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Commentary on The Letter of Saint Paul to the Galatians

1:1-9 Unlike most Pauline letters, Galatians omits introductory expressions of praise and thanksgiving. Instead of his usual warmth, Paul opens with a sharp and confrontational tone, followed by an astonished rebuke (1:6-9). This tension is present throughout the epistle and comes to the surface in its many warnings (3:1; 4:11, 20; 5:1-12, 15; 6:7-9). Back to text.

1:1 Paul an apostle: From the outset Paul defends his apostleship. Because his opponents in Galatia apparently denied him authority on a par with the Twelve, he contends that his commission stems neither from human authority (from men) nor even from the original apostles (through man). Paul, like the Twelve, received his gospel directly from Jesus Christ (1:12; Acts 26:15-18; CCC 659). Back to text.

1:2 all the brethren: Not co-authors, but a group of fellow Christian supporters. the churches: Galatians is a circular letter directed to several congregations affected by the Judaizing crisis. It is disputed whether Paul was writing to those of North or South Galatia. See introduction: Destination. Back to text.

1:3 Grace to you and peace: A conventional Pauline greeting (Rom 1:7; 1 Cor 1:3; 2 Cor 1:2). Back to text.

1:4 gave himself for our sins: Anticipates the description of Christ's act of redemption in 3:13-14. Here and elsewhere Paul emphasizes that Jesus willingly offered himself as a sacrifice for our salvation (Gal 2:20; Eph 5:2; CCC 2824). the present evil age: Jewish theology distinguished between "this age", which is dominated by sin and death, and the "age to come" (Mt 12:32; Eph 1:21), when peace comes to reign in the cosmos and the powers of darkness are destroyed. Through Christ, the graces of the age to come are already pouring into the lives of believers, rescuing them from sin, selfishness, and Satan. Back to text.

1:6 I am astonished: Paul is distressed that his readers have been so easily lured into error by false teachers (3:1). His concern for the integrity of the gospel is manifest through the severity of his language. him who called you: God, through the mediating grace of Christ (1:15; Rom 8:30). a different gospel: I.e., a false gospel at variance with Paul's apostolic teaching. Back to text.

1:7 some who trouble you: The Judaizers, who labored to bring the Galatians under the yoke of circumcision and other burdensome laws of the Old Covenant (6:12-13). In doing so, they promoted a false gospel that implicitly denied the sufficiency of Christ's death for our salvation (2:21). Although our knowledge about these troublemakers is fragmentary, they seem to share the outlook and aims of Jewish traditionalists from Judea (Acts 15:1-5; 21:20-21). Back to text.

1:10 trying to please men?: It seems Paul was accused of subtracting circumcision from the requirements of Christian initiation in order to please the Gentiles. Ironically, it is the Judaizers who are the real men-pleasers, since they preach circumcision in order to avoid persecution by their Jewish kinsmen (6:12). Paul's willingness to preach the true gospel in the face of persecution is evidence that he seeks only the approval of God (5:11; Acts 14:19-22). Back to text.

1:12 through a revelation: Paul received his gospel directly from Christ, independent of apostolic tradition and instruction (Acts 26:12-18; CCC 153, 442). It is thus impossible that his message would conflict with that of the Jerusalem apostles who were also instructed by Christ, and in any case Paul has verified it with them (Gal 2:2; Acts 15:2). Notice that Paul is focusing on the foundational message of faith and salvation in Christ; other things, such as creeds and liturgical traditions, were indeed passed along to him by others (1 Cor 11:23-26; 15:3-7). Back to text.

1:13 I persecuted the Church: A dark chapter in Paul's pre-Christian life, of which he was later ashamed (1 Cor 15:9; 1 Tim 1:13). His zeal for traditional Judaism spurred him to adopt violent and aggressive tactics that included harassing, imprisoning, and even executing early Christians (Acts 8:1-3; 9:1-2; 26:9-11). After his conversion, Paul's fiery enthusiasm was not lessened but given new direction by Christ. Back to text.

1:14 traditions of my fathers: I.e., everything that comprised the Jewish way of life. This included biblical customs and institutions as well as Pharisaic practices that were devised to supplement and intensify the demands of the written Law (Mk 7:1-5). Paul studied under the famed Rabbi Gamaliel (Acts 22:3) and prided himself on a strict adherence to Jewish law (Phil 3:6). Back to text.

1:15 set me apart: Paul's apostolic mission was predetermined before his birth. • His language recalls Is 49:1 and Jer 1:5, where the messianic Servant and the prophet Jeremiah were consecrated before birth to be God's messengers. Paul's similar calling places him within this prophetic tradition. Back to text.

1:16 to reveal his Son: In a vision on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:3-9; 1 Cor 9:1). It was then that Christ commissioned Paul to announce the gospel to the Gentiles and the sons of Israel (Acts 9:15-16). I did not confer: The RSV leaves the adverb "immediately" (Gk. eutheos) untranslated. Paul does not deny that he consulted the original apostles about his gospel (2:2, 6-10); he simply underscores that his certainty about its truth exempted him from the need to do so immediately after his conversion. flesh and blood: A Semitic idiom meaning "human beings" (Sir 14:18; Mt 16:17). Back to text.

Word Study

Accursed (Gal 1:8)

Anathema (Gk.): "under a divine curse" or "set apart for destruction". The word is used six times in the NT, twice in Galatians. In the Greek OT, this word often translates a cultic and military term (Heb. herem) for the sacred ban that Yahweh placed on the enemy peoples of Canaan. Cities anathematized by the Lord were destined for utter destruction (Deut 20:17), and oftentimes the Israelites were forbidden to confiscate any booty for themselves (Deut 7:26; Josh 6:18). The same anathema was pronounced on cities where false prophets dared to lead God's people astray (Deut 13:12-18). The NT uses this term for a conditional curse that a person invokes upon himself when he swears an oath; it is a curse that will be activated if and when the individual breaks the oath (Acts 23:12-14). In Paul, an anathema is a curse that no Spirit-filled believer can invoke upon Jesus (1 Cor 12:3), yet it is precisely the divine judgment that awaits those who refuse to love the Lord (1 Cor 16:22). In Galatians, Paul pronounces an anathema upon heretical teachers who promote a false gospel. For the Hebrew background, see word study: Devoted at Josh 6:17.

1:17 Arabia: Probably the territory of the Nabatean kingdom that stretched from Damascus, north of Palestine, down to the Red Sea, south of Palestine. This was mostly a wilderness region where no one could have instructed Paul but God himself. • The reference to Arabia here and in 4:25 might suggest that Paul journeyed to the traditional site of Mt. Sinai (also called Horeb), where Moses and Elijah spoke intimately with the Lord (Ex 19:2-3; 1 Kings 19:8-18). Back to text.

1:18 after three years: Corresponds to the "many days" that passed before Paul was forced to flee Damascus (Acts 9:2325). It was then that he traveled to Jerusalem for the first time as a Christian (Acts 9:26-29). to visit: The Greek expression is more precise, indicating that Paul "interviewed" Peter, as well as "made his acquaintance". He must have spent these two weeks gathering information about the life and ministry of Jesus. Cephas: Another name for Simon Peter, often used in Paul's letters (2:9, 11; 1 Cor 1:12; 9:5; 15:5). It transliterates an Aramaic word meaning "rock". See word study: Peter at Mt 16:18. Back to text.

1:19 James: Tradition reveres James as the first bishop of Jerusalem, being appointed to this position by the apostles. Early Christians called him "the Just" on account of his disciplined, prayerful, and virtuous life (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2, 23; St. Jerome, On Illustrious Men 2). See note on Acts 12:17. the Lord's brother: Not a blood brother, but a near kinsman (CCC 500). See note on Mt 12:46Back to text.

1:20 before God, I do not lie: A mild oath formula, sworn by Paul to insist on the reliability of his testimony (Rom 9:1; CCC 2154). Back to text.

1:21 Syria and Cilicia: Paul withdrew first to his native city of Tarsus in Cilicia (Acts 9:30) and was later summoned to the Church of Antioch in Syria (Acts 11:25-26). Back to text.

2:1-10 Scholars disagree over the precise circumstances of this Jerusalem visit. Some link it with the trip that Paul and Barnabas made to provide famine relief for the Judean Christians in Acts 11:28-30. More probably, Paul is referring to his presence at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15:1-29. Notice that the two accounts concern (1) the same people (Paul, Barnabas, and companions, Acts 15:2), (2) the same place (Jerusalem, Acts 15:4), (3) the same leaders (Peter and James, Acts 15:7, 13), (4) the same issue (circumcision, Acts 15:1), and (5) the same opponents (the circumcision party, Acts 15:5). Back to text.

2:1 after fourteen years: Probably calculated from the time of Paul's first visit to Jerusalem (1:18). Barnabas: A Levite and native of Cyprus. See note on Acts 4:36. Titus: One of Paul's trusted companions (2 Cor 2:13; Tit 1:4). He is mentioned here to illustrate that, although Titus was an uncircumcised Gentile, the Jerusalem apostles welcomed him into their fellowship (Gal 2:3). Back to text.

2:2 I laid before them: Paul received his gospel directly from Christ (1:12), yet he submitted it for approval to the senior apostles in Jerusalem (Acts 15:2). This was to confirm that his message was in line with the doctrine of the Twelve and to remove suspicions that his missionary efforts were at odds with the authority of the Church's recognized leaders. In the end, the pillar apostles "added nothing" to his message (Gal 2:6) and openly affirmed his ministry by giving him the "right hand of fellowship" (2:9). Back to text.

2:3 compelled to be circumcised: The Greek expression here and at 6:12 is used by ancient writers like Josephus and Ptolemy to describe forcible circumcision. The idea is historically linked with Jewish military efforts to subjugate neighboring Gentiles during the Maccabean period by forcing them under the yoke of the Mosaic Law (cf. 1 Mac 2:46) and the administration of the Judean State centered in Jerusalem. The Judaizers are doing something analogous in Galatia by insisting that Gentiles submit to circumcision in order to be incorporated into the commonwealth of the covenant people. Back to text.

2:4 false brethren: Judean believers who promoted circumcision as a necessary prerequisite for salvation (Acts 15:1). our freedom: Christ liberates believers from the curses and ceremonies of the Mosaic Law (3:13; 5:6; 6:15). The danger here is that the Judaizers will enslave the Galatians if they successfully persuade them to receive circumcision (5:1-3). Back to text.

2:6 reputed to be something: The Jerusalem apostles were held in high esteem. Though his tone seems distant and cool, Paul neither affirms nor denies them this honor. Back to text.

2:7 uncircumcised . . .circumcised: Epithets for Gentiles and Israelites, respectively (Eph 2:11-12). This does not mean the divisions of missionary labor were drawn along purely geographical lines, since Peter traveled extensively and Paul also evangelized his Israelite kinsmen living among the Gentiles. See note on Acts 13:5Back to text.

2:9 James and Cephas and John: I.e., James, the brother of the Lord (1:19), Simon Peter (Jn 1:42), and John, the son of Zebedee (Mt 10:2). The order of the names is unusual, as Peter is always mentioned first in the apostolic lists of the NT (Mt 10:2; Mk 3:16; Jn 21:2; Acts 1:13). Perhaps Paul lists James first as a way of undercutting the claims of the Judaizers, who, along with other Jewish conservatives, had a deep respect for James as the spiritual shepherd of the Jerusalem Church at this time (after Peter fled the city, Acts 12:17). By stressing that James endorsed his gospel, Paul shows that the Judaizers have no official backing from Jerusalem, even from its most conservative leadership. For more on James, see note on Gal 1:19. pillars: Important leaders in the Church, which is pictured as the living Temple of God (Rev 3:12; cf. Eph 2:19-22). Back to text.

2:10 remember the poor: This was the inspiration behind Paul's effort to collect charitable contributions for the believers in Jerusalem living in poverty (Rom 15:26; 2 Cor 8-9). The Galatians themselves donated to this fund (1 Cor 16:1-3). Back to text.

2:11 Antioch: The capital of the Roman province of Syria, north of Palestine. The Antiochene Church was the first to bring Christian Jews and Gentiles together in fellowship (Acts 11:1926) and the first to organize missionary outreaches to the Gentiles (Acts 13:1-3). Cephas probably came to the city after the Jerusalem Council, as did Paul and Barnabas (Acts 15:35). Back to text.

2:12 separated himself: Peter reverts to the custom of traditional Judaism, which discouraged social contact, especially shared meals, between Jews and Gentiles (Acts 10:28; Jubilees 22, 16). It was feared, among other things, that Gentile food might violate the purity standards of the Torah, i.e., it might be either unclean or improperly prepared (Lev 11:1-47; 17:1013). The problem here is that Peter has already been informed that the Jewish dietary laws have been set aside in the New Covenant and that Gentiles are now welcome members of the family of faith (Acts 10:9-16, 28). men came from James: Either a delegation sent by James or loyal associates of James who came on their own initiative. The former seems more likely, but, for the possibility of the latter, see Acts 15:24. the circumcision party: Jewish Christians who discouraged table fellowship between Jews and Gentiles. Peter had been criticized by them on this issue once before (Acts 11:2-3). Back to text.

2:14 before them all: It is precisely Peter's authority and influence in the Church that made it necessary for Paul to correct him in public. to live like Jews: Literally, "to Judaize", or "to adopt Jewish customs". Peter's conduct implied the very thing he had denied at the Jerusalem Council, namely, that Gentile Christians must adopt the ritual laws of Judaism in order to secure their standing in the covenant and obtain salvation (Acts 15:7-11). • The same expression is used once in the Greek OT, where it describes how Gentiles from Persia were circumcised and Judaized for "fear of the Jews" (Esther 8:17). Here too, in the case of Peter (Gal 2:12) as well as the Judaizers (6:12), fear is once again the driving force behind the impulse to Judaize. Back to text.

2:16 justified: Established in a right relationship with God. Justification involves the cleansing of sin, the infusion of divine life, and the adoption of the believer into the family of God through Baptism (1 Cor 6:11; Tit 3:5) (CCC 1987-95). See word study: Justified at Rom 2:13. works of the law: See essay: The Works of the Law at Gal 2. shall no flesh be justified: Identical to the statement in Rom 3:20 and probably an allusion to the Greek version of Ps 143:2. • The Psalmist begs the Lord to suspend judgment on his life, for he knows that no one is without fault and thus no one can stand before God in perfect righteousness. • Some claim that if no one is justified by the law, but only by faith in Christ, then the Patriarchs and Prophets who lived before Christ were imperfect. The saints of old, however, were justified by faith in Christ (St. Jerome, Commentary on Galatians 2:16). Back to text.

2:17 found to be sinners: I.e., living like Gentiles, who do not follow the Mosaic Law (2:15). Back to text.

2:18 which I tore down: The Torah stood as a protective barrier between Israel and the idolatry of the Gentiles (Lev 15:31; 20:26). This dividing wall of separation has now been dismantled by Christ (Eph 2:14), who brings Jews and Gentiles together in the New Covenant (3:28). Back to text.

2:20 crucified with Christ: United with the Cross, Paul has died to an old order of things, namely, the slavery of sin and the regime of the Old Covenant. He describes this elsewhere as a sacramental union with Jesus effected through Baptism (Rom 6:3-8). lives in me: Believers possess life that is natural and biological (human life) as well as supernatural and theological (divine life). who loved me: Jesus endured the torture and shame of the Cross for the entire world collectively and for every person individually (CCC 478, 616). Back to text.

2:21 died to no purpose: Paul reasons that if the Mosaic Law had been sufficient all along to remove sin, establish us in righteousness, and bring us into God's family, then the Cross would have been completely unnecessary (3:21). • The Law can neither remit sin nor triumph over eternal death nor free those held captive because of sin. Christ died to provide those things that the Law could not (Ambrosiaster, Commentary on Galatians 2:21). Back to text.

3:1 O foolish Galatians: Paul is irked and dismayed that his readers have succumbed to the pressure of the Judaizers (1:6). portrayed as crucified: The Galatians did not witness the Crucifixion of Jesus in person but embraced the message of the Cross that Paul so vividly proclaimed (1 Cor 1:18, 23). Back to text.

3:2 hearing with faith?: The Galatian controversy turns on the question of when they received the Holy Spirit. Since this happened when they believed the gospel and were baptized (Acts 2:38), Paul deems it foolish to accept circumcision and other works of the Mosaic Law as additional requirements needed to complete their Christian initiation. This is the very logic set forth by Peter at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:811). Back to text.

3:4 experience: This could also be translated "suffer" and may indicate that some, like the Judaizers themselves, were tempted to accept circumcision because of Jewish persecution (6:12). Back to text.

3:6 Abraham: The great-grandfather of Israel by race and the father of all believers by grace. Paul sees the gospel of justification proclaimed in the life of Abraham, who was righteous by faith completely apart from his circumcision (Rom 4:9-12). believed God: A citation from Gen 15:6. • This was a time of testing for Abraham, when God was stretching his faith in a moment of discouragement (1 Mac 2:52). Though faced with formidable obstacles, such as his age and the barrenness of his wife, he trusted that God could do the impossible by giving him a son. The promise was later fulfilled in the birth of Isaac (Gen 21:1-3). It is clear from the context of Genesis, as well as Heb 11:8-12, that this is not the moment of Abraham's conversion, for it is not the first time he puts his faith in the Lord. For details, See note on Gen 15:6. Back to text.

3:8 all the nations be blessed: The citation combines the Greek version of Gen 12:3 and Gen 18:18. • God promised blessings for Abraham that extended well beyond both his tribal family and his lifetime. It was a promise of worldwide salvation to come (CCC 59-61). Back to text.

3:10 Cursed be every one: A citation from Deut 27:26. • This is the final and climactic curse that Israel invoked upon itself in the oath ceremony that ratified the Deuteronomic covenant. In the subsequent context, Moses predicted the rebellion and cursing of Israel (Deut 28:47-68) as well as the eventual restoration and blessing of Israel (Deut 30:1-10). It is possible this passage was used by the Judaizers to insist on the necessity of circumcision, lest nonobservance of the Law result in a curse. Paul, however, uses it against them, charging that everyone who embraces the Law embraces the curse, for not even the Judaizers follow all of its demands to perfection (Gal 6:13). book of the law: A technical term for the Book of Deuteronomy (Deut 29:21; 30:10), which was written on a scroll and placed beside the Ark of the Covenant (Deut 31:26). Some read it with reference to the Mosaic Law more generally. Back to text.

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