The 2nd Century Rise of Anti-Sabbatarians (Part 2 of 2)
By Kelly McDonald, Jr.
Last week, we looked at the Anti-Sabbath teachings that began to crop up in the second century (CLICK HERE to read part 1). Many of them had anti-Semitic rhetoric attached to them. Another anti-Sabbath belief that started in the second century is the view that every day is holy or every day is common and no holy days exist anymore.
The first hint of this viewpoint is from Justin the Martyr, who we discussed in the first part of this series. In his work Dialogue with Trypho, Trypho observed that Justin observed no day as the Sabbath, no festivals, and no commandments.
“Justin: Is there any other matter, my friends, in which we are blamed, than this, that we live not after the law, and are not circumcised in the flesh as your forefathers were, and do not observe sabbaths as you do? Are our lives and customs also slandered among you?….
Trypho: …But this is what we are most at a loss about: that you, professing to be pious, and supposing yourselves better than others, are not in any particular separated from them, and do not alter your mode of living from the nations, in that you observe no festivals or Sabbaths…you yet expect to obtain some good thing from God, while you do not obey His commandments….” (idem, chapter 10).
In this dialogue, Justin admitted that he did not keep the Sabbath. However, his statement cannot be universal to all Christians of that time, as he admitted previously that there were Gentile Christians still honoring the Sabbath. Other primary sources agree that Christians kept the Sabbath (as we will review later). Justin probably referenced the majority of Christians in Rome.
Among the greatest proponents of the view that Sabbaths no longer exist were those educated at the School of Theology in Alexandria, Egypt. The two most popular teachers from this school were Clement of Alexandria and Origen.
Clement of Alexandria – 180s AD
Clement of Alexandria was a self-avowed Gnostic. In the second part of our three part series on heresy, we reviewed the beliefs of Gnosticism (click here to read that article). Gnosticism became very popular among Christians during this time.
Clement said: “Hosea 14:9 says the prophet, showing that the Gnostic alone is able to understand and explain the things spoken by the spirit obscurely…” (Stromata, 6:15). He and others like him added their beliefs into the Bible to justify their viewpoints.
Clement is the first writer to indisputably use the phrase “Lord’s Day” to refer to the first day of the week. His justification is derived from Plato and the number eight.
“And the Lord’s day Plato prophetically speaks of in the tenth book of the Republic, in these words: And when seven days have passed to each of them in the meadow, on the eighth they are to set out and arrive in four days. By the meadow is to be understood the fixed sphere, as being a mild and genial spot, and the locality of the pious; and by the seven days each motion of the seven planets, and the whole practical art which speeds to the end of rest. But after the wandering orbs the journey leads to heaven, that is, to the eighth motion and day….” (Stromata, Chapter 5, 14).
It is hard to imagine how a pagan philosopher like Plato could be used as a source used to justify Christian practice. Why might Clement do such a thing? In this time period, the Old Testament was being devalued as the sole background source for the New Testament. As this development occurred, these Gnostic writers had to find some other source that they could claim as a derivative of Christian practice. For some writers such as Clement, philosophy filled the gap.
The theology of Clement was sometimes confusing and not always consistent. Among his other questionable statements, he said that philosophy was given to lead the Greeks towards righteousness (ibid, 1:5). He also stated that the sun was created as an object of worship (ibid, 6:14, 7:7). In another place, he claimed that the true Gnostic does not honor specific days. We have an excerpt from him below:
“Now we are commanded to reverence and to honour the same one, being persuaded that He is Word, Saviour, and Leader, and by Him, the Father, not on special days, as some others, but doing this continually in our whole life, and in every way…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” (Stromata, 7, 7).
One of the students that followed Clement, Origen, would continue this kind of reasoning and popularize it even more. He lived from 185-253 AD. We have an excerpt from him below:
“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” (Origien, 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 the distinction between days that were holy and those that were not. They clearly all kept the Sabbath (see Mark 2:27-28, Acts 13:13-48 for two examples).
In the second century, virulent anti-Semitic and anti-Sabbath teachers arose within the Christian community. While they still called themselves Christian, they abandoned many key principles taught by the early Apostles.
The two cities where these teachers had the most influence: Rome and Alexandria. According to the Church Historian Sozomen (approx. 400 AD), these were the first two cities to stop keeping the Sabbath. They were the only cities not known to have a Sabbatarian population in the fifth century. Here is an excerpt from his work on Church History.
“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. The Egyptians in the neighborhood of Alexandria, and the inhabitants of Thebais, hold their religious assemblies on the Sabbath, but do not participate of the mysteries in the manner usual among Christians in general: for after having eaten and satisfied themselves with food of all kinds, in the evening making their offerings…” (idem, bk 5, ch 22)
Pay close attention to the words of this historian. He recorded that Rome and Alexandria were the two cities that ceased to honor the Sabbath; this means at one time they did it! He also noted that they did not stop honoring the Sabbath because of any scripture, but because of a tradition. Jesus warned us about the traditions of man that contradict the commandments of God (Matthew 15:1-20).
Today, people use similar arguments to Marcion, Justin, Clement or Origen in some attempt to explain away the Sabbath. They think that they have received or developed some great revelation concerning this subject, when in fact they have not. They are continuing arguments and lines of reasoning which began not with the first Apostles, but with second century teachers.
Despite the false teachings about the Sabbath, there were still those who stood tall for the seventh day of our Lord. In a previous blog, we looked at Theophius of Antioch who defended God’s commandments and the Sabbath during this time period (CLICK HERE to read that blog).
Next month we will look at the anti-Sabbath attitude that was prevalent in Roman culture during the first two centuries AD.
Kelly McDonald, Jr.
BSA President – www.biblesabbath.org