Breakthrough Discovery on Constantine and the Sabbath
By Kelly McDonald, Jr.
In the various articles and books written about Sabbath history, the Roman Emperor Constantine is among the most mentioned individuals. Some claim that he tried to change the Sabbath to Sunday or even persecute Sabbath keepers. As we have pointed out in other articles, neither claim is true. Not a single early Church writing or piece of legislation from his reign ever hints at a direct attack upon the Biblical Sabbath (Friday sunset to Saturday sunset).
More recent research into writings about Constantine’s life combined with a study of Roman law have produced a breakthrough discovery in understanding the relationship between his reign and the Biblical Sabbath. You will need to read this article in its entirety to understand this new finding.
A very important writing on this subject comes from Eusebius. He was a pro-Roman Church writer in the 300s AD. He wrote a work called The Life of Constantine. It is one of the primary sources about the ruler’s life.
The traditional translation of The Life of Constantine, book 4, chapter 18, section 2: “…his earnest desire being gradually to lead all mankind to the worship of God. Accordingly he enjoined on all the subjects of the Roman empire to observe the Lord’s day, as a day of rest, and also to honor the day which precedes the Sabbath; in memory, I suppose, of what the Saviour of mankind is recorded to have achieved on that day.”
Eusebius refers to the first day of the week as “The Lord’s Day” and notes that Constantine enjoined subjects of the Empire to rest on that day. In 321 AD, Constantine issued two Sunday rest laws. Both were civil and had no Christian meaning attached to them. Constantine never called them the Lord’s day, but instead used ‘dies solis’ (which makes more sense considering his sun-worshiping tendencies). Neither law impacted the true Sabbath, but they did introduce an imitation day of rest beside the one established by God.
Eusebius also mentions that Constantine caused people to rest on the day which proceeds the Sabbath, which is Friday. This statement is strange; not a single Roman law of any time period agrees with it.
One thing to keep in mind is that many English translations of early church works were written in the 1700s or 1800s. Most of them have NOT been critically reviewed to make sure the translation and original manuscripts are in agreement with each other.
In the late 1990s, the first and (to my knowledge) only critical edition of the Life of Constantine was translated by Averil Cameron and Stuart G. Hall (who were at King’s College in London). Several other Universities and scholars contributed to this monumental work.
Among their findings is that the first translations of The Life of Constantine bk 4, ch 18, sec 2 included an added word which changed the meaning of the sentence. I have researched their statements about this subject myself and found that the assertion is true! I will show you their translation and then I will show you the explanation from the original documents (which I looked up myself). I will also show you corroborating evidence from before and after Constantine’s time to reaffirm the correct manuscript translation.
Here is the translation provided by Stuart and Hall of The Life of Constantine, bk 4, ch 18, section 2. “The Blessed One urged all men also to do the same, as if by encouraging this he might gently bring all men to piety. He therefore decreed that all those under Roman government should rest on the days named after the Saviour, and similarly that they should honour the days of the Sabbath, in memory, I suppose, of the things recorded as done by the universal Saviour on those days.” (Stuart and Hall, p 159).
The accurate translation of this section conveys that Constantine provided protection for Sabbath observance. This refers to the seventh day of the week (Friday sunset to Saturday sunset).
As stated before, I have done my own independent research on this subject and agree with the translation. I will now provide for you the evidence from the original manuscripts to show you how this error occurred in the 1800s.
First, a little history: In the 1800s, J.P. Migne, a priest in the Catholic Church, made copies of existing manuscripts of the early Church writings. These early manuscripts were written in either Greek or Latin. The works composed in Greek had a Latin translation placed beside them on a page so that the Roman priests could read them in the language of the Roman Church (Latin).
The works of Eusebius were written in Greek. In the Patrologiae Cursus Completus. Series Graeca, Vol 20, published in 1857, we find Eusebius’ work Life of Constantine copied from the original manuscripts in Greek. We also find a Latin translation beside it.
On Page 1165, we find the copy of the original Greek for chapter 18 from this work. Below is a picture from this page which has the sentence in question.
From the first comma, the Greek transliteration reads: ,OMOIOS DE KAI TAS TOU SABBATOU TIMAN (55).
A rough English translation would be: ,and similarly honor they the days of the Sabbath,
Notice in the picture I posted above that there is a (55) after this excerpt from the Greek text. This is a foot note made by the copyist. The footnote, which is on page 1166, is in the picture below:
The footnote starts out with the Greek phrase: “DE KAI TAS TOU SABBATOU TIMAN” which was apart of the original text. The copyist then adds a note in Latin which says: “Scribendum est procul dubio” which is roughly translated as “It would be far from doubtful to write” then he gives an edited version of the original Greek phrase. It now says, “TEN PRO TOU SABBATOU”
The scribe has confessed to adding in the Greek word PRO, which means before (in time, position, rank, etc). This one additional word would change the meaning of the sentence to say that Constantine enjoined Roman subjects to close on FRIDAY (before the Sabbath), which is NOT CORRECT!
The copy of the original Greek manuscript on Page 1165 (see Picture #1 above), does NOT have PRO! What’s also interesting is that the copyist added the word “pridie” in the Latin translation, which makes the Latin now say “est pridie sabbati…” or in English “the day before the Sabbath.”
Thus, the correct translation is that Constantine protected Sabbath observance in the Roman Empire. Does this corroborate with other primary sources? YES.
The first group of primary sources are eye-witness accounts that say two things about the 200s, 300s and 400s AD: 1) that the Sabbath was still observed and that 2) most Christians still honored it.
The second group of sources which confirm this finding would be Roman Law. In the Codex Theodosianus, we find three laws which protect Sabbath observance for Jewish people (CT: 2.8.26, 8.8.8, and 16.8.20). The dates for these laws are 409 and 412 AD. They are repeated in the Codex Justinius (CJ: 1.9.13), which means Justinian extended the same protections.
Of these laws, CT: 16.8.20 referenced rulings of earlier Roman Emperors that protected Sabbath observance. The law, which was issued by Honorius and Theodosius, reads:
“1. Moreover, since indeed ancient custom and practice have preserved for the aforesaid Jewish people the consecrated day of the Sabbath, We also decree that it shall be forbidden that any man of the aforesaid faith should be constrained by any summons on that day, under the pre-text of public or private business, since all the remaining time appears sufficient to satisfy the public laws, and since it is most worthy of the moderation of Our time that the privileges granted should not be violated although sufficient provision appears to have been made with reference to the aforesaid matter by general constitutions of earlier Emperors” (Pharr’s translation, p 469).
Notice that the law mentioned the constitutions of earlier emperors (plural). The earliest mention of protections for Sabbath observance go back to the time of Julius Caesar and Octavian Augustus. Octavian gave the Jewish people freedom to keep the Sabbath from Friday at 3 pm until the Sabbath ended (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 16.6.2). Claudius apparently had the same ruling (ibid, 19.5.3).
The 409 and 412 laws do not mention that the Sabbath law was re-instituted, but simply a continuation of previous imperial policy. With the correct translation of The Life of Constantine, we can now add Constantine to the list of Emperors that protected Sabbath observance.
Eusebius’ adds an interesting statement to the end of 4.18.2: “…in memory, I suppose, of what the Saviour of mankind is recorded to have achieved on that day.” Eusebus added a Christian meaning to the protection granted for Sabbath rest. This is in agreement with other Christian writers of the time.
Conclusion: As we survey all the primary sources presented in this article, we can see that Constantine protected Sabbath observance. He continued the protections started by earlier rulers such as Augustus and those protections continued to be protected by later Emperors such as Theodosius II and Justinian. These protections had to be extended in some form or fashion to Christians who observed the Sabbath; as noted the majority of Christians at this time still observed it.
Kelly McDonald, Jr. – BSA President www.biblesabbath.org
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