Sabbath Laws in the Roman Empire

Sabbath Laws in the Roman Empire

By Kelly McDonald, Jr.

Rome’s first significant contact with Jewish people came in the mid-second century BC after the victory of the Maccabees over Antiochus Epiphanes. During this time, the Romans formally ratified a treaty with the Jewish people and recognized their state, which was ruled by the Hasmonean dynasty.  After a civil war within this dynasty in the 60s BC, Rome took control of the Judean state and forced them to pay tribute. Jewish slaves were brought to Rome.

Biblical practices, such as keeping the Sabbath, also came with these slaves. Eventually a Jewish quarter was founded in the city. This led to a series of laws issued over hundreds of years to protect the right of the Jewish people to practice their faith.

In this article, we will examine laws that protected Sabbath observance in the Roman Empire. The earliest of these laws are recorded by Josephus. However, these protections are also referenced in later Roman laws.

 The time of Julius Caesar (approx. 46 BC) – Josephus, in his work Antiquities of the Jews, says that Julius Caesar was favorable towards Jewish people (idem, 14.10). He then gives a series of decrees issued by various cities that confirmed their rights to worship their God and keep the Sabbath. Among them are: Laodicea, Milesians, Halicarnassus, Sardians, and Ephesus (ibid, 14.10.20-25). Apparently, these cities were once hostile to Jewish practices.

Julius’ Caesar’s nephew, Octavian Augustus, became Roman Emperor about 31 BC. About 30 years into his reign, he issued a decree protecting Sabbath observance for Jewish people.

Edict of Augustus on Jewish Rights, approx. 1 BC – “2. “Cesar Augustus, Pontifex Maximus, and Tribune of the people ordains thus. Since the nation of the Jews has been found friendly to the Roman people, not only at this time, but in time past also, and especially Hyrcanus, the High Priest, under my father Cesar the Emperor, it has seemed good to me and my council, according to the wish and oath of the people of Rome, that the Jews should have liberty to follow their own customs, according to the law of their forefathers…and that they be not obliged to appear in court either on the Sabbath-day, or on the day of the preparation before it, after the ninth hour.…”  (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 16.6.2).

This law gave more formal protection to Jewish practices, specifically the Sabbath. By this time, the Jewish people labeled Friday “Preparation Day” to signify that they prepared for the Sabbath on that day. The Jewish people were free from legalities starting about 3 pm on Friday so that they could prepare to honor the Sabbath. Just over forty years later, the Emperor Claudius, issued a similar decree regarding Jewish religious practices.

“Tiberius Claudius Cesar, Augustus, Germanicus, Pontifex Maximus, tribune of the people, chosen consul the second time, ordains as follows. Upon the petition of King Agrippa, and King Herod, who are persons very dear to me, that I would grant the same rights and privileges should be preserved to the Jews throughout all the Roman Empire, as I have granted to the Jews of Alexandria, I very willingly comply therewith, not only to gratify my petitioners, but also judging those Jews for whom I have been petitioned worthy of such a favour, on account of their fidelity and friendship to the Romans. I think it also very just that no Greek city should be deprived of such rights and privileges: since they were preserved to them under the great Augustus. It is therefore right to permit the Jews throughout all our Empire to keep their ancient customs without let or hindrance…” (ibid, 19.5.3).

The importance of these initial laws cannot be overlooked. Other primary sources from this time confirm that such protections for Jewish people existed. Seneca, who lived between 4 BC and 65 AD, said that the “…customs of that most accursed nation have gained such strength that they have been now received in all lands, the conquered have given laws to the conquerors….” (preserved by Augustine, The City of God, 6.11).

Tacitus, writing about 110 AD wrote: “…They are said to have devoted the seventh day to rest, because that day brought an end to their troubles. Later, finding idleness alluring, they gave up the seventh year as well to sloth. Others maintain that they do this in honour of Saturn…Whatever their origin, these rites are sanctioned by their antiquity…” (The Histories, 5.4-5).

Dio Cassius, a Roman historian who lived between 155-235 AD confirmed that Jewish religious practices were protected; he also mentioned the great numbers of Jewish people at that time. “…the country has been named Judea, and the people themselves Jews. I do not know how this title came to be given to them, but it applies also to all the rest of mankind, although of alien race, who affect their customs. This class exists even among the Romans, and though often repressed has increased to a very great extent and has won its way to the right of freedom in its observances” (Roman History, 37.16-17).

Constantine (313-337)
The next Emperor to protect Sabbath observance was Constantine (contrary to popular opinion). He continued the tradition began by other Emperors. In the correct translation of The Life of Constantine book 4, chapter 18, section 2, we learn that Constantine “…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…” (Cameron and Hall, p 159). To read more about We reviewed Constantine’s Sabbath protections click HERE.

Codex Theodosianus (438/439)
The Codex Theodosianus was a code of laws issued during the reign of Theodosius II about 438/439 AD. It was a compilation of Roman laws from 311 to 438 AD. In it, we find three laws pertaining to the Sabbath that were issued between 409 and 412. I have listed two of them below (one is repeated in two places).

CT: 2.8.26 – “…On the Sabbath Day called on all other days at the time when Jews observe the reverence of their own cult, We command that no one of them shall be compelled to do anything or be sued in any way, since it appears that the other days can suffice for fiscal advantages and for private litigation. (Etc.) – July 26, 409; 412.  (Pharr, p 45). This law is repeated in CT: 8.8.8 (Pharr, p 210).

CT: – “…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”** – July 26, 412 (Pharr, p 469; emphasis mine).

**This law referenced earlier “constitutions” (plural) made by other emperors (plural). This law and the statement which concludes it is further proof that previous emperors provided protections for Sabbath observance. At the very least this law refers to the decrees of Augustus, Claudius, and Constantine. There may have been other Emperors who protected the Sabbath.

Codex Justinius (520s/530s AD)
The Codex Justinius was composed by the command of the Emperor Justinian. In it, we find CT:  16.8.20 repeated as CJ: 1.9.13, which means that he continued the same protections as earlier Emperors.

The Sabbath was protected by Roman rulers as early as Julius Caesar. This custom was retained by other Emperors until at least the time of Justinian. While these laws specifically granted privileges to Jewish people, they were also extended to Christians as well. There are two ways to know this was the case.

First, since the late second century AD, many leaders in the Roman Church labeled the Sabbath a Jewish institution. They attempted to lump Sabbath keeping Christians and Jews together. For some examples of this practice, see the following sources: Tertullian, Against the Nations, 1.13, John Chrysostom, Eight Homilies Against the Jews and Comm. on Galatians 1:7; Epiphanius, Against All Heresies, 29.1-7, 69.63; Athanasius, Against Arianism, 3.29.55; Council of Laodicea canons 29, 37, 38; Augustine, Letter 36. Dio Cassius wrote that people from other nations were considered Jewish if they practiced things considered Jewish (Roman History, 37:16-17 – quoted above).

Secondly, Christian sources also confirm this finding. During the first four centuries after the time of Christ, most Christians still honored the Sabbath. CLICK HERE to read an article on this subject. Eusebius’ comment above about Constantine bolsters this point.

Next month, we will start a multi-part series on Sunday laws in the Roman Empire (CLICK HERE to read about Sunday laws). At the end of that two-part series, we will compare and contrast Sabbath and Sunday laws in the Roman Empire.  To read more about this subject, download our free booklet Sabbath and Sunday Laws in the Roman Empire by clicking HERE

Kelly McDonald, Jr.

BSA President –

Sources Cited

Augustine. The City of God, 6:11. Schaff, Philip. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. Vol 1. Buffalo: The Christian Literature Company, 1886. pp 120-121.

Codex Justinian, 3.12.2. Latin. Corpus Iuris Civilis. Krueger, Paulus, ed. Codex Iustinianus. Vol 1, pt 2. Berlin, 1892. p 91.

Codex Theodosianus. English. The Theodosian Code and Novels and the Sirmondian Constitutions. Translated by Clyde Pharr. Princeton University, 1952. pp 45, 210, 469.

Dio Cassius. Roman History. 37:16-17. Translated by Dr. Earnest Cary. Vol 3. New York: The Macmillan Co., 1914. p 127

Eusebius, The Life of Constantine, 4.18.2. Trans. By Averil Cameron and Stuart. G Hall. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999. p 159.

Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 14.10, 16.6.2, 19.5.3. The Works of Flavius Josephus. Translated by William Whitson. Revised by Rev. A. R. Shilleto. London: George Bell and Sons, York Street, Covent Garden, 1889. Vol. 2, pp 31-42, Vol. 3. pp 170-171, 365.

Tacitus. The Histories. Book 5, sections 4 and 5. Fyfe, W. Hamilton, trans. Tacitus: The Histories. vol 2. Oxford: 1912. pp 205-208.

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