In my last post, we looked at some of the word games COGWA and other Churches of God play to fit their theology around the shadows of Colossians 2. The COGs recognize that they need to make "food" and "drink" mean "eating" and "drinking" in Colossians 2:16, otherwise their teachings about clean and unclean meats, the Holy Days and Sabbath start to unravel.
So COGWA asserts just that, without sources or much scholarly support. In the COGWA article, Colossians 2:16-17: Did Paul Warn Against Keeping God's Law?, Cecil Maranville asserts that the early Church celebrated the Holy Days, in part, through joyous eating and drinking, and that others criticized them for that.
"In summary, Colossians 2 shows that people in the congregation who were promoting ungodly doctrines were criticizing the Christians (both Jews and gentiles) for their joyous observance of festivals, new moons and Sabbaths," Maranville writes. "Paul confronted these heresies, and he told the members who were feasting according to God’s festival and Sabbath laws to carry on as they had been doing."
COGWA correctly recognizes a Gnostic element in many of the criticisms that are leveled at the brethren in Colossians. Although Christian Gnosticism didn't really take the stage until the second century AD, non-Christian Gnosticism had been around for centuries. It's reasonable to assume that Christian Gnosticism didn't spontaneously appear - that some Gnostic beliefs were on the scene in around 60 AD, when most scholars believe Paul wrote Colossians. And of course, one Gnostic tenet included asceticism - the believe that indulging physical pleasures was sinful and should be avoided. Many Gnostics believed in consuming food and drink practically at a subsistence level, and would have frowned on the joyful, bountiful meals COGWA claim believers enjoyed together on Sabbaths and Holy Days.
So if Maranville's claims about this passage are accurate, we probably should find evidence that the early church similarly feasted on New Moons. COGWA hasn't written much about this topic, so instead I'll turn to The United Church of God's 2002 New Moons study paper. It's ok, Maranville and COGWA were part of UCG then anyway. UCG says that instructions on the New Moon are vague - the first part is found in Numbers 10, and called for a blowing of trumpets at the beginning of the month. Unofficial new moon traditions are mentioned from time to time - like King Saul holding a special meal at the palace or sacrifices, funded by a new tax instituted by Nehemiah. During some periods, oral law restricted women's workload during the New Moon.
But by the end of the end of the second temple period, UCG says, New Moon celebrations had become virtually nonexistent. There is no evidence that Christ or his apostles did anything special on the day of the New Moon, UCG concludes. This is probably why they also feel free to conclude that brethren in Colossae were holding some kind of New Moon observance, and Paul was telling them not let ascetics judge their feasting.
"We have no indication of what members in Colossae were doing on New Moons," UCG says. "We only have Paul's instructions not to let heretics impose ascetic practices on them."
Well, guess what? I have an indication of what was going on in Colossae during the New Moons. While the COGs correctly identify the Gnostic elements of the Colossian heresy, they are totally blind to its Jewish aspects, probably because they embrace many of the same teachings. The COGs habitually read right over passages in which Judaizers pressure Gentiles to adopt the laws and practices of the Sinai Covenant, since they do the same thing to a lesser, more cherry-picked degree.
But most others have concluded that the Colossian heresy was a syncretist movement combining Judaism, a pagan forerunner of Gnosticism, and elements of Christianity, according to Expositor's Bible Commentary. For more details, please read my first post on this topic.
In their rush to blame the Gnostics, the COGs miss the detail that the Jews did have a ritual marking the New Moon in Paul's day - Rosh Chodesh. A ritual that had nothing to do with food, liquid, eating or drinking.
Rosh Chodesh (literally "head of the month") corresponds to the Greek word for New Moon, according to David H. Stern's Jewish New Testament Commentary. In Paul's day, when the New Moon was confirmed visually, "word was brought to the rabbis in Jerusalem at the first sighting of the new moon; fires were lit on successive hilltops to signal Rosh-Chodesh to the Diaspora," or Jews who no longer lived in Jerusalem.
After the first Babylonian exile, when many Jews still lived in Babylon, the Jewish courts in Jerusalem set up a system to relay confirmation of the new moon so that those in the Diaspora knew when to keep the holy days (http://www.jewishmag.com/29mag/moon/moon.htm). This was important because only the Sanhedrin could legally set the Holy Day calendar. Astronomical science was advanced enough to predict the date rather reliably, but Jewish law required the testimony of two witnesses to officially establish the New Moon. Jewish historian Flavius Josephus documents the critical role of the witness on page 685 of his Sequel to the History of the Jews. If a person who was one of the first to see the New Moon was physically unable to walk, he was not exempt from the duty to testify about his observation. Instead, he was required to ride on an animal or to be carried on a bed. And even if the witnesses had to travel on the Sabbath, "it will be lawful to profane the Sabbath to travel thereon, to give their evidence as to the appearance of the New Moon." Why? Because establishing the dates for the feasts of the Lord was that important, Josephus indicates.
Once visual confirmation was made, thread and flax were attached to staves of cedar wood, canes, and olive branches and lit on fire on the mountaintops around Jerusalem, Josephus says. They were waved repeatedly until someone was spotted on the next mountain doing the same thing, until "the whole country of the captivity appeared like a blazing fire."
Jews in each community throughout the region would see the fire on the next mountain over, gather on their own hilltop and light their own bonfire (http://www.ritualwell.org/ritual/fire-rosh-chodesh-opening-ritual). At the height of this practice, the fires could be seen from Egypt to Babylon. The Mishna tells us that the first fire was lit on the Mount of Olives and the next relay fire was at Sartaba, a place that was approximately 24 miles away. Sounds like that had to be more than just one guy named Aaron waving a single torch on top of a hill.
The tradition only stopped just before the temple fell, because the Samaritans started lighting fires at conflicting times to try to confuse the Jews and disrupt the holy days. At that point, they started sending messengers out from Jerusalem to carry the news. This is where the Jewish practice of Diaspora Jews celebrating many festivals for extended periods originated - in case the messenger was waylaid.
I don't think it's a stretch to believe that the heretics at Colossae were participating in this tradition. Even a group with Gnostic leanings - like the Essenes- would be concerned with Jewish New Moon traditions if they held the Holy Days and other aspects of the Sinai Covenant. Not only does it sound like an enjoyable tradition (fire, camaraderie and an awesome vantage point), but it included a strong sense of duty. Your town was responsible for passing the important message of the New Moon to those even further away from Jerusalem. If you didn't do your duty, you could be responsible for others missing the New Moon, miscalculating the Holy Days. In other words, you could be responsible for their sin.
So, given all that, tell me, which scenario is more likely?
a. The COG explanation - that no one had celebrated the New Moon for hundreds of year, then brethren at Colossae spontaneously started their own New Moon observance, which involved feasting, and Paul was telling them not to let the ascetics judge them for celebrating.
b. The explanation from Jewish history - that the Jews had been marking New Moons in the way documented by Josephus and many others for around 600 years, and that the Jews and Judaizers were criticizing Colossian brethren who did not gather with them participate in this monthly practice?
Why does it matter? Because the answer is "b", then Colossian brethren were not being criticized for New Moon practices related to food, and the COG argument that this scripture points to criticism from ascetics alone falls apart. And casts doubt on whether the brethren really were being criticized for their feasting on Sabbaths and Holy Days, as the COGs claim.
Also, if the answer is "b", the COGs are encouraging their followers to sin by not celebrating the New Moons. In its paper, UCG claims that, according to Colossians 2:16-17, the brethren were being judged on how they kept the Sabbath and Holy Days, not for keeping them. But if this passage reinforces that the Sabbath and Holy Days are still commanded, then the New Moons are still commanded and those in the COGs who do not observe them are sinning. It's got to be one or the other. If New Moons are not required today, then the other things on the list aren't, either.
In his second book on the annual Holy Days, Dr. Samuele Bacchiocchi also concludes that the New Moon is important primarily for its role in determining when to celebrate the Hebrew festivals.
"Since the dates of the new moon were determined in ancient Israel by actual observation, the appearance of the new moon was essential to the stability of the civil and religious calendar. It signified worship regularity in the observance of the annual feasts which were dependent upon appearance of a new moon." (God's Festivals in Scripture and History, Part II: The Fall Festivals, p. 232).
Without a precise date, one could miscalculate and celebrate a festival on the wrong day, profaning an annual Sabbath. So when Paul told the brethren at Colossae not to let others judge them for not participating in the Rosh Chodesh ritual, it was tantamount to him saying they didn't need to concern themselves with the timing of the Holy Days any more.
Yes, I know Paul's other writings include several references to the Holy Days. Let's remember he was the apostle to the Gentiles, and many of his epistles warned against imposing tenets of the Sinai Covenant on Gentiles. Let's also remember Acts 15. If Gentiles can receive the gift of salvation without keeping Holy Days or abstaining from unclean meats, then Jews can, too, because there is only one path to salvation. Many Messianic Jews still observe these shadows, Stern says, because they are a pleasant part of their culture, but have the substance of Christ as well. But these shadows are irrelevant to Gentiles, since God did not give these commands to them, and Paul urges the Colossians not to be bound to them (p. 611-612). In the early church, Scripture indicates that Christian Jews were pressuring gentiles to adopt practices from the Law of Moses, but it doesn't indicate that Gentiles were pressuring Jews to give up their traditions.
(At this point, I'm sorry to burst your bubble, but if you're in the COGs, unless your last name is Levy or Goldman, your ethnic heritage probably is not Hebrew. At this point genetic research has refuted British Israelism - the theory that Western Europeans and Americans are ethnically descended from the "Lost 10 Tribes of Israel." In short, you are a Gentile. A Gentile God loves, a Gentile for whom Jesus willingly suffered and died, but a Gentile, nonetheless.) For more information along these lines, please visit:
Though I'm probably a little biased after this research, I think there's a high probability that the brethren aren't being criticized for feasting on the New Moons. The odds are very good that their absence at the Rosh Chodesh fires were the issue.
And if the brethren weren't being criticized for feasting on the New Moons, then it's also possible they weren't being criticized simply for their feasting on Sabbaths and Holy Days. Consider also that food and drink, or eating and drinking, or however you would like to translate it, are listed in addition to the Sabbaths and Holy Days. Though Paul was a wordy guy, he wasn't overly redundant.
If the heretics at Colossae were judging the brethren for NOT participating in the Rosh Chodesh ritual, what are the chances that they were also judging them for NOT participating in the Holy Days? Especially when Paul all but said there was no reason to mark the New Moon, the main purpose of which was to calculate the Holy Days.
When we start considering the full context of Colossians 2, we can see the pieces of the puzzle starting to come together. Reassurances about the Colossians' physically uncircumcised state. Discussion about a legal document being nailed to the Cross. Food, New Moons, Sabbaths and Holy Days being described merely as shadows that pointed to Christ. Faith in Jesus being emphasized as the important thing, the current reality. The picture these puzzle pieces create is not a good one for the COG interpretation of Colossians 2.
(This series, and specifically this post, is intended to explore one passage of scripture, not to definitively disprove COG teachings on the Sinai Covenant, clean and unclean meats, Sabbaths and the like. For more information along those lines please visit the following links:
So far, in this series, we have seen COGWA turn to the Greek language to support their interpretation, yet try to twist the Greek to fit the rules of English and their erroneous doctrine. They've provided no sources for their assertions on how to translate "eating" and "drinking" in Colossians 2:16, and have disregarded rules of Greek grammar in the process. They also have failed to properly translate a simple word like "but."
As UCG employees a decade earlier, these same ministers claimed that no one marked the New Moon even as late as Jesus' day. They seem to be totally unaware of the Rosh Chodesh ritual, which lit skies afire from Egypt to Babylon each New Moon for around 600 years.
So, I ask, after seeing all the COG's twisting and spin throughout Colossians 2, will you continue to give them the benefit of the doubt? Or does what you've read raise questions about the conclusions they've drawn from this passage?
In my next two posts, we'll explore Colossians 2:17 as it pertains to the word "shadow." We'll also examine Jewish meaning and symbolism behind the fall Holy Days as shadows cast by Jesus. It's only by understanding this context that we can grasp the heart of what Paul says in this verse.
It is important that you understand; Everything on this blog is based on the current understanding of each author. Never take anyone's word for it, always prove it for yourself, it is your responsibility. You cannot ride someone else's coattail into the Kingdom. ; ) Acts 17:11