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Did Paul Condemn Sabbath Keeping in Galatians 4:9-11?


Eric V. Snow, sermonette, July 10, 2010, Ann Arbor, MI UCG



Did Paul condemn the Galatians for keeping the Sabbath and Holy Days?  Does that mean true Christians today don’t have to keep them?  Were the gentile Galatians turning back to keeping the Old Testament law?  Or were they sliding back into the bondage of their past paganism also?


One short set of verses in Galatians is commonly used to “prove” Christians today don’t need to keep the Sabbath and the Holy Days.  But we shall see otherwise.


S.P.S.  Paul condemned the Galatians for observing pagan time periods, not the Old Testament’s.


Galatians 4:8-11


v. 8:  Paul in the immediate context of his condemnation mentions the Galatians’ pagan background.


v. 9:  What are the “weak and beggarly” elements?  Are these Jewish or pagan?


The Greek word here is “stoicheia.”  It’s crucial to understand this Greek word in order to interpret this section correctly.  Scholars have long debated about what this word exactly means here.  The Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich Greek-English lexicon (pp. 768-769) says “elements (of learning), fundamental principles” of basic education is one (possible) meaning.  It could also refer to the basic “elemental substances” or “stuff” that the universe is made of.  Some scholars believe it refers to the “elemental spirits” which ancient religious teachers associated with the heavenly bodies.  After all, the planets are named for false pagan gods, right?  Mars, Venus, Jupiter, Mercury, etc.  People in the ancient world used to look up at the sky, at the stars, at what we call “outer space” today as divine, as a realm of the gods, as spiritual.   Hence, “stoicheia” also was used to refer to the heavenly bodies, like stars, planets, the moon, etc. 


Later, if we have time today, we’ll return to this point.


Verse 10


Where does the Old Testament command the observance of “seasons”?  The word here is “kairous,” which is a general term that refers to a “time period” or “point of time.”  It doesn’t have to mean a three-month period between a solstice and equinox.  Notice that the words “Sabbath” and those referring to the various holy days do NOT appear in this verse.  So then, those against observing the Sabbath read desired meaning into this verse.


According to Troy Martin, the list in Gal. 4:10 uses terminology completely compatible with a pagan calendar system, and need not be Jewish at all ("Pagan and Judeo-Christian Time-keeping Schemes in Gal 4.10 and Col 2.16," New Testament Studies 42 (Jan. 1996), p. 112):


“When Paul refers to days, months, seasons, and years in Gal. 4.10, he lists categories most characteristic of a pagan time-keeping system.  This list in Gal. 4.10 is not as easily related to Jewish practice, as the wide discrepancies among commentators prove. . . . Since the list in Gal. 4.10 can be either pagan or Jewish, only its context in Galatians can determine the issue.  The immediate context of Gal. 4.10 argues for the pagan character of this list.”


Verse 12:


We know that Paul observed the Holy Days, or else he wouldn’t have been hurrying to get to Jerusalem in order to observe Pentecost (Acts 20:16—Quote if have time).  Hence, for the Galatians to keep these days wouldn’t have made them different from Paul.


Col. 2:18-23 


Obviously not about the Old Testament law.  Where does the Old Testament law say, “Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle”?  Where does it command the worship of angels?  The Old Testament didn’t teach asceticism such as this, even as part of the Nazarite vow.


Conclusion:  Galatians 4:9-11 doesn’t condemn the observance of the Sabbath and Holy Days, but various pagan time periods.  A study of the word “stoicheia” and the immediate context shows the Galatians here were sliding back into paganism, not Judaism.  So let’s not believe that Galatians 4:9-11 abolishes the Sabbath and the Holy Days.


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