From the book "The Sabbath Under Crossfire"
by Dr. Samuele Bacciocchi Ph.D.
PAUL AND THE SABBATH
The most popular weapons used to attack the Sabbath are the
following three Pauline texts: Colossians 2:14-17, Galatians
4:8-11, and Romans 10:4-5. Of these 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).
Based on these texts, the predominant historical consensus has
been that Paul regarded the Sabbath as part of the Old Covenant
that was nailed to the Cross.1
Paul K. Jewett exemplifies the historical interpreta tion
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
This popular view has been adopted and defended recently by
former Sabbatarians. For example, commenting on Colossians
2:16-17, the Worldwide Church of God affirms: "Under the laws of
Moses, the Sabbathwas 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 "Sabbath in Crisis," Dale Ratzlaff categorically affirms:
"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 so 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,
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 finished
work of Christ"?
Objectives of This Chapter.
This chapter seeks to answer these questions by examining
Paul's attitude toward the Sabbath as reflected primarily in
Colossians 2:14-17 and secondarily in Galatians 4:8-11 and Romans
14:5-6. We endeavor to establish whether Paul advocated the
abrogation or the permanence of the principle and practice of
COLOSSIANS 2:14-17: APPROBATION OR CONDEMNATION OF THE SABBATH?
(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
Theologically, the Colossian "philosophy" (Col 2:8) was
competing with Christ for believer's allegiance. Its source of
authority was human "tradition" (Col 2:8), and its object was to
impart true "wisdom" (Co1 2:3,23), "knowledge" (Col 2:2-3; 3:10)
and the assurance access to and participation in the divine
"fullness" (Col 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),
following ritualistic ascetic practices (Col 2:11-14,16,17,
To gain protection from these cosmic powers and
principalities, the Colossian "philosophers" urged 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).
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 Christians attain "the
fullnesspleroma" 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 suffices to show that the Sabbath is not
mentioned in the passage in the context of a direct discussion of
the Old Covenant law, as Ratzlaff claims,' 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
The problem with Ratzlaff's interpretation is his failure to
recognize that Paul is not comparing or contrasting the Old and
New Covenants, but affirming the benefits of Christ's death and
resurrection through the imageries of circumcision and baptism.
The imageries of circumcision and baptism are not used by Paul 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. Indeed, the
proclamation of God's forgiveness constitutes Paul's basic answer
to those attempting perfection by submitting to worship of angels
(Col 2:18) and 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 fullness of divine
forgiveness explicitly mentioned in verses 11-13, Paul utilizes a
legal metaphor in verse 14, namely that of God as a judge who
"wiped out.... removed [and] nailed to the cross ... the written
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
This interpretation has several serious problems. First, the
wrong assumption is made 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 an unjust 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
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, as Eduard Lobse points out in his commentary on
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
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 sinindebtedness" 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," and "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 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
(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 Colossians false teachers
who imposed "regulations" (Col 2:20) on how to observe these
practices in order to achieve "rigor of devotion and
selfabasement 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 bluntly, 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 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 ignore 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 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 their
teachings-"Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch" (Co1 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 designation of the festivals
is Jewish, the motivation and manner of their observance stems
from pagan syncretistic ideologies.
Eduard Lohse perceptively notes that "In the context of
Colossians, the command to keep festival, new moon, and Sabbath
is not based on the Torah according to which Israel received the
Sabbath as a sign of her election from among the nations. Rather
the sacred days must be kept for the sake of 'the elements of the
universe' who direct the course of the stars and also prescribe
minutely the order of the calendar ... The 'philosophy' made use
of terms which stemmed from Jewish tradition, but which had been
transformed in the crucible of syncretism to be subject to the
service of `the elements of the universe." 20
In the ancient world there was 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 cannot 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 Colossian
false teachers. A precept is not nullified by the condemnation of
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
Additional reflection 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
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
(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
The plural form "Sabbaths" (sabbaton) is used in Scripture
to designate not only the seventh-day Sabbath but also the week
as a whole (Greek Septuagint on 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
A similar sequence, though in 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 this: 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 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 teachersknown 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.
THE SABBATH IN ROMANS AND GALATIANS
(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"
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 In 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 cannot 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
wine, 32 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 suggests that the
dispute was not 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
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 not have been thinking of Sabbathkeeping when he speaks of
the preference over days.
Support for this conclusion is also provided by Paul's
advice: "Let every one be fully convinced in his own mind" (Rom
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 reason for it. This is especially surprising since
he labors at great length to explain why circumcision was not
binding upon the Gentiles.
If Paul taught his Gentile converts to regard Sabbathkeeping
as a personal matter, Jewish Christians readily would 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 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 Sabbath keeping 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 Possibly, Paul
alludes to this kind of problem, which at his time 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
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 view 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. (4) 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
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 preChristian 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 return to observing 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 the time-keeping
scheme found in Galatians 4:10 ("days, and months, and seasons,
and years") is clearly different from 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
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.
Troy Martin's conclusion, 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 by the Jewish designation "first day from
the Sabbath," and not by the prevailing pagan name dies solis-Day
of the Sun, 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 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 conclude, with Martin, that" although
the temporal references in Paul's letters are sparse, 1 Corin-
thians provides strong evidence for the Pauline adoption of the
Jewish practice that marked time by festivals and Sabbaths." 41
The Christian adherance to the Jewish calendar is especially
evident in the book of Acts. Repeatedly, Paul proclaims the
Gospel in synagogues and in the outdoors on the Sabbath (Acts
13:14,44; 16:13; 17:2). In Troas, Paul speaks to the believers on
the first day from Sabbath (mia ton sabbaton) (Acts 20:7). The
portrayal of Paul in Acts," as Martin points out, "supplies clear
evidence that Christians mark time by segments of festivals and
This conclusion is clearly supported by Colossians 2:16
where we find the standard Jewish nomenclature of annual feasts,
monthly new moons, and weekly Sabbaths.
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 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). 44
Our preceding discussion shows 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, as Ratzlaff does, 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 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 was 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 had not 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 motivation 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
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
do not deal 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
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
Third, Paul's tolerance with respect to diet and days (Rom
14:36) indicates that he would not have promoted the abandonment
of the Sabbath and the 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
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 allow us to discover, with
Paul, that "the law is good, if any one uses it lawfully" (1 Tim
NOTES TO CHAPTER 6
l. For a brief historical survey of this interpretation, see
Samuele Bacchiocchi, "Paul and the Sabbath," in From Sabbath to
Sunday (Rome, 1977), Appendix, pp.339-343.
2. Paul K. Jewett, "The Lord's Day: A Theological Guide to the
Christian Day of Worship" (Grand Rapids, 1971), p.45.
3. "The Sabbath in Acts and the Epistles," Bible Study prepared
by the Worldwide Church of God and posted in its web page
(www.wcg.org, September, 1998), p.2.
5. Dale Ratzlaff, "Sabbath in Crisis: Transfer/Modification?
Reformation/Continuation? Fulfilment/Transformation?" (Applegate,
California, 1990), pp.173-174.
6. Ibid., p.174.
7. Commenting on Colossians 2:14,15, Ratzlaff writes: "What was
the 'certificate of debt' or the 'decrees' which were nailed to
the Cross? In context, Paul has been speaking about the old
covenant" (note 5, p.156). This cannot be true, because in the
context Paul refutes the Colossian heresy by affirming the
fullness of God's forgiveness.
8. Dale Ratzlaff (note 5), pp.155-156.
9. Ibid., p.156.
11. Eduard Lohse, "A Commentary on the Epistles to the Colossians
and to Philemon" (Philadelphia, 1971), p.116. In a similar vein,
Herold Weiss emphasizes that in Paul's argument (Col 2:8-19), the
law "plays no role at all" ("The Law in the Epistle to the
Colossians," The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 34 : 311).
12. Douglas R. De Lacey, "The Sabbath/Sunday Question and the Law
in the Pauline Corpus," "From Sabbath to Lord's Day. A Biblical,
Historical, and Theological Investigation," ed. Donald A. Carson
(Grand Rapids, 1982), p.173. Emphasis supplied.
13. For a lengthy list of commentators who interpret the
cheirographon either as the "certificate of indebtedness"
resulting from our transgressions or as the "book containing the
record of sin," see Samuele Bacchiocchi, "From Sabbath to Sunday.
A Historical Investigation of the Rise of Sunday Observance in
Early Christianity" (Rome, 1977), Appendix, pp.349-350.
14. Martin Luther, "Wider die himmlischen Propheten," in his
Samtliche Schriften, ed. by Johann Georg Walch (1890), vol. XX,
15. Dale Ratzlaff (note 5), p.163. 1
16. Ibid., pp.161-162.
17. Douglas R. De Lacey (note 12), p.182.
18. Ibid., emphasis supplied.
19. Troy Martin, "Pagan and Judeo-Christian Time-keeping Schemes
in Galatians 4:10 and Colossians 2:16," New Testament Studies 42
20. Eduard Lohse (note 11), p.155.
21. For texts and discussion, see G. Bornhamm, "Lakanon, "
Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Gerhard Kittel
(Grand Rapids, 1967), vol. 4, p.67; also J. Behm writes in the
same Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, IV, p.297: "The
Greeks and Romans knew that abstention makes receptive to
22. For a discussion of Colossians 2:17, see Samuele Bacchiocchi,
"From Sabbath to Sunday" (note 1), pp.356-357.
23. Eduard Lohse (note 11), p.116.
24. See the Septuagint on 2 Chron 2:4; 31:3; Neh 10:33; Ezek
45:17; Hos 2:11. Also Jub 1:14; Jos. Ber. 3:11; Justin, Dialogue
with Trypho 8:4.
25. See, The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary (Washington,
D. C., 1957), vol.7, pp.205-206.
26. This is the view of Nobert Hugede, Commentaire de L'Epitre
aux Colossiens (Paris, 1969), p. 144. On the plural usage of
"Sabbaths" to designate the week as a whole, see Eduard Lohse
(note 11), pp.7,20.
27. Gunter Bornhamm emphasizes this view when he writes: "Paul
mentions New Moon and Sabbath (Col 2:16), days, months, season,
and years (Gal 4:10), i.e., in each case days and seasons that do
not stand under the sign of the history of salvation, but under
the sign of the periodic cycles of nature, i.e., corresponding to
the movement of the stars" ("The Heresy of Colossians," in Fred
O. Francis and Wayne A. Meeks, eds., Conflict at Colossae, SBL
Sources for Biblical Study 4, 1973, p.131).
28. Texts and discussion are found in Samuele Bacchiocchi, "From
Sabbath to Sunday" (note 1), pp.173f. and 243.
29. "Paul and the Sabbath," Bible Study prepared by the Worldwide
Church of God and posted in its web page (www.wcg.org, September,
1998), p. l.
30. "The Sabbath in Acts and the Epistles," Bible Study prepared
by the Worldwide Church of God and posted in its web page
(www.wcg.org, September, 1998), p.2.
31. Dale Ratzlaff (note 5), p.169.
32. The Nazarite's vow included abstention from all grape
products (Num 6:2-4). This, however, was a temporary and
voluntary vow. Some, such as Samuel (1 Sam 1:11) and John the
Baptist (Luke 1:15) were Nazarites for life. But we have no
record of a person taking the vow voluntarily for life. Perpetual
vows were taken by parents on behalf of children. The Rechabites
led a nomadic life in tents and abstained from all intoxicating
drinks (Jer 35:1-19). For a study on the Biblical teaching
regarding the use of alcoholic beverages, see Samuele
Bacchiocchi, Wine in the Bible (Berrien Springs, Michigan, 1989).
My study shows that the Bible disapproves of the use of fermented
wine but approves the consumption of unfermented wine, commonly
called "grape juice."
33. Paul K. Jewett wisely acknowledges that "if Paul had
introduced Sunday worship among the Gentiles, it seems likely
Jewish opposition would have accused his temerity in setting
aside the law of the Sabbath, as was the case with the rite of
circumcision (Acts 21:21)" (note 2), p.57.
34. For texts and discussion, see Samuele Bacchiochi, "From
Sabbath to Sunday" (note 1), p.254.
35. See, for example, Willy Rordorf, Sunday: "The History of the
Day of Rest and Worship in the Earliest Centuries of the
Christian Church" (Philadelphia, 1968), p.131; C.S.Mosna, Storia
della Domenica dalle Origini Fino agli Inizi del V. Secolo (Rome,
36. Dale Ratzlaff (note 5), p.165.
37. For a discussion of scholarly views regarding the meaning of
stoicheia, see Samuele Bacchiochi, From Sabbath to Sunday (note
38. Troy Martin (note 19), p.119. See also idem, "But Let
Everyone Discern the Body of Christ (Colossians 2:17)," Journal
of Biblical Literature 114/2 (1995), p.255.
39. For a discussion of the pagan calendar, see also E. J.
Bickerman, "Chronology of the Ancient World" (Ithaca, New York,
40. Troy Martin (note 19), pp.117,119.
41. Ibid., pp.108-109.
42. Ibid., p.109.
43. The Roman adoption of the seven-day planetary week just prior
to the beginning of Christianity is discussed at some length in
Samuele Bacchiochi, "From Sabbath to Sunday' (note 1), pp.
44. For a discussion of the observance and meaning of Passover/
Unleavened Bread in the New Testament, see Samuele Bacchiocchi,
"God's Festivals in Scripture and History: Volume 1: The Spring
Festivals" (Berrien Springs, Michigan, 1995), pp.75-77.
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