I am starting a series of lessons on Galatians in the adult Bible class I teach at my church. I'm planning to post various summaries here for those who would like to digest these lessons more in-depth.
A Short Introduction to Galatians: Who, What, When, Where, and Why
Who, When, and Where
The question of who wrote the book is fairly straightforward: The author was the apostle Paul. The book of Galatians attests it (1:1), and no scholar of any repute denies it. Paul's date of birth is uncertain, but he is roughly contemporary with Jesus. Born in Tarsus on the southern coast of modern Turkey, Paul was trained as a Pharisee under the rabbi Gamaliel, which meant a deep understanding of the OT and an intense devotion to the Law as the way to honor God. He saw the risen Lord and became a follower of Christ in the late 30s. Afterwards he became a missionary and went on three different, extensive trips to share the gospel throughout the Gentile world. He was imprisoned in Rome in the early 60s but was likely released to continue his work, although this is speculative. He was later imprisoned in Rome again in late 60s to die there, possibly under the emperor Nero.
The question of who received the book, where they lived, and when it was written are tied up together and usually discussed under the rubric of the North and South Galatian theory. Generally speaking, the recipients were inhabitants of the region of Galatia, but the name Galatia was used in two different ways during this time: It referred either to a general, geographic region, or it referred to a political province. The North Galatian theory states that Paul wrote the book to the geographical region of Galatia in north central Asia Minor. Paul visited this region on his second missionary journey (Acts 16:6; 18:23). Paul would have thus written the book on his third missionary journey, perhaps during a stay in Greece (Acts 20:3), sometime in the mid-50s. The South Galatian theory states that Paul wrote the book to the Roman province of Galatia which was much further south than the geographic region of Galatia. Paul visited cities in this region—cities such as Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe—on his first missionary journey (Acts 14:1, 6, 8, 20, 21). I prefer the South Galatian theory for two main reasons related to how the books of Galatians and Acts fit together: (1) A logical (but not mandatory) corollary of the North Galatian view is that Galatians 2:1-10 = Acts 15. But if Galatians 2 depicts the same event as Acts 15, it is practically inconceivable that the decrees of the council would not be mentioned by Paul in his defense. This absence points toward lack of identity between the two events and undercuts the North Galatian view. (2) The book of Galatians gives the strong impression that the visit to Jerusalem depicted in 2:1-10 was only Paul’s second visit, while Acts indicates that Paul’s visit to Jerusalem in Acts 15 was at least his third. This would imply that Paul’s visit to Jerusalem in Galatians 2:10 was prior to Acts 15. Putting this all together, I would argue that Paul wrote to the churches in the political province of Galatia, which he visited on his first missionary journey. The book would have been written in approximately A.D. 49 on the eve of the Jerusalem council.
Paul wrote a letter to the Galatians, more properly called an epistle. In so doing he followed the conventions of the day, using the forms and style common at the time. Most all letters at this time had the same sections in the same order: introduction, thanksgiving, body, concluding greeting, benediction. Paul didn't slavishly follow this form, however, but modified it to suit his purposes as necessary. For example, this letter doesn't have a thanksgiving simply because Paul is angry and upset with the Galatians. The body is quite extensive and can be divided into 3-4 separate sections logically based on the content.
This is the most important question of all because it addresses the content Paul wrote and his purposes for putting pen to paper. There are two main theories discussed relative to this question: that Paul wrote to defend his apostleship, and that Paul wrote to defend the gospel he had preached to the Galatians. Both of these imply the presence of individuals who had influenced the Galatians away from Paul's gospel. Either they were attacking his place as an apostle, they were attacking the contours of the gospel he preached, or they were doing both. There are strong elements of both in Paul's writing, but I lean to the second, namely, that Paul was writing to defend his gospel. Key verses in Galatians in my mind to defend this are Gal 1:8-9, which is a strong denunciation of those who preach a different gospel, and Gal 2:16, which is a clear presentation of the gospel Paul preached.
So who were these people? They have on the one hand been identified as Jews who were seeking to draw the Galatians away from Christianity, but that doesn't exactly match what Paul writes. These people honored Christ. They knew and respected the apostles of the Lord who were based in Jersualem. So it doesn't appear that they were Jewish through and through to the exclusion of being Christian. A better assessment is that these individuals were Jewish Christians who had a different conviction than Paul about the role of the Law. Paul preached that Gentiles did not need to obey anything in the Law to relate to God, but these individuals taught that obedience to the law, specifically as it related to circumcision, was required because God had always required it of those who related to him, and there was no apparent abrogation of that requirement even with the arrival of the Messiah.
So the situation as best we can tell could be reconstructed like this: After Paul's initial missionary efforts in Galatia, other Jewish Christians came on the scene who argued that these Galatian Gentiles needed to be circumcised and obey other aspects of the Law. Paul saw this as a defection from his gospel, a defection which changed its very nature. He thus wrote to correct this grave theological error and guide the Galatians back onto the right path of fidelity to the gospel he preached and its implications for full Gentile inclusion in the church without any requirement to obey the Law.