Galatians : Christian Community Bible
Introduction to Galatians
Who were the Galatians? This rather imprecise name can denote either the communities of Pisidia evangelized by Paul on his first mission (Acts 13:13–14:25), or those that Paul would have founded in the course of his second mission (Acts 16:5–18:23).
Paul writes because the community is in danger. Strange, he does not mention scandals, a conflict of authority as was the case in Corinth. There are indeed tensions and doubts: certain people overdo it and would like to restore Jewish practices. However it would seem neither the promoters of this return to the Law nor those who oppose it would expect such a strong warning from Paul. In fact he has seen through what they do: they want religious practices because they have not understood, or because they have forgotten that to be a Christian is not primarily to belong to a religion but to have faith.
The discovery of the Gospel had been for the Galatians a bath in freedom. Those who were Jews escaped religious practices that touched the whole of existence. Those who were Greek (and pagan) were liberated from a fatalist vision of the world and social prejudices. In both cases it was a complete change. Were they capable of following Paul when he spoke to them of his own experience, when he affirmed that Christ was able to fill our existence, that the Spirit directs us much better than religious obligations do?
At first, the Galatians lived what had been Paul’s life, but it was difficult for the community to maintain themselves along such a new line. Once the time of the first enthusiasm was over the great majority of these new Christians felt the need of rules and practices. They had faith in Christ but by no means could all of them be “spiritual” people.
There were persons who offered a response. They were, doubtless, Christians of Jewish origin, and they knew the benefits of a law. They aspired to assume the direction of the community, but chapter 6 of this letter shows that they also had ulterior motives: a return to Jewish practices opened all the doors of Jewish society. The Jewish communities flourishing throughout the Roman Empire were united and strengthened by common bonds; such relationship proved to be beneficial to them in many ways. Some Christians would prefer that kind of security rather than take the risk of embracing a new faith, and facing challenges and opposition which Christian communities had to face.
Paul’s response is severe; it will, perhaps, appear quite negative vis-a-vis religious practices: but it is the word of God. Relying on the rules and practices of a religion is to enclose oneself within a system, where the reward of one’s good deeds is constantly expected. Faith, on the contrary, is to give oneself to God and to his mystery, as awesome as the cross which is its symbol.
This is enough to understand that the letter to the Galatians speaks to the present when so many are searching for certitude. On the other hand in as much as the Church has to carry a number of Christians who have only a slight experience of life in the Spirit, it is always inclined to descend to their level and to become a religion again. So we must continually react and become conscious again of our identity: rediscover life by faith.
NOTE: excerpted from the introductory material for this book.