“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 a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” Colossians 2:16-17 (ESV)
An acquaintance of mine made the following comments about this passage:
Many of the Jews at that time were trying to enforce the restrictions of the law upon the Gentile Christians, telling them they should not eat pork or shell fish, etc., telling them they should observe all the feasts, new moons, sabbaths, etc.
Paul was telling them that these requirements were not necessary, and to not be concerned about the Jews judging them in these matters.
Where does this common assumption about this passage come from? That might be difficult to answer, so let’s focus on why I question the assumption.
Paul indicates we are not to allow anyone to judge us in regard to festivals/sabbaths or eating/drinking. Our first question ought to be: Judge us in regard to what pertaining to festivals/sabbaths or eating/drinking?
We typically assume that Paul is indicating we are not to allow anyone to judge us in regard to if we keep a particular festival or particular sabbath. But from the text itself it is equally possible that Paul was saying not to let anyone judge us in regard to how we keep festivals/Sabbaths or in regard to whether we are more stringent than the dietary laws of Torah require. So this means we need to investigate the context surrounding the passage in order to determine Paul’s likely meaning.
Let’s assume for a moment that Paul means don’t let anyone judge you in regard to if you keep the festivals/sabbaths. Does Paul indicate that you are to prevent people from judging you since you do keep or because you don’t keep?
The text itself doesn’t answer this question, so what we assume is determined by whatever presuppositions we bring to the passage. Many would say they make this determination on the basis of other “proof-texts” from the New Testament (e.g., Matthew 12, Mark 7, Acts 10, 1 Timothy 4:1-5). Since those are debatable, where ought we to turn to try and determine what Paul meant? Historical context, of course! (It should be noted here, that a basic building block of proper interpretive method is to consider a passage in isolation of possible corollary passages prior to considering it in light of other Scriptures, which themselves ought to have been considered in isolation first.)
Q: Is there a single scrap of historical evidence indicating there was any group of 1st century people suggesting that YHWH-worshippers not keep the Sabbath or the festivals?
A: There is not.
Q: Is there any evidence that 1st Century YHWH-worshippers were taking the position that one need not abide by God’s laws for what is food and what is not?
Q: Is there anything about drink dealt with in God’s Law?
A: Yes, one is to partake of alcoholic beverages in moderation and not to consume blood.
Is there historical evidence that some segments of pagan society were drinking blood? Abundant evidence; the drinking of blood was the focal point of specific religious festivals in Ephesus and Smyrna, for example.
Is there any evidence that the drinking of wine was a contemporary issue? Yes. Wine was typically opened and then splashed on the ground as a libation offering to whoever was the household god. Therefore most Jews and many Gentile believers were of the opinion that when eating in the home of a Gentile, it was best to simply abstain from drinking wine since you couldn’t know for sure whether the wine you drank had been consecrated to an idol or not. (Some rabbis ruled that if the wine was opened in your presence it was then okay to drink.)
The issue was almost exactly the same with meat, though with slight variations. Paul was most certainly not discussing kosher vs. non-kosher meat or drink, but rather whether these had been consecrated to idols. This clearly was a hot button issue in mid-1st Century Asia Minor. We can read about it in extra-biblical writings and elsewhere in the writings of Paul (e.g., Rom. 14; 1 Cor. 8).
Similarly, were there sects which prescribed eating/drinking or festivals/sabbaths in addition to those of biblical prescription? Yes, there were. They were of an ascetic and proto-Gnostic nature, and Paul apparently is forced to deal with them on more than one occasion. He specifically warns against these same folks in 1 Timothy 4:1-5.
Let’s move to considering if there is historical evidence for how versus if one should observe particular days.
Q: Were there any contemporary debates over when and/or how one should observe festivals and the Sabbath?
A: Why, as a matter of fact there was a raging debate over exactly this issue. It can be observed from Qumran to Jerusalem, from Josephus to Ptolemy.
In fact, it was so prevalent that at least four competing calendars existed in Paul’s day. The Qumrani sect had a solar calendar, the Romans observed a solar calendar of sorts that changed from time to time (they even experimented with an 8-day week), the Pharisees had one lunar calendar and the Sadducees had another. We know that there were believers of the Pharisaic persuasion; it seems equally likely that former Sadducees or Essenes (former disciples of John the Baptist ?) also believed in Jesus, and then you have former pagans who may have followed an entirely different calendar, not to mention set of religious festivals.
So, does it seem plausible that there may have been a group urging the keeping of Passover on the 14th of Nissan and another group urging it’s keeping on the same day as the pagan Easter celebration? Oh, my goodness–that actually happened didn’t it! You can read all about it in Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History (Book V, Chapter 24).
Now I don’t know the specific answer to what Paul is referring to in Colossians 2: 16 & 17, but I would suggest that the least likely suggestion is that he is urging people to abandon the commandments of God regarding the “Festivals of the Lord”, which were “perpetual statutes for all your generations” or that Paul is vetoing God and declaring that which God declared abominable (unclean meats) suddenly kosher. It seems most likely that Paul is referring to the same proto-Gnostic heretics that he battles elsewhere in the Epistles.
Let’s talk just a bit about verse 17.
There is a significant disparity between how various translations render verse 17; it ranges from very good to actually irresponsible translation. The ESV, the NKJV, and ASV represent some of the best efforts in this case. The NASB, in this instance, is surprisingly inaccurate (although at least they admit it…by putting words added by the translators in italics), and the NIV is downright shameful.
Many folks assume verse 17 is a derogatory or diminutive reference to the festivals and sabbaths of verse 16, but the reality is 180 degrees different. The NASB actually inserts the word “mere” to support the impression of “shadows” of something less than and dismissive, but in reality, the verse is stating that the festivals and sabbaths are the shadows cast by the substance, Messiah himself. As such, these shadows are copies and shadows of the reality that is in heaven (see Heb 8:5) and the closest thing to what we will eventually experience in person along with Messiah in the world to come. The NIV actually changes the tense to past instead of future!
I hope this short investigation has prompted you to ask questions about the text of Scripture that may never have occurred to you before. I hope it has also prompted a re-examination of Scripture passages whose meaning you may have previously considered obvious. Stay tuned and we’ll investigate other potentially troubling passages in the future.