One of the unfortunate outcomes of the Reformation, is the number of groups who have taken the notion of Sola Scriptura to its logical conclusions. Frequently, these groups rediscover heresies that were addressed by the Church many years ago. We recently became aware of such a group. Calling it a group may acknowledge more cohesiveness than exists. Perhaps the phrase movement is a bit more exact. At any rate, the movement seems set on returning Judaism to Christianity. In other words, they are the Judaizers of old, simply returned. It would appear that the first major attack of the movement was to assert that Christians are to observe Jewish Old Covenant holidays. They actually published book addressing this. Apparently, this book is having some small influence among home church and emergent church groups. At this point I would definitely argue a small influence as googling the topic yields little of interest.
The group has also moved on to suggest that Christians should also adhere to the Old Covenant dietary laws. From a purely sola scriptura perspective this is a little problematic. The Apostles and Fathers of the Church ruled on that issue at the Council of Jerusalem. It is of note that the only passage from Acts that they engage with is one that most Christians agree does not directly apply to the discussion(it does apply, but only in a broader context of the issue of clean vs. unclean). The real key to understanding Christian requirements regarding Jewish dietary laws is found in Acts 15.
The question of whether or not Christians need to basically become Jews first had risen to great prominence in the early church. In fact, one could argue that the entire letter to the Romans was written in response to those who believed that being Jewish was a requirement of the Christian faith. In response to the issue, the apostles and elders of the church gathered at the Council of Jerusalem. This council provides us with two key lessons. The first is that questions regarding the faith that had once been delivered need to be addressed by a council. The second is that essentially no Jewish ceremonial laws apply to Christians. To assert otherwise today is to ignore this entire section in the Acts. It amazes me that there are groups today still arguing otherwise. On the other hand, given the number of heresies still being taught by various groups, maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised.
So what about the question of Jewish feast days? Certainly, this question was not directly addressed by the Council. While this is true, there is an underlying principle in view that speaks to this, as well. That principle is that we are now part of a new covenant and the old covenant has been fulfilled in Christ. A quick examination of three Old Testament feasts should serve to illustrate the point.
Let’s start with the feast of Yom Kipur. Known in English translations as the Feast of the Atonement, it is the annual day on which the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies and offer a sacrifice for the sins of the nation of Israel. This seems like a good thing, and, in fact, most Christians around the world celebrate this feast. However, it is celebrated in a different way. Our High Priest entered into the true Holy of Holies, of which the earthly one was merely a type, and offered a sacrifice, himself, once for all. This event is also celebrated once a year. It is the feast of the Ascension. Celebrating the events recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, where Christ ascended into heaven, and where St. Paul tells us that Christ made his offering and then sat down at the right hand of God. Now, this feast is not typically celebrated with the focus on the Atonement per se, much of that takes place with the feast of Pascha, as we shall see, but this is the event alluded to in Hebrews 10. The question in this, is, if Christ completed that which was signified by the annual offering for atonement, why would we think to celebrate the annual feast any longer?
Another major feast is that of Chanukah. At least it has become major feast on the modern era. Our school children even celebrate it along with what passes for Christmas( really Santafest) This feast celebrates the restoration of the second temple. At first glance there doesn’t seem to be any problem with Christians celebrating this feast. After all, it is remembering one of God’s acts in history. I’m not going to try to argue that it is wrong per se, but rather not really appropriate.
There are two key things to think about with regard to this discussion. The first is, what is the temple for the Christian, and the second is, what happened to the Jewish temple and why.
The first question may be the most important. Although the Church building can itself rightly (and scripturally) be referred to as a temple, that is not, I think, the key point. There are two other, closely related items, which are referred to as temples. One is the temple that is our body. The second, and key point, is Christ’s body, which he refers to as a temple, and which is further defined as “the” temple in Revelation. An important point to make here is that one of the key aspects of the Orthodox understanding of the Incarnation is that it serves as a mean to heal our fallen humanity. In other words, Christ the Temple restores our temple to its rightful state. So, if we are going to celebrate the restoration or dedication of the Temple, we should properly celebrate the Incarnation. In fact, we do, by celebrating the Feast of the Nativity, known in the West as Christmas.
Finally, we should look at what is the pre-eminent feast for Jews, the feast of Passover (Pesach). This feast, of course, commemorates the rescue of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. The events surrounding that first passover, the escape from slavery, being led by a somewhat unexpected savior (the son of an Egyptian princess), being led through the Red Sea to salvation, are all well known and prefigure the death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Christ is referred to as our Passover by St. Paul, and as the Lamb that has been slain in the Revelation of St. John. The Church, therefore, has always understood the celebration of Christ’s resurrection to be the celebration of Passover itself. In fact, the name of the feast in most countries is just that. It is only in Germany and the English speaking countries that the feast came to be known as Easter, derived from Germanic god of the East according to the Venerable Bede. So, in fact, Christians do celebrate Passover every year. We just do not celebrate the Jewish Passover. Rather than celebrate the event that prefigured the greatest event in history, we celebrate that event. St. Paul states, in his first letter to the Corinthians, that we shouldn’t celebrate the Jewish Passover anymore, although the phrasing can be construed to speak of spiritual principles rather than practical. The service books of the Church, however, take that phrase to clearly mean that we are not to celebrate the old Passover any longer*. Again, not that there is anything wrong with the old feast, but why would one celebrate the type and not the fulfillment?
When we seek to celebrate the Jewish feasts, we are, intentionally or not, failing to live entirely in the New Covenant. Its as if we don’t really believe that the Old Covenant really has been fulfilled, and we are hedging our bets. In the modern era, of course, much of the impetus for celebrating Jewish feasts is coming from Protestant groups that have long been separated from the Church that Christ founded, and thus are without the guidance and wisdom of the “Pillar of Truth.” These groups largely don’t celebrate the feasts of the Church, and. given their frequently erroneous theology, when they do (“Resurrection Day” and “Christmas”), they miss the underlying themes that connect these to the Old Testament types. However, even Western liturgical churches have aided in this resurgence of Judaizing. What began as a practice of discussing the Jewish Passover in some detail as a didactic method to teach about Christ’s death and resurrection, has increasingly become a practice of celebrating a full Seder meal.
While this may be educational, it leads people down a path that the Church long ago realized we shouldn’t travel on any longer.
*For instance, at Holy Friday Matins, we have the following verse: Let us not keep festival as the Jews: for Christ our God and Passover is sacrificed for us. Again, this has more levels of meaning, but clearly points out that we have a new feast.