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Galatians 1:1-5 and the Overall Argument of Galatians

1 Paul, an apostle—sent not with a human commission nor by human authority, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead— 2 and all the brothers and sisters with me,
To the churches in Galatia:

3 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, 4 who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, 5 to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen. (TNIV)

This is the first of several posts on the opening section of Paul's letter to the Galatians. Here we will look at what role this section plays in Paul's overall argument. I will probably write a post of this nature at the start of each new section of Galatians. My goals in blogging through Galatians are multifaceted. There are several levels at which we need to understand Scripture. One of them is at the level of overall argument. I hope these posts help us see what Paul is trying to accomplish in each section of Galatians.

In all of Paul's letters, the first several verses usually telegraph his overall argument. Galatians is no different. One thing that's very clear is that Paul is facing challenges to his apostolic status, and hence his authority (see Gal 1:11-2:21). False teachers had come in to the church and they challenged Paul's credentials as an apostle. In a brief yet powerful way Paul addresses the issue of the source of his apostolate in the first verse. It's from God. The second verse, then, serves to show that while Jesus commissioned him, he's no lone ranger, no matter what his opponents might claim. It's an early statement of his authority, paving the way for what he will say in the rest of chapters 1 and 2.

Verses 3-5 are key for framing how we understand the latter two thirds of Galatians. The key question is, how is one part of the people of God? Paul emphasizes faith and Christ's work, but he does so in a way that draws on the Galatians knowledge of the Christian story as a whole, which is something he will do at great length in Gal. 3:7-4:7. Here Paul picks out a key part, again framing the latter discussion, emphasizing, in the words of Ambrosiaster, that, 'Christ by atoning for our transgressions not only gave us life but also made us his own so that we might be called children of God' (Galatians, p. 4).


  1. The agitators had told the Galatians that Paul had yielded to their view that circumcision was necessary (2:4-5; 5:11). When they tried to persuade the Galatians to be circumcised they appealed to Paul's authority, not to the authority of the Jerusalem apostles. By this time everyone knew that the Jerusalem apostles did not require circumcision.

    Of course the Galatians will have asked, "If Paul believes in circumcision, why does he tell us not to be circumcised?". The agitators, it seems, replied, "It is only to please the Jerusalem apostles that Paul tells you not to be circumcised. He is their messenger boy to you. He actually knows that circumcision is important."

    Paul got wind of this misunderstanding and wrote Galatians. Before he could persuade the Galatians not to be circumcised he had to first persuade them that he meant what he was writing. Before he could do that, he had to show that he was not an underling of the Jerusalem apostles. He does this throughout Gal 1-2, where he defends his sincerity, not his authority. He writes that the apostles acknowledged him as an equal (2:7-10), that they meant nothing to him (2:6), that he had not tried to ingratiate himself with them (1:16-24), that he was not indebted to them for his gospel (1:11-16), that he is not writing just to please them (1:9-10), that he was not their messenger (1:1), that his principled stance against Peter proves his commitment (2:11-14), as do his wounds (6:17).

    I realize that I am holding the mirror to Galatians at a very different angle from other commentators, but this angle makes good sense of the text, doesn't it?

  2. It's an interesting approach but I think it falters because of how Paul puts Peter in the spot of submitting to the pressure of the false brothers. I think Paul's attempt to distance himself from Jerusalem are in a slightly different key.

    An interesting alternative approach is that of Mark Nanos. If you haven't read it you can find a bunch of articles by him on

    He basically argues that there were no false teachers in Galatia. While I'm ultimately not persuaded he makes a compelling argument and has interesting insight into the types of pressure the Galatians would have experienced.

  3. Thanks, Marcus. I am aware of Nanos's work. Like me, he thinks Paul and the Jerusalem apostles were in agreement. He also notices that the emphasis in 2:11-14 is on Paul's commitment; not on James or Peter.

    Could you expand on your first paragraph? I agree that Peter lapsed on this one occasion because of pressure from false brothers (or from Jews). How does this make my approach "falter"? In my view the Antioch incident was cited by Paul because it proved that Paul did not preach gentile liberty just to please Peter and the others. Notice how Paul emphasizes that he openly criticized Peter "before them all", even after the others, including Barnabas, had been led astray. This serves Paul's purpose of showing that his commitment to gentile liberty was not motivated by a desire to please Peter or Barnabas or anyone else. In my view 2:11-14 is about Paul, not Peter. Paul had delivered the decisions of the elders (including Peter) to the churches of Galatia (Acts 16:4) so his readers knew that Peter was a supporter of gentile liberty. Bockmuehl, in his recent book on Peter, is correct to conclude that the Antioch incident was a temporary lapse by Peter and was not at all representative of Peter's stance on the gentile question. Paul writes 2:11-14 to prove his own convictions, rather than to illustrate Peter's position (it does not). Notice that Paul says that Peter was being hypocritical, not treacherous.

    Incidentally, my approach answers your question of why Paul does not cite the decree.

    In what way do you think Paul's attempts "to distance himself from Jerusalem are in a slightly different key"?

  4. Hi Richard,

    Thanks for the lengthy reply. As I said, I do think your approach is interesting and your additional comment helps me see where you're coming from more precisely.

    Let me take a little time to think through your questions and provide a full response. It's been a couple of years since I've worked through Galatians, especially the early chapters so I can't respond in detail off the top of my head.

  5. Thanks, Marcus. I look forward to your thoughts in due course.

  6. Sorry this took me a week to get to. It's been a busy week.

    Bockmuehl is opposing those who think that Paul's opposition was directly backed by Peter,(Simon Peter in Scripture and Memory p. 94). I would advocate nothing of that sort and agree with Bockmuehl that it was a temporary but significant rift. Maybe I see it as more significant than Bockmuehl but he's not very strong in his expression of his conclusions.

    Also, as Bockmuehl notes, there's no evidence that Peter or James ever required circumcision (this is a very strong point in favor of Nanos in my opinion). Not all Jews held that converts had to be circumcised, but it's highly likely that they would have been offended by the complete lack of law adherence by these new members of Israel. It's possible that there was some temporary buckling to pressure by James and Peter to make these Gentiles at least follow food laws, a point a false teacher could exploit in favor of his own requirement of circumcision.

    The reason why I think that Paul's attempts to distance himself are in a different key is the subtle remarks like 'those esteemed as pillars.' It seems at least slightly derogatory to me. The way he expresses his opposition to Peter in 2:11 is also pretty strong. I just don't get the feeling of complete unity, and still some conflict.

    Does that explain where I"m coming from better?

  7. Marcus, you mention 2:6 and 2:11, but these texts actually support my position, don't they? It seems from 1:10-11 that Paul is worried that his letter will be dismissed as merely an attempt to stay on good terms with the Jerusalem church leaders. This creates a real dilemma for Paul when writing. Almost anything he writes could be rebutted by the agitators with words like "well he's just saying that to promote the doctrine that the Jerusalem leaders want him to promote: he knows that circumcision is necessary". He cannot simply tell the Galatians "I am not just a sycophant of the Jerusalem leaders", since a sycophant would write the same thing to promote the Jerusalem leaders' doctrine. In 1:18 Paul says that he did not go to Jerusalem to ingratiate himself with the apostles, and 1:19 tells us that he is worried that his readers will not believe him. Paul's dilemma is very real and it forces him to escalate his rhetoric. Thus he writes "And from those who were acknowledged leaders (what they actually were makes no difference to me)" (2:6), and "But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face" (2:11). In both verses Paul is saying that he is not motivated by a desire to please his leaders, and he uses strong terms because the worries that his readers would otherwise not believe him. Notice how he even resorts to cause language in to prove his sincerity, "I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!" (5:12). In all these texts the emphasis is on Paul's motivations, not the Jerusalem apostles. He writes, "what they actually were means nothing to me" not "what they actually were should mean nothing to you". And notice the words, "I wish" in 5:12.

    Marcus, 2:6 and 2:11 have given you the feeling that there was not complete unity between Paul and Jerusalem. Fine. That illustrates that the Galatians may have come away with the same feeling. If they did, Paul will have achieved his purpose of showing that he was not Jerusalem's messenger boy. Paul's strongly negative statements about Peter in 2:11 and 2:6 fit perfectly with my hypothesis. On the conventional hypothesis (yours), they are harder to explain, since we would have to suppose that a rift occurred between Paul and Peter that was still unresolved at the time of writing and which left no trace in Acts or in any other writing.

    I'm not sure whether I understood your second paragraph. You seem to be saying that the false teachers appealed to the authority of James and Peter to support their requirement of circumcision. How could they do this if, as you (rightly) suggest, James and Peter did not support circumcision?

    I think they appealed to Paul's authority. This is inherently more likely because he was better educated than James and Peter, and because he was a founding missionary of the Galatian churches.

  8. Acts is definitely concerned to paint early Christianity in a good light so I'm not surprised that it would gloss over a temporary rift between Peter and Paul.

    I'll flesh out my ideas in the second paragraph more fully. The Teachers in Galatia were either the same ones involved in the Antioch incident or part of the same "group." They were sent by James to see what was going on in Antioch (this doesn't imply James agreed with them in all facets of their "theology"). Perhaps they even pressured James to be sent. They arrived and got Peter to buckle to their pressure. This fact they exploited, showing that Peter was on their side generally, even though he wasn't necessarily on their side related to circumcision.

    How much would education have mattered as a source of authority in the early church? 1 Corinthians 15 and Acts seems to imply that seeing the risen Lord, especially prior to his ascension, was the ultimate source of authority in the early church, an area where both James and Peter have a possible leg up on Paul.

    This is what's at the core of Paul's claims in 1:19, for example, in my opinion. His authority is derived from the risen Lord, like the other apostles, even though he appeared to him later, after the ascension. I think this makes perfect sense if there is some sort of rift, real or perceived between him and Peter and James.

  9. Let me clarify one statement. I said, "This fact they exploited, showing that Peter was on their side generally"

    I mean by that, they showed, as in, they used the Antioch incident as a proof to the Galatians.

  10. Acts has no tendency to gloss over rifts between the early Christians, since it mentions plenty of them. However, Luke's space constraint meant that he could not possibly mention all of them, so it would not be surprising if he did omit a rift that had no long lasting effect. The Antioch incident is such an incident. You an I disagree only on the question of how temporary and serious it was.

    If the agitators had appealed to the Antioch incident in the way that you suggest, why did Paul not simply say, "Although Paul ate with Jews, he never advocated circumcision: in fact he and James wrote the decree which frees gentile believers from any circumcision requirement"? If the agitators thought that James and Peter were more supportive of circumcision than in fact they were, why does Paul not correct that misinformation in Gal 2:11-14? By bringing up the Antioch incident Paul would be playing into the agitators' hands, wouldn't he?

    Incidentally, it was not the arrival of the men from James that prompted Peter to withdraw from eating with gentiles. As Carlson has shown, the better attested variant in 1:12 has "he came", not "they came". Evidently the sequence was as follows:
    1) Peter visited Antioch and ate with gentiles
    2) Men "from James" came to Antioch. These were the men from Judea of Acts 15:1. They gave the mistaken impression that they had the backing of the apostles (see Acts 15:24)
    3) Paul and Barnabas and others went to Jerusalem (Gal 2:1-10, Acts 15)
    4) Peter went to Antioch again and this time he ate with Jews.

    The issue is not what was generally the source of authority in the early church. The question is what was the source of authority on the issue of circumcision. Since Jesus did not address the issue prior to his ascension, it cannot be said that James and Peter had a leg up on Paul.

    Naturally, the conventional interpretation of Gal 1-2 can be sustained by piling up the kinds of assumptions that you do. One has to assume,
    a) A serious rift arose between Paul and Jerusalem and it mysteriously closed.
    b) The agitators continued to misunderstand the Jerusalem apostles, even after the decree.
    c) Paul was inept in his response to the misinformation.
    But what do we gain from making these assumptions? What is the payback? What advantage does your interpretation have over mine? What evidence is there that Paul's authority (rather than his sincerity) was being questioned in Galatia?

    How do you understand 1:10-11? Paul is saying here "I am not writing against circumcision to please the Jerusalem apostles for (gar) I do not owe my gospel to them. If you understand "men" in 1:10 to refer to the addressees, then how do you explain the connection between 1:10 and 1:11? gar in Paul's writings is always significant, isn't it?

  11. Hi Richard,

    Paul's hand may have been forced to bring up Antioch if the agitator's had deceitfully/mistakenly appealed to the Antioch incident to make their case.

    If Carlson is correct then it definitely damages my case. I haven't seen his work. Can you give me the reference? In the commentaries I own Longenecker is the only one to discuss the variant (Martyn, Dunn, and Fee have no discussion) and he dismisses the reading you propose.

    I think you slightly misunderstand my argument on authority. The teachings of those commissioned by the risen Lord were authoritative. The commissioning made what they said authoritative, not their reliance on the teachings of Jesus (hence why we don't find the epistles citing Jesus' sayings very often). Since the appearance to Paul was less verifiable and after the ascension as well as because of his past, he had to work harder to prove his authority.

    On my assumptions, I would change b and say that the Teachers were deceptive. I don't view Paul as inept, more trying to respond to the actual arguments the Teachers were making. With that said, I don't think Galatians was completely successful. I am persuaded by Campbell that Galatians represents an early bout with these false teachers and that Romans represents Paul's more polished attack when he knows them and their teaching better.

    I do understand "men" to refer to the addressees. I do think the question of whether verse 11 starts a new section or not is difficult. One interesting note is the well attested variant 'de' at this point (which Longenecker prefers) showing that even an/some early scribes had difficulty seeing causal force in 'gar' at this point, assuming the 'gar' is original. I'm not well versed enough to take a stand on whether or not 'gar' is always significant.

    As for how I interpret there, I would say that (following e.g., Dunn, Fee) Paul is responding to a specific charge that he did not preach circumcision to try to make easy converts. Instead he was preaching the gospel divinely revealed (and hence authoritative).

  12. Hi Marcus. Thanks for the continued interaction.

    Longencker's claim that "he came" in 2:12 is a scribal slip is very weak. "he came" is (on the surface) the harder reading and is better attested so it should be preferred. A scribe who did not realize that Peter went to Antioch twice would not be able to make sense of the "he came" so could easily have changed it to "they came". So far the best published piece on this is pages 162-164 of Carlson's thesis here.

  13. I think we agree that 1:10 and 5:11 both show that the Galatians were questioning whether Paul was really against circumcision, in some sense. We may differ on the exact nature of the misunderstanding, but we agree that Paul's commitment was, in some way, in doubt. To these verses we can add 6:17, where Paul seems to be saying that his wounds prove his commitment.

    Incidentally, the connection between 1:10 and 5:11 is strengthened by their respective contexts. Paul refers to the Galatians' confusion in both 1:7 and 5:11. He calls down a punishment in 1:8-9, as well as in 5:10 and 5:12. Also, both 1:8 and 5:11 refer to Paul's preaching.

    So, I think you would propose that there were two false rumours in Galatia:
    1) Paul was not completely opposed to circumcision.
    2) The Jerusalem apostles agree that it is OK to be circumcised and they should be followed.

    The problem that I have with this is that once we have accepted 1), there is no longer any need for 2). Occam's razor removes it.

    The rumour that Paul challenges in 5:11 must be relevant to the Gentile addressees and it must be a very serious misunderstanding because Paul wants punishment (5:10) and even castration (5:12) for those who propagate the confusion. For these reasons, I don't share Dunn's view that 5:11 shows only that Paul was suspected of preaching circumcision to Jews. His interpretation is an act of desperation (Campbell describes it as "absurd" and incoherent). When Paul writes "why am I still being persecuted if I am still preaching circumcision" the two "stills" refer back to an earlier time, which can naturally be taken to be Paul's last visit to Galatia, which is the most recent common point of reference between Paul and his readers. Paul's logic here implies that at this earlier time he preached circumcison (in some sense) and at the same time was persecuted for NOT preaching circumcision. It seems to me, therefore, that the earlier time, to which the two "stills" refer, was the time of Acts 16:3-4 when Paul preached circumcision (in some sense) to Timothy while delivering the decision of the elders that circumcision was not necessary. From Acts 16:3-4 and Gal 5:11 it seems that Paul gave mixed signals about what he really believed about circumcision. The Galatians/agitators could well have concluded that Paul preached gentile liberty to them only to please the Jerusalem apostles, whose decisions he had delivered. There is then no need to suppose that the agitators appealed to the authority of the Jerusalem apostles. What is the evidence for this?

    Nor do we need to suppose that in 1:10 Paul is defending himself against the accusation of trying to please his potential gentile converts. In 1:10 Paul says that he was not motivated by a desire to please "men", and in 1:11 and 1:12 he also refers to "men", and we know from the remainder of the chapter that these "men" are the Jerusalem apostles. Surely the "men" in 1:10 refers to the Jerusalem apostles too. If "men" in 1:10 refers to gentiles, how could Paul expect his readers to realize right away that "men" in 10:11-12 refers to the Jerusalem apostles?


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