|A Closer Look at a Controversial Scriptural Passage in Three Parts|
|by Jared L. Olar|
|PART ONE-Where I Have Been|
Wrestling With Paul-And Losing
I confess-in all of my years of Bible study, the fourteen letters of Paul (thirteen if one leaves the Letter to the Hebrews out of the number) have proven to be the greatest challenge. With Peter's words I cannot possibly agree more-``... in which are some things hard to understand,....'' (I Peter 3:16). I have been of the opinion that Peter's words were, if anything, an understatement. Over the years, however, these precious and sacred documents from the Church's earliest decades have begun to yield to me their secrets. Paul is nowhere near the mystery to me that he once was.
But I have more confessions to make. There are three other important (and interrelated) reasons that Paul's writings seemed to be so inscrutable, and for none of them can Paul be held responsible. First, along with much of the English-speaking Christian world, I used the old King James Version almost exclusively. There I was, reading (okay, trying to read) documents that the Prince of the Apostles said contained ``some things hard to understand''-and I was using a seventeenth-century translation!
Second, like a great many Christians, I tended to approach the Bible as the Direct Oracles of God and nothing else. To me, the Bible was merely a compilation of divinely-given rules, insights, doctrines, and prophecies. Please do not misunderstand-the Bible truly is a compilation of all of those things-and it was indeed divinely-given. But it never occurred to me that the various literary works that were collected and edited by God's People over the millennia may once have been viewed as anything other than Direct-Oracles-of-God-In-Every-Syllable. The original recipients of Paul's letters did not approach his words with anything like the sort of attitude I formerly took. It took several generations for the aura of divine inspiration to become attached to Paul's writings.
When I learned this, I found that my approach to Paul was woefully inadequate and misguided. Equally important (if not more so), I found that the approach to Paul taken by my entire church-indeed, by a great many churches-was also woefully inadequate and misguided. And that brings me to the third reason I had such difficulty with Paul's letters.
This is perhaps the most important reason for my troubles in understanding Paul. I believed Paul (very conveniently!) would have taught the same things that I and my church insisted that he taught. Having been raised in the fellowship of the Worldwide Church of God from birth, I was taught that Paul promulgated the same doctrines and practices that my church promulgated. When I read passages of scripture where Paul wrote to the church congregations under his care about holy days and church festivals, my church had armed me with an explanation of Paul's words that fit our doctrinal stance. As a matter of fact, one of my church's evangelists, Dr. David Albert, has discussed this phenomenon at some length in his book ``Difficult Scriptures-Coming to Grips With the Law of Moses in the Worldwide Church of God.'' I have found this book frequently insightful and quite useful, even though-as this article should demonstrate-I believe Dr. Albert often gives faulty or inadequate explanations of his ``difficult scriptures.''
For many years, this approach I took to Paul's letters was more than sufficient for my purposes. Understanding Paul's writings in any real depth seemed to be a doubtful prospect, so I had to settle for a reasonable explanation for my church's differing doctrines and customs. As I saw it, even if I couldn't figure out the Apostle Paul, at least I could understand God's intentions.
Wrestling With Paul-And Winning!
Eventually I found modern translations of Paul's letters. This was a crucial turning point in my Christian walk. Suddenly Paul came alive to me. In these versions, Paul was no longer some saintly and revered apostle merely serving as a conduit for directions from the Almighty. Now he had become flesh-and-blood, writing (of all things!) letters to people. Letters! Those things we write to each other, fill with news of things important to us, seal in envelopes with stamp affixed, and drop in the mail! From that time, and for the first time in my life, understanding Paul's writings became a conceivable eventuality.
Formerly I was content to use Paul's letters mostly as doctrinal resource-a Storehouse of Spiritual Truth, to be visited to find theological prooftexts or ceremonial instructions. Since then, it has become very apparent that this approach to Paul is terribly wrongheaded. It was the primary hermeneutical approach of my church-and I often think it still is (as it far too often is for other churches as well). But the Spirit has brought me to the point where I realise there can be no true understanding of Paul's words without a reasonable attempt to solve the issues of the historical and cultural context and setting of Paul's letters.
|PART TWO-Where We Have Been|
For myself, for my church, and-as I have found-for many other Christians as well, one of the thorniest patches of Paul's writings is Col. 2:16-17. As traditionally interpreted, these words are normally used as a prooftext supporting the belief that the liturgical calendar which God gave to His People (Lev. 23) is at best irrelevant to Christianity, at worst abolished and forbidden altogether. In this school of thought, Paul is made to say something like this:
Looking closely at the above rendering, we would have to conclude that Paul told the Colossians that anyone who has faith in Christ really need no longer concern himself in any way with the celebration or symbolism of the festivals of the ancient Israelite liturgical calendar. Since Jesus is the fulfillment of the meaning of the Israelite holy days, celebrating those festivals or studying their meaning can only be optional at best. And at worst, to do such things would turn our focus from Jesus to vague shadows of Jesus, thus returning the Church to a Pre-Christian state.
Some follow this reasoning to its very logical (but grossly absurd) end, claiming that to celebrate any of the Israelite holy days would be to act as though Christ had not yet come. Participation in such ``shadows'' is therefore absolutely forbidden, a heretical and satanic departure from the true gospel.
Of course, the weakness of this doctrinal position is that the customs of Paul and the early Church become inexplicable at best-heretical and satanic at worst. The record of ecclesiastical history is clear that the first few generations of the Church unabashedly participated in the ancient liturgical calendar which had been handed down by God in the days of Moses. Only in the second century do we find any indication of differences between the Jewish and Christian liturgical calendars.
And yet the traditional rendering of Col. 2:16-17 has helped to obscure these facts. For the greater part of the history of Christianity the prevailing understanding of the dawn of Christianity has been risibly anachronistic. Later developments in doctrine and practice have not uncommonly been projected back to the Apostolic Age, the better to encourage the acceptance of such innovations. This has certainly been the case with the Christian liturgical calendar. Thus, in rendering the words of Paul this way, ignoring the body of historical evidence indicating how unlikely such an interpretation must be, this scriptural passage becomes merely a convenient prooftext for one's doctrinal and liturgical prejudices.
``We said. . . .''
But to members of the Worldwide Church of God, who looked to the practices and customs of Jesus and the early Church as eternally normative, the traditional interpretation was obviously unacceptable, and in fact made no sense to us. Therefore, we attempted to explain Paul's words so that they would be (or seem to be) congruent with our own doctrines-and, most especially, congruent with the recorded practices of our Lord and the first few generations of His disciples. For many years, the explanation of Col. 2:16-17 promulgated by our leader Herbert Armstrong rendered Paul's words something like this:
According to this old interpretation of ours, the customs listed here by Paul are still valuable, because they foreshadow the blessings of the Age to Come (or as we used to say, the wonderful World Tomorrow). Furthermore, it belongs to the Church alone-that is, the Body of Christ-to judge anyone regarding these celebrations and observances. Therefore one should not allow pressure from non-Christians to influence one's decision to participate in these customs.
At this point, it is important to draw attention to one particular aspect of our reasoning in this matter. Because we believed that all Christians in fact ought to be celebrating these holy days, the criticisms of our observance of these festivals which came from other Christians was classified as pressure from non-Christians, and therefore ignored. Thus, the very fact that other Christians insisted that we cease to worship God using the liturgical calendar He gave to Israel was indirect ``proof'' for us that our interpretation of Col. 2:16-17 was right after all!
Similarly, our refusal to participate in any of the Christian festivals invented by the Catholic Church helped to confirm in the minds of other Christians that we were not Christians at all. Neither we nor they were about to ``allow anyone to judge us. . . regarding a Festival day.'' Let me be frank here: Both we and they have indulged in circular reasoning to support our beliefs and prejudices. We needed to be able to look back at the first Christians and see believers who agreed with us in doctrine and practice. But this is also true of our doctrinal opponents-they need to be able to find a first century Church which ignored (or even forbade) the celebration of the Hebrew liturgical year.
It should be readily apparent that our church's old explanation of Col. 2:16-17 was in part a very strong reflection of our old doctrinal stances and overall worldview. As such, there is at the very least a suggestion that this explanation is inadequate. In the same way, the traditional interpretation of this scriptural passage may have as much to do with modern Christianity's accepted doctrines and practices as it does with those of the Church of God during the first century.
Most importantly, neither our old explanation nor the traditional explanation answers the most basic of all questions-namely, why did Paul write these words in the first place? If all we seek is a prooftext to support our prejudices (whether pro-Hebrew-calendar or anti-Hebrew-calendar), then either one of these explanations is more than enough. But if we seek the truth about this issue, then we must put first things first. Only when we have addressed such fundamental issues as historical and cultural context, and correct translation, can we hope to determine what Paul really wrote to the Colossians and why he wrote it.
Giving A Little Ground
The Worldwide Church of God promulgated the above interpretation of Col. 2:16-17 for many years. But toward the end of the 1980s, while under the leadershipof Joseph Tkach, Sr., my church withdrew that interpretation and offered a different one. This was significant, because while we still favored the Hebrew liturgical calendar, we had moved to a new interpretation which at basis was very similar to the traditional one. So similar was it, in fact, that our rendering of Col. 2:16-17 was almost identical to that favored in the traditional view:
In brief, Dr. Stavrinides argued that Paul's words in Col. 2:16-17 were intended neither to support nor to undermine the observance of the Hebrew liturgical calendar. Instead, in Dr. Stavrinides' view, Paul meant only to give encouragement to the church at Colosse, which was suffering assault from certain heretics. Dr. Stavrinides concluded that these heretics must have been of Jewish origin. Furthermore, he postulated that they were probably proto-Gnostics and/or quasi-Essenes. In this interpretation, both the Colossians and their opponents participated in the Hebrew liturgical year. However, the heretics criticised the Colossian Christians for the manner in which that church observed the holy days of Lev. 23. In Dr. Stavrinides' view, Paul explained that such issues are all but irrelevant, because the holy days are only shadows being cast by Christ. The Church of God's focus is to be on Christ, not Christ's shadows.
Thus, in this scenario, whether or not the weekly and annual sabbaths were to be observed was not even up for debate. In this way we could adopt a rendering much the same as the traditional one while retaining our beliefs and practices regarding the observance of the holy days which God gave to His People.
This new interpretation was superior to the one previously held, because it drew on the historical and cultural background of the middle of the first century in order to come up with a theory to explain the entire Letter to the Colossians. The previous interpretation was meant to do little more than explain away a ``difficult scripture.'' Originally, most of us in the WCG did not see any need for a comprehensive explanatory theory of the Letter to the Colossians. Really, I think all we desired was a way to answer other Christians who criticised (in some ways rightly, in some ways wrongly) our church's old doctrinal positions and worship customs. Now we were willing to do some difficult homework-a very welcome development indeed.
However, Dr. Stavrinides' argument is greatly weakened by an accumulation of unfalsifiable hypotheticals. For instance, he makes a plausible argument that ``the philosophy'' of Col. 2:8 was actually a reference to the false religion being promoted by the persons harassing the Colossian church. However, this is in fact only a probability, and moreover one which is impossible to verify. He also postulated the existence of a Jewish sect at Colosse for which there is no historical evidence. Nor indeed is it likely, assuming that Dr. Stavrinides' theory is after all correct, that any such evidence could ever come to light.
In constructing interpretive theories of this letter, we have little more than the internal evidence of the letter itself. With that in mind, it is important to note that nothing in this letter requires us to conclude that the opponents of the Colossians were Christians of any sort, nor that they observed the Hebrew festivals and sabbaths.
Finally, given his acceptance of a form similar to the traditional rendering of Col. 2:16-17, it is clear that some alternate theory much less favorable to the Hebrew liturgical calendar might just as easily be propounded. In other words, since his translation of this passage is essentially identical to the traditional interpretation, why not offer a theory essentially identical to the traditional one? Why not just say that Paul was downplaying the Hebrew calendar, or even arguing that it was entirely unimportant or irrelevant?
``We say what they say. . . .''
As it happens, the position taken in Dr. Stavrinides' article turned out to be a sort of weigh station for the WCG. My church has since moved on to the complete acceptance of the traditional rendering and interpretation of Col. 2:16-17. Furthermore, in official church publications and worship services, this scriptural passage is always cited using the New International Version's extremely dubious rendering-one which adds a somewhat less-than-supportive coloration to the customs listed in verse 16 which is in fact not found in the Greek original at all. For convenience, here is the NIV's rendering of Col. 2:16-17, italicised words being those not found in (or not even suggested by) the original Greek text:
That my church has adopted this stance is somewhat incongruent, because-like virtually every other Christian fellowship on earth-we have retained a vestigial Hebrew liturgical calendar, a practice which might seem more consistent with Dr. Stavrinides' interpretation than the one currently accepted. Sadly, it must be said that in many ways the Worldwide Church of God's current position on this point is a step backwards. Originally we favored an approach which focused on the grammar of this text, but neglected the issues of cultural and historical background. Then we moved to an approach that almost completely ignored the grammar, but dealt respectfully and impressively (even if the precise theory is debatable) with the problems of the letter's background. But we have at last arrived at the point where both grammar and background are essentially unimportant to us.
It is noteworthy that in his book Difficult Scriptures, Dr. Albert expressed the opinion that Dr. Stavrinides' article was a step in the right direction (Albert, pp.115-117). I certainly would agree with that sentiment. However, I must disagree with him over the reasons for viewing Dr. Stavrinides' article in such a favorable light. Where Dr. Albert delights in the article's qualified acceptance of the traditional rendering of Col. 2:16-17, I am instead pleased with the article's attempt to grapple with issues of historical and cultural background. In the theory propounded by Dr. Stavrinides, we at least had some sort of working hypothesis with which we might approach the Letter to the Colossians. Unhappily, I cannot help but conclude that the old prooftexting approach to this letter is once again the favored method in my church. A comprehensive understanding of this literary document is rarely, if ever, sought or offered. However, I am fully aware that this problem is hardly unique to my church.
What the Church of God urgently needs is an approach to the Letter to the Colossians which keeps first and foremost the principle that this letter was not originally intended to serve as little more than a rhetorical club for use in a doctrinal debate. I sense that something is seriously amiss in the way that we treat this passage of holy writ.
|PART THREE-A Shadow of Things to Come|
Col. 2:16-17 Unveiled At Last!
If the reader will pardon my boldness in saying so, I believe this urgent need of the Church may well be finally satisfied through the studies of Professor Troy Martin, Ph.D., of St. Xavier University in Chicago. Dr. Martin's book ``By Philosophy and Empty Deceit'': Colossians as Response to a Cynic Critique (Academic Press, Sheffield, 1996) offers a comprehensive explanatory hypothesis of the immediate historical and cultural background of the Letter to the Colossians. In this scenario, Paul wrote Colossians in order to defend the Colossians from the ridicule of Cynic philosophers. This would be superior to Dr. Stavrinides' scenario, because we know from other sources that adherents to Cynicism could be found at that time and general locale, whereas we have no reason to believe that proto-Gnostic or quasi-Essenic Jews were active anywhere near Colosse at that time. In addition, Paul in Colossians does mention beliefs and practices that match those of the Cynics-most notably, asceticism and a negative appraisal of the created order (consider Col. 1:15-17, 22; 2:18, 20-23).
I freely admit that we may well have to await the Age to Come before we can be completely certain of the background of Paul's Letter to the Colossians. But that does not mean that we have license to shrug our shoulders at such hermeneutical puzzles. For a solution to this particular puzzle, Dr. Martin's hypothesis is definitely worthy of serious consideration.
In the preparation of his book, Dr. Martin had to confront several important challenges, including the issues of the correct grammatical rendering and correct contextual interpretation of Col. 2:16-17. To address these two issues, he prepared a paper entitled ``But Let Everyone Discern the Body of Christ (Colossians 2:17)'' 2 This is not a paper intended for the general reading public, but his analyses and conclusions are important enough that I will explain them here in a distilled form, avoiding technical grammatical terminology.
Before I continue, I would like to explain that though I am ``translating'' Professor Martin's research for a general audience, I would still recommend any Christian to seek out a copy of his paper. Then, if necessary, offer up a prayer to our Mighty God of Wisdom and Understanding that He send the courage to read what is for most of us an intellectually challenging treatise. It is well worth the effort, not only for the mental exercise, but most especially for a deeper understanding of holy writ and the spiritual growth one receives from engaging in such activity. Frankly, I myself find such studies somewhat daunting-yet I never regret having undertaken them, because they help me to acquire a deeper understanding and appreciation of the Truth.
Back to Grammar School
Dr. Martin starts out with a revelation that may well be astounding at first glance-that for much of the history of Christianity, the prevailing interpretation of Col. 2:16-17 has simply ignored the rules of Greek grammar (Martin pp. 249-250-and consider this quote from Bible commentator Eduard Schweizer: ``However one understands this phrase grammatically, the meaning at least is clear.''). Skipping, as it were, that step of the hermeneutical process, translators, interpreters, and commentators have instead focused upon the words ``shadow'' and ``body.'' Seeing these two antithetical words,they have concluded that in this text Paul must have intended a contrast between ``shadow'' and ``body,'' and translated the passage in accordance with that conclusion. In doing this, however, they have disregarded the grammatical structure of the clause found in verse 17. In the original Greek, that clause says, ``. . .to de soma tou Christou'' (literally, ``. . . but the body of Christ'').
In layman's terms, Dr. Martin has explained thoroughly that the traditional interpretation of Col. 2:16-17 is quite simply impossible-the grammatical rules of New Testament Greek forbid it altogether. He has subjected the various suggested schemes to a very thorough grammatical analysis, and conclusively ruled each of them out as possibilities (Martin, pp. 249-252).
Given that the New International Version is the favored Bible version of my church, I should mention as well that he utterly demolishes the NIV's translation of Col. 2:16-17. Most especially, he conclusively demonstrates that the rendering ``things that were to come'' is absolutely impossible based on the grammar of this text. The Greek can only mean ``things to come.'' Furthermore, as Dr. Martin explains in the most careful and minute detail, if translators' and commentators' grammatical assumptions which often lie behind the NIV's rendering are accepted, then the NIV might instead have shown the following:
It came as a revelation to me (and probably will to most Christians) that in order to arrive at the traditional interpretation and rendering of this scriptural passage, many translators and commentators have actually concluded that the reading of the original Greek text here must have been faultily transmitted! In other words, they first imposed onto the text their preconceived notions about what Paul said here in Col. 2:16-17. Having done that, they immediately saw that their interpretation did not fit the grammar. To salvage their favored interpretation, they proposed textual emendations. But Dr. Martin has considered each of their suggested emendations, and found that none of them will in fact yield the desired rendering of Col. 2:16-17 (Martin, pp. 250-252).
Some Words Left Out
Having shown the inadequacies of the prevailing treatment of the Greek of this text, Dr. Martin then demonstrates how the Church of God can obtain a rendering of Col. 2:16-17 that respects the rules of New Testament Greek. At this point I must explain that his rendering depends upon an understanding of ellipsis, the practice of omitting words in order to save space. I suspect that the cost and availability of papyrus or vellum in ancient times led writers to use techniques like abbreviation of words. Ellipsis is essentially the abbreviation of sentences. This sort of thing occurs even in modern English, though not usually with ellipses as extensive as may be found in New Testament Greek. What words an author chooses to ellipse are determined by two things: 1) the rules of grammar, and 2) a consideration of what words the intended audience could reasonably be expected to be able to mentally re-insert into the sentence. It is noteworthy that the traditional interpretation of Col. 2:16-17 depends upon ellipsis. In that scenario, the verb ``to be'' is supplied by the translators. Thus, the original Greek's ``but the body of Christ'' is read as ``but the body is of Christ.'' As stated above, Dr. Martin submits this treatment of the text to rigorous and thorough analysis, and concludes that the grammar makes the traditional rendering unlikely in the extreme.
The rendering of these verses originally favored by my church also depended upon ellipsis. Although Professor Martin had encountered the rendering we once favored in his research, he did not address it in his paper. Therefore, we here at Grace and Knowledge contacted him and requested that he subject our old rendering to the same rigorous grammatical analysis that he had given to the traditional rendering. As we expected, it did not agree with the grammar of the clause in Col. 2:17. That he chose not to include this interpretation in his paper leaves me with the impression that our old understanding was a minority opinion. But even more, the rendering ``Rather, let the Body of Christ judge you'' may have been so very unlikely that Dr. Martin chose not even to address it.
All the same, it is interesting to consider that my church's original grammatical approach had (almost accidentally) hit upon what turns out to be an essential factor in the solution of this age-old problem. Unfortunately, for a number of reasons we did not then have scholars possessing both a thorough enough background in New Testament Greek and a fair-minded approach to Bible interpretation, who might have been able to detect the flaws in that rendering. I am most grateful to Professor Martin for supplying us with long-needed criticism of one of my church's faulty teachings.
``Professor Martin says. . . .''
I trust that my above words have clearly and accurately communicated the main points and conclusions of Dr. Martin's paper, ``But Let Everyone Discern the Body of Christ.'' At the very least, I hope that I have whetted the appetite, so that more of my brothers and sisters in Christ might seek to learn more about his arguments. Here at last is the rendering of Col. 2:16-17 favored by Dr. Troy Martin, with ellipsed words shown in italics:
This construction, with Paul stating that we need to discern the body of Christ, is paralleled both in theology as well as in grammatical usage in I Cor. 11:29. In that particular scriptural passage, Paul makes a connection between the Eucharist and discerning the body of Christ. Dr. Martin has suggested that the eating and drinking mentioned in Col. 2:16 are nothing less than the participation in the Eucharist (Martin, p. 255). In this he differs from commentators who would link the eating and drinking of this verse to the Torah's food laws, drink offerings, or Nazirite restrictions on alcohol.
But in support of Dr. Martin's suggestions, I would like to draw attention to this important detail of early Church history: the Christian Eucharist instituted by Jesus is a continuation of the traditional Kiddush of the Jews, a ceremony which is performed only on Sabbaths and High Days. Therefore, it is extremely likely that the Christians of the first century participated in the Eucharist on every weekly Sabbath and every annual Feast. (This will be the subject of an upcoming article in Grace and Knowledge .)This would make Dr. Martin's suggested explanation of ``eating and drinking'' very plausible and attractive. Col. 2:16-17 and I Cor. 11:26, 29 would thus be companion scriptures. As many Christians understand, the Eucharist is indeed a shadow of things to come. This is explained by both Paul and Jesus in I Cor. 11:26 and Matt. 26:28-29.
Dr. Martin's rendering would also modify somewhat the relationship between Paul's reference to ``a shadow of things to come'' in Col. 2:16 and the reference to the Torah having ``had a shadow of the coming good things'' in Heb. 10:1. Christians have long recognised these two passages as companion scriptures. With Dr. Martin's translation, it becomes apparent that the closer parallel is to I Cor. 11:29 rather than to Heb. 10:1.
Furthermore, if Dr. Martin's hypothesis is correct that the Letter to the Colossians was written in answer to attacks on Christianity from Cynic philosophers, then the customs mentioned in Col. 2:16-17 must be those of the Colossian church, and not those of their opponents (Martin, p. 255). Considering what is known of the marked Jewishness of the culture and liturgy of the early Church, this interpretation is obviously far more likely than the traditional interpretation. That would mean that the Apostle Paul's words in Col. 2:16-17 take for granted the early Christian observance of the Hebrew liturgical calendar. Dr. Martin elsewhere argues along the same lines in his studies of the Letter to the Galatians (see Grace and Knowledge , no. 1, p. 21). A departure from the Hebrew calendar must have been regarded by the first few generations of Christians as a cultural and theological impossibility, given that idolatrous weekly and annual observances were unthinkable (consider I Cor. 10:14-24). Indeed, only in the second century does one find any evidence of alteration of the liturgical calendar, and those innovations seem always to have gone hand-in-hand with nascent Christian anti-Semitism and supercessionist Replacement Theology. 3
Professor Troy Martin's research affords Christian students of holy writ the blessings of a far more accurate understanding of the nature of Christianity during the Apostolic Age. Indirectly, his work can bring us a deeper appreciation of the integral Jewishness of ancient and modern Christianity. For these reasons, as well as for the impressive scholarship he brings to a much-debated passage of God's word, I strongly recommend that Christians everywhere give Dr. Martin's studies all due consideration. Whatever the identity of the opponents of the Colossian church, I believe the Church has at last obtained the correct translation of Col. 2:16-17.
1 pp. 1-13 in Christianity and Judaism, Diana Wood, ed., Blackwell, Cambridge, MA, 1992; see esp. p. 12.
2 Journal of Biblical Literature,Vol. 114, No. 2 (1995), pp. 249-255.
3 Editor's Note: Replacement theology is the view that the Church has entirely replaced Israel in God's plan. In this view, God's promises to Israel will not be fulfilled literally, but apply only to the Church in some ``spiritual'' sense. We strongly disagree with replacement theology (see e.g. Rom. 3:3-4; 11:1-2).