Temporal Referents: A Decent Sabbatarian Argument

Today, I want to wrestle with a Sabbatarian, pro-holy day argument that is somewhat hard to gainsay. Even though I’ve been arguing against Sabbatarianism for the past couple of days, I acknowledge that it can make decent arguments every now and then.

The New Testament contains a number of Jewish temporal referents, which are indicators of time that refer to a Jewish festival or institution. For example, Acts 20:6 says that Paul left Philippi after the Days of Unleavened Bread. Acts 27:9 narrates that Paul sailed to Rome shortly after the Fast, that is, the Jewish Day of Atonement. I Corinthians 16:2 tells the Corinthian Christians to set apart a portion of their income on the first day of the week, which in the Greek is “mian sabbatou,” or first of the Sabbath. In v 8 of that chapter, Paul says he will tarry at Ephesus until Pentecost–the Jewish Feast of Weeks.

According to many Sabbatarians, the New Testament’s use of Jewish temporal referents indicates that Gentile Christians were keeping the Sabbath and holy days. In their view, these New Testament writings were directed towards Gentiles, and they wouldn’t include those kinds of temporal referents unless their recipients knew about and observed the Jewish calendar.

I’m not sure if this argument will work with Acts, since Theophilus (the recipient of Luke-Acts) could have been a Hellenistic Jew. Many Jews in the Diaspora had Greek names, plus Luke goes out of his way to demonstrate that Christianity is consistent with Judaism. Luke emphasizes over and over again that Christianity is neither contrary to the law and the prophets, nor does it encourage Jews to abandon the observance of the Torah (Luke 24:44; Acts 6:13; 18:18; 20:16; 21:20ff.; 24:14). This would makes sense if his reader were a Jewish Christian, who heard rumors that Paul was opposed to the law. And, if such were the case, then Theophilus‘ familiarity with Jewish temporal referents wouldn’t be that surprising, nor would it indicate that Gentiles were observing Jewish institutions. In this scenario, of course Theophilus was familiar with the Jewish days, for he kept them like any good Jew.

But Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is a different story, since many of the members of that church were obviously Gentile. So why would Paul use Jewish temporal referents for a Gentile audience? Here are some possibilities:

1. The Armstrongite solution is that the Corinthian church was observing the Sabbath and holy days. This possibility has a certain appeal, since temporal referents usually mean something to us when we are actually observing them. If someone tells me that an event will occur around Christmas, I can understand what he’s saying, for many people around me celebrate that day. One can therefore ask: Why would Paul refer to Jewish days in a letter to a predominantly Gentile church, unless it were actually keeping them? Their surrounding culture certainly was not! And one can argue that someone in the letter’s audience had to be doing so for the temporal referents to make any sense. So I can understand why many Sabbatarians conclude that the Gentile Corinthian church observed certain Jewish institutions.

But I have questions about this option. The biggest one is this: Why doesn’t Paul ever discuss how to keep the Sabbath? I mean, in Armstrongite and Adventist churches, people naturally wonder what is permissible and forbidden on that day (e.g., can I wash the dishes? Can I watch a movie? Can I swim?). Rabbinic Judaism wrestled with this whole issue, which is why it had an oral law: the Bible forbade work on the Sabbath, and the Jewish people needed to know what “work” actually was, if they were to obey the commandment. And that’s one thing that the Mishnah, the Tosefta, and the Talmud try to define. Why doesn’t Paul address this sort of dilemma in his letters, especially when the Gentiles in his audience were fairly new to Sabbath-keeping?

Of course, these sorts of questions can be handled orally. I mean, not every group that observed the Sabbath wrote about the nuts and bolts of halakah. I can’t find specific rules about Sabbath observance in Philo’s writings, but he still kept it! Over time, a community can develop customs and traditions about what to do on its Sabbaths and festivals. They may not wrestle with halakic questions because what to do is not controversial for them: they simply go along with what they’ve always done. Or, alternatively, maybe the Jews in the Diaspora abode by the halakic decisions of the Judean authorities. I don’t know.

Another problem I have is something I raised in my post, Sabbatarian “Paul Would Have” Arguments: We don’t see much in the New Testament about the church meeting on the Sabbath and holy days. A possible exception is Acts 2, where believers gather together on the day of Pentecost. But, overall, when the early Christians honored the Sabbath and festivals, they did so within a Jewish context. Paul entered synagogues on the Sabbath day (Acts 13:14-44; 17:2). He desired to be in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost (Acts 20:16). When he got to Jerusalem, he worshipped in the temple. Why would he want to go to Jerusalem, if he could attend Pentecost services at a nearby church? Armstrongites assume that the early church had Sabbath and holy day services, just like them. But I don’t see much evidence for that in the New Testament.

2. Maybe Paul uses Jewish temporal referents because there were Jews in the Corinthian church. Acts 18:1-18 depicts Paul gaining converts from a Corinthian synagogue. In parts of I Corinthians, he acknowledges that the church contains both Jews and Gentiles (I Corinthians 10:32; 12:13). I Corinthians 10:32 may contain a solution to why Paul refers to the first day of the week as “mian sabbatou” (first of the Sabbath). It says, “Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God” (NRSV).

As I argued in my post, Bacchiocchi’s Argument from Silence, the early church did not want the Gentile Christians to offend their Jewish brethren. That’s why they were to avoid meat offered to idols, fornication, strangled meat, and the consumption of blood: Gentiles viewed these practices as normal, but Jews deemed them to be abhorrent, even for non-Israelites. Some argue that this is the reason James says in Acts 15:21, “For in every city, for generations past, Moses has had those who proclaim him, for he has been read aloud every sabbath in the synagogues.” According to some interpreters, James is saying that there were a lot of Jews in the Diaspora, so Gentile believers needed to make sure that they didn’t offend them unnecessarily!

Could that be why Paul mentions the Sabbath in I Corinthians 16:2: he’d offend a lot of Jewish Christians by referring to the days of the week according to the Greek and Roman gods? And so, as a result, he sticks with the Jews’ way of labelling days–with reference to the weekly Sabbath? If that’s the case, it doesn’t mean that the Gentile Christians observed the Sabbath and annual holy days. Paul’s simply taking into consideration those in the congregation who did: the Jewish Christians. It’s something to think about!

3. There’s also a possibility that Paul wanted the Corinthian church to remember the Jewish institutions, even if not every member literally observed them. All of the Corinthian Christians were heirs to the Old Testament, as they drew rich spiritual lessons from its stories and laws (see I Corinthians 9:9; 10). So when Paul exhorts the Corinthians, “[L]et us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (I Corinthians 5:8), he may not be telling them to observe the Days of Unleavened Bread in a literal sense; rather, his message is most likely that they should forsake the leaven of sin and instead pursue sincerity and truth (see vv 5-7). A lot of this passage is metaphorical, as is v 7, which calls Christ our Passover. Could Paul intend for the celebration of the festival to be a metaphor for the Christian life rather than a literal observance? That would make sense. After all, we’re supposed to avoid malice and be sincere every day of the year, not only on the Days of Unleavened Bread!

The same applies to the Sabbath. When Hebrews 4:9 says that “a sabbath rest still remains for the people of God,” I don’t think it’s talking about believers resting every Saturday. The “rest” of Hebrews 4 is much larger than that, for it encompasses the Christians’ life and hope. At the same time, the Sabbath is still relevant, for the author of Hebrews appeals to it as he tries to explain a spiritual reality.

According to the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament‘s article on “sabbaton,” the church fathers continued to refer to the days of the week according to the Sabbath, even though they didn’t observe it (Didache 8:1; Martyrdom of Polycarp 8:1; 21:1, et al.). Maybe that’s because they still deemed the Sabbath to be spiritually relevant to believers, recognizing that it commemorated creation, conveyed eschatalogical significance, and symbolized the spiritual life of Christians (see the long version of Ignatius to the Magnesians 9:2-4, which is slightly pro-Sabbath; the short version 9:1, which is more anti-Sabbath; Barnabas 15:5-9; Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho 12:1). Perhaps they wanted to attach biblical significance to their week, so they stuck with the Jewish labels for the days: “Sabbath,” “preparation day,” etc. Each week, even if they didn’t observe the Sabbath literally, they got to commemorate the divine drama, which encompasses the Old and the New Testaments. And that may be why Paul mentions the Sabbath in I Corinthians 16:2.

Again, it’s something to think about!

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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2 Responses to Temporal Referents: A Decent Sabbatarian Argument

  1. Juan says:


    Here is a great post on Grace and Law but it would be worth the read of all his posts.



  2. James Pate says:

    Hi Juan,

    That post resonates with me, though I’m not sure if the Jewish Christians were REQUIRED to observe the Mosaic law. In Acts 15, Peter said that he and his fathers couldn’t bear that yoke.

    I may read all of his posts at some time. You’re right–they look worth the read.


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