What was Paul’s relationship to the biblical Holy Days? Did he ignore them or keep them? Did he trash them or teach others to keep them? Let’s carefully examine the scriptural record and consider the conclusions of renowned Bible scholars.
Paul’s religious background
Paul details his strict Pharisee background in his “defense” to the Jerusalem mob (Acts 22:3 Acts 22:3I am truly a man which am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, yet brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, and taught according to the perfect manner of the law of the fathers, and was zealous toward God, as you all are this day.
American King James Version×). In Philippians 3, Paul renounced his self-righteous past in his new quest “that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection” (Philippians 3:10 Philippians 3:10That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable to his death;
American King James Version×). Rather than dwelling on the past, he stated his focus as “reaching forward to those things which are ahead” (Philippians 3:13 Philippians 3:13Brothers, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth to those things which are before,
American King James Version×).
Does this mean he totally “dumped” the law when he became a Christian? Was there any place in his new life in Christ for the Sabbath, Holy Days or other “Jewish” customs?
Some of Paul’s contemporaries accused him of teaching Jews to “forsake Moses” (Acts 21:20-21 Acts 21:20-21 20 And when they heard it, they glorified the Lord, and said to him, You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are which believe; and they are all zealous of the law:
21 And they are informed of you, that you teach all the Jews which are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, saying that they ought not to circumcise their children, neither to walk after the customs.
American King James Version×). At the advice of James and other elders, he performed the ritual of purification along with four other men who had taken a vow, to prove that he still kept the law (Acts 21:22-24 Acts 21:22-24 22 What is it therefore? the multitude must needs come together: for they will hear that you are come. 23 Do therefore this that we say to you: We have four men which have a vow on them; 24 Them take, and purify yourself with them, and be at charges with them, that they may shave their heads: and all may know that those things, whereof they were informed concerning you, are nothing; but that you yourself also walk orderly, and keep the law.
American King James Version×). David Stern analyzes the theological implications of this account:
“In spite of the arguments of v. 21…confirming Sha’ul’s [Paul’s] loyalty to Judaism and the Torah, many Christians suppose that when Sha’ul came to faith in Yeshua [Jesus] he stopped being Jewish, stopped observing the Law and began teaching other Jewish believers to do likewise. But those who hold this mistaken opinion have a serious problem with the ethics of these verses.
“If Sha’ul was not really Torah-observant, if he really did teach the Jews in the Diaspora not to have their children circumcised and not to follow the traditions, than [sic] he and Ya’akov [James] are exposed orchestrating a charade to deceive the Jewish believers zealous for the Torah into discounting the truth they had been told and believing a lie instead. Nothing in the whole New Testament justifies this understanding of how Ya’akov, Sha’ul or any other believer functioned” (Jewish New Testament Commentary, p. 304) .
Paul’s attitude toward the Holy Days
Perhaps Paul’s commitment toward the Holy Days could best be summed up in a quote from Acts 18:21 Acts 18:21But bade them farewell, saying, I must by all means keep this feast that comes in Jerusalem: but I will return again to you, if God will. And he sailed from Ephesus.
American King James Version×: “I must by all means keep this coming feast in Jerusalem.”
Some question whether this verse is valid because it is not found in some texts. (Could the omission be because it offers such strong support for the validity of Holy Days?)
However, no one questions the validity of Acts 20:16 Acts 20:16For Paul had determined to sail by Ephesus, because he would not spend the time in Asia: for he hurried, if it were possible for him, to be at Jerusalem the day of Pentecost.
American King James Version×, which mentions Paul’s determination to be in Jerusalem for Pentecost. He had intended to be there for Passover and the Days of Unleavened Bread, but circumstances required him to keep them locally (Acts 20:1-6 Acts 20:1-6 1 And after the uproar was ceased, Paul called to him the disciples, and embraced them, and departed for to go into Macedonia. 2 And when he had gone over those parts, and had given them much exhortation, he came into Greece, 3 And there stayed three months. And when the Jews laid wait for him, as he was about to sail into Syria, he purposed to return through Macedonia. 4 And there accompanied him into Asia Sopater of Berea; and of the Thessalonians, Aristarchus and Secundus; and Gaius of Derbe, and Timotheus; and of Asia, Tychicus and Trophimus. 5 These going before tarried for us at Troas. 6 And we sailed away from Philippi after the days of unleavened bread, and came to them to Troas in five days; where we stayed seven days.
American King James Version×). That made him even more determined to be in Jerusalem for the next Holy Day—the Day of Pentecost.
The Expositor’s Bible Commentary candidly admits, “Having been unable to get to Jerusalem for Passover, Paul remained at Philippi to celebrate it and the week-long Feast of Unleavened Bread” (Vol. 9, p. 507).
What about gentiles?
Acts 15 is often cited to support the claim that gentiles are exempt from the law. However, circumcision and purification of new gentile converts was the issue in Acts 15, not the entirety of the law.
Did Paul teach gentiles to observe the Holy Days?
Paul wrote the letter that we know as 1 Corinthians to the predominately gentile church at Corinth during the Days of Unleavened Bread. Most scholars agree upon this fact because of the internal evidence, especially chapter 5, where Paul uses the analogy of leaven to make important spiritual points about sin.
Analogies and metaphors are effective only if the audience is familiar with the illustration. Paul’s mention of leaven without explanation clearly implies the congregation understood the process of putting out leavening during the Days of Unleavened Bread.
In their classic work The Life and Epistles of St. Paul, Conybeare and Howson conclude:
“There seems no difficulty in supposing that the Gentile Christians joined with the Jewish Christians in celebrating the Paschal feast after the Jewish manner, at least to the extent of abstaining from leaven at the love feasts. And we see that Paul still observed the ‘days of unleavened bread’ at this period of his life” (p. 390).
Paul also gives a command regarding the correct manner of keeping the Feast: “Let us keep the feast [of Unleavened Bread], not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Corinthians 5:8 1 Corinthians 5:8Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
American King James Version×).
The construction of the Greek verb translated “let us keep the feast” is called horatory subjunctive, which “is commonly used to exhort or command oneself and one’s associates. This use of the subjunctive is used ‘to urge someone to unite with the speaker in a course of action upon which he has already decided’” (Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, p. 464).
Some go to great lengths to attempt to sidestep this clear command to “keep the feast” by alleging that the expression is in some way figurative, since he uses other figurative language in this section of Scripture. But the reason he gives to “keep the Feast” is because “Christ our Passover was sacrificed for us.” Christ’s sacrifice was a literal event; so is keeping the festival that relates to His sacrifice. And a cardinal rule of interpreting the Bible is to prefer “the simple, obvious meaning” ( Edward W. Goodrick, Do It Yourself Hebrew and Greek, p. 12:1 ).
David Stern concludes:
“I question the common assumption that Sha’ul’s Passover language here is entirely figurative. I see no compelling reason in the context to excise the plain sense…from the phrase, ‘Let us celebrate the Seder.’ Instead, it seems the early believers, Gentiles included, observed the Jewish feast of Pesach…Evidently the Corinthian congregation observed Passover without supposing that, as many of today’s Christians might think, they were ‘going back under the Law’” (Jewish New Testament Commentary, p. 447) .
What about the other festivals?
What about the other festivals listed in Leviticus 23? Did Paul observe only those mentioned in the New Testament?
A similar line of reasoning asserts that only the commandments repeated in the New Testament are still valid. This careless assumption is based on an “argument from silence.” Do widely known and practiced truths need to be repeated? Stern asserts, “The New Testament does not repeat truths already evident from the Tanakh [Old Testament]; it assumes them. Sha’ul assumed them, too” (Jewish New Testament Commentary, p. 303).
Questions for the critics
The evidence of the scriptural record leaves two basic questions for those who consider the Holy Days obsolete.
1. Why would Paul teach against observing the Holy Days when he was himself a devoted Holy Day keeper?
2. Where does the Bible record such teaching?
Galatians 4:10 Galatians 4:10You observe days, and months, and times, and years.
American King James Version×and Colossians 2:16-17 Colossians 2:16-17 16 Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holy day, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days: 17 Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ.
American King James Version×are the main “proof texts” cited as evidence that Paul taught against the Holy Days. The following quotation reflects the position of mainstream Protestantism on the subject of the Holy Days:
“Out of the total list of Israel’s God-given festivals, some are noted in the NT as still celebrated by early Christians (cf. Acts 20:16 Acts 20:16For Paul had determined to sail by Ephesus, because he would not spend the time in Asia: for he hurried, if it were possible for him, to be at Jerusalem the day of Pentecost. (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised Edition, article “Feasts,” p. 295 ).
American King James Version×); but the sabbath and the Passover have now become, respectively, the Lord’s Day and the Lord’s Supper, and have been explicitly continued with moral, sacramental and typological force (Hebrews 4:9 Hebrews 4:9There remains therefore a rest to the people of God.
American King James Version×; Acts 20:7 Acts 20:7And on the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached to them, ready to depart on the morrow; and continued his speech until midnight.
American King James Version×; Matthew 26:26-28 Matthew 26:26-28 26 And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body. 27 And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink you all of it; 28 For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.
American King James Version×). Otherwise, however, the Hebrew feasts, including the seventh day sabbath, have been fulfilled in Christ and have been abrogated as far as their present observance is concerned (Galatians 4:10 Galatians 4:10You observe days, and months, and times, and years.
American King James Version×f.; Colossians 2:16 Colossians 2:16 Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holy day, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days:
American King James Version×f.)”
A detailed explanation of these texts is beyond the scope of this article. For a detailed, scholarly treatment of these passages, see “Pagan and Judeo-Christian Time-Keeping Schemes in Gal 4.10 and Col 2.16” by Troy Martin (New Testament Studies, Vol. 42, 1996, pp. 105-118).
In Colossians 2:16-17 Colossians 2:16-17 16 Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holy day, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days:
17 Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ.
American King James Version×Paul upholds the Holy Days as “a shadow of things to come.” In Galatians 4:10 Galatians 4:10You observe days, and months, and times, and years.
American King James Version×he condemns pagan, astrological superstitions, which are also condemned in the Torah (Deuteronomy 18:10-14 Deuteronomy 18:10-14 10 There shall not be found among you any one that makes his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or that uses divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch. 11 Or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer. 12 For all that do these things are an abomination to the LORD: and because of these abominations the LORD your God does drive them out from before you. 13 You shall be perfect with the LORD your God. 14 For these nations, which you shall possess, listened to observers of times, and to diviners: but as for you, the LORD your God has not suffered you so to do.
American King James Version×).
How and when Holy Day observance was discontinued in Christianity
We have seen that Paul and the apostolic Church observed the Holy Days of the Bible. Why and when were these observances discontinued? How did Easter, Christmas and other contemporary religious holidays begin? The record is clearly documented by church historians.
The New Testament reveals that Jesus, Paul and the apostolic Church kept the Passover and Days of Unleavened Bread, not Easter.
According to Encyclopaedia Britannica,
“There is no trace of the celebration of Easter as a Christian festival in the New Testament or the writings of the apostolic fathers…The first Christians…continued to observe the Jewish festivals…as commemorations of events of which these had been the shadows. The Passover, ennobled by the thought of Christ the Paschal Lamb, continued to be celebrated…, and became the Christian Easter” ( Ninth Edition, article “Easter” ).
The motivating force behind the changeover was a fierce determination to distance Christianity from Judaism. Philip Schaff explains,
“There was a disposition to disparage the Jewish law in the zeal to prove the independent originality of Christian institutions. The same polemic interest against Judaism ruled in the paschal controversies and made the Christian Easter a moveable feast” ( History of the Christian Church by Philip Schaff, Vol. 2, pp. 202-203 ).
The Bible establishes the date of Passover as the 14th of Nisan. Early Christians continued this observation as a memorial of Christ’s death. Others (especially non-Jews) began celebrating the festival on Sunday in honor of Christ’s resurrection. The bitter controversy that erupted led to a decision by Constantine requiring all Christians to adopt the same day.
Church historian Philip Schaff points out,
“The feast of the resurrection was thenceforth required to be celebrated everywhere on a Sunday, and never on the day of the Jewish Passover…The leading motive for this regulation was opposition to Judaism” ( History of the Christian Church, Vol. 3, p. 405 ).
Constantine’s letter is filled with harsh invectives. Schaff notes, “This bitter tone against Judaism runs through the whole letter.”
The Council of Nicaea became a watershed mark in church history. Those who continued observing the Passover on the 14th of Nisan, the seventh-day Sabbath and other “Jewish” laws were branded as heretics.
The biblical “Passover” was changed to “Easter,” the name of the Teutonic goddess of spring. The Passover lamb was replaced with Easter ham—an affront to Jews because it is biblically forbidden as “unclean” (Leviticus 11:1-7 Leviticus 11:1-7 1 And the LORD spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying to them,
2 Speak to the children of Israel, saying, These are the beasts which you shall eat among all the beasts that are on the earth.
3 Whatever parts the hoof, and is cloven footed, and chews the cud, among the beasts, that shall you eat.
4 Nevertheless these shall you not eat of them that chew the cud, or of them that divide the hoof: as the camel, because he chews the cud, but divides not the hoof; he is unclean to you.
5 And the coney, because he chews the cud, but divides not the hoof; he is unclean to you.
6 And the hare, because he chews the cud, but divides not the hoof; he is unclean to you.
7 And the swine, though he divide the hoof, and be cloven footed, yet he chews not the cud; he is unclean to you.
American King James Version×; Deuteronomy 14:8 Deuteronomy 14:8And the swine, because it divides the hoof, yet chews not the cud, it is unclean to you: you shall not eat of their flesh, nor touch their dead carcass.
American King James Version×). Searching for and removing leavening from homes (Exodus 12:15 Exodus 12:15Seven days shall you eat unleavened bread; even the first day you shall put away leaven out of your houses: for whoever eats leavened bread from the first day until the seventh day, that soul shall be cut off from Israel.
American King James Version×) ceased, and Easter egg hunts began. The evening Passover service gave way to an Easter sunrise service.
Over the centuries, Easter has become enshrined as an almost universally observed Christian tradition.
The replacement of biblical injunctions with customs from other religions is seldom questioned today.
Yet Jesus warned that it is possible to worship God in vain by following humanly devised traditions (Matthew 15:9 Matthew 15:9But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.
American King James Version×). Long before, God inspired Moses to command the nation of Israel not to adopt the religious customs of other nations to worship God (Deuteronomy 12:29-32 Deuteronomy 12:29-32 29 When the LORD your God shall cut off the nations from before you, where you go to possess them, and you succeed them, and dwell in their land; 30 Take heed to yourself that you be not snared by following them, after that they be destroyed from before you; and that you inquire not after their gods, saying, How did these nations serve their gods? even so will I do likewise. 31 You shall not do so to the LORD your God: for every abomination to the LORD, which he hates, have they done to their gods; for even their sons and their daughters they have burnt in the fire to their gods. 32 What thing soever I command you, observe to do it: you shall not add thereto, nor diminish from it.
American King James Version×).
We would be well advised to reconsider the biblical instructions regarding Passover and the Holy Days God established. Paul tell us that these festivals offer “a shadow of things to come” in God’s plan of redemption (Colossians 2:16-17 Colossians 2:16-17 16 Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holy day, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days:
17 Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ.
American King James Version×). Consider the sage advice of Will Rogers: “Never tear down a fence until you find out why it was built.”
How you can find out more
The fact that you have read this article indicates that you do not want to continue to be a victim of this massive loss of truth. There is so much more to learn! The excitement parallels that of finding lost treasure. The knowledge and understanding derived from the Holy Days brings joy for the present and inspiration for the future.
Members of the United Church of God keep the Passover for the same reasons Paul gives for what many call “the Lord’s Supper,” “in remembrance of” the death of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 11:25-26 1 Corinthians 11:25-26 25 After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do you, as oft as you drink it, in remembrance of me.
26 For as often as you eat this bread, and drink this cup, you do show the Lord’s death till he come.
American King James Version×).
We believe that God’s festivals foreshadow events in God’s plan. That’s part of the reason we keep the Holy Days. So did Jesus Christ, the apostle Paul and the early Church.