The Gentiles in Galatia and Their Susceptibility to False Teachings

At least the strong majority of Paul’s audience was gentile; they were not yet circumcised (Gal. 5:2; 6:12) and they once worshiped non-gods (4:8). Paul’s letters only rarely provide more specific details about his converts’ previous religious practices, but their background might help explain elements of their susceptibility to the false teachers and perhaps their familiarity with some texts Paul cites in his letter. Many gentiles were attracted to Judaism in areas where some Jews lived, so some sympathetic polytheists may have had some acquaintance with the synagogue before their conversion (cf. Acts 13:43; 14:1).

Those with any background in Scripture might be teachers who could help others learn when they met together (cf. Gal.6:6; Acts 14:23). Nevertheless, they would be ill prepared to match the circumcisionist teachers from Judea with whom Paul finds himself in theological conflict in this letter. (Even Galatian Jews may have assumed that Judeans had greater religious knowledge than themselves [cf. Acts 13: 14-15], in the same way that one might expect visitors from a homeland to know more about it than would their diaspora.)

Galatia’s religious environment offers some valuable insights, discussed at Gal. 4:8-10 and, regarding one cult, at 5:12. One feature worthy of note here is the connection between some Phrygian cults and their “strict and conservative social morality.” But older proposed backgrounds such as mystery cults and later gnostic sources offer little insight into Galatians. The imperial cult was undoubtedly one of the cults in gentile converts’ backgrounds, given strikingly prominent imperial temples in this region. In this letter, however, Paul is probably too concerned with the immediate issue to be considering the larger setting of Roman oppression. Paul is concerned with his rivals imposing their cultural (and, they believed, scriptural) strictures on his converts.

This content is by Craig Keener, but edited and posted by Defenders Media.

For more of an in-depth look into the book of Galatians, read Galatians: A Commentary (2019).

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