Robin A. Brace

Virtually all Christian writers until the 19th/20th century accepted what is popularly known among New Testament scholars as the 'North Galatian view' of Galatians. What is that? Well this is the belief that in his epistle to the Galatians, Paul the Apostle was primarily addressing the mostly Celtic peoples who occupied that region of Asia Minor at the time.

More recently however many scholars have challenged this view. Why does this even matter? Well, in one sense it does not matter and the epistle and everything within it holds good as a vital part of our New Testament canon with much very vital teaching; however, both views ('north Galatia' and 'south Galatia') do affect how one reads certain other New Testament Scriptures and their accompanying theologies, and it should prove fruitful to give some brief consideration to what we might call the Galatians 'time and recipents' subject. We do so, not in order to persecute those who hold a differing view, but to increase our scriptural knowledge.

The newer South Galatian Theory sees Galatia as encompassing primarily the southern cities of the Roman province, namely, Lycia, Perga, Antioch in Pisidia, Iconium, Lystra, Derbea and Attalia. These were certainly visited by Paul on his first missionary journey (possibly AD48-49; cf. Acts 13-14).

The North Galatian Theory, on the other hand, sees Galatia as the broader central region including much of modern Turkey. Specifically, Paul may be seen as addressing the northern region, those visited on his 2nd missionary journey (circa AD50-52; loosely covered Acts 15:39-18:23). This might include places like Pontus, Mysia, Bithynia and Phrygia. The references here are Acts 16:6 and 18:23. However, on the topic of "missionary journeys," I will just state that the popular concept that Paul only undertook 3 missionary journeys is almost certainly erroneous; he undoubtedly undertook more journeys than this but Acts only records and outlines some milestones and notable occurrences on some of these journeys and perhaps the recorded three were especially necessary to outline, being the most momentous.

Why Does It Even Matter?

The significance is not vested primarily in which cities were involved, but also in the timing, and - very vitally - in theological considerations. Did Paul write Galatians after his 1st documented journey or after his 2nd documented journey? Or indeed, after another visit not specifically recorded for us? This is the essential question we are asking (we will very soon see why this question matters, just bear with me a little longer).

Today most tend to hold the South Galatian view. Personally, I think the opposing view (generally held by the Church for many centuries) remains stronger, especially when one considers the theological implications involved in various things which Paul writes.

The big problem is: If one holds to the southern view, Galatians was almost certainly written in AD48-49, which many of us feel is far too early a date for this epistle for reasons we will soon consider. The northern view, on the other hand, generally presumes that this book was written in AD56-59. If written as early as AD 49, of course, this would precede the Thessalonian letters in time order of epistle composition and we might expect evidence of a somewhat less mature Paul. Frankly, we find the opposite, but I will try not to get ahead of myself here.

Not all newer writers favour the 'SG view,' Raymond E. Brown has stated that the arguments for the northern theory "seem more persuasive" (An Introduction to the New Testament, 1997, p. 476), and Udo Schnelle in her 'The History and Theology of the New Testament Writings,' (1998), p. 97, has written,

"On the whole the arguments for the north Galatian hypothesis are stronger. In particular, the absence of the addressees in Gal. 1.21, the Lucan statement about Paul's work in 'the region of . . . Galatia' and the address in Gal. 3.1, along with the well thought out arrangement of the letter as a whole, speak against the south Galatian theory."

The North Galatian theory (which I support), is strongly supported by the following considerations:

(1) The view was held by a majority of theologians and New Testament scholars right up to the 19th century.

(2) It seems unlikely that Paul would address the inhabitants of Phrygia, Pisidia and Lycaonia as "Galatians." That name could properly only be given to the Celts, the Gauls that lived in this somewhat remote northern region of Galatia at the time: After all, 'Galatians' are 'Gauls'! Indeed, even today, the French call the Welsh (who are mainly celts), 'Galles.'

(3) It is very questionable whether Paul would have referred to the churches founded by him and Barnabas jointly, as if they had been established by him alone.

(4) The character of the Galatians themselves, as it is reflected in this letter, is in remarkable agreement with that of the Celts whose changeableness was a famous subject of comment in the writings of the time. We cannot claim this to be a conclusive point, but certainly something worthy of consideration.

(5) In the Book of Acts, Mysia, Phrygia and Pisidia are all geographical terms, seemingly used without any political significance, therefore the inference seems perfectly reasonable that the name Galatia, when it is found alongside of these, is employed in a similar sense.

(6) The epistle itself seems to refer to two Galatian visits by Paul ('through the informity of flesh I preached to you before'). He appears to be contrasting his reception on two occasions (see Galatians 4:13-16). If this is indeed correct, those two Galatian visits are almost certainly the ones referred to in Acts 16:6 and Acts 18:23. This would make this epistle later than both of these visits (the second of which can be dated to about AD54).

(7) Bishop J.B. Lightfoot, a prodigious Greek scholar who supported the NG argument, authored a most famous 1865 commentary on Galatians (I have a 1914 reprint in my library), in which he wrote,
“The expression used in the Acts of Paul's visit to these parts, ‘the Phrygian and Galatian country,' shows that the district intended was not Lycaonia and Pisidia, but some region which might be said to belong either to Phrygia or Galatia, or the parts of each contiguous to the other.” (Lightfoot, The Epistles of Saint Paul: Galatians, London, Macmillan, 1914 print, p20).

(8) We now start to get to the heart of why, in my humble opinion, the NG theory is strongest. This view dates Galatians to around AD56-58; this would make its timing very close to the Epistle to the Romans. Both of these epistles share very strong theological likenesses especially in Paul's passion to explain and strongly defend Justification by faith against those legalists who were attempting to undermine it! Both epistles show the theologically mature Paul. In going through these two epistles side by side the feeling is pretty much overwhelming that they must have been written around the same time because of striking similaries in style and vocabulary. Lightfoot actually produced a comparison chart between these two great books in his Commentary on Galatians which I have in front of me as I write - the similarities are astonishing! (Lightfoot, The Epistles of Saint Paul: Galatians, London, Macmillan, 1914 print, p45-48). In comparison, the two epistles to the Thessalonians are very early epistles by common agreement, and while still clearly Pauline, are stylistically very different. If Galatians was such an early epistle, it seems reasonable that we should expect similarities to the Thessalonian epistles rather than to the very theologically mature Romans epistle.

(9) Directly following on from the above point, if Galatians is the earliest New Testament epistle (which most SG theorists want us to believe, typically dating it to AD48 or 49), it becomes virtually impossible to reconcile the book's mature theology with Paul's apparent naiveity in the incidents recorded in Acts 21:17-29. Those incidents occurred up to a decade after AD48-49, in about AD56 or 57. Can we really accept that the Paul who rather meekly acquiesces with residual Jewish legalism in Jerusalem, in Acts 21:17-29, does so about a decade after his blistering attack on legalism in Galatians?? It just does not hold water! The later view of Galatians, on the other hand, which we much prefer, would show that the theological 'penny' probably dropped for Paul within a year or two after his Acts 21 experiences, experiences which must have proved somewhat embarrassing at the time, but which would now help to hone the mature Paul.

(10) Many (but not all) who support the South Galatia theory believe that Paul was only bold enough to to take the Galatians to task since he was, as it were, 'hot-foot' from the decision of the AD49 Jerusalem Council who had ruled on this matter (Acts 15), but there is a huge illogical hole in this argument; If indeed the Jerusalem Council had only just ruled and decided on this issue and Paul was thereafter eager to 'wield the stick' against the legalists, it must be considered inconceivable that Paul would never even mention that ruling, nor even the Jerusalem council anywhere in this epistle. His obvious anger fits in much better with the fact that the Jerusalem Council had already decided on this matter up to ten years previously, therefore the legalists were fully without excuse.

Most of the arguments in favour of the SG theory are not too compelling; it is claimed, for instance, that the "remoteness" of North Galatia would probably have barred Paul from going there. This argument is very weak and unconvincing when the Book of Acts itself records Paul going to even more remote places. In Romans 15:24, Paul even mentions his intention to travel to Spain; It was his purpose to go to Spain, probably to establish a new missionary field. The New Testament does not record that he ever carried out this purpose, however, it is the clear testimony of the early church that he did eventually get to Spain. Such a lengthy and hazardous journey in the transportation of that day makes the claim that north Galatia was "too remote" for Paul appear almost laughable!

Other very early traditions claim that Paul the Apostle even reached France and southern Britain (a very strong early tradition claims that St Paul's Cathedral in London was built on the spot where the apostle once preached a sermon), however, it is impossible to be certain about some of these early traditions.

But one argument in favour of the 'SG theory' merits just a little attention: It is claimed that although Paul probably did get to North Galatia at some point, Acts of the Apostles never records the establishment of churches there and there is no record of churches there until the 2nd century. The answer to this is that, as briefly mentioned earlier, it is a serious mistake to think that Acts tells us everything, or indeed that there were precisely 'three missionary journeys' - without question Paul took other trips too and certainly had sufficient time to do so. The likelihood is that if we knew about all the places where Paul the Apostle preached and where Christian converts were gained, we would probably be astonished; the Book of Acts never claims to be a complete and comprehensive record of where all the apostles travelled; how much, for example, do we know of the travels of Thomas, or of James (the son of Alphaeus), or of Philip? Just about nothing! Even Peter's travels are virtually unrecorded, the same goes for John. We know rather more about Paul but we cannot know about everywhere he went (in passing, the traditions that Thomas went to India to establish converts is far too strong to ignore and it seems virtually certain that Thomas did indeed go there).

So we see that the 'South Galatian theory' insists that we must accept Galatians as written very early and by a Paul whose understanding was still maturing despite the fact that his theological understanding is obviously more mature than it seems to be in the incidents recorded in Acts 21 (which can, fairly comfortably, be dated to about AD56). As we have seen, the relationship between Romans and Galatians is widely accepted as being very strong and we know that Romans can be dated to about AD57-59. Putting all of this, and indeed the entirety of the above ten points together, one feels that the so-called 'North Galatian' view, though less popular than it once was, remains the stronger view - probably by some distance.

A Little More About The North Galatians, and a Conclusion

The Galatians were descendants of Gallic tribes who came to central Turkey many centuries earlier. These were Celtic peoples who had a reputation for often being very emotive, somewhat wild, and impressionable types (as we all know, many Celts later populated Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall and northwestern France; indeed, is it not interesting that the later Roman missionaries discovered that the Celts already had a knowledge of Christianity??). These people were also credited with a flair for art and a knack for carving out an existence in hilly areas of land which others tended to reject. As a modern-day Welshman, I could well be descended from some of these people. When Paul visited these people and converted them to Christ, they responded with great enthusiasm. Unfortunately, certain Jewish Christian legalists came up from Jerusalem and stirred up trouble among these people, telling them that Paul was in error regarding the Gospel and Christianity. They taught:
1. To be a complete and true Christian, one must become also a Jew, be circumcised, and adopt the practices of Judaism.
2. The Gospel itself requires one to become a Jew in order to be truly saved.

This, of course, was totally counter to what Paul had taught and that which the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15; A.D. 49) had already ruled upon.

A consideration of the outlined nine points is why the older, and previously well-accepted, North Galatian Theory must, in my opinion, continue to be regarded as by far the stronger view.

During the last number of years a strange notion seems to have developed that evangelicals should support the 'South Galatian theory' because the opposing theory has some association with liberal Bible critics; this view is actually quite nonsensical and evangelicals can (and do) support both theories. One can just as easily state this matter the other way around and point out that right from the 'church fathers' to the 19th century almost nobody opposed the North Galatian view. Rather, it was only with the rise of 19th century liberal Bible criticism that the opposing view started to be popularized.
Robin A. Brace, May 2008.