Monday, May 15, 2017


Felix John, Der Galaterbrief im Kontext historischer Lebenswelten im antiken Kleinasien. Forschungen zur Religion und Literatur des Alten und Neuen Testaments, 264. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2016. Pp. 259. ISBN 9783525540503. €70.00.

Reviewed by Søren Lund Sørensen, Freie Universität Berlin (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

It is not every day that a book on the Epistle to the Galatians is featured in BMCR, but Felix John's doctoral thesis merits a classicist readership. The purpose of John's study is in many ways traditional: in order to understand the crisis referred to in Paul's letter, one has to establish the context of the addressees (1). According to John, the Epistle to the Galatians is often ignored by classicists (19), and thus a valuable source for the early history of Galatia is neglected. Rather than venture down this promising path John, however, undertakes a lengthy, learned, and well-written discussion of the possible historical context of the letter. Prior to this, John commences his work with the customary Stand der Forschung, often a nuisance to readers outside German-speaking countries, since it has the tendency to lead to eruditism. Happily, this is not the case here, and John manages to keep the Stand der Forschung concise and meaningful.

True to German tradition, John declares himself a proponent of the south Galatian view (33), i.e., that the addressees were based in the southern part of Galatia, a province created by Augustus in 25 BC on the basis of Amyntas' kingdom. Nonetheless, John includes the north Galatian view, often espoused by Anglo-Saxon scholarship, i.e., that the addressees should be located among the Galatian tribes that had settled in the areas around Ankyra, Tavion, and Pessinous. The reason for embracing the northern context is its importance for the overall history of the province of Galatia. Furthermore, one cannot simply ignore the proponents of the north Galatian view; and, finally, a comparison of the two regions may reveal the actual context of the letter (33).

John commences the lengthy chapter on the historical context by describing landscape, climate, etc., before proceeding to the history of the region from the Hittites via the Assyrians and Phrygians to the Hellenistic kingdoms and finally the Romans. The Phrygian pantheon with the two deities Matar and Men plays a prominent role and is referred to again later in the form it acquired in the Hellenistic period (41-6).

Coming to the Roman period, the southern part of Galatia was more densely urbanised with cities and Roman colonies than the traditionally Galatian territories in the north, concentrated around cult centres. John's focus is on the physical and symbolic presence of the Romans in the early period, characterised by soldiers, colonies, roads, and the imperial cult. The last is represented by the provincial assemblies in the form not only of imported elites (81) but also of the indigenous population. The above-mentioned assets of Roman domination developed, so John maintains, at a slower pace in the northern territories, where the Galatian elites were responsible for the introduction of emperor worship. In both places, however, participation in the imperial cult (including euergetism), at different dates, allowed the local elites to feel part of the Roman empire and display their gratitude and loyalty while at the same time acquiring prestige among their peers (82). Focusing on southern Galatia, John undertakes a careful excursus to Pisidian Antioch, which serves as an example of the provincialisation and pacification of the Tauros region, replete with symbols of Roman supremacy: the imperial cult, imagery depicting the defeat of barbarism, and, last but not least, a copy of the Res Gestae (83-94).

This lengthy chapter serves as the backdrop for identifying Paul's addressees as inhabitants of the southern part of Galatia. As John admits early in this chapter, the epistle does not contribute to the identity of the recipients, since the two possible pieces of information (1:2 Γαλατία) and (3:1 Γαλάται) are shown to be inconclusive, equally applicable to the entire province as well as to the Galatian territories (133-51). Additional information may, John remarks, be found in Acts, and in sum the context of the letter are the communities founded by Paul and Barnabas in the cities and colonies of Lykaonia, Pisidia, etc., as related in Acts. John is, however, aware that Acts is of a later date and may only be used as a secondary source (137). Conclusions may therefore not be based on Acts, and John is forced to rely on arguments of plausibility (Wahrscheinlichskeitsargumente). On the basis of what is otherwise known of the development of the southern part of the province, John attempts to support the south Galatian view by pointing to the number of colonies founded by Augustus, the Via Sebaste, and the presence of Jewish communities in this region, supposedly, he claims, settled here already by Antiochos III (45-9). 1 John's argument for a setting in the southern part of the province is thus structural (or perhaps infrastructural), i.e., that these parts (in opposition to the northern parts of Galatia) were similar to the missionary fields previously encountered by Paul.

Having argued for the plausibility of the southern view, John hypothesises that Paul may have come up with the idea of travelling to Spain (Rom 15:24, 28) while visiting Pisidian Antioch. John argues that some of the recorded names of legionaries stationed here in the early part of the history of the province display a possible Spanish origin. Accordingly, descendants of these soldiers may have provided Paul with the impetus to go to Spain (154-9). This is a fascinating thought; but when John fills out the gaps in our knowledge of Paul's incentives for a Spanish journey with a supposed Spanish ancestry of some of the inhabitants of Pisidian Antioch, he walks into a circular trap, which reinforces the arguments but not the evidence (159).

Next John approaches the Galatian crisis, i.e., whether non-Jewish members of the Christian communities must be circumcised or not, by reviewing several novel explanations that have been advanced in recent years. One theory postulates the presence of a renewed interest in ritual purity among pagans around the time of the Galatian crisis. John counters this argument mainly geographically, i.e., the trend is attested neither in the southern nor northern part of Galatia but primarily in Lydia and Phrygia (177-82). Another theory concerns the alleged self-castration of the galli, the adherents of Magna Mater/Kybele, whose cult was indeed prominent in Galatia. Prudently, John cautions against identifying circumcision with castration. Furthermore, one may not conclude from the presence of castrated attendants of Kybele in Syria that this was also the case in Galatia. In fact, John says, in the region under study Attis is not coupled with Magna Mater/Kybele in this period, nor is there any reference to orgiastic rites, not to mention self-castration (183-6).

A more prominent theory concerns the imperial cult. 2 Though it is not mentioned explicitly in the Epistle to the Galatians, it has been argued, e.g., on the basis of 4:8-11, that the members of the communities had lapsed back into worshipping the emperor. Jews, so the argument goes, would be exempted as Jews from the imperial cult, and the circumcision (of male Jews) was so to speak the sign of this exemption. On the basis of their lacking circumcision, non-Jewish Christians would not be entitled to such a privilege. This left the Galatian communities with two choices: succumb to circumcision or participate in the imperial cult. John swiftly denounces this theory by saying that the verses under discussion do not allow for such an interpretation and that there is no formal evidence for forced participation in the imperial cult. Furthermore, it is not certain whether circumcision was the sign of exemption (169-77). The reviewer feels that there is room for criticism here. Although mentioned in the Stand der Forschung (11 n. 6; 27-9) John does not include the important work of Kahl in the discussion here. 3 There is some truth to John's argument that participation in the imperial cult is not generally enforced. There may, however, still have been a large measure of social pressure involved. Ceasing to participate in the processions, banquets, etc., in connection with the festivals of the koinon will at least have been a conspicuous move, as will have been circumcision. Furthermore, we cannot expect the pagan inhabitants of the cities of Galatia to have been aware of the theological differences between Jews and Christians, and a sudden lack of participation in the imperial cult may have focused attention on the Jewish communities eager to protect their rights. While not part of the sphere of the koinon, the imperial oaths surely did encroach on the territory of the imperial cult, and John does refer to the imperial oath from Gangra/Neapolis (83; 176 n. 125). 4 It will, as he argues, no doubt have caused logistic problems to bring all inhabitants to the altar of Augustus in order to have them pledge their allegiance to the living god Augustus, but in the eyes of the Roman authorities this was exactly what happened. The Romans had gone to such lengths almost half a century earlier in the recently annexed Paphlagonia as well as in Pontos. Furthermore, the famous letters of Pliny,5 to which John does refer, indicate how determined the Romans were to assure loyalty to the emperor. Dismissing the theory of imperial cult and the self-castration of the adherents of Meter as causes for the Galatian crisis, John also rejects the role of the local Jewish communities. The addressees were no doubt of non-Jewish origin, and there is no reason to postulate a status as god-fearers. If one ignores the testimony of Acts, then there is almost no evidence for a relation between the Jewish and Christian communities.

This leads John to a conservative conclusion, that the threat to Paul's Galatian achievements came from outside the province and that the crisis was ultimately theological, prompted by Judaeo-Christian influence from Palestine. Accordingly, the Galatian communities and their crisis should be considered suorum generum, thereby not particularly related to their immediate context (193; 211).

Ultimately, John ends up re-establishing the scholarly status quo ante of the Epistle to the Galatians, and the reader is left with the feeling that the lengthy surveys of the historical, geographical, and cultural contexts of Galatia are very learned and interesting, but somewhat superfluous. What may, however, be gathered from the Epistle, so John argues, is that it contributes to our knowledge of the early Christian communities as cutting across established social structures of the Greco-Roman world (194-204).

Throughout the book John makes use of the theoretical concept of Lebenswelt (explained on p. 30), which seemingly goes beyond the merely material environment of human beings. The present reviewer may not fully have grasped the implications of this concept, but wonders whether the author was under pressure to apply a theoretical concept borrowed from the social sciences, as is often the case in humanities. In most instances, the word context would have sufficed.

All of this does not detract from the fact that John has written a most important and learned book,6 which will help classicists appreciate the value of the Epistle to the Galatians and aid theologians in understanding the complex world that makes up the (possible) context of the letter. Although it is doubtful whether John's study will settle the matter, it is beyond doubt that it will play an important part in future scholarship on the Epistle .


1.   Jos. Ant. 12.147-53.
2.   Cf., among others, Winter, B.W. Seek the welfare of the city. Christians as benefactors and citizens. Michigan 1994: 123-43; Witulski, T. Die Adressaten des Galaterbriefes. Untersuchungen zur Gemeinde von Antiochia ad Pisidiam. Göttingen 2000; Hardin, J.K. Galatians and the Imperial Cult. Tübingen 2008.
3.   Kahl, B. Galatians Re-imagined. Reading with the Eyes of the Vanquished. Minneapolis 2010.
4.   OGIS 532.
5.   Plin. Ep. 96-7.
6.   Ameling, W. "Der kleinasiatische Kaiserkult und die Öffentlichkeit. Überlegungen zur Umwelt der Apokalypse" in Eber, M. and E. Esch-Warmeling, eds., Kaiserkult, Wirtschaft und Spectacula: zum politischen und gesellschaftlichen Umfeld der Offenbarung. (Göttingen 2011), 15-54, which is mentioned on p. 174 n. 111, is missing in the bibliography.

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