Sabbath Laws and Early Church

D. Mackintosh January/February 2003

Illustration by Ralph Butler

In A.D. 135, at the end of the Jewish rebellion against Roman domination, the emperor Hadrian passed laws forbidding circumcision, the keeping of the Sabbath, and the study or teaching of the Torah. Though aimed at the Jews, these laws affected the course of the young Christian church to a greater degree than many realize.

Because Jewish Christians refused to join in the war against Rome, Bar Kochba, the self-proclaimed messiah of the Jews, persecuted them. Thus these Christians found themselves treated unmercifully by fellow Jews and at the same time rejected by the Romans because of their illicit religion. Many Christians perished during the conflict in which more than a million Jews lost their lives.

Hadrian had thought at first to quell the rebellion with the troops in his immediate command, but it was not easy to bring the Jews to their knees, and therefore he called in other Roman legions. First the Syrian standing army entered the conflict, then the legions from Egypt, and finally the army based in Britain under Julius Severus. This time Hadrian didn't send the usual message back to Rome that all was well among the troops, for they too suffered many casualties.

Hadrian determined that the Jews would not rebel again. Though he rebuilt a city on the site of Jerusalem, he forbade any Jew to enter it. Instead of a temple to Jehovah, Hadrian erected a temple to Jupiter. In ridicule of the Jews, Hadrian had a sculpture of a boar positioned over the gate of the city on the way out to Bethlehem. And he passed oppressive laws against Jewish customs and religion.

Though Jews were forbidden to enter Jerusalem, Christians were allowed in. A Gentile named Marcus was appointed bishop, according to Eusebius. But the mother church of Jerusalem was no more. The new church never filled the place of the older body of believers.

Shortly after the war, which lasted from A.D. 132 to 135, some among the Christians murmured that, in allowing the utter defeat of the Jews, God had shown His displeasure not only with them but with all things Jewish. Many of these Christians migrated to Rome shortly after the war. Valentinus, a well-educated Gnostic Christian, came to Rome about this time, hoping to be made bishop. Then there was Marcion, a wealthy shipowner from Pontus, son of a bishop. Upon arriving in Rome, Marcion came under the influence of Cerdo, who ran a school in which the anti-Jewish teachings of Gnosticism were taught. Gnostic leaders openly proclaimed that all things Jewish should be discarded. In fact, they went so far as to say that the God of the Old Testament was not the Father of Jesus, but an inferior god!

One can easily imagine how difficult it must have been for Jewish Christians to evangelize. How could they invite their Gentile friends to church on Sabbath when it was against the law to keep the Sabbath?

After A.D. 135 many Christians found it necessary to meet secretly in smaller groups. When Justin (Justin Martyr) was on trial (A.D. 165), the prefect, Rusticus, asked him, "Where do you assemble?" Justin's reply is revealing: "Where each one chooses and can: for do you fancy that we all meet in the very same place? Not so; because the God of the Christians is not circumscribed by place; but being invisible, fills heaven and earth, and everywhere is worshiped and glorified by the faithful."1

Antonius Pius, who succeeded Hadrian, relaxed the laws of his predecessor, permitting Jews to circumcise their sons, but he prohibited proselytizing by any Christians who still believed they ought to keep the Sabbath. Though these laws were not administered evenly throughout the empire, the anti-Sabbath laws were not relaxed. How then did the Christians cope with this situation?

Some Gentile Christians became Gnostics or accepted enough of their teachings to reject most things considered Jewish, including the keeping of the Sabbath. Says Gibbon: "The Gnostics were distinguished as the most polite, the most learned, and the most wealthy of the Christian name."

Justin, who gives us the first clear picture of a Christian worship service on a Sunday, argues, however, that Christians keeping the Sabbath, as the Jews did, should not be rejected; and that other Christians should be willing to associate with them in worship. The allegorizing influence of the Gnostics comes through in the following counsel from Justin:

"If there is any perjured person or a thief among you, let him cease to be so; if any adulterer, let him repent; then he has kept the sweet and true sabbaths of God. If any one has impure hands, let him wash and be pure."2

The Romans, avid hunters of the wild boar, had long ridiculed the Jews for being idle one day a week and for not eating pork.

Irenaeus, A.D. 120-202, bishop of Lyons, France, acknowledged that Christ did not do away with the law of the Sabbath. He emphasized, however, that Jesus said, "It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath" (Matt. 12:12, NKJV).* It followed, then, that humanity need not be idle on the Sabbath: "And therefore the Lord reproved those who unjustly blamed Him for having healed upon the Sabbath-days. For He did not make void, but fulfilled the law. . . . And again, the law did not forbid those who were hungry on the Sabbath-days to take food lying ready at hand: it did, however, forbid them to reap and to gather into barns."3

Indeed, Irenaeus says further, "Nor will he be commanded to leave idle one day of rest, who is constantly keeping the Sabbath, that is, giving homage to God in the temple of God, which is man's body, and all times doing the works of justice. For I desire mercy, He says, and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than holocausts." 4

That early Christians recognized a difference between the Jewish manner of Sabbathkeeping and that of the Christian is also demonstrated in an earlier statement by Ignatius. He wrote about the "divine prophets" as "no longer sabbatizing, but living according to the Lord's life."5

By reading the context in the preceding paragraph one can readily see that it was the "divine prophets" of Old Testament times of whom Ignatius spoke. They were "living according to the Lord's life." Hence, Ignatius believed the "divine prophets" and the teachings of Jesus were in harmony.

Returning to the period after Hadrian, we find an interesting statement by Clement of Alexandria written near the end of the second century that indicates he did not believe it was necessary to be idle on the Sabbath, but that one could keep busy "doing good." He wrote: "For the teacher of him who speaks and of him who hears is one—who waters both the mind and the word. Thus the Lord did not hinder from doing good while keeping the Sabbath; but allowed us to communicate of those divine mysteries, and of that holy light to those who are able to receive them."

Tertullian (A.D. 160?-230?), who lived in Carthage and wrote during the third century, made a similar statement to that of Irenaeus, only he explains more plainly what he means when he says it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath. He condemns those, such as Marcion, who were trying to get everyone to fast on the Sabbath. Then he speaks of Christ bestowing "the privilege of not fasting on the Sabbath-day" and adds, "In short, He would have then and there put an end to the Sabbath, nay, to the Creator Himself, if He had commanded His disciples to fast on the Sabbath-day, contrary to the intention of the Scripture and of the Creator's will."6

After this Tertullian says Christ maintained "the honour of the Sabbath as a day which is to be free from gloom rather than from work." He then explains what he means this way: "For when it says of the Sabbath-day, 'In it thou shalt not do any work of thine,' by the word thine it restricts the prohibition to human work—which everyone performs in his own employment or business—and not to divine work."7

Origen (A.D. 186?-254?), who studied under Clement in Alexandria, and then led out in the school there at Alexandria when it became necessary for Clement to flee from the city, also indicated he believed it unnecessary to keep the Sabbath in the strict manner of the Jews. The statement I refer to is found in Origen's Homily 23 on Numbers, chapter 4. Here it is, as translated by Prof. Frank H. Yost:

"After the festival of the unceasing sacrifice [the crucifixion] is put the second festival of the Sabbath, and it is fitting for whoever is righteous among the saints to keep also the festival of the Sabbath. Which is, indeed, the festival of the Sabbath, except that concerning which the Apostle said, 'There remaineth therefore a sabbatismus, that is, a keeping of the Sabbath, to the people of God [Hebrews 4:9]'? Forsaking therefore the Judaic observance of the Sabbath, let us see what sort of observance of the Sabbath is expected of the Christian. On the day of the Sabbath nothing of worldly acts ought to be performed. If therefore you cease from all worldly works, and do nothing mundane, but are free for spiritual works, you come to the church, offer the ear for divine readings and discussions and thoughts of heavenly things, give attention to the future life, keep before your eyes the coming judgment, do not regard present and visible things but the invisible and the future: this is the observance of the Christian Sabbath."8

Possibly I should caution those who may want to read the writings of Origen that in reading this early scholar it is well to remember that, as Albert Henry Newman says, Origen believed "that every passage of Scripture has three senses, the literal, the moral, and the spiritual."9

Careful research has thus revealed that during the second and third centuries various prominent leaders of the Christian communities endeavored, by being busy doing "divine work" on the Sabbath, to cope with Roman laws against Sabbathkeeping. Justin lived in Rome and became a martyr around A.D. 165. Irenaeus was bishop of Lyons, in France. He succeeded Pothinus, who was martyred about A.D. 177. Pothinus was in his nineties when abused and martyred. Tertullian, Clement, and Origen were in different parts of Africa. It is therefore quite evident that the idea of being able to keep the Sabbath without actually being "idle," as were the Jews, was rather widespread among Christians. These men, as all other Christians, faced the constant possibility that because of some adverse event the pagans would rise up against them, accusing the Christians of causing the gods to become angry. Thus, Christian leaders did what they could to demonstrate by their lives that they were upright, noble citizens.

However, there is no doubt that the various attitudes of Christians relating to the Sabbath laws of Rome during the second and third centuries paved the way for the more drastic changes that took place in the fourth century, especially during the reign of Constantine.

Reflecting on the above, one might well ask. "Just how would I relate to Sabbath laws or Sunday laws or anti-Sabbath laws if they should be passed by our legislators today?"

Sometime after Constantine passed the world's first Sunday law in A.D. 321, and well after the Council of Laodicea, possibly even in the next century, someone rewrote the Epistles of Ignatius, enlarging upon what Ignatius had written. In this longer version of the Epistle to the Magnesians we read:

"Let us therefore no longer keep the Sabbath after the Jewish manner, and rejoice in days of idleness; for 'he that does not work, let him not eat.' For say the [holy] oracles, 'In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat thy bread.' But let every one of you keep the Sabbath after a spiritual manner, rejoicing in meditation on the law, not in relaxation of the body, admiring the workmanship of God, and not eating things prepared the day before, nor using lukewarm drinks, and walking within a prescribed space, nor finding delight in dancing and plaudits which have no sense in them. And after the observance of the Sabbath, let every friend of Christ keep the Lord's Day as a festival, the resurrection-day, the queen and chief of all the days [of the week]."10

Here we find the idea of not being "idle" one day during the week continued well after Constantine's Sunday law, at least in some places. Sunday was not thought of as a Sabbath, but as a "festival." It was as a festival that Sunday entered into the early church programs and became known as the "Lord's day." Under the stress of anti-Sabbath laws, the time came when some, at least, kept the Sabbath "spiritually," or only in the heart, and the following day, Sunday, they openly celebrated the resurrection of Christ in a festival manner–(not as a Sabbath or rest day). Thus we can see how the laws passed by Hadrian and his successors greatly affected the early church. The areas affected most were those of Rome and Alexandria (where Gnosticism flourished during the second and third centuries), as the following quotation indicates:

"The people of Constantinople, and almost everywhere, assemble together on the Sabbath, as well as on the first day of the week, which custom is never observed at Rome or at Alexandria."11 "Although almost all churches throughout the world celebrate the sacred mysteries on the sabbath [i.e., Saturday] of every week, yet the Christians of Alexandria and at Rome, on account of some ancient tradition, have ceased to do this."12

*Texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright

Article Author: D. Mackintosh