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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35 COMMENTS

  1. Shalom. This is what I thought. Paul was not talking bout the Feast that God had told the Isralites and any visitors to keep but the days man himself had decided to celebrate.

  2. Excellent post! It does however raise some questions about observing non-biblical holidays. Those meant to replace moedim (Christmas and Easter) are obviously not to be observed. But things like Father’s Day and Thanksgiving here in the US are often hotly debated grey areas. Any thoughts on these?

    • Thanks for your question, Daniel. On Christmas and Easter, the NT doesn’t prohibit celebrating Jesus’ birth and resurrection, and since they are both pivotal points in the life of the Messiah (and his followers), there’s nothing wrong with observing these holidays. In fact, the NT records celebratory responses to Jesus’ birth (e.g., Magi bringing gifts in Matt 2) and his resurrection (e.g., worshiping the risen Jesus in Matt 28:9; communing in joy and worship in Luke 24:52-53; sharing a meal in Jn 21), so the text offers templates for celebrating these events if one were so inclined. Secular American holidays are outside the Bible’s purview, so there’s no issue with celebrating these holidays either.

      • An interesting post. But why the last comment?
        Of course Paul was speaking against xmas and easter. The Feast of Tabernacles is obviously referring to the birth of Jesus. And because of the pagan worship of easter the world misses out on the beauty and meaning of Passover.

        • I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Paul wasn’t speaking against Christmas or Easter in Galatians because these holidays, as we know them today, were not established in the 40s-50s CE. I agree that Easter has overshadowed Passover and, with Paul, I’d prefer that Jesus followers observed Passover in some capacity (see 1 Cor 5:7-8), rather than focusing on Easter eggs and candy. At the same time, I’d want to dissuade Christians from appropriating the rabbinic seder (another post-NT institution), and there is an equally problematic focus by some Jesus followers on the supposed negativity of celebrating Jesus’ birth by exchanging gifts (i.e., Christmas), which has a Gospel precedent (see Matt 2:1-12). Debates around holidays constitutes time that could be spent in more constructive ways.

      • Thank you sir, that is the clearest explanation and support of Christmas and Easter celebrations i have ever seen. 🙂

      • BTW Hanukkah (most probably observed by Jesus as a jewish custom) wasn’t even a biblical feast. It’s not wrong to celebrate Lord, one way or the other. 😉

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  3. Jeremiah 10:2 KJV Thus saith the LORD, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them .Both Christmas and Easter are not Christian Holy Day but ones Changed that were heathen to try to make Christian.

  4. I recently reread that scripture in Galatians about a week ago and realized it really wasn’t talking about Jewish observances. Also, Paul seems to be condemning holidays and celebrations that glorify another deity and enslave people in false worship which violates the first commandment of worshipping HaShem God exclusively.

  5. The problem I HAD with repetition (i.e observance of Biblical feasts) is that it seemed temporary instead of eternal. There was no language to help me differentiate between falling away being enlightened (Heb 6).What helped is seeing repentance as a continual process.

    • Israel Bible Center equips you with the tools you need to enter into the Jewish world of Scripture. We provide first-rate teaching, and the opportunity to learn from some of the world’s top scholars. As a student, you will be able to interact personally with our teaching faculty, and gain access to hundreds of hours of Bible courses, including The Jewish Gospel of Matthew and The Hebrew Psalms: How To Worship God. Become a part of the community of teachers and students at Israel Bible Center today!

  6. Your assertion makes me glad. You just confirmed my assumtion, which I have found few months earlier. But it is important what you say, that the context may be not so wide as it seems to be, sometime. So author of the letter changed topic in it.

    • Thanks, Radim. You’re right: context is everything, and we need to try to read the context as closely as possible if we are going to come away with the strongest interpretation.

  7. Most of us Christians know that Jesus was not born on December 25th. However I am very happy that some day has been set aside to remember his Birthday. Even though pagans have misused the purpose of it. We as Christians should know the we celebrate the birth of Christ.

  8. Shalom Dr Schaser, a question, why is there a sudden switch in Galatians from Paul’s concern over certain influencers convincing the Galatian Christ followers to embrace circumcision and proselyte conversion, to being worried about the Galatians becoming enslaved again to their former gods and practices? Explain the dynamics.

    • This is a great question, Aaron. There are a few possibilities. On the one hand, Paul is not averse from switching topics abruptly, so we can’t rule that possibility out here. On the other hand, I think a better explanation for Paul’s discourse in Gal 4 can be found in his language of both Jews and Gentiles being “enslaved” to the “elementary principles.” First, Paul is clearly speaking of the Galatians’ “false gods” when he accuses them of going back to slavery under the elementary principles in Gal 4:9 (“whose slaves you want to be “once more”). Second, per the article, Paul wouldn’t speak of Jews being “enslaved” to the Torah (rather, the Torah “protected”; 3:23), so when he says that “we [Jews] were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world” (4:3), it’s unlikely that he means the Torah commands themselves. As an alternative, since he refers to “elementary principles” as “false gods” in Gal 4:9, Paul may be saying that, in times past, even “we Jews,” who were protected under the Law or “guardian” (4:2), were “no different from a slave” (4:1) since we also became slaves to “false gods” — that is, the Israelites strayed from the true God to worship foreign deities, even when they had the tutelage of the Torah. This scenario aligns with Paul assertion in Romans 8:3 that the Law was “weakened by the flesh” — it couldn’t accomplish it’s full goal because the Israelites’ “flesh” got in the way. Yet a third possibility is that Paul does, in fact, equate the children (Jews) with “slaves” under the tutelage of the Torah (see Gal 4:1-2). Although this third option would “muddy” the precision of Paul’s previous rhetoric of “protection,” Paul sometimes blends terminology in his letters, and we can’t rule out that possibility here.

  9. Is it possible the the Galatians were being pressured from both sides, both to go the route of circumcision and Jewish identity and to go back to their former gods and practices?

  10. This interpretation fits with vv. 3,10–11, but how does it fit with “under the law” (vv.4–5, 21), slavery/circumcision (5:1–6) and the whole letter? I’m wondering if the ascending order and generic terminology “days, months, seasons, and years” alludes to undergoing a long Jewish conversion process for righteousness (cf. Essene conversion).

  11. Read Mark 7:6-8 these are the words of Yeshua…….Their worship of me is useless, because they teach man-made rules as if they were doctrines….xmas and easter are pagen and man made holidays. How can you say it is ok to celebrate these days? Once was blind but now I see..

  12. It seems most likely that, as DeBoer says in his commentary, that it covers both Jewish and Gentile observances. They were treating the Jewish ones the same as the pagan ones.

  13. The Galatians were being pursued (3v1, 4v17) hard. The question is by who? Romans trying to convince them to return to idols worshipping (4v8) or the group that was trying to force the Gentiles to live like Jews (2v14)? 4v21 mentioned some of the Galatians want to be “under the law”, and Paul went into the Torah to explain the law. And the chapter before that was about justification by law vs. by faith. Torah in Chapter 3 before and Torah in 4v21 onward. To me, it gives a stronger reading and flows better if the Galatians were pursued to live like a Jew, fresh from abandoning the worthless enslavement of idols worshipping to another set of enslavement of justification by observing the law and holidays feast, by those detailed in Acts 15v1. After the letter from the Jerusalem council (Act 15:23-29), it seemed the legalists were hard at work again. On the other hand, it is entirely possible the Galatians were pursued by the Romans to abandon the newfound faith to go back to idols worshipping to avoid being ostracised from the Roman society. But if the law (nomos) in 4v21 is referring to Roman law or custom, it does make sense for Paul to go into the Torah to explain it.

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