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

By W. M. Ramsay

Part 2

Historical Commentary

Chapter 61

The Parting Message

What, then, are the points which are thus placarded, as it were, before the eyes of the Galatians? They may be specified in a rough list as follows: —

1. The advocates of circumcision are persons who wish “to make a pretentious display” in “external rites” (without a thought about spiritual realities).

2. Their object is to avoid persecution for the cross of Christ. There is here no thought of persecution by the Roman State: it is solely persecution by the Jews that is in the apostle’s mind. The State, if it punished Christians as such, would be equally ready to punish circumcised and uncircumcised Christians. We are here carried back to a time when persecution of Christians existed only in the form of action originated by Jews, who on various pleas induced cither imperial officials or city magistrates to interfere against their personal enemies. This takes us back to a very early stage in history: except in Palestine, such persecution was very unlikely to last much later than the decision of Gallio (Act 18:15), which constituted a precedent. In Southern Phrygia and Lycaonia, along the line of the great road between Ephesus and Syria, where Jews were specially numerous and influential, persecution of that kind was most likely to constitute a real danger.

3. The champions of circumcision, so far from being eager that the Gentile converts should keep the whole Law, were themselves far from keeping it completely; but they desired to subject the Galatians to that rite in order that they might “gain credit with the Jews for proselytising” successfully, and thus increasing the influence, wealth and power of the nation (Gal 6:13).

4. Paul personally desired no credit except in the cross. He himself regarded circumcision as an external and in itself valueless ceremony. We may gather that he considered the rite to have some symbolical value for the Jews, but absolutely none for the Gentiles: to the latter it was positively hurtful in so far as it tended to withdraw their attention from the real spiritual fact, that a remaking and regeneration of man’s nature was essential.

The emphasis which is several times laid on the burdensome nature of the Law, and the inability of the Jews themselves to observe its provisions and requirements, is one of the most remarkable features in the question that was being fought out within the Christian Church about A.D. 50.

Peter spoke of the Law as “a yoke which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear” (Act 15:10). Paul assumes in this Epistle as a fundamental fact familiar to the Galatians that no person can fulfil the law entirely, but that all are liable to the curse pronounced against any one who fails in any point of the Law (Gal 3:10, compare Gal 4:14); and it was certainly on this impossibility that Paul’s personal deep conviction of his own permanent sinful condition had rested before his conversion.1

The assumption that this fundamental impossibility was a familiar matter of knowledge to the Galatian Christians2 can hardly rest only on a universal admission of such impossibility. It must rest on former teaching; and if so, the teaching must be that of the second journey, when the frank and complete admission made by Peter, and the tacit agreement of the apostolic decree in the practical truth of his admission, were set forth to the Galatians. We cannot doubt that, when Paul delivered this decree to the Galatian congregations to keep (Act 16:4), he explained to them fully the circumstances of its enactment, and the meaning which they should attach to it.

Sufficient attention has hardly been given by the commentators to this point. Peter’s words to the Council could not have carried much weight unless they had been too obviously true for open dispute: there must have been a belief among the more reasonable Jews, even among those who were personally strict, that the Law was too burdensome for practical life.

What was the reason for this belief? It must have lain in the new circumstances of the Jews amidst the Roman Empire. A Law, which had been possible in Palestine only for the few most elevated spirits, became too obviously impossible amid the wider society of the empire, when every reasoning Jew perceived the magnificent prospects that were open to his people, if they accommodated themselves in some degree to their situation in the Roman world. Those prospects are both material and spiritual. The Jews as a race have never been blind to prospects of material success for the individual or the nation; and the peace, the order, the security of property, the ease and certainty and regularity of intercourse in the Roman world, with the consequent possibilities of trade and finance on a vast scale, opened up a dazzling prospect of wealth and power. Of old, wherever there was anything approaching to free competition, the Semitic traders of Carthage had beaten Rome in the open market; and the Romans obtained command of the Mediterranean trade only by force of arms. The Jews could now repeat the success of their Carthaginian cousins.

There were also Jews whose vision was filled entirely with the spiritual prospects of the race, the influence that it was exerting, and might in a hundredfold greater degree exercise, on thought and religion, especially among the loftier minds of the Empire. But if they were to exercise properly their legitimate influence in the Roman world, they could not carry out completely the Law with its fully developed ceremonial: they must distinguish in it between that which was spiritually real and that which was mere external and unessential ceremonial.

The question with regard to accommodation to their new situation could not be evaded by the Jews. The Sadducees answered it by perfect readiness to concede anything. The Pharisees originally assumed the impossible attitude of a firm resolve to concede nothing. Paul’s position was that nothing should be conceded that was spiritually real or symbolically valuable, but that mere external and unessential ceremonial should be sacrificed; and he held that this was the attitude of the true Pharisee (Act 23:6).


[1] See XXX.

[2] It must be remembered that this Epistle does not move in the line of new arguments that Paul was right and the Judaisers wrong: its power rests in its being a revivification in the Galatians of their former thoughts and knowledge and experience. See XXI.

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