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 (The Doctrine of Sabbath)
Chapter 10: Sabbath-Keeping After the Apostles (1) - The Religious and Political Climate
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CHAPTER 10: Sabbath-keeping after the apostles (1) - The religious and political climate

10.1       Introduction

Even 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.

It appears 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 factors.

10.2       The religious and political climate under Roman rule

10.2.1    Life for the Jews

To 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 was born.

After Herod died, his kingdom was divided between his three sons. Philip became tetrarch of the largely non-Jewish regions northeast of Galilee (4 BCAD 33/34); Herod Antipas became tetrarch of Galilee and Perea (4 BCAD 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.

During the 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.[1]

After the 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. 

After the 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.

Despite 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 uprisings.

The next 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

Following 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,[2] notes, for example, that a number of Roman writers took the opportunity to express their contempt for the Jews. They included Seneca (circa 4 BCAD 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 superstitions.

In 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, chp 4

Aside from 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

The Romans 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.

In the 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 differences. 

However, 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.

State 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.   

Henry C. Sheldon, History of the Christian Church, 
            vol 1, pp 136–137

With 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.[3]

And in 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.

            Henry C. Sheldon, History of the Christian Church, vol 1, p 140

The fact 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.

The next 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.

A number 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. 

It was 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 moral citizens.

The 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 an end.

10.3       Conclusion 

Under 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.

[1]      “The Antiquities of the Jews” 18.3.1 & “Wars of the Jews” 2.9.4, The Works of Josephus, trans. William Whiston, A.M. (USA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1995).

[2]      Bacchiocchi, Samuele, From Sabbath to Sunday: A Historical Investigation of the Rise of Sunday Observance in Early Christianity (Rome: The Pontifical Gregorian University Press, 1977).

[3]      Lunn-Rockliffe, S., Christianity and the Roman Empire, BBC website. 

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