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Pagan and Judeo-Christian Time-Keeping Schemes in Gal 4.10 and Col 2.16

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 February 2009

Troy Martin
Saint Xavier University, 3700 West 103rd Street, Chicago, Illinois 60655, USA


Exegetes often cite the list in Gal 4.10 (⋯μέρας κα⋯ μ⋯νας κα⋯ καιροὺς κα⋯ ⋯νιαυτούς days and months and seasons and years) as parallel in content and function to the list in Col 2.16 (⋯ορτ⋯ς ἤ νεομηνίας ἤ σαββάτων a festival or a new moon or Sabbaths). J. B. Lightfoot provides the most extensive explanation of the content and function of these lists, and he reaches two conclusions that permeate the exegetical tradition of these two verses. First, he concludes that the content of the list in Galatians describes a Jewish timekeeping scheme since the list in Colossians clearly does so. His rationale is strengthened by Paul's polemic against the Judaizers in Galatians. Second, he deduces that the Colossian list functions to describe the non-Christian practices of the opponents since the list in Galatians is clearly a non-Christian temporal scheme that should be rejected.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1996

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1 Gerhard Delling explains, ‘Finally, μήν occurs in Gl. 4.10 in connection with Judaising aberrations in the churches, cf. the νεομηνία of Col. 2.16. The two statements correspond in structure; for the observation of months naturally consists in the celebration of the feast of the new moon, as does that of years in the celebration of New Year's Day.…If the error of the Galatians is not exactly the same as that of the Colossians, the latter approximating closer to syncretism, it is still possible to treat the two passages together from our standpoint’ (‘μήν, νεομηνία’, TDNT 4 [1967] 641).Google Scholar

2 Lightfoot, J. B., Saint Paul's Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon (Zondervan Commentary Series; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979) 193–4.Google Scholar

3 Heinrich Schlier concurs, ‘Diese Forderungen verraten nach Geist und Inhalt wieder die Art eines Judentums, dessen Spuren wir noch im aeth. Hen. und bei judenchristlichen Sekten finden.…Daβ solche Anschauungen in christliche Gemeinden auch sonst eindrangen, bestätigt wiederum der Kolosserbrief. Vgl. Kol 2.16–23’ (Der Brief an die Galater [MeyerK 7; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1965] 204, 206).Google Scholar

4 Franz Muβner argues, ‘Da die Gegner judaisierende Judenchristen sind, muβ eine Fährte, die ins Frühjudentum zurückführt, aufgenommen werden; diese Aufnahme bleibt nicht ohne Erfolg. Es gab im Frühjudentum, speziell bei den Apokalyptikern und den Qumranessenern, eine Kalenderfrömmigkeit', die nicht am Rande, sondern im Zentrum der religiösen Glaubensüberzeugung stand’ (Der Galaterbrief [HTKNT 9; Freiburg: Herder, 1988] 298–9).Google Scholar

5 Gnilka, Joachim, Der Kolosserbrief (HTKNT 10.1; Freiburg: Herder, 1980) 146Google Scholar n. 9; Bruce, F. F., Commentary on the Epistles to the Ephesians and the Colossians (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957) 244.Google Scholar

6 Exegetes who argue for syncretistic Judaizers at Galatia frequently appeal to the non Jewish formulations in Gal 4.8–11 and either implicitly or explicitly distinguish between Gal 4.10 and Col 2.16. These interpreters represent an exception to the tradition influenced by Lightfoot. See note 40 below. Philip Vielhauer discusses these interpreters and refutes their principal argument based upon the term στοιχεῖα (‘Gesetzesdienst und Stoicheiadienst im Galaterbrief’, Oikodome [TBü 65; ed. Klein, G.; Munich: Kaiser, 1979] 183–95).Google Scholar More recently, Dieter Lührmann explains these lists as emphasizing different dimensions of the Jewish Torah. The cosmic calendar in Gal 4.10 is based upon the courses of the heavenly bodies and reflects the cosmic order established by the Torah. The festival calendar in Col 2.16 arises from the historical experiences of Israel and emphasizes the cultic aspect of the Torah. According to Lührmann, the former calendar more effectively than the latter serves the interests of the Jewish proselytization of Gentiles (‘Tage, Monate, Jahreszeiten, Jahre (Gal 4,10)’, Werden und Wirken des Alten Testaments [ed. Rainer Albertz and others; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1980] 430–1).Google Scholar The dependence of the Jewish festival calendar upon the heavenly bodies and the cultic celebrations connected with the cosmic calendar minimize Lührmann's distinction between these lists in Jewish practice. Either the sun (Jub 2.9) or the moon (Sir 43.6–7) or both (1 Enoch 82.9) determine the times of the feasts. Nevertheless, Lührmann's distinction is useful in theory as long as both lists are considered to be Jewish. Unfortunately, Lührmann does not seriously consider that the list in Gal 4.10 may be pagan instead of Jewish. Robert Jewett has also depicted the differences in these lists as an attempt by the Galatian agitators to present Jewish cultic activity in Hellenized terms so as to win converts more quickly (‘The Agitators and the Galatian Congregation’, NTS 17 [1971] 208).Google Scholar As the present essay demonstrates, none of these explanations adequately explains the differences since all incorrectly connect the list in Gal 4.10 with Judaism and the list in Col 2.16 with the opponents.

7 Lührmann, , ‘Tage’, 430–1.Google Scholar

8 E. F. Scott states, ‘In this respect the heresy plainly shewed its Jewish affiliations. Three kinds of festival were recognized in Judaism – annual, monthly, weekly. These all, as we can gather here, were adopted by the heretical sect’ (The Epistles of Paul to the Colossians, to Philemon and to the Ephesians [MNTC; London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1930] 52).Google Scholar

9 Hugedé, Norbert, Commentaire de l'Épître aux Colossiens (Genève: Labor et Fides, 1968) 143;Google ScholarSchlatter, Adolf, Die Briefe an die Galater, Epheser, Kolosser und Philemon (Erläuterungen zum Neuen Testament 7; Stuttgart: Calwer, 1963) 285.Google Scholar For a discussion of how the notion of Christian freedom functions in the argument in Galatians, see Schlier, (An die Galater, 207).Google Scholar

10 As the perceptive interlocutor in Calvin's commentary observes, however, ‘We [Christians] still keep some observance of days’ (Calvin, John, The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians [Calvin's Commentaries; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965] 337).Google Scholar Calvin's unconvincing response to this interlocutor argues that Christians observe these days out of pragmatism, not obligation.

11 Betz, Hans Dieter explains, ‘Paul'…Corinthian correspondence is almost entirely preoccupied with his attempts to interpret Christian freedom as communal and ethical responsibility’ (Paul's Concept of Freedom in the Context of Hellenistic Discussions about the Possibilities of Human Freedom [Protocol of the Colloquy of the Center for Hermeneutical Studies in Hellenistic and Modern Culture 26; Berkeley: The Center for Hermeneutical Studies in Hellenistic and Modern Culture, 1977], 11).Google Scholar See also Jones, F. Stanley (‘Freiheit’ in den Briefen des Apostels Paulus [GTA 34; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1987]);Google ScholarVollenweider, Samuel (Freiheit als neue Schöpfung [FRLANT 147; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1989]).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

12 Paul constantly warns his communities against idolatrous practices. See 1 Cor 5.10–11; 6.9; 10.7,14; and Gal 5.20.

13 For examples, see Bickerman, E. J. (Chronology of the Ancient World [Ithaca: Cornell University, 1968] 20, 50, 59).Google Scholar

14 Finegan, Jack, Handbook of Biblical Chronology (Princeton: Princeton University, 1964) 3446.Google Scholar

15 The only exception being the day before the Sabbath that became known as the day of preparation for the Sabbath (Finegan, , Handbook, 15).Google Scholar

16 N. T. Wright perceptively notes Paul never says in Colossians or in Galatians that Christianity has nothing to do with Judaism even though such a statement would clinch his argument against observance of Jewish regulations (Colossians and Philemon [Tyndale New Testament Commentaries; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986] 119).Google Scholar

17 Herbert Jennings Rose states, ‘Strictly speaking, neither Jews nor Christians observe a week, since both officially reject astrology, but a festival (Sabbath and Sunday respectively) which occurs at intervals of seven days’ (‘Time-Reckoning’, OCD [Oxford: Clarendon, 1970] 1075).Google Scholar For a discussion of the Jewish Sabbath practices, see Goldenburg, Robert (‘The Jewish Sabbath in the Roman World up to the Time of Constantine the Great’, ANRW II: Principat 19/1 [1979] 414–47).Google Scholar

18 These events support the Christian adoption of the Jewish time-keeping system whether or not these events actually occurred.

19 The RSV's translation three weeks is incorrect. The text reads, ‘three Sabbaths’. Since the Jews number inclusively, three Sabbaths would only designate two weeks.

20 T. C. G. Thornton explains, ‘The word: μήν, as well as meaning “month”, can also be used to refer to a new moon or New Moon festival.…Both Biblical and Rabbinical writers use the same word (שדח) to refer to both “new moon” and “month”’ (‘Jewish New Moon Festivals, Galatians 4.3–11 and Colossians 2.16’, JTS 40 [1989] 99 n. 13).Google Scholar

21 Schürer, Emil states, ‘The Jewish months have continued always to be what the “months” of all civilized nations were by origin; namely, genuine lunar months’ (The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ [revised edition, Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1973] 1.588).Google Scholar He further specifies the Jewish practice at the time of Jesus Christ by saying, ‘…they [the Jews] still had no fixed calendar, but on the basis of purely empirical observation, began each new month with the appearance of the new moon, and similarly on the basis of observation, intercalated one month in the spring of the third or second year in accordance with the rule that in all circumstances Passover must fall after the vernal equinox’ (History, 1.590).

22 The exegetical insistence upon interpreting νεομηνία exclusively as a Jewish New Moon festival fails to distinguish between the dual uses of this term as a temporal marker and as the name of a religious festival. Delling cites examples of both usages (‘μήν’, 639–40).

23 Philip Carrington has studied the Christian time-keeping scheme in detail. He provides evidence that ‘a Liturgical Year of the Hebrew type’ was established in early Christian communities (The Primitive Christian Calendar [Cambridge: University, 1952] 3744).Google Scholar Carrington then reconstructs the Christian Liturgical Year beginning with the seventh new moon from Passover and includes the temporal segments of Sabbaths, months demarcated by new moons, and festivals that determine seasons of the year (Calendar, 117–202). In contrast to Carrington, Thornton cites the Ep. of Diognetus (4.1) and Kerugma Petrou (Clement of Alexandria Strom. 6.5.41) as evidence that Christians reject the Jewish temporal scheme (‘New Moon’, 98). However, these passages as well as the Ep. of Barnabas (2.5; 15.8) merely object to the Jewish practices performed on the days of Sabbath and new moon without denying the time-segments determined by these days. All these passages demonstrate is that Christian practices on these days differed from Jewish practice by the time these documents were written.

24 Lightfoot, notes, ‘The same three words occur together, as an exhaustive enumeration of the sacred times among the Jews’ (Colossians, 193).Google Scholar

25 Although almost all the peoples of the Mediterranean world mark the month by the appearance of the new moon, several civil calendars with fixed months that ignored the moon gained prominence among many other peoples but not the Jews (Bickerman, , Chronology, 17).Google Scholar See Finegan's discussion of the Jewish calendars in Jubilees and 1 Enoch as well as at Qumran (Handbook, 44–57). Finegan concludes that these calendars were solar and reacted against the reliance upon the moon for determining the feasts and holy days. Nevertheless, these solar calendars never gained prominence among the Jews of the first century, and the sectarian reaction against lunar calculations actually confirms the importance of the moon to Jewish time-keeping in general (Schürer, , History, 1.599).Google Scholar

26 Paul Giem correctly distinguishes between the cultic practices and sacrifices that occurred on Sabbaths and festivals and the days themselves (‘Sabbaton in Col. 2.16’, Andrews University Seminary Studies 19 [1981] 195210).Google Scholar Unfortunately, he incorrectly argues that this list refers primarily to cultic practices.

27 Josephus, , Against Apion 2.282;Google ScholarThackeray, H. St. J., Josephus [LCL; New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1926] 1.404–7).Google Scholar Indeed, Sabbath practices were not uniform in the various Jewish communities. See Goldenburg, (‘Jewish Sabbath’, 415, 424–6).Google Scholar

28 1 Cor 5.8 indicates some modification of the Jewish rituals by the Pauline communities.

29 Schlier notes a similar distinction in the Galatian list between the time-segments and the religious practice associated with them (An die Galater, 203).

30 A complete argument for the Christian practice of the calendar in Col 2.16 requires an investigation of the phrase ἅ έστιν τ⋯ν μελλόντων in 2.17 and an identification of the practitioners of the humility, worship of messengers, and eating and drinking in 2.16, 18. I am currently engaged in such a study and hope to submit it for publication soon.

31 The astral week of seven days named after the sun, moon, and five planets is another alternative. However, this alternative would have been just as repulsive to Paul and his communities as any other non-Jewish system.

32 Another system is the Roman market day. Every ninth day was a market day, and each of the days is designated by the letters A–H.

33 Rose, , ‘Time-Reckoning’, 1075–6.Google Scholar

34 Bickerman, , Chronology, 70–9.Google Scholar

35 Lührmann correctly notes the pagan nature of season in contrast to the Jewish festival (‘Tage’, 437–8).

36 Schlier discusses the enormous divergence of opinion about how this list in Galatians relates to the Jewish liturgical calendar (An die Galater, 206 n. 1). Even though he continues to equate the functions of the two lists, H. D. Betz astutely notes distinctions in their content. He comments on Gal 4.10, ‘Also, the cultic activities described in v. 10 are not typical of Judaism (including Jewish Christianity, though they are known to both Judaism and paganism’ (Galatians [Hermeneia; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979] 217).Google Scholar Similarly Eduard Schweizer says, ‘The Jewish character of the formulation of Gal 4.10…is less evident’ (‘Slaves of the Elements and Worshipers of Angels: Gal 4.3, 9 and Col 2.8, 19, 20’, JBL 107 [1988] 465).Google Scholar Even Lightfoot, who equates these lists, must admit that seasons, months, and days in Gal 4.10 are more vague than their counterparts of festival, new moon and Sabbaths in Col 2.16 (Colossians, 194).

37 Schlier cites other parallels to Gal 4.10 from Jubilees and the Qumran documents (An die Galater, 204–5). Even though Jewish authors make various attempts to integrate and correlate this scheme into the liturgical calendar established by the Mosaic covenant, these attempts prove unsuccessful. The hope for precise integration resides largely in the expectation of a new creation when all will be synchronized. Jewett notes, ‘The search for exact equivalents has ended in vain’ (‘Agitators’, 207–8).

38 Muβner, , Galaterbrief, 301.Google Scholar Muβner's explanation, however, sacrifices the integrity of the immediate context for the broader context.

39 Betz comments, ‘Paul submits a test which demonstrates that his evaluation of the Galatians’ intent is correct' (Galatians, 217).

40 For example, see Fung, Ronald Y. K. (The Epistle to the Galatians [NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988] 192–3).Google Scholar A few exegetes, however, refuse to surrender the immediate context to the broader context. Instead, they propose a syncretism in which pagan elements combine with Jewish legal observances. See Crownfield, Frederic R. (‘The Singular Problem of the Dual Galatians’, JBL 64 [1945] 491500);Google ScholarSchmithals, Walter (Paul and the Gnostics [Nashville: Abingdon, 1972] 43–6;Google Scholar‘Judaisten in Galatien?’, ZNW 74 [1983] 2758);Google ScholarJewett, (‘Agitators’, 207–8).Google Scholar For a discussion of this interpretive tradition, see note 6 above.

41 Bernard Hungerford Brinsmead argues that if the calendrical observances of 4.10 are non-Jewish, then circumcision must also be non-Jewish (Brinsmead, , Galatians: Dialogical Response to Opponents [SBLDS 65; Chico, CA: Scholars, 1982] 29).Google Scholar Since the latter is unlikely, he contends that the former is also unlikely. Thus, he denies the immediate context in favour of the broader context.

42 Charles Henry Cosgrove questions whether circumcision is an entrance requirement, a requirement only for full membership, or simply an option for those who desire spiritual perfection (The Cross and the Spirit [Macon, GA: Mercer University, 1988] 7).Google Scholar All of these positions are represented among exegetes, but the force of έκκλείω in 4.17 argues for circumcision as an entrance requirement. Horst Balz translates, ‘They want to shut you out [from the community of salvation]’ (‘Έκκλείω’, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament 1 [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990] 410).Google Scholar See also Schlier, (Are die Galater, 212)Google Scholar and Sanders, E. P. (Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People [Philadelpha: Fortress, 1983] 1729).Google Scholar Sanders comments, ‘The debate in Galatians is a debate about “entry” in the sense of what is essential in order to be considered a member at all’ (Paul, 20). Jewett explains, ‘The phrase…οὖτοι άναγκάζουσιν ύμ⋯ς περιτέμνεσθαι (vi. 12), refers to the “necessity” of circumcision. Apparently for the agitators it was a condition sine qua non for salvation’ (‘Agitators’, 200).

43 J. B. Lightfoot discusses the severe tone of the letter (The Epistle of Saint Paul to the Galatians [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1957] 64–5).Google Scholar

44 After summarizing the traditional interpretation, Jewett states, ‘It is a rather puzzling state of affairs’ (‘Agitators’, 209).

45 For example, B. C. Lategan identifies the basis of Paul's argument as the Galatians' decision to submit to circumcision (‘The Argumentative Situation of Galatians’, Neot 26 [1992] 269).Google Scholar

46 David J. Lull examines three arguments to explain the Galatians' eagerness to be circumcised (The Spirit in Galatia [SBLDS 49; Chico, CA: Scholars, 1980] 2939).Google Scholar First, the Galatians took religion seriously. This argument fails because much of the ancient world should have been circumcised if circumcision results from religious intensity. Second, the Galatians wanted to be genuinely circumcised Jews. Apart from the traditional interpretation of Galatians, there is no evidence that acceptance of Christianity among Gentiles ever produced such a desire, and Lull's citing Galatians as evidence only results in a circular argument. The example of Izates' conversion to Judaism that Lull mentions is not parallel to the situation in Galatia. Third, the Galatians were frustrated by the inability of the gospel to curb problems with the flesh, and they sought to remedy this defect by circumcision. Even Lull recognizes problems with this argument. Thus, none of the arguments Lull examines is a convincing proof that the Galatians were desiring circumcision.

47 Meeks, Wayne A., The First Urban Christians (New Haven: Yale University, 1983) 75–7.Google Scholar

48 For opposing positions, see the discussion in Brinsmead, (Galatians, 187).Google Scholar Brinsmead, however, argues for homogeneity based upon his dialogical analysis.

49 Brinsmead, , Galatians, 28.Google Scholar

50 Brinsmead's statement that the Galatians as a whole had accepted circumcision is true but not in the way he means it (Galatians, 218 n. 54). The Galatians recognize circumcision as a valid requirement of the Christian gospel, but they do not agree to become circumcised.

51 The option of partial participation in the opposing gospel is unlikely because this option would still leave the Galatians excluded from Christianity. See the discussion of this option above.

52 The exegetical effort devoted to explaining Paul's argument in Galatians is immense. In addition to the older works, dozens of articles have appeared recently, esp. in Neotestamentica 26.2 (1992). Unfortunately, this enormous effort rests upon an incorrect understanding of the actual stasis of Paul's argument. The stasis is the Galatians' apostasy from Christianity and return to paganism, both of which are occasioned by their acceptance of circumcision as a requirement of the Christian gospel. In view of this stasis, all previous interpretations of Paul's argument in Galatians require reconsideration. Obviously, this task transcends the present essay.

53 Gal 1.11–2.21 is generally understood to be a defence of Paul's apostleship in response to the hostile accusations of his opponents. As Bernard Lategan and D. J. Verseput adequately demonstrate, however, the basic purpose of this passage is to validate Paul's circumcisionfree gospel. Lategan locates the misreading of Galatians as a defence of Paul's apostleship in the unwarranted influence of the Corinthian correspondence (NTS 34 [1988] 411). Verseput remarks, ‘Paul employs the story of his own independent calling and career to defend neither his right to preach the gospel nor his authority over the Galatian church, but to support the validity of his converts’ salvation without incorporation into the ranks of Christendom', Jewish (‘Paul's Gentile Mission and the Jewish Christian Community’, NTS 39 [1993] 38).Google Scholar Unfortunately, neither Lategan nor Verseput comprehends the significance of their insight for the basic stasis of Paul's overall argument. Furthermore, a sharp dichotomy between the related issues of Paul's apostolic defence and the validation of his gospel should be avoided.

54 Betz discusses these various aspects of Paul's argument (Galatians, 28, 30–3). For more recent studies of these aspects, see Kertelge, K.The Assertion of Revealed Truth as Compelling Argument in Galatians 1:10–2:21’, Neot 26 (1992) 339–50;Google ScholarPelser, G. M. M., ‘The Opposition Faith and Works as Persuasive Device in Galatians (3:6–14)’, Neot 26 (1992) 389405;Google ScholarCronje, J. van W., ‘The Stratagem of the Rhetorical Question in Gal 4:9–10 as a Means Toward Persuasion’, Neot 26 (1992) 417–24;Google ScholarPretorius, E. A. C., ‘The Opposition ΠΝΕΥΜΑ and ΣΑΡΞ as Persuasive Summons (Gal 5:13–6:10)’, Neot 26 (1992) 441–60.Google Scholar

55 In spite of incorrectly identifying the list in Gal 4.10 as a list of Jewish temporal categories, Muβner correctly observes that astrological associations are the reason Paul would reject this list (Galaterbrief, 302).

56 Blinzler, Josef, ‘Lexikalisches zu dem Terminus τα στοιχεῖα το⋯ κόσμου bei Paulus’, AnBib 18 (1961) 429–42;Google ScholarSchweizer, , ‘Slaves of the Elements’, 455–68;Google ScholarRusan, D., ‘Neue Belege zu den στοιχεῖα το⋯ κόσμου (Gal 4,3. 9; Kol 2, 8. 20)’, ZNW 83 (1992) 119–25.Google Scholar

57 Oepke, Albrecht, Der Brief des Paulus an die Galater (THKNT 9; Berlin: Evangelische erlagsanstalt, 1957) 102–3.Google Scholar

58 Betz, , Galatians, 261.Google Scholar

59 Meeks, , Urban Christians, 76.Google Scholar

60 Lightfoot, , Galatians, 64–5.Google Scholar

61 Brinsmead states, ‘Έπιστρέφειν (4.9) therefore denotes a complete apostasy from the deep things of religion as does the sequence of beginning and ending in 3.1–5’ (Galatians, 122).

62 Brinsmead correctly contends that the Galatians are ‘at once judge, jury, and offending party’ to Paul's argument (Galatians, 235). J. R. Sampley's study confirms Brinsmead's contention because the oath Paul takes in Gal 1.20 is directed to the Galatians and oaths were usually directed to the opposing party in a legal dispute (‘“Before God, I Do Not Lie” (Gal 1.20)’, NTS 23 [1971] 477–82).Google Scholar

63 I have completed an analysis of the entire Galatian letter in an article entitled ‘Apostasy to Paganism: The Rhetorical Stasis of the Galatian Controversy’.

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