About 13 years after his conversion experience on the road to Damascus, Paul left Syrian Antioch and began what would be the first of three missionary journeys. To say that Paul’s journey was difficult is an understatement. Driven out of Iconium by a Jewish mob (Acts 13:50) and stoned by another in Lystra (Acts 14: 19), the Apostle certainly had what most of us would consider “enough.” Yet it is during this time that he established some of the first Gentile Christian communities among the cities of Galatia. Paul says very little about the Galatians except in regard to their gracious reception of him and their early acceptance of the faith. In his references to their lack of knowledge of God (Gal. 4:8), one can assume that the Galatians were pagan prior to their conversion. He praises them for their hospitality in receiving him in his illness (Gal. 4:12–14), but very little else is offered of the inhabitants of this region. Acts likewise has very little to say about this intriguing Celtic people who lived in the rough, desolate land of central Anatolia.[i]
During the time of the Roman occupation of Asia Minor and Judea, Galatia extended from the coastal regions of Bithynia and Pontus in the north nearly to the southern Mediterranean coast of Anatolia.[ii] It included parts of Phrygia, Lyconia, Pisidia (including Pisidian Antioch, which was sometimes considered part of Phrygia)[iii], and parts of other surrounding regions. The Galatia of Paul’s time corresponded with this larger political entity and included many of the cities where Paul preached: Lystra, Derbe, Iconium, to name a few (Acts 13–14). The central region of Galatia was bleak and barren, with harsh, cold winters and hot, dry summers. The inhabitants eked out a living producing wool, carving tombstone, and vintaging wine. Jerome Murphy-O’Connor suggests that wine may have made life in such harsh climes a bit more bearable for the Galatians but contributed little to the economy.[iv]
The Roman province of Galatia took its name from the earlier region settled by Gaulish migrants called Galatai[v] or Keltoi by the Greeks or Galli by the Romans,[vi] while in modern parlance, they would be called Celts. The Gauls had been pushing east for some time and had made contact with the empire of Alexander the Great by 335 B.C. but made no serious incursions into Greece until well after his death, sometime around 281, when an army led by Bolgios defeated King Ptolemy Ceraunas of Macedonia.[vii] following this victory, internal squabbles led to the fragmentation of the army. One part, led by leaders Brennus and Acichorios, decided to take their game to Delphi and loot the shrines there, but they were defeated decisively.[viii] The original army led by Bolgios was defeated in Thrace. A third branch led by Leonorius and Lutarius chose a different route, passing through Thrace, but crossing over to Asia Minor at the invitation of Nicomedes of Bithynia.[ix]
One could certainly question the thinking of Nicomedes in this instance. After all, the Galatai had already separated Ptolemy’s kingly head from the rest of him and had also gone on to wreak terror among the Greeks in Delphi. However, Nicomedes had his own concerns. His brother Zipoetes had been causing him problems at home, and his neighbor to the southeast, Antiochus I of Seleucia, also had designs on his territory. Negotiating through Antigonus of Macedonia, he hired 10,000 Galatai mercenaries (with 10,000 additional camp followers).[x] While the Galatai solved Nicomedes’ short-term problem, they also created a long-term headache for all of the surrounding kingdoms in Asia Minor. After they were defeated by Antiochus I, Mithridates of Pontus settled the Galatians on Seleucid land, and the Celts proved very difficult to remove.[xi] As Simon James notes, they had a penchant for wealth, especially when it belonged to others, and also had other less attractive qualities:
They periodically burst out of their territories on plundering raids, bringing back prisoners as well as goods; and in the third century Galatia became a centre for trading slaves and holding prisoners for ransom. Surrounding states raised special taxes to free those taken. The Galatians inspired widespread terror, especially since they had a reputation for sacrificing prisoners.[xii]
The Celts raided cities to the west and demanded tribute from many of them. They would continue to be a thorn in the side of many of the surrounding kingdoms until Attalus I of Pergamum defeated them for good in 232 B.C. The surrounding Hellenist kingdoms recognized the area settled by the Galatians as a state of its own, concentrated around Ancyra and the city of Pessinus, the latter of which would be the location of Paul’s missionary work among the Galatians of the first century A.D.[xiii] Peter Berresford Ellis notes, however, that the Galatai preferred to live in the surrounding areas rather than in the cities, in duns or hill forts.
During this period, Rome began to exert its power over the ever weakening Hellenist states in the region. The Galatians, who seemed to have a penchant for siding with the wrong parties, allied themselves first with Antiochus III, and suffered a devastating loss to the Romans in 190.[xiv] They became vassals to different kingdoms at different times, but all under Roman rule. They managed to push their boundaries to include parts of Phrygia and Lycaonia.[xv] During this period, the Galatai never really unified but were more of a loose confederation of three tribes: the Trocmi, the Tolistobogii, and the Textosages. While they eschewed centralized authority, they were not without some governmental structure, as James notes:
Each tribe was divided into four “septs” or clans, probably with distinct territories. Each sept was ruled by a chief called a tetrarch (from Greek, tetra-, ‘four’; archos, ‘chief’). He was assisted by a general, two deputy generals and a judge.[xvi]
One chieftain, Ortiagon, attempted unsuccessfully to unify the clans into a single nation. Not until a treacherous king of Pontus, Mithridates V, massacred a large delegation of Galatian chiefs did the tribes unify around one remaining chieftain, Deiotaros. After a prolonged struggle, the Galatians managed to secure their land from the threat of Pontus, with the help of a powerful ally. Rome soon recognized Deiotaros as the ruler over all of the Galatians.[xvii] However, the Galatians chose sides poorly again, first with Pompey against Julius Caesar, and later with Mark Antony against Augustus. By 25 B.C., Galatia was firmly under Roman control.[xix]
Culturally, the Galatians appear to have held onto much of their Gaulish heritage. While they spoke Greek and intermarried with the local population,[xx] they still maintained their cultural identity. St. Jerome, in his commentary on Paul’s letter to the Galatians, notes that even in the fourth century A.D., the inhabitants of this region spoke Celtic.[xxi] They would have been quite distinct from the local populace in their appearance, with lighter skin and red or blonde hair. By Paul’s time, some mixing of genetic stocks would have occurred, perhaps making the Galatians less physically distinct. However, it seems likely that they would still look considerably different than people of the neighboring regions. They wore bracae or breeches (which the Romans considered effeminate and barbaric) and striped or checked shirts and coats (much like a tartan) that were fastened over the shoulder with a buckle.[xxii] Classical references to the Galatians are not particularly flattering. Livy referred to the Galatians and their Phrygian neighbors as a “degenerate, mongrel race.”[xxiii] Murphy-O’Connor describes the general opinion thus: “The Galatians for their part were considered to be large, unpredictable simpletons, ferocious and highly dangerous when angry, but without stamina and easy to trick.”[xxiv]
However, they were not impervious to the influence of the neighboring peoples. This influence is particularly notable in the area of religion. Simon James notes that the Galatai brought with them their practice of human sacrifice and created a central shrine, Drunemeton (oak-sanctuary), which seems to hint fleetingly at some Druidic practice.[xxv] However, while Sts. Clement and Cyril of Alexandria and Stephanus of Byzantium each claim that the Galatians had a Druidic class,[xxvi] James indicates that there is no firm evidence that the Galatai maintained Druidic practices in Asia Minor.[xxvii] Like the Greeks and Romans, the Galatai were polytheistic, but James indicates that they did not conceive of gods in human shape until late in the Iron Age.[xxviii] In their new homeland, they adopted the gods of their Phrygian neighbors and even became members of the priesthood in Pessinus, which had been the religious center for the Phrygians.[xxix]
Murphy-O’Connor notes that the status of Pessinus as the shrine of Cybele may explain why Paul stayed on after recovering from his illness. As a major center of worship and trade, Pessinus would attract vistors, and Paul’s message could be carried away to other towns in the province.[xxx] Galatia was a unique intersection of cultures, which made it fertile ground for a new message, the good news of our Lord.
"Antioch, of Pisidia." 1915. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Ed. James Orr. 28 June 2011
Ellis, Peter Berresford. The Celtic Empire: The First Millennium of Celtic History, c1000 BC–51 AD. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 1990.
"Galatia." 1916. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Ed. James Orr. 28 June 2011
James, Simon. The World of the Celts. London: Thames and Hudson, Ltd., 1993.
Jerome. "Galatians." 13 July 2005. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. 2 July 2011
Murphy-O'Connor, Jerome. Paul: A Critical Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
i. Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, Paul: A Critical Life, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 192.
ii. “Galatia,” 1916, International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Ed. James Orr, 28 June 2011
iii. “Antioch, of Pisidia,” 1915, International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Ed. James Orr, 28 June 2011
iv. Murphy-O'Connor, 191.
vi. Simon James, The World of the Celts (London: Thames and Hudson, Ltd., 1993), 12.
vii. Ibid., 37.
viii. Ibid., 39.
x. Peter Berresford Ellis, The Celtic Empire: The First Millennium of Celtic History, c1000 BC–51 AD (Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 1990), 92–93.
xi. James, 40.
xii. Ibid., 41.
xiii. Murphy-O'Connor, 186–189. Also, Ellis, 97.
xiv. Ibid., 94
xv. James, 41.
xvi. Ellis, 102.
xvii. James, 41.
xviii. Ellis, 105.
xix. Ibid., 106.
xx. Murphy-O'Connor, 188.
xxi. Jerome, "Galatians," 13 July 2005, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2 July 2011
xxii. James, 65.
xxiii. Murphy-O'Connor, 190.
xxiv. Ibid., 189–190.
xxv. Ibid., 41.
xxvi. Ellis, 95.
xxvii. James, 41.
xxviii. Ibid., 89.
xxix. Ellis, 94.
xxx. Murphy-O'Connor, 193.