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

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

By Kelly McDonald, Jr.

In part one of this series (click here to read part one), we looked at two Jewish and two Christian sources who agreed that the Sabbath was known by all nations (that they knew of). Their testimonies have backing in the Greek and Latin languages, which were used in the first century AD. Moreover, Roman law protected Sabbath observance. This provided legal protections for those who desired to observe the day. To learn more about this subject, click here.

In this article, we will review fifteen (15) Roman/Greek authors from this era of time who referenced the Sabbath in some way. None of them were Jewish or Christian. This will allow us to test the claims made by Philo, Josephus, Theophilus, and Clement we reviewed in part one.

These quotes will give us important clues to ascertain the widespread knowledge of the Sabbath in the early Roman Empire. Most of these writers composed their works in Latin, though some used koine Greek. The quotes we will use span from the first century BC through the mid-second century AD. This allows us to look at the time leading up to, during, and just after the first century. 

Pompeius Trogus (1st Century BC – preserved through Justinius’ Epitome)
“And Moses, having reached Damascus, the birth-place of his forefathers, took possession of Mount Sinai, on his arrival at which, after having suffered, together with his followers, from a seven days’ fast in the desert of Arabia, he consecrated (sacravit)* every seventh day (according to the present custom of the nation) for a fast day, and to be perpetually called a sabbath (Sabbata), because that day had ended at once their hunger and their wanderings” (Epitome, 36.2).

*The Latin word sacra is the closest word to our concept of holy.

Meleager of Gadara (1st cent. BC) 
“If your lover is some Sabbath-keeper (Sabbatikos), no great wonder! Love burns hot even on cold Sabbaths (Sabbasi)” (Anthologia Graeca, 5.160).

Horace (65-8 BC)
“‘Surely you said there was something you wanted to tell me in private.’ ‘I mind it well, but I’ll tell you at a better time. To-day is the thirtieth Sabbath (tricesima sabbata). Would you affront the circumcised Jews?’ ‘I have no scruples,’ say I. ‘But I have. I’m somewhat weaker brother, one of the many*. You will pardon me; I’ll talk another day’” (Satires, 1.9.67-73).

*Horace discussed “…one of the many” who did not want to attend to certain matters on Sabbath. The Latin reads: “unus multorum” meaning one of many or one of a multitude.

Strabo (64 BC-22 AD)
“Pompey seized the city, it is said, after watching for the day of fasting, when the Judeans were abstaining from all work…” (Geography, 16.2.40).

Ovid (43 BC-17 AD)
“Nor let Adonis bewailed by Venus, escape you; and the seventh holy-day observed by the Jew of Syria (Cultaque Iudaeo septima sacra Syro)” (The Art of Love, Book 1, part 3).

“…on the day, too, when the festival recurs, observed each seventh day by the Syrian of Palestine, a day not suited for the transaction of business” (The Art of Love, Book 1, part 11).

“And don’t you fear showers; nor let the Sabbaths (sabbata) of the stranger detain you…” (The Cure for Love, Part 3).

Seneca (4 BC to 65 AD) 
Seneca mocked the lighting of Sabbath lamps. He says it should be banned because the gods do not need light. “Precepts are commonly given as to how the gods should be worshipped. But let us forbid lamps to be lighted on the Sabbath (sabbatis), since the gods do not need light, neither do men take pleasure in soot…” (Epistle 95.47).

Petronius (27-66 AD)
“The Jew may worship his pig-god and clamour in the ears of high heaven, but unless he also cuts back his foreskin with the knife, he shall go forth from the holycity cast forth from the people, and transgress the Sabbath (sabbata) by breaking the law of fasting…” (Poem, section 24).

Persius (34-62 AD)
“But when the days Of Herod come, and Superstition sways, When greasy lamps pour forth their smoky flame, And gaudy chaplets solemn rites proclaim; When earthen goblets foam, and the coarse dish, Scarce holds within its rim the spreadish fish; You move your silent lips, your colour’s fled, And with the circumcis’d the Sabbath (sabata) dread…” (Satires, 5.237-244).

Frontinus (30-103 AD)
“The deified Vespasian Augustus attacked the Jews on their Sabbath (Iudaeos Saturni die), a day on which it is sinful for them to do any business, and so defeated them” (Strategems, 2.1.17).

Martial (d. 104 AD)
“The stench of the bed of a drained marsh; of the raw vapours of Sulphur springs; the putrid reek of a sea-water fishpond; of a stale he-goat in the midst of his amours; of the military boot of a fagged-out veteran; of a fleece twice dyed with purple; of the breath of fasting Sabbatarian (sabbatariarum) Jews…” (Epigrams, 4:4).

Tacitus (writing approx. 117 AD)
“To ensure his future hold over the people, Moses introduced a new cult, which was the opposite of all other religions. All that we hold sacred (sacra) they held profane, and allowed practices which we abominate…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…” (The Histories, 5:4-5).

Plutarch (46-119 AD)
This author describes the Jewish people resting while Jerusalem was being besieged (likely referring to either Pompey’s siege in 63 BC or Antony in 38 BC). “But the Jews, because it was the Sabbath day (Sabbaton), sat in their places immovable, while the enemy were planting ladders against the walls and capturing the defences, and they did not get up, but remained there, fast bound in the toils of superstition as in one great net” (Superstition, 8; Plutarch wrote in Greek).

Juvenal (d. 140 AD)
“Some chance to have a father who fears the Sabbaths (sabbata), They adore nothing besides the clouds, and the Deity of heaven: Nor do they think swine’s flesh to be different from human From which the father abstain’d; and soon they lay aside their foreskins: But used to despise the Roman laws, They learn, and keep, and fear the Jewish law, Whatsoever Moses hath delivered in the secret volume: Not to shew the ways, unless to one observing the same rites, To lead the circumcised only to a sought-for fountain But the father is in fault, to whom every seventh day was Idle, and he did not meddle with any part of life” (Satires, 14:96-106).

Suetonius (69-122 AD)
“Once more: ‘Not even a Jew, my dear Tiberius, fasts so scrupulously on his sabbaths (sabbatis) as I have to‑day; for it was not until after the first hour of the night that I ate two mouthfuls of bread in the bath before I began to be anointed’” (Life of Augustus, 76.2).

“The grammarian Diogenes, who used to lecture every Sabbath (sabbatis) at Rhodes, would not admit Tiberius when he came to hear him on a different day, but sent a message by a common slave of his, putting him off to the seventh day (septimum diem)” (Life of Tiberius, 32.2).

Vettius Valens (150-170 AD)
Vettius was an astrologer. He wrote a book called Anthology. Book 1, Section 10, title reads: “Concerning the seven-zones and the Sabbath day (sabbatiches hameras). Opening line: “Concerning the week and the sabbath day (sabbatiches hameras). He then lists the days of the week in the following order: Helios (Sun-day); Selene (Monday); Aries (Tuesday); Hermes (Wednesday); Zeus (Thursday); Aphrodite (Friday); Kronos (Saturday).

Vettius’ Testimony
Of these testimonies, Vettius’ is very important. The pagans had a seven-day week based upon the ‘seven planets’. Pagan planetary week: Saturday-Friday. Vettius lists it in a different order – Sunday-Saturday with an emphasis that this is the order of the planetary week to determine the Sabbath.  This astrologer knew that to calculate the Sabbath, the days of the pagan planetary week had to be re-ordered to flow from Sunday through Saturday.

This emphasizes that there was only one Sabbath in the first-century Roman world. This is also more evidence that the Biblical week influenced the Roman/Greek culture. This is to be expected based upon what we have reviewed so far. To learn more about the planetary week and the Biblical week, download our Free book “How Did Sunday Become the First Day of the Week?” (click here to download).

Below, I have provided analysis for these authors. I have listed a significant detail relating to the Sabbath and the authors who referenced it. 

– Knew that the Sabbath related to Jewish people [13 authors]

– Used a Latin or Greek word that phonetically corresponded to Shabbat or Sabbat [12 authors]: (Pompeius, Meleager, Horace, Ovid, Seneca, Petronius, Persius, Martial, Plutarch, Juvenal, Suetonius, Vettius)

– Acknowledged that the Jewish people rested/abstained from labor on the day [8 authors]: (Horace, Strabo, Ovid, Seneca, Frontinus, Tacitus, Plutarch [indirect], Juvenal)

Mentioned the seventh-day of the week as it relates to the Sabbath [7 authors]: (Pompeius, Ovid, Seneca, Tacitus, Juvenal, Suetonius, Vettius)*

– Moses was mentioned [4 authors]: (Pompieus, Strabo [who discussed him in the greater context of the quote and has considerable details about him], Tacitus, Juvenal)

– Knew Jewish people observed as sacred/dedicated to their God [4 authors]: (Pompieus, Ovid, Plutarch [indirect])

– Associated the Sabbath with the Day of Saturn [3 authors]: (Frontinus*, Tacitus, Vettius)

*Frontinus wrote “The Jews’ Day of Saturn” so as to distinguish it from the Roman day of Saturn

These authors are some of the most well-known writers of their time. Seneca was an orator and tutor of Emperor Nero. Petronius was a consul of Rome and friend of Nero. Persius, Horace, and Ovid were famous poets. Tacitus is considered among the great or greatest Roman historian. Frontinus was a solider and governor of Britain for a time. Strabo was the only Geographer in Augustan period.

To summarize, the practices of the Jewish people, including the Sabbath, were so different than the Romans and Greeks that they stood out. The popular Roman writers we have discussed in this article assisted in spreading knowledge of the Sabbath. Many Gentiles already knew about the Sabbath and possibly observed the day to some degree or another.

Additionally, the Sabbath had the necessary elements to spread throughout the Roman World. Consider the following:

– Jewish people and synagogues were scattered over the Roman Empire. This allowed a point of contact or living example of the Sabbath. People could observe and participate in a community who observed the Sabbath.

– The Septuagint was a text that existed in a commonly known language, Greek, that could be read, understood, and accessed (It was composed in about 200 BC).

– The practice was protected by Roman Law (precedent).

– These common cultural writers propagated knowledge of the Sabbath.

The average person could access knowledge of the Sabbath in many ways. The quotes in this article corroborate with the quotes from Philo, Josephus, Theophilus, and Clement corroborate with cultural writers of the time. As we consider all these things, it would be hard for Gentiles not to know about the Sabbath to some degree.

Next week, we will look at the New Testament and bring out elements of the text you may have never seen before!

Kelly McDonald, Jr.

BSA President –

Cassius Dio. Roman History, 37.16.1-5; 37.17.1-3; 49.22.4-6; 57.18.5; 60.6.6. Dio’s Roman History. Translation by Earnest Cary. vol. 3. Harvard University Press: 1959. pp 125-129; vol. 5. 1955. pp 387-389. vol 7. 1955. pp 163, 383.

Frontinus. Strategems, 2.1.1. The Strategems and the Aqueducts of Rome. Translation by Charles E Bennett. New York: 1925. pp 98-99.

Horace. Satires, 1.9.67-73. Latin: The Satires. Ed. Edward P Morris. American Book Company. 1909. New York. p 33. English: Horace: Satires, Epistles, and Ars Poetica. Translation by H. Rushton Fairclough. Cambridge, MA. 1926. pp 60-61, pp 110-111.

Horace. Odes, 2.17.23. The Odes and Epodes. Translated C.E. Bennett. Harvard University Press. 1912. pp 154-155.

Jewish Encyclopedia 1905: Rome

Juvenal. Satires, 6. 569-571. Juvenal and Persius. Translated by G.G. Ramsay. London: 1928. pp 128-129. Juvenal. Satires, 14:96-106. A New and Literal Translation of Juvenal and Persius. Translated by M. Madan. vol 2. London: 1829. pp 192-195.

Martial. Epigrams, 4:4. Translated by Walter C.A. Ker. Vol 1. New York: 1919. pp 232-233.

Meleager of Gadara in Jordan. The Greek Anthology. Translated by W.R.Paton. Vol 1. 1920. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons. Pp 204-205.

Ovid. The Art of Love, 1.3, 1.11. The Cure for Love, part 3. Latin: The Art of Love and Other Poems. Translated by J.H. Mozley. Cambridge, MA: 1957. pp 16, 40, 192.  English: The Heroides or Epistles of the Heroines, The Amours, Art of Love, Remedy of Love, And Minor Works of Ovid. Translated by Henry T. Riley. London: 1852. pp 382, 395, 471.

Persius. Satires, 5.50. Juvenal and Persius. Translated by G.G. Ramsay. London: 1928. pp 372-373. Persius. Satires, 5.237-244. Persius’ Satires. Translated by Byam Wollaston. London, 1841. pp 87-89.

Petronius. Poems, section 24. Petronius. Translation by Michael Heseltine. New York: 1925. pp 356-357.

Plutarch. On Superstition. Plutarch’s Moralia. Translated by Frank Cole Babbitt. Vol 2. Harvard University Press: 1962. pp480-481.

Pompeius Trogus. Justin’s Epitome, 36.2. Justin, Cornelius Nepos, and Eutropius. Translated by John Selby Watson. London: 1853. pp 245-246.

Seneca. Epistle 95.47. Ad Lucilium Epistulae Morales. Translation by Richard M Gummere. vol. 3. New York: 1925. pp 86-89.

Strabo. Geography, 16.2.40. Georgraphy. The Geography of Strabo. Translation by Horace Leonard Jones. vol. 7. Cambridge: 1954. pp 290-291.

Suetonius. Life of Augustus, 76.2. Life of Tiberius, 32.2. Suetonius. Translation by J.C. Rolfe. vol. 1. New York: 1914. pp 240-241, pp 340-341.

Tacitus. The Histories, 5:4-5. Translated W. Hamilton Fyfe. vol 2. Oxford: 1912, pp 205-208.

Vettius Valens. Anthology. Book 1, section 10, lines 10-18. Vettii Valentis. Anthologiarium Libri. First ed. Guilelmus Kroll. Apud Weidmannos, Berlin, 1908, p 26.

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