Themes in the opening of Galatians

The first part of an epistle is called the opening, and normally it has four parts: (1) the identification of the sender, (2) the identification of the recipients, (3) the greeting or salutation, and (4) an introductory prayer that is usually in the form of thanksgiving. When interpreting the opening it’s pretty easy to skip over it, assuming that it doesn’t have much to add exegetically to the argument, but that is a mistake. The author can use the opening to highlight important themes which receive further elaboration in the letter, and Paul does just that in Galatians. The question of just which part of Galatians is the opening is a live one. It is clear that there is a more normal epistolary greeting in vv. 1–5, but how v. 6 and following fits within the standard format is an open question. Paul was not a slave to prescribed forms, and in the case of Galatians he alters the form to suit his purposes in writing. For example, his opening lacks a prayer of thanksgiving. Instead he challenges the Galatians directly about their fidelity to the gospel and God who authored it. So many commentators regard vv. 6–10 as the part of the opening where thanksgiving would normally be, but instead Paul uses it for rebuke and set the tone for the whole letter. Even within the greeting proper, within vv. 1–5, Paul introduces themes which receive further treatment.

Clearly the source of Paul’s apostleship and message are important in the letter. In v. 1 after writing his name as the sender of the letter, Paul identifies himself as an apostle, and then further identifies the source of that ministry as from God and not man. This is a critical argument in the letter, which is developed further in chapters 1 and 2 as a whole, but specifically in 1:11–12, 1:18–19, and 2:6–9.

A subtle theme of the letter which receives mention in the greeting is eschatology. Paul mentions the resurrection of Jesus in v. 1 and our rescue from this present evil age in v. 4. Silva discusses this latter verse quite with clarity: on pp. 171–72 of his text Interpreting Galatians:

In any case, what matters is that at the outset Paul highlights two important elements in the teaching of the epistle: (a) Christ’s work, since it can be described as an act of rescue, leads to freedom; and (b) that from which Christ frees us is the present evil world—a phrase that, as is generally recognized, reflects an eschatological mode of thought. And as Schlier correctly infers, the work of Christ must signify the dawning of the new age.[1]

Long and short: The opening of Galatians, as with all of Paul’s epistles, should not be overlooked.

  1. Moisés Silva, Interpreting Galatians: Explorations in Exegetical Method (2nd ed.; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), 171–72.  ↩