by Doug Ward

  Years ago, did you ever hear a sermonette like the following one?  The speaker begins by reading Gal. 4:9-10 in the KJV:


``But now, after ye have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto ye desire again to be in bondage? Ye observe days, and months, and times, and years.''

He then says that some feel the ``days, and months, and times, and years'' in verse 10 are the Sabbath and the annual festivals, and he asks if such an interpretation is correct. For an answer, he proposes that we observe the context of the passage. He turns to v.8:


``Howbeit then, when ye knew not God, ye did service unto them which by nature are no gods.''

This verse, he explains, indicates that the Galatians were Gentiles and former pagans. So in v. 9-10, Paul was distressed that they have returned to their former pagan ways. The ``days, and months, and times, and years'' in v. 10 must therefore belong to a pagan calendar, not a biblical one.

End of sermonette.


A Nagging Question

  Our hypothetical sermonette is all right, as far as it goes.  Gal. 4:8-11 does seem to be talking about a reversion to paganism on the part of the Galatians.  But it leaves a big question unanswered:  How does this passage fit into the larger context of the book of Galatians?  We know that in this epistle, Paul is arguing against the ``circumcision party'' who have told the Gentile Christians in Galatia that they must be circumcised, and essentially become Jews, in order to be Christians.  It is this overall message of the letter that leads some commentators to associate Gal. 4:10 with a Jewish religious calendar. 


Martin's Explanation

  A nice explanation of this question has recently been outlined in [1] by Prof. Troy W. Martin of St. Xavier University of Chicago.  Dr. Martin points out that two options would be open to male Gentile Christians who accepted the false gospel of the circumcision party:  they could submit to circumcision, or they could abandon a religion that apparently required such a repugnant practice.   Martin asserts that given how abhorrent the idea of circumcision was to that Gentile culture, it would be much more likely that these men would choose the latter option-a retreat from Christianity and a reversion to paganism.     

This scenario explains how the Galatians could have responded to the circumcision party's message by turning to paganism, as Gal. 4:8-9 suggests, rather than to Jewish practices.  It also has some other advantages.  First the calendar described in Gal. 4:10, consisting of ``days, and months, and times, and years,'' is easier to associate with a pagan method of time-keeping than with a Jewish one.  In pagan time-keeping systems of that day, three groups of ten days made up a month.  Three months comprised a season, and four seasons (presumably the ``times'' of Gal. 4:10) completed a year.  Finally, groups of years constituted Olympiads or eras of varying lengths. 

Second, Paul's argument in Gal. 5 seems to imply that the Galatians have not yet been circumcised; otherwise, it would be too late for him to argue against this practice. But since circumcision was a man's initiation into the Jewish community, the Gentile Galatians would have still been shut out from this community, and it is unlikely that they would have been observing Jewish festival rituals.

Third, what evidence would Paul have had that the Galatians had rejected the true gospel for a false one (Gal. 1:6; 3:1-5; 5:7) if they had not yet been circumcised?  Their relapse into paganism would have constituted such evidence. 

Martin's scenario for the book of Galatians gives a simple, plausible explanation of how Gal. 4:8-10 fits into the overall context of this epistle.   It will allow us to complete our hypothetical sermonette.



[1] Troy W. Martin, ``Pagan and Judeo-Christian Time-Keeping Schemes in Gal. 4:8-10 and Col. 2:16,'' New Testament Studies, Vol. 42, 1996, pp. 105-119.



Here are some definitions of terms used in this issue:

Eschatology- the doctrine of last or final things, such as death, judgment, and the world to come.

Hermeneutics- the science of interpretation and explanation; in theology, the study of principles for the proper interpretation of Scripture.

 Irenic- promoting peace and reconciliation rather than contention  or partisanship.

 Type-an Old Testament institution, event, ceremony, object,  or person that God specifically designed to predict or prefigure His saving  grace and power yet to be revealed.  The study of types is called typology  .

Issue 1


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