Seven Factors that Influenced the Sabbath in the Early Church (Part 3 of 4)
by Kelly McDonald, Jr.
In the midst of the previous four factors, a fifth significant factor developed: syncretism. Syncretism occurs when someone takes practices from the Holy Bible and mixes them with practices from other religions.
As some early Christians sought to avoid practices that appeared Jewish, they embraced practices from other religions. Sunday worship was one of them. Another writer of this period was Clement of Alexandria (180s AD). In his writings, we find the first legitimate reference to Sunday being called the Lord’s Day. His justification for this view comes from Plato and the number eight (Stromata, 5, 14). Plato was a heathen philosopher. Why would anyone use his writings to justify any Christian practice?
As the Old Testament was being devalued as the background source to the New Testament, these Gnostic writers found other sources that they could use as a derivative of Christian practice. Philosophy was one belief system syncretized with the New Testament to fill this void.
The theology of Clement was sometimes confusing and not always consistent. He called Sunday the “Lord’s Day”, which has no scriptural evidence. He was an avowed gnostic and claimed that the true gnostic does not honor specific days (ibid, 6:15, 7:7). Among his other questionable statements, he proposed that philosophy was given to the Greeks to guide them towards righteousness (ibid, 1:5). He believed that we should pray with our faces towards the east to face the rising sun (ibid, 7:7). Lastly, he believed that the sun was created as an object of worship. “And he gave the sun, and the moon, and the stars to be worshipped…” (ibid, 6:14).
The second writer we will discuss as it relates to syncretism is Tertullian. He was a writer who lived in Carthage in the late 190s/early 200s AD. He was an avowed enemy of Marcionites, but he still advocated Sunday worship. We have some of his quotes below.
“Others with a greater show of reason take us for worshippers of the sun… This suspicion took its rise from hence, because it was observed that Christians prayed with their faces towards the east [towards the sun] but if we, like them[the pagans], celebrate Sunday as a festival and day of rejoicing, it is for a reason vastly distant from that of worshipping the sun; for we solemnize the day after Saturday in contradistinction to those who call this day their Sabbath, and devote it to ease and eating, deviating from the old Jewish customs, which they are now very ignorant of” (Apology, Chapter 16; emphasis mine throughout).
Tertullian admitted that the Sunday celebration was conducted “like them” – meaning like the pagans. He also acknowledged that there were Christians that still called Saturday the Sabbath.
“Others, with greater regard to good manners, it must be confessed, suppose that the sun is the god of the Christians, because it is a well-known fact that we pray towards the east or because we make Sunday a day of festivity. What then? Do you do less than this?…It is you [the pagans], at all events, who have even admitted the sun into the calendar of the week; and you have selected its day, in preference to the preceding day…For the Jewish feasts are the Sabbath and “the Purification”…all which institutions and practices are of course foreign from your [pagan] gods” (Against the Nations, 1:13).
In his work, Against the Nations (also called To the Nations), Tertullian addressed pagan worshippers. Once again, he admitted that some Christians made Sunday a festivity in the same way as the pagans. He then confessed that the practices of the Sabbath and festivals by the Jewish people are foreign to other gods. They are holy celebrations not shared by other religions. He had to defend the syncretism he practiced.
Tertullian was the first person (to my knowledge) who defended Christianity against accusations of sun worship. In the New Testament, Christians never had to shield themselves against such allegations. Syncretism caused this to change –the outside world was confused by the Sunday festivity. Tertullian also confessed that Sunday worship was a tradition with no Scriptural authority. This is consistent with the Catholic writers we quoted in the introduction.
“We count fasting or kneeling in worship on the Lord’s day to be unlawful…. If, for these and other such rules, you insist upon having positive Scripture injunction, you will find none. Tradition will be held forth to you as the originator of them” (De Corona, chapters 3 and 4).
As we read these primary source accounts, syncretism had a huge influence on the Sabbath in early Christianity. Some wanted to retain pagan practices, such as adoration of the sun and its rising, but still hold Christian principles. We are instructed in the Bible not to pray to the sun or adore its rising (see Deut. 4:19, Ezekiel 8:14-17). Also, the phrase “Lord’s Day” became gradually attached to the first day of the week.
The next factor that influenced the Sabbath was the allegorizing of Scripture. You may not be familiar with this concept, but allegorizing is a unique method of interpreting the Bible. It does not fully consider the literal meaning of verses. Instead, numbers and details in the Bible are treated as symbols. They are then reapplied in a way that is subjective to the interpreter. As a result, those using this method usually come to conclusions that negate the literal meaning of the Bible.
Among the first writers to allegorize the Bible was Justin the Martyr. He especially used allegory as it related to the Sabbath and the resurrection. We have two excerpts below:
“For righteous Noah, along with the other mortals at the deluge, i.e., with his own wife, his three sons and their wives, being eight in number, were a symbol of the eighth day, wherein Christ appeared when He rose from the dead, forever the first in power” (Dialogue with Trypho, chapter 138).
“The Lord our God does not take pleasure in such observances: 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…” (ibid, chapter 12).
In the first quote, he allegorized the number eight from the story of Noah and used this number as a reason to transfer the Sabbath to the first day of the week (which he calls the eighth day of the week). In another chapter of the same work, he does the same thing with circumcision (see chapter 41).
His allegorical attack on the Sabbath has obvious problems with the literal meaning of the Scriptures. First, God never described the week as having eight days. Secondly, Jesus did not resurrect on Sunday. Third, no Bible writer ever connected circumcision or Noah to the Sabbath.
In the second quote above, Justin portrayed a sinless life as the true way to honor the Sabbath. Again, this is a problematic interpretation. The Sabbath is the weekly day of rest – keeping other commandments cannot replace its absolute requirements. If someone abstains from stealing, then they have done well and honored that specific commandment. However, if the same person works on Sabbath then he/she has violated the fourth commandment. If we use Justin’s logic, we could justify breaking any commandment we want.
Two other authors that contributed greatly to allegorizing the Scriptures were Clement of Alexandria and his pupil Origen. Clement studied at the Alexandrian school of theology, which taught this method of interpretation. In other places, he and Origen decried honoring any specific day as special.
“Whence not in a specified place, or selected temple, or at certain festivals and on appointed days, but during his whole life, the Gnostic in every place, even if he be alone by himself, and wherever he has any of those who have exercised the like faith, honours God, that is, acknowledges his gratitude for the knowledge of the way to live” (Clement, Stromata, 7, 7).
“If it be objected to us on this subject that we ourselves are accustomed to observe certain days, as for example the Lord’s day, the Preparation, the Passover, or Pentecost, I have to answer, that to the perfect Christian, who is ever in his thoughts, words, and deeds serving his natural Lord, God the Word, all his days are the Lord’s, and he is always keeping the Lord’s day. He also who is unceasingly preparing himself for the true life, and abstaining from the pleasures of this life which lead astray so many — who is not indulging the lust of the flesh, but keeping under his body, and bringing it into subjection,— such a one is always keeping Preparation-day” (Origen, Against Celsus, 8:22)
Origen allegorized away any day with special significance and ranked them all the same. He thus contradicted the example of Christ and the early Apostles, who clearly made distinctions between days that were holy and those that were not.
Allegorizing Scriptures would contribute to misunderstanding the Sabbath for centuries to come. A substantial number of Christians were influenced by the Alexandrian school of Theology. This form of interpreting the Scriptures has existed in some form down to the present.
We will finish this series next week!
Kelly McDonald, Jr.
BSA President – www.biblesabbath.org