The assortment of questions that tend to congregate under the heading of “biblical introduction” impinge upon an issue that most Bible-believing Christians consider rather crucial: “Are these writings authentic?”
Is Moses actually the author of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible)? Did the Apostle Paul really write the Pastoral Epistles (1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus)? Did Peter really write 2 Peter (or 1 Peter, for that matter)?
When you crack open a book on biblical introduction—be it a volume such as Guthrie’s New Testament Introduction—or read the introduction section of a biblical commentary, or come upon the body of text prefacing any given book in a study Bible, you will find at least one person’s answers to such questions as “Who wrote this?” “When did they write it?” “To whom did they write it?” “Where were they when they wrote it?” “Why did they write it?” “What kind of book is it?” The answers to these question are especially important when the text claims to identify its author. When this occurs it usually does so at the beginning. But if the very first words of a book cannot be trusted, how can we trust what follows?
Every once in a while, however, scholars in the field of biblical introduction pump oceans of ink into debates that have little or no bearing on the authenticity of a particular book of the Bible, and little if anything to do with how we are to understand it or the rest of Scripture. Take Paul’s epistle to the Galatians, for example. Here is the gist of a question that has taxed some of the best minds in biblical academia while contributing its own share to the bottom lines of Christian (and other) publishing houses: “Did Paul write his epistle to the Galatians to people who lived in the northern part of the Roman province of Galatia, or to people who lived in the southern part?”
This question seems all but guaranteed to be snore-inducing, and that impression is not far from the mark. But if we put the same question a different way it might seem a tad more relevant: “Did Paul write Galatians to the same Galatians he evangelized in Acts 13-14 (in southern Galatia), or to different Galatians (in northern Galatia)?” This frames the question in terms of how Paul’s audience fits into the historical account Luke provides in the book of Acts. If Paul wrote to southern Galatians, then it might be possible to date the epistle as early as right after Paul’s first missionary journey—right around the time of the Jerusalem Council. But if he wrote to northern Galatians, then we might speculate that the “region of Galatia” (Γαλατικὴν χώραν; Galatikēn chōran) Luke refers to in both Acts 16:6 and 18:23 covers the province’s northern region which he had not previously visited, and that he perhaps wrote the epistle sometime during his third missionary journey.
But there is yet another way of putting the question, and this third way highlights one of the basic presuppositions that steers (or has steered) at least one side of the debate: “Did Paul write Galatians to those who were ethnically Galatian, or merely to those who resided in the Roman province named Galatia?” Now, notice first of all that each way this question has been framed assumes that Galatians is an authentic letter of Paul’s—which is intentional, because only the most radical scholars consider it to be pseudepigraphal. (Which naturally raises the question of why this issue would be such a big deal.) But this third way of stating the question is where the discussion becomes somewhat interesting, for me at least, because ethnically speaking the Galatians were Celts, which makes them distant relatives of mine on the Scots-Irish side of my family tree. In fact, in ancient times “Galatian” was simply another word for Celt, as Richard Longenecker informs us:
Greek writers commonly used Γαλάται (Galatians) and Κέλται or Κελτοί (Celts) interchangeably, as did Latin authors with Celtae (Celts), Galli (Gauls), and Galatae (Galatians).
[Longenecker, Galatians, lxii. Cf. F.F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Galatians, 3. See bibliography below.]
If your understanding of ethnic terms is not limited to names of sports teams, you probably equate being Celtic with having one’s origins in the northern and western British Isles. But Celtic ethnic identity appears to have its origin not in bonny Scotland or Ireland, but in the Danube river basin of south central Europe where the Late Iron Age La Tène culture (named for an archaeological site on the north side of Switzerland’s Lake Neuchâtel), which apparently arose out of the Early Iron Age Hallstatt culture (named for an equally-exciting site southeast of Salzburg, Austria).
Given their enduring reputation it should not surprise us that, to the Celts, making war early and often was the chief means of upward mobility in their society. Eventually they made their presence known through invading and conquering much of Western Europe. In 387 B.C. they sacked Rome. Some were said to fight battles in the nude to intimidate the enemy and, when forced to retreat, kill their own wounded to prevent them from being taken captive—which may explain at least some fan behavior we observe at major sporting events today.
Early in the 3rd century B.C. an impressive Celtic army started rummaging around the Balkan peninsula, defeating the Greeks at the Battle of Thermopylae, but finally being stopped by a violent thunderstorm at Delphi, which the Greek defenders took full advantage of by destroying the retreating invaders.
Not too long after this King Nicodemes of nearby Bithynia decided that 20,000 or so Celtic mercenaries would come in handy against his enemies. So around 278 B.C. they accepted his invitation and crossed into Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey), settling in the vicinity of Ancyra (later called Angora and now the Turkish capital of Ankara). The following map shows the expansion of Celtic civilization, such as it was, from the La Tène period to the period we just mentioned:
As it turned out, old habits were hard to break, and, as should have been expected, the new-but-unimproved Celtic residents of Asia Minor became a general menace to their neighbors. (On behalf of Celts everywhere, I formally apologize for the conduct of my distant relatives.)
In 275 B.C. they lost a battle to Antiochus I, who deployed Indian war elephants, but they soon turned to amusing themselves by demanding large sums of money from local rulers in exchange for not being attacked (a concept later profitably exploited by the Mafia), until King Attalus I of Pergamum kicked their butts at the head of the river Caïcus (also spelled Caecus) in 241 B.C. From that point on the Celts of Asia Minor were mindful to keep themselves within very well-defined borders, mostly in the north-central part of the peninsula.
By the time Galatia became a Roman province in 25 B.C. (upon the death of King Amyntas) it occupied a sort of S-shaped chunk of central Asia Minor extending from just south of the Black Sea down to just north of the Mediterranean. The descendants of the original Celtic settlers—the ethnic Galatians—lived for the most part in the north, around Ancyra, while the residents of Galatia who lived in the southern part of the province, around Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe, were largely from different ethnic groups, although they were called “Galatians” by virtue of their residency in the Roman province of that name.
Many who have held to the northern Galatia theory have argued that when Paul so quickly launched into his rebuke, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel” (Galatians 1:3), he was giving clear evidence that he was addressing ethnic Galatians. The reason they argue this is because they believe the Galatians of Paul’s epistle fit the Celtic ethnic cultural profile (read: stereotype) of being fickle and superstitious. After all, Julius Caesar had described the Celts of what is now France—the Gauls—as subject to “a natural instability and fickleness of disposition” (“mobilitate et levitate animi novis imperiis studebant,” Gallic War 2.1; cf. 4.5) and “extremely devoted to superstitious rites” (“admodum dedita religionibus,” ibid., 6.16).
Was not the Galatians’ sudden abandonment of the Gospel the epitome of fickleness? And was not Paul amazed by the Galatians’ superstition when he wrote, “…how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? You observe days and months and seasons and years! I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain” (Galatians 4:9b-11, ESV)? And did not these fickle and superstitious Celtic Galatians reside in the northern area of the Roman province of Galatia? So how could Paul have been addressing the ethnically-different folks to the south, who were only known as Galatians because they lived within particular political boundaries?
As Bruce has shown, the logic of this point in the northern Galatian argument runs as follows:
- The Gauls were fickle and superstitious.
- Paul’s Galatians were fickle and superstitious.
- Therefore: Paul’s Galatians were Gauls.
[Bruce, The Epistle to the Galatians, 8.]
If the argument had instead asserted that all fickle and superstitious people were Gauls (i.e., Celts), and that the Galatians were Gauls (and therefore fickle and superstitious), then it would be valid, at least in form. But we know from the New Testament itself that there were plenty more fickle and superstitious people than the Celts. One day in Lystra the people were worshiping Paul as the incarnation of the god Hermes, but a short while later they tried to stone him to death (Acts 14:8-20)!
So much for the most interesting argument in the northern Galatian advocates’ arsenal; few take it seriously anymore. This is not to say that the northern view does not make some very cogent points, because it does, and if you’re fascinated by that kind of thing by all means read them. In fact, the northern hypothesis was the unanimous position of scholars until the 170os (cf. Bruce, ibid., 5-6). In the 19th century the southern Galatian view took root in, of all places, France (ibid., 7) as a minority view, while the Englishman J.B. Lightfoot wrote the definitive 35-page-long defense of the northern view in his commentary on Galatians. But the tide has turned, and, according to Ronald Y.K. Fung, the southern hypothesis is now the majority report among English-speaking scholars while the northern view remains alive and kicking primarily among German scholars (Fung, The Epistle to the Galatians, 1). Whereas once upon a time there was one dominant view, now the scholarly consensus is very much split.
Meanwhile, some significant commentaries have been issued in recent years whose authors did not consider it worthwhile to devote much space to the issue. Hans Dieter Betz glosses over the problem, telling us that “The arguments used on both sides are mostly speculative” (but then he inexplicably sides with the northern view! Galatians, 5). John R.W. Stott dodges it with “for the details here I must refer you to the commentaries” (the book’s general preface eschews the title of “commentary,” preferring it to be called an “exposition”—okay, whatever), but makes it clear that he holds to the southern view (The Message of Galatians, 11). Fung writes, “We will not rehearse in detail the arguments which have been used in the debate,” referring readers back to “our earlier work” in a footnote (which he does not identify and I have been unable to locate in either his bibliography or other footnotes), and proceeds to give us his top three reasons for holding to the southern hypothesis (Fung, ibid., 2).
Nevertheless, some very extensive discussions of the issue remain in print, including an excellent one by Bruce (see the bibliography below). The most meticulous recent exploration of the problem that I have come across is Longenecker’s eleven pages of dense text. Both Bruce and Longenecker obviously feel this issue is worth the time they devote to it, and while they both favor the southern view they also agree that “many competent scholars can be supported in either position,” so “the evidence for neither is absolutely conclusive” and thus “it ill becomes champions of either view to disparage the rival view or those who maintain it” (Bruce, ibid., 18).
Longenecker takes this observation one step further:
Certain caveats, however, are in order before proceeding further. First of all it need be recognized that though the question has important historical, exegetical, and interpretive ramifications [but how does exegetical differ from interpretive?] the deriving of either doctrinal insight or spiritual benefit from Paul’s letter to the Galatians is not dependent on a final solution as to provenance. Furthermore, it must be insisted that it is impossible to correlate positions between an acceptance of a South Galatian position and a high estimate of the historical reliability of Acts, or between a North Galatian view and a more skeptical view of Acts.
[Longenecker, ibid., lxviii.]
So since, according to Longenecker, the outcome of this discussion does not affect theology, the Christian life, or the reliability of biblical history, or even the Pauline authorship of Galatians, exactly what important historical or interpretive issues could be at stake? Other than how they relate to this debate, exactly what difference does it make how we read Luke’s geographical references in Acts 16:6 and 18:23, or whether we translate the phrase τὸ πρότερον (to proteron) in Galatians 4:13 to refer to Paul’s very first visit to his audience or simply understand it in its typical Koinē sense as “previously” (the meaning it has in 1 Timothy 1:13 and several times in John’s gospel)? Is there some other historical or interpretive issue that I’ve missed?
It can make for a challenging (if not engaging) exercise in debate, but other than that, and other than serving to underscore the existence of ambiguities in the timeline of the apostolic mission, of what practical use is it? Even so, in the interest of thoroughness with respect to my study of the epistle to the Galatians, I have created the following graphic which includes a map and a timeline. The map features a close-up of the Roman province of Galatia with the towns Paul visited on his first missionary journey. (Note: the Antioch shown on this map is sometimes referred to as Pisidian Antioch in order to distinguish it from Syrian Antioch, here labeled “Antiochia,” where Paul’s home church was located. Pisidia was a region in southwest Asia Minor that straddled the Roman provinces of Asia and Galatia).
The timeline features three possible dates for the composition of Galatians. The first two correspond to two options held by various adherents of the southern Galatia view, labeled, “A.D. 48/49, Southern Galatia View A” (in green) and “A.D. 52, Southern Galatia View B” (in orange). The third is labeled, “Between A.D. 53 & 57, Northern Galatia View” (in purple). It should be noted that it is in the area of dating that the north/south debate has its greatest relevance for biblical introduction. Only by adopting the South Galatia theory can we say that Galatians may have been Paul’s earliest epistle. Otherwise it would have been preceded by his letters to the Thessalonians (A.D. 50-51), and perhaps even the Corinthian epistles (A.D. 54-56).
Now that I’ve written much more on this subject than I ever intended or even wanted to: to those of you who find endless fascination and gratification in this sort of thing, knock yourselves out!
Hans Dieter Betz, Galatians: A Commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Churches in Galatia, (Philadelphia, PA, USA: Fortress Press, 1988), 1-5.
F.F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Galatians, The New International Greek Testament Commentary series, (Exeter, UK and Grand Rapids, MI, USA: The Paternoster Press and William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992), 3-18.
D.A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI, USA: Zondervan, 2005), 458-465.
Ronald Y.K. Fung, The Epistle to the Galatians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament series, (Grand Rapids, MI, USA: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), 1-3.
Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, 4th edition, (Leicester, England, UK and Downers Grove, IL, USA: Apollos and InterVarsity Press, 1990), 465-481.
H. Wayne House, Chronological and Background Charts of the New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI, USA: Zondervan Publishing House, 1982), 127-132, and 136-139.
J.B. Lightfoot, St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, (London, UK: Macmillan and Co., Limited, reprinted 1910), 1-35.
Richard N. Longenecker, Galatians, Word Biblical Commentary, Volume 41, (Dallas, TX, USA: Word Books, Publisher, 1990), lxi-lxxii.
J. Louis Martyn, Galatians, The Anchor Bible, Volume 33A, (New York, NY, USA: Doubleday, 1998), 15-17.
Herman N. Ridderbos, The Epistle of Paul to the Churches of Galatia, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI, USA: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1953; 1981), 22-31.
John A.T. Robinson, Redating the New Testament, (Eugene, OR, USA: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2000), 55-57. Previously published by SCM Press, 1967.
John R.W. Stott, The Message of Galatians, The Bible Speaks Today series, (Leicester, England, UK and Downers Grove, IL, USA: Inter-Varsity Press, 1986), 11.
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