When was Galatians Written?

SummaryBoth Galatians and Acts mention a visit by Paul to Jerusalem and a dispute between Paul and other Jewish Christians in Antioch, but in opposite sequences.  The visit to Jerusalem in Galatians was a private meeting with a small number of important people, while the visit to Jerusalem in Acts resulted in a large public meeting with a formal church council decision.  For this and other reasons these were two different visits to Jerusalem.  But the two disputes in Antioch are the same.  Both were caused by men that came from the church headquarters in Jerusalem and taught that, unless you (Gentile Christians) are circumcised, you cannot be saved.

On this basis a threefold sequence is proposed: First an informal visit to the leaders in Jerusalem, followed by the public dispute in Antioch, which was resolved through a formal Council decision in Jerusalem.  Since Galatians does not mention the Jerusalem decision, it must have been written before that decision, therefore somewhere in AD48-50.

Purpose – To prepare for a discussion of the early development of the church, this page reconciles events in Jerusalem and Antioch, described in Acts, with the events in the same cities, described in Galatians.  This will help to determine where Galatians fits into the early development of the church.

Dates – See here for a table with dates for key events in the early church.  As indicated by this table, chronologists do not always exactly agree on the dates, but they more or less agree.  For that reason the dates in this article are all approximates.

Galatians mentions:

  • A visit by Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem (2:1-10)
  • Followed by a dispute between Paul and other Jewish Christians in Antioch (2:11-24)

Acts mentions the two cities in the opposite sequence:

  • First a dispute between Paul and other Christians in Antioch (15:1-2)
  • Followed by a visit by Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem (15:4-30)

Some argue that Paul’s visit to Jerusalem in Galatians 2:1-10 is the same as his visit to Jerusalem in Acts 15.  There are similarities, such as:

  • The key issue in both visits is whether Gentile Christians must be circumcised (Gal 2:3; Acts 15:5).
  • In both Barnabas went with Paul (Gal 2:1; Acts 15:2).

However, the details of the two visits are too different to refer to the same visit:

  • In Galatians Paul took Titus along as an example of the work he does under the Gentiles (Gal. 2:1, 3), but there is no mention of Titus in Acts 15.
  • In Galatians Paul went to Jerusalem “because of a revelation” (Gal 2:2), but in Acts it was because of a decision of the brethren in Antioch (15:2).
  • In Galatians Paul visited “those who were of reputation” “in private” (Gal 2:2). In Acts “they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders” (15:4), and the entire church council, consisting of the “apostles and the elders” (15:6, 22) decided the matter.
  • In Galatians “those who were of high reputation” (Gal. 2:6, 9) simply “gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship” (2:9). In Acts there was a formal church council decision, where-after leading men from the Jerusalem church were chosen to go with Paul and Barnabas with a formal letter explaining the decision “to the brethren in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia who are from the Gentiles” (15:23).

Further indications that the visit to Jerusalem in Gal 2:1-10 cannot be the council decision in Acts 15, include:

  • If the visit to Jerusalem in Gal. 2:1-10 was the same as in Acts 15, then the council decision was taken before the incident in Antioch in Gal. 2:11-24 and therefore before Galatians was written. But this is very unlikely because Paul would then have mentioned the Jerusalem decision in the letter to the Galatians, because the entire purpose of Galatians is to argue against the circumcision of Gentiles.
  • If Gal. 2:1-10 was the same as the Acts 15 church council meeting, then James would not have sent men afterwards to Antioch to preach the circumcision of Gentiles (Gal. 2:12).  Also, Peter and the other Jews would not have responded in Antioch the way they did (Gal. 2:12-13).

It is therefore proposed that these two visits to Jerusalem were not the same.

It is rather proposed that the two disputes in Antioch (Gal. 2:11-21; Acts 15:1-2) are the same.  Both disputes were caused by “men (that) came down from Judea” (Acts 15:1) (“from James” Gal. 2:10) and taught “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1) (“the party of the circumcision” – Gal 2:12).

On that basis the following sequence of events is proposed:

  1. Knowing that a dispute would burst out in the open, the Spirit first led Paul to informally visitthose who were of reputation” (Gal 2:2) in Jerusalem (Gal. 2:1-10).
  2. This is followed by the dispute in Antioch, described in both Galatians 2:11-24 and Acts 15:1-2.
  3. This is followed by the more formal visit to Jerusalem, to resolve the dispute through a formal Council decision (15:4-30)

We are now able to date Galatians relative to these three events.  Since Galatians mentions the dispute in Antioch, but does not mention the Jerusalem decision, and since that decision is critical for the topic in Galatians, namely whether Gentile Christians must be circumcised and live like Jews, it is proposed that Galatians was written by Paul while on his way to Jerusalem after the Antioch incident.  Since the Jerusalem council decision is dated to AD48-50 (about 20 years after Christ’s death) it means that Galatians was written during those same years.  It would make Galatians the earliest of Paul’s letters.

This conclusion corroborates with the information in Gal. 2:1-10, namely that the first visit to Jerusalem was “after an interval of fourteen years” (Gal. 2:1).  The key event mentioned in the previous chapter is Paul’s Damascus-conversion (1:16) in AD35.  It is therefore possible that the furst visit to Jerusalem in Gal. 2:1-10 was “fourteen years” after AD35, which will bring it to AD49.  On the assumption that the Antioch-dispute and the Jerusalem church council decision happened within a year or two after the first visit, the Jerusalem council meeting could have been in AD50.

Galatians Table of Content

Next: Building …

The Danger

Paul was concerned that the Galatian Christians suffered so many things in vain (3:4; 4:10).  This implies that these Christians were at risk of losing their eternal inheritance.  One can be a Christian and still suffer eternal loss, if one does what the Galatians did.  We must to understand what they did wrong, so that we can plead with God to protect us from that error.

5:2-4 explains the error in clear language:

if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you.  … You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace”.

The danger therefore arises when Christians receive circumcision, but circumcision, in itself, is not the danger.  “In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything” (5:6; 6:15).  But if that is true, why are people severed from Christ” if they “receive circumcision” (5:3)?

The danger of circumcision lies in what it leads to.  Circumcision is only the door into something much greater, namely to live like Jews.  The “circumcision party” not only compelled Gentiles Christians to be circumcised, but also to live like Jews (2:14).  This means to live according to the Law, which in Galatians is specifically the Law of Moses (3:17; 4:24-25).

But to live according to the Law of Moses is also not, in itself, the real danger.  The real danger rather lies in the thinking behind observing those laws, namely to seek to be justified by law” (5:4), which means to be put right with God by one’s own efforts (3:3).

If I think I can save myself, by complying with the rules, then I think that I don’t need God’s grace, which is manifested in Christ.  Then I myself have become the basis for my hope of eternal life.  It is this thinking that causes people to be severed from Christ”.

People that believe that one has to earn your salvation by your own works will always create a large number demanding rules and regulations as a barrier against sin because they will soon realise that they are not able to keep God’s law.  They will invent rules and regulations to force themselves to obey God’s law. A system of laws invented by humans, founded on the understanding that one must earn your own salvation:

  • Turns the mind away from God.  It turns the mind to self, which is filled with sin of every kind.
  • Depicts God as merciless and disinterested in human suffering, and therefore leads people to treat their fellow human beings without mercy; disinterested in their suffering.
  • Kills the love for God, and when love for God dies, love for fellow beings also perishes.
  • Lead to selfish and narrow-minded criticism all who fails to comply.  Criticism kills compassion. Men become self-centred judges, spying on one another.

The Judaism of Paul’s day is a good illustration of the consequence of a system of laws invented by humans, founded on the understanding that one must earn your own salvation. They observed a myriads of traditions (1:14) which the rabbis accumulated around the Law of Moses over hundreds of years, until it was very difficult to learn all these humanly devised laws in a single lifetime.   The purpose of the traditions was to act as a fence to safeguard the Jews from breaking the Law of Moses, but the end result was the opposite.  Their religious services did not humble the attendees with a sense of their own weakness. They were not filled with gratitude for the great privileges that God had given them, but with spiritual pride. Their minds were set on the self; myself, my feelings, my knowledge, my ways. They intruded into things where a person’s conscience should be his guide, and judged one another in matters that lay between the individual and God. They made their opinions and views and interpretations of Scripture the criterion for others and in their hearts condemned one another for failing to come up to their ideals, assuming that they knew what other people’s motives are.

It was from this danger that Paul was anxious to protect the Gentile Christians from by warning them against the first step towards this system, which is circumcision, and this is the danger that we still face today.

TO: Galatians Table of Contents