Sabbath Keeping in the 300s-400s AD
By Kelly McDonald, Jr.
Among the predominant myths about the Sabbath is its practice ceased in early Church history. Interestingly enough, no primary sources in early Church History hint at this. There is actually very little discussion about the Sabbath in the first two centuries after the first Apostles.
As we arrive in the fourth and fifth centuries AD, the Sabbath becomes a more common subject discussed in primary source documents. During these centuries, the Roman Church argued against Sabbath observance while most of the Christian world still honored it. The Roman Church advocated fasting on Sabbath as a way to denigrate it.
In the May-June edition of The Sabbath Sentinel, I discussed that a significant number of Christians during these centuries kept Sabbath in addition to Sunday. I also explained the events that lead to this development. Below, I have listed quotes from these two centuries which clarify that most Christians still honored the seventh-day Sabbath.
363/364 AD – Council of Laodicea
Canon 16: On Sabbath [Saturday], the Gospels and other portions of the Scripture shall be read aloud. Canon 29: Christians shall not Judaize and be idle on Saturday, but shall work on that day; but the Lord’s day they shall especially honour, and, as being Christians, shall if possible, do no work on that day. If, however, they are found Judaizing, they shall be shut out from Christ. (Quoted from: Hefele, pp 302-319)
This Roman Church Council was held at a time when Arians were a strong political and religious entity in the Eastern Roman Empire. Sabbath observance was condemned, but the Sabbath still retained some significance as the Scriptures were encouraged to be read on it. Despite its canons, the council did not change the strong Sabbath keeping tendencies of the times.
360s AD – Pseudo-Athanasius
“They met on the Sabbath, not that they were infected with Judaism, but to worship Jesus, the Lord of the Sabbath…” (Homilia de Semente, quoted by Bingham, 1138).
360s AD – Epiphanius
He wrote that the Apostles set services for the fourth day of the week, the evening of Sabbath and the Lord’s Day (De fide, sec. 22, 24). It should be noted that no assemblies for teaching or exhortation were commanded by the Apostles for the fourth day and first day of the week. Epiphanius cites no Scriptures to support this view.
Late 300s AD
The Apostolic Constitutions was a series of books written to describe the practices of some Christians. The seventh and eighth books were composed in the later part of the fourth century. We have some quotes from it below. The Sabbath was honored as a day of rest and sacred convocation. Fasting on the day was forbidden.
“O Lord Almighty You have created the world by Christ, and hast appointed the Sabbath in memory thereof, because that on that day You have made us rest from our works, for the meditation upon Your laws…On this account He permitted men every Sabbath to rest, that so no one might be willing to send one word out of his mouth in anger on the day of the Sabbath. For the Sabbath is the ceasing of the creation, the completion of the world, the inquiry after laws, and the grateful praise to God for the blessings He has bestowed upon men” (Book 7, sec. 36).
380-390s AD – John Chrysostom
“There are many among us now, who fast on the same day as the Jews, and keep the Sabbaths in the same manner…” (Commentary on Galatians, 1:7).
405 AD – Letter from Augustine to Jerome
“For if we say that it is wrong to fast on the seventh day, we shall condemn not only the Church of Rome, but also many other churches, both neighbouring and more remote, in which the same custom continues to be observed. If, on the other hand, we pronounce it wrong not to fast on the seventh day, how great is our presumption in censuring so many churches in the East, and by far the greater part of the Christian world!” (Letter 82, sec. 14)
The greater part of the Christian world still considered the Sabbath a day of rest and enjoyment, whereas some of the Western Churches considered it a fast day.
Sozomen (late 300s-420s AD)
“Likewise some meet both upon the Sabbath and upon the day after the Sabbath, as at Constantinople, and among almost all others. At Rome and Alexandria they do not. Among the Egyptians, likewise, in many cities and villages, there is also a sacred custom among all of meeting on the evening of the Sabbath, when the sacred mysteries are partaken of” (Church History, bk 7, ch 19).
Socrates Scholasticus (late 300s-430s AD)
“The Arians, as we have said, held their meetings without the city. As often therefore as the festal days occurred — I mean Saturday and Lord’s day—in each week, on which assemblies are usually held in the churches, they congregated within the city gates about the public squares…” (Church History, bk 6, ch 8)
“For although almost all churches throughout the world celebrate the sacred mysteries on the Sabbath of every week, yet the Christians of Alexandria and at Rome, on account of some ancient tradition, have ceased to do this…” (ibid, bk 5, ch 22)
Socrates recorded important details. First, nearly all churches honored the Sabbath. Secondly, Rome and Alexandria were the two cities that ceased to gather every Sabbath. He recorded that Rome and Alexandria ceased to honor the Sabbath; this means at one time they honored it. They stopped honoring it because of a tradition, not Scripture. Jesus warned us about the traditions of man that contradict the commandments of God (Matt. 15:1-20).
John Cassian (420-429 AD)
“And throughout the whole of the East it has been settled, ever since the time of the preaching of the Apostles, when the Christian faith and religion was founded, that these Vigils should be celebrated as the Sabbath dawns… And so, after the exertion of the Vigil, a dispensation from fasting, appointed in like manner for the Sabbath by apostolic men, is not without reason enjoined in all the churches of the East… …” (Institutes, 3:9)
These primary sources indicate the obvious truth that Sabbath keeping was retained by the greatest portion of Christianity in the fourth and fifth centuries. In the Eastern Churches, some degree of Sabbath keeping would remain the majority practice for hundreds of year into the future. In Western Europe, Sabbath keeping gradually became a minority practice among Christians. Look for more articles in the future on this exciting topic!
Kelly McDonald, Jr, BSA President