CHAPTER 10: Sabbath-keeping after the apostles (1) - The
religious and political climate
during the time of the apostles, false doctrines began infiltrating the church,
and it was for this reason that the church leaders exhorted the believers to
contend for the truth (1 Tim 6:3–5; Jude 3). However, the situation worsened
considerably after the passing of the apostles, with the church going down a
slippery slope of doctrinal decline. Nevertheless, the literature suggests that
the post-apostolic church (or parts of it, at least) continued upholding the
Sabbath until the end of the sixth century, and that a number of small faith
communities continued the practice in isolation thereafter.
that various complicated factors worked together to bring about changes to
Sabbath observance. They included political and religious pressures, teachings
from influential Christian writers and leaders, and the influence of sun worship.
In this chapter, we shall first examine some of the key religious and political
10.2 The religious and
political climate under Roman rule
10.2.1 Life for the Jews
understand the political and religious factors affecting the post-apostolic
church, we need to begin by looking at the situation of the Jews under Roman
rule. History indicates that Rome assumed control of Palestine around 63 BC, after Pompey was called to intervene in a
dispute between two Maccabean brothers, Hyrcanus II
and Aristobulus. He sided with the eldest, Hyrcanus II, and helped him to secure the High Priesthood.
It was from that point that Pompey set about dismantling the kingdom built up
by the Hasmonians. It led to a long period of turmoil
for Judea, whereby different groups struggled for power. In the end, Herod the
Great assumed the role of puppet king, reigning from 37–4 BC. It was during this period that Jesus Christ
Herod died, his kingdom was divided between his three sons. Philip became
tetrarch of the largely non-Jewish regions northeast of Galilee (4 BC–AD
33/34); Herod Antipas became tetrarch of Galilee and Perea
(4 BC–AD 39);
Archelaus, of Samaria and Judea (4–6 BC). Thereafter, aside from the brief reign of
Herod Agrippa I (AD 41–44), Samaria and
Judea came under the control of Roman procurators.
ministry of Jesus, Galilee was ruled by Herod Antipas (see Mk 6:17–29; Lk
13:31–33; 23:6–12), while Judea-Samaria was governed by Pontius Pilate. The
picture that emerges from the Gospels is one of relative peace and religious
freedom. However, the existence of revolutionaries like the Zealots indicates
that there were on-going tensions. The writings of the historian Josephus
support this, for they mention riots and killings during the governorship of
the unpopular Pontius Pilate.
reign of Herod Agrippa I, the situation for the Jews worsened considerably
under the Roman procurators. Things came to a head when the last of them—Gessius Florus (AD 64–66)—came to power. In AD 66, Florus
requisitioned a heavy tribute of gold from the temple treasury. When the Jews
protested, he set his troops upon Jerusalem. The people reacted by declaring
rebellion throughout the land. At the same time, civil war broke out in
Jerusalem, whereby various groups grappled for control of the rebellion.
Emperor Nero responded by dispatching an experienced general, Vespasian, to
quell the uprisings. The latter successfully concentrated his efforts on Jewish
strongholds outside Jerusalem. However, after becoming emperor, he left his son
Titus to deal with the unfinished business in Jerusalem. In AD 70, Titus laid siege to the city. Although
the different Jewish factions united against him, they were no match; thousands
died, many from starvation and disease. Eventually,
the Roman troops invaded the city, sacked it and destroyed the temple. Not long
after, the Romans abolished the Sanhedrin and the High Priesthood.
fall of Jerusalem, the Romans took the Jewish strongholds of Herodium and Machaerus. Finally,
Flavius Silva, the procurator of Judea, headed towards Masada to deal with the
last vestiges of the rebellion. In the now infamous episode, around 1000 Jews,
including women and children, chose suicide over surrender. In AD 73, seven years after the start of the
rebellion, the war ended.
the years of turmoil and devastating loss, the Jews held on tightly to their
faith, even when they were scattered throughout the Mediterranean. However, the
yearning for freedom from foreign domination persisted, as evidenced by further
major Jewish rebellion occurred in AD 131
and was led by Simon Bar-Kokhba. This time, it was
sparked off by news of Emperor Hadrian’s plans to rebuild Jerusalem as a Roman
colony, with a temple dedicated to Jupiter. The early part of the war went in
the Jews’ favour, but they were finally defeated in AD 135. Hadrian attempted to prevent further
uprisings by killing or enslaving the remaining Jewish survivors and turning
Jerusalem into a Romanized city with new Gentile settlers. Also, he built a
temple to Jupiter on the very site of the Holy of Holies; inside was a statue
of himself. Finally, he outlawed the Jewish faith. Hence, no one was allowed to
observe the Sabbath—at least, not without the fear of death.
10.2.2 Anti-Jewish sentiment
the First and Second Jewish Revolts, there arose much anti-Jewish sentiment,
which was shared by the Roman government and populace alike. Samuele Bacchiocchi, author of From Sabbath to Sunday, notes, for example, that a
number of Roman writers took the opportunity to express their contempt for the
Jews. They included Seneca (circa 4 BC–AD 65), Persius (AD 34–62), Petronius (circa AD 66), Quintillian
(circa AD 35–100), Juvenal (AD 125) and Tacitus (circa AD 55–120)—who all levelled
criticisms at the Jews and derided Sabbath-keeping and circumcision as
addition, there were on-going tensions between Christians and Jews which fostered
hostility from some parts of the Christian community. A whole body of Adversus Judaeos (“Against
All Jews”) emerged around this time, vehemently denouncing the Jews and their
traditions. An example is the Epistle to Diognetus, written sometime between the period of the
apostles and that of Emperor Constantine.
But as to
their [the Jews’] scrupulosity concerning meats, and their superstition as
respects the Sabbaths, and their boasting about circumcision, and their fancies
about fasting and the new moons, which are utterly ridiculous and unworthy of
notice—I do not think that you require to learn anything from me. For, to
accept some of those things which have been formed by God for the use of men as
properly formed, and to reject others as useless and redundant—how can this be
lawful? And to speak falsely of God, as if He forbade us to do what is good on
the Sabbath-days—how is not this impious?
Epistle to Diognetus,
making their case against the Jews, these writers also shared a common purpose
in drawing a distinction between the Jewish and Christian faiths and warning
Christians against so-called judaizing.
10.2.3 Life for the Christians
were generally tolerant of the different religions within their empire, but not
without condition: they did not permit those that threatened the stability of
Rome or dishonoured the state religion. Hence,
whenever the Jews created uprisings, the Romans responded variously by exiling
them, persecuting them, or outlawing their faith.
first century, matters were somewhat complicated by the fact that the Romans
were unable to distinguish between the Christian and the Jewish faiths,
especially in areas like Jerusalem where most of the Christian converts were
Jewish. This was not surprising given the fact that the two communities had
much in common: the believers worshipped one invisible God, read the same Old
Testament Scriptures, observed the Sabbath, and refused to bow down to the
state gods and the Emperor. The inevitable outcome was that any persecutions
that were directed at the Jews came to affect the Christians also. In the
Bible, we see, for example, that Aquila and Priscilla, two Jewish Christians,
were forced out of Rome at the command of Claudius (Acts 18:2), an event which
happened in AD 49. The inability of the
Romans to tell the two groups apart also explains the emergence of writings by
Christians around this time that made a point of highlighting the
as the Romans learned more about Christianity, it created a new set of
problems. Both the authorities and the populace became wary of this new and
fast expanding religion where the followers claimed sole allegiance to a man
called Jesus Christ, held private gatherings, performed unusual religious rites,
behaved in a non-conforming way, and refused to participate in state religious
activities. It led to suspicions about whether the religion was, in fact, a
cover for illicit, immoral or even conspiratorial activities.
policy, however, was far from being the only inciting cause to persecution.
With the great mass of the people, blind prejudice, jealousy, superstitious
fears, or material interests were the leading motives. They estimated the
subject merely from a surface view. That the Christians were a peculiar class,
holding themselves aloof from the common amusements and vices, was enough to
arouse their ill-will and suspicion. Priests and artisans who had a pecuniary
interest in heathenism sought to magnify this prejudice. So the most abominable
slanders were circulated against the Christians. Their isolation was attributed
to misanthropy. They were stigmatized as haters of mankind. Odium humani generis was a standing charge against them. As they
had no temples or images, they were reprobated as atheists. The seclusion they
naturally sought for their love-feasts and celebrations of the Lord’s Supper
was declared to be a covering for the most hideous crimes.
C. Sheldon, History of the Christian
1, pp 136–137
regards to the reactions of the emperors, these varied, depending on their
individual agendas and dispositions. Nero (AD
54–68) was the first to carry out a full-scale persecution of the Christians.
In AD 64, when a fire broke out in Rome,
and rumours spread that he was responsible, the
emperor responded by turning the unpopular Christians into scapegoats; he
rounded them up, tortured them and executed them.
their deaths they were made the subjects of sport, being covered with the hides
of wild beast and worried to death by dogs, or affixed to crosses, or set on
fire and made to serve as nocturnal lights when the day had departed.
C. Sheldon, History of the Christian Church, vol
1, p 140
that Nero targeted the Christians specifically indicates that, by this time,
the Romans had learnt to distinguish between the two religions; or, at least,
this was the case within the imperial city.
emperor to persecute the Christians with equal ferocity was Domitian (AD 81–96). It is believed that he even summoned
the grandchildren of Judas, the brother of Jesus, suspecting them of wanting to
make claims to the throne.
of other emperors held the view that Christians were undesirable and
subversive, but did not perceive them as imminent threats to the nation. The
emperor Trajan (AD 99–117), for example,
ordered that any Christians who were caught should be punished, unless they
renounced their faith. However, he refrained from actively seeking them out.
His successor, Hadrian (AD 117–138), had
much the same policy, but was also careful to implement proper judicial
procedures. Later, Marcus Aurelius (AD 161–180)
actively rooted out Christians and tortured them in order to force them to
renounce their faith. After a period of respite, Diocletian and Caesar Galerius
went on to carry out the Great Persecution of AD
303, purging a sect they felt had become too powerful and dangerous. Those
Christians who suffered the most were those in Rome, Syria, Egypt and Asia
Minor (Turkey). Those in the west, who were further removed from the grasp of
the persecutors, suffered less.
under these difficult circumstances that the Christian apologists emerged, and
the time from AD 130–180 is known as the period
of the apologists. Their mission was to defend the Christian faith against the
many charges levied against them. The most famous among them was probably
Justin Martyr, a Christian philosopher who wrote from Rome around AD 153. His writings made a number of points:
punishing people simply for being Christians was an injustice; Christians were
not atheists, for they worshipped the true God; Christians were not a threat to
Rome, because the kingdom they pursued belonged to God; Christians were decent and
turning point for Christianity came when Emperor Constantine converted to
Christianity in AD 312. The following
year, he and his co-emperor, Licinius, issued a royal
edict to legalize all religions. In this way, the state-sanctioned persecution
of Christians within the Roman empire finally came to
Roman rule, the Jews experienced sporadic and often intense persecution.
Moreover, due to the inability of the Romans to distinguish between Judaism and
the emerging Christian religion, their actions came to impact on the Christians
also. It was against this background that writers in the post-apostolic period
rallied to the defence of the Christian faith and
attempted to differentiate it from the Jewish one. Nevertheless, once the
Romans learnt to tell the two religions apart, they began persecuting
Christians in their own right. It was not until the fourth century, when
Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, that peace finally ensued.
© January 2012 True Jesus Church.