The First Century

One of the key passages used by Protestant Christianity to teach that Paul instructed Christian Gentiles not to observe the Biblical Feast Days (the Appointed Times of Genesis 1:14 and Leviticus 23) is found in Colossians 2:16-17. Different translations have also assisted in this by "adding words to the original text" (NASB) and some have actually changed what the underlying Greek text said in order to make their case (NIV).

Recently (1996), a Professor of Religious Studies at Chicago's Saint Xavier University, Dr. Troy Martin, has examined this passage in great detail (and the bigger picture contained therein) and has come to the conclusion that this passage does not support Protestant Christianity's position at all. Here's how he explains it.

He began by asking the following question: "How did Paul's' communities reckon time?"
"Only by avoiding time-keeping altogether or by adhering to the Jewish calendar [could] the Pauline communities escape idolatrous alternatives. Other time-keeping systems name the days and the months after pagan deities and mark out the seasons by pagan rites."
"In contrast, the Jews distinguish the seasons by festivals that obviously have no pagan connotations. They recognize the months by new moons and name these months using agricultural terms. They designate the week by Sabbaths, and beginning from the Sabbath, they number, instead of name, the days of the week one through six. The only options available to Paul and his communities are Jewish, pagan, or no time-keeping system at all, and the evidence indicates they opt for the former."
"By Philosophy and Empty Deceit" Colossians as Response to a Cynic Critique. Journal for the Study of the New Testament, Supplement Series 118. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996, pp. 125-127
"The references to time in Paul's Epistle to the Corinthians exclusively reflect the adoption of a Jewish calendar. He builds an elaborate argument based upon the festivals of Passover and unleavened bread (1 Cor. 5:6-8) to exhort the Corinthians, 'Let us keep the festival' (1 Cor. 5:8)."
"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."
Dr. Troy Martin, Pagan and Judeo-Christian Time-keeping Schemes in Galatians 4:10 and Colossians 2:16, Journal of New Testament Studies, 42 (1996), pp. 108-109.

Dr. Martin's research on time keeping schemes presents an interesting evaluation of the options that Paul's new Gentile believers faced. Since we know that the Jews that became believers continued in the Torah including the Biblical calendar, it makes sense that the Gentile community would be taught along those same lines.

Before continuing with Dr. Martin's analysis, let's make our selves aware of what the passage is saying, and who is saying what.

The question before us now is whether Paul, in Colossians 2:16-17, is approving or disapproving of the Gentile observance of the Biblical Holy days. Historically speaking, this text has been interpreted as a Pauline condemnation of these Biblical Holy days. Nevertheless, a closer examination discloses that this interpretation is incorrect. We submit that Paul is not warning the Colossians against observing the Biblical Holy days but instead is warning against those who would attempt to judge how they observed them. Removing the parenthetical statement gives us "Therefore, let no one judge your eating and drinking during the Biblical Holy days...except the body of Christ." Verse 20 clearly denotes that "the judge who passes judgment" is not Paul, but the false teachers in Colossae who would impose "regulations" on how to observe these practices in order to achieve 'rigor of devotion and self-abasement and severity to the body (v 23). We know this because Paul defines these things as commandments and doctrines of men (v22). Do the scholars concur?

D. R. De Lacey, writing in the symposium From Sabbath to Lord's Day, 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."

He concludes by saying "Here again (Col 2:16), then, it seems that Paul could happily countenance Sabbathkeeping . . ."
D. 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. 182.
Samuele Bacchiocchi concurs when he says "Presumably the 'judge,' that is, the false teachers, wanted the community to observe these practices in a more ascetic way ('severity to the body' - 2:23, 21); to put it crudely, the false teachers wanted the Colossian believers to do less feasting and more fasting."

God's Festivals in Scripture and History by Samuele Bacchiocchi

"By warning against the right of the false teachers to 'pass judgment' on how to observe Holy Days, Paul is challenging not the validity of the Holy Days themselves, but the authority of the false teachers to legislate on the manner of their observance. The obvious implication is that Paul in this text is expressing not a condemnation but an approbation of the mentioned practices, which included the Holy Days."

Samuele Bacchiocchi adds that "Paul's warning against the stringent '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 the false teachers attempt to regulate their observance through the perversions that included a more ascetic lifestyle."

After establishing that the early Gentile Christians adhered to the Biblical calendar over a pagan calendar, Dr. Martin takes a closer look at the passage in question.

This example is an article cited earlier "Pagan and Judeo-Christian Time-keeping Schemes in Galatians 4:10 and Colossians 2:16," by Dr. Troy Martin, Professor at Saint Xavier University in Chicago. The article appeared in the 1996 Spring issue of the scholarly journal New Testament Studies. Dr. Martin wrote: "This essay provides evidence that the Pauline community at Colossae, not the opponents, practiced the temporal schemes outlined by Col 2:16. . . . This investigation into the function of the list in Col 2:16 indicates that the Colossian Christians, not their critics, participate in a religious calendar that includes festivals, new moons, and Sabbaths." (p 111)

Dr. Martin reached the same conclusions in an earlier essay on Colossians 2:17, published in the Journal of Biblical Literature, where he wrote: "The preceding grammatical and syntactical investigation of the clause to de soma tou Christou [but the body of Christ] in Colossians 2:17 suggests that the practices mentioned in 2:16 are those of the Colossian Christians and not the opponents. . . . early Christians observe both feasts and sabbaths."

Dr. Troy Martin, "But Let Everyone Discern the Body of Christ (Colossians 2:17)," Journal of Biblical Literature 114/2 (1995), p. 255.

Comparison of Colossians 2:16 and Galatians 4:10.

A significant contribution of Dr. Martin's research is his analysis of the difference between the time-keeping schemes found in Galatians 4:10 ("days, and months, and seasons, and years") and that found in Colossians 2:16 ("festivals or a new moon or Sabbaths"). Dr. Martin 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 "describes a pagan calendar unacceptable to Paul and his communities."

(p. 119)

Dr. Martin reaches this conclusion by examining, not only the time structure of pagan calendars, 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 pre-conversion 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 (4:8-9). Galatians 4:10, therefore, stipulates that when the Galatians accepted Paul's Gospel with its aversion to idolatry (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." (p. 117, 119.)
The conclusion of Dr. 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 represents a significant breakthrough in our understanding of the teachings of the apostolic community to the Gentiles in the first century.

The Structure of certain Gospels leads to an interesting conclusion

The study of the literary structure of certain New Testament books has led scholars to conclude that the apostolic church adopted the Biblical Feast calendar system as found in the Old Testament.

Dr. Philip Carrington, former Archbishop of Quebec, finds indications of the observance of the Biblical Feasts in the liturgical use of some New Testament books. For example, regarding the Corinthian epistles he wrote: "The rich liturgical material of the Corinthian epistles, which is closely connected with a gospel tradition, makes it perfectly evident that a Christianized form of the Hebrew Calendar was then in existence, so that it would have been possible and even quite natural for Mark to have arranged his gospel for the liturgical year with a view to having it read in the churches"...There is no reason to think that there ever was a form of Christianity anywhere which dispensed with this [Hebrew] Calendar." Emphasis mine

"In the Gospel of St. Mark," continues Dr. Carrington, "we found lections [Scripture readings] which we felt obliged to associate with the autumn solemnities of the New Year, the Day of Atonement, and the Feast of Tabernacles." If Dr. Carrington's conclusion is correct, it would support a Christianized observance of the Fall Feasts in the apostolic church.

Dr. Philip Carrington, the Primitive Christian Calendar (Cambridge University Press, 1952), pp. 43-44.

In the end, considering the re-evaluation of Colossians 2, Acts and 1 Corinthians, and the Greek text of Mark with the divisions for the Hebrew Liturgical year embedded in the text make a strong case for the apostolic requirement of rejecting idolatrous pagan temporal schemes in favor of following the Biblical calendar in the first century. Now let's consider the history of the early church all the way to the end of the second century with bishops who were placed into office by the apostles themselves and what they have to say concerning keeping the feasts when given the option to stop.

The Second Century

Now that we have begun to make a case for the Biblical calendar as the calendar that early Gentile communities used, let's continue our examination by moving into the second century. First, let's establish the personalities that we will be referencing.

The Apostles John and Philip, John the Elder, and Philip the Evangelist are found in the New Testament. The rest of this list are either bishops leading churches in the second century or historians of early Christianity. (Dates are approximate)

The two that we will focus on are Polycarp and Polycrates with the others filling in with historical information as we proceed.

As beginning background on Polycarp, we turn to Irenaeus. Adversus Haeres. Book III, Chapter 4, Verse 3 and Chapter 3, Verse 4
"But Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my early youth, for he tarried [on earth] a very long time, and, when a very old man, gloriously and most nobly suffering martyrdom, departed this life, having always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true. To these things all the Asiatic Churches testify, as do also those men who have succeeded Polycarp down to the present time."
Polycarp was the author of a letter to the Philippians. In this letter he mentions Paul several times. Whatever Polycarp understood from Paul's writings, he esteemed him highly using terms like "the blessed and glorious Paul" and commenting that "Paul was obedient to the word of righteousness." He did not consider him to be an apostate from the law, as some did.

Around 150 CE, Polycarp went to Rome to visit with the bishop there, Anicetus. The discussion is detailed in Irenaeus Adv. Haer., III.3.4.
A controversy had arisen concerning the keeping of Passover. The Roman church had stopped observing it so Polycarp went to visit Anicetus to discuss the matter. During their discussion, Anicetus attempted to persuade Polycarp to stop following the teachings he had learned from the apostles and John, the disciple of our Lord, and to start following a tradition that had begun once Gentile bishops took the reigns of leadership in Jerusalem (after 135 CE). Polycarp refused. On the flip side, Polycarp attempted to persuade Anicetus to go back to the teachings of the apostles but Anicetus said he was bound to adhere to the traditions that had been recently established by the presbyters who preceded him there in Rome.
Who were these presbyters that preceded Anicetus?

Iraeneaus points back to Bishop Soter and eventually Pius (114-145).
Epiphanius makes reference to the first 15 bishops of the Jerusalem assembly.
Epiphanius - ". . . the controversy arose after the exodus of the bishops of the circumcision (135) and it has continued until our time (315 - 403)."

Polycarp and Anicetus never reached an agreement about the requirement to observe Passover.

Now we take up the case of Polycrates, Bishop of Ephesus, and Victor, Bishop of Rome. Irenaeus tells us that "...the Church in Ephesus, founded by Paul, and having John remaining among them permanently..., is a true witness of the tradition of the Apostles." Adversus Haereses. Book III, Chapter 3, Verse 4, p. 416

In addition, Eusebius tells us "After he (John) returned from the isle of Patmos to Ephesus, he went to the neighboring territories of the Gentiles, to appoint bishops in some places, in other places to set in order whole churches, elsewhere to choose to the ministry some one of those that were pointed out by the Spirit..." (Eusebius. Church History, Book III, Chapter 23. Translated by the Rev. Arthur Cushman McGiffert. Excerpted from Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series Two, Volume 1. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. American Edition, 1890. Online Edition Copyright 2004 by K. Knight).

The problem of "to observe Passover or not to observe Passover" never went away and resurfaced with a vengeance around 192 when Victor, the bishop of Rome, contacted the leading presbyter over the churches in Asia minor, Polycrates, and instructed him concerning the following: Polycrates called the meeting, discussed the list of demands issued by the Roman Bishop Victor all the while being keenly aware of the requirements of the Apostolic Constitutions. After discussion, they wrote a letter giving the unanimous response of all the Bishops present. Here is the letter, broken out into bulleted points first. Here is the letter in paragraph form...
"[Concerning Passover], we scrupulously observe the exact day; neither adding, nor taking away. For in Asia also great lights have fallen asleep. Among these are the Apostles Philip and John, Polycarp, and others. All these observed the 14th day of the [first] month, in accordance with the Gospel, deviating in no respect, but following the rule of faith. For seven of my relatives were bishops; and I am the eighth. And my relatives ALWAYS observed the day when the people put away the leaven. Exodus 12:15 I have met with the brethren throughout the world, and have gone through every Holy Scripture. I could mention the bishops who were present, whom I summoned at your desire; whose names [...] would constitute a great multitude. And they gave their UNANIMOUS consent to the letter. I am not frightened at the things which are said to terrify us. For those who are greater than I have said, "We ought to obey God rather than men."
Let's review what ALL the Bishops of all the churches in Asia Minor and the surrounding countries concluded...

The Final Conclusion of Polycrates and all the Bishops

Polycrates and all the Bishops concluded that they would not be scared by the threat of excommunication from the Roman Church and that they did not find any Scripture in the Old or New Testament that gave them authority to now stop observing God's commandment concerning keeping the Passover on the 14th day of the first month as originally instructed in the Torah.

The Weight of Evidence

The case is made and the evidence is overwhelming...Paul did not preach a "law-free" gospel but instead a "proselyte-free" gospel. It's time that we reconsider our old interpretations, putting them to the test of Scripture, and fulfill Proverbs 18:17: "The first to present his case seems right, until another comes forward and examines him."

Let's stop all this nonsense, leave behind these incorrect interpretations of Paul's writings, and move forward into a greater understanding of our Hebrew Roots.

  • Colossians 2:16-17
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  • Approbation
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  • Deuteronomy 4:2
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  • Exodus 12:15
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  • Rule of Faith
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  • Great leaders have passed away
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  • Apostolic Constitutions
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