Paul's Epistles to the Galatians, Philippians, and Philemon are exactly what they say they are—epistles. That's just a fancy word meaning letters. Translation: we're sorting through some of Paul's really old mail. Though Paul probably wrote lots more letters to the Christians in these communities, these three are all we have left. What can we say; parchment doesn't age well.
Because these are letters, that means they were written to specific people at specific times. It'd be kind of like if someone took a handful of text messages you wrote last week and tried to pull some kind of extraordinary meaning out of them 2,000 years later. Maybe you were feeling kind of goofy when you texted "Ermahgerd!" to your bestie. But now, future people are bowing down to worship their new deity, Gerd.
In Galatians, Paul criticizes Jewish law pretty harshly. But later, in Romans, he has some kinder words for the Torah. Does that mean there are other things Paul would change in these letters? Passages he would take back? If Paul knew his thoughts would form the basis of Christian thought for centuries to come, would he have at least run these through spell check?
The authors of New Testament books didn't title their works. After all, do you put a title on all your texts? Later generations of Christians ran into trouble though when they realized they needed some names on these to help them tell which book was which. They couldn't use the first lines for these two like they had done for other books, so they went the simple route.
The most commonly used titles for these three books—The Epistle to the Galatians, The Epistle to the Philippians, and The Epistle to Philemon—pretty much say it all. It just means that these books of the Bible are:
• that were sent to the churches in Galatia and Philippi, respectively…
• and also to a Christian guy named Philemon.
Sometimes you'll see alternative titles for these three, like "The Letter of St. Paul to the Galatians" or even just "Philippians" and "Philemon." These all mean the same thing. Paul wrote 'em. The early Christians read 'em. Then they wound up in the Bible. Easy peasy lemon squeezy.
In these letters, Paul is writing to several different places and people who all lived nearly two thousand years ago.
Sounds complicated? It is.
Unlike Corinth, Thessalonica, or Philippi, Galatia isn't an individual city—it's the name for a region in an area that's now part of Turkey. Scholars are actually sort of divided over who is being addressed in this letter: north or south Galatia.
Galatia was settled by a group of Celts back in the 270s BCE. When the Romans took over in 25 BCE, they included some areas to the south as part of Galatia. These are cities—such as Antioch, Lystra, Iconium, and Derbe—that you can read about Paul visiting in Acts. If this letter is written to the south Galatians, then the date it's sent would be way early in Paul's letter-writing career—maybe around 50 CE. But if we're talking northern Galatia, we could go with a slightly later date—around 55 CE (source, 1153).
What's a biblical scholar to do?
Because sometimes you have to pick sides in war and biblical scholarship, Shmoop is going with the northern Galatian camp on this one. After all, Paul specifically calls these guys "Galatians" and, at the time, it would have only been correct to call the folks up north (who were ethnically Galatian) by this title. Acts also says that Paul visited the areas of northern Galatia; it just doesn't go into detail about what happened there (source, 1105). Not enough beatings and imprisonments to make it worthwhile, we guess.
So these folks in northern Galatia were mostly urbanites but would have come from all different social and economic groups. They were probably also mainly Gentiles that Paul converted from paganism. But they were obviously interested in the Jewish faith, because they were really swooning at the thought of following Jewish law (source, 1105). Paul's got his work cut out for him there.
Ancient Philippi was originally part of modern day Greece. The city was named for Philipp II (who was also the dad of Alexander the Great) when he took control of it in 356 BCE. A nice little side perk of taking over this city? The gold mines there made Philipp super rich.
By the 1st century CE, the city had become a Roman colony and was connected to other important cities by a road known as the Via Egnatia. Philippi as a whole was pretty wealthy, and even after the Romans came in, it managed to keep some of its autonomy from Rome (source).
Paul first set foot in Philippi around 50 CE. According to Acts of the Apostles, he started to convert some followers there but was eventually beaten and thrown in jail for stirring up some theological troubles in the city. Paul obviously hung out there long enough to get a little church going, but eventually he was released from jail and the authorities asked him to get out of town already.
Scholars think that Paul's letter to the Philippians could have been written as early as the mid-50s CE, while he was in prison in Ephesus, or as late as the early-60s CE, when he was doing his final stretch of time in Rome (source, 1121). Yup, Paul spent a lot of time in jail.
More on that later.
Nobody knows where Philemon lived exactly. The idea of Colossae has been floated, but it's really just a guess. Like the letter to the Philippians, Paul's also writing to Philemon from prison. Again, we don't know when or where he's doing his time—just that he's not at liberty to come and go as he pleases (source, 1146).
Speaking of prison, Paul finds himself there quite a bit: his epistles to the Philippians and Philemon were both written from behind bars. Paul brags that he's suffered "far more imprisonments" (2 Corinthians 11:23) than his rivals, so it's almost impossible to tell when and where he's writing from at any given time. The dude got around…and got into trouble.
Paul's main issue is that, wherever he goes, he starts telling people about Jesus. Eventually he riles up some group in town. Sometimes he makes the Jews mad by saying Jesus is the Jewish messiah. Other times, he ticks off the pagans by saying that there's only one God and his name is Jesus Christ. Whatever happens, it usually ends with him being arrested, beaten, and taken to trial.
So for a good part of his life, Paul was held in captivity. What was that like? Not fun. If you were lucky, you could be placed under house arrest. If you were unlucky, you would be thrown in a hole in the ground where food and water could be lowered down to you. Think that's bad? The state also didn't have an obligation to provide Paul with a "speedy trial" (source). According to Acts, Paul was imprisoned for four years while he waited for his trial in Rome (Acts 24:27, 28:30). Yikes.
We can't resist pointing out that it's sort of ironic that Paul, who once imprisoned Christians, is now being imprisoned for being a Christian himself. God sure does have a funny sense of humor.
How did Paul's prison setting affect his writing? Well, it probably made him want to reach out to friends a little more. He can't visit any of the people he's writing to, so he does the next best thing and sends a letter. He's also hoping that he'll hear some good news back from these areas so he doesn't have to fret so much while he's doing his time. Oddly enough, his mood in Philippians and Philemon is pretty darn cheerful. Life on the inside wasn't getting him down.
For his part, Paul genuinely did not seem worried about being in lock up. He's more than willing to suffer for Jesus and even assures the Philippians that this whole jail situation has actually been good (Philippians 1:12-13). He's gonna work on converting people from the inside.
Paul's not the only author who spent his time inside writing. Here are just a few more examples of major works penned from behind bars:
• The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan
• Fanny Hill by John Cleland
• The 120 Days of Sodom by the Marquis de Sade
• Letter from Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King Jr.
• The Sixteenth Round by Rubin "Hurricane" Carter
What other stuff was going on at the time? Well, slavery was kind of a big deal. Paul alludes to it a bunch in his letters.
Slaves were pretty common around the Roman Empire at the time. As you might imagine, the lives of Roman slaves were no picnic. They could be beaten or even killed by their owners for any reason. Judaism also allowed for Jews to own slaves, but the Torah at least had some standards for how they should be treated. Sure, the standards were pretty low, but at least it was something (source).
For the most part, people just accepted this as the norm. Paul doesn't really even question the institution of slavery in his letter to Philemon. After all, he sends Onesimus back to his master. But Paul does challenge Philemon to treat Onesimus as a brother in Christ. Can a brother own another brother? It's an important question, but Paul pretty much skirts the whole slavery issue.
Paul seems to be hinting that Philemon should free Onesimus, though. If Philemon let Onesimus go, he would have been able to get a job at the lowest rung of the social ladder. Maybe he could have even worked his way up to being a common laborer. (Source)
So that's the state of Roman society at the time. But what about what was going on in the church? Well, things were a bit…rocky. Sure, Paul was making headway converting lots of Gentiles, but not everyone could agree about how these new recruits were supposed to be acting.
Since Jesus was Jewish and first brought his message to the Jewish people, the early church struggled with deciding whether or not followers of Jesus also had to be Jewish. A certain faction in the church—sometimes referred to as the Judaizers—believed that all Christians needed to follow Jewish laws and customs. That means Gentile converts needed to be circumcised, observe Jewish holidays, and cut out the bacon.
Paul had a much more lax view toward Jewish law. He believed that Jesus' coming did away with the need for the law. Before Jesus, God handed down all kinds of fussy rules so that humans could stay in his good books. But once Jesus came around, human beings only had to look to him to figure out how to be in a relationship with God.
Naturally, this got Paul into trouble with both Christian and non-Christian Jews. These folks didn't take too kindly to Paul saying that those who followed the Torah were "under a curse" (Galatians 3:10) and "in slavery" (Galatians 4:25). They weren't quite ready to toss out their thousands-year-old traditions. Go figure.
In the end, Paul's side won. The church decided that following Torah was an oldie but goodie and it didn't apply to these new, modern people of faith. But don't worry. After settling this issue, Christians found loads more stuff to fight about.
If Paul teaches us one thing (spoiler alert: he teaches us about a zillion things), it's that family isn't just made up of the people who share your DNA.
Paul reinforces the connection between Christians by using the imagery of the family. He calls his friends "members of God's family" (Galatians 1:2) and encourages them to look after others in "the family of faith" (Galatians 6:10). That's right. Make sure no one picks on your (spiritual) brothers and sisters.
He also calls his fellow Christians "children of God" (Philippians 2:15) and "heirs" (Galatians 3:29) to God's promises. Christians are supposed to think of God as their father:
Because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!" (Galatians 4:6)
Today, this is a pretty mainstream image, but it basically just means that the connection believers have with God is supposed to be as close as a father and child (translation: super close). The title is also symbolic of God's love for his people. He totally cares about 'em and always wants what's best for 'em.
But God isn't the only one who gets paternal treatment. Paul also applies this same language to himself to describe his relationship with the folks he's writing to:
• "My little children, for whom I am again in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you" (Galatians 4:19). Paul is so into this parent thing that he actually imagines himself as a mom.
• "Like a son with a father [Timothy] has served with me in the work of the gospel" (Philippians 2:22). Wonder if they ever played catch?
• "I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment" (Philemon 1:10).Please don't keep my kid as a slave. Pretty please!
So does this mean they have to get him a card for Father's Day?
It's clear that Paul is using this image to convey his love for the people in these churches. They're like his little brood of babies. He's either really proud of them—"I thank my God every time I remember you" (Philippians 1:3)—or really disappointed in them—"You foolish Galatians!" (Galatians 3:1). Seriously, Galatians? Why can't you be more like the Philippians?
But he also uses this to justify his concern for them. Why else does he have the right to comment on every single aspect of their lives? You're not hanging out with those false apostles! And don't even think about getting circumcised! Practically everything Paul says is something that might come out of your dad's mouth (um, if your dad lived in 1st-century Greece).
So Paul is the dad and Christians are the kids. That means they're all brothers and sisters, right? But don't forget, Paul's also their brother. Um, weird. Is he his own grandpa, too?
• "Brothers and sisters, I give an example from daily life." (Galatians 3:15)
• "You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters." (Galatians 5:13)
• "May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers and sisters." (Galatians 6:18)
• "Brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord." (Philippians 3:1)
• "Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me." (Philippians 3:17)
This is pretty much the crux of his whole don't-you-wanna-free-Onesimus argument. Paul says that Philemon should welcome Onesimus back "no longer as a slave but […] a beloved brother" (Philemon 1:16). They're brothers in Christ, and it wouldn't be very nice to keep your brother as your slave. Shmoop will forgive you if you manage to trick your little brother into being your slave for a day though.
In the 1st century, farming was all the rage. What can we say? They loved organic produce. So when Paul talks about reaping and sowing, his audience would have totally understood what he meant. But even if you've never set foot on a farm, Shmoop's gonna bet you have (metaphorically) reaped what you've sown every now and then.
Of course, our readers only reap good things…but we digress.
One of Paul's most quoted images is from these letters:
Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. (Galatians 6:7-9)
For those of us who aren't up to speed on our 1st-century agricultural terms, sowing basically refers to planting seeds in the ground. Reaping means that you collect the crops once they've grown. You plant corn seeds in your field, they grow into corn, and you cut them down to eat them.
Here, the image applies to how we live our lives. Basically, whatever you put into life, you get back out. So if you constantly act like a jerk to your best friend, that person won't be your best friend for long. And no one will feel sorry for you because, hey, you reap what you sow.
For Paul, the image applies to how Christians live their lives. If they stay focused on the Holy Spirit and living good Christian lives, they'll be very happy when God declares that it's harvest time. But if they spend all their time worrying about silly concerns (like whether or not to get circumcised), things won't work out well for them.
This whole what-goes-around-comes-around idea isn't unique to Paul. It occurs a couple other places in the Bible. The Book of Job says, "those who plow inequity and sow trouble reap the same" (Job 4:8). Proverbs tells us that "whoever sows injustice will reap calamity" (Proverbs 22:8). The meaning is the same, but Paul's way of putting it is by far the most popular.
The cross has become one of the most enduring and well-recognized Christian symbols in the world. You'd almost never guess that it started out as a way to kill people.
So how did the cross get such a great PR makeover? We can start by thanking Paul.
Imagine that you have a teacher you really dig. He's this charismatic guy who's always got great insights about the world. Now imagine that, one day, that teacher is arrested, tried, and convicted of a crime. He's sentenced to death by lethal injection. What would you do? Would you forget about him and just go on with your life? Or would you start walking around with a little syringe around your neck and bragging about how hardcore this guy was for being put to death?
Paul's in the latter camp. Sure, a savior who's died a very embarrassing and humiliating death may not be best selling point for your new religion. But Paul doesn't shy away from it. In fact, he doubles down:
May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. (Galatians 6:14)
Boast? Yup. One of Paul's favorite things is taking an idea and turning it on its head—and the cross is no different. For Paul, true power is found in humility. And what's more humbling than being executed?
[Jesus] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:6-8)
It's in obedience and humility that we draw closer to God, says Paul. The cross represents this. That's why Paul believes that all Christians are called to share in the suffering of Jesus:
• "I have been crucified with Christ." (Galatians 2:19)
• "It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified!" (Galatians 3:1)
• "It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that try to compel you to be circumcised—only that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ." (Galatians 6:12)
• "Many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears." (Philippians 3:18)
Basically Paul is saying: "So you're being persecuted for following Jesus? No worries! People didn't like what Jesus had to say about God either. That's all part of the deal. Besides, you can bet that Jesus suffered tons on the cross, so all your suffering is just helping you become more and more like him. See, there is a silver lining."
For a group of people who would have actually known what death on a cross would have looked like, this is pretty powerful stuff.
Crucifixion was a particularity terrible and humiliating punishment used throughout the Roman Empire. A victim would be stripped naked, have nails pounded through his arms or feet (or both), be placed upright on the cross, and be left to die. Since the nails alone wouldn't kill you, the death was slow. Victims often died from starvation, suffocation, or shock, and depending on the method that was used, death could take hours or days. Not exactly something you want to imagine your Savior going through.
But Paul's strategy obviously worked. It would take a while before Christians would start drawing, painting, or wearing the symbol of the cross, but once they did there was no stopping it. In 321 CE, the Roman Emperor Constantine saw a vision of a cross with the words, "By this, win" floating in the sky. He slapped crosses on all his soldiers' shields, won the battle, and eventually converted to Christianity and took the entire Roman Empire with him (source).
That's a lot of work for one little cross.
For most people, flesh is just the pudgy stuff between your skin and bones. Sometimes you wish you had a little less of it.
The early Christians, though? They didn't want any of it.
No, this wasn't just a really crazy fad diet. It was a way of staying totally centered on God.
Paul talks over and over about "the flesh." He means two things. Sometimes he's just talking about the physical body. Head, shoulders, knees, and toes—that good stuff. Like when he says that he'll probably "remain in the flesh" (Philippians 1:24) for the sake of the Philippians. In other words, he's not gonna die. That's good news.
But most of the time, Paul uses the word "flesh" to mean the opposite of the Holy Spirit.
• "Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?" (Galatians 3:3)
• "For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want." (Galatians 5:17)
• "If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit." (Galatians 6:8)
• "For it is we who are the circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and boast in Christ Jesus and have no confidence in the flesh." (Philippians 3:3)
Here, the flesh isn't just your body; it's your whole state of mind. People are who living in the flesh are not focused on God. They're worried about everything that's going on in their little world. They only care about what's happening to them here and now, not what God wants for them.
So, to sum up: flesh focus = bad. Spirit focus = good. We love it when things work out so neatly.
But not everyone has seen it this way. Some folks read the whole flesh-is-bad thing as one big diss toward the human body. This has led to an interesting body and soul dynamic in a lot of popular Christian thought. Basically, the idea is that our bodies don't matter—our souls are the most important thing. When we die, we'll leave behind our bodies and our souls will go to Heaven…where we'll all fit in size 4 jeans.
Really, this isn't what Paul's saying at all. In fact, he specifically tells us that our bodies do matter. Why else would we he supply us with a whole laundry list of things not to do with our bodies?
The works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:19-21)
So yeah, bodies are important. And according to Paul, if you're using yours to have sex, start fights, or get drunk, there's gonna be trouble.
Paul may get a little annoyed in these letters, but overall he's pretty vanilla. No drugs and no violence. He only briefly calls out "fornication" (Galatian 5:19), but otherwise we're sex-free. These epistles are fun for the whole family…as long wading through dense theological arguments is your family's idea of fun. If so, please invite Shmoop over sometime.