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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

Galatians Overview




The Epistle to the Galatians






I. Galatia.—The name Galatia is used in two senses. In ordinary speech it was used to designate that portion of Asia Minor lying chiefly between the rivers Sangarius and Halys, which was inhabited by the tribe of Galatæ, or Galli. This warlike people had been invited over from Europe by Nicomedes king of Bithynia, who repaid their services by a grant of land. Issuing forth from thence, they had been for a time the terror and the scourge of Asia Minor, but they had been at last driven back and confined within the territory originally assigned to them. These events took place in the latter half of the third century B.C. Their power was broken by the Romans in B.C. 189, and though for another century and a half they retained a nominal independence, in B.C. 25 they were formally annexed to the empire of Rome.

Just before this final annexation, during the reign of the last king, Amyntas, the kingdom of Galatia had been considerably enlarged. Amyntas had ranged himself on the winning side in the great civil wars, and he had received as his reward Pisidia, Isauria, parts of Lycaonia and Phrygia, and Cilicia Trachæa. On his death the greater part of these dominions, with the exception of Cilicia Trachæa, became a single Roman province, which, for administrative purposes, was also known by the name Galatia.

To which of these two Galatias did St. Paul address his Epistle? Was it to the narrower Galatia—Galatia proper—or to the wider Galatia—the Roman province? There are some temptations to adopt the second of these views. In that case we should have a graphic account of the founding of the Galatian churches—for such they would be—in Acts 13, 14. At Antioch in Pisidia, which we are expressly told formed part of the kingdom of Amyntas, the Apostle had preached with a success which had called down violent opposition. Iconium, to which he retreated, appears not to have been given to Amyntas, and whether it formed part of the Roman province at this time is uncertain. There is, however, no doubt as to Lystra—where the two Apostles were received so enthusiastically—and Derbe. On the hypothesis that the Galatia of the Epistle is the Roman province, the scenes of this first missionary journey would be directly associated with it. On the contrary assumption, no details whatever as to the founding of the Galatian churches have come down to us.

In spite of this, and in spite of some other points in which the history may seem to be simplified by assigning to Galatia the wider signification, a balance of considerations seems to prevent us from doing so. There can be no question that St. Luke, in the Acts, wherever he speaks of Galatia, uses the word in its narrower and proper sense, and though this would not be in itself decisive as to the usage of St. Paul, still it is impossible to think that in impassioned passages like Galatians 3:1, “O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you,” &c., the Apostle is using only an official title. We shall be safe in assuming that he was really writing to the descendants of the Gallic invaders, and that he addresses them by the name by which they were familiarly known.

II. The Galatians.—It does not, however, follow from what has just been said that the Christian converts were taken solely or even chiefly from the native Galatians. They did but give a name to the country; three other nationalities went to make up its population. First came the Greeks, who were so numerous as to give to their adopted home the second name of Gallogræcia. Then, beneath the upper layer of conquering Galatians, there lay a large substratum of the older inhabitants, the conquered Phrygians; and by the side of both—brought partly by colonisation and partly by purposes of trade—were considerable numbers of Jews. Of the disturbing presence of this latter element the Epistle itself gives us ample evidence.

Still, the predominant body, and that which gave its most distinctive characteristics to the Church, were the genuine Galatians themselves. A question similar to that as to the boundaries of Galatia has been raised in regard to these. To what race did they belong? A large section of the ablest German commentators until quite recently were disposed to claim them as Teutons, the main ground for this being that Jerome, in the fourth century, observed a resemblance between the language spoken in Galatia and that of the Treveri, who bequeathed their name to the modern district of Treves, and who are said to have been German. This point, however, is itself perhaps more than doubtful, and as to the Galatæ there is abundant evidence, besides their name, to show that they were Celts, and not Teutons. This was the universal opinion of antiquity, to which even Jerome, notwithstanding his statement about the language, was no exception; and it is confirmed by a philological analysis of the names both of persons and of places in Galatia that have come down to us. The theory of the Teutonic origin of the Galatians is now given up, not only in England, but in Germany.

The Galatians, then, were Celts, and we are not surprised to find in them the Celtic qualities. They came of the race which “shook all empires, but founded none.” Their great failing was in stability. Quick to receive impressions, they were quick to lose them; at one moment ardently attached, at the next violently opposed. This is precisely what St. Paul complains of. He gives a striking picture of the enthusiasm with which he had been received on his first visit. He himself was stricken down with sickness, but that did not damp the ardour of his converts. They would even have “plucked out their eyes,” and given them to him. But in a short space of time all this was gone. They had now made common cause with his adversaries. They had forsaken his teaching and repudiated his authority.

The cause of the evil lay in the intrigues of certain Judaisers. And the consideration of the question in debate between them and St. Paul opens out a new subject for discussion.

III. Contents and Doctrinal Character of the Epistle.—The controversy that divided, and could not but divide, the infant Church, came to a head most conspicuously in Galatia. Was the Jewish Law to be binding upon Christians? It was only natural that many should be found to say that it was. Christianity had sprung out of Judaism. The first and most obvious article in the Christian creed—the Messiahship of Jesus—was one that might easily be accepted, and yet all the prejudices in favour of the Jewish Law be retained. It was only a deeper and prolonged reflection that could show the fundamental antagonism between the Jewish view of things and the Christian. St. Paul saw this, but there were many who were not so clear-sighted. The main body of the Church at Jerusalem held tenaciously to the Jewish practices. The old Pharisaic passion for making proselytes still clung to them. And emissaries from this Church had found their way—as they easily might, through the chain of Jewish posts scattered over Asia Minor—as far north as Galatia.

These emissaries pursued the same tactics as they had pursued elsewhere. They called in question the Apostle’s authority. They claimed to act from a superior commission themselves. They disparaged his teaching of personal faith in Jesus. They knew nothing of such faith. They acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah, and with that they were content. They still looked for salvation, as they had done hitherto, from the literal performance of the Mosaic Law, and they forced this view upon the Galatians. They insisted specially on the rite of circumcision. They would not allow the Gentile converts to escape it. They proclaimed it as the only avenue to the covenant relation with God. And no sooner had the convert submitted to circumcision than they proceeded to lay upon him an oppressive burden of ritualistic ceremonies. He was to keep a multitude of seasons, “days, and months, and times, and years.’ If he was to enjoy the Messianic privileges he must be righteous. But to be righteous was to perform scrupulously the precepts of the Mosaic Law, and in the attempt to do this the convert’s whole powers and energies were consumed. The Messiahship of Jesus was something secondary and subordinate. The Judaisers accepted it so far as it seemed to hold out to them a prospect of advantage, but otherwise it remained a mere passive belief. The key to life and conduct was still sought in the fulfilment of the Mosaic Law.

With such a position as this the Apostle could not but be directly at issue. To him the Messiahship of Jesus (including, as it did, His eternal Sonship) formed the very root and centre of his whole religious being. Faith—or the ardent conviction of this Messiahship in its completest sense—was the one great motive power which he recognised. And the state in which the Christian was placed by faith was itself—apart from any laborious system of legal observances—an attainment of righteousness. The Messianic system was everything. The Law henceforth was nothing. By his relation to the Messiah the Christian obtained all of which he had need. Sin stood between him and the favour of God, but the Messiah had died to remove the curse entailed by sin; and by his adhesion to the Messiah the Christian at once stepped into the enjoyment of all the blessings and immunities which the Messianic reign conferred. It was not that he was released from the obligations of morality (as represented by the Law), but morality was absorbed in religion. One who stood in the relation that the Christian did to Christ could not but lead a holy life; but the holy life was a consequence—a natural, easy, necessary consequence—of this relation, not something to be worked out by the man’s unaided efforts, independently of any such relation. The command, “Be ye holy as I am holy,” remained, but there intervened the motive and stimulus afforded by the death and exaltation of Christ. “Be ye holy, because ye are bought with a price; because ye are Christ’s, and your life is hid with Christ in God.”

The Law then no longer held that primary position which it had occupied under the old covenant. It had fulfilled its functions, which were preparatory and not final. Its object had been to deepen the sense of sin, to define unmistakably the line which separated it from righteousness, and so to prepare the way for that new Messianic system in which the power of sin was not ignored but overcome, and overcome by lifting the believer as it were bodily into a higher sphere. He was taken out of a sphere of human effort and ritual observance, and raised into a sphere in which he was surrounded by divine influences, and in which all that he had to do was to realise practically what had already been accomplished for him ideally. In that sphere the centre and life-giving agency was Christ, and the means by which Christ was to be apprehended was Faith. So that Christ and Faith were the watchwords of the Apostle, just as the Law and Circumcision were the watchwords of the Jews.

Thus the line that the Apostle takes in this Epistle was clearly marked out for him. Against the attacks upon his apostolic authority he defended himself by claiming that, although he was a late comer in point of time, this did not imply any real inferiority. His was not an authority derived at second-hand. On the contrary, he owed his calling and commission directly to God Himself. The proof was to be seen both in the circumstances of his conversion and also in the fact that, though he had once or twice been brought into apparent contact with the elder Apostles, his teaching was entirely independent of them, and was already fully formed when he had at last an opportunity of consulting them about it. And in practice, not only was he recognised by them as an equal, but even Peter submitted to a rebuke from him. On the other hand, upon the great dogmatic question, St. Paul meets his opponents by an emphatic statement of his own position. Christianity is not something accessory to the Law, but supersedes it. Righteousness is to be sought not by legal observances, but by faith. The old system was carnal, material, an affair of externals. The new system is a spiritual renewal by spiritual forces. Not that there is any real contradiction between the new and the old. For the very type and pattern of the old dispensation—Abraham himself—obtained the righteousness that was imputed to him not by works, but by faith. Thus, the true descendant of Abraham is he who puts faith in Christ. It was to Christ that the promise related, in Christ that the whole divine scheme of redemption and regeneration centred. The Law could not interfere with it, for the Law came after the Promise, by which it was guaranteed. The function of the Law was something temporary and transient. It was, as it were, a state of tutelage for mankind. The full admission to the privileges of the divine patrimony was reserved for those who became personal followers of the Messiah. He was the Son of God, and those who cast in their lot wholly with Him were admitted to a share in His sonship. To go back to the old stage of ritual observance was pure retrogression. It was an unnatural exchange—a state of drudgery for a state of freedom. It was a reversal of the old patriarchal story—a preferring of Hagar and Ishmael for Isaac, the child of promise. The Apostle cannot think that the Galatians will do this. He exhorts them earnestly to hold fast to their liberty, to hold fast to Christ, not to give up their high privilege of seeking righteousness by faith, and accepting it through grace, for any useless ordinance like circumcision. Yet the liberty of the Christian is far from meaning license. License proceeds from giving way to the impulses of the flesh, but these impulses the Christian has got rid of. His relation to Christ has brought him under the dominion of the Spirit of Christ. He is spiritual, not carnal; and to be spiritual implies, or should imply, every grace and every virtue. The Galatians should be gentle and charitable to offenders. They should be liberal in their alms. The Epistle concludes with a repeated warning against the Judaising intruders. Their motives are low and interested. They wish to pass off themselves and their converts as Jews, and to escape persecution as Christians. But to do so they must give up the very essentials of Christianity.

The Epistle is not constructed upon any artificial system of divisions, but the subject-matter falls naturally into three main sections, each consisting of two of our present chapters, with a short preface and conclusion, the last in the Apostle’s own handwriting. The first section contains the defence of his apostolic authority and independence in a review of his own career for the first seventeen years from his conversion. This leads him to speak of the dispute with St. Peter at Antioch, and the doctrinal questions involved in that dispute lead up to the second or doctrinal section, in which his own main tenet of righteousness by faith is contrasted with the teaching of the Judaisers and established out of the Old Testament. This occupies Galatians 3, 4. The last section, is, as usual with St. Paul, hortatory, and consists of an application of the principles just laid down to practice, with such cautions as they may seem to need, and one or two special points which his experience in the Church at Corinth and the news brought to him from Galatia appear to have suggested.

I.—Introductory Address (Galatians 1:1-10).

a. The apostolic salutation (Galatians 1:1-5).

b. The Galatians’ defection (Galatians 1:6-10).

II—Personal Apologia: an Autobiographical Retrospect (Galatians 1:11 to Galatians 2:21).

The Apostle’s teaching derived from God and not man (Galatians 1:11-12), as proved by the circumstances of—

(1) His education (Galatians 1:13-14).

(2) His conversion (Galatians 1:15-17).

(3) His intercourse with the other Apostles whether at (a) his first visit to Jerusalem (Galatians 1:18-24), or (b) his later visit (Galatians 2:1-10).

(4) His conduct in the controversy with Peter at Antioch (Galatians 2:11-14);

The subject of which controversy was the supersession of the Law by Christ (Galatians 2:15-21).

III.—Dogmatic Apologia: Inferiority of Judaism, or Legal Christianity, to the Doctrine of Faith (Galatians 3:1 to Galatians 4:31).

(a) The Galatians bewitched into retrogression from a spiritual system to a carnal system (Galatians 3:1-5).

(b) Abraham himself a witness to the efficacy of faith (Galatians 3:6-9).

(c) Faith in Christ alone removes the curse which the Law entailed (Galatians 3:10-14).

(d) The validity of the Promise unaffected by the Law (Galatians 3:15-18).

(e) Special pædagogic function of the Law, which must needs give way to the larger scope of Christianity (Galatians 3:19-29).

(f) The Law a state of tutelage (Galatians 4:1-7).

(g) Meanness and barrenness of mere ritualism (Galatians 4:8-11).

(h) The past zeal of the Galatians contrasted with their present coldness (Galatians 4:12-20).

(i) The allegory of Isaac and Ishmael (Galatians 4:21-31).

IV.—Hortatory Application of the Foregoing (Galatians 5:1 to Galatians 6:10).

(a) Christian liberty excludes Judaism (Galatians 5:1-6).

(b) The Judaising intruders (Galatians 5:7-12).

(c) Liberty not license, but love (Galatians 5:13-15).

(d) The works of the flesh and of the Spirit (Galatians 5:16-26).

(e) The duty of sympathy (Galatians 6:1-5).

(f) The duty of liberality (Galatians 6:6-10).

V.—Autograph Conclusion (Galatians 6:11-18).

(a) The Judaisers’ motive (Galatians 6:12-13).

(b) The Apostle’s motive (Galatians 6:14-15).

(c) His parting benediction, and claim to be freed from further annoyance (Galatians 6:16-18).

The subject of the Epistle to the Galatians might be summarily described as the same as that to the Romans—the doctrine of justification by faith—i.e., the state of righteousness entered by means of faith. For a further discussion of the group of ideas involved in this the reader may be referred to the Excursus on Romans.

IV. Date of the Epistle.—Mention has just been made of the Epistle to the Romans, and the resemblance between these two Epistles forms an important element in the consideration of the next question with which we have to deal—the question as to the date of the Epistle, and the place from which it was written.

On this point two views are current. It is agreed that the Epistle was written on St. Paul’s third great missionary journey. It is agreed that it belongs to the group which includes 1 and 2 Corinthians and Romans. The difference is as to the place which it occupies in this group. A large majority of commentators suppose it to have been the first of the four Epistles, and date it from Ephesus at some time during the Apostle’s lengthened stay there, i.e., at some time during the three years A.D. 54-57. The other view is that the Epistle was written after the two Epistles to the Corinthians, but before the Epistle to the Romans, i.e., at the end of the year 57 or beginning of 58, from Macedonia or Greece. This view has until recently not had many supporters, but it has lately found a strong advocate in Dr. Lightfoot.

Practically there is a single main argument on each side. In favour of the earlier date, the one point that can be pressed is the expression used in Galatians 1:6 : “I marvel that ye are so soon removed from Him that called you, into another gospel.” The conversion of the Galatians appears to have taken place in A.D. 51. St. Paul paid them a second visit in A.D. 54. In the autumn of that year his three years’ stay at Ephesus began. And it is argued that the expression “soon” will not allow us to go beyond these three years. “Soon,” however, is a relative term. It may mean any interval from a few minutes to one or more centuries. The context must decide. A change, which in the natural course of things would take a protracted length of time to accomplish, might be described as taking place “soon” if it was brought about in a space of time conspicuously shorter than might have been expected. But for the conversion of a whole community to Christianity, and for their second conversion to another form of Christianity wholly distinct from the first, we should surely expect a long and protracted period. Under such circumstances a period of six or seven years might very well be called “soon.” To this argument, then, it does not seem that very much, or indeed any, weight can be attached.

The one chief argument upon the other side is the very close and remarkable similarity, both in ideas and language, between the Epistles to Galatians and the Romans, and, in somewhat lower degree, 2 Corinthians. Any one may observe in himself a tendency to use similar words, and to fall into similar trains of thought at particular periods. This is especially the case with strong thinkers who take a firm grip of ideas, but are possessed of less facility and command of words in which to express them. Such was St. Paul. And accordingly we find that the evidence of style as a help to determine the chronological relations of the different Epistles is peculiarly clear and distinct. But in the doctrinal portions of Romans and Galatians we have a resemblance so marked—the same main thesis, supported by the same arguments, the same Scripture proofs (Leviticus 18:5; Psalms 143:2; Habakkuk 2:4), the same example, Abraham, thrown into relief by the same contrast, that of the Law, developed to the same consequences and couched throughout in language of striking similarity—that we seem to be precluded from supposing any interval between them sufficient to allow of a break in the Apostle’s mind. And considering the throng of events and emotions through which the Apostle was now passing; observing further that the three Epistles, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, and Romans, in this order, form a climax as to the distinctness with which the ideas expressed in them are elaborated, it would seem that the Epistle with which we are dealing should be placed between the other two; that is to say, we should assign it to the end of the year 57, or beginning of 58, and the place of its composition would probably be Macedonia or Greece.

The course, then, of the history will be this: St. Paul first visited Galatia on the occasion of his second missionary journey soon after the memorable conference at Jerusalem, and probably about the year A.D. 51. His intention had been to pass from Lycaonia due west into the Roman province of Asia. From this, however, he was prevented, as St. Luke informs us, by some supernatural intimation. Accordingly he turned northwards through Phrygia, and so entered Galatia. Here he seems to have been detained by illness (Galatians 4:13-14). He took the opportunity to preach, and his preaching was so successful that the Church in Galatia was definitely founded. This work accomplished, he left for Mysia, and thence passed on to Troas and Macedonia, where the better known portion of the second missionary journey begins. After the conclusion of this journey St. Paul, in starting upon his third missionary journey, again directed his course to Galatia. This time the historian mentions “the country of Galatia and Phrygia” in a different order from that in which they had occurred before. We should conclude, therefore, that St. Paul made his way straight from Antioch; and as no mention is made this time of the churches of Lycaonia, it would seem probable that he took the direct Roman road skirting Cappadocia. On his arrival in Galatia we read that he went through it “in order, strengthening the disciples” (Acts 18:23). We should gather from some indications in the Epistle (Galatians 4:16; Galatians 5:21) that he had found it necessary to administer rather severe reproof to his converts. Already there were signs of false teaching in the Church. The Apostle’s Judaising opponents had obtained an entrance, and he was obliged to speak of them in language of strong condemnation (Galatians 1:9). But the warning was in vain. This second visit had taken place in the autumn of A.D. 54, and from the end of that year till the autumn of A.D. 57, during which he was settled at Ephesus, disquieting rumours continued to be brought to him of the increasing defection of his converts, and the increasing influence of the Judaising party. Matters went on from bad to worse; and at last, apparently upon his way through Macedonia to Greece, the Apostle received such news as determined him to write at once. The Epistle bears marks of having been written under the influence of a strong and fresh impression; and Dr. Lightfoot, with his usual delicate acumen, infers from the greeting, “from all the brethren that are with me” (Galatians 1:2), that it was probably written en voyage, and not from any of the larger churches of Macedonia, or, as might have been otherwise thought natural, Corinth. At all events, it would seem that we should be keeping most closely to the canons of probability if we assign the Epistle to the winter months of the years 57-58.

V. Genuineness of the Epistle.—No doubt of any real importance has been or can be cast upon the genuineness of the Epistle. It is one of those fervid outbursts of impassioned thought and feeling which are too rare and too strongly individual to be imitated. The internal evidence, therefore, alone would be sufficient, but the external evidence is also considerable. It is true that nothing conclusive is found in the apostolic fathers. The clearest allusion would seem to be in the Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians, cap. 5: “Knowing, then, that God is not mocked” (a peculiar and striking word) “we ought to walk in His commandment and His glory” (comp. Galatians 6:7); and again, in Galatians 3, with perhaps a somewhat more direct reference, “who (St. Paul) also in his absence wrote unto you Epistles that you might be able to be built up unto the faith given you, which is the mother of us all.” (Comp. Galatians 4:26.) It is noticeable that though Justin Martyr does not name the Epistle, and, indeed, nowhere directly quotes from St. Paul, yet in two consecutive chapters he makes use of two passages of the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 21:23; Deuteronomy 27:26), which are also quoted in close connection by St. Paul, and that these passages are given with precisely the same variations both from the Septuagint and the Hebrew. There is also a clear quotation in Athenagoras (circ. 177 A.D.). But, until we get towards the end of the second century, the best evidence is not so much that of orthodox writers as of heretics. Marcion, who flourished A.D. 140, laid great stress upon this Epistle, which he placed first of the ten which he recognised as St. Paul’s. The Ophites and Valentinians, in writings belonging to this century, quoted largely from it. Celsus (circ. 178) speaks of the saying, Galatians 6:14, “The world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world,” as commonly heard amongst Christians. The author of the Clementine Homilies (which may be probably, though not certainly, placed about 160 A.D.) grounds upon St. Paul’s account of the dispute at Antioch an attack upon the Apostle himself; and the Epistle furnishes other material for accusation. As we draw near the last quarter of the century the evidence for this, as for most other books of the New Testament, becomes ample. The Muratorian Canon (circ. 170 A.D.) places the Epistle in the second place, next to 1 and 2 Corinthians. The Syriac and the Old Latin translations (the second of which was certainly, and the first probably, made before this time), both contain it. Irenæus, Clement of Alexandria, and Tertullian, quote the Epistle frequently, and as a work of St. Paul’s. And, what is of still more importance, the text, as it appears in quotations by these writers, as well as in the versions, and even so far back as Marcion, already bears marks of corruption, showing that it had been for some time in existence, and that it had passed through a lengthened process of corruption. But to prove the genuineness of the Epistle to the Galatians is superfluous. It is rather interesting to collect the evidence as a specimen of the kind of evidence that, in the case of a work of acknowledged genuineness, is forthcoming.

[The English commentator upon the Epistle to the Galatians has no excuse beyond the calibre of his own powers, if his treatment of the subject is inadequate. He has before him two commentaries in his own language, Dr. Lightfoot’s and Bishop Ellicott’s, which, in their Kind, cannot easily be surpassed. It is needless to say that these, along with Meyer, have been taken as the basis of the present edition, Wieseler, Alford, and Wordsworth being occasionally consulted]



THE parallel accounts of the intercourse of St. Paul with the Church at Jerusalem, given in this Epistle and in the Acts of the Apostles, have been a double source of difficulty. To writers who have accepted the general truthfulness of both narratives, they have seemed hard to harmonise and arrange in due chronological sequence; and, on the other hand, to those who were already prepared to cast a doubt upon the veracity of the historical work, the autobiographical notices in the Epistle have furnished a means of attack of which they have very unsparingly availed themselves.

The critic who wishes to look at things as they really are, without prejudice and without captiousness, will certainly confess that all is not perfectly smooth or plain, and that the two narratives do not fit into each other at once with exact precision; but he will none the less vehemently repudiate the exaggerated conclusions which have been drawn from the differences which exist—conclusions which, while professing to be based upon the application to the Bible of the same principles that would be made use of in judging any other book, are such as in fact are totally inapplicable both to books and to real life. It is not too much to say that, if the principles carried out, e.g., by F. C. Baur in his famous criticism of these narratives were applied with equal thoroughness elsewhere, history would not exist, or would simply become a field for the exercise of the imagination, and common affairs would be reduced to a dead-lock of universal scepticism. The standard by which these writers have judged of what is historical and what is not, is a standard which exists only in the pedantry of the study or the lecture-room, and which is least of all applicable here, where our ignorance of all the surrounding circumstances is so large, and the whole body of direct evidence so very small.

We shall proceed to place the two narratives side by side, pointing out as well as we can what are the real and what are only apparent differences between them. At the same time it must be fully acknowledged that, however sincere the motives with which any particular statement of the case is made, there will still be a certain room for honest diversity of opinion. One mind will lean to a greater and another to a less amount of stringency, though it is hard to believe that any properly-trained and soundly-balanced judgment will fall into the extravagances to which the criticism of this unfortunate chapter of history has been subject.

In estimating the apparent divergences of the two writers, the position and object of each should be borne in mind. St. Paul is writing with the most intimate acquaintance with the inner course of events, but at the same time with a definite and limited object in view—to vindicate his own independence. He is writing under the pressure of controversy which served sharply to accentuate the points of difference between himself and all who were in any way mixed up with the Judaising party. On the other hand, St. Luke was writing at a greater distance of time, from information which in this part of his narrative he was obliged to take at second-hand, and that from persons who were themselves only acquainted with so much of the events as had passed in public. He may have had a wish not to give too much relief to the oppositions which still threatened the peace of the Church, but there is nothing to show that this went so far as to distort his representation of the facts.

We shall assume the view which is current amongst a large majority of the best and most trustworthy critics as to the order of the visits, and we shall confine ourselves to considering the relation between the two narratives.

The first visit, then, with which we have to deal will be that recorded in Acts 9:26-30, Galatians 1:18-24, which we place in parallel columns.

Acts 9:26-30.

Galatians 1:18-24.

When Saul was come to Jerusalem, he assayed to join himself to the disciples: but they were all afraid of him, and believed not that he was a disciple. But Barnabas took him, and brought hint to the apostles, and declared unto them how he had seen the Lord in the way, and that he had spoken to him, and how he had preached boldly at Damascus in the name of Jesus. And he was with them coming in and going out at Jerusalem. And he spake boldly in the name of the Lord Jesus, and disputed against the Grecians [Hellenists, or Greek speaking Jews]: but they went about to slay him. Which when the brethren knew, they brought him down to Caesarea, and sent him forth to Tarsus.

Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter [Cephas], and abode with him fifteen days. But other of the apostles saw I none, save James the Lord’s brother. Now the things which I write unto you, behold, before God, I lie not. Afterwards I came into the regions of Syria and Cilicia; and was unknown by face unto the churches of Judæa which were in Christ: but they had heard only, That he which persecuted us in times past now preacheth the faith which once he destroyed. And they glorified God in me.

The narratives here do not really clash, though they are presented from different sides. St. Paul says nothing about his introduction to the Church at Jerusalem by Barnabas, because that had no bearing upon his argument; neither does he speak of his public preaching at Jerusalem, for that, too, was not to the point. There would be ample time for this preaching during the fifteen days that he was residing in the house of St. Peter; and as he would be seen coming in and going out of this house—sometimes, no doubt, in company with St. Peter, and once or twice, perhaps, also in company with St. James—it would be very natural that St. Luke’s informants and St. Luke, wishing to show how entirely the former persecutor was now reconciled to the Church, should speak of him as “coming in and going out” with the Apostles. St. Paul himself hints at the impression which this great change made upon the churches of Judæa collectively, though he was brought directly in contact only with the Church at Jerusalem. There is nothing to surprise us in the fact that St. Paul saw only two of the Apostles: the rest may have been absent upon some mission, or there may have been other causes, about which it would be vain to speculate. It would, perhaps, be possible to derive from St. Luke’s narrative an exaggerated idea of the extent to which the Apostle preached in public; but there, too, it is to be noticed that the preaching is described as confined to a particular, not very large, section of the Jewish community; and St. Luke relates nothing that would carry him beyond the walls of Jerusalem. The question whether St. Paul went direct from Cæsarea to Tarsus, or landed upon the coast of Syria on the way, will be found discussed in the Notes to Galatians 1:21.

The second visit to Jerusalem is mentioned only in the Acts. After recounting the success of the Apostle’s preaching at Antioch, and the great famine of the reign of Claudius, the historian proceeds to give an account of the collection that was made for the suffering churches of Judæa.

Acts 11:29-30; Acts 12:25.

Then the disciples, every man according to his ability, determined to send relief unto the brethren which dwelt in Judæa: which also they did, and sent it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul.

[Here follows an account of the imprisonment and deliverance of St. Peter, and of the death of Herod.]

And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem, when they had fulfilled their ministry, and took with them John, whose surname was Mark.

The only question that occurs to us here is, Why is this visit omitted by St. Paul? Nor is the answer far to seek. If St. Paul had been giving a professed list of his visits to Jerusalem, it might have seemed strange. But he is not giving such a list. His object is to explain the extent of his communications with the elder Apostles. But on this occasion there is every reason to think that he had no such communication. From the order of the narrative in the Acts we should infer that St. Paul arrived at Jerusalem during the confusion which was caused by Herod’s persecution. St. Peter was in prison; the Elder James had just been slain; James, the Lord’s brother was in hiding (Acts 12:17). No sooner was St. Peter delivered than he too went into hiding again (Acts 12:17-19). In the Church assembled at the house of Mary, none of the prominent members seem to have been present. And that Paul and Barnabas came to this house, we have an incidental proof in the fact that they took back with them John Mark, the son of the lady to whom it belonged. We should gather from the Acts that all they did was simply to fulfil their commission, by depositing the sums of which they were the bearers, in trustworthy hands, and return. But if so, there was no reason why St. Paul should allude to this visit in his argument with the Galatians. It had taken place nearly fourteen years before the date at which he was writing; and though it is not necessary to suppose that he had exactly forgotten it, still there was nothing to recall it to him, and it was not present to his mind. This is quite sufficient to explain the expression with which he introduces his account of his next, really his third, visit. He does not use a precise expression, “I went up a second time,” but simply, “I went up again.”

This third visit is the most important. That both accounts relate to the same visit cannot be doubted, though there is, at the first blush, a considerable difference between them.

Acts 15:1-31.

Galatians 2:1-11.

And certain men which came down from Judæa taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved. When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question . . . And when they were come to Jerusalem, they were received of the church, and of the apostles and elders, and they declared all things that God had done with them. But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses. And the apostles and elders came together for to consider of this matter. And when there had been much disputing, Peter rose up, and said unto them, Men and brethren, ye know how that a good while ago God made choice among us, that the Gentiles by my mouth should hear the word of the gospel, and believe . . . Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they. Then all the multitude kept silence, and gave audience to Barnabas and Paul, declaring what miracles and wonders God had wrought among the Gentiles by them. And after they had held their peace, James answered, saying, Men and brethren, hearken unto me: Simeon hath declared how God at the first did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name. And to this agree the words of the prophets; . . . Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God: but that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood. [To the same effect the letter is written, and sent by the hands of Judas Barsabas, and Silas, who returned to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas, as a delegation from the Church of Jerusalem.]

Then fourteen years after I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, and took Titus with me also. And I went up by revelation, and communicated unto them that gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, but privately to them which were of reputation, lest by any means I should run, or had run, in vain. But neither Titus, who was with me, being a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised: and that because of false brethren unawares brought in, who came in privily to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage: to whom we gave place by subjection, no, not for an hour; that the truth of the gospel might continue with you. But of these who seemed to be somewhat, (whatsoever they were, it maketh no matter to me: God accepteth no man’s person:) for they who seemed to be somewhat in conference added nothing to me: but contrariwise, when they saw that the gospel of the uncircumcision was committed unto me, as the gospel of the circumcision was unto Peter; (for he that wrought effectually in Peter to the apostleship of the circumcision, the same was mighty in me toward the Gentiles:) and when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given unto me, they gave to me and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship; that we should go unto the heathen, and they unto the circumcision. Only they would that we should remember the poor; the same which I also was forward to do. But when Peter [Cephas] was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed, &c

In one respect the narrative of St. Paul is strikingly supplemented by that of St. Luke. It tells us who were the “false brethren unawares brought in.” They were “certain of the sect of Pharisees which believed,” i.e., Pharisees who called themselves Christians, though without forsaking their peculiar tenets, and wishing to impose them upon the Church. The true opposition to St. Paul came from these. Both in the Epistle and in the work of the historian it is they who are put forward prominently. And it is a gross exaggeration, nay, a distortion of the facts, to represent the opposition as proceeding from the Judæan Apostles. These appear rather as mediators, standing by birth and antecedents upon the one side, but yielding to the reasonableness of the case so far as to make large concessions upon the other.

It is noticeable, too, as another minute coincidence between the two accounts, that in both stress is laid upon the success of the Gentile Apostle’s preaching as a proof that he enjoyed the divine favour. In the Acts Paul and Barnabas defend themselves by “declaring what miracles and wonders God had wrought among the Gentiles by them;” and in the Galatians the Judæan Apostles are described as giving to St. Paul and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship because they “perceived the grace given to him,” and because they saw that the same Power who enabled Peter to preach to the Jews “was mighty in him toward the Gentiles.”

These two quite “undesigned” coincidences are a strong confirmation of the narratives in which they are found. But the differences must also be noticed. (1) In the Epistle St. Paul speaks of himself as going up “by revelation”—i.e., in accordance with some private intimation of the divine will. In the Acts it is determined for him that he should go as the deputy of the Church at Antioch. But the two things do not exclude each other: they rather represent the different aspects of the same event as it would appear when looked at from without and when looked at from within. A precisely similar difference may be observed in Acts 9:29-30, compared with Acts 22:17 et seq. In the one passage the disciples are said to have “brought down” St. Paul to Cæsarea, for fear the Jews should slay him. In the other passage St. Paul himself, relating the same incident, says that, while praying in the Temple, he “fell into a trance,” and heard a voice bidding him “make haste and get quickly out of Jerusalem,” because his testimony would not be received. In like manner a double cause—the prompting of the Holy Spirit and the act of the Church at Antioch—is assigned to the same event in Acts 13:2-4. Discrepancies like these in two independent narratives are common and natural enough. (2) Nothing is said about the incident of Titus in the Acts. But Titus is included amongst the “others” of Acts 15:2 (“Paul and Barnabas and certain other of them”); and the incident is sufficiently pointed to in 2 Corinthians 13:5, where the Pharisaic converts insist on the circumcision of the Gentile converts. Nor if it had been entirely omitted need this cause any surprise. St. Luke knew only so much of what happened at the Council as his informants themselves knew or were able to tell him. (3) In the Acts we have described to us a great public meeting: the Epistle seems to speak rather of private conferences. But a public meeting on a matter of this kind, so far from excluding would naturally pre-suppose private conferences. We have recently had a conspicuous instance of this in the conduct so discreetly pursued at the Congress which resulted in the Treaty of Berlin. And a public meeting is both indicated by the Greek of the phrase “communicated unto them” (Galatians 2:2; see the Commentary ad loc.), and falls in naturally with the account of the dismissal of the two Apostles in 2 Corinthians 13:9. So far the differences are of no importance, and are perfectly compatible with the complete truth of both accounts; but the one that remains is rather more substantial. (4) St. Paul makes no mention of the so-called “apostolic decree.” The exhortation to “remember the poor” is all that he retains of the letter enjoining the Gentile Christians to “abstain from meats offered to idols, and from things strangled, and from fornication.” Nor is the decree appealed to—as it might have been here to the Galatians—as a proof that circumcision was not held to be obligatory even by the mother Church; while some of these provisions—e.g., the abstinence from meat offered to idols—are left entirely unnoticed in the discussion of the subject in the Epistles to the Corinthians and Romans. A partial answer to the questions raised by this remarkable silence may be found in the fact that the letter was addressed, in the first instance, to the churches of a particular district—Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia—which was in comparatively close communion with Judæa. It would not follow that the decree would be binding on other Gentile churches. A partial answer, again, is supplied by the Apostle’s natural independence of character. The argument from authority is the last that he would use; and if he had been more inclined to use it, the authority of the Church of Jerusalem was too often set in opposition to his own for it to be safe for him to have recourse to it as if to a higher court of appeal. These considerations may go some way, and yet we feel that the answer is still incomplete. If we knew the whole circumstances, there would probably be something more to be said. We do not know them, and therefore we must be content to remain in ignorance. But to take this ignorance as a ground for discrediting the history of the Acts is wanton in the extreme, and wholly unwarranted by anything that we see in the events that pass under our eyes or in the general relation of testimony to fact. Discrepancies greater than any that appear here may be observed in the accounts of events separated from their record by but a small interval of time, and attested by numerous witnesses: how much more, then, are they to be expected where two writers are looking back, one at a distance of seven or eight, the other, perhaps, of thirty years; where the one is writing a continuous history, and the other an apology for himself against a special and definite charge; and where they, and they two alone, supply all the information we possess as to the event itself, while all around it is little more than darkness visible!

So shallow and so slight is the foundation on which has been built that house of cards which forms one of the most imposing structures of modern negative criticism! To say that it has collapsed already would not be true, as men of learning and ability are still found to support it; but to say that it is doomed to collapse would be a prophecy based upon all the laws which distinguish between what is solid and permanent and what is fictitious and unreal.


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Bibliography Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Galatians:4 Overview". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". 1905.

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