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Paul has some very strong words against the Galatians implying that they are returning to their former state:

Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved 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, whose slaves you want to be once more? You observe days and months and seasons and years! I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain.—Galatians 4:8-11 (ESV)

It seems the evidence he cites is that they are "[observing] days and months and seasons and years!" I interpret that to mean certain holidays (whether Pagan or Jewish, I don't know). The NET Bible seems to agree with that interpretation of Galatians 4:9:

You are observing religious1 days and months and seasons and years.

The note reads:

1 tn The adjective “religious” has been supplied in the translation to make clear that the problem concerns observing certain days, etc. in a religious sense (cf. NIV, NRSV “special days”). In light of the polemic in this letter against the Judaizers (those who tried to force observance of the Mosaic law on Gentile converts to Christianity) this may well be a reference to the observance of Jewish Sabbaths, feasts, and other religious days.

If this is a good understanding of what Paul meant by the phrase, does that mean that he was suspicious of all holiday celebrations (such as the upcoming Thanksgiving (US) and Advent seasons)? Or was this a particular sign of trouble for these particular churches?

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Inspired by a question on Christian holidays in general and our challenge of the "week". – Jon Ericson Nov 23 '11 at 21:54
up vote 5 down vote accepted

"Is it a good interpretation of the phrase?"

In substance, yes--context shows it is the Jewish holidays being referred to. Martin Luther, in his Commentary on Galatians, agrees, commenting on "days and months and times and years" with:

The Apostle Paul knew what the false apostles were teaching the Galatians: The observance of days, and months, and times, and years. The Jews had been obliged to keep holy the Sabbath Day, the new moons, the feast of the passover, the feast of tabernacles, and other feasts. The false apostles constrained the Galatians to observe these Jewish feasts under threat of damnation. Paul hastens to tell the Galatians that they were exchanging their Christian liberty for the weak and beggarly elements of the world.

But in spirit, no--it is not so much the days themselves but that they show the Galatians' faith being weakened. The book of Galatians (seen as a whole) is a tirade against this church that had begun taking on Jewish custom in the belief that the Mosaic Law needed to be followed for salvation.

He speaks of encountering the behaviour previously when he was in Antioch (Galatians 2:14-16): (NIV quoted)

When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs? We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified."

Paul attempts in this book to separate the idea of salvation from the idea of following the law. The promise of salvation, given to Abraham, is separate from the Law, which was much later given to Moses, and for a different reason (cf. Galatians 3:15-19). Since Christ has come, the purpose of the Law is fulfilled, and we can rely instead on Christ alone (Galatians 3:23-25):

Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.

The idea is that for those who have accepted Christ, no additional custom or law is necessary: you have already been saved by Christ, so what is putting yourself under additional restraint going to do for you?

So when we ask: "Does it mean he was suspicious of all holiday celebrations, or was this a particular sign of trouble for these particular churches?" we can only say that it is the latter. Because their faith in Christ's ability to save had weakened, they took to shoring it up with observances of Jewish Law--and we see from other parts of the book (e.g. Galatians 5:1-12) that it was not only holidays, but circumcision as well.

It is not likely that we can apply this to our holidays today. The Jewish days, we understand, were religious obligations--but our modern holidays are free celebrations, and do not promise us any justification. That we are under no obligation to keep them, and that they are not supposed to effect our salvation, puts them out of the way of at least this argument of Paul's.

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In addition, I would note that in the book of Esther we have an example of a civil holiday being instituted which Jesus then participated in during his earthly ministry (John 10:22-23). – Kazark Mar 24 '12 at 15:58
@Kazark, Esther shows the institution of Purim. Jesus celebrates Hannakah in John 10. Hannakah is instituted in 1 Maccabees. – Frank Luke Mar 29 '12 at 13:45
@Frank Luke: Jesus was there during Chanukka. It mentions nothing about him celebrating it. Nor does the Bible mention him celebrating Purim. Did he? Nobody knows for sure. – Simply a Christian Jan 26 '13 at 5:56
@H3br3wHamm3r81, with John pointing out that it Jesus is in the Temple during the Feast of Dedication, I think we can safely conclude that Jesus was joining in with the celebrants. – Frank Luke Jan 27 '13 at 20:35

It seems from the context (see Gal. 3) that Paul was not rejecting holidays, even Jewish ones, rather, he was making the point to them that since we have been saved, we are free from the bondage of the law and should not enslave ourselves again. He was telling them that as we have been saved by faith, we should also walk by faith, not trusting in the works of the law (such as keeping the Jewish sabbaths, holidays, etc.).

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Welcome to Hermeneutics.SE! Thanks for the answer. – Jon Ericson Nov 25 '11 at 6:58
He was not rejecting Jewish holidays? Would you expand upon that further? – Kazark Mar 24 '12 at 15:54

"Days and months and seasons and years" does indeed refer to the levitical calendar (corresponding to weekly sabbaths, new moons, annual festivals, and sabbatical years). Paul likely uses the generic language (as opposed to the more specific terms used in Col 2:16) in order to place Torah's calendar into the same class as the various calendrical observances that the Galatian Gentiles would have known prior to their conversion to Christ. This because he sees both Torah and the religious observances of the Gentiles as belonging to an old aeon (age) or kosmos, in contrast to the "new creation" in Christ (cf Gal 6:15).

Paul's concern in Galatians is that Gentile believers do not think that they ought to become circumcised and come under Torah in order to be full members of the people of God (and thus, children of Abraham). In his view, that is a step backward into an old creation that is left behind.

At the same time, Paul considers matters of Torah to be fundamentally indifferent in and of themselves—neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything (again Gal 6:15), and his general rule is that Jews should observe Torah as a sort of cultural legacy insofar as it will not hinder full fellowship with Gentiles (on that, see Gal 2:11ff). Among Jews, he himself has no problem living "as if" he were under Torah (1 Cor 9:20)—but by the same token, among Gentiles, he has no problem living in a way that shows he is not in fact under Torah; although that does not mean he is "lawless," since he is "in-lawed to Christ" (ἔννομος Χριστοῦ).

Thus Paul's position is quite sophisticated, but at bottom he negates the reality of real holy days; his "as if" position toward Torah indicates that in truth he is not under it after all, a point we could derive from numerous places in his writings (e.g. Gal 2:19). For him, the ethos of the levitical calendar, as well as that of the ancient pagans, is not finally compatible with life in the new creation. Just as the advent of Christ breaks down the wall between Israel and the goyim (and thus the status of the holy people), so too the advent of Christ breaks down the old world distinction between holy time and common time.

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Jon, great question.

My first observation is that I never use a Bible translation that supplies words to make its translators' views clear. I am sitting here with my Nestle-Aland 27th ed., and can verify that there is in the cited passage no word that could possibly be translated religious or anything like it. The translators here, perhaps well meaning, have not clarified but circumscribed possible interpretation. What's worse, they've funneled their readers into their interpretation. That's not the proper role of a translator even if to some degree it happens inevitably.

I like the Revised Standard Version. Derived from the King James with the help of better manuscripts than were available in King James's time, and with an ecumenical translation team, it is an elegant, accurate, and formal (rather than dynamic) translation.

St. Paul is essentially criticizing his audience for something like backsliding. He asks them, "How can you turn back again...?" (v. 9) To understand the criticism, therefore, it may be useful to understand that into which they are backsliding, which means understanding that from which they have come.

The idea that these days, months, seasons, and years are holy days of any religion comes out of the blue. Feast days and such aren't mentioned elsewhere in the letter that I see.

The reference to elemental spirits (which appears also in my beloved RSV) is a stretch because the word spirits doesn't appear in the Greek (or, for that matter, in Jerome's Latin translation from the 4th century): only τὰ ἀσθενῆ καὶ πτωχὰ στοιχεῖα, the weak and poor elements. Here, I think the addition is more acceptable because for the ancient Greeks (and for polytheistic religion in general) natural matter is infused with divinity to varying degrees: rivers with gods, trees with spirits, and so on. The word is used to refer to stars and planets, in particular, as manifestations of divinities, like Jupiter, Venus, or Mars.

Given the early Christian concern with apostasy (back to Judaism in Hebrews, back to paganism in the letters to Greeks) and with St. Paul's concern with astrology (a view offered by, inter al., Nancy Calvert-Koyzis, formerly of Wheaton College), it strikes me as likely that St. Paul is concerned that they are reverting to their previous idolatry (worshiping created matter) and astrology, which usually go hand in hand.

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It is impossible to translate without interpreting the text. To pretend to do so will fail, and will inevitably result in a bad translation. – Kazark Mar 24 '12 at 15:55

I realize this is an older thread. But, I would like to point out that Paul, who was an Hebrew of the Hebrews (Phil. 3:5) having been raised in Judaism and zealous of the law, included himself among those who were in "bondage to the elements of the world"

Ga:4:3: Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements of the world:

And by virtue of his associating himself with the Galatians in verse 9 through his inclusion in verse 4 (Gal. 4:9), I don't think Paul was speaking of Pagan holidays as that would not have been in accord with his religious upbringing. Therefore I would conclude that Paul was speaking of "Jewish" holy days when he said:

Ga:4:10: Ye observe days, and months, and times, and years.

The idea that Paul was worried about the Galatians returning to Paganism in a couple of verses here in GAL. 4;9-10 is not compatible to the message of the entire epistle to the Galatians; which is devoted to admonishing this church to not return to observing the Mosaic law.

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Gentiles had their own days and months and years that they observed. If you notice, Paul said said the weak and beggarly elements of the world, he did not say of his law. Different nations and races had different celebrations that came from paganism, and Paul was saying why would you want to go back to that. Take for instance the birthday celebration, nowhere in the Bible did Gods people celebrate their birthdays, why? It came from pagans. Pharaoh is the first recorded in the bible to celebrate his b-day, but God brought Israel out of mental and physical slavery. HE says in his word thou shalt not do as other nations, Christians are doing things that are not biblical. When did God authorize us to celebrate his b-day or his resurrection? You wont find it in his word. If you will go to Acts 13:42 it says and the Gentiles besought that these words might be preached to them the next sabbath. Acts 17:2 And Paul as his manner was went in unto them, and three sabbath days reasoned with them out of the scriptures.

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When he says observe days and months and years. He was clearly speaking about mosaic law in the chapters. Because he says beggarly elements, maybe some of them worshiped tree spirits or star gods too, either way one is believing the law can save you, the other is idolatry and paganism. Both are falling back to the flesh. I know people have taken astrology and signs seriously, this is also giving authority to times and months and years and stars. As far as Christmas especially and other times of the year. It all depends how you look at these holidays. I personally dont care about "special days" at all. They just dont make sense. There is reason to be joyful all the time from salvation and the sacrifice. It's easy to see how many people get caught up in Christmas, and worship the season and earthly joy it can bring. I know people who have given these holidays far too much attention and hype and covet them. It's the vanity of the whole thing, "that everything is wonderful" and God isn't even in the picture, as well as all of the earthly pleasures and desires that go along with them- presents, cookies, cakes, over- eating, Christmas tree viewed as an idol, sparkling lights as an earthly spectacle, revelry, drinking too much (eggnog), reindeer graven images on the lawn, graven image ornaments everywhere. Songs about a fictional Santa Claus in place of God and vain images brought to mind. I don't know if Christmas has always been this superficial for most people, but it is what it is now for most. If we aren't careful I can see how we could be brought back into bonds going to all these idolatrous, vain and pleasure centered parties where people celebrate them as such. If we go celebrate these just out of tradition with fellow believers who we know don't take them as such special earthly parties, and center around Christ, instead of the pleasures and things as others do, I don't see how we are "observing days and months and years." Just don't covet these earthly things that may go with these "special days" that really aren't special in and of themselves. Give God the glory.

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