Judging the Sabbath: Discovering What Can’t Be Found in Colossians 2:16

Ron du Preez Andrews University Press, Berrien Springs, MI November 30, 2008
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Du Preez defends the notion that the weekly Sabbath is binding today for Christians. He challenges the traditional view of Colossians 2:16, which argues that this passage is explicit evidence that the weekly Sabbath is no longer in effect. The verse states, “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a sabbath” (RSV). Du Preez suggests that “sabbath” in this passage does not refer to the weekly Sabbath at all; rather, it refers to ceremonial sabbaths. In light of the history of interpretation of this passage du Preez has a daunting task. Thus he approaches it from two directions. The first part (chaps. 1–9) and the four appendixes present and support his argument. He believes this section should be persuasive enough for most readers (pp. x, 89). Part 2 (chaps. 10–14) is geared toward those wishing for more academic arguments than what is presented in part 1.

Chapter 1 begins with a survey of the history of interpretation in which he presents traditional Protestant and Catholic supports for the position that the weekly Sabbath is not binding for today. He also mentions a few Sabbatarian approaches that do not hold this view. In this chapter he introduces what he calls the “intertextual” approach, which means that “Scripture is its own best interpreter” (p. 7). Du Preez believes the Bible alone is sufficient to make his case (pp. 7–8, 65). Thus no historical or cultural information is given much weight in his presentation. In chapter 2 he dismisses the importance of the “Colossian heresy” for the interpretation of Colossians 2:16. This is unnecessary, he says, because it is speculative and since Scripture should be its own interpreter (p. 90).

Then he discusses the term “Sabbath” in the Old Testament. In chapters 3–4 he discusses the “Sabbath” in the Septuagint and the New Testament. In chapter 5 he demonstrates that “Sabbath” can designate ceremonial elements, specifically, sabbatical years and the Feasts of Trumpets and the Day of Atonement. In chapters 6 and 7 du Preez argues that the majority view that interprets “festival, new moon, and sabbath” in Colossians 2:16 as a year-month-week sequence has not subjected this passage to detailed exegesis. He attempts to demonstrate that “feast” never refers to the Feast of Trumpets or the Day of Atonement or sabbatical years; thus “Sabbath” in Colossians 2:16 probably refers to these (pp. 77–78). Chapter 8 discusses the importance of verse 17 (especially the “shadow” nature of the list in v. 16). These chapters are packed with statistics and careful observation of the wording of the verses. In two appendixes du Preez lists verses that have the word “Sabbath” and related words.

As noted, part 2 is intended for a more academic audience. Here du Preez discusses Paul’s use of the Old Testament (chap. 10), Hosea 2:11 (chap. 11), the literary structure of  Hosea and Colossians (chaps. 12–13), and then gives a summary (chap. 14). The book closes with three indexes: authors, Scripture references, extrabiblical references.

Du Preez ultimately fails in proving his case. The main problem with his argument is his method. First, he spends a lot of time with statistics, isolated word meanings, and a limited focus on context. His statistics demonstrate that the usual meaning of “Sabbath” is the weekly Sabbath, and he demonstrates that there are occasions when it does not mean that. This discussion is fair, and du Preez should be commended for his willingness to spend time on evidence that does not support his case. This discussion shows that his reading is possible. However, possible is not good enough. He must demonstrate probability. To do this, he focuses on minute details such as exact wording in Old Testament passages and the presence and absence of other words in Sabbath texts. However, the Old Testament is not always cited in the New Testament in a precise word-for-word manner. Many quotations differ in minor ways from the Old Testament, but there is enough correspondence to make the connection clear to the readers. Du Preez does not consider this.

He observes that when the weekly Sabbath is in view, one or more of the following words is used in the context: “the” [modifying Sabbath], “day,” “lawful,” “synagogue,” “keep,” a cyclical term such as “every.” And healing, keeping, reading, or worship are said to occur on the Sabbath (see his chart on p. 37). His inclusion of the definite article “the” as a linguistic marker is problematic. The usage of this word is complex. An article is omitted in the Greek New Testament for many reasons. Although du Preez emphasizes the importance of context, his approach seems to focus on more minimal lexical and grammatical features than on context.

Another important discussion concerns the so-called “calendar sequence” found in verses like Colossians 2:16 (festival, new moon, and Sabbath). Du Preez goes to great lengths to demonstrate that the sequence in this verse differs from other such calendar sequences (e.g., 1 Chron. 23:30; Ezek. 45:13–17) that include the weekly sabbath (pp. 55–67). However, in part 2 of this work he discusses Hosea 2:11 in which he departs from the interpretation that “sabbaths” there refers to the weekly sabbath and suggests this as the background to Colossians 2:16 (pp. 105–28). Du Preez argues that these differences are significant and much of the identification of the Sabbath in Colossians 2:16 depends on these calendar sequences. However, why does this have to be the case? The question that needs to be asked is much simpler: Does Colossians 2:16 allude to these passages (and not to Hos. 2:11)?

Second, du Preez refuses to utilize background information. He mentions some nonbiblical texts, but these are largely dismissed. For example some extrabiblical texts are briefly discussed in a portion of an appendix (pp. 179–83), but in a comment on p. 65 they are dismissed). He attempts to deal with the Bible in isolation from its first-century context. Yet it is impossible to view the Bible outside of some type of context. Du Preez fails to understand that his own reading is based on his own context. Certainly no one can completely eliminate the influence of his or her own context. However, part of successful Bible interpretation is the acknowledgement of one’s presuppositions and an attempt to compensate for them in part through an understanding of the original context. Failure to consider the original context in his interpretation results in du Preez dismissing a potentially strong argument that supports his position on Colossians 2:16. By demanding that Scripture alone can inform the meaning of that verse, he fails to consider that there may have been a heresy or teaching at Colossae that in some way used and/or abused Jewish practices. Thus Paul may have had in mind an aberrant form of Judaism. This view may not be correct, but it would be more persuasive than what du Preez has suggested.

Third, du Preez’s use of secondary sources is problematic. He relies too heavily on outdated volumes (e.g., Thayer’s Greek lexicon for an important point, p. 34). To be fair, he uses many good sources; however, one gets the impression that there is no distinction in value among his sources. For example in some cases he lists commentaries and sources without critically evaluating them (pp. 55–57). Again, to be fair, he is attempting to be exhaustive in his presentation. However, he does not interact or critically evaluate these sources in any detail.

The second part of this volume is intended to be more academically based. To some extent this is true. However, the discussions are far too brief and do not interact with significant sources.

Du Preez should be commended for his detailed study of a difficult passage and for his high view of Scripture. Even if correct, however, his study would not fully support a Sabbatarian position, but it would remove a most damaging obstacle to that position. In this reviewer’s opinion, du Preez has not succeeded in overthrowing the main opinion. Nevertheless it is hoped that this study will help spark further discussion of what exactly Colossians 2:16 means in its original context and what it means for today.

—Joseph D. Fantin

January 1, 2011
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Jan-Mar 2011 vol. 168 no. 1 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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