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Galatia, located in Modern Turkey, was a province of the Roman Empire where Paul traveled.

“You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?” These words open the third chapter of Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, one of the most often-quoted epistles of the New Testament canon. In an emotionally charged and historically creative argument, the author attempts to convince these addressees of their freedom and oneness “in Christ” that they should “not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal 5:1). Galatians, which ostensibly concerns the issue of how and under what circumstances the circumcised “brothers” of Israel could interact with the non-circumcised “gentiles,” has endured a formidable history as a Pauline calling-card of sorts. Scholars tend to see this text as authentically Pauline, primarily due to its rhetorical tone and style. Moreover, its emphasis on conversion and conflict has made it a convenient conversation partner for reformations large and small.

Who, though, are the Galatians to whom Paul’s famous letter is written?

On the surface, the addressees of the Letter to the Galatians appear to be obvious: “the churches [Greek: ekklesia] of Galatia” (Gal 1:2), indicating a number of groups of people in Galatia. However, as with most matters in biblical scholarship, the precise identity and location of these groups is actually far from obvious and has been the focus of significant scholarly debate about provenance and historical and cultural backgrounds and baggage that can affect modern deployments of the letter’s rhetoric in substantial ways.

Geographically, “Galatia” most likely refers to the land area that was, in the first century CE, known as the Roman province of Galatia. Galatia was in the highlands of central Anatolia in what is now known as Turkey. At some point, Galatia extended to the Black Sea in the north and to the Mediterranean Sea in the south. It was bounded by Bithynia and Paphlagonia on the north, by Pontus and Cappadocia on the east, by Cilicia and Lycaonia on the south, and by Phrygia on the west. This provincial arrangement was established after the land was annexed by Augustus following the death of Mark Antony in ca. 25 BCE. Its capital was Ancyra, the location of the famous Monumentum Ancyranum, an older Phrygian temple renovated and dedicated to Augustus that features the most complete surviving version of the Res Gestae Divi Augusti, the emperor’s acts. Galatia was known as one of the most enthusiastically loyal eastern provinces to Rome.

Although Galatia was a Roman province during the time that scholars tend to think Paul’s letter was written, that is, in the middle of the first century CE, its culture and society were, like most areas of the Roman Empire, multilayered and complex. This province was named, in a nod to its population history, for the Thracian Gauls who invaded Macedonia in the third century BCE, migrating and settling the land. The “Gaulish” or “Celtic” character of Galatia may point to the long presence of the historical Galatians/Gauls/Celts who were known, respected, and feared by the Romans as sometimes-nomadic barbarian warriors who may have used, along with sheer physical strength, sorcery and other special magic (e.g., the “Druids”) to ward off their foes. Numerous ancient ethnographic narratives about the Gauls/Galatians, such as Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars, depict them as pale-skinned with red hair and “wild” eyes; extremely muscular and strong, male and female alike; marauding and greedy for material wealth; ferociously unruly in battle; and outlandishly boundary-ignorant in other ways, for example, drinking beer instead of wine or wearing pants instead of tunics. Regardless of such descriptions, the Galatians appear to have been a relatively important people in the ancient Mediterranean, allies and foes in the most critical territorial battles in Asia Minor and elsewhere. More broadly, the Gauls are celebrated as mythological and historical ancestors of European cultures and religions.

The Galatians Debate in New Testament Scholarship

For scholars of the New Testament, much of the debate about Galatia and the Galatians concerns where and to whom, exactly, Paul’s letter was addressed. For more than a century, this argument has centered on whether Paul wrote to Northern Galatia, which is thought to be more “ethnically Galatian/Gaulish” and thus presumably predominantly non-Jewish and non-Greek, or to Southern Galatia, which is thought to be the location of Paul’s first missionary journey as narrated in Acts 13-14 and thus presumably the site of early congregations with Jewish and Greek members. Various interpretive details such as the assumed linguistic capabilities of various ethnic groups, the rhetorical elements of the letter, and alignment or non-alignment with external data, namely, the Acts of the Apostles, are used to support both sides of this debate. Thus, how one enters this conversation, and in turn reads Galatians, will depend on several methodological considerations, including how one engages ethnic reasoning and stereotyping, how one appraises ancient cultural interaction and cosmopolitanism, how one sees the historical reliability of Acts, and how one understands Pauline chronology and Roman geography.

  • Davina C. Lopez

    Davina C. Lopez is Professor of Religious Studies and core faculty in Women’s and Gender Studies at Eckerd College in Saint Petersburg, Florida. A scholar of the New Testament and early Christianity with research interests in Pauline studies, Roman imperial art and literature, and theory and method in the study of religion, she is the author of Apostle to the Conquered: Reimagining Paul’s Mission (Fortress, 2008) and coauthor, with Todd Penner, of De-introducing the New Testament: Texts, Worlds, Methods, Stories (Wiley, 2015).