/ Bacchiocchi/Ratzlaff Sabbath Debate: Part 21
Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph. D., Andrews University


A PERSONAL NOTE: All good things come to an end. This essay marks the end of the SABBATH DISCUSSION which has engaged us these past four months. This final study continues the previous one on "Paul and the Law," by focusing on the most common weapon popularly used to attack the Sabbath, namely, the following three Pauline texts: Colossians 2:14-17, Galatians 4:8-11, and Romans 10:4-5. Of the three references, greater importance has been attached to Colossians 2:14-17, inasmuch as the passage explicitly speaks of Christ's nailing something to the Cross (Col 2:14) and warns against paying heed to regulations regarding several things, including "a sabbath" (Col 2:16).

On the basis of these texts, the predominant historical consensus has been that Paul regarded the Sabbath to be part of the Old Covenant that was nailed to the Cross.1 Paul K. Jewett, Professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, well exemplifies the historical interpretation when he writes: "Paul's statement (Col 2:16) comes as near to a demonstration as anything could, that he taught his converts they had no obligation to observe the seventh-day Sabbath of the Old Testament."2

This popular view has been adopted and defended in recent years by former Sabbatarians. For example, in her comments on Colossians 2:16-17, the Worldwide Church of God affirms: "Under the laws of Moses, the Sabbath was a law by which people were judged. But Jesus' crucifixion has changed that. Now the Sabbath is no longer a basis for judgment."3 The implication is that Christians are no longer held accountable for transgressing the Sabbath commandment, because it was a ""shadow' of things to come."4

In his book Sabbath in Crisis, Dale Ratzlaff affirms categorically: "In every instance in the epistles [of Paul] where there is teaching about the Sabbath, that teaching suggests that the Sabbath either undermines the Christian's standing in Christ, or is nonessential. . . . The Sabbath is said to be enslaving. Observance of the Sabbath, and the related old covenant convocations, made Paul 'fear' that he had labored in vain."5 Ratzlaff goes as far as to say that, according to Paul, "the observance of the Sabbath by Christians seriously undermines the finished work of Christ."6

Did Paul take such a strong stand against the Sabbath by warning his converts against the detrimental effects of its observance in their Christian life? Did the Apostle really find Sabbathkeeping so dangerous? In what way could the act of stopping our work on the Sabbath to allow our Savior to work in our lives more fully and freely "seriously undermine the finish work of Christ"?

This essay seeks to answer these questions by examining Paul's attitude toward the Sabbath as reflected primarily Colossians 2:14-17 and secondarily the information provided by Galatians 4:8-11 and Romans 14:5-6. We shall endeavor to establish whether Paul advocated the abrogation or the permanence of the principle and practice of Sabbathkeeping.

You should find this essay informative and timely, because it addresses the most common texts used to attack the Sabbath. Some may feel that this study is a bit too deep. In fact a dozen of people asked to have their names removed after reading the last essay on "Paul and the Law," because they felt that it was too deep for them. Surprisingly some of them contacted me again requesting to have their names reinstated on the list. On my part I have put forth my best effort in preparing this study, hoping that it will make a lasting contribution to the understanding of Paul's view of the Sabbath.

This essay is a crucial chapter of the forthcoming book The Sabbath under Crossfire: A Biblical Analysis of Recent Sabbath/Sunday Developments. The book should be out within two months, by January 20, 1999. Five chapters are done and now I am working on the final two chapters, one of which is entitled: "Pope John Paul II and the Sabbath." You may have read my analysis of the Pope's Pastoral Letter Dies Domini, where he defends Sunday as the embodiment and full expression of the Sabbath. Several religious magazines have already published this analysis. At present I am expanding the analysis from 10 to 35 pages, offering to the reader a more indepth response to the Pope's Biblical and historical defence of Sunday observance, as well as some insights into the Pope's strategy for a revival of Sundaykeeping through Sunday legislation.

Thank you for your efforts to encourage your friends to join this list, now known as the ENDTIME ISSUES list. As a result of your efforts about 150 new people every week joins this list which has grown to over 5000. The approaching NEXT MILLENNIUM is inspiring people to dust off their Bible and reexamine Endtime prophecies. At such a time as this is important to avoid senseless sensationalism, by interpreting objectively the Endtime prophecies. This is what I shall attempt to do in the coming months. I look forward to a growing understanding of the prophetic significance of the time in which we live. In the next instalment I will introduce you to the ENDTIME ISSUES magazine published by some responsbible SDA lay persons.

To keep this essay below the 50K length required by servers like Juno, I have left out the footnotes and deleted few paragraphs. In this way I do not have to break up the essay in parts which always causes some problems. Feel free to share with me your constructive criticism which will help me to make the necessary corrections before the manuscript goes to the press.

Christian regards

Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph. D.,
Professor of Theology and Church History, Andrews University

E-mail: samuele@andrews.edu

WWW HOMEPAGE: http://www.biblicalperspectives.com




PART 1: COLOSSIANS 2:14-17 --

(1) The Colossian Heresy
Paul's reference to the observance of "Sabbaths" in Colossians 2:16 is only one aspect of the "Colossian heresy" refuted by Paul. It is necessary, therefore, to ascertain first of all the overall nature of the false teachings that threatened to "disqualify" (Col 2:18) the Colossian believers. Were these teachings Mosaic ordinances and can they be identified with the "written document-cheirographon" which God through Christ 'wiped out . . . removed, nailed to the cross" (Col 2:14)?

Most commentators define the Colossian heresy as syncretistic teachings which incorporated both Hellenistic and Jewish elements. Such a false teaching had both a theological and practical aspect.3

Theological Aspect. Theologically, the Colossian "philosophy" (Col 2:8) was competing with Christ for man's allegiance. Its source of authority, according to Paul, was human "tradition" (2:8) and its object was to impart true "wisdom" (Col 2:3, 23), "knowledge" (Col 2:2-3; 3:10) and to assure access to and participation in the divine "fullness" (2:9-10; 1:19).

To attain divine fullness, Christians were urged to do homage to cosmic principalities (Col 2:10, 15), to "the elements of the universe" (Col 2:8, 20), and to angelic powers (2:15, 18) and to follow ritualistic ascetic practices (Col 2:11-14, 16, 17, 21-22).

To gain protection from these cosmic powers and principalities, the Colossian "philosophers" were urging Christians to offer cultic adoration to angelic powers (Col 2:15,18,19,23) and to follow ritualistic and ascetic practices (Col 2:11,14,16,17,21,22). By that process one was assured of access to and participation in the divine "fullness-pleroma" (Col 2:9,10, cf. 1:19). Essentially, then, the theological error consisted in interposing inferior mediators in place of the Head Himself, Jesus Christ (Col 2:9-10, 18-19).

Practical Aspect. The practical outcome of the theological speculations of the Colossian heretics was their insistence on strict ascetism and ritualism. These consisted in "putting off the body of flesh" (Col 2:11-apparently meaning withdrawal from the world); rigorous treatment of the body (Col 2:23); prohibition to either taste or touch certain kinds of foods and beverages (Col 2:16, 21), and careful observance of sacred days and seasons-festival, new moon, Sabbath (Col 2:16).

Christians presumably were led to believe that by submitting to these ascetic practices, they were not surrendering their faith in Christ, but rather they were receiving added protection and were assured of full access to the divine fullness. This may be inferred both from Paul's distinction between living "according to the elements of the universe" and "according to Christ" (Col 2: 8) and from the Apostle's insistence on the supremacy of the incarnate Christ. "In him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily" (Col 2:9), therefore Christian attain "the fullness-pleroma" of life not by worshipping the elements of the universe, but through Christ, "who is the head of all rule and authority" (2:10; cf. 1:15-20; 3:3).

This bare outline suffice to show that the Sabbath is mentioned in the passage not in the context of a direct discussion on the Old Covenant law, as Ratzlaff claims,7 but rather in the context of syncretistic beliefs and practices, which included elements from the Old Testament. Presumably the latter provided a justification for the ascetic principles advocated by the Colossian "philosophers." We are not informed what type of Sabbath observance these teachers promoted, nevertheless on the basis of their emphasis on scrupulous adherence to "regulations," it is apparent that the day was to be observed in a most rigorous and superstitious manner.

Circumcision and Baptism. To combat the above false teachings, Paul chose to extol the centrality and superiority of Christ who possesses "the fullness of deity" (Col 2:9) and provides full redemption and forgiveness of sin (Col 2:11-14). To emphasize the certainty and fullness of Christ's forgiveness, Paul utilizes three metaphors: circumcision, baptism, and "the written document" (Col 2:11-14).

Of the first two metaphors Paul says: "In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ ; and you were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of the flesh, God has made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses" (Col 2:11-13).

To support his contention that the Sabbath is part of the Old Covenant nailed to the Cross, Ratzlaff interprets Paul's reference to the circumcision and baptism in this passage as indicating that the Old Covenant, of which circumcision was the entrance sign, has been replaced by the New Covenant, of which baptism is the entrance sign. "Circumcision not only served as the entrance sign to the old covenant, Paul shows how it also pointed forward to Christ, yet it does not continue as a sign in the new covenant. In the new covenant baptism replaces circumcision."8

The problem with Ratzlaff's interpretation is his failure to recognize that in this passage Paul is not comparing or contrasting the Old and New Covenants, but merely affirming the benefits of Christ's death and resurrection through the imageries of circumcision and baptism. The imageries of circumcision and baptism are used by Paul, not to discuss the Old and New Covenants, but to affirm the fullness of God's forgiveness, accomplished by Christ on the cross and extended through baptism to the Christian. The proclamation of God's forgiveness constitutes indeed Paul's basic answer to those trying to attain to perfection by submitting to worship of angels (Col 2:18), of the "elements of the world" (Col 2:8) by means of ascetic practices.

(2) The Written Document Nailed to the Cross
To further emphasize the certainty and the fullness of divine forgiveness explicitly mentioned in verses 11-13, Paul utilizes in verse 14 a legal metaphor, namely that of God as a judge who "wiped out, . . . removed [and] nailed to the cross . . . the written document-cheirographon."

Mosaic Law? What is the "written document-cheirographon" nailed to the Cross? Traditionally it has been interpreted to be the Mosaic Law with all its ordinances, including the Sabbath, which God allegedly set aside and nailed to the Cross. This interpretation is defended by Ratzlaff who writes: "What was the 'certificate of debt' or 'decrees' which were nailed to the cross? In context, Paul has been speaking of the old covenant. Was the old covenant 'against us'? We should remember from our study of the old covenant that one of its functions was to act as a 'testimony' against Israel if they sinned . . . (Deut 31:26). The cursing associated with the broken law and the ability of the law to condemn were both taken away when Christ was nailed to the Cross. 'There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus'" (Rom 8:1)."9

There are several serious problems with this interpretation. First, there is the wrong assumption that the Old Covenant was "against us." If that were true, God would be guilty of establishing a covenant that was against His people. Could a gracious, redeeming God do such a horrible thing? What was against the people was not the covenant, which is God's commitment to save, but their sins which were exposed by the Law. The reason there is "no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (Rom 8:1), is not because Christ nailed to the Cross "the ability of the law to condemn," thus leaving mankind without moral principles, but because God sent "his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh . . . in order that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit" (Rom 8:3-4).

Even more serious is Ratzlaff's misinterpretation of the "written document" that was nailed to the Cross. He interprets this document to be the Old Covenant including the Sabbath, which God allegedly set aside and nailed to the Cross.10 This popular and traditional interpretation has largely been discredited by modern scholarship, for at least two reasons. First, because as Eduard Lohse points out in his commentary to Colossians, "in the whole of the epistle the word law is not used at all. Not only that, but the whole significance of the law, which appears unavoidable for Paul when he presents his gospel, is completely absent."11

Second, this interpretation detracts from the immediate argument designed to prove the fullness of God's forgiveness. The wiping out of the moral and/or ceremonial law would hardly provide Christians with the divine assurance of forgiveness. Guilt is not removed by destroying law codes. The latter would only leave mankind without moral principles.

The validity of these comments is acknowledged even by Douglas R. De Lacey, Professor of New Testament at Cambridge University and contributor to the scholarly symposium From Sabbath to the Lord's Day, which is largely a response to my dissertation From Sabbath to Sunday. De Lacey writes: "Bacchiocchi lays great stress on the fact that the term nomos [law] is entirely absent from Colossians, and although his own interpretation at times fails to convince, he is surely right in his conclusion that this passage cannot be interpreted as stating that the Mosaic law itself was 'wiped out' in the death of Christ."12

Record-Book of Sin. The meaning of cheirographon, which occurs only once in the Scripture (Col 2:14), has been clarified by recent studies on the usage of the term in apocalyptic and rabbinic literature.13 The term is used to denote the "record-book of sins" or a "certificate of sin-indebtedness" but not the moral or ceremonial law. This view is supported also by the clause "and this he has removed out of the middle" (Col 2:14). "The middle" was the position occupied at the center of the court or assembly by the accusing witness. In the context of Colossians, the accusing witness is the "record-book of sins" which God in Christ has erased and removed out of the court.

By this daring metaphor, Paul affirms the completeness of God's forgiveness. Through Christ, God has "cancelled," "set aside," "nailed to the cross" "the written record of our sins which because of the regulations was against us." The legal basis of the record of sins was "the binding statutes," or "regulations" (tois dogmasin), but what God destroyed on the Cross was not the legal ground (law) for our entanglement into sin, but the written record of our sins.

By destroying the evidence of our sins, God has also "disarmed the principalities and powers" (Col 2:15) since it is no longer possible for them to accuse those who have been forgiven. There is no reason, therefore, for Christians to feel incomplete and to seek the help of inferior mediators, since Christ has provided complete redemption and forgiveness.

We conclude then that the document nailed to the Cross is not the Law in general or the Sabbath in particular, but rather the record of our sins. Any attempt to read into this text a reference to the Law or the Sabbath, lacks contextual and linguistic support.

(3) Approbation or Condemnation of Sabbathkeeping?
Having refuted the theological speculations of the Colossian false teachers by reaffirming the supremacy of Christ and the fullness of His redemption (Col 2:8-15), Paul turns to some practical aspects of their religious practices, saying: "Therefore, let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a sabbath. These are only a shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ" (Col 2:16-17).

Warning Against the Sabbath? Historically this passage has been interpreted, as stated by Luther, that "here Paul abolished the Sabbath by name and called it a bygone shadow because the body, which is Christ himself, has come."14 Ratzlaff interprets the passage along the same line, saying: "The context makes it clear that Paul is against those who are trying to force the Colossians to keep the Sabbath and other old covenant convocations. They are to allow no one to make them feel guilty for not observing them."15 He interprets the statement "Therefore, let no one pass judgment on you . . ." as a warning from Paul against the five mentioned practices, which include the Sabbath.16

This interpretation is wrong because in this passage Paul warns the Colossians not against the observances of these practices as such, but against "anyone" (tis) who passes judgment on how to eat, to drink, and to observe sacred times. The judge who passed judgment is not Paul but the Colossian false teachers who imposed "regulations" (Col 2:20) on how to observe these practices in order to achieve "rigor of devotion and self-abasement and severity to the body" (Col 2:23).

Douglas De Lacey, a contributor to the scholarly symposium From Sabbath to the Lord's Day cited earlier, rightly comments: "The judge is likely to be a man of ascetic tendencies who objects to the Colossians' eating and drinking. The most natural way of taking the rest of the passage is not that he also imposes a ritual of feast days, but rather that he objects to certain elements of such observation."17 Presumably the "judge" wanted the community to observe these practices in a more ascetic way ("severity to the body"-Col 2:23, 21); to put it crudely, he wanted the Colossian believers to do less feasting and more fasting.

Approbation of the Sabbath. By warning against the right of the false teachers to "pass judgment" on how to observe festivals, Paul is challenging not the validity of the festivals as such but the authority of the false teachers to legislate on the manner of their observance. The obvious implication then is that Paul in this text is expressing not a condemnation but an approbation of the mentioned practices, which include Sabbathkeeping.

It is noteworthy that even De Lacey reaches this conclusion, in spite of his view that Paul did not expect Gentile converts to observe the Sabbath. He writes: "Here again (Col 2:16), then, it seems that Paul could happily countenance Sabbathkeeping . . . However, we interpret the situation, Paul's statement 'Let no one pass judgement on you,' indicates that no stringent regulations are to be laid down over the use of festivals."18

Troy Martin, Professor at Saint Xavier University in Chicago, comes to the same conclusion in a recent article published in New Testament Studies. He writes: "This essay provides evidence that the Pauline community at Colossae, not the opponents, practices the temporal schemes outlined by Colossians 2:16. . . . This investigation into the function of the list in Colossians 2:16 indicates that the Colossians Christians, not their critics, participate in a religious calendar that includes festivals, new moons, and Sabbaths."19

It is encouraging to see scholars finally recognizing that, contrary to the traditional and popular interpretation advocated by people like Ratzlaff, Colossians 2:16 is not the death knell of Sabbathkeeping in the New Testament, but instead a proof of its Pauline approbation. Why does Ratzlaff totally ignores the conclusion of Prof. De Lacey (and others), though he uses the symposium as the major resource for his own book? Most likely because he does not want readers to learn about anything that contradicts from his anti-Sabbath interpretation of Colossians 2:16. This methodology is hardly reflective of responsible scholarship which requires the examination of opposing views, before presenting one's own conclusions.

(4) The Manner of Sabbathkeeping
What is the nature of the "regulations" promoted by the Colossians false teachers regarding food and festivals, including the weekly Sabbath? Regretfully, Paul gives us only few catch phrases such as "self-abasement and worship of angels," "rigor of devotion . . . severity to the body" (Col 2:18, 23) and that they taught: "Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch" (Col 2:21). These catch phrases indicate that the regulations did not derive from the Levitical law since nowhere does the latter contemplate such an ascetic program. Though the nomenclature of the festivals is Jewish, the motivation and manner of their observance stems from pagan syncretistic ideologies.

In the ancient world there was a widespread belief that ascetism and fasting enabled a person to come closer to a deity and to receive divine revelation.21 In the case of the Colossian "philosophy," the dietary taboos and the observance of sacred times were apparently regarded as an expression of subjection to and worship of the cosmic powers (elements) of the universe.

Paul's warning against the "regulations" of the false teachers, can hardly be interpreted as a condemnation of Mosaic laws regarding food and festivals, since what the Apostle condemns is not the teachings of Moses but their perverted use by the Colossian false teachers. A precept is not nullified by the condemnation of its perversion.

Shadow of the Reality. Paul continues his argument in the following verse, saying: "These are the shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ" (Col 2:17). To what does the relative pronoun "these" (ha in Greek) refer? Does it refer to the five practices mentioned in the previous verse or to the "regulations" (dogmata) regarding these practices promoted by the false teachers?

In a previous study I argued for the former, suggesting that Paul places dietary practices and the observance of days "in their proper perspective with Christ by means of the contrast 'shadow-body.'"22 Additional reflection has caused me to change my mind and to agree with Eduard Lohse that the relative pronoun "these" refers not to the five mentioned-practices as such, but rather to the "regulations" regarding such practices promoted by the false teachers.23

A Reference to "Regulations." This conclusion is supported by two considerations. First, in verse 16 Paul is not warning against the merits or demerits of the Mosaic law regarding food and festivals, but against the "regulations" regarding these practices advocated by the false teachers. Thus, it is more plausible to take "the regulations" rather than the actual practices as the antecedent of "these."

Second, in the verses that immediately follow, Paul continues his warning against the deceptive teachings, saying, for example, "Let no one disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement . . ." (Col 2:18); "Why do you submit to regulations, 'Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch'" (Col 2:20-21)? Since what precedes and what follows that relative pronoun "these" deals with the "regulations" of the Colossian "philosophy," it is most likely that Paul describes the latter as "a shadow of what is to come" (Col 2:17).

The proponents of the Colossian "philosophy" presumably maintained that their "regulations" represented a copy which enabled the believer to have access to the reality ("fullness"). In such a case, Paul is turning their argument against them by saying that their regulations "are only a shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ" (Col 2:17). By emphasizing that Christ is the "body" and the "head" (Col 2:17, 19), Paul indicates that any "shadow" cast by the regulations has no significant value.

In the light of the above indications, we conclude that what Paul calls a "bygone shadow" is not the Sabbath but the deceptive teachings of the Colossian "philosophy" which promoted dietary practices and the observance of sacred times as auxiliary aids to salvation.

(5) The Sabbath in Colossians 2:16
The "regulations" advocated by the Colossian "philosophy" had to do not only with "food and drink" but also with sacred times referred to as "a festival or a new moon or a sabbath" (Col 2:16). Commentators agree that these three words represent a logical and progressive sequence (annual, monthly, and weekly), as well as an exhaustive enumeration of sacred times. This interpretation is validated by the occurrence of these terms in similar or reverse sequence five times in the Septuagint and several other times in other literature.24

Some view the "sabbaths-sabbaton" as a reference to annual ceremonial Sabbaths rather than the weekly Sabbath (Lev 23:6-8, 21, 24- 25, 27- 28, 37- 38).25 Such a view, however, breaks the logical and progressive sequence and ignores the fact that in the Septuagint the annual ceremonial Sabbaths are never designated simply as "sabbath" (sabbaton), but always with the compound expression "Sabbath of Sabbaths" (sabbata sabbaton). Indications such as these compellingly show that the word "sabbaton" used in Colossians 2:16 cannot refer to any of the annual ceremonial Sabbaths.

Weekdays. The plural form "Sabbaths" (sabbaton) is used in the Scripture to designate not only the seventh-day Sabbath but also the week as a whole (LXX Ps 23:1; 47:1; 93:1; Mark 16:2; Luke 24:1; Acts 20:7). This fact suggests the possibility that the term "Sabbath" may refer to weekdays as a whole.26 The latter view harmonizes better with the sequence of the enumeration which suggests yearly, monthly, and weekly festivities.

A similar sequence, though in a reverse order, is given by Paul in Galatians 4:10 where he opposes a strikingly similar teaching which included the observance of "days, and months, and seasons, and years." The fact that the Galatian list begins with "days" (hemeras, plural), suggests the possibility that the "Sabbaths" in Colossians may also refer to weekdays in general rather than to the seventh-day Sabbath in particular.

Assuming for the sake of inquiry that the "sabbaths" in Colossians do refer to or include the Sabbath day, the question to be considered is: What kind of Sabbath observance would the false teachers advocate? The data provided by Colossians are too meager to answer this question conclusively. Yet the nature of the heresy allows us to conclude that the rigoristic emphasis on the observance of dietary rules would undoubtedly be carried over to Sabbathkeeping as well. The veneration of "the elements of the universe" would also affect the observance of the Sabbath and of sacred times, since it was commonly believed that the astral powers, which direct the stars, control both the calendar and human lives.27

We know that in the pagan world Saturday was regarded as an unlucky day because of its association with the planet Saturn.28 In view of the prevailing astral superstitions associated with the days of the week, any Sabbath observance promoted by the Colossians' ascetic teachers-known for their worship of the elements of the world-could only have been of a rigorous, superstitious type. A warning against such a superstitious type of Sabbathkeeping by Paul would have been not only appropriate but also desirable. In this case Paul could be attacking not the principle of Sabbathkeeping but its perverted function and motivation which adulterated the ground of salvation. This conclusion is confirmed by two other Pauline passages (Rom 14:4-5; Gal 4:10) to be considered now.


PART 2 --

(1) The Sabbath in Romans
The Sabbath is not specifically mentioned in Paul's Epistle to the Romans. However, in chapter 14, the Apostle distinguishes between two types of believers: the "strong" who believed "he may eat anything" and the "weak" who ate only "vegetables" and drank no wine (Rom 14:2, 21). The difference extended also to the observance of days, as indicated by Paul's statement: "One man esteems one day as better than another, while another man esteems all days alike. Let every one be fully convinced in his own mind" (Rom 14:5).

Many Christians maintain that the weekly Sabbath comes within the scope of this distinction respecting days. They presume that the "weak" believers esteemed the Sabbath better than other days while "the strong" treated the Sabbath like the rest of the weekdays. For example, the Worldwide Church of God uses Romans 14:5 to argue that "Paul did not teach Gentile Christians to keep the Sabbath. He actually told them that the Sabbath was not an area in which we should be judged."29 "That is because something had happened to change the basis of our relationship with God . . . the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Because of that, the Old Covenant laws came to an end. Days are no longer a matter for judging behavior."30 On a similar vein Ratzlaff concludes that "The 'days' mentioned in this chapter [Rom 14:5] that some 'regard' and 'observe' over other days, are probably Sabbath days, although the evidence is not conclusive."31

No Reference to Mosaic Law. Can the Sabbath be legitimately read into this passage? The answer is "No!" for at least three reasons. First, the conflict between the "weak" and the "strong" over diet and days can hardly be traced back to the Mosaic law. The "weak man" who "eats only vegetables" (Rom 14:2). drinks no wine, (Rom 14:21) and "esteems one day as better [apparently for fasting] than another" (Rom 14:5) can claim no support for such convictions from the Old Testament. Nowhere does the Mosaic law prescribe strict vegetarianism, total abstinence from fermented and unfermented wine32 and a preference for fasting days.

Similarly the "strong man" who "believes he may eat anything" (Rom 14:2) and who "esteems all days alike" is not asserting his freedom from the Mosaic law but from ascetic beliefs apparently derived from sectarian movements. The whole discussion then is not about freedom to observe the law versus freedom from its observance, but concerns "unessential" scruples of conscience dictated not by divine precepts but by human conventions and superstitions. Since these differing convictions and practices did not undermine the essence of the Gospel, Paul advises mutual tolerance and respect in this matter.

That the Mosaic law is not at stake in Romans 14 is also indicated by the term "koinos-common" which is used in verse 14 to designate "unclean" food. This term is radically different from the word "akathartos-impure" used in Leviticus 11 (Septuagint) to designate unlawful foods. This suggest that the dispute was over meat which was unlawful according to the Mosaic Law, but about meat which per se was lawful to eat but because of its association with idol worship (cf. 1 Cor 8:1-13) was regarded by some as "koinos-common," that is, to be avoided by Christians.

The whole discussion in Romans 14 is not about freedom to observe the Law versus freedom from its observance, but concerns "unessential" scruples of conscience dictated not by divine precepts but by human conventions and superstitions. Since these differing convictions and practices did not undermine the essence of the Gospel, Paul advises mutual tolerance and respect in this matter.

A second point to note is that Paul applies the basic principle "observe it in honor of the Lord" (Rom 14:6) only to the case of the person "who observes the day." He never says the opposite, namely, "the man who esteems all days alike, esteems them in honor of the Lord."

In other words, with regard to diet, Paul teaches that one can honor the Lord both by eating and by abstaining (Rom 14:6) but with regard to days, he does not even concede that the person who regards all the days alike does so to the Lord. Thus Paul hardly gives his endorsement to those who esteemed all days alike.

Sabbathkeeping: For "Weak" Believers? Finally, if as generally presumed, it was the "weak" believer who observed the Sabbath, Paul would classify himself with the "weak" since he observed the Sabbath and other Jewish feasts (Acts 18:4, 19; 17:1, 10, 17; 20:16). Paul, however, views himself as "strong" ("we who are strong"-Rom 15:1); thus, he could hardly have been thinking of Sabbathkeeping when he speaks of the preference over days.

Support for this conclusion is provided also by Paul's advice: "Let every one be fully convinced in his own mind" (14:5). It is difficult to see how Paul could reduce the observance of holy days such as the Sabbath, Passover, and Pentecost to a matter of personal conviction, without ever explaining the reasons for it. This is all the more surprising since he labors at great length to explain why circumcision was not binding upon the Gentiles.

If Paul had taught his Gentile converts to regard Sabbathkeeping as a personal matter, Jewish Christians would readily have attacked his temerity in setting aside the Sabbath law, as they did regarding circumcision (Acts 21:21). The fact that there is no hint of any such controversy in the New Testament indicates that Paul never discouraged Sabbathkeeping or encouraged Sundaykeeping instead.33

No Hint of Conflict. The preference over days in Romans presumably had to do with fast-days rather than feast-days, since the context deals with abstinence from meat and wine (Rom 14:2, 6, 21). Support for this view is provided by the Didache (ch. 8) which enjoins Christians to fast on Wednesday and Friday rather than on Monday and Thursday like the Jews.

Paul refuses to deliberate on such private matters such as fasting, because he recognizes that spiritual exercises can be performed in different ways by different people. The important thing for Paul is to "pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding" (Rom 14:19).

If the conflict in the Roman Church had been over the observance of holy days, the problem would have been even more manifest than the one over diet. After all, eating habits are a private matter, but Sabbathkeeping is a public, religious exercise of the whole community. Any disagreement on the latter would have been not only noticeable but also inflammatory.

The fact that Paul devotes 21 verses to the discussion of food and less than two verses (Rom 14:5-6) to that of days suggests that the latter was a very limited problem for the Roman Church, presumably because it had to do with private conviction on the merit or demerit of doing certain spiritual exercises such as fasting on some specific days.

In the Roman world there was a superstitious belief that certain days were more favorable than others for undertaking some specific projects. The Fathers frequently rebuked Christians for adopting such a superstitious mentality.34 It is possible that Paul alludes to this kind of problem, which at his time, however, was still too small to deserve much attention. Since these practices did not undermine the essence of the Gospel, Paul advises mutual tolerance and respect on this matter. In the light of these considerations, we conclude that it is hardly possible that Sabbathkeeping is included in the "days" of Romans 14:5.

(2) The Sabbath in Galatians
In Galatians, as in Romans, there is no specific reference to the Sabbath. Paul does mention, however, that some Galatian Christians had themselves circumcised (Gal 6:12; 5:2) and had begun to "observe days, and months, and seasons, and years" (Gal 4:10).

In many respects the polemic in Galatians 4:8-11 is strikingly similar to that of Colossians 2:8-23. In both places the superstitious observance of sacred times is described as slavery to the "elements." In Galatians, however, the denunciation of the "false teachers" is stronger. They are regarded as "accursed" (Gal 1:8, 9) because they were teaching a "different gospel." Their teaching that the observance of days and seasons was necessary to justification and salvation perverted the very heart of the Gospel (Gal 5:4).

Pagan Days or Sabbath Day? The question to be addressed is whether the "days" (hemerai-Gal 4:10) observed by the Galatians were superstitious pagan holidays or the Biblical Sabbath day. Some scholars argue on the basis of the parallel passage of Colossians 2:16, where "sabbaths" are explicitly mentioned, that the "days" mentioned in Galatians were the Biblical seventh-day Sabbaths 35

Ratzlaff affirms categorically this conclusion saying: "We have a clear reference to the seventh-day Sabbath in this passage [Gal 4:10] for the following four reasons. (1) The context of the book of Galatians, including chapter 4, is dealing with those "who want to be under the law." (2) Paul's use of "elemental things" usually, if not always, refer to that which is contained in the old covenant. (3) The Galatians were observing days, months, seasons, and years, thus placing themselves back under the old covenant law. (40 These convocations are listed in order."36

Comparison of Colossians 2:16 and Galatians 4:10. The fundamental problem with Ratzlaff's four reasons, is the fact that they are based on gratuitous assumptions rather than on a careful analysis of the context. In the immediate context Paul reminds the Galatians that in their pre-Christian days they "were slaves to the elemental spirits of the universe" (Gal 4:3). The "elemental spirits-stoikeia tou kosmou" have nothing to do with the Old Covenant, since the Mosaic Law was unknown to the Corinthians in their pagan days. Most scholars interpret the "elements" as the basic elements of this world, such as the earth, water, air, and fire, or pagan astral gods who were credited with controlling human destiny.37

The context clearly indicates that Paul rebukes the Galatians for turning back to their pagan days by reverting to their pagan calendar. Thus, the issue is not their adoption of Jewish Holy Days, but their returning to observance of pagan superstitious days. Paul makes this point rather clearly: "Formerly, when you did not know God, you were in bondage to beings that by nature are no gods; but now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits, whose slaves you want to be once more? You observe days, and months, and seasons, and years! I am afraid that I have labored over you in vain" (Gal 4:8-10).

Two recent articles by Troy Martin, published in New Testament Studies and the Journal of Biblical Literature, make a significant contribution to the understanding of the passage under consideration. Martin points out that there is a clear difference between the time-keeping scheme found in Galatians 4:10 ("days, and months, and seasons, and years") and that found in Colossians 2:16 ("a festival or a new moon or Sabbaths"). He shows that while the list in Colossians 2:16 is unquestionably Jewish because the temporal categories of festival, new moon, and Sabbaths are characteristic of the Jewish religious calendar, the list in Galatians 4:10 of "days, and months, and seasons, and years" "describes a pagan calendar unacceptable to Paul and his communities."38

Martin reaches this conclusion by examining not only the time structure of pagan calendars,39 but especially the immediate context where Paul condemns the Galatians' attempt to return to their pagan practices (Gal 4:8-9) by reverting to the use of their pagan calendar. "As the immediate context clearly states, Paul is worried that he has labored for the Galatians in vain since they have returned to their former pagan life as evidenced by their renewed preconversion reckoning of time. Because of its association with idolatry and false deities, marking time according to this pagan scheme is tantamount to rejecting Paul's Gospel and the one and only true God it proclaims (Gal 4:8-9). Galatians 4:10, therefore, stipulates that when the Galatians accepted Paul's Gospel with its aversion to idolatry (Gal 4:8), they discarded their pagan method of reckoning time. . . . A comparison of these lists demonstrates that the Gentile conversion to Paul's gospel involves rejection of idolatrous pagan temporal schemes in favor of the Jewish liturgical calendar."40

Gentiles' Adoption of Jewish Calendar. The conclusion of Troy Martin that the Gentiles' conversion to the Gospel involved the rejection of their pagan calendar built upon the idolatrous worship of many gods, and the adoption of the Jewish religious calendar which had been transformed by Christ's coming, represents in my view a significant breakthrough in our understanding of the continuity between Judaism and Christianity.

Paul's time references clearly reflect his adoption of the Jewish religious calendar, though modified and transformed by the coming of Christ. For example, in 1 Corinthians 16:2, Paul recommends a fund-raising plan for the Jerusalem church consisting of laying aside at home some money kata mian sabbaton, that is, "every first day from the Sabbath." The fact that Paul refers to the first day of the week, not by the prevailing pagan name dies solis-Day of the Sun, but by the Jewish designation "first day from the Sabbath," reveals that he taught his Gentile converts to regulate their lives by the Jewish calendar.

In the same epistle Paul builds an elaborate argument based upon the festival of Passover and unleavened bread (1 Cor 5:6-8) in order to exhort the Corinthians, "Let us keep the festival" (1 Cor 5:6-8). The whole argument and exhortation to keep Passover would have been meaningless to the Gentile congregation of Corinth, unless Paul had taught about the Jewish religious calendar. In the light of these considerations we would conclude with Martin, that " although the temporal references in Paul's letters are sparse, 1 Corinthians provides strong evidence for the Pauline adoption of the Jewish practice that marked time by festivals and Sabbaths."41

The fact that Paul taught his Gentile congregations to reject their pagan calendar where the days were named after planetary gods and the months after deified emperors, and to reckon time instead according to the Jewish religious calendar, does not necessarily mean that he taught them to practice Jewish religious rituals. The Romans themselves replaced just before the origin of Christianity their "eight day week-nundinum" with the Jewish seven day week, and adopted in the first century the Jewish Sabbath as their new day for rest and feasting, without the concomitant adoption of the Jewish rituals.43 By the same token Paul taught his Gentile converts to reckon time according to the Jewish religious calendar, without expecting them to practice the rituals associated with it. A good example is Paul's discussion of the new meaning of the feasts of Passover and Unleavened Bread in the light of Christ's event (1 Cor 5:6-8).43

Superstitious Motivation. Our preceding discussion has served to show that the temporal categories of Galatians 4:10 ("days, and months, and seasons, and years" ) are pagan and not Jewish, like the list found in Colossians 2:16. To argue, like Ratzlaff, that the Galatians were observing the Old Covenant Holy Days, means to ignore the immediate context where Paul speaks of pagan temporal categories to which the Galatians were turning back again.

The Galatians' observance of pagan sacred times was motivated by superstitious beliefs in astral influences. This is suggested by Paul's charge that their adoption of these practices was tantamount to a return to their former pagan subjection to elemental spirits and demons (Gal 4:8-9).

Paul's concern is not to expose the superstitious ideas attached to these observances, but rather to challenge the whole system of salvation which the Galatians' false teachers had devised. By conditioning justification and acceptance with God to such things as circumcision and the observance of pagan days and seasons, the Galatians were making salvation dependent upon human achievement. This for Paul is a betrayal of the Gospel: "You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace" (Gal 5:4).

It is within this context that Paul's denouncement of the observance of days and seasons must be understood. If the motivations for these observances would not have undermined the vital principle of justification by faith in Jesus Christ, Paul would only have recommended tolerance and respect, as he does in Romans 14. The motivations for these practices, however, adulterated the very ground of salvation. Thus the Apostle had no choice but strongly to reject them. In Galatians as in Colossians, then, it is not the principle of Sabbathkeeping that Paul opposes, but rather the perverted use of cultic observations which were designed to promote salvation as a human achievement rather than as a divine gift of grace.

Several conclusions emerge from this study of Paul's attitude toward the law in general and the Sabbath in particular.

First, the three texts (Col 2:14-16; Rom 14:5, Gal 4:10) generally adduced as proof of Paul's repudiation of the Sabbath deal not with the validity or invalidity of the Sabbath commandment for Christians, but rather with ascetic and cultic practices which undermined (especially in Colossians and Galatians) the vital principle of justification by faith in Jesus Christ.

Second, in the crucial passage of Colossians 2:16, Paul's warning is not against the validity of observing the Sabbath and festivals as such but against the authority of false teachers to legislate on the manner of their observance. Implicitly, Paul expresses approval rather than disapproval of their observance. Any condemnation had to do with a perversion rather than a precept.

Third, Paul's tolerance with respect to diet and days (Rom 14:3-6) indicates that he would not have promoted the abandonment of the Sabbath and adoption of Sunday observance instead. If he had done so, he would have encountered endless disputes with Sabbath advocates, especially among Jewish Christians. The absence of any trace of such a polemic is perhaps the most telling evidence of Paul's respect for the institution of the Sabbath.

In the final analysis, Paul's attitude toward the Sabbath must be determined not on the basis of his denunciation of heretical and superstitious observances which may have influenced Sabbathkeeping, but rather on the basis of his overall attitude toward the law.

The failure to understand that Paul rejects the law as a method of salvation but upholds it as a moral standard of Christian conduct has been the root-cause of much misunderstanding of Paul's attitude toward the law in general and toward the Sabbath in particular. May this study contribute to clarify this misunderstanding and to discover, with Paul, that "the law is good, if any one uses it lawfully" (1 Tim 1:8).

Christian regards
Sam Bacchiocchi