One of the biggest challenges we as believers in Y’Shua the Messiah have, is to get to a good understanding of the concept of the salvation we have through Messiah and the need for us to keep the commandments. Most people are pretty clear about this fact once they have done their initial Torah cycle and have been re-acquainted with the content of the first five books. When we then start studying the books of the Apostle Paul again, lots of people have new questions about exactly what Paul is saying. Do we have it wrong? Is Paul really saying that we are under a curse if we keep the commandments? If faith in Y’Shua is our salvation, why do we need to keep the commandments? The book from Paul that causes the most confusion is most likely the Epistle to the Galatians.
Once you announce to people that you believe that believers should still be following the commandments of YHVH, you certainly hear your Christian friends asking, “Have you read the book of Galatians?” Even if the answer to this is yes, that does not mean that we clearly understand what Paul is trying to say in this letter. Once you start studying the book, most people I know, come up with a lot of doubts.
Thus, I will attempt to do a very quick introduction to the Epistle to the Galatians. This will not be a detailed discussion of every verse, as this would take a book of several hundred pages. It will also not be a analysis of all the key verses, but merely a basic introduction. If you have read my article on the Knowing the Books of the Bible, this will typically be classified as a survey of the Epistle.
At the end of my article I will also provide a list of resources that I recommend for a more detailed study. I would strongly recommend that you use one or more of these resources to get this epistle from Paul in its correct place.
Let us start with the basics of the Epistle to the Galatians.
I have not yet found any resource that disputes the authorship of this Epistle. It is the thoughts and ideas of the Apostle Paul, but was most likely written by a scribe. Only a small portion of the letter was physically written by Paul himself.
11 See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand.
Thus, we will need to know a bit about the author if we want to understand his writings. Contrary to what most mainstream theologians want to teach, Paul was not the founder of a new religion – Christianity. Paul was a Jewish believer in the Messiah, Y’Shua from Nazareth! Paul was in the process of studying to become a rabbi, when he had a personal encounter with Y’Shua (Acts 9.) We hear later from YHVH why he chose Paul. Paul was chosen to get the name of YHVH to the gentiles, kings and sons of Israel.
15 But YHVH said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; 16 for I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake.”
Prior to this Paul had been persecuting the followers of Y’Shua and these followers were very afraid of him.
Even after his encounter with Y’Shua, he was still a Torah observing Jew. He did not believe that he had to stop following the commandments of the Torah. We have proof in the book of Acts that:
- Paul kept the Sabbath – Acts16:13; Acts 18:4
- He kept the appointed festivals – Acts 20:16
- He paid for four men to be purified at the end of their Nazarite vows. These included a sin offering. He also purified himself in the Temple. Acts 21:23-26
We know that Paul proclaimed to be a follower and apostle of Y’Shua the Messiah.
1 Paul, an apostle (not sent from men nor through the agency of man, but through Y’Shua Messiah and YHVH the Father, who raised Him from the dead),
1 Paul, an apostle of Messiah Y’Shua by the will of YHVH, To the saints who are at Ephesus and who are faithful in Messiah Y’Shua:
This implies that Paul would not have taught anything that was contrary to what Y’Shua had taught. We know what Y’Shua taught regarding the commandments.
17 “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. 18 “For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.
15 “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.
Furthermore, among the Christian scholars, there has been a shift in the thinking of what Paul’s position was regarding the commandments. Key to the “New Perspective on Paul” is the fact that scholars realized it is wrong to accept that all Jewish people in the Second Temple period had exactly the same view. Just as we know today that not all Messianic or Christians agree with one another, so too were there different groupings within Second Temple Judaism. Another topic that shaped this is the holistic approach to Paul. Does what Paul teaches or writes, tie up with what he actually does? If Paul has an issue with keeping the Law (as was taught in the Reformation), why does he still keep the Sabbath? If he believes that sacrifices are no longer required, why does he go to the temple and make sacrifices? All these things have let a lot of New Testament scholars, question some of their basic assumptions about exactly what it was that the apostle to the Gentiles was preaching.
For this reason, we need to read the Epistle to the Galatians knowing that it was written by a well-educated Jewish scholar that had had a personal encounter with his Messiah. He had now dedicated his life to serving YHVH as the apostle to the gentiles. Thus, to think he would write a letter to a congregation, whom he had earlier convinced of the salvation through Messiah, and give them an instruction that directly opposes what Y’Shua taught would not make any sense.
Now that we know the author, let us see what we know about the original recipients of the letter.
The recipients of the letter were a group of non-Jewish believers in Y’Shua (Gal 4:8, 5:2, 6:12) . They resided in the province of Galatia. Exactly where in this Roman province they resided, is a point that is still being debated by the scholars. However, I do not believe that this would make any real difference to the message if they lived in South rather than North of Galatia. This is of more interest if we want to align the Epistle to the Galatians with The Acts of the Apostles. The province of Galatia included cities like: Derbe, Lystra, Iconium and Antioch in Pisidia. These are today located in modern Turkey.
As they were gentiles living in a Roman province, it is fair to make the assumption that they would have been speaking Greek. From this, we should be able to deduce that the Epistle was originally written in Greek. We do not have the original writings. The oldest manuscript we have that contains the Epistle is Manuscript 46 (according to the Gregory-Aland numbering) that is dated to somewhere between 175-225 C.E.
It is most likely that this epistle was not sent to one specific group of believers, but to a number of assemblies in the province/ region. This is an interesting fact, as the rest of Paul’s epistles are all addressed to a specific assembly. 2
Paul had visited these assemblies before as part of his first mission. We can read about his encounters in these assemblies in Acts 11:27-30 and Acts 13 and 14. These events would have happened around 50-52 CE. We also know from Galatians 4:13, that Paul was suffering from some illness or injury while he originally spent time with them. This may have been sustained during his time in the province (Acts 13:40, Acts 14:5-7).3
The Purpose of the Epistle
Paul felt the need to write this warning due to a group of people that came to the people of Galatia with a different “gospel.” Thus, the major theme of this Epistle is a warning about the perversion of the gospel (good news). From what Paul has written, we can deduce that these people were also followers of Y’Shua and that they were bringing the good news of Messiah, but with some twist in it. Paul does not mention that these people were denying Y’Shua.
6 I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Messiah, for a different gospel; 7 which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Messiah.
Based on two earlier manuscripts we could possibly make the statement that these people were not Jewish from birth. These two manuscripts change the grammar from “are circumcised” to “have been circumcised.” Thus, it appears, we have some split here between the Eastern and Western branches of the manuscript. Look at the difference of translation in some of the more common English translations:
Galatians 6:13 – NASB
13 For those who are circumcised do not even keep the Law themselves, but they desire to have you circumcised so that they may boast in your flesh.
Galatians 6:13 – Complete Jewish Bible
13 For even those who are getting circumcised don’t observe the Torah. On the contrary, they want you to get circumcised so that they can boast of having gained your adherence.
Galatians 6:13 – NRSV
13 Even the circumcised do not themselves obey the law, but they want you to be circumcised so that they may boast about your flesh.
Galatians 6:13 – YLT
13 for neither do those circumcised themselves keep the law, but they wish you to be circumcised, that in your flesh they may glory.
Thus, based on the uncertainty in the source text, it is impossible to determine if these people were Jewish by birth.
What is clear, is that these people were spreading a gospel that required Gentile believers to convert (be circumcised), in order to become part of Israel, and share in the blessings promised to Abraham. This is not what Paul had taught them, and he had to explain to them, why this was a false gospel.
Why was this so important to Paul?
In order to understand the answer that Paul gives in this epistle, it is crucial to first have an understanding of the question. Contrary to what is commonly taught, the question being answered is not: “Are we saved by Law or grace?” The question is rather “Who is Israel?” From the Epistle to the Romans (that was written later), we know that Paul believes that all Israel will be saved.
26 and so all Israel will be saved; just as it is written, “The Deliverer will come from Zion, He will remove ungodliness from Jacob.” 27 “This is My covenant with them, When I take away their sins.”
Thus, we need to get a definition of what was the definition of all Israel. For the Jews of the second Temple period, this was not an easy question to answer. They had to deal with a number of verses in the Scriptures that deal with the topic. Firstly, they knew that all nations would be blessed via their father Abraham and his son Isaac:
1 Now the YHVH said to Abram, “Go forth from your country, And from your relatives And from your father’s house, To the land which I will show you; 2 And I will make you a great nation, And I will bless you, And make your name great; And so you shall be a blessing; 3 And I will bless those who bless you, And the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.”
3 Abram fell on his face, and YHVH talked with him, saying, 4 “As for Me, behold, My covenant is with you, And you will be the father of a multitude of nations. 5 “No longer shall your name be called Abram, But your name shall be Abraham; For I will make you the father of a multitude of nations.
1 Now there was a famine in the land, besides the previous famine that had occurred in the days of Abraham. So Isaac went to Gerar, to Abimelech king of the Philistines. 2 YHVH appeared to him and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; stay in the land of which I shall tell you. 3 “Sojourn in this land and I will be with you and bless you, for to you and to your descendants I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath which I swore to your father Abraham. 4 “I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven, and will give your descendants all these lands; and by your descendants all the nations of the earth shall be blessed;
The prophets also prophesied that all the nations will come to adopt YHVH as their Elohim. These nations would come to Zion to be taught the commandments of YHVH.
2 Now it will come about that In the last days The mountain of the house of YHVH Will be established as the chief of the mountains, And will be raised above the hills; And all the nations will stream to it. 3 And many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of YHVH, To the house of the Elohim of Jacob; That He may teach us concerning His ways And that we may walk in His paths.” For the law will go forth from Zion And the word of YHVH from Jerusalem.
At the same time, they had to balance this with the requirements from the Scriptures to keep themselves set apart. Previously, they had not obeyed the instructions, and this had resulted in them being exiled from the land.
24 ‘Do not defile yourselves by any of these things; for by all these the nations which I am casting out before you have become defiled. 25 ‘For the land has become defiled, therefore I have brought its punishment upon it, so the land has spewed out its inhabitants.
9 “When you enter the land which the YHVH your Elohim gives you, you shall not learn to imitate the detestable things of those nations.
1 Awake, awake, Clothe yourself in your strength, O Zion; Clothe yourself in your beautiful garments, O Jerusalem, the holy city; For the uncircumcised and the unclean Will no longer come into you. 2 Shake yourself from the dust, rise up, O captive Jerusalem; Loose yourself from the chains around your neck, O captive daughter of Zion.
The last thing they wanted now was for them to make the same mistakes again. If they allowed these gentiles to mix with them, they would become unclean and start to follow their customs. At the same time, they had now become part of the Roman empire, which meant that many people from Judea started to settle in other parts of the Roman provinces, by choice or by force. This meant that the religion that was practiced in Judea was spreading to all parts of the Roman empire. In the book of the Roman historian, Josephus Flavius, we find the following description of this:
Nay, farther, the multitude of mankind itself have had a great inclination of a long time to follow our religious observances; for there is not any city of the Grecians, nor any of the barbarians, nor any nation whatsoever, whither our custom of resting on the seventh day hath not come, and by which our fasts and lighting up lamps, and many of our prohibitions as to our food, are not observed; (283) they also endeavor to imitate our mutual concord with one another, and the charitable distribution of our goods, and our diligence in our trades, and our fortitude in undergoing the distresses we are in, on account of our laws; (284) and, what is here matter of the greatest admiration, our law hath no bait of pleasure to allure men to it, but it prevails by its own force; and as God himself pervades all the worlds, so hath our law passed through all the world also. So that if anyone will but reflect on his own country, and his own family, he will have reason to give credit to what I say. Against Apion 2.282-284 4
As the faith was spreading throughout the Roman empire, there was another problem occurring. More Gentiles were flocking to the Elohim of Israel. Due to the message that people like Paul was giving, more gentiles felt that they could associate themselves with the faith of the Judeans. Throughout the provinces of Asia, Paul was traveling and bringing the gospel (good news) to all the people. The message that Paul was giving was well received by the God-fearers, which in turn made it more difficult for the Jews. To get a better picture of what this must have been like, read Acts 13 to see what this message and teaching from Paul caused in Antioch.
Although the Jews knew from the Scriptures that the time would come when the gentiles turn to YHVH, the gentiles caused a big problem for the laws of clean and unclean. The Pharisees were now in charge, and they were very focused on keeping the laws that determine clean and unclean. Thus, they made a lot of rules of how Jews were allowed to interact with gentiles. The Pharisees stood in contrast to the Sadducees, who were Hellenists (pro Greek & Roman culture). The result is that the Pharisees were, in principle, very skeptical about any non-Jew. Here is a quick summary of who the Pharisees of the second temple period were.
In their oral law, they made up the rules of how to deal with gentiles who wanted to obey their Elohim. Their answer was “conversion.” These gentiles had to become Jewish. This concept was not something new that only occurred in the Second Temple era. It was already practiced (in a different form) by the Hasmonean ruler, John Hyrcanus. Hyrcanus forcefully converted the Idomeans during his rule, by forcing them to choose between death and circumcision (conversion to Judaism). He did this as part of the effort to rid the land of all the unbelievers, that had come into the country during the exile and during the rule of the Seleucids. The process was later formalized and recorded in the oral law. This conversion process is recorded in the Babylonian Talmud – b. Yebam. 47A–B:
I.37 A. Our rabbis have taught on Tannaite authority:
B. A person who comes to convert at this time—they say to him, “How come you have come to convert? Don’t you know that at this time the Israelites are forsaken and harassed, despised, baited, and afflictions come upon them?” If he said, “I know full well, and I am not worthy [of sharing their suffering],” they accept him forthwith. And they inform him about some of the lesser religious duties and some of the weightier religious duties. He is informed about the sin of neglecting the religious duties involving gleanings, forgotten sheaf, corner of the field, and poorman’s tithe. They further inform him about the penalty for not keeping the commandments.
C. They say to him, “You should know that before you came to this lot, if you ate forbidden fat, you would not be penalized by extirpation. If you violated the Sabbath, you would not be put to death through stoning. But now if you eat forbidden fat, you are punished with extirpation. If you violate the Sabbath, you are punished by stoning.”
D. And just as they inform him about the penalties for violating religious duties, so they inform him about the rewards for doing them. They say to him, “You should know that the world to come is prepared only for the righteous, and Israel at this time is unable to bear [47B] either too much prosperity or too much penalty.”
E. They do not press him too hard, and they do not impose too many details on him.
F. If he accepted all this, they circumcise him immediately. If any shreds that render the circumcision invalid remain, they do it a second time.
G. Once he has healed, they immerse him right away.
H. And two disciples of sages supervise the process and inform him about some [more] of the lesser religious duties and some of the weightier religious duties.
I. He immerses and comes up, and lo, he is an Israelite for all purposes. 6
However, within the Pharisees there had earlier been a dispute over the role of “God-fearers” in “the World to Come.” The house of Shammai, which was stricter on their observance, believed that the God-fearers had no role to play. The followers of the house of Shammai were not allowed to interact with gentiles. On the other end, the house of Hillel did interact with God-fearers, but had some rules as to how these gentiles were to behave. This disagreement was resolved in around 20 BC when a vote was cast and the position of the House of Shammai was adopted. This fact is recorded in b.Shabbat 13B when the eighteen measures that define clean was accepted.
A. These are some of the laws which they stated in the upper room of Hananiah b. Hezekiah b. Gurion when they went up to visit him.
B. They took a vote, and the House of Shammai outnumbered the House of Hillel.
C. And eighteen rules did they decree on that very day. 7
What is not often told, is exactly how did it come that this day is recorded in the Jerusalem Talmud as “a hard a day as the day the golden calf was made” (b. Shabbat 17A.) It was simply achieved by the disciples of Shammai killing the disciples of Hillel so that they would have the majority. We see a record of this in the Jerusalem Talmud – y. Shabb. 1:4:
[G] “It may be compared to a jug filled with oil. As much water as you add has the effect of scattering the oil.”
[H] R. Joshua of Onayya taught, “The disciples of the House of Shammai took positions down below and killed disciples of the House of Hillel [before they went upstairs].”
[I] It has been taught: Six of them went upstairs, and the rest of them took positions with swords and spears.8
Thus, we can see that this was a very serious matter for all involved. Even within the Pharisees, they were willing to kill one another to keep the gentiles out of their communities. This now gives us all a better understanding of what exactly the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) was all about. It was not about the questions if the non-Jews were required to keep the commandments. It is more a question of how do we go about with the gentiles who come to faith. How do we ensure that we can mix with them and not defile the temple by becoming unclean?
What is the real message in Galatians?
So, we see that the question of how do gentiles become part of Israel was a topic that had been on the cards for a while. We also see there were groups within Judaism that believed the only way for gentiles to become part of Israel was to follow the process of conversion to Judaism via circumcision. This was contrary to what Paul had been teaching. Paul had been bringing a different gospel (good news) to the gentiles.
13 Messiah redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”— 14 in order that in Messiah Y’Shua the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.
29 And if you belong to Messiah, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise.
The gospel that Paul taught was that Y’Shua had freed all from everlasting death that is the result of sin (curse of the Law). Paul was teaching the gentiles that they become part of Israel (blessing of Abraham) through their faith in Y’Shua the Messiah. Paul explains that this is not something he was taught, but something that was directly revealed to him via Y’shua. Thus, it is not the teaching of men. This is why he is so adamant that any other gospel, even from the angels, would be a false gospel.
11 For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. 12 For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Y’Shua the Messiah.
He goes to great lengths to explain that this gospel he was teaching the Gentiles was also accepted by the disciples of Y’Shua. He had explained his message to them, and the disciples had no objection to what Paul was teaching the gentiles.
7 But on the contrary, seeing that I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been to the circumcised 8 (for He who effectually worked for Peter in his apostleship to the circumcised effectually worked for me also to the Gentiles), 9 and recognizing the grace that had been given to me, James and Cephas and John, who were reputed to be pillars, gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, so that we might go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised.
The disciples had also not insisted on conversion of Titus before they mixed with him. If they had been following the traditions of the Pharisees, they would not have mixed with Titus until he had converted to Judaism.
3 But not even Titus, who was with me, though he was a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised.
This, however, does not mean that Paul believed that circumcision had come to an end. Later, he had Timothy circumcised.
1 Paul came also to Derbe and to Lystra. And a disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but his father was a Greek, 2 and he was well spoken of by the brethren who were in Lystra and Iconium. 3 Paul wanted this man to go with him; and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those parts, for they all knew that his father was a Greek.
We know that Paul would not have taught the people to abandon the commandments, because he was still keeping them. He specifically answers the question:
17 “But if, while seeking to be justified in Messiah, we ourselves have also been found sinners, is Messiah then a minister of sin? May it never be!
He specifically tells the people that Y’Shua is not teaching that they are now allowed to transgress the commandments (sin.) This is completely in line with what Y’shua himself taught. Y’Shua expressly said that the Law would not pass away “until heaven and earth pass away.”
17 “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. 18 “For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19 “Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
Paul’s real warning is that the Torah should be properly used. The purpose of the law is not to justify anybody or declare them righteous. It is your faith that makes you righteous!
11 Now that no one is justified by the Law before YHVH is evident; for, “The righteous man shall live by faith.”
What then is the purpose of the Law? This question is also answered by Paul. The Law defines sin and once we know that we are sinful, we come to appreciate the need for a Savior. If we understand our sin and the curse that these sins bring upon us, we come to appreciate the need of redemption.
19 Why the Law then? It was added because of transgressions, having been ordained through angels by the agency of a mediator, until the seed would come to whom the promise had been made.
24 Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Messiah, so that we may be justified by faith.
Paul is also very specific that the Law of the Siniac covenant did not replace the promises of the Abrahamic covenant. We become part of these promises through our faith in Messiah. This happens because we are now part of Israel.
I hope that this study has again proven to you the importance of context. If you want to get to the real meaning of a scripture, it is necessary to understand the why, when and who as well. If this is not done, it is easy to twist a piece of scripture to fit a specific doctrine. The Epistle to the Galatians is one of the prime examples of how the historical context shines a completely different light on the verses that we have read repeatedly.
It is also crucial to get to know the author. If we know exactly who Paul is, and what he had written in his other works, it is a lot easier to see what he actually meant. For example, Paul states that he is an apostle of Y’Shua the Messiah, this implies that he would not contradict what Y’Shua has taught. Thus if Y’Shua teaches that we need to keep the commandments (Mat 5:17-18), Paul will not start to teach something else. This is confirmed by the fact that Paul claims to have received his gospel directly from Y’Shua and not from men. If we, then tie what Paul is doing with what he is teaching, it becomes very clear that he would not have written a letter telling people to stop keeping the commandments.
He was addressing a historical relevant issue: “How do Gentiles join Israel once they have accepted Y’Shua as their Messiah?” He is not providing a theological thesis on the applicability of the commandments post-resurrection! The audience that he is writing to would confirm this as well. These are not a group of highly educated scholars and theologians. These are new believers who wanted to do the right thing!
If you want to study this topic in a lot more detail, I would recommend the following resources on the Epistle to the Galatians:
- Study by Rick Spurlock on Galatians – Available for free at http://www.bereansonline.org/studies
- Commentary by Avi ben Mordechai – Available as book, e-book or audio book at http://www.m7000.com/products/product-specials/ – These are quite pricey!
- Timm Hegg’s commentary on Galatians – Available from Amazon
- JK McKee from TNN Online also has a book and Kindle e-book – Available from Amazon
- The Jewish New Testament Commentary by David Stern
Continue your studies on this book and let us know what else you find.
- Hegg, Tim. The Letter Writer,
- Betz, Hans Dieter. “Galatians, Epistle to The.” Edited by David Noel Freedman. The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
- Bromiley, Geoffrey W., ed. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised. Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1979–1988.
- Josephus, F., & Whiston, W. (1987). The works of Josephus: complete and unabridged. Peabody: Hendrickson.
- Blomberg, C. L. (2009). Jesus and the Gospels: An Introduction and Survey (2nd Edition., p. 50). Nashville, TN: B&H Academic.
- Neusner, J. (2011). The Babylonian Talmud: A Translation and Commentary (Vol. 8, pp. 241–242). Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers.
- Neusner, J. (2011). The Babylonian Talmud: A Translation and Commentary (Vol. 2, p. 49). Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers.
- Neusner, J. (2008). The Jerusalem Talmud: A Translation and Commentary. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers.
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