To whom was the Letter to the ‘Galatians’ written?

Recently, I taught a bible study course through the Galatian epistle and began the first lesson by discussing only the first three words of the text, “Paul, an Apostle…”[1] ‘Who is Paul?’ and ‘What is an Apostle?’ seemed to be two questions that needed to be asked and answered before we could move on to anything else. There is another pressing question, however, that has been asked at the outset of this same letter.

Just after his own introduction, the Apostle Paul addresses his letter’s recipients, “To the churches of Galatia… (ταῖς ἐκκλησίαις τῆς Γαλατίας).”  Who were the Galatian Christians to whom the Apostle Paul wrote? This question may or may not have a similar bearing on interpretation and application to my previously recommended inquiries, but the question is an important one nonetheless. The perceived destination of this letter can have an impact on the interpretation of such a text, but an interest in a destination of the Galatian epistle certainly has a great deal to do with the dating of its authorship. Therefore, questions regarding the recipients and the destination of any biblical text are important for more than just critical scholars.

In the first century B.C. the province of Galatia, variable in size over the years, was under the rule of the Celtic king Amyntas. At its peak expanse, Galatia stretched from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean and always covered the central land area that was home to many Celts, including three Celtic tribes – referenced later in the ‘North Galatia’ theory. Having been willed to Rome in 25 B.C. and modified at its frontiers, in the Apostle Paul’s day the province of Galatia still encompassed vast parts of Lycaonia, Pisidia, and Phrygia.[2] It is apparent that the term ‘Galatia’ certainly has the potential to be less than helpful in discovering the exact audience of Paul’s letter to the Galatians.

According to scholars, there are only two conceivable destinations for this letter. One possibility is that the letter was written to “three Celtic tribes akin to the Gauls,” which Cole says were known as Galatians, “who had invaded and subsequently occupied Asia Minor in the third century before Christ.”[3] This is the theory that the Apostle Paul used the term Galatia in what is described by Fung as the “enthnogeographical sense,”[4] referring to the ethnic group located in the northern part of the province of Galatia. This is known as the ‘North Galatian’ theory.

The other plausible option is that the epistle was written to a broader group defined by Cole as the “radically mixed inhabitants of the Roman province of Galatia, and the name ‘Galatians’ was simply used as a handy common term to cover them all.”[5] This is the theory that the Apostle Paul used the term Galatia to denote an expansive Roman province, referring to the general composition of churches he had established across the southern part of the Roman province of Galatia. This is known as the ‘South Galatia’ theory. Common geographical and ethnic labels (especially those used by the Apostle Paul), the varying composition of the Roman province of Galatia, the chronology of the Apostle Paul’s missionary journeys, and the correlation of many of the details of the Apostle Paul’s life experiences recorded in this letter as compared to other New Testament writings will all contribute to the discussion concerning which of these two theories best provides the most plausible destination.

North Galatia Theory

The ‘North Galatia’ theory maintains that the Apostle Paul wrote this letter to the Celtic group of believers in Northern Galatia, the area of modern day Turkey. The ‘North Galatia’ theory was the position held by the early Church fathers, and was the dominant view of scholarship until the nineteenth century.[6] Tucker, an associate professor of New Testament at Moody Theological Seminary, said that there are more commentaries from the early Church fathers on Paul’s epistle to the Galatians than from than any other New Testament book.[7]

The endorsement of the patristics, however, is not a sure road to certainty on any New Testament matter; and Martin Luther did not seem to know of the theory when he wrote in the sixteenth century in his commentary on the epistle, “Paul had preached the Gospel throughout Galatia, founding many churches which after his departure were invaded by the false apostles.”[8] It appears that Luther understood Paul’s letter to have been destined for those churches about which he also read in Luke’s record of Paul’s journeys. He mentions no thought of unnamed churches in northern Galatia being the addressees of such an inspired communiqué.

At any rate, the Galatia of the early Church fathers’ day had already been significantly pruned from the expansive territory with the same name in the Apostle Paul’s lifetime. The Galatia that the patristics knew was virtually comprised only by the Celtic heartland, which is the home of three Celtic tribes – the claimed audience of the ‘North Galatia’ theory. This, it would seem, makes the position of the Church fathers a good assessment of their contemporary common viewpoint, but no real indicator as to the actual intended audience of the Apostle Paul.

J. B. Lightfoot, Fung declares, is the classical proponent of the ‘North Galatia’ argument, and James Moffatt as well as others joined him in the debate. This view remains widely held, “predominantly but not exclusively in Germany.”[9] The adherents to this view are not without warrant, and there are a number of reasons that one may find the ‘North Galatia’ theory appealing. In fact, Carson and Moo list as many as eight points of positive argument for the proposition. For the discussion here, several will surely suffice.

First, many ‘North Galatia’ proponents contend that the term Galatia carried the intended meaning of referring to the locale of the Gaul inhabitants of the north.  Their point is that the term was simply acceptable shorthand for the audience they claim as most likely. Next, it is argued that Phrygians would not have found the label of Galatians very appealing as a designative term to include them. It is said that both Phrygians and Lycaonians would have perceived the term as an insult to them because it would remind them of their Roman rule.[10] Cole says that some ‘North Galatia’ theorists claim that calling someone a “Galatian” at that time would have been the equivalent of calling them a “country bumpkin.”[11]

Then there is the example of Luke’s denotations of geographical locations in Acts 13 and 14. In both of these chapters Luke uses specific designations for certain cities in relation to their geography.  Antioch is called “Pisidian” (Acts 13:14), and Lystra and Derbe are referred to as “cities of Lycaonia” (Acts 14:6). These two citations are interesting when compared with Luke’s reference to “the region of Phrygia and Galatia” (Acts 16:6). The North Galatia theorist says, “we must understand him to mean geographic Phrygia and geographic Galatia – that is, North Galatia.”[12]

The Apostle Paul was a traveling evangelist if he was anything, and his missionary journeys are famous. While some would dismiss the ‘North Galatia’ theory on the grounds that the Apostle Paul simply could not have evangelized the area claimed by the theory, the arguments against such a possibility seem inconclusive. In fact, those who hold the ‘North Galatia’ view find tremendous evidence for a Pauline visit to north Galatia in the text of Acts 16 as it relates to the Apostle Paul’s physical disease (Galatians 4:13-14) and his resulting providential stay with the Galatians. It would be perfectly in keeping with what we know of the Apostle Paul to consider his interest in making the most of an opportunity provided him by God to proclaim the Gospel to the people of north Galatia. According to this view, the Galatian epistle is a follow up letter to Paul’s divinely orchestrated encounter with the northern Galatians.

Probably the most curious argument I found in favor of the ‘North Galatia’ theory was that of the potentially conflicting records concerning the Apostle Paul’s experience of opposition. The record we find in Acts of Paul’s missionary journeys includes one account after another of persecution and hardship concerning the response of the hearers and the reception of the Gospel. Yet, there is no mention of any opposition experienced by Paul in any Galatian city. It seems that a reasonable explanation for this confusion lack of persecution would be that the Apostle was writing not to several cities across the Roman province of Galatia, but to a particular people group – namely the Celtic tribes – in northern Galatia.

While the ‘North Galatia’ theory does have the benefit of longstanding adherence, and it poses some interesting arguments, this theory seems less than completely convincing. The reasons listed here are all, with the exception of the last one mentioned, provided with a retort and even dismissed as they are listed in most of the material investigated for this essay. The ‘North Galatia’ theory is accompanied by the postulation of a later date for the authorship of the letter as well, and this appears (at least to the present writer) to hurt rather than help its case. Far from providing a coherent chronology through the use of geographical sequence, the ‘North Galatia’ theory seems to ring its own death knell in its dating options.

South Galatia Theory

While the ‘South Galatia’ theory is fairly new, when compared with its antagonist, it has overtaken the place of majority scholarly adherence if at least in the English speaking world.[13] This transfer of dominance is due to many things, but it seems that one of the greatest evidences for the ‘South Galatia’ theory is the preponderance of familiarity that the New Testament has with the southern locale in the Roman province of Galatia. Carson muses, “We have information about people and places Paul knew and visited in the southern region, but none at all in the north (at best Acts 16:6 and 18:23 may indicate work in the north, but neither passage says that Paul founded churches there).” Carson concludes, “This is in striking contrast to his work in other areas.”[14] It is a noticeable dissimilarity indeed.

As mentioned earlier, Galatia was a large Roman province that included a much greater expanse than the Celtic tribal loci. In fact, the cities of Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe were all included in the southern region of Galatia. The significance of these cities and their general collective location lends great weight to the ‘South Galatia’ theory because they are all included in the list of recorded cities visited by the Apostle Paul, and the New Testament has great familiarity with them. Luke writes of these named cities as places where the Apostle Paul founded churches on his first missionary journey, which is documented in Acts 13:13 through Acts 14:28.[15]

In a telling statement, Carson quotes the ‘North Galatia’ theory’s spearhead, Lightfoot, who said, “It is strange that while we have more or less acquaintance with all the other important Churches of St. Paul’s founding, with Corinth and Ephesus, with Philippi and Thessalonica, not a single name of a person or place, scarcely be preserved in either the history or the epistle.”[16] With these words, Lightfoot acknowledges the inconceivability of his own theory in light of the total absence of any explicit Pauline visit, much less any record of the Apostle planting a local church among the northern Galatian Celts. This ground of the debate is so vital that it hardly needs stressing, and one might think there be no reason to continue the discussion in terms of uncertainty regarding the destination of the letter to the Galatians. Yet, there is more.

Fung suggests the ‘South Galatia’ theory is correct for at least three reasons, which he says are particularly cogent.

First, “what is known of the geographical situation at the time: none of the main roads in Asia Minor even passed through North Galatia, so that had Paul wanted to go to preach the gospel there he would not have set our from Lystra (cf. Acts 16:1, 6).”[17] This argument is from practical travel ability; Paul simply could not have gone the route postulated by those of the ‘North Galatia’ theory. If the Apostle Paul would have actually made the trek north to the Celtic tribes located there, he would have started at another beginning point. Yet, Lystra being the doubtful starting point of a trip north, the ‘North Galatia’ theory has no other textual springboard to which it may point.

Second, “Paul’s evangelistic strategy: it is obvious from Acts that Paul consistently concentrated his efforts on the main roads and centers of communication in the Roman Empire, and until the end of the third century South Galatia was more important than North Galatia and correspondingly more developed.”[18] Again, Fung appeals to all that we know to be true about the Apostle to the Gentiles (Galatians 2:7-8). Paul was repeatedly traveling to the cities and along the routes that would provide him the greatest numerical audience and farthest possible reach for his message. Southern Galatia’s cities simply enjoyed higher population numbers and greater influence that did those of Northern Galatia. Paul would most certainly have gone anywhere and preached to anyone, but he was a masterful tactical evangelist.

Third, “the silence of Acts regarding the establishment of churches in North Galatia: this silence, over against the author’s explicit mention of churches in South Galatia, would be extremely difficult to explain if the controversy reflected in Galatians had been a controversy with the churches in North Galatia.”[19] This is similar to the argument already encountered, but it is noteworthy to mention not only the general lack of evidence for any Pauline visit, but also the specific lack of evidence regarding a Pauline planted church in north Galatia. Paul’s letter to the churches of Galatia is directed at a plurality of churches, and it is tremendously personal as well as relational.

The churches of North Galatia seem less likely to go unnoticed by the New Testament text than does a single church in northern Galatia. While it is possible, it is all the more unlikely that the audience is multiple unknown churches northern Galatia. Additionally, the experiences of the Apostle Paul among the churches of Galatia recounted in the letter that bears the name are personal and seemingly extended over time. Lastly, the churches of Galatia can hardly be thought to have gone completely unnamed while seemingly enjoying such broad knowledge and even guests from other places. These churches of Galatia knew (or at least knew of) Peter, James, John, Barnabas, and Titus (Galatians 2:1-9). They were even significant enough as to have received the same message as was carried by the “men from James or Jerusalem” (Galatians 2:12), namely that Christians were only true Christians if they lived according to Jewish laws and customs.

Dating the Epistle to the Galatians

One can hardly attempt an address of the potential destination of the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians without recognizing that the date of its authorship has a direct correlation. One commentary says, “The question of the letter’s date is intertwined with the problem of its destination.”[20] The two questions are linked, and how one answers the question of one will affect the options he has in answering the other. The writer goes on to draw out the dating dilemma,

“When we follow the course of Paul’s first and second missionary journeys (Acts 13; 14; 15: 36-18: 22) we discover that this question has implications for the epistle’s date and for its relationship to Paul’s other letters. Paul visited Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe (all cities in south Galatia) on his first and second missionary journeys. If Paul wrote to southern Galatia, he probably wrote to those churches early in his career, shortly after the first missionary journey, or about the time of the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15; cf. Gal. 2: 11-14). The date most often given by those who hold this view is A.D. 49. If this is correct, Galatians may be Paul’s earliest epistle in existence today.”[21]

Indeed, this would prove to be incredibly noteworthy. If the Apostle Paul wrote this letter to the churches of Galatia in or about 49 A.D., that would have a tremendous impact on the discussion concerning an early construction of Christian theology, early ecclesiastical interaction (see especially Galatians chapters 5 and 6), and an amazingly fast spread of the Gospel of Jesus Christ from the time of His death, resurrection and ascension. Christians would have good reason to see the foundational structure of the faith once and for all delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3) delivered specifically to the saints of Galatia very early on (Galatians 1:6). Not only would this put Paul in the midst of church planting about 15 years after the death, resurrection and ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ; it would move that date even further in the past. We would not expect that Paul means only a few weeks when he admits his astonishment at the seemingly speedy desertion of the Gospel by his letter’s recipients. It would be prudent to understand Paul’s church planting work and coherent Gospel presentations to have been prevalent and effective some significant amount of time before this epistle was written.

The same commentary already referenced goes on to explain the dating options for the opposing view of intentional destination.

“Many scholars think that Galatians was written to the ethnic Galatians in the north. If this view is correct, Paul probably wrote the letter after passing through “Galatia and Phrygia” (Acts 18: 23) on his third missionary Journey. Many who follow the “north Galatian theory” believe that Paul wrote the letter either during his two-year stay in Ephesus (Acts 19) or as he was traveling through Macedonia on his way to Greece at the end of his third missionary journey (Acts 20: 1-6; cf. 2 Cor. 2: 13). If this is correct, Galatians was probably written in A.D. 54 or 55.”[22]

Rather than placing this letter between the Apostle’s first and second missionary journeys, the later proposed time of composition would date it near the end of Paul’s third missionary journey. The two date options are not significantly different regarding the passing of time; 5 years is certainly not an extremely long time. However, the significance of the timely arrival of the material in the letter is diminished at this later date. Again, the dating of this letter may be weightier because of the possibility that it is the first and earliest of all New Testament texts. At any rate, the ‘North Galatia’ theory seems less likely on the scale of geography and the recorded church planting activity of the Apostle Paul. Therefore, the later dating may not have any feet on which to stand before it even attempts the act. However, there is also good reason to accept the earlier date on its own terms.

Carson lists four reasons that the earlier date is better supported. One, “In protesting that he had a divine commission and not one derived ‘from any human source’ (1:12), Paul lists his contacts with the Jerusalem apostles.”[23] These contacts include two visits to Jerusalem (Galatians 2:1-2), which seem to correspond to the visits recorded in Acts 9:26 and Acts 11:28-30. After he lists these encounters, he resolves “I assure you before God that what I am writing you is no lie” (Galatians 1:20). This line of reasoning goes on then, “Paul’s list must be complete, else his argument would be vitiated (see 1:20).”[24] Therefore, he cannot have left out the Acts 15 visit, unless that visit had not yet occurred, and remain true to his word.

Two, “Paul does not mention the decree of the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15), which would have been very suitable for his purpose. This suggests a visit [that is a visit to the letter’s recipients in Galatia] before the council.”[25] The suggestion of a visit before the council on the ground that Paul does not mention the decree of it alone is not sufficient, because Paul does not mention the decree in other of his writings that were authored demonstrably later. However, the point is notable nonetheless as it would have been significant to mention it and beneficial to his argument.

Carson’s third point is that “Peter’s withdrawal from table fellowship with the Gentiles (2:12) is more likely to have been before rather than after the council.”[26] While the Apostle to the Jews, Peter (Galatians 2:7-8), was certainly not a beacon of tact and propriety in some notable moments of New Testament history, it still does not make sense that he would make the statements that he does at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:7-11) and then later act in such a contradictory way (Galatians 2:12). It would make more sense to understand Peter’s vacillation on table fellowship with Gentiles to have occurred prior to his bold and courageous statements in front of the most notable Jewish leaders of his own day.

Fourth and finally, Carson asserts, “The early date is not invalidated by Paul’s words ‘I first preached the gospel to you’ (4:13), which some suggest means ‘on the first of my two visits’ (NEB) and points to a date later than Paul’s second missionary journey.”[27] This point is a bit more academic than the previous three, but a great one to add at this juncture. Some would argue that Paul’s expression cited above indicates that he visited the Galatian churches more than once, and this is simply not the case with the southern Galatian churches who would have been the recipients of the letter according to the ‘South Galatia’ theory. However, Carson defends his statement with some linguistic instruction of his own.

“In classical Greek the expression means on the former of two occasions, but in Hellenistic Greek it signifies ‘formerly, in the past’ (as in John 6:62; 9:8; Heb. 4:6, etc.). In any case, Paul visited his South Galatian churches twice during his first expedition (see Acts 14:21), so that even if the Greek expression is taken to mean ‘on the first of my two visits,’ the second visit may have been the return swing on the first missionary journey (Acts 12:21-26), rather than something later.”[28]

Therefore, it is possible that Paul was writing to the same churches posited as the recipients in the ‘South Galatia’ theory. Moreover, the preponderance of evidence demonstrates that it is not only possible, but also incredibly likely that this was the case. It is the view of the present writer that the ‘North Galatia’ theory is not tenable, and the ‘South Galatia’ theory is reasonable.

Additionally, the earlier dating (circa 49 A.D.) of the letter makes it a fascinating study as the earliest New Testament document. This has huge implications for both textual criticism dialogues and apologetic exchanges. The interpretation of the Galatian epistle does not seem to be impacted by the implications of a northern or southern destination, and this also points to the significance in the early dating. The letter addresses universal truths concerning law, grace, gospel, faith, sin, true freedom, and God’s steadfast commitment to all those He chooses to call His own. These theological articulations at such an early point of Christianity’s chronology is very interesting to say the least.

Bibliography

Carson, D. A., and Douglas J. Moo. An Introduction to the New Testament. Second ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005.

Clements, Don K., comp. New Geneva Introduction to the New Testament. Edited by R. C. Sproul. Narrows, VA: Metokos Press, 2006.

Cole, R. A. Galatians: An Introduction and Commentary. Edited by Leon Morris. Nottingham, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 2008.

Fung, Ronald Y. K. NICNT: The Epistle to the Galatians. Edited by Gordon D. Fee. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 1988.

Hendriksen, William. New Testament Commentary: Exposition of Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2002.

Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001.

Keller, Timothy J. Galatians for You. [Purcellville, VA]: Good Book Company, 2013.

Lightfoot, Joseph Barber. Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians. A Revised Text with Introduction, Notes and Dissertations. London: Macmillan and, 1890.

Luther, Martin. Commentary on Galatians. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1979.

Tucker, Brian J. “Galatians and Ephesians.” Galatians and Ephesians. http://www.slideboom.com/presentations/380085/Galatians-and-Ephesians.


[1] Galatians 1:1a.  All Biblical citations are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise indicated.

[2] Carson, An Introduction to the New Testament, 458.

[3] Cole, Galatians: An Introduction and Commentary, 21.

[4] Fung, NICNT: The Epistle to the Galatians, 1.

[5] Cole, Galatians: An Introduction and Commentary, 21.

[6] Fung, NICNT: The Epistle to the Galatians, 1.

[7] Tucker, Galatians and Ephesians.

[8] Luther, Galatians 1:2b

[9] Fung, NICNT: The Epistle to the Galatians, 1.

[10] Carson, An Introduction to the New Testament, 460.

[11] Cole, Galatians: An Introduction and Commentary, 24.

[12] Carson, An Introduction to the New Testament, 460.

[13] Fung, NICNT: The Epistle to the Galatians, 2.

[14] Carson, An Introduction to the New Testament, 458.

[15] Fung, NICNT: The Epistle to the Galatians, 1.

[16] Carson, An Introduction to the New Testament, 458.

[17] Fung, NICNT: The Epistle to the Galatians, 3.

[18] Fung, NICNT: The Epistle to the Galatians, 3.

[19] Fung, NICNT: The Epistle to the Galatians, 3.

[20] Clements, New Geneva Introduction to the New Testament.

[21] Clements, New Geneva Introduction to the New Testament.

[22] Clements, New Geneva Introduction to the New Testament.

[23] Carson, An Introduction to the New Testament, 462.

[24] Carson, An Introduction to the New Testament, 462.

[25] Carson, An Introduction to the New Testament, 462.

[26] Carson, An Introduction to the New Testament, 462.

[27] Carson, An Introduction to the New Testament, 462.

[28] Carson, An Introduction to the New Testament, 462.

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