Seven Factors that Influenced the Sabbath in the Early Church (Part 1 of 4)

Seven Factors that Influenced the Sabbath in the Early Church (Part 1 of 4)

by Kelly McDonald, Jr.

Today we will begin a four-part series on the history of the Sabbath in Early Christianity. This series will help you understand the different factors that affected the Sabbath in the first few centuries of Christianity.

We know that Christ and His disciples honored the Sabbath (see Luke 4:16 and Acts 13:13-46 for some examples). Did the second generation of disciples continue to honor the Sabbath?

There are at least seven factors or development that I have identified as having influenced people’s view of the seventh day Sabbath. While these items are certainly interrelated, they can also be viewed individually. I have listed them below:

  • Persecution of Christians
  • Destruction of Jerusalem (twice)
  • Quartodeciman Controversy
  • Anti-Semitism
  • Syncretism
  • Allegorizing Scripture
  • The Roman Church’s Relationship to Roman Emperors

The first factor was persecution. From 64 AD to 324 AD, there were as many persecutions of Christians initiated by Roman Emperors or their magistrates. These persecutions hunted down the faithful. They had their property confiscated; they were tortured and even killed. Many Christian leaders were targeted in these attacks.

The first Roman persecution was directed by the Emperor Nero in 64 AD. He desired to build a new city called Neronia (obviously named after himself). Before he could start this project, he had to destroy part of the old city of Rome. Perhaps not coincidentally, a massive fire destroyed part of the old city. Some sources say that he purposefully set fire to the city to make room for his new project. The Roman people demanded that the implementer of this crime be revealed. In their minds, someone had to pay the price.

To divert the people’s suspicion from himself, Nero blamed Christians. Believers were tortured in awful ways. Tacitus, a pagan Roman historian who lived near this event, tells us about their awful treatment:

“…Consequently, to get rid of the report (that he started the fire), Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate…  Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted… Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths.  Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed by the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired…. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car.  Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being destroyed” (Tacitus, The Annals, 15:44).

This account by Tacitus is among the first historical accounts outside of the Bible that reference Christ and Christianity. Great harm was done to believers, but they pressed on to the high calling of the faith.

As these persecutions continued, two classes of people began to emerge in Christianity. The first class was composed of loyal and faithful believers who held firmly to the faith no matter the threat presented to them. The second class publicly professed Christ, but denied Him when threatened with punishment. This second class even sacrificed to the pagan gods of Rome.

One eyewitness of this development was Pliny the Younger. He was a magistrate during the reign of the Roman Emperor Trajan, who ruled from 98-117 AD. This is one of the Emperors that allowed Christians to be persecuted. A quote from him is found below:

“…An anonymous information was laid before me containing a charge against several persons, who upon examination denied they were Christians, or had ever been so. They repeated after me an invocation to the gods, and offered religious rites with wine and incense before your statue (which for that purpose I had ordered to be brought, together with those of the gods), and even reviled [cursing] the name of Christ: whereas there is no forcing, it is said, those who are really Christians into any of these compliances: I thought it proper, therefore, to discharge them…Some among those who were accused by a witness in person at first confessed themselves Christians, but immediately after denied it; the rest owned indeed that they had been of that number formerly, but had now (some above three, others more, and a few above twenty years ago) renounced that error. They all worshipped your statue and the images of the gods, uttering imprecations at the same time against the name of Christ…They affirmed the whole of their guilt, or their error, was, that they met on a stated (fixed) day before it was light, and addressed a form of prayer to Christ…I forbade the meeting of any assemblies…. For it appears to be a matter highly deserving your consideration, more especially as great numbers must be involved in the danger of these prosecutions…In fact, this contagious superstition is not confined to the cities only, but has spread its infection among the neighbouring villages and country. Nevertheless, it still seems possible to restrain its progress. The temples, at least, which were once almost deserted, begin now to be frequented; and the sacred rites, after a long intermission, are again revived…From all this it is easy to conjecture what numbers might be reclaimed if a general pardon were granted to those who shall repent of their error…” (Letter 97; emphasis mine throughout)

While these believers were not specifically targeted for keeping the Sabbath because the vast majority, if not all Christians at that time kept the Sabbath. The historical reference above reveals that Christians were observed to meet on a stated or fixed day; this would have been the Sabbath. Christian assemblies were forbidden by Pliny.

How did the persecutions affect the Sabbath? First of all, some of the strongest leaders and believers were martyred. Secondly, these persecutions led to compromise among believers. Some people denounced their profession of faith in Christ when confronted. Pliny noted that the pagan temples were almost empty, but the persecutions caused them to be full again. In other words, some who had attended Christian fellowship later turned back to pagan worship.

This development had long-term consequences and was was repeated in subsequent persecutions, such as the Decian (250 AD) and Diocletian (303 AD). The willingness to compromise among believers allowed other religious practices to enter the larger Christian community.

A second influence on the Sabbath in early Church history was the destruction of Jerusalem, which occurred twice.

In 70 AD, the Romans destroyed Jerusalem. The city was ransacked, and the Second Temple was destroyed. This was a tragedy for the Jewish people and it scattered some Christians. About forty years before, Jesus warned the early believers to flee to the mountains when the city was surrounded by armies (Luke 21:20-21).

Historical accounts tell us that the early believers fled to Pella and were protected. Epiphanaus and Jerome are two ancient writers that describe this. Of them, Epiphanaus wrote that the remnant of these early Christians still honored the Sabbath (Panarion, Sec. 29).

While many may be familiar with the devastating events of 70 AD, they are usually not familiar with the destruction that occurred less than 70 years later.

A controversy arose during the reign of the Roman Emperor Hadrian (sometimes called Adrian), who ruled from 117-138 AD. According to the Roman historian Cassius Dio, Hadrian attempted to build a temple dedicated to Jupiter on top of the ruins of the Second Temple (Book 69, sections 12-14). The Temple was and is the holiest site to Judaism. This action by Hadrian caused a major war with the Jewish people. As many as 585,000 Jewish people may have died in the fighting alone.

Amid this conflict, Hadrian banned the celebration of the Sabbath and any other practice that appeared to be Jewish. After the Romans won, all the Jewish people were banned from Jerusalem. This caused many Christians (who were Jewish by natural birth) to be removed from the city.

During the time leading up to Hadrian’s reign, the bishops in Jerusalem had a pure knowledge of the faith. Once Jerusalem had been destroyed, things changed. Eusebius, a Christian historian from the fourth century, wrote: “…until the siege of the Jews, which took place under Adrian, there were fifteen bishops in succession there, all of whom are said to have been of Hebrew descent, and to have received the knowledge of Christ in purity, so that they were approved by those who were able to judge of such matters…”  (Eus, History, bk 4, 5:2, [NPNF: 176]).

The first Gentile Bishop became nominated to the position not on the basis of agreement, but only because all Jewish inhabitants had been driven out. This enabled more Gentile-oriented practice to enter into the Christian community.

Why did this event cause problems as it relates to the Sabbath? The books of Acts guides us towards the answer.

In the book of Acts, we learn that Jerusalem was the primary center of Christianity. In fact, this book mentions the city third-most of all books in the Bible. Within the city of Jerusalem, important matters were addressed. Councils were held, ministers reported to the Apostles, and ministers were sent out to help others. For some examples of this, see: Acts 1:4-8, 11:1-2, 11:19-22, 11:26-27, 12:24-25, 13:13, 15:2, 16:4, and Gal. 2:1-2.

When Jerusalem was destroyed the second time, the headquarters of Christianity was now in question. Other cities competed to be the successor of apostolic authority and doctrine. These cities included, but are not limited to: Rome, Alexandria, Carthage, and later Constantinople. This included their practices, which did not always reflect the purity of the original faith once delivered to the saints. This resulted in fragmentation in practice and doctrine.

During this time, heresies began to infiltrate Christianity. Hegessipus, who wrote about 150 AD, stated that the church was a virgin until the reign of Trajan [98-117 AD] (Fragments, ANF: 764). Clement of Alexandria, who wrote about 180 AD, asserted that heresies arose in the time of Hadrian (Stromata, bk 7, chp 17). Sulpicius Severus (400 AD) said that until the reign of Hadrian most Christians believed in Christ while obeying the Law of God (Sacred History, bk 2, ch. 31).

What we can deduce is that during this general time period – the reigns of Trajan through Hadrian – Christianity began to change, but not for the better.

We will continue this series next week.

Kelly McDonald, Jr.
BSA President –


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