by Al Maxey

Issue #202 ------- August 4, 2005
"Scribbler" -- n. A professional writer
whose views are antagonistic to one's own.

Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914)
"The Devil's Dictionary"

Epistle to the Galatians
Magna Charta of Christian Liberty

If someone asked you to name the very first book written of the 27 books contained in our NT canon, what would your answer be? Many, perhaps, might suggest "Matthew." After all, it appears first in the listing of books, therefore some assume it must have been written first. The 27 books of the NT canon, however, are not listed in order of date written, although the book of Revelation, which appears last, most likely was the final book of the 27 to be written. The first book to be written was Galatians, and I am firmly convinced this was providential. The very first declaration of inspiration was a proclamation of Freedom in Christ, the very message the world, and even the church, needs to hear today!

Paul's letter to the Galatian brethren has often been heralded as the "Magna Charta of Christian Liberty." The Magna Charta ("Great Charter") was a document issued by King John of England on June 15, 1215. Abuses by King John caused a revolt by nobles who compelled him to execute this recognition of rights for both noblemen and ordinary Englishmen. People long to be free, and very few will long tolerate the oppression of those who would presume to lord it over them. Revolution and reform may at times be slow in coming, but come they will. The first message the young church of our Lord Jesus needed to hear -- a message just as needed by the church today -- is that we are free. We have been liberated from the tyranny of law, and we abide in a state of grace. "It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery" (Gal. 5:1). There were some in Paul's day, and many in ours, who sought to enslave the disciples of Christ to a legalistic system. Law is not the basis of our fellowship, unity or salvation, and yet some were (and still are) teaching this fallacious doctrine. Thus, before any other book of the NT canon was ever penned, the apostle Paul, by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, sent out this Great Charter of Christian Liberty in Christ.

My purpose in this current issue of my weekly Reflections is not to provide an in-depth commentary on this epistle, although such would certainly be a worthwhile venture. That would be beyond the scope of these articles. I would suggest, however, that the people of God would be extremely well-served if this epistle was made a frequent focal point of serious study in every congregation. I will be teaching it this coming fall quarter at our congregation on Sunday mornings in one of the adult classes. We need its liberating lessons! In this present article, however, I will seek to provide some of the background information to this epistle that may perhaps make such later textual studies more meaningful. I firmly believe that before any book of the Bible is examined textually, it should be carefully examined contextually. In other words, what prompted the writing of this epistle? Why was it written? Who wrote it? To whom was it written? What is the provenance of the letter? When was it written? What are some of the special features of it? These are all vital questions that need to be addressed and answered if one would truly profit from a study of this, or any, book of the Bible. Perhaps in future editions of these Reflections we shall seek to provide the same information for other parts of God's written revelation, if this present article is well-received and regarded as relevant by the readers.


As to who wrote this first work in the NT canon, there is very little doubt. Some of the NT epistles provide a much greater challenge when seeking to determine authorship -- Hebrews, for example. I would refer the readers to Reflections #128 -- The Authorship of Hebrews: In-depth Investigation into Identity. "Paul, an apostle ... to the churches of Galatia" (Gal. 1:1-2) states the matter clearly. Thus, the author of the epistle claims to be the apostle Paul. Either he is, or he is lying. To suggest the latter is to question the very integrity of the epistle itself, and, indeed, the integrity of the entire biblical canon. There is also a significant amount of autobiographical information provided in this epistle (especially in the first two chapters) that can be easily checked and validated by an appeal to the historical information provided in the book of Acts. This too points to Paul as the author. Thus, almost no one has any significant questions regarding the authorship of Galatians.


Perhaps one of the most important issues connected with any critical background study of this epistle, and certainly one of the most controversial aspects of that study, is: to whom exactly was it written? At first this may seem a rather ridiculous question, for, after all, Gal. 1:2 clearly states Paul is writing to "the churches of Galatia." That narrows it somewhat, but one might still ask: which churches of Galatia? Further, what geographical area is meant by "Galatia"? There are several possibilities. Before examining them in more depth, let me point out that this epistle is the only letter Paul addresses to more than one congregation of believers (although some have suggested Ephesians is more properly a circular letter, and many of Paul's letters were clearly passed around from congregation to congregation -- Col. 4:16). It is also the only letter from Paul in which he fails to name the cities in which these congregations are located. He simply refers to them as "the churches of Galatia," thus leaving scholars today to speculate as to which churches in Galatia.

As previously noted, the problem of identification of destination is compounded by the fact that in the first century there were two possible meanings of the term "Galatia," each indicating a different geographical location. Therefore, biblical interpreters are faced with two significant challenges: (1) Which Galatia, and (2) which cities? Let's begin with the first challenge.

  1. Ethnographic Galatia -- The North Galatian Theory. This was a territory in north-central Asia Minor that was settled by the various Celtic tribes migrating from ancient Gaul (which corresponds to the area currently occupied by France, Belgium, northern Italy, and parts of the Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland). These peoples, at this time, were extremely fierce warriors. Migrating eastward in search of a new homeland, they attacked and almost destroyed Rome, Macedonia, and Greece. They finally settled in north-central Asia Minor and named this place "Galatia." In the year 189 B.C., the Romans, under the leadership of General Manlius Vulso, conquered the Galatians and made them a part of the now expanding Roman Empire. These various conquered peoples were allowed to maintain their boundaries, however, and a certain amount of independence.

  2. Political Galatia -- The South Galatian Theory. In the year 25 B.C., Amyntas, the last of the Galatian kings, died. Augustus Caesar then made Galatia a Roman province. At the same time, he expanded the southern boundaries to include such notable cities as Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe. This southern expansion, along with the original northern areas of Galatia, came to be referred to as "Political Galatia." In the eyes of the Romans, this was just as much a part of Galatia as the original boundaries, however the people of Galatia never really accepted the Roman addition of the southern territory as being a part of Galatia.

Thus, when someone spoke of "Galatia" during the time of the apostle Paul, there were two possible views as to the territory involved. The central question, of course, is this -- which one did Paul have in mind?! This is a far more important question than may at first seem apparent to a casual observer, for the answer will shed light not only on which cities Paul directed this epistle to, but also when it was written, and from where. To complicate the matter even further for the layman, biblical scholars are horribly divided on the issue. It is my opinion, however, that the South Galatian theory is the most tenable, and thus I base my conclusions with regard to both date, destination and provenance on that belief. Obviously, those who hold to the North Galatian view will arrive at different conclusions.

The North Galatian position is a rather difficult one for its adherents to defend, for it is based largely, in my view, upon some rather questionable assumptions. For example, it is assumed that Paul would only have used the term "Galatia" in its ethnic sense, and would never have considered the political aspects of that term. Thus, when Paul calls his readers "Galatians" (Gal. 3:1), he would never be addressing those in the southern addition, since they were only "Galatians" by the decree of Rome. Therefore, they reason, he must be addressing the citizens in the north. However, such a premise fails to account for the fact that Paul, even though a Jew, was nevertheless raised and educated as a Roman citizen, and thus the political sense of the term "Galatia" would have been very familiar to him, and would most probably have been the emphasis of his personal, social and educational environment far more than the ethnic sense.

It is my conviction, however, that the South Galatian position is the correct one, or, at least, the more likely of the two. There are several reasons I favor this view:

  1. Paul was a Roman citizen, thus he would have been more likely to have used the Roman designation for the province than that favored by the Gauls. In fact, that is exactly what he did in 1 Cor. 16. Paul speaks of Macedonia (vs. 5), Achaia (vs. 15), and Asia (vs. 19), all of which were the Roman terms employed for these provinces, although not necessarily the names favored by the locals. In 1 Cor. 16:1 Paul even refers to the "churches of Galatia" --- using this term in the very same chapter where he had previously used other Roman names to refer to other provinces. Thus, it seems apparent that Paul was in the habit of employing the Roman names, rather than the local names, and thus would most likely have Political Galatia in mind, not the original boundaries established by the Gauls.

  2. Paul states, in 1 Cor. 16:1, that the churches of Galatia participated in the "collection for the saints" in Judea. In Acts 20:4 a list of those men who accompanied him back to Jerusalem with these collected funds is given. Two men from cities in Political Galatia are mentioned -- Gaius of Derbe and Timothy of Lystra -- whereas not a single person from Ethnic Galatia is mentioned. This again seems to confirm the South Galatian view.

  3. There is no solid evidence anywhere in the book of Acts that Paul ever journeyed into the area of northern Galatia, or that he established any congregations there. Luke is completely silent about any such missionary effort in that area. However, there is abundant evidence that Paul went throughout southern Galatia, establishing congregations in Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe. Also, Acts 16:1-6 informs us that Paul "passed through the Phrygian and Galatian region," but the only two Galatian cities mentioned in this passage (Derbe and Lystra) are both in southern/political Galatia. The major cities in northern Galatia were Pessinus, Ancyra and Tavium; cities which are never mentioned anywhere in the NT writings.

  4. In Gal. 2:13 Paul speaks of Barnabas in such language that many scholars believe he was known by name to those congregations to whom Paul wrote. According to Acts 13-14 it was Barnabas who traveled with Paul on his first missionary journey when congregations were established in southern Galatia. Thus, Barnabas would indeed have been familiar to those in the south. There is no evidence anywhere in Acts, however, that Barnabas ever went to northern Galatia. In fact, just the opposite. When Paul began his second missionary journey, Barnabas and Mark sailed to Cyprus.

  5. At the time Paul wrote Galatians he speaks of only two visits to Jerusalem following his conversion to Christ Jesus which can be linked with the record in the book of Acts: (1) The visit that took place three years after he was converted, and following his time in Arabia -- Gal. 1:18ff and Acts 9:26ff, and (2) when he brought a contribution for famine relief from Antioch, where Paul had been preaching to Gentiles for almost a year -- Gal. 2:1ff and Acts 11:25ff. Since Paul makes absolutely no mention in Galatians of his trip to Jerusalem for the Jerusalem Council, which is discussed in Acts 15 (occurring in 50 A.D.), and since he is obviously familiar with churches in Galatia, which he himself established during his first missionary journey (which lasted from 45-47 A.D.), and since he makes no mention of the decisions rendered by the Jerusalem Council (which he most certainly would have, given the theme of this epistle, had he been aware of the decrees sent forth from that conference), it is logical to assume, then, that this epistle was written prior to 50 A.D., and the only area of Galatia we know for sure that Paul had traveled to at this time was southern Galatia (specifically, the cities of Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe).

The evidence, in my opinion, is overwhelmingly supportive of the South Galatian theory, and thus the cities he addressed, when speaking of the "churches of Galatia" (Gal. 1:2), would be the very congregations he himself established on his very first missionary journey. There is simply no evidence, internal or external, that lends any credence to the Ethnographic Galatian theory, therefore I am compelled to discount it and to embrace the Political Galatian theory as the correct one.


If the South Galatian theory is the correct one, as I believe it to be, then Paul's epistle to the churches in Galatia would have been written following his first missionary journey (45-47 A.D.), and yet prior to the Jerusalem Council (50 A.D.). There is really only one place that "fits the bill" for the provenance (place of origin) of this epistle -- Antioch in Syria. At the conclusion of his first missionary journey, Paul returned to Syrian Antioch where he "spent a long time with the disciples" (Acts 14:28). This "long time" would have been from 47-50 A.D., a period during which Paul and Barnabas worshipped and worked with the congregation in Antioch. It was during this time that Paul wrote this epistle to the congregations he had established just a couple of years previously in southern Galatia.


As has already been noticed, the time of composition for Paul's epistle to the Galatians would be during the "long time spent with the disciples" in the city of Antioch in Syria. This would place the date sometime around 48-49 A.D., just shortly after the congregations in southern Galatia had been established by him. This also fits well with his statement to them in Gal. 1:6 -- "I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel." Since very little time had passed between the establishment of those congregations during the first missionary journey and the writing of this epistle, the phrase "so quickly" does indeed fit.

Paul's Purpose

Why did Paul write this epistle? What purpose did he have in mind? Since Paul had not previously written any epistles, at least none of which we are aware, something must have compelled him to invest the time to compose these special thoughts for these brethren at this particular time. Understanding a letter's intent is always a vital key to the proper interpretation of that letter. There are several reasons why Paul produced this document:

  1. One of the reasons was to defend his apostleship, which had once again been called into question by his detractors. The first couple of chapters are filled with personal references clearly designed to establish his credibility among his readers, a credibility being strongly challenged by his critics. Thus, he makes it clear that his ministry is not from men, but from the Lord Jesus Himself. "Paul, an apostle (not sent from men, nor through the agency of man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father)" (Gal. 1:1). "For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ" (Gal. 1:11-12). "He set me apart, even from my mother's womb, and called me through His grace" (Gal. 1:15). Paul even stresses that he did not "consult with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me" (Gal. 1:16-17). This was all to establish the genuineness of his calling, a calling which some were apparently questioning --- "Now in what I am writing to you, I assure you before God that I am not lying!" (Gal. 1:20).

  2. These critics of Paul were also troubling the saints in the cities in which Paul had previously preached the gospel of Jesus Christ, distorting that gospel (Gal. 1:7). Some, sadly, were even turning away from the truth and deserting the Lord for "a different gospel" (Gal. 1:6). These were very likely the Judaizers, who were trying to force the Galatian brethren, who were mostly Gentiles, to accept circumcision and the observance of Jewish customs and laws as essential to salvation. These Judaizers were also very active in Syrian Antioch, where Paul was, at this time; causing turmoil that would quickly lead to the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:1ff). Paul had "great dissension and debate with them" (Acts 15:2). He even characterized these men to the Galatians as "false brethren who had sneaked in to spy out our liberty we have in Christ Jesus, in order to bring us into bondage" (Gal. 2:4). Paul declared, "We did not yield in subjection to them for even an hour, so that the truth of the gospel might remain with you" (Gal. 2:5).

  3. There is some evidence that these troublers of the Galatian brethren may have been somewhat Gnostic in their thinking and practice. Paul cautioned the saints in Galatia not to turn their freedom into "an opportunity for the flesh" (Gal. 5:13). Moral laxity, or libertinism, was one aspect of Gnostic thinking that needed to be guarded against continually. A turning back to "elemental forces," and the observance of seasonal markers (Gal. 4:9-10), were also tenets of this teaching.

  4. Another extremely important aspect of this work, and a vital part of the teaching of the apostle Paul throughout his ministry, was the recognition that justification is by faith, and NOT by works of law. This would be contrary to the message of the Judaizers, and thus it was critical these fairly new converts come to appreciate the distinction between justification and salvation by means of their own human effort or merit, and the free gift of justification and salvation by grace through faith. "A man is not justified by works of law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. ... by works of law shall no flesh be justified" (Gal. 2:16). Indeed, "if righteousness comes through law, then Christ died needlessly" (Gal. 2:21). Paul then stresses in chapter 5 the consequence of a return to law -- it severs one from Christ and causes them to fall from grace (Gal. 5:4). In Christ Jesus, legalistic requirements are meaningless; all that matters is faith actively demonstrating itself through love (Gal. 5:6).

  5. It should also not be overlooked that Paul sought to impress upon the hearts and minds of these Galatian brethren that their freedom in Christ did not give them license to practice lawlessness and immorality, which was apparently one of the tenets of the group known as the Nicolaitans (Rev. 2:6, 14-15). I would refer the reader to my article on the history and teachings of this early church heretical group: Reflections #73 -- The Nicolaitans: A Case Study in Compromise. Paul's classic contrast between the works of the flesh (Gal. 5:19-21) and the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23) has long been one of the most studied, and certainly one of the most spiritually beneficial, portions of Scripture among genuine believers. It is the age-old battle between walking by the Spirit or carrying out the desires of the flesh.

  6. The primacy of LOVE is central to the teaching of the epistle to the Galatians. "Through love serve one another" (Gal. 5:13). "For the entire law is fulfilled in one statement: Love your neighbor as yourself. But if you bite and devour one another, watch out, or you will be consumed by one another" (Gal. 5:14-15). "But the fruit of the Spirit is love..." (Gal. 5:22). LOVE will prompt the believer to restore those who are caught in some trespass (Gal. 6:1), to bear one another's burdens (Gal. 6:2), to share with those who teach them (Gal. 6:6), to not lose heart in doing good (Gal. 6:9-10), and to "not become boastful, challenging one another, envying one another" (Gal. 5:26).

  7. The principle of reciprocity is clearly perceived in this epistle; a message to which the troublers of the church, both then and now, obviously need to pay greater attention. They need to understand that "whatever a man sows, this he will also reap!" (Gal. 6:7). This might be a good time for us all to reflect once again on Reflections #172 -- The Principle of Reciprocity: Reaping Exactly What You Sow.

Special Features

Each of the 66 books in the Bible is peerless. They all have special features and characteristics that make them singularly memorable and meaningful to those who devote themselves to prayerful reflection upon their inspired contents and concepts. Let us notice a few of these unique features of the epistle to the Galatians:

  1. Galatians is the only letter written by Paul that is addressed to a group of congregations. It is also the only epistle in which the congregations addressed are unnamed.

  2. Next to 2 Corinthians, many feel Galatians to be the most autobiographical of Paul's epistles.

  3. Galatians is the first known letter written by the apostle Paul, and most scholars believe it also to be the first book penned in the NT canon.

  4. The epistle to the Galatian brethren has been called "The Epistle of Conflict." Dr. Everett F. Harrison wrote, "The tone of the letter is noticeably sharp, especially in dealing with the Judaizers, but also in rebuking the Galatians" (Introduction to the New Testament, p. 279). "The tone of the book is warlike. It fairly crackles with indignation though it is not the anger of personal pique but of spiritual principle. He reproved the Galatians for their acceptance of legalistic error" (Dr. Merrill C. Tenney, New Testament Survey, p. 269). This is an epistle that immediately, and very forcefully, goes on the attack, even omitting the usual initial note of thanksgiving that would become characteristic of Paul's later writings.

  5. It is only within this particular epistle that Paul calls attention to his handwriting. He also apparently writes a section of the epistle (Gal. 6:11-18) in his own handwriting, rather than dictating his thoughts to a scribe. "See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand" (Gal. 6:11). Some scholars feel the entire epistle may well have been written by Paul's own hand, rather than just this last section. Either way, Paul draws attention to his handwriting. This may have served the purpose of showing his deep personal concern for them, or even to validate that this message was indeed from him, and not from someone else perhaps impersonating him. There is obviously much speculation as to his purpose in mentioning his handwriting.


Dr. Everett F. Harrison captured the focus of this great epistle quite beautifully in the following statement -- "No writing could better demonstrate how the creation of a certain moment can become a norm for all time. The issue that had to be decided was whether Christianity should be determined by Judaism or develop in terms of its own genius. More specifically, the question was the very continuance of the gospel in its simplicity and purity. Was more needed for admission to the church than faith in Christ and his finished work? This epistle answers eloquently, NO!" (Introduction to the New Testament, p. 280).

The early church faced a crisis of faith ... literally. Either salvation was by grace through faith, or it was by meritorious works of law, with grace and faith thrown in as "leveling agents" for our imperfections with respect to knowledge and performance. Before a single word had been penned of the 27 books of the NT canon, Paul stepped boldly into this theological arena and proclaimed the supremacy of faith and the futility of law to effect justification, fellowship and salvation. When legalists sought to enslave their fellow disciples once more to the dictates of a rigid legal system, Paul confronted them head-on with the fact of freedom in Christ Jesus. This first inspired writing of the New Covenant era was a bold, war-like tome intended to defeat the enemies of Christian liberty before they gained a foothold.

"Not many books have made such a lasting impression on men's minds as the Epistle of Paul to the Galatians, nor have many done so much to shape the history of the Western world. Galatians has been called the 'Magna Charta of Christian Liberty,' and this is quite correct. For it rightly maintains that only through the grace of God in Jesus Christ is a person enabled to escape the curse of his sin and of the law and to live a new life, not in bondage or license, but in a genuine freedom of mind and of spirit through the power of God. Because of this powerful truth, Galatians was the cornerstone of the Protestant Reformation" (The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 10, p. 409).

Down, But Not Out
A Study of Divorce and Remarriage
in Light of God's Healing Grace

by Al Maxey
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Reflections from Readers

From a Minister in India:

Dear Brother, Your analysis of Romans 16:7 was brilliant. Your research and style of thinking, and how you provide such great exegesis on a dry subject, is amazing. Now I understand the importance of each and every verse of the Bible much better. You also have a magnificent graphic artist; you two are a good combination.

From a Reader in California:

Al, Congratulations from us on your long marriage to Shelly! We have celebrated our 48th anniversary. How can one not believe in the GRACE of God?! I really, really enjoy the letters from other believers in your "Reflections from Readers" section. Thanks! I haven't yet finished the article for this week, but I will.

From a Minister in Kentucky:

Bro. Al, It's been a long time since I've written. I just wanted to encourage you to keep up the excellent work you are doing. Spreading the good news of the kingdom and seeking to open people's eyes to truth can be exhausting. Thank you for your earnest and enduring spirit! With your diligent and thorough analysis of Scripture you've helped me think through a number of issues in the past. Keep up the wonderful work, brother!

From a Minister in Alabama:

Brother Al, now you've gone and messed up!! The traditionalists will come after you stronger than ever because of your new book "Down, But Not Out." I know it must be a good 'un, though, because my old friend, Olan Hicks, has endorsed it. I hope it sells a million copies!!

From a Reader in Texas:

Brother Al, I printed off your Reflections #201 right before heading off to work today, and I finally had the opportunity to read it about 2200 hours! Excellent study on Andronicus and Junia! You covered both sides of this discussion very fairly, and I appreciate very much your ability to simplify both sides of the discussion for those who don't want to go into too much depth. I will be adding an additional link on my web site to your Reflections #201 for people who are interested in this particular part of the "gender issue" in the church, as Junia is definitely brought up in many discussions. I am really looking forward to getting the next issue of your Reflections just to see if we can disagree on something -- although that's pretty rare! By the way, Happy Anniversary ... my wife and I are just about seven months behind you and Shelly! Also, our oldest daughter is now on the job as the full time Children's Minister at a Church of Christ just north of Houston.

From a Reader in Oklahoma:

I am looking forward to receiving your book. I would have ordered your book regardless of seeing Olan's recommendation, but now that he's said what he said, I am sure I will love it. I have admired Olan's scholarship on this subject for years. May God bless many people through your efforts!

From a Minister in New Mexico:

Brother Al, I am your neighbor just to your west in Las Cruces at the Agape Christian Church. I love your web site, and am interested in your new book and your background. I am glad that you are hanging tough in Alamogordo; it is a town, just like Las Cruces, that has a lot of potential. I would love to visit with you some time and see if there is any way we all could have some fellowship together. Let me hear from you. With love from the "outlaw" Christian Church in Las Cruces!

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