How Did 1st Century Gentiles View the Sabbath? (Part 1 of 2)

How Did 1st Century Gentiles View the Sabbath? (Part 1 of 2)

By Kelly McDonald, Jr.

What if you were a Gentile in the first century Roman world? What do you think you might know or not know about the Sabbath?

We might be tempted to read the book of Acts with an assumption that Gentiles were not drawn to the seventh-day Sabbath because they were not Jewish. But what do the primary sources say about this subject?

In this multi-part series, we will look at two Jewish, two Christian, and fifteen Roman/Greek primary sources to uncover the truth on this subject. We will start with two Jewish writers. They may be able to give us insight as to how Gentiles viewed the Sabbath.

Philo Judaeus, also called Philo of Alexandria, lived from approximately 15 BC to 50 AD. He came from a very prominent family; his historical writings are considered extremely valuable. He made some interesting comments about the Sabbath and its prevalence.

“But after the whole world had been completed according to the perfect nature of the number six, the Father hallowed the day following, the seventh, praising it and calling it holy. For that day is the festival, not of one city or one country, but of all the earth; a day which alone it is right to call the day of festival for all people and the birth-day of the world” (On the Creation of the World, 30).

“…with our laws which Moses has given to us; for they lead after them and influence all nations, barbarians, and Greeks, the inhabitants of continents and islands, the eastern nations and the western, Europe and Asia; in short, the whole habitable world from one extremity to the other. For what man is there who does not honour that sacred seventh day, granting in consequence a relief and relaxation from labour, for himself and for all those who are near to him, and that not to free men only, but also to slaves, and even to beasts of burden; for the holiday extends even to every description of animal, and to every beast whatever which performs service to man, like slaves obeying their natural master, and it affects even every species of plant and tree…but everything is at liberty and in safety on that day, and enjoys as it were, perfect freedom, no one ever touching them, in obedience to a universal proclamation” (On the Life of Moses, 2.4).

Josephus was a first-century Jewish writer who lived from about 37-100 AD. He came from a priestly family and was an aristocrat. He recorded many events in Jewish history and especially events contemporary to his time. 

“We have already demonstrated that our laws have been such as have always inspired admiration and imitation into all other men; nay, the earliest Grecian philosophers, though in appearance they observe the laws of their own countries, yet did they, in their actions and their philosophic doctrines, follow our legislator, and instructed men to live sparingly, and to have friendly communications one with another. Nay farther, the multitude of mankind itself have had a great inclination of a long time to follow our religious observances. For there is not any city of the Grecians, nor any of the barbarians, nor any nation whatsoever, whither our custom of resting on the seventh day hath not come, and by which our fasts, and lighting up lamps, and many of our prohibitions as to our food, are not observed” (Josephus, Appion 2.40).

Both Jewish writers state that most or all the Gentiles were influenced by the seventh-day Sabbath. These are bold claims! Because these men were both Jewish, one could argue that their statements contain a degree of bias. One the ways we will cross reference the validity of their comments is to compare them to Christian writings on similar subjects in the very next century.

The first statement we will review was made by Theophilius of Antioch. He was the Christian Bishop of Antioch 169-180 AD; he was the sixth Bishop of the city since the time of the Apostles. Our second quote comes from Clement of Alexandria, who lived approximately 150-215 AD.

“‘And on the sixth day God finished His works which He made, and rested on the seventh day from all His works which He made. And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it; because in it He rested from all His works which God began to create.’…Moreover, [they spoke] concerning the seventh day, which all men acknowledge; but the most know not that what among the Hebrews is called the “Sabbath,” is translated into Greek the “Seventh” (ebdomas), a name which is adopted by every nation, although they know not the reason of the appellation” (To Autolycus, 2.11-12).

But the seventh day is recognised as sacred, not by the Hebrews only, but also by the Greeks; according to which the whole world of all animals and plants revolve…” (Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, 5.14).

These two Christian authors express similar sentiments to our Jewish sources, though writing about 100 or more years afterwards. This indicates that the Gentile attitude towards the Sabbath continued beyond the first century.

Philo and Clement also seem to agree that other things in nature, such as animals, are affected in some way or another by the seventh-day Sabbath or the seven-day cycle. Three of these sources convey that the Sabbath has had a degree of impact upon all nations. Clement mentioned both Hebrews and Greeks as having been impacted.

These four primary sources convey the idea that the Sabbath was recognized as sacred among different nations, but especially among the Greeks. Philo goes so far as to say ‘the whole world.’ Maybe peoples from different nations were affected not just by resting on the day, but also by language or some other custom(s).

Theophilius stated that every nation recognized the seventh day by a name in their language for that day. It would be difficult to verify what every nation in the first century named the seventh day of the week. However, we can look at two well-known languages in the first century. This means that etymology is another field of study to help us validate these statements.

The Hebrew word for Sabbath is Shabbat or Sabbat. In the koine Greek and Latin languages, words very similar to it were developed to describe the Sabbath.

The Septuagint and the New Testament were both composed in the koine Greek language. This form of Greek began around the time of Alexander the Great (335 BC) and was still common until at least the fourth century AD. During the first few centuries of koine, the Greeks had sustained contact with the Jewish people.

They developed the word sabbaton to refer to the seventh day Sabbath. We can see that it is phonetically derived from the Hebrew word for the seventh day.

The Eastern Orthodox Church, which retained the use of Greek, continued to revere the seventh day Sabbath for many centuries after Christ. This fact is reflected by the modern Greek name for Saturday (sabbato or savvato) and Friday (paraskevi, which means day of preparation [for the Sabbath]).

Classical Latin is another language to consider. As a written language, it developed in the last few centuries BC. Sabbata, sabbatum, and variations thereof were developed to describe the Sabbath. Again, we can see the basic phonetic sounds for Sabbat/Shabbat preserved in this word.

Language is one way that we know a practice or word has prevalence in a culture. The culture acknowledged the existence of the practice and reinforced this knowledge by introducing and maintaining a word to express it.

These sources are very helpful in our search to understand Gentile attitudes towards the Sabbath in the early Roman Empire. Josephus lived in Rome and was very familiar with the Romans. Philo and Clement lived in Alexandria, which was a hub of knowledge in the ancient world and a center for Hellenistic studies.

In other words, their statements were not made in vacuum. They are summarizing the subject matter based upon other extant sources in their times, some of which is available for us to study today. This evidence will bring clarity to their statements and this subject matter.

Next week, we will look at fifteen Roman and Greek sources from during and near the first century that discuss the Sabbath! To read part two of this series, CLICK HERE.

Kelly McDonald, Jr.

BSA President –

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