Study Guide

Galatians, Philippians, and Philemon Setting

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Roman Empire in the Mid-1st Century CE

In these letters, Paul is writing to several different places and people who all lived nearly two thousand years ago.

Sounds complicated? It is.

Gettin' Galatian with It

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.

Feeling Philippian

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.

What About Philemon?

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).

Paul Goes to Prison

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

Slaves for You

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)

Church Fighters

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.

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