Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Word Games

English is a funny language. We use the same English word - love - to discuss our feelings for our spouse, our dog, our football team and our favorite pizza topping. And even those concepts are more closely related than some English words that share a common spelling.

Ancient Greek, however, is not like English. With half a dozen words that describe different aspects of love, it is a tad more precise than English. Obviously, like anything devised by men, it can be misunderstood. But I'm sure glad the New Testament was originally written in Greek instead of English. Wait, you knew that, right? Just wondering. Because apparently some Church of God splinters are a little shaky on that fact. Ahem, COGWA, I'm looking at you.

Since the COGs are in the midst of the Fall Holy Day season, I decided to study Colossians 2, particularly verses 13-17, in which Paul refers to the festivals (among other things) as a "shadow". Naturally, I turned to groups like COGWA, UCG and LCG to see what the COGs are teaching these days. One of COGWA's articles - Colossians 2:16-17:Did Paul Warn Against Keeping God's Law?, by Cecil Maranville, particularly interested me. Mostly because it turned out to be a whole lot of word games with very little scholarship backing them up. But I'm not just picking on COGWA. Similar articles with similar problems appear on many COG splinter web sites.

Before we get started, let's look at the verses in question, from the NKJV translation:

"So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ." Colossians 2:16-17

One of COGWA's first criticisms of Protestant Christianity's take on this passage is that biased translators supposedly misinterpret verse 17. No shock there, that's a common COG argument. What Maranville wrote next, however, did surprise me. He cited Paul's tendency toward writing long sentences and claims that the "but the body" statement in verse 17 should be connected with "Let no one judge you" from verse 16. As opposed to it being juxtaposed with the "shadow" concept earlier in the same verse, that is. He then asserts that Paul meant that no one should allow anyone to judge how they celebrate the New Moons, Sabbaths and festivals but, or except, the Body of Christ, the church.

"In other words, let no man or group of men judge you on how you are practicing the Old Testament laws and customs. Listen only to the body of Christ, the Church," Maranville says in his article.

Ironically, Maranville makes a mistake similar to the one he accused the translators of making - a biased misinterpretation based on what he wants the Greek to say. Remember, in English, one word can have many different, often unrelated meanings. This is not usually the case in Greek.

In Colossians 2:17, the word "but" is the word "de" in Greek, which can mean "also", "and," "moreover" or "now," according to Spiros Zodhiates' Complete Word Study of the New Testament. It can also be translated as "on the other hand" or "nevertheless," according to Thayer's Greek Lexicon. The particle indicates opposition and distinction, and is often added to statements opposed to a preceding statement, according to Thayer's.

We see examples of "de" being used in 1 Corinthians 2:15 (But he who is spiritual judges all things), Acts 12:5 (Peter was therefore kept in prison, but constant prayer was offered to God for him by the church), Acts 12:9 (Peter followed him out of the prison, and did not know that what was done by the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision) and Romans 4:5 (But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness), among other passages.

By comparison, the English word "but" that is synonymous for "except" is the Greek term "ei me" except, if not, more than, save (only). We see this term in verses like 1 John 2:22 (Who is a liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ?), John 3:13 (No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven), Acts 11:19 (preaching the word to no one but the Jews only) and I Corinthians 8:4 (and that there is no other God but one), among others.  

So the Greek word meaning "but" in Colossians 2:17 can also be translated in ways like "moreover," "on the other hand" and often indicates distinction, opposing a preceding statement. This is the term we see in this passages - contrasting the shadow of the festivals with the reality of Christ. The word cannot mean "except" - it is a totally different Greek word with a different roots. Maranville's argument is like claiming that a man who plans to "lead" an expedition is really planning on poisoning them with the element "lead". The fact that two words are spelled the same in English doesn't mean they share a common Greek etymology.

So even though I've shown that the first half of COGWA's argument doesn't make any sense, I'll play along for the second part, where they address the phrase "body of Christ." To be fair, the Greek word "soma" (body) in Colossians 2:17 is sometimes used as COGWA claims. It can be translated as a flesh-and-blood body, the Church as the Body of Christ or a material or substance. Elsewhere in the Bible, the phrase used in Colossians 2:17 sometimes refers to the Church and other times refers to Jesus' literal body. Given this, let's look at the context.

Which makes more sense:

"So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, on the other hand the Church."

"Which are a shadow of things to come, moreover the Church."

"Which are a shadow of things to come, nevertheless the Church."


"So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, on the other hand the substance is Christ."

"Which are a shadow of things to come, moreover the body is Christ."

"Which are a shadow of things to come, nevertheless the substance is Christ."

Even a cursory reading shows us COGWA's translation makes no sense in context. Nor does it even have any connection to the word "shadow." When we consider that Thayer's explains the Greek word "de" is used to compare and contrast with a preceding statement, it's hard to escape the conclusion that Paul is contrasting the intangible nature of a shadow with a tangible object that creates the shadow. We'll explore more on that topic at a later time. For now, let's move on to COGWA's next questionable point of scholarship.

Next, COGWA asserts that the words "food" and "drink" in verse 16 are in the gerund form, so a more accurate translation would be "eating" and "drinking." For now, I'll ignore the fact that they never provide a source for this claim and move on to the gerund issue.

Now, before you get mad at me for getting picky about obscure parts of speech, I want to tell you that I didn't even remember what a gerund was. And I'm a writer. So I'm not the one trying to look all scholarly here. I had to look it up. (In case you're wondering, it's a word that's derived from a verb that functions as a noun. Basically you tack an "ing" on the end of a verb to make a gerund). But I'm glad I looked it up. Do you know why? Because that's how I learned there is no such thing as a Greek gerund. Latin has gerunds. English has gerunds. But Greek - the language in which the New Testament is written - does not.

Why is that important? Because it means that, for the second time in the same article, COGWA is assuming a conclusion based on its preferred English translation of a word and tries to make us interpret the original Greek text through that definition. If Maranville is talking about gerunds, he must be discussing English grammar, not Greek, because there is no such thing in Greek. If COGWA is going to make sweeping claims about biased translators while forcing their own biased translation on us, they should at least provide a source for their biased translation.

In the original Greek, the word "brosis" can either mean "eating" or "food," according to Zodhiates' Complete Word Study of the New Testament. The same book says in that specific verse, it is a noun that is part of an anarthrous construction. An anarthrous construction refers to a word or group of words which appear without a definite article. According to Zodhiates, it's often best to translate these constructions by supplying a definite article - by inserting "a," "an" or "the."

Ok, let's try it and see what makes logical sense:

"So let no one judge you in an eating...".

"So let no one judge you in a food...".

And, just for fun, let's try it in the King James Version, since many COG members consider any translation that's newer to be watered down.

"Let no man therefore judge you in a meat...". 
     Woops! I bet that NKJV is suddenly looking more attractive to them.

Biblically speaking, we do see "brosis" referring to the act of eating, as in 1 Corinthians 8:4. In verses like John 6:27, Hebrews 12:16 and 2 Corinthians 9:10, the word clearly applies to food. In the latter two, it's a noun that's part of an anarthrous construction. I'm not going to say it's impossible for Colossians 2:16 to mean "eating," but it doesn't seem to fit the pattern. At any rate, the word can mean "eating" but there's no reason, no evidence for Maranville to say that the word must mean "eating," except for that's what COGWA wants it to mean
And why does COGWA want "brosis" to mean "eating?". So that they don't have to explain why this verse could just as easily mean what they argue against -- not letting anyone judge believers in the specific foods they ate.

And now we get to the heart of the matter.

The COGs claim that Paul was refuting Gnostic ascetics in Colossians 2. Ascetics believed that indulging the fleshly desire for enjoyable food was sinful, and as a result, they highly restricted their food intake and the types of food they would eat. These ascetics, the COGs claim, were criticizing the brethren of the early church because of the physical feasting they did on Holy Days, the Sabbath and, apparently, the New Moon. 
Never mind that COGWA never explains how eating and drinking could be a shadow of Christ. The Sabbath and Holy Days I can see. I can even see clean and unclean meats as a shadow of the separation between Jew and Gentile. But eating and drinking? Those are one step away from bodily functions.
At any rate, to accept the COG's interpretation, we ALSO have to ignore the fact that the Sabbath and festivals are listed separately from matters of food and drink. 
I know, Paul's a wordy guy, we all know that, whatever, he was just being poetic.

I know, part of you is wondering whether you should believe me. What if I'm the one playing word games here and COGWA has it right? That's a fair question. I welcome you to test what I've written. Grab your Bible helps and read it for yourself. If you don't have the resources at home, web sites like have many free tools. Just to get you started, here's a link to Biblehub's interlinear Greek Bible for Colossians 2:16. At another free site, E-Sword, I believe you can download Thayer's. Check it out for yourself. We are each told to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling. 

In my previous post on the shadows, we saw that many scholars believe the heresy Paul addressed at Colossae included elements of both Gnosticism and Judaism. Ascetic criticism of the way the brethren were eating could be a factor, but most believe that these heretics were trying to impose food laws from the Sinai Covenant on the gentile brethren in Colossae. Yet we never hear the part about Colossian Judaizing from the COGs. The COGs seem blind to the Judaizing element in the Colossian heresy, primarily because they accept many of the same practices.

Suppose Paul really is just rebuking the ascetics for judging the brethren regarding their feasting, and they are not being judged on matters of the Sabbath and Holy Days themselves. If so, we should see some evidence that the early church marked the New Moon with feasting as well.
But where would we find that? I mean, New Moon celebrations disappeared hundreds of years before Jesus was born, according to the COGs.

But what if there is evidence that Jews had a very specific tradition for marking the New Moon in Paul's day? A tradition that had been around for hundreds of years. A tradition in which those with Jewish leanings may have participated, and could have easily pressured the brethren at Colossae to join. A tradition that in no way involved food.

In my next post, we'll examine the New Moon ritual the Jewish community outside Jerusalem used to mark the beginning of each month. This ritual is well-documented, by historians like the highly respected than Flavius Josephus, and is quite likely what Paul was referencing when he mentioned New Moons in Colossians 2:16. 

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


xHWA said...

There is no Gerund case in ancient Greek. Nice.

Good thing the author and the editors both neglected to fact-check before they printed the article, or there would be no article for us to critique.

You destroyed their entire foundation, Martha.

xHWA said...

I wonder if Ralph Levy is going to add this to his Bible Misconceptions section.

Martha said...

Thanks, xHWA. I hope the readers here understand I am not gloating over finding COGWA's errors here. On the contrary, I was shocked at how shoddy their study was here. This does not bring me personal joy. It saddens me to think that people's lives, finances and personal relationships have been affected by research that's this flimsy. Including my own life, for many, many years. If their efforts to look into these verses was this shallow, I have to wonder what else is lurking out there.

xHWA said...

We received a comment from "Anonymous" at 10:07 AM on September 24th, but for some reason the comment disappeared. here is the comment:

Hi Martha,
One thing that can't be ignored is why we continually go back to these questionable scriptures. With Paul's often in your face personality, if he meant that the sabbath and holy days were done away he would not state it like this. He simply would say, "The sabbath and holy days are no longer necessary or advisable. Christ's sacrifice covers all."

In fact, he would state something this big and life altering multiple times and very clearly. Because he does not, the presumption must be that that is not what he meant. If this verse was all we had of Paul's writing your take on the verse would have more strength, but again, he had plenty of opportunity to clearly state his meaning on this extremely important issue, but he simply did not (presumably because there was no change). Thus, it is highly logical to look to other meanings of the verse. Textual analysis must always include that which is omitted. A strong clear denunciation of the holy days and sabbath is missing. You must ask yourself why? It is illogical that he would make this change with unclear verses. Again, something this revolutionary would be stated very clearly and multiple times.

xHWA said...

Dear Anon,

Thanks for the comment.

An argument from silence is the weakest argument. It's not nearly as conclusive as you appear to believe. Yet we might even agree with you but for a few things.

This blog is dedicated to demonstrating that Paul (and the other NT authors) did say what you say they didn't say. These places are called "difficult scriptures" in Armstrongism, and Herbert Armstrong et al spent years trying to explain to us why Paul didn't mean what he said clearly and multiple times.

We go over and over this throughout the blog. Martha's one post is not a completely comprehensive treatise on it - no one would read the post if it was. But check out our other material and you'll see what I mean.

I just want to mention briefly that Paul would never denounce the Sabbath and holy days - if by "denounce" we mean to say that Paul sees the days as evil. They aren't evil. The law is holy and good.

But the comment you make is based on at least one assumption - that the law ever applied to the Gentiles in the first place.
From Acts 15 forward, it was specifically stated, over and over again, that the law never did and never should apply to the Gentiles.
The true "big and life altering" event is somehow getting the law to apply at all after the abbrigation of the Old Covenant but most especially get it to apply the Gentiles. If we would expect Paul to say anything multiple times and clearly, it would be this. But that isn't done. The opposite is done.

Like I said, read our other material. Perhaps start with the FAQ.

Martha said...


Thanks for reading. I'm sorry that your comments didn't appear right away, we must have had some kind of glitch. Please let me take a moment to respond and hopefully my words won't take their time meandering around cyberspace.

First of all, I've said that this particular post, and series in general, aren't meant to be a comprehensive refutation of the Sabbath and Holy Days. That obviously would take much more time and space, and xHWA has devoted some space to that. I included some of the links in my post; I hope they are hopeful.

This post was intended to show just how shaky some of COGWA's arguments supporting their stance are. In this particular case, their work is either sloppy, ignorant or deceptive, depending on your view of their motives. I'm not going to ascribe motives, but I will say that even the most innocent of those three options should give you pause when it comes to accepting their scholarship in other areas. This was one simple article of theirs in a very foundational area. If there were that many errors, how many other errors would we find elsewhere? And how solid is their foundation, if their arguments for New Testament keeping of the Holy Days are largely based on tortured exegesis like what we've seen here?

I agree with you that the argument from silence is a weak position we are both trying to exploit. You argue that what we don't see - the argument from silence - means that nothing changed and the NT church was just carrying on as usual as they had since Sinai. I counter that the argument from silence means that it was a given - it was understood that things had changed, that they weren't mentioned because they weren't happening. In the end, we are both trying to fill the silence with our assumed perspective. My perspective is shaped by Acts 15, Galatians 4 and 5 and Hebrews 10. I suspect yours is based on Acts 20 and 1 Corinthians 5, as well as prophecies on the Millenium. Blog posts 4, 5 and 6 on this topic will address those points.

You say that Paul was a blunt guy, and if people didn't have to keep the Sabbath and Holy Days, he just would have come out and said so. But we have to remember that what Paul was arguing against was not JUST the Sabbath and Holy Days, but the whole Sinai Covenant. In the COGs were have pretty much equated the Sinai Covenant with clean and unclean meats, Sabbath and Holy Day keeping. And not even done a very good job of that. Marshmallows? Surfing Facebook all Friday night? Restaurants Saturday after churchh? No actual trumpet blowing on Trumpets? But that's not all there is to the covenant. We must remember that the COGs have basically chopped up the Sinai Covenant, kept the parts they like, eliminated obvious things like circumcision and animal sacrifices, then just tossed the rest. While the Sabbath and Holy Days are components of it, there is a lot, LOT more. We have no authority to chop it up, it's all or nothing. James makes that clear. So the heretics in Colossians, the Judaizers in Acts, they were pushing for things like circumcision, Sabbath, meats, but not just those. They were pushing the gentiles to do pretty much the same things the Jews of that day did.

Martha said...

I think that the Rosh Chodesh fires are a great example in my latest post, on New Moons:

Here was this practice the Jews did nearly ever month for 600 years that was their way of fulfilling the New Moons from Sinai. We're not talking about whether it was dictated in the covenant, we're just talking about the practice of the day. This was no small thing. It lit up the skies for thousands of square miles every month. Josephus talks about it. And it's not an obscure fact. I went from knowing nothing about Rosh Chodesh one morning to finding tons of information just hours later. I didn't have to lock myself in a university library for a month. Yet this is something that the COGs either had no idea was going on, ignored or failed to disclose to their members because it doesn't fit their narrative of Colossians 2:16-17 because it casts doubt on their explanation of why the Sabbath and Holy Days were discussed in this passage. Any of those options should give us pause. But at any rate, we need to fight our programming to label obedience in that area to meats, Sabbaths and Holy Days. Paul did specifically mention those things on several occasions, but he was arguing against that much more. Galatians 4:21-5:1 makes that pretty clear, and we hear the echoes of this passage multiple times - in Acts, in Ephesians, in Colossians and elsewhere.

Thank you for your respectful comments, and for reading. Feel free to check back, I'll have more on the Holy Days and Colossians 2 in the coming weeks.