A NEW LOOK AT Col 2:16-17
Whenever the question of the observance of the sabbath and of feast days, and the Scriptural view on food and drink is discussed, people tend to rely heavily on Col 2 to support their views in this regard. It is Col 2:16-17, in particular, that is often quoted and presented as "a clear-cut proof" that issues like feast days and sabbaths and food are of very little importance in the eyes of New Testament writers like Paul. In Paul's days, people would say, the decision on whether to observe certain days or whether to eat certain foods, was a matter of free choice - individual believers had the freedom and autonomy to decide for themselves.
The purpose of this study is to take another look at the content and context of Col 2 and especially the translation of verses Col 2:16-17. After a prolonged study on this passage it is my contention that many of the available translations of these two verses, in particular, have been heavily influenced by doctrinal views on matters like the observance of the sabbath. I am not sure whether this was done deliberately or whether the combined "force" of tradition and history and theology is so strong that not even Bible translators can stand up against it. What I do believe is that when Col 2:16-17 is translated purely on grounds or grammar, context and sound scholarship, many people may gain a much better understanding of Paul's overall teaching on matters that are often refered to as "controversial". It is my prayer that this study might help those who are prepared to "dig a little deeper" to find out that there is, after all, no contradiction between the practice of New Testament believers (regularly observing feast days and sabbaths) and the teachings of their leaders (in particular the letters of the apostle Paul).
For those who would like to check the arguments that follow by looking at the Greek text and the literal translation of each word, I have included an interlinear translation of Col 2:16-17, substituting the Greek letters with equivalent English letters, but maintaining the order in which the words appear in the Greek text. This might prove to be quite interesting - even to those who do not know Greek.
Meé (no/not) oún (therefore) tis (any man) humás (you) krinétoo (Let judge) en (in) broósei (meat) kaí (and) en (in) pósei (drink) eé (or/either) en (in) mérei (respect) heorteés (of a feast day) eé (or) neomeenías (of a new moon) eé (or) sabbátoon (of sabbath days)
há (which) estin (are) skiá (a shadow) toón mellóntoon (of the things to come) tó (the) dé (but) soóma (body) toú Christoú (of Christ).
Let us take a closer look at Col 2:16-17. Many translations begin these verses with: "Let no one therefore judge you ...". An equally correct translation would be "Therefore, do not let anyone judge you..." (The Greek word "tis" is an indefinite pronoun and would normally be translated: a man/thing, any man/thing, a certain man/thing, some man/thing). Among the translations that I have access to, the NIV (New International Version) and the LITV (Literal Translation of the Holy Bible) have opted for this (second) rendering. The difference between these two translations may seem insignificant, but once we have established the correct translation of the remainder of these two verses, it will make a lot more sense.
The next group of words is usually translated as: "...in food or in drink...". Although some Greek manuscripts have the word "or" (Greek: "ee") between "broosei" (English: meat or food) and "posei" (English: drink), the majority of the recognized Greek New Testaments (based on the most reliable Greek manuscripts) join the two words with "and" - the English translation should therefore read: "... in food and in drink ...". Why this obvious and straightforward rendering is not reflected in the majority of the existing translations, is hard to understand.
The remainder of the nouns in this verse ("festival", "new moon" and "sabbaths") are all preceded by a combination of "ee" (English: "or") and the idiomatic "en merei" (a Greek expression which may be translated: "in respect of" or "as a part of" or "with regards to"). The fact that "food" and "drink" are joined with "and", while "festival", "new moon" and "sabbaths" are joined with "or", together with the obvious placement of "en merei" after "food and drink" but before "a festival or a new moon or sabbaths" is something that should not be ignored in the translation of this verse.
Taking into consideration what has been pointed out thus far, verse 16 would best be translated as "Therefore, do not let anyone judge you in food/meat and in drink - (either) as part of (or "with regards to") a festival or a new moon or (the) sabbaths ..."
Verse 17 is a continuation of verse 16 and begins with "...which are a shadow of the things to come...". This should obviously be understood as an extension of the last part of the previous verse and the intended meaning is most probably: Festivals, new moons and sabbaths are (collectively) considered to be a shadow of the things to come. Most commentators view this "shadow" in a very negative light, contrasting it with "sooma" (the well known Greek word for "body") in the second part of this verse.
Question is: Why do almost all translators have this obsession to contrast "shadow" in the first part of verse 17 with "body" in the second part of verse 17? In order to do this, at least four very basic grammatical principles have to be overlooked or else stretched to its limits:
1) The Greek word "sooma" has to be translated with something like "substance" or "reality" (in stead of the usual "body"). This translation is very peculiar, to say the least, and if this is indeed the intended meaning of "sooma" in this verse, it would seem that in 147 instances in the New Testament where "sooma" is used, this is the only place where it takes on this rather unusual meaning.
2) The absense of the word "is" between "body" and "of Christ" has to be overlooked. The Greek text literally and clearly concludes verse 17 with the words: "...but the body of Christ". There is no "is" in the Greek text! Nevertheless, the majority of translators insist that it should read: "...but the body (or: substance) IS of Christ".
3) This refusal to translate a well known New Testament concept ("the body of Christ") the same way it is always translated (see, for example Rom 7:4; 1 Cor 10:16; 12:27 and Eph 4:12), is even more surprising when one discovers that the sentence that contains this verse is immediately followed by a sentence in which "sooma" is definitely used in the sense of "the body of Christ" (see Col 2:19). It has always been an established principle in translation that when a certain word is used more than once in the same context, it is most likely that the intended meaning (and translation) of that particular word is unchanged throughout the passage.
4) The presense of a well known grammatical formula or combination of words is being overlooked. It is a known fact that the combination of "ou" or "mee" (English: "no" or "not") and "de" (English: "but") is often used in Greek to convey the meaning of "He did not do (A), but instead he did (B)" or "Do not do (A), but rather do (B)". In the Greek text we find the second part of this combination in the latter part of verse 17: "...but ("de") the body of Christ". If we can trace back and find the first part of the expected combination ("mee"), we will also know which part of the sentence links up with this concluding part ("...but the body of Christ").
Surprisingly enough, when this grammatical combination is traced back, it is not the "shadow" that is contrasted with the "body" - at least not grammatically. The items that are called a "shadow of the things to come" (the festivals, the new moons and the sabbaths) are not at all compared to the so-called reality or substance of Christ. No, "the body of Christ" (consisting of people) is contrasted to another group of people - those (outsiders) who tend to judge the believers in matters of food and drink. They are the ones contrasted with the body of Christ or the body of true believers. This fact is underscored by the Greek "mee" at the beginning of verse 16 ("Do not let anyone judge you ..."), followed by the expected "de" in the latter part of verse 17 ("...but the body of Christ").
The combination "mee ... de" is a recognized formula in the Greek language and used frequently in the New Testament. It is found in Matt 10:28; John 20:17; Rom 11:18; 1 Cor 14:20; Eph 5:11; Heb 4:15; James 4:11; 1 Peter 3:9, to mention just a few. It is not unusual to find secondary clauses and extentions, inserted between and separating the primary clauses containing the "mee" and the "de" respectively, as long as the reader keep in mind that those primary clauses belong together and constitute the main statement - a statement consisting of two distinctly opposite parts. In Col 2:16-17 the two opposite parts may be recognized quite easily: "Do not ("mee") let anyone judge you in food and drink ... but ("de) the body of Christ (let they alone judge you in these matters). The presense of "mee" and "de" shows that the real contrast in this sentence is between "anyone" in verse 16 and the "body" in verse 17 - not between "shadow" and "body".
Two more questions remain to be answered, in view of this translation: (1) Isn't the idea of the body of believers "judging" (Greek: "krinoo") an individual foreign to the teaching of the New Testament, and (2) If "the body of Christ" in the latter part of verse 17 is not contrasted with "shadow" in the first part of verse 17, what is the sense of the clause "which are a shadow of the things to come..." within the context of the sentence as a whole?
In order for us to find an answer to the first question, it is important to realize that the Greek "krinoo" often takes on a meaning that goes beyond that of "judging" in the strict sense of the word. According to the Strongs Dictionary this word may sometimes also be translated with "distinguish", "decide", "determine", "decree" or "conclude". The Messiah has made it very clear that we are not to "judge" or "condemn" others (Matt 7:1-2) and that the Father has committed all judgment to the Son alone (John 5:22). There is, however, a certain kind of "judgment" that is allowed and even encouraged within the body of believers. This is when the believing community assumes the responsibility of helping its members to distinguish between right and wrong, providing guidelines in determining and establishing the proper life style and making decisions when it comes to certain controversial issues. This advisory and supervisory responsibility of the body of the Messiah is confirmed in Acts 16:15; 21:25; Rom 14:13; 1 Cor 5:12; 6:2; 10:15 and 1 Cor 11:13. In each of these verses we will find the same Greek word ("krinoo") that is also used in Col 2:16. Against this background it would therefore be quite appropriate for Paul to admonish the believers in Colossae not to allow anyone (meaning: people coming from outside the body of believers) to decree or decide what they (the believers) should eat and what they should drink. The only ones suited (and authorized) for this responsibility is the body of the Messiah, the community of believers.
The second question concerns the meaning of the clause "(feasts, new moons and sabbaths) which are a shadow of the things to come". What we should realize is that these "outsiders" were really quite arrogant. Not only did they try to prescribe to the believers what they should eat and drink, they also had the cheek of doing so on Messianic "holy days" like the weekly and annual sabbaths. Many interpreters of Scripture agree that the plural "sabbaths" often refers to the weekly sabbaths together with the annual feast days or appointed times - both of which were definitely observed by the early believers (for the weekly sabbath meetings in the synagogue, see Acts 13:14; 14:1; 16:13-15; 17:1-2; 18:4; 19:6-8; 22:19; 26:11 and for the annual feast days, see Matt 26:17; Luke 2:41-42; John 2:23; 7:14,37; Acts 2:1; 12:4; 18:21; 20:16; 1 Cor 5:8; 16:8). There are significant indications in the New Testament that ill-disposed people often penetrated the feasts of the believers and introduced elements that were quite contrary to the values held by the body of believers (see for example 1 Cor 10:7,14-22; 2 Peter 2:12-14; Jude 12-13).
The message Paul is trying to convey throughout this chapter is this: People with little or no connection with the true body of the Messiah are causing a lot of damage to the fellowship of believers. They deceive the believers with fine-sounding arguments (Col 2:4). They come from an angle of deceptive philosophy, depending on human tradition and the basic principles of the world, rather than on the Messiah (Col 2:8). They delight in false humility and the worship of angels, they are unspiritual in their minds and puffed up with idle notions (Col 2:18). They have no connection with the Head of the body, which is the Messiah Himself (Col 2:19). They are adherents of a self-imposed worship, based on human commands and human teachings (Col 2:22-23). The believers should be on the alert for the negative influence of these people and not allow themselves to be deceived or sidetracked by them in any way.
It is evident from this context that the things taught by the "outsiders" or "intruders" had nothing at all to do with Scriptural teaching, nor with any command given by Yahweh or Y'shua (irrespective of whether it concerns matters of food or the observance of feast days). Their judgments were based on "human commands and teachings" (Paul would never call any Scriptural command a human command or a human teaching) and the principles they enforced were the "basic principles of this world" (Col 2:20). Theirs were not the interests of the body of the Messah and for this reason they were simply not "qualified" to be the judges of what should be allowed (and what not) when the believers gather together for a feast or a sabbath day.
These days are a shadow (or a foretaste) of the things to come. They have a far-reaching spiritual significance that goes beyond the eye and the ear of the unbeliever who has no understanding of the things to come. How these days or times are passed and observed, what is proper to do and to eat and to drink on these days, is not something to be decided by an "outsider" - someone who knows nothing about the things to come, the things concerning our future with the Messiah, the things of the coming kingdom. To say, therefore, that these days are a "shadow" of the things to come, is not an indication that they are unimportant or temporary or something of the past. There is nothing in the context of Colossians that supports such a view. On the contrary, the emphasis is more on the things to come, than on the "shadow". When the proper connection between the "days" and the "things to come" is being established, these two verses (and in particular, the festivals and the sabbaths to which they refer) obtain a much more positive meaning than is generally admitted.
Let us therefore complete the translation which does justice to both the grammatical content and wider context of Col 2:16-17: "Therefore, do not let anyone judge you in food and in drink, (either) as part of (or "with regards to") a festival or a new moon or (the) sabbaths - which are a shadow of the things to come - but the body of Christ." Let the body of Christ be the only people who help you to decide over matters of eating and drinking. No one else is suited for this responsibility. No one else understands the spiritual meaning of the appointed times where this eating and drinking normally take place. People from outside the body of believers have no idea that the festivals and new moons and sabbaths are a shadow, a reflection backward in time, of the things to come. The only people that can appreciate and know the value of the things to come, are the members of the body of the Messiah. These are the only ones you should listen to when making decisions of this nature.
Just a thought or two on the matter of eating and drinking, in conclusion. I don't believe for one moment that the food in question in Col 2:16-17 had anything to do with scripturally clean or unclean foods (of which reference may be found in Lev 11 and Deut 14). Refraining from food which Yahweh Himself has labelled "unclean" was never a controversial issue among the New Testament believers. The ongoing validity of the "torah" as the only "scriptures" available and as "profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness" (2 Tim 3:16) was never disputed. The things taught by the "outsiders" in Col 2, on the other hand, are called regulations "which all concern things which perish with the using, according to the commandments and doctrines of men" (Col 2:22). Exactly what these regulations were, is difficult to tell, but the fact that they contained phrases like "do not touch, do not taste, do not handle" (Col 2:21) indicates that these people tried to impose foreign restrictions on the believers - most probably of the same nature as those being imposed on the participants of pagan feasts and rituals. Another (perhaps more probable) possibility is that one or more of the extremist Jewish splinter groups of that time was trying to convince the believers to adopt their way of interpreting the "torah" by adding a large number of man-made regulations and traditions to what we know today as the Old Testament. This practice is condemned throughout the New Testament, and clearly so by Y'shua Himself (see Matt 15:2-6 and Mark 7:8-13).
If these people indeed belonged to a Jewish sect, Paul's choice of linking the feast days, new moons and sabbaths to "the things to come" may even be more significant. When the Jews, especially those who did not recognize the Messiah, observed the feasts, they always looked back to "the things of the past". They remembered the exodus and the time in the wilderness. They did not understand how these feasts related to "the things to come". This understanding only came to those who believed in the Messiah. Their eyes were not blinded anymore to the true meaning of the feasts - the Messiah has made all the difference!