ever allowed a messenger to go from them to him without a letter.

Yet the first three and a half chapters do not appear to be couched in the form of a reply to a letter. These chapters refer as a whole to subjects which one can hardly fancy any of the Galatian Churches venturing to discuss with their spiritual father in the controversial way that is implied, for they are represented as dissenting from him and almost as resisting him. See p. 430.

Moreover, the usual forms of a letter, after the address which occupies the first five verses, are conspicuously absent (see V). Paul plunges at once into a matter which we cannot imagine that any of the Galatians would venture to state directly to him, viz., the charge that he had been inconsistent with himself in the teaching imparted on his two visits, and that he was a time-server. From this he is led into a historical retrospect, which gradually changes into a series of vehement appeals designed to revivify among his readers the feelings with which they had received his first preaching to them.

But, in the last two and a half chapters, after Paul has given vent to the strong and irrepressible emotions which demanded instant expression, his writing assumes a tone more like that of an ordinary letter, and he uses various expressions which perhaps take up and reply to words or explanations or questions addressed to him directly (i.e., in the form of a letter) by the Galatians.

In order to test the idea that Paul’s expression in this Epistle was influenced by the terms of a letter from the Galatic Churches, we must suppose for the moment that the idea is true, and bring together all that can be advanced in its favour. To do so properly would require the quick, sure, intuition of Professor Rendel Harris, who has traced with singularly delicate perception the letters to which Paul was replying when he wrote to the Colossians and others;2 but it is not given to every one to “plough with his heifer”. Possible traces of a Galatian letter to Paul have been found already in XXXVIII, XLIX, L, LIII, LIV.

We may confidently say that the Galatian letter or letters would take an apologetic and explanatory tone: they needed some help and some guide as they struggled along the difficult way towards Christian excellence (Gal 3:3, cp. LIV); they wanted an outward symbol to mark them off from heathen society ( LIII); in Paul’s absence Jewish missionaries had taken a lively interest in their welfare ( XLIX); they found help and a teacher in the Law and the ceremonies recommended by those missionaries ( XXXVIII, to which Paul refers, “Ye that desire to be under the Law,” Gal 4:21); but, in spite of this movement, they retained their strong sense of duty to Paul, and they were resolved not to wrong him, even when they looked to others for help.

It has been shown that some of Paul’s words should be treated as echoes of Galatian statements. He appreciates their need of some one to take interest in them when he is far away (Gal 4:18); but he desires that the interest should be for their good. The project is here foreshadowed that a trusty representative should be left among them at his next visit (to which he points in Gal 4:20). On the third journey this project was surely carried out. May we not guess that Silas was the representative? He was peculiarly suited to combat Judaism, as being at once Jew and Roman. He does not appear in the rest of the third journey. Yet he probably had great knowledge of Asia Minor, for he was selected to carry the Epistle of Peter to the Churches of that whole land.

Perhaps the fact that the first three and a half chapters are obviously prompted by the report of a delegate, and not by a letter of the Galatians, may seem to many to constitute a proof that the whole Epistle should be taken in the same way; and it must be conceded that nothing in the Epistle imperatively demands that a Galatian letter lay before Paul as he wrote. The knowledge which he shows of the Galatian desires and aims may have been gained from the report of a trusty messenger like Timothy.

But, if Paul trusts here solely to the report of a messenger, we may feel sure that the messenger was one in whose knowledge, judgment, and sympathy with all parties Paul had perfect confidence. He treats the messenger’s report of the catchwords of the Galatian movement as indubitably correct; and he feels as certain on this point as if he had before him a formal statement in the Galatians’ own words.

Such a messenger Timothy was.


[1] See p. 243.

[2] Expositor, Sept.-Dec, 1898. But when he reaches the result that Eph. was not a circular letter, I begin to doubt: the reasons proving that it was a circular letter seem too strong to be overthrown by an argument, which is of so subjective a character.

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