Gal. 1:1-5 In the introduction, Paul sends greetings from his fellow-believers and asserts his authority as an apostle who was called by the risen Lord Jesus.
Gal. 1:6-10 Paul warns the believers not to accept a different version of the Good News about Jesus rather than the one he brought to them.
Gal. 1:11-24 He reminds them how he became an apostle. He was totally committed to the Jewish religion and led the persecution of the early Christian believers following Jesus’s crucifixion in 30AD (see Acts 8:1-3). He was absolutely devoted to Jewish traditions.
But after the risen Lord Jesus appeared to him (on the road to Damascus in 35AD – see Acts 9:1-5) he was completely changed. He spent a short time in neighbouring Arabia Petraea, then stayed three years in Damascus before visiting Peter and James – the leaders of the church in Jerusalem – in 38AD (see Acts 9:26-29 and Maps 21 & 22).
After this, he returned home to Tarsus in Cilicia (see Acts 9:30) and began spreading the Good News about Jesus in the Roman provinces of Syria and Cilicia.
Remains of the Roman baths at Tarsus
Gal. 2:1-10 Paul continues the account of his journeys. After fourteen years (fourteen years after his conversion in 35AD) he went back to Jerusalem with Barnabas and Titus (for the Council of Jerusalem in 49/50AD – see Acts 15:1-4).
He met privately with the leaders of the church (Peter, James and John) and explained why he believed Gentile believers should not be required to adopt Jewish traditions such as circumcision. The leaders agreed with him, and Titus (who was a Greek-speaking Gentile believer) wasn’t forced to be circumcised – even though some of the Jewish believers argued in favour of this.
Gal. 2:11-14 After the Council of Jerusalem ended (in 50AD), James (as leader of the church in Jerusalem) sent a letter to the believers in Antioch in Syria explaining the leaders’ decision that Gentile believers need not be circumcised (see Acts 15:22-35).
The Argument over Circumcision
The Council of Jerusalem met in 49/50AD to decide the church’s attitude towards the circumcision of Gentile believers. It was taken for granted that Jewish believers in Jesus Christ would be circumcised in accordance with the Jewish law (see Genesis 17:1-14). But there was disagreement over whether Gentile believers ought to be circumcised.
Many of the Jewish Christians believed that Gentile believers should be circumcised as converts to Judaism (as Christianity was still regarded as a Jewish sect), but Paul believed passionately that they should not be required to be circumcised. Paul – a Greek-speaking Jew from cosmopolitan Tarsus – knew that the Greeks (who were Gentiles) prized athleticism and bodily perfection, and regarded circumcision (or any mutilation of the flesh) as abhorent.
The Jewish Christian leaders discussed the issue, and James – the leader of the Jerusalem church – issued a statement saying that Gentile believers would not have to be circumcised. Other more conservative Jewish believers were still not convinced.
The Gentile believers welcomed this decision, but shortly after James’s decision had been received, Peter visited Antioch and appeared to change his mind on the issue (see Galatians 2.11-12). He refused to eat with the Gentile believers in Antioch for fear of offending the Jewish Christians who still held the view that Gentile believers should be circumcised. They believed that the Gentile believers would be ritually ‘unclean’ if they weren’t circumcised, and would make the Jewish believers unclean by eating with them (see Acts 10:28, where Peter had reluctantly faced this issue before).
Even Barnabas had been swept along by this view, and, to Paul’s amazement and disgust, had refused to eat with the Gentile believers (see Galatians 2.13). This disagreement fuelled an argument between Paul and Barnabas and no doubt contributed to their splitting up before Paul’s second missionary journey later that year (see Acts 15:39-40). Paul rebuked Peter and the others in public – opposing their actions and condemning their decision not to eat with the Gentile believers.