FROM SABBATH TO SUNDAY
Continued from previous page
This view is supported also by the clause "and this he has
removed out of the middle--Greek (2:14). It has been shown that
"the middle" was the position occupied at the center of the court
or assembly by the accusing witness. 33 In the context of
Colossians, the accusing witness is the "cheirographon" which God
in Christ has erased and removed out of the court. One cannot
fail to sense how through this forceful metaphor, Paul is
reaffirming the completeness of God's forgiveness provided
through Christ on the cross. By destroying the evidence of our
sins, God has also "disarmed the principalities and powers"
(2:15), since it is no longer possible for them to function as
the accusers of the brethren (Rev.12:10). There is no need
therefore for Christians to feel incomplete and to seek to
participate in the fulness of the divinity (Pleroma) through the
"regulations-- Greek. Those who through baptism have died and
have been made alive with Christ, can live now in the certainty
of their redemption and forgiveness. Therefore, the powers and
principalities need no longer concern them.
We have seen that in this whole argument the Law, as stated
by Weiss, "plays no role at all." 34 Any attempt therefore to
read into the "cheirographon" a reference to the Sabbath or to
any other Old Testament ordinance is altogether unwarranted. The
document that was nailed to the cross contained not moral or
ceremonial laws, but rather the record of our sins. Is it not
true even today that the memory of sin can create in us a sense
of incompleteness? The solution to this sense of inadequacy,
according to Paul, is to be found not by submitting to a system
of "regulations--Greek," but by accepting the fact that on the
cross God has blotted out our sins and granted us full
forgiveness. We can conclude then by saying that Colossians 2:14
reaffirms the essence of the Gospel - the Good News that God has
nailed on the cross the record and the guilt of our sins - but it
has nothing to say about the law and the Sabbath.
33 The legal position of the "middle" is present in the New
Testament in texts such as Mark 3:3; 9:36; Acts 4:7. The
expression occurs repeatedly in Greek juridical texts; see
discussion in Norbert Hugede (fn. 13), p.140.
34 Herold Weiss (fn. 14), p.311, fn. 10. Weiss also comments: "In
fact the letter moves in an environment quite removed from that
of the Pauline epistles where at every juncture there is likely
to be a confrontation between Jewish and Gentile Christianity
over the question of the Mosaic law" (loc. cit.).
Paul's Attitude Toward The Sabbath
Having refuted the intellectual speculations of the
Colossian "philosophy" by reaffirming the supremacy of Christ and
the fulness of His redemption (vv. 8-15), Paul now turns to their
practical consequences, dealing explicitly with certain features
of their religious practices.
16. Therefore, let no one pass judgement on you in questions
of food and drink or with regard to a festival or a new moon
or a sabbath. 17. These are only a shadow of what is to
come; but the substance belongs to Christ.
Since in this admonition the Sabbath is singled out as one
of the religious practices which "are a shadow of what is to
come," it has been generally concluded that "here Paul abolished
the Sabbath by name and called it a by-gone shadow because the
body, which is Christ himself, has come." 35 To test the
validity of this traditional interpretation, several questions
need to be considered. Are the practices (including the Sabbath?)
advocated by this fastidious clique to be regarded as strictly
Mosaic prescriptions, or as exaggerated puritanical teachings
deriving from a syncretistic ideology? Is the Apostle condemning
abstinence from food and drink as well as the use of sacred days
and seasons as such, or is he warning against the wrong use made
of these? What kind of Sabbath observance did the false teachers
advocate? What was Paul's basic attitude toward the Sabbath and
Jewish festivals in general?
Nature of regulations.
Do the regulations with regard to "eating, drinking,
festival, new moon and sabbath" belong exclusively to the Mosaic
Law? While the reference to the observances of "festival, new
moon and sabbath" plainly shows that the false teachers derived
some of their teachings from the Old Testament, the restrictions
regarding "eating and drinking" can hardly be traced to the same
source. The terms "Greek" and "Greek" describe not (as often
inexactly translated) "food-- Greek" and "drink-- Greek" but the
act of "eating and drinking." 36 Therefore it is not a
question, as R.C.H. Lenski points out, "about proper and improper
food and drink, some being clean, others unclean, but rules about
when to eat and to drink and to fast." 37 Such dietary
restrictions can hardly be
35 See above fn. 4.
36 On "food/eating-- "Greek" cf. Johannes Behm, TDNT I, pp.
642-645; on "drink/drinking-- Greek" cf. Leonhard Goppelt, TDNT
37 R.C.H. Lenski, "The Interpretation of St. Paul's Epistles to
the Thessalonians, to Timothy, to Titus and to Philemon," 1946,
p.123. Norbert Hugede (fn. 13), p.143, similarly remarks: "It is
not then a question of distinction between clean and unclean food
as recommended by Lev.11, but of the practice of fasting
according to the custom of pagan ascetics"; A.S.Peake (fn. 9), p.
530: "The question is not altogether between lawful and unlawful
food, but between eating and drinking or abstinence. Ascetism
rather than ritual cleanness is in his mind."
traced back to the Levitical law since this does not contemplate
an ascetic program but only distinguishes between clean and
unclean food. Moreover, the Mosaic law is silent on the subject
of drink, except in the case of the Nazirites and Rechabites, who
abstained from intoxicants on account of a special VOW. 38 These
exceptions however entailed a discipline of their own, well
distinct from the general provision of the law.
That the dietary prescriptions mentioned in Colossians 2:16
do not belong to the Mosaic law is further indicated in v.21 by
the prohibition (regarding apparently the consumption of food)
imposed by the proponents of the "philosophy": "Do not handle, Do
not taste, Do not touch." Such ascetic restrictions designed to
promote "rigor of devotion and self-abasement and severity to the
body" (2:23) were foreign to normative Jewish teachings. Usually
such ascetism arises from a dualistic concept of life which
despises the material part of the world and the human body in
order to attain to a higher sanctity. No traces of this dualistic
view can be found in the Hebrew concept of man, which is
There are indications that in Paul's time this form of
ascetism was developing within the Church. In Romans 14 the
Apostle deals with a dissension caused by an ascetic party which
(similar to that of Colossae) insisted on vegetarianism and
abstention from wine (14:2,21) as well as on the observance of
days (14:5-6). A similar party possibly existed at Ephesus, since
Paul warns Timothy against those "who forbid marriage and enjoin
the abstinence from foods which God created to be received with
thanksgiving" (I Tim.4:3).
Was this ascetic teaching influenced primarily by sectarian
Judaism or by pagan ascetism? It is difficult to answer this
question conclusively since we are informed that a vegetarian
regime was promoted by (1) Jewish sects such as the Therapeutae
38 The Nazirite's vow included abstention from all grape products
(Num.6:2-4). This however was a temporary and voluntary vow.
Some, such as Samuel (I Sam.1:11) and John the Baptist (Luke
1:15) were Nazirite 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 wine and all intoxicating drinks
the Essenes; (2) Gnostic sects such as the Encratites, Ebionites
and Marcionites; and (3) pagan schools such as the Orphic
mysteries, the Pythagoreans and the Neo-platonists. 39
Philostratus (ca. AD.220) reports, for example, that Apollonius
of Tyana (d. ca. A.D.98), a Neo-Pythagorean philosopher,
"declined to live upon a meat diet, on the ground that it was
unclean, and that it made the mind gross; he partook only of
dried fruits and vegetables, for he said that all the fruits of
the earth are clean." 40 (It is noteworthy that even James, the
Lord's brother, according to Hegesippus "was holy from his
mother's womb; and he drank no wine nor strong drink, nor did he
eat flesh.") 41
The pagan reasons for practicing ascetism and fasting were
many. It was believed, for instance, that fasting prepared a
person to receive a divine revelation. 42 The belief in the
transmigration of souls apparently motivated abstinence from
animal meat, since eating it was regarded as a form of
'cannibalism.' Others were led to ascetism by their dualistic
view of the world. 43 In the case of the "philosophy" of
Colossians, the dietary taboos and the observance of sacred times
were apparently regarded as an expression of subjection to and
worship of the "elements of the universe" (2:20,18).
Some scholars regard the Colossian false teachings as a
offshoot of the teaching of the Qumran community. They point out
that the emphasis on dietary rules, festal calendar and the
veneration of the angels, tallies completely with the practices
of the Qumran sect. 44 The Colossian "philosophy" however, as E.
Lohse rightly points out, "does not reveal any signs of the kind
of radical understanding of the law that is advocated by the
Qumran community. The term 'law' (Greek ) is absent anyway from
the controversy in
39 For texts and discussion see G. Bornkamm, "Greek," TDNT IV, p.
40 "Vita Apollonii" 1, 8; cf. Apuleius, "Metamorph." 11, 28:
"abstain from all animal meat."
41 Cited by Eusebius, HE 2, 23, 5, NPNF 2nd, I, p.125.
42 Cf. J.Behm, "Greek," TDNT IV, p.297: "The Greeks and Romans
knew that abstention makes receptive to ecstatic revelations."
See the article for sources and discussion.
43 References can be found in G. Bornkamm (fn. 39), p.66.
44 Among the advocators of this view are Stanislas Lyonnet (fn.
13), pp.147-153; W.D.Davies, "Paul and the Dead Sea Scrolls:
Flesh and Spirit," in The Scrolls and the New Testament, 1957,
pp.167f.; Pierre Benoit, "Qumran et le Nouveau Testament," NTS 7
(1960-61): 287. For a more balanced assessment of relationships
with Qumran teaching see E. Yamauchi, "Sectarian Parallels:
Qumran and Colosse," "Bibliotheca Sacra" 121, 1 (1964): 141-152.
which Colossians is engaged." 45 The most plausible conclusion
held by most scholars is that the false teachings and practices
at Colossae were of a syncretistic nature, containing both pagan
and Jewish elements. The Old Testament was apparently invoked to
provide a justification for their syncretistic beliefs and
If this conclusion is correct (which to us seems hardly
disputable), then Paul's reference to the Sabbath and festivities
must be understood in the context of the heretic, ascetic and
syncretistic practices which he opposes. In this case, whatever
is said about the perverted use of an institution like the
Sabbath, cannot be legitimately used to challenge the validity of
the commandment per se. A precept is not nullified by the
condemnation of its abuse. But before focusing more directly on
Paul's attitude toward the Sabbath, we need to ascertain what is
actually condemned in Colossians 2:16-17: practices or principle?
Practices or principle.
Does Paul formally condemn the five ascetic-cultic practices
("eating, drinking, festival, new moon and sabbath") promoted by
the false teachers in Colossae? In view of the fact that these
practices were undermining the all-sufficiency of Christ's
redemption we would indeed expect Paul to condemn them
outrightly. But is this what the Apostle does?
Let us first consider the verb he uses: "Greek - let no one
continue to judge you." The verb is neutral and it does not mean
"to condemn" but "to judge" whether approvingly or dis-
approvingly. 47 Paul uses the same verb repeatedly in Romans
when dealing with a similar problem: "let not him who abstains
pass judgment (Greek) on him who eats" (14:3). "One man esteems
(Greek) one day as better than another, while another man esteems
(Greek) all days alike" (14:5). The meaning of the verb "Greek"
according to its common usage is not "to condem " but rather "to
express an opinion, to resolve, to pass judgment." Note then that
the verb used indicates that Paul is considerably tolerant on
this question. He does not condemn the specified practices, but
simply insists that no one should be compelled to observe them.
As stated by Charles R.Erdman, Paul "leaves the decision to every
Christian." 48 A.Lukyn Williams calls attention to this
important fact, saying:
45 E. Lohse (fn. 13), p.116.
46 See above fns. 18, 19.
47 Cf. R. C. H. Lenski (fn. 37) p.122; A.S.Peake (fn. 9), p.530.
48 Charles R. Erdman (fn. 10), p.73.
Observe that St.Paul takes a far wider view than that of
forbidding the observance of dietary laws and of festival
seasons. He leaves the matter free for the individual
person. What he says is that the observance (or, by
implication, non-observance) is not to form a basis for
anyone to sit in judgment on the Colossians. 49
We conclude then that in v.16 the warning is not against the
Sabbath, festivals and dietary laws as such, but rather against
those who promote these practices as indispensable aids to
Christian perfection and as needed protection from "the elements
of the world," thus denying the all-sufficiency of Christ. 50
That Paul had no intention to declare these observances worthless
is further indicated in v.17: "These are a shadow of what is to
come, but the body belongs to Christ." By acknowledging the holy
days of the Old Testament as "a shadow of what is to come--
"Greek," Paul could hardly have "abolished the Sabbath by name
and called it a bygone shadow." 51 E.F.Scott aptly remarks that:
Himself a Jew, Paul cannot admit that the most sacred
ordinances of Judaism are worthless shadows. His thought is
rather that of the writer to the Hebrews, who finds a value
in all the ancient ceremonies in so far as they point
forward, in a sort of picture-language, to the great
consummation (e.g. the Sabbath typifies the perfect rest of
God. Heb.4:11). 52
Several commentators, however, unable to see how Paul could
view Old Testament holy days and ascetic practices of
syncretistic nature, as "shadows" having prophetic meaning and
function, have attempted to solve the dilemma by adding
arbitrarily the word "only" or "at best" after "shadow," thus
making the latter pejorative. 53 Furthermore, the verb "are
(Greek) a shadow" is interpreted
49 A.Lukyn Williams, "The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the
Colossians and to Philemon," 1928, p102.
50 Ralph P.Martin (fn. 19), p.90: "The root principle needs to be
noted. Paul is not condemning the use of sacred days and
seasons.... What moves him here is the wrong motive involved when
the observance of holy festivals is made part of the worship
advocated at Colossae in recognition of the 'elements of the
universe', the astral powers which direct the course of the stars
and regulate the calendar. And so they must be placated."
51 See above fn. 4.
52 E.F.Scott (fn. 19), p.52.
53 Cf. RSV; R.C.H.Lenski (fn. 37), p.125: "These things are a
shadow at best."
or translated as "were (Greek) a shadow," thus implying that
their function had absolutely ceased with Christ's coming. 54
To justify this interpretation some argue that Paul could not
have viewed dietary laws of dubious origin as "shadows of what is
to come." Instead, they were a shadow of the Christian religion,
but they are no longer so. 55 This interpretation implies that
they could serve a legitimate function only prior to but not
after Christ's coming, which of course is not true. How could
superstitious dietary taboos be accepted by God at one time and
then rejected later?
The most plausible conclusion is that Paul is not disputing
about the origin, form or legitimacy of these observances, but
rather that he acknowledges their value, apparently because he
recognized them to be expressions of noble and sincere - though
misguided - spiritual aspirations. What the Apostle does,
however, is to place these observances in their proper
perspective with Christ, by means of the contrast "shadow-body."
56 In this perspective Paul sees that not only the observance of
holy days, but that even dietary scruples can serve as a shadow,
preparing Christians for the realities of the world to come. 57
Old Testament festivals have a message for Christians. The
Passover (which today we call Easter) commemorates Christ's
toning sacrifice and proclaims His coming (Mark 14:25; I Cor.11:
26); the Unleavened Bread typifies "sincerity and truth" (I Cor.
5: 8); Pentecost, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:4);
the Sabbath, as we have seen, the blessings of salvation, which
are a foretaste of the eternal rest of God's people. 58 However,
54 For example, A.B.Caird (fn. 18), p.198, maintains that "the
RSV translation, what is to come cannot be correct, since, if the
fulfilment lay still in the future, the shadow would not yet be
superseded." A.Lukyn Williams (fn. 49), p.104, comments:
"Greek [were] would have implied that they had absolutely ceased
as facts, which of course they had not." Handley C.G.Moule,
"Colossian Studies," n.d., p.175, points out that "Greek is very
slightly emphatic by position; I have represented this by
'indeed.' He means to acknowledge in passing the real place and
value of the Festivals as 'shadows'." Cf. Meyer, ad loc.
55 This argument is advanced by Norbert Hugede (fn. 13), p.145.
56 It is possible that the contrast "shadow-body" which derives
from Plato (cf. Republic 7, 514 a-517a; 10; 596; Timeus 46c; 71b)
was employed by the Colossian philosophers to teach that "full
reality" (pleroma) could be attained only by venerating the
"shadow," namely the angels and the elements of the universe, by
ascetic regimen. If so, Paul answers their teaching by giving a
christological twist to their contrast. The fact that Paul does
not condemn dietary scruples in Romans 14 but rather exhorts to
observe them "in honor of the Lord" (14:6) indicates that he
recognizes in them some positive function.
58 J.B.Lightfoot, "Saint Paul's Epistles to the Colossians and to
Philemon, 1879, p.195, comments: "The reality, the antitype, in
each case is found in the Christian dispensation. Thus the
passover typifies the atoning sacrifice; the unleavened bread,
the purity and sincerity of the true believer; the pentecostal
feast, the ingathering of first fruits; the Sabbath, the rest of
God's people; etc."
that shadows must not become a substitute for the reality which
is Christ, the "Body" (v.17) and the "Head" (v.19). William
Barclay aptly expresses Paul's thought, when he writes:
He [Paul] says that ... a religion which is founded on
eating and drinking certain kinds of food and drink, and on
abstaining from others, a religion which is founded on
Sabbath observance and the like, is only a shadow of real
religion; for real religion is fellowship with Christ. 59
We frown upon this perverted sense of priorities, yet this
problem has constantly afflicted Christianity. All too often
religion has been made into rituals and rules to obey. "These,"
Paul explains, "have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting
rigor of devotion and self-abasement and severity to the body,
but they are of no value in checking the indulgence of the flesh"
(2:23). Any plan of legal piety can only make a Christian into a
prisoner of the "flesh," "puffed up without reason by his
sensuous mind" (2:18). The solution which the Apostle offers to
ascetic and cultic legalism is:
Seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at
the right hand of God. Set your mind on things that are
above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died,
and your life is hid with Christ in God (3:13).
We conclude therefore that Paul in Colossians 2:16 is not
condemning abstinence from food and drink or the use of sacred
days such as the Sabbath, but the wrong motive involved in their
observance. What Paul attacks is the promotion of these practices
as auxiliary aids to salvation, and as means to gain protection
from the "elements of the universe."
The Sabbath in Colossians 2:16.
The sacred times prescribed by the false teachers are referred to
T "a festival or a new moon or a sabbath-- Greek i1 (2:16).
The unanimous consensus of commentators is- that these three
words represent a logical and progressive sequence (annual,
monthly and weekly) as well as an exhaustive enumeration of the
sacred times. This view
59 William Barclay, "The Letters to the Philippians, Colossians
and Thessalonians," 1959, p.175.
To be continued
I find all this an interesting view by Bacchoicchi, but I find it
more complicated than needed. The CONTEXT of Col.2:16 gives the
simpler answer, which tells us of the heresy and wrong lifestyle
theology of the false worldly people, that were judging the now
Christ theology and customs and ways of living, from the God of
the Bible. I have written a full study on this passage of
Col.2:16 which I refer the read towards, found on this Website -