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Galatians: Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament

Galatians: Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament

by Thomas R. Schreiner

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Designed for the pastor and Bible teacher, this series brings together commentary features rarely gathered together in one volume. Written by notable evangelical scholars, each volume in the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament series treats the literary context and structure of the passage in the original Greek. The series consistently provides the


Designed for the pastor and Bible teacher, this series brings together commentary features rarely gathered together in one volume. Written by notable evangelical scholars, each volume in the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament series treats the literary context and structure of the passage in the original Greek. The series consistently provides the main point, an exegetical outline, verse-by-verse commentary, and theology in application in each section of every commentary. Critical scholarship informs each step but does not dominate the commentary, allowing readers to concentrate on the biblical author’s message as it unfolds. While primarily designed for those with a basic knowledge of biblical Greek, all who strive to understand and teach the New Testament will find these books beneficial. The ZECNT series covers the entire New Testament in twenty volumes; Clinton E. Arnold serves as general editor. In this volume, Thomas R. Schreiner offers pastors, students, and teachers a focused resource for reading Galatians. Through the use of graphic representations of translations, succinct summaries of main ideas, exegetical outlines and other features, Schreiner presents Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians with precision and accuracy. Because of this series’ focus on the textual structure of the scriptures, readers will better understand the literary elements of Galatians, comprehend the author’s revolutionary goals, and ultimately discover their vital claims upon the church today.

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Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament
By Thomas R. Schreiner


Copyright © 2010 Thomas R. Schreiner
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-310-24372-4


Martin Luther captured the message of Galatians and the teaching of Jesus (Matt 5:3) when he wrote:

Therefore, God accepts only the forsaken, cures only the sick, gives sight only to the blind, restores life to only the dead, sanctifies only the sinners, gives wisdom only to the unwise fools. In short, He has mercy only on those who are wretched, and gives grace only to those who are not in grace. Therefore no proud saint, no wise or just person, can become God's material, and God's purpose cannot be fulfilled in him. He remains in his own work and makes a fictitious, pretended, false, and painted saint of himself, that is, a hypocrite.

Amazingly, Gordon Fee writes from quite a different perspective, saying that his goal is to help people read Galatians "as if the Reformation had never happened." On the one hand, Fee's goal is laudable. He wants to read the text on its own terms. On the other hand, it is remarkably naïve and ahistorical, for he pretends that he can read Galatians as a neutral observer of the text apart from the history of the church. I am not suggesting that we must read Galatians in defense of the Reformation, nor am I denying that the Reformation may be askew in some of its emphases. But it must be acknowledged that none of us can read Galatians as if the Reformation never occurred. Such a reading is five hundred years too late. Nor can we read Galatians as if the twentieth century never happened or apart from the works of Ignatius, Irenaeus, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, and the like. We can consider whether Reformation emphases were wrong (I will argue that they were not), but what we cannot do is read Galatians as if we were the first readers.

Paul is engaged in a battle for the gospel in this letter, and his words still speak to us today. Vital issues for the Christian life are tackled in Galatians. Paul unpacks the heart of the gospel. We see the meaning and the centrality of justification by faith, which Luther rightly argued was the article by which the church stands or falls. How can a person stand before a holy God without being condemned? Paul answers that question in Galatians.

Jesus Christ is also central in Galatians. We will see that Jesus is fully divine and hence should be worshiped. And the cross of Christ plays a fundamental role in the letter, for no one is justified apart from the cross. Believers are right with God because Christ on the cross bore the curse that believers deserved, and Christ freed us from the power of sin through his death and resurrection.

Paul also emphasizes the power of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers, for as Christians we please God only through relying on the Spirit. The Christian life is not an exercise in autonomy or self-effort but is lived in dependence on the Holy Spirit. The role of the law in the Christian life is also unpacked, so that we gain a sharper profile of the relationship between the old covenant and the new, between the law and the gospel, between the old age and the age to come. Galatians focuses on soteriology, but at the same time the nature of sin is set forth in the letter, and thereby we understand more clearly why the death of Jesus Christ is of supreme importance. Reading Galatians should not be merely an academic enterprise. The gospel Paul proclaims in it has often been used by the Lord to revive the church. We see from Paul's passion for the gospel that issues of life and death are at stake.


No significant scholarly debate exists on whether Paul wrote Galatians. Indeed, Galatians is often identified as quintessentially Pauline. I will assume, therefore, without further argumentation that Galatians was written by Paul.


Was the letter to the Galatians written to south or north Galatia? Why does it even matter? It should be said at the outset that the destination of the letter does not fundamentally change its interpretation. Where it makes a difference is in terms of history. The destination of the letter determines how we correlate Galatians with Acts. For instance, did Paul's confrontation with Peter (Gal 2:11-14) take place before the apostolic council of Acts 15 (so most who support the south Galatian theory) or after that meeting (the north Galatian theory)? Now it does affect interpretation to some extent. Does Paul omit mentioning any of his visits to Jerusalem in the letter to the Galatians (see more on this below)? How do we correlate the Pauline visits to Jerusalem with his visits as they are recorded in Acts? The issue is of some importance because we have a historical faith and believe that the events of biblical history are significant. Still, the importance of the issue must not be exaggerated, and some readers may want to skip to the next section and read about the situation of the letter.

Galatia became a Roman province in 25 BC, and the province included people from many ethnic groups, including the "Celts" or "Galatians," who had migrated to Asia Minor by 278 BC. In Paul's day the province was a large area that touched the Black Sea in the north and the Mediterranean in the south. As time passed, however, the province changed. "Vespasian detached almost all of Pisidia from Galatia in AD 74 and about AD 137 Lycaonia Galatica was removed and added to an enlarged province of Cilicia. In AD 297 southern Galatia was united with surrounding regions to form a new province of Pisidia with Antioch as its capital."

Hence, commentators in early church history naturally thought Galatians was written to the province as it existed in later Roman history, and therefore, virtually all scholars believed that Galatians was written to the ethnic Galatians in the northern part of the province. But the work of William Ramsey and others in the twentieth century has provoked scholars to reexamine the destination of the letter, for scholars are now apprised of the dimensions of the Galatian region during Paul's day. Therefore, the identity of the recipients of the letter has been debated intensely in the last century.

The north Galatian theory maintains that the letter was sent to ethnic Galatians located in the northern part of the Galatian province. As Philip Esler remarks, the north Galatian theory could be described as "tribal" Galatia since on this view the letter was sent to those who were ethnically Galatians. The south Galatian view proposes that the letter was sent to the cities Paul visited on his first missionary journey in Acts 13-14. It is not the purpose of this commentary to discuss in detail the destination of the letter, but some of the major arguments for both views will be presented, and I will argue that the south Galatian hypothesis is more likely. In any case, the interpretation of the letter is not affected significantly by whether one holds to a north or south Galatian hypothesis, though one's view on the destination of the letter has major implications for Pauline chronology.

Support for the North Galatian Theory

I begin with arguments supporting the north Galatian theory, but will also note the counter-arguments of those who support the south Galatian theory.

(1) J. B. Lightfoot supports the north Galatian view by contending that the temperament of the Galatians fits with what we know about the Gauls, that is, that they were fickle and superstitious. This argument is hardly convincing, for fickleness and superstition were not limited to Gauls.

(2) Acts 16:6 and 18:23 likely refer to north Galatia. These two visits square with Gal 4:13, where Paul says that he preached to the Galatians when he was sick "formerly [the first time]" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). Now if Paul visited the Galatians a first time, then he also was present a second time, and this fits with Acts 16:6 and 18:23. Again, this argument is hardly decisive. Acts 16:6 says nothing about founding new churches, and the Greek word can be translated "at first" and does not necessarily imply two visits. Further, even if there were two visits, Paul may have counted the retracing of his steps in Acts 13-14 as a second visit. Finally, in Acts 16:6 the word "Phrygian [country]" is likely an adjective, specifying the part of Galatia in which Paul traveled, and Acts 18:23 describes Paul's travels in southern Galatia and Phrygian Asia.

(3) It is important to observe that the churches visited in Acts 13-14 are not identified as Galatian churches by Luke. But we must be careful here, for Luke's terminology is not necessarily the same as Paul's. Paul typically refers to Roman provinces, whereas Luke refers to ethnic groupings in the provinces, though the issue is complex and cannot be resolved simplistically.

(4) Paul would not use the term "Galatians" to describe those living in south Galatia, for they were not "Galatians" ethnically. The ethnic Galatians were the Gauls who lived in the north, and secular writers regularly use the term "Galatians" to refer to the north Galatians. But what other term would Paul use to describe the Galatians, for those living in the province of Galatia came from many ethnic groups? Only the term "Galatians" would be sufficiently comprehensive to include all of them.

(5) If Galatians were addressed to churches founded on Paul's first journey, Paul would not have written in Gal 1:21, "Then I came into the regions of Syria and Cilicia," but instead, "Then I came to Syria and Cilicia and on to you." But this argument fails to recognize that 1:21 does not refer to the first missionary journey but to the interval between Acts 9:30 and 11:25.

(6) One of the strongest arguments for supporting the north Galatian view is the relationship between Acts 15 and Gal 2:1-10. Those who support the north Galatian view argue that Acts 15 refers to the same events as Gal 2:1-10. On this view, the chronology of Paul's visits to Jerusalem was as follows: Acts 9:26-28 = Gal 1:18; Acts 11:30/12:25 is skipped in Galatians; Acts 15:1-35 = Gal 2:1-10. The arguments for identifying Acts 15 with Gal 2:1-10 are quite impressive. First, the subject in both texts is the same: circumcision. Second, the place is the same: Jerusalem. Third, the people are the same: James, Peter, John, Paul, and Barnabas. Fourth, the decision was the same: circumcision was not required. The response to this argument will be explained below.

(7) Paul in Gal 2:1-10 presents himself as the leader of the missionary team of Paul and Barnabas. But if Gal 2:1-10 is equivalent to Acts 11:27-30/12:25 (as most who support the south Galatian view claim), Gal 2:1-10 occurred before the first missionary journey. Luke consistently lists Barnabas before Paul at the beginning of the first missionary journey (Acts 13), suggesting that Barnabas was the leader at the time. But if the south Galatian view is true, Barnabas should be listed before Paul in Gal 2:1-10. So, the mention of Paul first in 2:1-10 suggests that he is the leader of the team, and therefore (say those who support the north Galatian theory) 2:1-10 reflects the events after the first missionary journey. But this argument also fails to convince, for Paul naturally relays the visit to Jerusalem from his perspective, and this accounts for Paul's prominence.

(8) According to Gal 2:1-10, Paul is recognized as an apostle. But if the south Galatian theory is true, on what basis was Paul acknowleged to be an apostle? For, according to the usual south Galatian theory, Paul had not yet been on the first missionary journey. If anybody would be called the apostle to the Gentiles, it would seem to be Barnabas, not Paul-if the south Galatian theory is true. Those who support the north Galatian destination point out that it makes perfect sense for Paul to be acknowledged as an apostle if the first missionary journey had already taken place (Acts 13-14), and Gal 2:1-10 is equivalent with Acts 15:1-35. But those who support the south Galatian theory have a good counter-argument. An acknowledgment of Paul's apostleship in Gal 2:1-10 is scarcely surprising, for he had presumably done missionary work during his years at Tarsus. In any case, he and Barnabas had ministered together among the Gentiles in Antioch for a year, and Paul could have been identified as an apostle on the basis of his work in that city.

(9) The similarity of subject matter in Galatians and Romans suggests, according to the north Galatian hypothesis, that they were written at roughly the same time. If Galatians were written to north Galatia, it may have been written between AD 50-57 and Romans is probably between AD 55-57, and hence the two are rather close together. But trying to assign a date based on the similarity of subject matter is precarious. Indeed, there are some significant differences between Galatians and Romans as well, and hence trying to assign a date based on the similarity of content is arbitrary. Furthermore, even if the letters do overlap significantly in content, we can hardly establish a date on such a basis. We could just as easily argue that Paul's theology on the law remained stable over the ten to fifteen years that he wrote letters. We all know people whose views have not changed in any significant way over twenty to thirty years, and there is no reason to doubt that Paul may have been the same, especially when we consider that he had served as a missionary for fifteen years or more before the writing of his first canonical letters.

(10) Most scholars throughout church history have argued that the letter was written to north Galatia. This argument loses much of its force when we realize that south Galatia was separated from north Galatia and incorporated into Pisida in AD 74. Those who lived in subsequent generations did not realize, therefore, that south and north Galatia were part of the same province when Paul wrote the letter, and this may explain the dominance of the north Galatian hypothesis historically.

Support for the South Galatian Theory

Though I favor a south Galatian destination, the supporting arguments are not clear enough to remove doubt. We are reminded here of the tentativeness of the historical task since we lack enough information to reach a secure conclusion. If Paul wrote to south Galatia, then he likely wrote to the churches evangelized in Acts 13-14. Here I focus on some of the remaining arguments supporting a south Galatian destination, but I note some of the weaknesses of these arguments as well.

(1) Some support a south Galatian hypothesis by noting that Paul wrote in Greek, which was not the mother tongue of the north Galatians. This argument is not a strong one, however, since Greek was the lingua franca of the Greco-Roman world. In what other language would Paul write to communicate with all the Galatians?

(2) Paul normally uses Roman imperial terms when there are geographical references, and hence "Galatians" would refer to the Roman province of Galatians. Again, this observation, though true, does not prove a south Galatian destination, for the north Galatians were part of the province of Galatia as well.

(3) Acts 16:6 and 18:23 do not refer to the the founding of churches in north Galatia. Though it is possible that Paul established churches in north Galatia, we have no firm evidence that he did so, whereas we know that he planted churches in south Galatia. Furthermore, the reference to Phyrgia may simply designate the ethnic area of Galatia that Paul traveled through according to Acts 16:6. This may be supported by the one article for both the Galatian and Phygrian region. In any case, both Acts 16:6 and 18:23 may not even report on any travels of Paul to north Galatia.

(4) Paul refers to Barnabas as if the Galatians know him personally (Gal 2:13), and we know that Barnabas traveled with Paul when the south Galatian churches were evangelized (Acts 13-14). There is no indication, however, that Barnabas ever evangelized the north Galatian churches, and hence the personal reference seems superfluous. We must admit, however, that the argument presented here is from silence. Paul refers to Barnabas in 1 Cor 9:6, and yet we have no evidence that Barnabas visited Corinth either. Barnabas may have visited north Galatia, though there is no record of the visit.

(5) Acts 20:4 implies that the south Galatian churches contributed to the collection for the poor saints in Jerusalem (cf. Rom 15:25-28; 1 Cor 16:1-4; 2 Cor 8:1-9:15), but nothing is said about a contribution from north Galatian churches. It must be noted, however, that this also is an argument from silence, for it is possible that north Galatian churches participated, though it remains unmentioned.

(6) Some have pointed to the enthusiastic reception given to Paul at Lystra, where he was acclaimed as the Greek god Hermes (Acts 14:11-18), and the statement that Paul was received as an angel of God in Gal 4:14. This is surely a thin reed on which to base an argument, for in the same text in Acts the people turned against Paul and stoned him! Further, it seems difficult to believe that Paul recalled the people hailing him as the Greek god Hermes when he said that the Galatians received him as a messenger of Christ. According to Acts, Paul and Barnabas were dismayed that they were celebrated as gods. The response of the people was not identified as a mark of spiritual insight.


Excerpted from Galatians by Thomas R. Schreiner Copyright © 2010 by Thomas R. Schreiner. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Thomas R. Schreiner (PhD, Fuller Theological Seminary) is James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament and associate dean of Scripture and interpretation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. The author of numerous books, he is the preaching pastor of Clifton Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky.

Clinton E. Arnold (PhD, University of Aberdeen) is Dean and Professor of New Testament at Talbot School of Theology in LaMirada, California.

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