Seven Factors that Influenced the Sabbath in the Early Church (Part 2 of 4)

Seven Factors that Influenced the Sabbath in the Early Church (Part 2 of 4)

by Kelly McDonald, Jr.

The immediate consequence of the second destruction of Jerusalem was confusion as to when Passover should be celebrated. This is the third factor that had an influence on the Sabbath in the Early Church. It is also called the Quartodeciman Controversy.

In the 370s AD, Epiphanius wrote that that the quarrel about Passover started during the reign of Hadrian (Panarion, 70). Up to this time, there was no confusion about it. Most Christians celebrated Passover on the fourteenth of Nissan, as Jesus himself celebrated it in this manner.

In approximately 155 AD, a controversy about Passover caused a stir within the Christian world. Anicetus was the Bishop of Rome at that time; he refused to keep Passover. Polycarp, who was taught and trained by the first Apostles, was still alive. He celebrated Passover on the fourteenth of Nissan. He visited Rome to persuade Anicetus to stick with the Apostolic practice. The early church historian Eusebius wrote about this visit.

“At this time, while Anicetus was at the head of the church of Rome, Irenæus relates that Polycarp, who was still alive, was at Rome, and that he had a conference with Anicetus on a question concerning the day of the paschal feast…” (Eusebius, Church History, bk 4, 14:1- 7).

“For neither could Anicetus persuade Polycarp not to observe what he had always observed with John the disciple of our Lord, and the other apostles with whom he had associated; neither could Polycarp persuade Anicetus to observe it…” (ibid, bk 5, 24:16-17).

The meeting between the two leaders came to a standstill. Polycarp held to the practice of Passover as he received it from the early Apostles. Anicetus decided not to celebrate Passover. At that point in history, the Roman Church celebrated Passover on the Sunday after the 14th of Nissan. They claimed that this practice was necessary because they believed the resurrection of Jesus occurred on Sunday. This is the first time such a controversy arose; the issue would persist for hundreds of years.

How did the Quartodeciman controversy affect the Sabbath? From the position of an annual Sunday celebration to honor the resurrection, the Roman Church drifted towards the view that every Sunday should be celebrated by Christians in the place of the seventh-day Sabbath. The resurrection became their justification for this practice – even though such a justification is not found in the New Testament.

Sunday replacing Passover or the Sabbath cannot be an apostolic teaching because the earliest Apostles met on the Sabbath and still taught about the resurrection. The resurrection never influenced when the Sabbath was honored. Polycarp, who was taught by the first Apostles, was never persuaded to follow the practice of Rome.

The fourth factor that influenced the Sabbath in the early Church was anti-Semitism. It was tightly bound up with the previous factors we have reviewed.

By the reign of Hadrian, anti-Semitism was rooted in Roman culture. Some Roman writers called the Jewish people a cursed race. They were accused of following mere superstitions; sometimes attacks were made against them that specifically targeted the seventh-day Sabbath (For a few examples, see Jewish Encyclopedia 1905 article: Seneca, Lucius Annaeus; Tacitus, Histories, book 5:4-5; Quintilian Institutio Oratia, bk 3, sec 7:21).

Unfortunately, anti-Semitism infiltrated Christianity. During Hadrian’s reign, a man named Aristides made a defense of the Christian faith to the Emperor. His goal was to somehow curtail the regional persecutions of Christians still taking place. In his speech called The Apology, he claimed that there were four classes of men: barbarians, Greeks, Jews, and Christians. Moreover, he claimed that Christians were the highest of the four classes and had the most truth. He said that the Jewish people worshiped angels and derived their practices from them. Among the practices he derided was the Sabbath. We have a quote from his work below:

“Nevertheless they too erred from true knowledge. And in their imagination they conceive that it is God they serve; whereas by their mode of observance it is to the angels and not to God that their service is rendered:— as when they celebrate Sabbaths…” (The Apology, Section 14).

To my knowledge, this is the first historical reference of a Christian attempting to separate himself from the practices held in common with Jewish people. But it was the beginning of others who would follow with similar arguments.

Just after the reign of Hadrian and the war he waged with the Jewish people, several anti-Semitic teachers spread heresy in the Christian world. Marcion is considered the most influential of them; he began teaching around 144 AD. He taught that the God of the Old Testament was a separate God from that of the New Testament.

According to Irenaeus, a contemporary of the time, this heretical teacher flourished under the Roman Bishop Anicetus; this is the same Anicetus from the Quartodeciman controversy (Irenaeus. Adversus Haereses. Book III, Chapter 4, Verse 3).

Marcion convinced many people to believe in his heresy (Justin, First Apology, Chapter 26). He had a special hatred for the seventh-day Sabbath. He is cited as teaching the following: “Since that day is the rest of the God of the Jews, who made the world and rested the seventh day, we therefore fast on that day, that we may not do anything in compliance with the God of the Jews” (Epiphinaus, Panarion, Sec. 42).

He advocated fasting on the Sabbath to dishonor the “God of the Jews.” Marcion was declared a heretic by the Roman Church, but they later adopted some of his teachings in one way or another. For instance, fasting on the Sabbath became a normal practice for the Roman Church by the fifth century (Augustine – Letters 36, 82).

Justin the Martyr was another anti-Semitic writer of this period (150s-160s AD). He wrte that the Sabbath was given to the Jewish people due to their transgressions and hardness of hearts (Dialogue with Trypho, Chapter 18). However, Christ said that the Sabbath was given for all mankind, not just the Jewish people (Mark 2:27-28). It was also first given in Genesis, which was long before the Israelites became a nation. Justin claimed that Christians who observed practices such as the Sabbath would “probably be saved” (ibid, 47).

The anti-Semitism that penetrated Christianity during the second century increased over time; it specifically targeted the Sabbath. Pro-Roman writers thought they could denigrate the Sabbath by labeling it a Jewish institution.

In the late 300s AD, Augustine called people who honored the Sabbath “sons of the bondwoman” (letter 36, chapter 2). Around 600 AD, Pope Gregory called Sabbath observers the preachers of the anti-Christ (Registrum Epistolarum, Book 13, Letter 1). 

This demeaning position towards the Sabbath observance was designed to divert people from it and influenced people to turn away from it. Such slander against the seventh day arose at the same time that the culture shunned Jewish people.

We will continue this series next week.

Kelly McDonald, Jr.
BSA President –


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