Keith Hunt - Bacchiocchi on Col.2:16-17 and - Page Twenty   Restitution of All Things

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Bacchiocchi on Col.2:16-17 and ....

Galatians 4 with Romans 14

                          FROM SABBATH TO SUNDAY

by Samuele Bacchiocchi PhD



     In the Sabbath-Sunday debate three Pauline texts have been
traditionally cited (Col.2:14-17; Gal.4:8-11; Rom.14:5-6) to
prove that Paul regarded the Old Testament Sabbath as no longer
binding, especially for Gentile Christians.  Of the three
references, Colossians 2:14-17 has been quoted far more
extensively than the other two inasmuch as the passage explicitly
speaks of Christ's nailing something to the cross (2:14) and
warns against paying heed to regulations (Greek) with regard to
several things, such as "a Sabbath" (2:16).  In view of the
importance attributed to these statements we shall conduct our
enquiry into Paul's attitude toward the Sabbath, by focusing our
investigation primarily on Colossians 2:14-17, without neglecting
the information provided by Galatians 4:8-11 and Romans 14:5-6.

The Traditional Interpretation of Colossians 2:16-17

     A brief historical survey of the interpretation of
Colossians 2:16-17 may serve to make us aware that the passage
has been quite "consistently explained to mean that the Sabbath
is a Jewish institutron, abolished by Christ on the cross. In a
fragment attributed to Irenaeus, Colossians 2:16 is quoted to
discourage Christians from observing "feasts and fasts" which
"are displeasing to the Lord." 1  Tertullian uses this passage to
argue against Marcion that the Law does not derive from another
God, but is the shadow belonging to the body, Christ. He asks

     Now tell me, Marcion, what is your opinion of the apostle's
     language, when he says, "Let no man judge you in meat, or in
     drink, or in respect of a holy day, or of the new moon, or
     of the sabbath, which is a shadow of things to come, but the
     body is of Christ?" [Col. 2:16]. We do not now treat of the

1 Irenaeus, "Fragments from the Lost Writings of Irenaeus" 38,
ANF I, 575.

     law, further than (to remark) that the apostle here teaches
     clearly how it has been abolished, even by passing from
     shadow to substance - that is, from figurative types to
     reality, which is Christ." 2

     Though Tertullian openly states that his intention is not to
discuss the question of the law, yet in his incidental remark he
explicitly reveals his understanding of the text when he says,
"the apostle here [Col.2:16] teaches clearly how it [the law] has
been abolished." Augustine continues this tradition, applying
Colossians 2:16-17 more specifically to the Sabbath. He quotes
the passage to show that Christ was not guilty when he broke the
Sabbath, because "He was removing the shadows." 3
     Luther took up this tradition saying of Colossians 2:16-17
"Here Paul abolished the Sabbath by name and called it a bygone
shadow because the body, which is Christ himself, has come." 4
     Calvin similarly understood Colossians 2:16 to mean that
"Christ has by his death abolished ... the observance of rites."
5  He explains that "the reason why he frees Christians from the
observance of them is, that they were shadows at a time when
Christ was still, in a manner, absent." 6  Calvin holds that the
distinction between days "was suitable for the Jews, that they
might celebrate strictly

2 Tertullian, "Against Marcion" 5, 19, ANF III, 471, 472
(emphasis supplied).
3 Augustine, "Sermons on New Testament Lessons" 86, 3, NPNF 1st,
VI, 515, 516: "The Lord did break the sabbath; but was not
therefore guilty. What is that I have said, 'He brake the
sabbath'? He, the Light had come, He was removing the shadows.
For the sabbath was enjoined by the Lord God, enjoined by Christ
Himself, who was with the Father, when that Law was given; it was
enjoined by Him, but in shadow of what was to come. 'Let no man
therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an
holy day, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days, which are a
shadow of things to come.' He had now come whose coming these
things announced. Why do the shadows delight us?"
4 Martin Luther, "Wider die himmlischen Propheten," in his
"Sammtliche Schriften," ed. by Johann Georg Walch, 1890, vol. XX,
col. 148. In vol. IX, col. 375 we find a similar statement: "The
New Testament tells the Christian that every day is a day of
celebration. . . . That is why Paul once in a while calls to the
attention of the Christians that they are not bound to any day
(Gal.4:10-11). The same is even clearer in Colossians 2:16-17. We
see now that the Sabbath is done away with and the people are
free from it."
5 John Calvin, "Commentaries on the Epistles o f Paul the Apostle
to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians," trans. John
Pringle, 1948, p.191.
6 Ibid., p.192.

the days that were appointed, by separating them from others.
Among Christians, however, such a division has ceased." 7
     This interpretation which views the Sabbath in Colossians
passage as a bygone ceremonial shadow of the Jewish dispensation,
abolished by Christ on the cross has come down to our time as the
most predominant interpretation. The mention of a few signiiicant
scholars will suffice to establish this fact.      

J.Danielou for instance, declares:

     St.Paul proclaimed the end of the Sabbath (Rom.14:6) ... If
     the Sabbath was to die little by little, this was because it
     was only a provisional institution and a figure of the world
     to come. Now this world has come: the figure need only
     disappear: "Let no one, then, call you to account for what
     you eat or drink, or in regard to a festival or a new moon
     or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of things to come, but the
     substance is of Christ" (Col.2:16). 8

W.Robertson Nicoll similarly maintains that "the unmistakable
teaching" of Colossians is that "the obligation of the Jewish
Sabbath has passed away as much as sacrifices and circumcision."
9  Paul K. Jewett likewise comments that "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."  C.S.Mosna concludes
in a similar vein

Loc. cit.
8 J. Danielou, "Bible and Liturgy," p.228; Merrill F.Unger, "The
Significance of the Sabbath," "Bibliotheca Sacra" 123 (1966): 57,
"Keeping new moons and sabbaths the unique and dominant feature
of the Mosaic covenant of legalism - a pedagogue to conduct to
Christ - is declared to be completely at variance with the gospel
of grace (Col.2:16-17; Gal.4:9-10; Heb.4:4) now that Christ has
come and given us His wonderful salvation."
9 W. Robertson Nicoll, "The Epistle to the Colossians," The
Expositor's Bible, 1908, p.231; A.S.Peake, "The Epistle to the
Colossians," The Expositor's Greek Testament, 1942, p.531,
similarly comments on Col.2:17, saying: "The Sabbath is placed on
the same footing as the others, and Paul therefore commits
himself to the principle that a Christian is not to be censured
for its non-observance."
10 P.K.Jewett, "The Lord's Day," p.45, fn. 20; William
Hendriksen, "Exposition of Colossians and Philemon," New
Testament Commentary, 1965, p.124, comments on the text by
raising the following rhetorical question: "What justification
could there be for imposing upon converts from the Gentile world
the observance of the Jewish sabbath, when the Bringer of eternal
rest is urging every one to come unto him (Matt.11:28,29; cf.
Heb.4:8,14)?" This argument fails to convince because, as we have
shown in chapter 11, Christ by fulfilling the Messianic typology
of the Sabbath did not annul its function but enriched it, making
the day the fitting memorial of the blessings of salvation. Note
also that if the Sabbath is "Jewish" so is Passover or Easter and
Pentecost. Yet, have not all these feasts been taken over by
Gentile Christians after changing their dates? Was a new date
needed to express their fulfilment?

saying that "according to this text [Col.2:16-17] ... the
Colossians are in danger of losing their liberty by accepting the
Sabbath precept.... Among the prescriptions of the Law, even the
sabbath rest was to be abolished." 11
     The interpretation of W. Rordorf is essentially the same. On
the basis of Galatians and Colossians, he defines Paul's attitude
toward the Sabbath in the following terms:

     With regard to Gentile Christians he [Paul] absolutely
     refuses to countenance any longing eyes cast at the Old
     Testament law: they are free from any observance of the
     law....In particular there is never any question of them
     observing the Jewish sabbath. l2

     These samplings of testimonies exemplify that Colossians
2:16-17 throughout Christian history has been interpreted quite
consistently to mean that Paul regarded the Sabbath as an Old
Testament typological institution fulfilled by Christ and
therefore no longer binding on Christians. Since this
interpretation has been "hallowed" by history, to submit the
Colossians and related passages to a new critical scrutiny may
appear as a pretentious undertaking. Yet this is a service that
needs to be rendered to test the validity of any inherited

     To ascertain Paul's understanding of the Sabbath (as well as
of the Jewish festivities in general) particularly in the light
of the crucial passage of Colossians 2:14-17, several questions
need to be considered. Inasmuch as the warning regarding the
observance of sacred days is only one aspect of the "Colossian
heresy" that the Apostle is refuting, we need to ascertain first
of all what was the basic nature of the false teaching that
unsuspectingly risked to "disqualify" (2:18) the Colossian
believers? Did the false teachers advocate exclusively a rigorous
observance of the ordinances of the

11 C.S.Mosna, "Storia della domenica," pp.184,182.
12 W.Rordorf, "Sunday," p.138; cf. also his article "Le Dimanche,
jour du culte et jour du repos dans I'dglise primitive," "Lex
Orandi" 39, 1965, p.109, where he states: "The literal observance
of the Sabbath ... was only a shadow of things to come. Its
fulfilment is now present in the person of Jesus Christ (Col.
2:17)"; the same view is expressed by P.Massi, "La Domenica," pp.

Mosaic law? Are these to be identified with "the written document
- "Greek" which God through Christ "wiped out ... removed, [and]
nailed to the cross" (2:14)? Can one legitimately infer from the
passage that the observance of holy days such as the Sabbath is
viewed by Pawl as Mosaic ordinances "nailed to the cross"? Is the
Apostle advocating that Christians are released from all
obligation to observe holy days? We shall endeavor to answer
these questions by briefly considering first, the nature of the
"Colossian heresy," secondly, what was nailed to the cross and
lastly Paul's attitude toward the Sabbath and holy days.

The Colossian Heresy

     To establish the religious-historical background of the
Colossian heresy is not an easy task, inasmuch as the cryptic
allusions to such concepts as "tradition" - "Greek" (2:8),
"fulness" - "Greek" (1: 2:9,10), "philosophy" - "Greek" (2:8),
"eating and drinking" - "Greek" (2:16), "principalities and
powers" - "Greek" (2:15), and "elements of the world" - "Greek"
(2:8,20), find correspondence both in "gnostic Judaism" and in
"Hellenistic syncretism." 13  Both of these are in fact equally
used by commentators to define the derivation of the gnosis of
Colossae. For the purpose

13 Among the interpreters who define the heresy of Colossae as a
"gnosticizing Judaism" are: Jacques Dupont, "Gnosis: La
Connaissance religieuse dans les epitres de S. Paul," 1949, pp.
256, 489-93; E.Percy, "Die Problem der Kolosser and
Epheserbriefe," 1946, pp.137-178; Joseph B.Lightfoot, "St.Paul's
Epistle to the Colossians and to Philemon," 18793, pp.73-113;
Stanislas Lyonnet, "Paul's Adversaries in Colossae," in "Conflict
at Colossae," ed. Fred O. Francis and Wayne A. Meeks, SBL Sources
for Biblical Study 4, 1973, pp.147-162. On the other hand,
Gunther Bornkamm, "The Heresy of Colossians," in "Conflict at
Colossae," p.126, states categorically: "No doubt seems possible
to me, however, on one paint: The Colossian doctrine of the
elements belongs to the ancient mythology and speculation of the
Oriental Aeon-theology, which was widespread and active in
Hellenistic syncretism"; cf. Ernst Lohmeyer, "Der Brief an die
Kolosser," 1930, pp.3f.; M. Dibelius, "An die Kolosser, Epheser,
An Philemon," 1953, excursus on 2:8 and 2:23. Others interpret
the Colossian heresy as a syncretism of Jewish and Hellenistic
elements; see Edward Lohse, "A Commentary on the Epistles to the
Colossian and to Philemon," 1971, pp.115-116; Norbert Hugedd,
"Commentaire de I'trpitre aux Colossians," pp.9,143; W. Rordorf,
"Sunday," p.136: "We are in fact, dealing with the possibility of
a whole stream of syncretistic tradition in which
Jewish-Christian material is inextricably interwined with
material of Hellenistic and oriental provenance"; cf. Handley C.
G.Moule, "Colossian Studies," 1898, who defines the heresy as "an
amalgam of Judaism and Gnosticism, in a wide reference of the
latter word."


To be continued

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