Monday, September 22, 2014

New Moons - What Josephus Says They Were Really Doing

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. This was before the split. 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 ( 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 ( 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 if 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


Dillon said...

Keep preaching my sister. Yes, the UCGs like to assert that they can observe the Law any way they like. If Jews did not observe New Moons during the time of Jesus, why would Paul bother to mention New Moons? If New Moons are no longer needed then so is the custom of clean and unclean meats. You cannot pick and choose which parts of the Law to observe and which to reject. If you claim that circumcision will cut you off from Jesus, does that mean that Timothy is accursed? Since you say that going to Jerusalem is no longer necessary for keeping the Law, then why did the Apostles go to Jerusalem to celebrate Pentecost. If Jesus changed "the necessity of going to Jerusalem" as you speak, why does Zech 14:17 say otherwise?

Martha said...

Thanks, Dillon! I just wanted to comment to get an idea of whether your questions about Timothy and the festivals were rhetorical or actual questions for me.

As far as Timothy goes, it's unclear why he was circumcised - peer pressure or what. But remember, when it comes to law-keeping, circumcision is never just about circumcision. It was the gateway to joining Israel and keeping the Sinai Covenant. That is what the follow up was in Acts 15:5 - "it is necessary to circumcise them AND to command them to keep the law of Moses."

So unless Timothy is getting circumcised to join physical Israel and keep the Sinai Covenant, I don't think he's cut off from Christ. Which, as someone whom Paul exhorts, is very unlikely.

Why did the Apostles go to Jerusalem to celebrate Pentecost? Do you mean right after Jesus ascended, when they were already in Jerusalem and He told them to stay there? Well, He directly told them to stay there in Jerusalem, where they already were. That sounds like a pretty good reason to me. I'd say at approximately 50 days past the crucifixion, they were still figuring out how Christianity worked. They just barely had received the Holy Spirit. That day.

If you refer to Paul talking about Pentecost, well, all we have is Acts 20:16 telling us he was trying to get to Jerusalem to Pentecost. If possible. "If possible" doesn't sound like an imperative or a matter of sin and righteousness to me. Total speculation, but a pilgrimmage Feast in Jerusalem would be a great time to share the gospel with all the extra travelers. I seem to remember something about Paul's route actually taking him away from Jerusalem, but I am having a hard time substantiating that at this hour. At any rate, the New Testament does not criticize Jews for continuing in their worship practices, but makes it clear that the Sinai Covenant was not to be imposed upon Gentiles. This is a very common theme.

I address the Zechariah issue in an upcoming post. Suffice it to say that the mentions made of celebrating the Feasts in Zechariah also involve many other things we don't have now, like a temple and a Levitical priesthood. It seems to be in a millenial setting, so the game is a lot different then. At this point, I'm not comfortable letting speculation about how worship practices may be carried out in the future (with physical elements we now lack and Jesus Christ on earth to make sure those who are human get it right) supersede direct statements about how I, as a Gentile, am to live in this age, such as Galatians 4:21-5:1.

If those were rhetorical questions, well, then, hey, the comment is on the house. :) Thanks for reading.

Dillon said...

Hi Martha,

Rest assured those were rhetorical questions. But for a COGer they aren't. I agree that circumcision was a gateway to the Mosaic Covenant just as baptism is a gateway to the New Covenant. For a COGer this poses a problem because God's Law is eternal and unchanging. That's why they talk of "renewed covenant." But if God's Covenant is renewed, then it means God has changed His Law. If keeping Sukkot in palm branch booths is no longer needed then we should rename Sukkot to Hotellot (as they celebrate the F.O.T. in hotels.) If they can change an elephant to a horse then they can also change a butterfly to a wasp. You said,"with physical elements we now lack." To some degree this is not so. We do have material for making sukkahs today just as the ancient Hebrews did. Besides the Law is the Law and if the Law says palm booths we cannot add modern innovations to God's feasts. Such is adding and taking away from God's Word. Such is serving man not God. A hotel room is luxury while a sukkah is a crude shelter. Sukkot is a solemn occasion as well as a joyous one. The "joyous" in Hotellot, OOPS I mean Sukkot does not mean merriment and boisterous eating. Sukkot is more of a reminder of hardship in the wilderness than a vacation.

John said...

I’ve been reading your posts of late Martha and have found it both surprising and disappointing how the various churches originating from Herbert Armstrong's ministry claim they're faithful to God and are keeping all of His Law and Holy Days.

But, when you experience what is demanded by them over time you come to realise, as you have so rightly pointed out, they're actually no better than other religious institutions that follow man-made traditions. Armstrong's fans have in the past accused other Christians of cherry-picking with the Bible and yet, in truth, they are guilty of the same offence!

You looked at Colossians 2:16-17 as an example in the post about New Moons. I understand there is ongoing debate in Christian circles over these verses.
1) Some interpret them to mean that all the weekly, monthly and annual holy days are abolished and no longer mandatory.
2) Some interpret them to mean the same, but they claim the weekly Sabbath isn't meant in these verses.
3) While some interpret them to mean that all the weekly, monthly and annual Sabbaths are still mandatory observances.

I interpret these verses to imply an "either-or" situation i.e. either Paul meant to say all weekly, monthly and annual holy days are abolished or all are still in effect. Even though I'm inclined to agree with the latter interpretation, similar to the churches of God, I am open to correction.

And yet, looking at the splintering churches of God one notes that they don’t observe the New Moons, which begs the question why? Further, you wisely noted they don’t blow the shofar on the “Feast of Trumpets,” which also begs why? Neither do they build booths at the Feast of Tabernacles, which again begs why? They observe the latter as a “pilgrim feast,” yet, according to my understanding all three festival seasons in the Old Testament were pilgrim feasts and to be observed in Jerusalem, where God had placed His name! Even Herbert Armstrong admitted such when in the early days of the Worldwide Church of God they observed the spring festivals the same as the Feast of Tabernacles. But, the economic burden of vacationing twice in the year was too much for the membership and so he decided to limit travel to the fall festivals. In all of their practices they claim to be following God’s Law, but in truth they’re not. They’re actually following Herbert W. Armstrong’s interpretation and American-centric application of Old Testament Law to post-WWII society. This has created so much ignorance and inconsistency within the churches of God!

In my opinion, their practice only proves Isaiah 64:6 and Matthew 5:20 true! All of our attempts to measure up to God will fall short by adding to or taking from His instructions. Either we will claim we’re keeping the Law and fall into self-righteousness or we will rightly admit as Paul did, “…I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith” (Philippians 3:8).

Martha said...


Thanks for reading, and for being so willing to search out the scriptures for yourself!

I would agree with you that Colossians 2:16-17 appears to be either all or nothing - either all are no longer required or all are still required. The one thing it CAN'T mean is that some of the things listed there are required and some of them are not. Which is exactly what that the mainstream COGs argue. I know of smaller splinters that try to address some of the disparities you mentioned. Some will build a Sukkot at the Feast of Tabernacles (I've seen a few sites do one big one, although not one per family, like Israel did). Some will try to gather together every day in some manner - for meals or Bible study - each day during the Days of Unleavened Bread. Some argue that New Moons should be kept, although they usually flounder in finding a way to do it. Some will plan their monthly Bible study for that day, if it's mid-week. I know a family that was convicted of this for a while and would faithfully go outside and look at the sky. They said, ok, great, we observed (saw) it, now what? They were still at a loss of how to observe (commemorate) it. They gave up this practice after a few months. This didn't even address the issue that it is the New Moon in Jerusalem that the Bible is concerned with - not in Anywhereville, USA.

It's my understanding that many in the COGs argue they don't need New Moons because modern science can calculate the New Moon and they can go from there on the Holy Days. Here they make the same mistake I often do - viewing anything that occurred before the 1500's AD together as uneducated scientific darkness. We often think the poor Israelites had to go out and look at the sky because they didn't have modern science. We're beyond that. But Babylonian astronomy was pretty amazing, and long before Christ's day the Jews could pretty well predict when the New Moon would be. This sounds crazy to me, who in 2015 still has trouble operating my TV remote. My hat's off to them. But that strikes a blow against the argument that modern science makes the New Moon unnecessary.

Then some COGs will change the argument and say that no one was marking the New Moon anymore by Christ's day, or that they don't know how people marked it. Neither of these is true, as I've shown in this post. Yet not a single COG web site mentions the hilltop fires. I checked. It's not a secret. This practice went on for centuries on a monthly basis. The way Josephus describes these things, it sounds like a collaborative, if not community, effort. To make a fire visible at a relay station 26 miles away, large enough that the whole countryside looked like it was ablaze. This doesn't sound like the work of a lone priest on each hill.

After saying no one marked the New Moon by Christ's day, the COGs then assert that the early church randomly started keeping New Moon meals/feasts again, and ascetics condemned them for doing so. I suppose it's possible they randomly started common meals again, but doesn't it make more sense to go with what Josephus himself tells us was going on?

Martha said...

I'm not saying the COGs should start doing fires. It's extrabiblical, anyway. But then perhaps they should do something, anything, named in the Old Testament. The sons of Aaron were commanded to blow the silver trumpets. There were sacrifices. There were feasts, which died out later. Sacrifices are obviously out, but what about the other stuff? Surely someone could find a trumpet.

Incidentally, this is part of the reason I tend to believe the New Moons (and other elements listed in Colossians 2) are obsolete. We don't have priests to blow trumpets, or to do many other things outlined in the Sinai Covenant. We have totally made up ways to keep the Holy Days, adding stuff, taking away stuff. We have no idea how to keep New Moons, so we just skip them, making up reasons why we don't have to do them. Then we criticize anyone who claims the law has been changed, in spite of the fact that Hebrews 7:12 specifically tells us the law has been changed. In my mind, this, combined with other passages, give weight to the argument that Colossians 2:16-17 tells us these practices foreshadowed Christ and, now that He has come, are obsolete; as opposed to them being as binding as ever.

Incidentally, I am wary of reading Isaiah 66:23 as meaning that New Moons will be celebrated after Jesus' return. The language in that passage indicates a perpetual state of worship, not specific worship on these specific days. Yes, they would be worshiping on the days of the New Moon, because they would be worshiping every day. From Sabbath to Sabbath, from New Moon to New Moon. It's inclusive, not setting apart those occasions. Isaiah was an Israelite writing in terms he and other Israelites would understand. It's not a slam dunk either way.

I can definitely appreciate your desire to be consistent on these issues. And completely agree with your either-or interpretation. Would that we all take Philippians 3:8 to heart! Blessings to you.