In Galatians, Paul chastises his Gentile audience for privileging certain dates on the calendar, saying, “You observe days and months and seasons and years! I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain” (Gal 4:10-11). Although some have seen Paul’s words as a warning against observing the biblical holidays, it is more likely that Paul refers to dates and times in Graeco-Roman religious year, rather than to the Jewish festival calendar.
In order to understand the calendric references in Gal 4:10, we must attend to Paul’s division between Jews and Gentiles earlier in Galatians 4. At the start of the chapter, Paul speaks about the Jewish nation of which he is a part, and recalls a time when “we [Jews]… were enslaved (δουλόω; doulóo) to the elementary principles of the world” (4:3). What Paul cannot mean by “elementary principles of the world” (στοιχεῖα τοῦ κόσμου; stoicheia tou kósmou) is the “Torah commandments” or the observance of biblical feasts. The apostle cannot be equating such “principles” with the Torah because Paul never says that he and his fellow Jews were “enslaved” (δουλόω; doulóo) to the Torah. Rather, Paul says that “we [Jews] were protected (φρουρέω; phroureo) under the Law” (Gal 3:23). God never made slaves of Israel through the Torah; instead, the Lord introduced the Torah to “protect” the chosen people (cf. Phil 4:7 and 1 Pe 1:5 for φρουρέω as positive “protection”). Whatever the enslaving “elementary principles” are for Jews, they are certainly not the Torah commandments or the biblical holidays.
When it comes to Gentiles, however, Paul does use the language of enslavement: “When you [Gentiles] did not know God, you were enslaved (δουλόω; doulóo) to those that by nature are not gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, to whom you want to be enslaved (δουλεύω; douleúo) once more?” (Gal 4:8-9). First, Paul says that Gentiles were “enslaved” to their false gods (e.g., Zeus/Jupiter, Poseidon/Neptune, etc.), and then asks why they wish to be “enslaved” again to the “elementary principles.” It is in this context that Paul refers to “days and months and seasons and years” in the very next verse (4:10). For Paul, the observance of such dates and times are outward signs that the Galatians have turned back to slavery under the “elementary principles” of their former gods and goddesses. In highlighting days, months, seasons, and years, Paul cautions against his newly converted Gentiles returning to religious observances for the Graeco-Roman deities.
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