Recently, I encountered an advertisement for a new book (Evolution of the Word, by Marcus Borg) which reorganizes the New Testament according to the date of authorship for each of its canonical books. The very first item on the list, before the Gospels of Mark and Luke, are Paul's letters to the Galatians. This piqued my interest, because I have recently been reading about the conversion of the Celtic peoples to Christianity, and had learned that the Galatians were of Celtic origin, and spoke a tongue, noted by later Christian bishops, as being very similar to that of the Gauls.

How the Gallatians settled in what is now central Turkey is at least partly a matter of conjecture. The classical portrait of the Celts depicts them as excellent horsemen, who used chariots in war, and fought with little clothing, like the Greeks. Certainly Alexander knew them, and used their talents in his conquests. The Greeks wrote of the Celts, and in fact, Celt comes from the Greek: keltikoi. There are so many ways that Christianity has been shaped by other cultures. The Celtic heritage is one of them, as we know from the Celtic ornamentation in the Book of Kells, for example. 

In Galatians, most of Paul's letters concern one of the early controversies of the early Christian Church. It seems other Christians had visited Churches established by Paul, and tried to impose on them many of the laws kept by the Jews in Palestine, such as dietary restrictions, and circumcision. Apparently, this made the Galatians want to abandon their churches.  Just the Mosaic prescriptions for butchering and eating the flesh of animals would be onerous: Celts often ate horse meat, and other sacrificial animals. Galatians marks an early turning point in Christianity, in which it changes from being a kind of Judaism, to becoming a new religion. What interests me is not so much this content, important as it is in the historical development of Christianity, but a few other facts which Paul reveals about himself, and what ideas he uses to persuade his listeners.

Central to his argument is the concept of slavery. This seems to be something that all of the peoples subject to Roman authority feared greatly. The Romans recruited huge numbers of people, mostly young men and women, who were exploited not only for labor, but also for the purposes of prostitution. There wasn't really any difference between the two. If a young woman went to work in a Roman household, she might spend much of her time working, such as going to shop with the stewards of the household, and carrying large burdens on the way back. Archeological evidence from Pompei and elsewhere shows young children whose remains show the symptoms of constant physical labor. As a member of a household, they also were sexual chattels. The same things might happen to the young men.

Paul's arguments center on this concept, and he admits that he himself, was a slave. He makes a parallel to being a "slave" to Mosaic law, but he also seems to indicate, that he may have worked as a slave for the Romans. He tells the Galatians that even if one is made a slave, as he was, if he is Christian, he cannot truly be enslaved. Part of the appeal of Christianity  in these early days, seemed to be that it gave less than prosperous people a way to deal with the reality of Roman domination.  Some Celts had been known to commit suicide, along with their wives and Children, rather than submit to slavery. The Celts were, like the Jews, very conservative about sexuality, and valued the purity of their wives and daughters. The major conflicts in the interaction of the conquerors and the conquered has much to do with attitudes about sexual morality.

Another parallel to the threat of slavery by the Romans is Paul's reference to the "slavery of the law." In Palestine, the laws  imposing numerous financial consequences for being "unclean" were oppressive, and created  classes of people with few rights, who were exploited for labor by the just, the respectable citizens.  I think of this element in his argument as a vehicle in explaining his assertion that faith gives life to a person, whereas obedience to a set of laws does not. For Paul, being a person fully in compliance with Mosaic Law was not much different than having a lot of money. Martin Luther wrote his Commentary on Galatians to set forth his doctrine of salvation by faith alone, quoting Paul on this same point.

I think the Romans probably started off, like the Greeks, simply being very positive about sexuality. But as their empires expanded, commerce grew, and trafficking in human beings became a large part of it. Even after Rome had become Christian, there seems to have been an enormous market for slaves. In Ireland, even after Christians had built monasteries there, Scandinavian invaders completely conquered the entire island, and set up shop, providing slaves to Rome.

Paul mentioned that his body was marked with wounds, which he refers to as the "brands" of his belief. The Celts were known to have some rituals which involved branding people, as a sign of belonging to the pagan cult. He mentions that in his first encounter with the Galatians, they found him sick, dying, perhaps beaten by robbers or by people who persecuted him for his beliefs. The Galatians nursed him back to health, and that is how he got to know them, and why they listened to him at all. They undoubtably found him to be, once they got to know him, besides being kind, and a good friend, to be an extremely learned man, and a man of the world. He knew by experience the ways of the Romans, and his message gave them more understanding of the world, which would have been changing significantly for them. Like the American Indians, they probably underwent "culture shock", and the ancient ways  no longer provided  very much guidance. They were at least partly Hellenized, before the Romans entered the picture. Some writings about the Gallatians say that they were enthusiastic about being Roman, and had adopted the Roman pantheon, before Paul came. But the archeological evidence suggests that many of them still practiced the old ways. I think that they had a lot of knowledge of herbs and healing. Maybe Paul would have died, if it weren't for this part of their cultural heritage. 

There are many stories of Christianity spreading from people who became servants, who caused their masters to also become Christians. The history of the Romans is full of stories of the open households of the Romans being influenced by the people who served them.  I feel must say that a promiscuous household might not have been necessarily the rule. Perhaps even a minority. Same with homosexuality. It might have been there was the same percentage of gay people that there is today, only they were just more open about it.  The Romans, as well as the Greeks, always had a "silent majority" of heterosexual, monogamous people. Every time an emperor was deposed, it seemed more a gut reaction to his general lack of morality, than anything else.  Our current politicians, though in most ways just as profligate, seem to grasp that fact. They're all good family men.

Missionary work in the Celtic lands, such as in Britain, often preceded, or at least took over, the occupied Roman territories. We know of the activities of Peter, Paul, and other well known evangelists. But there seems to have been a groundswell of Christian activity which travelled, like a virus,  everywhere that the Romans had once established themselves.  Perhaps Celtic people, despite the many instances of hostility to Christian missionaries, were a fertile ground for Christian values. Saint Augustine, when he arrived in Canterbury in England, met a group of bishops from an established monastic organization who had converted many Britons. This meeting brought about tragic results. The bishops felt slighted that Augustine was not deferential to them, and that he had come to communicate several ultimatums: that they would adopt the date of Easter and the rite of baptism in accordance with the Church in Rome. The bishops ultimately refused. The military forces behind these ultimatums came into the picture, and 20,000 celtic monks were slain. This event only set back the clock for Christianity in Britain. It seems that the forces of Christianity, by the time of Augustine, had gone into the services of Empire.

When Christianity in Germany arrived, it was preceded by the forces of Charles Martel, who represented the Holy Roman empire. Christianity was presented, like the religion of the Romans, as a way that conquered tribes must submit to Roman authority, in this case, the Franks.  Boniface, himself a Anglo Saxon monk named Winfryd, had met with the pope in Rome, who renamed him Bonifatius, and employed his talents to spearhead this effort to Christianize the German Celts. Thus, he cut down the sacred Donar oak, while the Chatti stood by, half believing that Thor would strike the man down, and half fearing the return of Martel.

The interaction, and indeed the flexibility, of the Christian church to adapt to the many variations in culture is part of what we accept without question today.  This is only rather dry history, but I think that many of these ancient things, such as the Donar oak,  are still living today, on the edge of our communal consciousness. 

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Comment by Helvetica Stone on August 30, 2012 at 6:23pm

It's not to dry for me.  Makes me think there might be a movie in it.

Comment by Emily Conyngham on August 30, 2012 at 7:46pm

Have you just read How the Irish Saved Civilization, Steve? I loved that book, but don't remember everything I learned in it. I would like to know more about the Donar oak; can you explain a little further? The movements of the Celts are interesting to me, so it was great to hear about them in relation to Paul. Thanks!

Comment by Steven Bridenbaugh on August 31, 2012 at 12:49am

I found more historical information about the Galatians, and I'm posting the links here. I also found a novel called "Reimagining Galatians" which is available on Amazon. I plan to buy a version for the Kindle.


1. An article in the New York Times, about archeological evidence of the Galateans that has been unearthed :

2. A detailed history of the Anatolian Celts:

3. A retelling of Galatians, using historical information about the Celtic people that lived in Anatolia:

Galatians Reimagined, by Bridgitte Kahl

Comment by Steven Bridenbaugh on August 31, 2012 at 12:58am

To Emily-- I haven't read "How the Irish Saved Civilization" -- I have only read a few books, mostly medieval history books. The Donar oak was a sacred oak in Germany, that was cut down by St. Boniface-- one of several oaks sacred to the Celts that were destroyed to make them give up and submit to the Christian forces of civilization. It was called Donar because it was sacred to Thor.

There are a lot of articles on Wikipedia about different Celtlic tribes. If you find a map showing the homelands for each tribe, you can look up in Wikipedia each tribe, and find out more--  for example the Frisians, one of the groups Boniface converted, were originally from the lowlands of Germany and Denmark, but were displaced by lowering of these lands, making them uninhabitable. Many Frisians settled in Kent, and especially around Canterbury, which was one of the early Christian centers in England.

Comment by Emily Conyngham on August 31, 2012 at 8:36am

did you know they just discovered that Indo European language began in the Anatolian region?

Thx for info re Donar Oak.

Check out How the Irish Saved Civilization - Thomas Cahill is a terrific writer who also wrote The Gifts of the Jews. In fiction, in a somewhat related vein, is People of the Book, which discusses an illuminated manuscript which appeared in central Europe.

Comment by Steven Bridenbaugh on August 31, 2012 at 10:40am

What I read on the Turkish website is that the Galatians were hired by a king in the Anatolian region to assist him in a war. This happened early on, several centuries B.C. They traveled to war with their entire families. Much of what is known about ancient Celts may actually come from descriptions of this group. The fact that the women also participated in the arts of war may have spawned to myth of the Amazons. According to Herodotus, the land of the Amazons was in the general area of Anatolia. It seems that many of the things that are known about the ancient Celts are in fact descriptions of this group, from Greek historical accounts. When they were moving through Greece, they reportedly attacked Delphi. The sight of women in battle may have started the Amazon myth.


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