The Epistle to the Galatians is one of the most emotionally intense Pauline letters in the New Testament, rivaled perhaps only by parts of 2 Corinthians. The usual explanation for this strident emotional tenor is that Paul is outraged that the group which he founded and instructed in the ways of Christ is rejecting his authority in favor of that of other teachers who have shown up in his absence. What’s more, these rival teachers have seemingly convinced some of the male members of the group to remove their foreskin as part of their religious practice, a practice that horrifies Paul—not in and of itself (as he is no doubt circumcised as well), but because it signals the dismissal of his teachings about the irrelevance of some elements of Jewish law.[1] The letter engages in extensive argumentation to rationalize why the Galatians should accept his authority on this matter.

Such an explanation for the situation in Galatia is one that I largely agree with. However, in this post, I want to push back on key part of this scenario: the idea that Paul “founded” the Galatian churches. Modern readers, both scholars as well as non-specialists, are accustomed to thinking about Paul as a “founder” of churches throughout the Roman Empire. The typical view (based in large measure on the stories in Acts of the Apostles) says that Paul arrived in a city, visited a local synagogue, and promoted a bundle of beliefs about Christ to the people he found there;[2] in response, a community spontaneously and organically formed, glued together by members’ shared adherence to those beliefs about Christ. This, it is thought, is how the early Christian mission unfolded. We can deem this the “normative understanding of the early Christian mission.” I maintain, however, that Paul “founding a community/church” is a scenario that New Testament scholars throw around all too casually, and it regularly occludes important sociological dynamics and conditions that make the emergence of group formation possible in the first place.

In what follows, I want to explore an alternative scenario for thinking about how at least some of Paul’s groups emerged; the discussion will use Galatians as a case study. My argument will be that, instead of “founding” the Galatian community, Paul capitalized on a social network that was already in place before he arrived.[3] Accepting such a scenario would force us to revise that normative understanding of mission, for we can no longer presume that social formations emerged solely on the basis of members accepting teachings about Jesus. The discussion of Galatians will no doubt be speculative, since we know so little about the addressees of the epistle (other than the apparent enthusiastic interest among the males in the group for cutting their genitals). Rather than offer a definitive conclusion, the point of this post is instead to make space for creativity in how we imagine the emergence of early Christ groups and thus to destabilize scenarios that we have long considered unquestionable, in this case, the normative early Christian mission.

The Situation in Galatia

Let’s get something out of the way first: terminology. I’m sure critically-minded readers are already panicking about my use of “church” above. They’re right to panic. The question should really be “who founded the ekklēsiai in Galatia?” “Church” is an anachronistic interpretation of the ancient Greek term ekklēsiai (plural ekklēsiai), which should more accurately be translated as “assembly,” though some scholars leave it untranslated as I have done to signal its lack of smooth translation into modern languages. This term, moreover, was not the exclusive property of Christ groups and is regularly found among unofficial associations[4] and other political and civic groups. Therefore, to translate it with the word church—with all of its modern conceptual baggage—invites too many problems.

Returning to Galatians. Let’s begin with the observation that all other authentic[5] letters of Paul, save for Philemon, are addressed to an ekklēsia in a single urban center (Corinth, Rome, Thessalonica, Philippi). Galatians, however, addresses multiple ekklēsiai in the Roman province of Galatia (located in what is now Turkey). In the first century, Galatia was a busy province, with contested geographical boundaries.[6] Despite a great deal of rural territory, Galatia had numerous urban centers, such as Ancyra (now modern Ankara) and Iconium (modern Konya), and so the question naturally emerges: why is the letter not addressed to Christ followers in a single city in ancient Galatia? Why is the situation in Galatia different than those in Paul’s other letters? At the very least, we need to acknowledge that we are dealing with multiple ekklēsiai, perhaps even a translocal network (groups that were in different towns or cities that we nevertheless connected to another another), a point to which we will return below.

In addition, let’s recall the occasion for Paul’s initial visit. Rather than visiting the Galatians as part of his systematic missionary travel, Paul seems to have arrived on their doorstep rather unexpectedly. Scholars typically interpret Gal. 4:13-14 as evidence that he was experiencing some sort of physical infirmity that required him to stay with the Galatians. His remarks in Gal. 4:14 suggest that he was received with warm hospitality. Like a good freelance religious specialist, he capitalized on this opportunity to share his ideas about Christ.

It is this generous hospitality, in part, that suggests to me that there was already a regional social network in place before Paul arrived. I suspect that this network involved multiple cities in Galatia, for if the Galatian Christ followers all lived in one city, surely he would have, as in all other letters that he wrote to a single group, simply addressed his letter to the city in which the ekklēsia was based?

Paul uses language of “calling” (Gal. 1:6) to describe orienting the Galatians to fidelity to Christ.[7] Scholars of early Christianity have too easily transformed this language into a moment of “founding,” usually imagined as establishing a group solely on the basis of its members’ shared ideas about Christ. To my mind, however, “calling” might better be understood with the assumption that a group already existed and that Paul simply persuaded them to have some interest in Christ. In other words, he didn’t build their communal identity from the ground up. Unlike 1 Corinthians, Galatians contains little to suggest he baptized anyone in the group or even that he provided them with any sort ritual instruction.[8] The absence of such details gives us even more reason to question a simplistic idea of “founding” the group.

Other Pre-Existing Social Networks

That Paul encountered a social network that was already in place in order to promote his ideas about Christ would not have been extraordinary situation in comparison to the settings of some of his other letters. Recent scholarship has suggested that the Thessalonian group may have originated as a trade association and that Paul was able to shift their cultic practice toward Christ singularly.[9] The Corinthians, moreover, might reflect a social network based on household connections that were in place before Paul arrived.[10] And finally, it is possible that a portion of Paul’s addressees in Rome originally had connections with one another prior to Paul, perhaps as part of a diasporic Judean association.[11] In other words, there is reason to think that Paul was not responsible for forging the social networks among the people he writes to. There are numerous reasons those groups might have had affiliations prior to his arrival, and he took advantage of those social connections that already existed.

What was the basis for the Galatian regional network before Paul arrived? Unfortunately, we simply don’t have enough evidence to answer this definitively. My argument is only that his way of addressing them, as well as their ability to offer him robust hospitality, suggests a previously existing social network. Even so, we can look to other contemporary analogous groups in the Roman Empire to imagine different possibilities. Inscriptions, papyri, and other written materials stemming from unofficial associations in the Roman Empire attest to the range of bases for these sorts of social networks. Associations could coalesce around inhabitants of a single household (or network of households), workers of the same occupation, devotees to the same god, and even members of the same neighborhood.[12] This evidence, combined with my suggestions above about the social networks informing Thessalonians, Corinthians, and Romans, offer a wide landscape to imagine the emergence of the Galatian ekklēsia. Such a scholarly imagination fulfills what J. Z. Smith once wisely remarked: “the historian’s task is to complicate not clarify.”[13] Indeed, we have complicated the simplistic portrait that Paul simply showed up in cities, told a bunch of strangers about Christ, and then left them on their own as a fully integrated, rigorously bounded social group.

The Fickle Galatians

That the Galatians were part of a social network before Paul came on the scene would make a great deal of sense as to why they seemed so fickle as to “turn to a different gospel” (Gal. 1:6) (i.e., follow the teachings of another religious specialist) in his absence: they didn’t think of Paul’s teachings as a source of their group identity. If this is the case, they could certainly jettison these ideas when something better came along without any reason to suppose that their connection with one another would dissolve. What this means is that instead of his teachings providing the “glue” that held the network of Christ followers together in Galatia, they already had some prior basis for affiliation. Indeed, it is possible that Paul’s ideas survived and thrived precisely because of that pre-existing social network.

Imagining the Galatians as a network, perhaps translocal, that existed before Paul arrived and exposed them to Christ would drastically change how we understand the dynamics of the so-called early Christian mission. Instead of Paul showing up in a city and forming a group singularly devoted to Christ, he may have actually targeted social networks that were already in place. Indeed, sociologists such as Rodney Stark have shown that adoption of new religious beliefs and practices is more successful if it travels within already established social networks.[14] The social pressures and habits of one’s acquaintances’ involvement in a religion is just as persuasive—perhaps more so—than the ideas or doctrine within the religion itself.

In sum, I am proposing the unpopular opinion that Paul did not found the Galatians. Instead, some sort of regional, translocal network already existed before his illness caused him to have to lodge with them unexpectedly. Once connected, Paul latched on to this social network as an open pathway to spread his ideas about Christ. Judging by the rhetoric of the letter, it may not have been entirely successful, for they easily displaced his teachings with those of other religious specialists. But if we take later texts such as the Acts of Paul and Thecla as evidence that Christianity was thought to continue to flourish in an around Galatia,[15] perhaps his running was not so in vain (Gal. 2:2).

Sarah Rollens, R.A. Webb Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Rhodes College


[1] Ancient letters are rarely objective historical reports of what’s happening “on the ground.” In this case, it is possible that Paul was misinformed about what was going on in Galatia, or that the entire situation is fabricated in his head. Realistically, however, his extreme anxiety and preoccupation with circumcision suggests to me that some of the Galatians had enthusiastically adopted circumcision, among other practices of the Jewish law.

[2] In the case of Galatians, Gal. 1:14 may encapsulate this bundle of beliefs.

[3] As I and others have argued, “community” is a problematic term to use when discussing the origins of Christianity and its literature. Sarah E. Rollens, “The Anachronism of ‘Early Christian Communities,’” in Theorizing “Religion” in Antiquity, ed. Nickolas P. Roubekas, Studies in Ancient Religion and Culture (Sheffield: Equinox, 2019), 307–24; Stanley K. Stowers, “The Concept of ‘Community’ and the History of Early Christianity,” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 23.3 (2011): 238–56; Robyn Faith Walsh, The Origins of Early Christian Literature: Contextualizing the New Testament within Greco-Roman Literary Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021).

[4] Richard Last and Philip A. Harland, Group Survival in the Ancient Mediterranean: Rethinking Material Conditions in the Landscape of Jews and Christians (London: T & T Clark, 2020), 9.

[5] There are 13 letters attributed to Paul in the New Testament; however, scholars do not believe that he authored all of them. Most textbooks list seven letters as having undisputed Pauline authorship: Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, 1 Thessalonians, Philippians, Philemon. The so-called “deutero-Pauline” letters are those that may stem from Paul, but there are reasons to doubt his authorship; they are 2 Thessalonians, Ephesians, and Colossians. Most scholars agree that the Pastoral Epistles (1-2 Timothy and Titus) were written in the name of Paul several decades after his life.

[6] Though it was a specific province with official boundaries, it also referred to a rather vaguely defined region in central Anatolia. Both uses are attested in the first century.

[7] He refers to himself as “the one who called them in [or: to] the grace [of Christ]” (τοῦ καλέσαντος ὑμᾶς ἐν χάριτι). There is an etymological connection between the Greek term for calling and the term ekklēsia. Ekklēsia is thus literally a group that has been called together for some purpose.

[8] Baptism is mentioned in Gal. 3:27, and it seems to be an important identity marker for them (ostensibly superseding markers of ethnic, gender, and civic status). We note that Paul uses the passive “were baptized” ( ἐβαπτίσθητε) instead of highlighting his active role as the baptizer as he does in 1 Cor 1:14-17. Despite his boasting about his baptizing role in the Corinthian setting, he claims not to recall whom he actually baptized (1 Cor 1:16), likely because the prestige associated with baptizing and the unintended patronage networks that seem to have sprung up in their wake were causing problems for the Corinthians.

[9] Richard S. Ascough, Paul’s Macedonian Associations: The Social Context of Philippians and 1 Thessalonians (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2020), 161-190.

[10] First Corinthians refers to numerous people (e.g., Stephanus, Chloe, and Crispus) who may be the heads of households in a regional household network.

[11] It was common for some unofficial associations to be based on ethnicities, and we have plenty of examples of Judean associations outside of Roman Palestine. Romans is clear that some people in the Roman Christ network have immigrated to the city (e.g., Epenetus in Romans 16:5).

[12] See the important resources: John S. Kloppenborg, Richard S. Ascough, Greco-Roman Associations: Texts, Translations, and Commentary. Vol. I. Achaia, Central Greece, Macedonia, Thrace (BZNW 181; Berlin/New York, De Gruyter, 2011); Philip A. Harland, Greco-Roman Associations: Texts, Translations, and Commentary. Vol. II. North Coast of the Black Sea, Asia Minor (BZNW 204; Berlin/New York, De Gruyter, 2014); John S. Kloppenborg, Greco-Roman Associations: Texts, Translations, and Commentary. Vol. III. Ptolomaic and Early Roman Egypt (BZNW 246; Berlin/New York, De Gruyter, 2020). For more on occupational associations, see Sarah E. Bond, Trade and Taboo: Disreputable Professions in the Roman Mediterranean (Ann Arbor, MI, University of Michigan Press, 2016).

[13] Jonathan Z. Smith, Map Is Not Territory: Studies in the History of Religions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press: 1978), 290.

[14] Rodney Stark, Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became and Urban Movement and Conquered Rome (New York, HarperOne, 2007), 8-11.

[15] Iconium, which is featured prominently in the story of Thecla in the Acts of Paul, was another prominent city in Galatia. While the Acts of Paul is certainly legendary and likely stems from the mid-second century, its composition could reflect a continued association between the region and Christian activity.

One Comment

  • Richard Fellows says:

    The existing social network that Paul (and Barnabas) employed in Galatia, as elsewhere, was surely the network of synagogue communities, consisting of both Jews and Gentiles. Your observations therefore seem to confirm what we read in Acts: Paul went first to the synagogues. If Paul’s gained his audience through networks other than the synagogues, he would not have needed to circumcise Titus-Timothy.

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