Galatians: Summary, Authorship, and Dating of the Book

Marko Marina Author Bart Ehrman

Written by Marko Marina, Ph.D.

Author |  Historian |  BE Contributor

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Date written: May 23rd, 2024

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily match my own. - Dr. Bart D. Ehrman

I once fiercely debated the Book of Galatians. It was a heated discussion about justification with a Protestant friend who leaned heavily on Galatians to define what justification truly entails and how one achieves salvation.

The details of this debate may fade, but the importance of Galatians as one of the most fascinating texts in the New Testament remains the same. Traditionally attributed to the Apostle Paul, this letter occupies a central place in Christian theology

As a historian of early Christianity, approaching the Book of Galatians requires a scholarly, neutral lens. We’ll focus on delivering an academic perspective, devoid of personal religious views, to dissect and understand this ancient text in its historical context. 

This article aims to explore five primary aspects of the Book of Galatians: 

  1. Historical context
  2. Summary 
  3. An investigation into its authorship
  4. An analysis of its dating
  5. A look at the original recipients of the letter

By examining these facets, we can appreciate the cultural and historical significance of Galatians for the development of early Christianity. 

Galatians_ Summary, Authorship, and Dating of the Book

The Book of Galatians: Historical Context, Summary, and Key Themes

Before diving into the summary of the Book of Galatians, it’s essential to understand the historical backdrop against which this letter was penned. The author identifies himself as the apostle Paul and addresses his correspondence to the “churches of Galatia”.

Regardless of the accuracy of this attribution, we’ll refer to the author as Paul. And later in this article, we’ll see whether or not critical scholars accept this attribution. 

The communities in Galatia were comprised of the non-Jewish individuals whom Paul had converted to faith in Christ. According to Paul's teachings, faith in the resurrected Christ would save these believers from the impending divine wrath expected to accompany the Second Coming, when Christ would return to judge humanity and establish God's kingdom on Earth. 

However, after Paul left Galatia to continue his missionary activities, a different set of Judeo-Christian missionaries arrived. These preachers shared Paul’s belief in Jesus as the risen Messiah, but they introduced additional requirements for conversion.

These new missionaries argued that faith in Jesus and a moral life devoid of pagan gods were insufficient for salvation. They insisted that converts also adopt Jewish customs, such as circumcision and dietary laws. To put it bluntly, potential converts must become Jewish to be Jesus’ followers. 

As Bart D. Ehrman points out: “In basic outline, the message of Paul’s Galatian opponents appears similar to that proclaimed by other early Christians. The implicit logic behind it may have been that God is totally consistent and does not ‘change the rules’. This is the Jewish God who gave the Jewish Law, who sent the Jewish Jesus as the Jewish messiah to the Jewish people in fulfillment of the Jewish Scriptures.”

The Galatians, on the other hand, knew that Paul had told them nothing about getting circumcised or keeping kosher. When they told their visitors this, these Judeo-Christian missionaries probably minimized Paul’s authority. 

We can imagine them pointing out that Paul never met Jesus. He became an apostle a couple of years after the resurrection of Jesus and must therefore have learned his teaching of the gospel secondhand. 

Whatever these missionaries said, it was enough to convince the believers in Galatia to become Jews - to be circumcised and follow the law. Paul soon learned of their decision, and you can imagine he wasn’t happy about it!

Understanding this context is crucial for grasping the intensity and urgency with which Paul writes back to the Galatians. His response, as we’ll see in the summary of the letter, is both a defense of his apostolic authority and a clarification of the gospel he preaches.

The Summary of Galatians: Key Themes and Observations

Right from the start of the book of Galatians, Paul tries to establish his apostolic authority. He states: Paul, an apostle - sent not from men nor by a man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead (1:1).” 

He reinforces his credentials by asserting that his gospel wasn’t taught to him by any human, but was received through a revelation of Jesus (1:12). Despite his divine endorsement, Paul anticipates that mere claims of authority might not sway the Galatians from the teachings of his rivals. 

To strengthen his argument, Paul delves into the debates that have divided the early church, particularly concerning whether Gentile converts need to follow Mosaic Law and customs like circumcision. He invokes the story of Abraham to illustrate that righteousness comes from faith, not adherence to the Law.

According to Paul, "If righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing 2:21).” This assertion lies at the heart of his message: The law is no longer necessary for salvation, which is now accessible to all through the faith in the risen Christ

As mentioned, Paul employs the example of Abraham to further articulate this shift from law to faith. He points out that Abraham was deemed righteous because of his faith, not his circumcision thus presenting Abraham as a model for Gentiles.

Craig C. Keener notes: “For Paul, Abraham’s works expressed his faith in and dependence on God’s covenant faithfulness; it was not simply a work in which Abraham depended on himself.”

Moreover, Paul argues it’s through baptism into Christ, not circumcision, that one becomes part of Abraham’s lineage, emphasizing that the true heirs of Abraham are those who share his faith.

He also addresses the role of the Mosaic Law, explaining that it was introduced long after God’s promise to Abraham and doesn’t supersede this covenant. Paul contends that the Law served as a guardian or disciplinarian until the arrival of faith with Christ: “The law was our disciplinarian until Christ came so that we might be justified by faith (3:24).”

Having explored the summary of Galatians from a bird's-eye view, let’s take a closer look at each chapter. 

Galatians 1: Summary

In the opening chapter, Paul introduces himself as an apostle, not through human commission but through Jesus Christ and God the Father. He expresses astonishment that the Galatians are quickly deserting the gospel he preached for a different one, which he asserts is no gospel at all.

Paul defends his apostolic authority by recounting his past as a persecutor of the Church, his dramatic conversion, and his subsequent mission. He emphasizes that his gospel came directly from a revelation of Jesus. 

Galatians 2: Summary

Chapter two continues with Paul defending his apostolic authority by detailing his journey to Jerusalem with Barnabas and Titus. He describes a private meeting with reputed leaders to ensure his gospel to the Gentiles was correct, stressing that Titus, a Gentile, wasn’t forced to be circumcised. 

This chapter also recounts the incident at Antioch where Paul confronted Peter for withdrawing from eating with Gentiles, criticizing his hypocrisy and the influence it had on other Jews, including Barnabas. Paul argues that justification comes through faith in Christ, not adherence to the law.

Galatians 3: Summary

In this chapter, Paul challenges the Galatians on their foolishness for turning to the law after receiving the Spirit through faith. He uses the example of Abraham, who was justified by faith before the law existed, to argue that believers are Abraham’s children through faith, not law.

Paul notes that the law was only a temporary guardian until Jesus came so that faith might justify people. This chapter underscores Paul’s essential argument when it comes to the good news: It’s the faith that saves people, not the Mosaic Law. 

Galatians 4: Summary

Paul continues his argument about heirs through faith as opposed to slaves under the law. He uses the allegory of Sarah and Hagar to contrast the children of promise (free) and the children of slavery (bound to the law).

Moreover, he appeals to the Galatians’ experience and their initial good reception of him to urge them not to become enslaved again by the sheer legalism of the Mosaic law. Obviously, Paul was worried that his previous work among the communities in Galatia could potentially be in vain because of the influence of his Judeo-Christian opponents.

Galatians 5: Summary

This chapter emphasizes the value of liberty; Paul exhorts the Galatians to stand firm in their freedom from the law and warns against circumcision as a means to achieve righteousness. He argues that faith working through love is the essence of the law, summarizing the entire law in the single command to love one’s neighbor as oneself.

Interestingly, Paul’s summarization of the entire law is similar to Jesus’ view of the Mosaic law as accepted by the most critical scholars. They argue that the historical Jesus emphasized the love toward God and neighbors as the heart of the Jewish law.

However, it’s important to note that Paul and Jesus were divided on many other issues - a point well explained by Dr. Bart D. Ehrman in an excellent “Paul and Jesus: The Great Divide” course!

Galatians 6: Summary

In the final chapter, Paul provides practical advice on living a life led by the Spirit. He instructs communities in Galatia to share all good things with their instructors and not to grow weary in doing good. Paul concludes by reiterating that neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation

He signs off with a blessing of peace and mercy upon those who follow this rule and upon the Israel of God, underscoring his message of faith over law.

The summary of the Book of Galatians, therefore, revolves around Paul’s fervent argument that faith in the risen Christ, rather than adherence to the Mosaic Law, is the true path to righteousness for Gentile (pagan) converts.

But what can we know about the authorship? Did Paul write Galatians? Should we believe the traditional attribution? 

The Authorship of the Book of Galatians

Who wrote Galatians? Unlike some other Pauline epistles that later Christians forged in the name of Paul, there is no serious doubt that the apostle Paul wrote Galatians. There are several key arguments in favor of traditional attribution. Let’s take a look at some of those arguments:

a) Incidental comments of a personal nature

Paul includes numerous personal references and details about his life and missionary work which align with what is known from his other epistles and Acts. For instance, he discusses his previous life in Judaism, his conversion, and his interactions with other apostles.

Paul shares his dramatic conversion experience on the road to Damascus after which he switched from persecuting Christians to becoming Jesus’ follower. This conversion narrative is also described (with some notable differences but also with similarities) in Acts (9, 22, 26). 

Furthermore, he discusses his background in Judaism to establish both his deep knowledge of Jewish law and the respect he had for the Judaic tradition. In 1:13-14, he mentions: “For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers.” 

This detail aligns with what we know about Paul’s earlier life from the account in Acts. Most scholars assume that Paul began persecuting Christians because of their devotion to Jesus as the risen and exalted Messiah. 

Additionally, Paul details his interaction with other apostles - a significant theme in Galatians. He recounts visiting Jerusalem to meet with key leaders like Peter, James, and John (2:1-10) - a visit that is also described in Acts 15.

This also aligns with what we know about early Christian leadership dynamics characterized by the emergent conflict between Peter and Paul. To learn more about that, I invite you to join Bart Ehrman’s captivating course entitled “Did Peter Hate Paul?

b) Writing Style and Theology

Another argument in favor of Pauline's authorship of Galatians is related to its style, vocabulary, and theological content which are consistent with Paul’s recognized letters. To take one example, the Book of Galatians is notable for its direct tone which reflects Paul’s urgency and deep concern regarding the issues at hand (e.g. Gal 1:6). 

Furthermore, Paul’s Greek is functional yet exhibits a depth of knowledge in Hellenistic rhetoric. As Philip F. Esler notes: “In keeping with the point of deliberative rhetoric, Paul is really interested in altering the Galatians’ views and behavior with respect to the future, not in achieving the judicial aim of having them form a view of something which has occurred in the past.”

Additionally, a central theme in Galatians is justification by faith rather than by the law. This represents a foundational aspect of Paul’s theology that can be discerned from other epistles such as Romans. 

c) External Attestations and the Lack of Contestation

Besides the internal evidence, there is no doubt about the authorship of Galatians within the early Church tradition. Virtually all early Christian writers assume Paul wrote the Book of Galatians. This includes people such as Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Clement of Alexandria.

Moreover, the earlier extant canon (e.g. Muratorian fragment) containing Paul’s letters includes the Book of Galatians. I’m not aware of any early list of canonical books that don’t include Galatians. 

These points collectively form a strong argument in favor of traditional attribution. In his commentary, Hans D. Betz concludes: “The question of the authorship of Galatians doesn’t present great difficulties. The epistolary preface (1:1) names the Apostle Paul as the author of the letter. Paul’s authorship found unquestioned acceptance in antiquity. Comparison with other letters of Paul shows that the style of writing and the language are unmistakably Paul’s… For these reasons present New Testament scholars don’t question Paul’s authorship of the letter.

That brings us to another important question: When did the apostle Paul write Galatians? Let’s take a look at scholarly claims about the date of Galatians. 

when was the book of galatians written

When did Paul Write Galatians? The Issue of Dating

When was the Book of Galatians written? The precise dating has been a subject of scholarly debate, with estimates generally ranging from around 48 C.E. to the mid-50s. A median estimate places the letter’s composition around 51 C.E. According to Betz, these datings are speculative and often rely on unverified hypotheses or interpretations based on the arguments from silence. 

A key point in determining the dating of the Book of Galatians is the event described in Galatians 2:1-10. Scholars debate whether this passage refers to: 

  1. Paul's famine relief visit (mentioned in Acts 11:30 and 12:25).
  2. Or more commonly, the Jerusalem Council detailed in Acts 15.

Most scholars, including Craig S. Keener, favor the latter association. This incident, where Paul discusses his gospel with the Jerusalem leaders to ensure he wasn’t running his mission in vain, is pivotal in understanding the timeline of Galatians.

Moreover, Hans D. Betz suggests that the broader context and content of Galatians indicate it was written at the onset of Paul's conflicts with other Christian leaders, rather than at a later, more developed stage of these disagreements.

Positioning Galatians early in Paul’s ministry provides valuable insights into his theological development and relationships within the early Christian communities. If Galatians was written around 51 C.E., this would place it shortly after Paul’s first missionary journey and possibly around the time of the Jerusalem Council (c. 49 C.E.).

Understanding the dating of Galatians within the broader chronology of Paul’s life and work highlights its significance in the development of early Christian theology. It appears at a critical juncture when Paul faced serious opposition from Judeo-Christian groups who advocated for adherence to Jewish laws and customs.

Who was Galatians Written To? Searching for the Audience

As mentioned, Paul addressed his letter to the “churches of Galatia” (not to be confused with Galations). Galatia is a term that encompasses multiple Christian congregations within the Roman province of Galatia, located in what is now modern-day Turkey. 

The exact number of these groups is unknown, but it's clear that they were situated close enough to each other to facilitate the sharing of Paul's letter. This proximity suggests a regional rather than widely dispersed set of communities, likely concentrated in either the northern or southern parts of Galatia.

The question of precisely who these Galatians were is a subject of scholarly debate. Some historians believe that Paul was writing to ethnic Galatians residing in the northern areas of the province. These ethnic Galatians would have been descendants of Celtic tribes that had settled in the region centuries earlier.

Alternatively, other scholars argue that Paul was using "Galatia" in a broader provincial sense, referring to inhabitants of the southern part of the province, which included important Roman cities like Iconium, Lystra, Derbe, and Antioch of Pisidia.

The majority of scholars lean towards the southern Galatian theory, partly due to the nature of the historical evidence that aligns Paul’s missionary activities with these urban centers, as recounted in the Acts.

This southern region was more integrated into the Roman Empire and would likely have included a mix of ethnicities and cultures, making it a strategic target for Paul's message.

In either case, whether northern or southern, the communities within Galatia to whom Paul wrote shared a common set of challenges related to the role of Jewish law in their predominantly Gentile communities.

For Paul, these communities should learn the crucial lessons from the Book of Galatians that, among others, include the importance of faith in the risen Jesus and the cohesion among these closely-knit communities.

According to Paul, they shouldn’t accept the message of Paul’s Jewish-Christian opponents, who have missed the essence of the good news. Salvation doesn’t come through the observance of the Mosaic Law but through the faith in the redemptive death and resurrection of Jesus.


In this exploration of the Galatians, we've engaged with the text through a scholarly lens, focusing on its historical context, summary, authorship, and dating. The Epistle to the Galatians, attributed with strong consensus to Paul the Apostle, stands out as a fervent articulation of his theological stance against the Judaizers who advocated for the necessity of following Jewish law. 

In this letter, Paul argues that salvation is accessible through faith in Christ alone, rather than adherence to the Jewish Law. This theme is pivotal not only in understanding the specific challenges faced by the early Gentile Christian communities but also in appreciating the broader doctrinal debates within early Christianity.

The dating of the letter, generally agreed upon by scholars to be around 48 to 55 C.E., positions it at a crucial period shortly after the Jerusalem Council. This timing is significant as it reflects the foundational phase of early Christian identity when Jesus’ followers were debating their relationship with the Jewish tradition.

Finally, through a detailed summary of each chapter, this article has highlighted how Paul's theological assertions and personal narratives within Galatians provide deep insights into his mission and challenges. 

Marko Marina

About the author

Marko Marina is a historian with a Ph.D. in ancient history from the University of Zagreb (Croatia). He is the author of dozens of articles about early Christianity's history. He works as a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Zagreb where he teaches courses on the history of Christianity and the Roman Empire. In his free time, he enjoys playing basketball and spending quality time with his family and friends.

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