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Bible Dictionaries
Holy Day

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

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The term was employed in the Jewish Law to denote a day set apart for the service of God. Especially is it used of the Sabbath. It might be a day on which certain restrictions were laid on individual liberty. The scope of this article is confined to the attitude adopted by the Apostolic Church towards the Jewish ‘holy days.’ The subject is really part of a much larger one-the question of its attitude towards the Jewish Law. Jesus, while completely abrogating the ceremonial Law (see article Holiness), yet attended Jewish feasts; and St. Paul, notwithstanding his attitude towards the Jewish Law, is represented in Acts 20:16 as hastening his sea-journey, in order to be at Jerusalem for the day of Pentecost.

To discuss the whole question of the Sabbath in relation to the Apostolic Church would be to transgress the limits of this article, but the position that must in general be adopted is that there is no trace in the NT of an arbitrary and conscious substitution of the Lord’s Day for the Jewish Sabbath. The process of early Christian thought in this connexion, as in connexion with holy days in general, was really determined not by enactment, but by the action of the great guiding principles of spiritual freedom and brotherly love. Indeed, the original motive of the institution of the Jewish Sabbath, before its observance was overlaid with minute Rabbinical details, was not so much that the Israelite should rest himself, as that he should give others rest. The life and work, the example and precept, and above all the Resurrection of Jesus, implied the complete abrogation of the Mosaic dispensation; but as that dispensation was still part of the personal environment, and eventually bound up with the personal religion of individual Christians-both Jew and Gentile-for many generations, it is not to be expected that its cogency would at once cease to be felt. ‘The dead leaves of Judaism fell off gradually, they were not rudely torn off by man’ (Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible (5 vols) iii. 139b). It is only by keeping the principle laid down by Jesus Himself in Luke 5:39 fully in view that the relationship of the Apostolic Church to holy days in general, and to the Sabbath in particular, can be understood. As will be seen, the determining factor in the gradual displacement of the Sabbath by the Lord’s Day, in the Christian Church, determined also the general attitude to all holy days. That factor was the Resurrection of Jesus, the experience of the New Creation, and the inevitable sense of victory over all that would fetter Christian freedom (see further, article Sabbath).

Bearing in mind what has been said, we are not surprised to discover a certain amount of compromise, wherever the Apostolic Church had to give conscious expression to its views and to give guidance to its members on the question of the observance of holy days. The Apostolic Decree of Acts 15:19-21 has only a very general bearing on our particular subject, but the matters with which it deals-the problems of meals and heathen religious practices-are closely connected. We must also remember that as Christianity in the course of its missionary expansion came in contact with Hellenistic Judaism, the Pagan religions spirit, with its insistence on the observance of heathen festivals, would encourage a return to and an emphasis upon ‘holy days.’ There are three passages in St. Paul’s writings that may be adduced in illustration.

1. Galatians 4:10.-‘Ye observe days, and months, and seasons, and years,’ St. Paul is really combating the influence of those who wore making the attempt to judaize, insisting that submission to Jewish rites was necessary for salvation, and discrediting the freedom of the Pauline gospel as antinomianism. At the same time, it is apparent from the contest that the Galatians had, no doubt through the influence of Pagan festivals, laid great stress on the observance of those days as connected with deliverance from the power of the στοιχεῖα, which are undoubtedly intermediate beings, connected with the growth of angelology in later Judaism, and readily identified by the Galatians with heathen demonic powers, in which they once believed (cf. A. S. Peake, Expositor’s Greek Testament , ‘Colossians,’ London, 1903, p. 522f.; following F. Spitta, Der zweite Brief des Petrus und der Brief des Judas, Halle, 1885, p. 263f.). They were in bondage to them which by nature are ‘no gods’ (Galatians 4:8). Such observances would destroy the spirit of sonship (Galatians 4:6), the privilege of immediate access to the Father, which constituted the gospel he had preached to them. Accordingly we may conjecture that, apart from the demand for circumcision, St. Paul is not here condemning the observance of holy days as such, but only as leading, by way of a revived Judaism, back to Paganism. The Galatians are accused not so much of wickedness, as of ‘foolishness’ (ἀνόητοι Γαλάται, Galatians 3:1), or want of judgment. No doubt it was really moral earnestness that led them astray. To follow the definite moral precepts of Judaism, taken over into Christianity, impressed them as a safer course than to venture on the broad sea of Christian freedom and the guidance of the Spirit.

2. Romans 14:5-6.-The situation in Rome was somewhat different. The reference here to the observance of ‘days’ is connected with the question of the responsibility of the strong for the conscience of the weak (Romans 14:1). The weak in faith are those who have an inadequate grasp of the great principle of salvation by faith in Christ. They are the ‘scrupulous’ in conscience, who, like the Galatians, are afraid to be guided except by definite legal enactments. It is interesting to note that St. Paul does not call the weak brother ἀσθένης, but speaks of τὸν ἀσθενοῦτα = ‘one who may become strong’ (F. Godet, Com. on Romans, Eng. translation , Edinburgh, 1881-82, ii. 329). He is one whose conscience has to be considered, but within limits, as the rebuke to his censoriousness in Romans 14:4 shows. The days mentioned are not necessarily Sabbath days, but may be any holy day-a fast or a feast. It is held by some (E. von Dobschütz, Christian Life in the Primitive Church, Eng. translation , London 1904, p. 126; J. Denney, Expositor’s Greek Testament , ‘Romans,’ 1900, p. 702) that St. Paul has in view a definite sect of vegetarians. If that be so, the days in question would be days on which flesh might or might not be eaten, while in some eases complete abstinence from flesh might be demanded. In any case, it is significant that ‘eating’ is closely conjoined with the observance of the ‘day’; and whether the day were feast or fast or Sabbath, the principles inculcated by St. Paul apply equally well. The day in itself, like the eating, is indifferent, and therefore the Christian is free to observe it or not according as the spirit of Christian brotherhood and a regard for the unity and peace of the Church may dictate. By indifference to external observances, a ‘free’ Christian may injure the conscience of another. At the same time conduct here, as always, is determined ultimately not by direct reference to the ‘weak’ brother, but by reference to Christ. No man liveth to himself, but ‘to the Lord’ (Romans 14:7). It is His interest alone that is to be considered, and the weak brother is to be considered as one ‘for whom Christ died.’ St. Paul, in his impartial fashion in dealing with all such questions, rather creates an atmosphere in which the elements for decision are clearly seen than lays down any legislative enactment. The authority of the Church is neither more nor less than the authority of Jesus, interpreted by the individual conscience, in close Christian relationship to those who constitute the Church a body of believers. There is nothing whatever that is purely legal and statutory in the Christian religion. ‘All shall stand before the judgment-seat of God,’ and St. Paul asks the Romans to remember that both those who observe the ‘days,’ and those who do not, are striving for the same end. They both are regarding the day ‘to the Lord,’ or with His interests in view (Romans 14:6).

The particular difficulty in Rome was probably of Essene origin, akin to that in Colossae (B. Weiss, Introd. to NT, Eng. translation , London, 1887-88, i. 330; Denney, loc. cit.). A. C. McGiffert (Apostolic Age, Edinburgh, 1897, p. 368) contends that it was due to some form of Alexandrian Judaism. Certainly the difficulty is not occasioned by Pharisaic Legalists, as in Galatia.

3. Colossians 2:16 (in the Authorized Version ἑορτῆς of this verse is translated ‘holyday,’ the only instance of the word in the English Version of the NT). The argument is practically the same as in Romans 14:5. ‘Let no man judge you on the basis of eating and drinking, or in the matter of a feast or a new moon or a Sabbath.’ St. Paul means that such ground is inadequate for moral judgment of a man. ἐν μέρει ἑορτῆς, κτλ. cannot be translated ‘in the partial observance of’ (Chrysostom). As regards the character of the movement which is opposed by St. Paul, and finds its expression in the legal observance of holy days, it seems to have boon a theosophy, consisting of a blend of Judaism with some form of syncretistic religion. It is impossible to identify the foreign element exclusively with Essenism or Mithraism. It is simply the product of that ‘Hellenism’ which everywhere confronted the Christian missionary (cf. E. Bevan, Stoics and Sceptics, Oxford, 1913, ch. iii.). The ‘days’ were evidently connected with the worship of στοιχεῖα or ‘intermediate beings’ (see above), whose functions wore ‘not only creative but also providential, in a sense, resembling those of the saints in Roman Catholicism’ (Moffatt, Introd. to Literature of the New Testament (Moffatt)., Edinburgh, 1911, p. 152). One result seems to have been asceticism (Romans 2:21 f.). The material was contrasted unfavourably with the spiritual, and the body was considered as the tomb of the soul (the ultimate issue of the σῶμα σῆμα of Plato). Moreover, this insistence on ‘days’ carried with it an emphasis on individual speculative and mystical attainments which destroyed the universality of the gospel (Romans 3:11).

The aim of this article has been to indicate the complexity of the movement in the Apostolic Church that issued in the gradual weaning of Christianity, as interpreted by St. Paul, and those who adhered to him, from the observance of Jewish holy days. Missionary activity made plain in experience that the multiplied observance of ‘days, and months, and seasons, and years’ as legal enactments formed a congenial soil on which heathen conceptions of deity might take fresh root within the Christian Church. The missionary activity of the Christian. Church to-day is also exercising a similar profound influence on Christian thought. No one ought to pretend that the discipline of the Church, so far as it is expressed in the weekly day of rest and worship, or in the observance of seasons or sacraments, is without significance for the Christian life. It directs attention to aspects of the Christian faith that would otherwise find no place in the mechanical routine of ordinary life; yet not even the religious observance of the first day of the week ought to be regarded as legal or statutory. An act of faith was the source in which it originated, and its maintenance must be conducted in the free atmosphere of faith. Many things are yet to break forth upon the mind of the Church from the Word of God, and none are more significant than the principles relating to holy days that were brought into being through the contact of the apostolic faith with contemporary practice and thought. It is only by ‘being fully assured in our own mind,’ by contracting the habit of deciding for ourselves in such matters, and at the same time by having regard to the mind of Christ, as expressed in the constraint of Christian brotherhood, that true Christian freedom of conscience will be developed, and that fear, which so often manifests itself in scrupulosity, obscurantism, and legalism, will be cast out.

Literature.-Besides the works mentioned in the article reference may be made to J. B. Mozley, University Sermons, London, 1876, serm. ii.: ‘The Pharisees’; F. W. Robertson, Sermons, 3rd ser., do. 1876, p. 246ff.; J. H. Newman, Parochial and Plain Sermons (Selection, ed. Copeland5, do. 1891), p. 189ff.; J. R. Seeley, Ecce Homo, do., ed. 1895, ch. 13.; Tracts for the Times, ii. (1834-35), do. 1840, no. 66; J. LL. Davies, The Example of Christ, do. 1860, p. 350.

R. H. Strachan.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Holy Day'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hdn/​h/holy-day.html. 1906-1918.
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