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I have seen before an atheist argument that the Galatians being migrant tribesmen from Gaul could not speak or read Greek, and therefore could not have understood an epistle in Greek, much less a sophisticated theological argument in Greek. This is then used to argue that the epistle to the Galatians is a forgery.

So what evidence is there in favor of the Galatians being able to speak, or especially understand, Greek? Or what evidence is there in the other direction?

Edit: I changed the italicized word above from "read" to "understand" to make it match the title, and to clarify I'm not so concerned with literacy rates as the question of language barriers.

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I haven't heard that - would you be able to point us to a resource that makes that argument? Also, it seems like they only needed one person able to read Greek; the rest could listen as it was read. –  Susan Jul 25 at 11:35
    
@Susan, One place I've seen it is at jesusneverexisted.com/galatians.html where its part of a larger argument that all the Pauline Epistles are forgeries. –  david brainerd Jul 26 at 0:36

2 Answers 2

They were primarily bi-lingual

Note: unattributed links are to general knowledge found on Wikipedia and primarily for the historical background.

Alexander the Great made his conquests during the early 4th c. BC, at which time Hellenization first occurred in the area (which in part actively sought the teaching of the Greek language).

The Celtic invasion of Galatia came approximately 50 years later, in the late 3rd c. BC, but the Celts would fall to Roman domination about 90 years later in the late 2nd c. BC, and "by the 2nd century AD the Galatians had become assimilated (Hellenization) into the Hellenistic civilization of Anatolia."

Regarding the Romans themselves, Michael Paravati notes:

the general population was diglossic, whereby there are two languages in a given society which are used for separate functions, as opposed to just simply bilingual, which would suggest that the two languages are used interchangeably without as much discretion.

The second language being Greek, as Rome, though conquering Greece, was still itself Hellenized by the Greek influence of culture. The Greek language was used in different ways by both the upper and lower classes of Rome.1

Regarding the Galatian situation, Mark Janse's "Aspects of Bilingualism in the History of the Greek Language" specifically focuses part of its discussion around the central Asia area (where Galatia is).2 Part 3, the section on Cappadocian Greek in central Asia, offers a number of insightful points related to your question. Cappadocia was next to Galatia, and Janse mentions Galatia in some of the discussion (the discussion is largely about all of central Asia, but his focus of the paper in part is on how Cappadocian Greek came to differ from other Greek).

He notes Hellenization was accelerated before, and then reinforced by, the "Roman annexation (17 AD)" (348). The process was slower in the "rural areas," which maintained indigenous languages (349). This implies two things—(1) the rural areas became more bilingual (retaining indigenous languages), which also implies the cities moved away from those languages to Greek. Both city and countryside had varying levels of bilingual use, because regarding the regions around Galatia, "most of them are known to be bilingual in the first century AD" (349).

Janse also quotes Vryonis that "'at an earlier period the Celts had been similarly Hellenized'" with respect to speaking the Greek language (350). The earlier period, here, however, is not wholly conclusive, since Janse/Vryonis are speaking of the 4th c. AD. But given the previously noted info about Hellenization of the region in early 1st c. AD, that is probably the "earlier" time being referred to. So 1c. AD is the point of becoming bilingual, but the Galatian region remains so for some time, as native languages are still spoken as late as 5th c. AD (351).

Conclusion

Being bi-lingual, most would have followed along with one reading aloud in Greek (even if they may have not been literate themselves to read). This is because a part of the Hellenization process also involved the culture of Greece, including its religion, so religious language would also be part of what was adopted by societies using Greek. In short, there was probably not much of a language gap to fill with the letter being written in a language known to have become "the common lingua franca of much of the Mediterranean region and the Middle East."


1 Michael Paravati, "Greek and Latin bilingualism beyond the upper class in the ancient Roman Principate," The Collegiate Journal of Anthropology 1 (Oct 2011).

2 Mark Janse, "Aspects of Bilingualism in the History of the Greek Language," in Bilingualism in Ancient Society: Language Contact and the Written Text (Jan 2002).

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Of course they couldn't read or write for that matter very few in the region much less the church were allowed the privilege of a basic education.

A common view is that of W.H. Kelber, who claims that, in first-century A.D. Palestine, “writing was in the hands of an élite of trained specialists, and reading required an advanced education available only to a few.”

-Millard

In Colossians the bible does state that the gospel was read to people.

Colossians 4:16

After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea.

So from this we can assume: The letters were read out loud by one of the few members who was so capable.

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Two things about the link you give: (1) it refers to Galilee/Palestine (which might apply to Galatia, but you must make a case); (2) it argues opposite your view, as the paragraph following your quote states: "However, the evidence showing that reading and writing were widely practiced in Jesus’ age grows with every discovery of a new inscription. Much ... comes from religious and governmental circles, but a great deal of it does not," and concludes "that writing and reading were widely practiced in the Palestine of Jesus’ day." –  ScottS Jul 25 at 13:31
    
@ScottS I didn't say I agreed with millard I needed to cite where I found Kelbers quote –  caseyr547 Jul 25 at 13:34
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@caseyr547, if you want to quote Kelber (while disagreeing with Millard), you should find the primary source where Kelber states this. That reading and writing were common in Judea and Galilee before, after, and during Jesus' day is well established by archeology and literary discoveries. That link deals mainly with what language was known in the time, but it also deals with the literary evidence that shows how we can determine that. –  Frank Luke Jul 25 at 13:44
    
@FrankLuke such is not always possible in the internet age. –  caseyr547 Jul 25 at 13:48
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I think I got my question right in the title and less so in the text. Say for example you're right about literacy being low in general and 1 person reading to the congregation. Fine, but if 1 person read the Galatians an epistle in Greek would they understand it? That's really the question. –  david brainerd Jul 26 at 0:39

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