Late 2nd and Early 3rd Century
The Waxing and Waning of External Persecution
The policy of Trajan continued into the Third Century; thus, for the most part, persecution was local and sporadic. Under Marcus Aurelius (ruled from AD 161 – 180), who blamed Christians for the displeasure of the gods, accusations against Christians increased.52 Under the next two emperors, persecutions abated. Accusations rose again under the reign of Septimus Severus (reign AD 193 – 211), who required all to worship Sol Invictus, and who made conversion to Christianity a death penalty offense.53 Persecution abated again until the reign of Decius (reign AD 249 – 251), who, desiring to restore the ancient glories of pagan Rome, required all to sacrifice to the gods.54 It is within this context that Tertullian wrote Ad Nationes.
Gnosticism. This threat was not one religion, but a group of movements centered around a common set of beliefs. They believed that the material world was evil, and that the spiritual world was good. According to their theology of creation, one of over three hundred emanations, perhaps the furthest removed from the supreme spirit, created the world. According to Gnostic anthropology, the human spirit, which was good, was trapped in the human body, which was evil. The way to free oneself from the evil body was to attain spiritual knowledge, or gnosis. Only a spiritual messenger could give such knowledge to free the spirit. When Gnosticism mingled with Christianity, that spiritual messenger became Jesus Christ, who seemed to have a physical body, but was only a spirit; thus, they denied the incarnation, the death, and the resurrection of Christ.55 Clement of Alexandria argued that a true gnosis included the incarnation, death, and resurrection. The Lord’s day testified to the resurrection.
Marcionism. Marcion was a unique Gnostic. He taught that the god of the Old Testament was an evil god. The God of the New Testament was a good God and Father of Jesus Christ, who was not born, but magically appeared as a spiritual man. Marcion rejected the Old Testament and references to it in the New Testament writings.56 Thus, to Marcion, the Sabbath, established by the evil creator god, was annulled by the emanation from the Father God, Jesus Christ. Tertullian attacked Marcion’s division of gods and setting aside of divine law, including the Sabbath.
Clement of Alexandria: The Both-And Sabbath
Like Justin Martyr, Clement (AD ~150-220) had been a pagan steeped in Greek philosophy. None of the philosophies satisfied Clement until he found Christianity. He sought to study under teachers who preserved the unadulterated truth of the apostles. Around AD 189 Clement became an elder in Alexandria. Persecution under the reign of Septimus Severus forced Clement to flee Alexandria. He returned when the persecution abated.
Although he had been taught the pure truth of the apostles, Clement’s writings evidence a heavy influence of Greek thought and literature. Clement used such references to distinguish the false knowledge of Gnosticism from the true knowledge of Christianity. Clement even went as far as calling Christians true Gnostics.57
6.16. The Fourth Commandment. And the fourth [command] is that which intimates that the world was created by God, and that He gave us the seventh day as a rest, on account of the trouble that there is in life. For God is incapable of weariness, suffering, and want. But we who bear flesh need rest. The seventh day, therefore, is proclaimed a rest–abstraction from ills–preparing for the Primal Day [ie. Christ], our true rest; which, in truth, is the first creation of light, in which all things are viewed and possessed. From this day the first wisdom and knowledge illuminate us. For the light of truth–a light true, casting no shadow, is the Spirit of God indivisibly divided to all, who are sanctified by faith, holding the place of a luminary, in order to the knowledge of real existences. By following Him, therefore, through our whole life, we become impassible [ie. incapable of weariness, suffering, and want]; and this is to rest.58
7.12. The same holds of pleasure. For it is the highest achievement for one who has had trial of it, afterwards to abstain. For what great thing is it, if a man restrains himself in what he knows not? He, in fulfillment of the precept, according to the Gospel, keeps the Lord’s day, when he abandons an evil disposition, and assumes that of the Gnostic, glorifying the Lord’s resurrection in himself.59
Clement believed the Sabbath prepared for Christ. Those who follow Him are in the lifelong process of becoming like God, who is incapable of weariness, suffering, and want, which is a good definition of rest. Christ himself is the Christian’s true rest. The Saturday Sabbath was fulfilled in the Primal Day, Christ. With that said, Clement seems to hold to a type of Sabbatarian position for the Lord’s day. Sunday is a day of rest from evil. Setting aside this day for abstinence glorifies God. Clement’s answers to the Sabbath questions are unique in this respect, interpreting the Sabbath command as both proleptic and permanent.
Tertullian’s Full-Orbed Theology of the Sabbath and Lord’s Day
Up until this point in this analysis of Early Church thought, one may raise the objection, All of these writers have been influenced by Greek philosophy. If they were not hindered as such, they would hold to the rest command on a Saturday Sabbath. This objection can not be made with respect to Tertullian of Carthage (AD ~150 – 220). He had lived as a licentious pagan into his thirties. When he became a Christian, he forsook his pagan ways, even his Graeco-Roman ways of thinking, becoming a zealous defender of Christian truth. He was also zealous for purity in Christian life. Being disgusted by laxity in the Catholic Church, Tertullian joined the Montanists (in practice, but not in doctrine).
Whereas Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria used Greek philosophy as a tool to defend the faith, Tertullian rejected it, considering Greek philosophy the father of heresy. Although, Tertullian rejected Greek thought, he arrived at the same position as the majority of the Early Church on the Sabbath questions. In attacks against pagans, Jews, and heretics, Tertullian defended, and explained in depth, the Church’s teachings on the Sabbath and Lord’s day. 60
1.13. The Charge of Worshipping the Sun Met by a Retort. Others, with greater regard to good manners, it must be confessed, suppose that the sun is the god of the Christians, because it is a well-known fact that we pray towards the east, or because we make Sunday a day of festivity. What then? Do you do less than this? Do not many among you, with an affectation of sometimes worshipping the heavenly bodies likewise, move your lips in the direction of the sunrise? It is you, at all events, who have even admitted the sun into the calendar of the week; and you have selected its day [ie. Sunday], in preference to the preceding day [ie. Saturday] as the most suitable in the week for either an entire abstinence from the bath, or for its postponement until the evening, or for taking rest and for banqueting. By resorting to these customs, you deliberately deviate from your own religious rites to those of strangers. For the Jewish feasts on the Sabbath and the Purification, and Jewish also are the ceremonies of the lamps, and the fasts of unleavened bread, and the littoral prayers, all which institutions and practices are of course foreign from your gods. Wherefore, that I may return from this digression, you who reproach us with the sun and Sunday should consider your proximity to us. We are not far off from your Saturn and your days of rest. 61
Tertullian argued against the weak claim that since Christians worship on Sunday, they worship Sol Invictus. In the argument, he claimed that the pagans were acting Jewish for having a day set aside for rest. Are pagans Jews because both have a day of rest? No. Do Christians worship the Sun because they gather together on Sunday? No!62
14. To live with heathens is lawful, to die with them is not. Let us live with all; let us be glad with them, out of community of nature, not of superstition. We are peers in soul, not in discipline; fellow-possessors of the world, not of error. But if we have no right of communion in matters of this kind with strangers, how far more wicked to celebrate them among brethren! Who can maintain or defend this? The Holy Spirit upbraids the Jews with their holy-days. Your Sabbaths, and new moons, and ceremonies, says He, My soul hateth. By us, to whom Sabbaths are strange, and the new moons and festivals formerly beloved by God, the Saturnalia and New-year’s and Midwinter’s festivals and Matronalia are frequented–presents come and go–New-year’s gifts–games join their noise–banquets join their din! Oh better fidelity of the nations to their own sect, which claims no solemnity of the Christians for itself! Not the Lord’s day, not Pentecost, even if they had known them, would they have shared with us; for they would fear lest they should seem to be Christians. We are not apprehensive lest we seem to be heathens! If any indulgence is to be granted to the flesh, you have it. I will not say your own days, but more too; for to the heathens each festive day occurs but once annually: you have a festive day every eighth day [ie. Sunday, the Lord’s day]. Call out the individual solemnities of the nations, and set them out into a row, they will not be able to make up a Pentecost.63
The Sabbath is unacceptable to the Holy Spirit of God andstrange to Christians, who gather together every Sunday. They do so neither to commune with pagans, nor to commune with Jews, who celebrate the Sabbath.
An Answer to the Jews
2. The Law Anterior to Moses In fine, let him who contends that the Sabbath is still to be observed as a balm of salvation teach us that, for the time past, righteous men kept the Sabbath and were thus rendered friends of God. For if circumcision purges a man since God made Adam uncircumcised, why did He not circumcise him, even after his sinning, if circumcision purges? At all events, in settling him in paradise, He appointed one uncircumcised as colonist of paradise. Therefore, since God originated Adam uncircumcised, and inobservant of the Sabbath, consequently his offspring also, Abel, offering Him sacrifices, uncircumcised and inobservant of the Sabbath, was by Him commended; while He accepted what he was offering in simplicity of heart Noah also, uncircumcised–yes, and inobservant of the Sabbath–God freed from the deluge. For Enoch, too, most righteous man, uncircumcised and inobservant of the Sabbath, He translated from this world; who did not first taste death, in order that, being a candidate for eternal life, he might by this time show us that we also may, without the burden of the law of Moses, please God. Melchizedek also, the priest of the most high God, uncircumcised and inobservant of the Sabbath, was chosen to the priesthood of God. Lot, withal, the brother of Abraham, proves that it was for the merits of righteousness, without observance of the law, that he was freed from the conflagration of the Sodomites.
3. Of Circumcision and the Supercession of the Old Law. But Abraham, (you say,) was circumcised. Yes, but he pleased God before his circumcision; nor yet did he observe the Sabbath. For he had accepted circumcision; but such as was to be for a sign of that time, not for a prerogative title to salvation
4. Of the Observance of the Sabbath. It follows, accordingly, that, in so far as the abolition of carnal circumcision and of the old law is demonstrated as having been consummated at its specific times, so also the observance of the Sabbath is demonstrated to have been temporary.
For the Jews say, that from the beginning God sanctified the seventh day, by resting on it from all His works which He made; and that thence it was, likewise, that Moses said to the People: Remember the day of the sabbaths, to sanctify it: every servile work ye shall not do therein, except what pertaineth unto life. Whence we (Christians) understand that we still more ought to observe a sabbath from all servile work always, and not only every seventh day, but through all time. And through this arises the question for us, what sabbath God willed us to keep? For the Scriptures point to a sabbath eternal and a sabbath temporal. For Isaiah the prophet says, Your sabbaths my soul hateth; and in another place he says, My sabbaths ye have profaned. Whence we discern that the temporal sabbath is human, and the eternal sabbath is accounted divine; concerning which He predicts through Isaiah: And there shall be, He says, month after month, and day after day, and sabbath after sabbath; and all flesh shall come to adore in Jerusalem, saith the Lord; which we understand to have been fulfilled in the times of Christ, when all flesh–that is, every nation–came to adore in Jerusalem God the Father, through Jesus Christ His Son, as was predicted through the prophet: Behold, proselytes through me shall go unto Thee. Thus, therefore, before this poral sabbath, there was withal an eternal sabbath foreshown and foretold In short, let them teach us that Adam observed the sabbath; or that Abel, when offering to God a holy victim, pleased Him by a religious reverence for the sabbath; or that Enoch, when translated, had been a keeper of the sabbath; or that Noah the ark-builder observed, on account of the deluge, an immense sabbath; or that Abraham, in observance of the sabbath, offered Isaac his son; or that Melchizedek in his priesthood received the law of the sabbath. But the Jews are sure to say, that ever since this precept was given through Moses, the observance has been binding. Manifest accordingly it is, that the precept was not eternal nor spiritual, but temporary, which would one day cease. In short, so true is it that it is not in the exemption from work of the Sabbath that the celebration of this solemnity is to consist, that Joshua the son of Nun, at the time that he was reducing the city Jericho by war, stated that he had received from God a precept to order the People that priests should carry the ark of the testament of God seven days, making the circuit of the city; and thus, when the seventh day’s circuit had been performed, the walls of the city would spontaneously fall and when the space of the seventh day was finished down fell the walls of the city. Whence it is manifestly shown, that in the number of the seven days there intervened a sabbath-day. For seven days, whencesoever they may have commenced, must necessarily include within them a sabbath-day; on which day not only must the priests have worked, but the city must have been made a prey by the edge of the sword by all the people of Israel. Nor is it doubtful that they wrought servile work, when, in obedience to God’s precept, they drave the preys of war. For in the times of the Maccabees, too, they did bravely in fighting on the sabbaths, and routed their foreign foes, and recalled the law of their fathers to the primitive style of life by fighting on the sabbaths. Nor should I think it was any other law which they thus vindicated, than the one in which they remembered the existence of the prescript touching the day of the sabbaths.
Whence it is manifest that the force of such precepts was temporary, and respected the necessity of present circumstances; and that it was not with a view to its observance in perpetuity that God formerly gave them such a law.
6. Of the Abolition and the Abolisher of the Old LawTherefore, since it is manifest that a sabbath temporal was shown, and a sabbath eternal foretold it follows that, after all these precepts had been given carnally, in time preceding, to the people Israel, there was to supervene a time whereat the precepts of the ancient Law and of the old ceremonies would cease, and the promise of the new law, and the recognition of spiritual sacrifices, and the promise of the New Testament, supervene; while the light from on high would beam upon us who were sitting in darkness, and were being detained in the shadow of death. And so there is incumbent on us a necessity binding us, since we have premised that a new law was predicted by the prophets, and that not such as had been already given to their fathers at the time when He led them forth from the land of Egypt, to show and prove, on the one hand, that that old Law has ceased, and on the other, that the promised new law is now in operation.
And, indeed, first we must inquire whether there be expected a giver of the new law, and an heir of the new testament, and a priest of the new sacrifices, and a purger of the new circumcision, and an observer of the eternal sabbath, to suppress the old law, and institute the new testament, and offer the new sacrifices, and repress the ancient ceremonies, and suppress the old circumcision together with its own sabbath, and announce the new kingdom which is not corruptible. Inquire, I say, we must, whether this giver of the new law, observer of the spiritual sabbath, priest of the eternal sacrifices, eternal ruler of the eternal kingdom, be come or no: that, if he is already come, service may have to be rendered him; if he is not yet come, he may have to be awaited, until by his advent it be manifest that the old Law’s precepts are suppressed, and that the beginnings of the new law ought to arise. And, primarily, we must lay it down that the ancient Law and the prophets could not have ceased, unless He were come who was constantly announced, through the same Law and through the same prophets, as to come.64
Tertullian argued that from Adam to Abraham, the pre-Mosaic saints pleased God without observing the Sabbath command. The imperative to rest was instituted as a temporary sign. Yet there is a distinction between the temporary Sabbath of the Old Covenant, and the eternal Sabbath, foretold by the prophets, and fulfilled in Christ. The proof of the temporary nature of the Sabbath command comes from instances where God lifted the imperative, letting Israel work on the Sabbath in obedience to God. The time of the Sabbath command ended when the New Law of Christ suppressed and superseded the Old Law of Moses. At said time, Christ ushered in an eternal spiritual Sabbath, not bound to one day, giving rest to those in His kingdom.
Five Books Against Marcion
2.21. Similarly on other points also, you reproach Him with fickleness and instability for contradictions in His commandments, such as that He forbade work to be done on Sabbath-days, and yet at the siege of Jericho ordered the ark to be carried round the walls during eight days; in other words, of course, actually on a Sabbath. You do not, however, consider the law of the Sabbath: they are human works, not divine, which it prohibits. For it says, Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work; but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work. What work? Of course your own. The conclusion is, that from the Sabbath-day He removes those works which He had before enjoined for the six days, that is, your own works; in other words, human works of daily life. Now, the carrying around of the ark is evidently not an ordinary daily duty, nor yet a human one; but a rare and a sacred work, and, as being then ordered by the direct precept of God, a divine one Thus there is a clear distinction respecting the Sabbath’s prohibition of human labours, not divine ones. Accordingly, the man who went and gathered sticks on the Sabbath-day was punished with death. For it was his own work which he did; and this the law forbade. They, however, who on the Sabbath carried the ark round Jericho, did it with impunity. For it was not their own work, but God’s, which they executed, and that too, from His express commandment.65
4.12. Concerning the Sabbath also I have this to premise, that this question could not have arisen, if Christ did not publicly proclaim the Lord of the Sabbath. Nor could there be any discussion about His annulling the Sabbath, if He had a right to annul it. Moreover, He would have the right, if He belonged to the rival god; nor would it cause surprise to any one that He did what it was right for Him to do. Men’s astonishment therefore arose from their opinion that it was improper for Him to proclaim the Creator to be God and yet to impugn His Sabbath. Now, that we may decide these several points first let this stand as a settled point, that discussion concerning the novel character of each institution ensued on this account, because as nothing was as yet advanced by Christ touching any new deity, so discussion thereon was inadmissible; nor could it be retorted, that from the very novelty of each several institution another deity was clearly enough demonstrated by Christ, inasmuch as it was plain that novelty was not in itself a characteristic to be wondered at in Christ, because it had been foretold by the Creator. And it would have been, of course, but right that a new god should first be expounded, and his discipline be introduced afterwards; because it would be the god that would impart authority to the discipline, and not the discipline to the god; except that (to be sure) it has happened that Marcion acquired his very perverse opinions not from a master, but his master from his opinion! All other points respecting the Sabbath I thus rule. If Christ interfered with the Sabbath, He simply acted after the Creator’s example; inasmuch as in the siege of the city of Jericho the carrying around the walls of the ark of the covenant for eight days running, and therefore on a Sabbath-day, actually annulled the Sabbath, by the Creator’s command–according to the opinion of those who think this of Christ in this passage of St. Luke, in their ignorance that neither Christ nor the Creator violated the Sabbath, as we shall by and by show. And yet the Sabbath was actually then broken by Joshua, so that the present charge might be alleged also against Christ. But even if, as being not the Christ of the Jews, He displayed a hatred against the Jews’ most solemn day, He was only professedly following the Creator, as being His Christ, in this very hatred of the Sabbath; for He exclaims by the mouth of Isaiah: Your new moons and your Sabbaths my soul hateth. Now, in whatever sense these words were spoken, we know that an abrupt defence must, in a subject of this sort, be used in answer to an abrupt challenge. I shall now transfer the discussion to the very matter in which the teaching of Christ seemed to annul the Sabbath. The disciples had been hungry; on that the Sabbath day they had plucked some ears and rubbed them in their hands; by thus preparing their food, they had violated the holy day. Christ excuses them, and became their accomplice in breaking the Sabbath. The Pharisees bring the charge against Him. Marcion sophistically interprets the stages of the controversy both in the scriptural record and in Christ’s purpose. For from the Creator’s Scripture, and from the purpose of Christ, there is derived a colourable precedent–as from the example of David, when he went into the temple on the Sabbath, and provided food by boldly breaking up the shew-bread. Even he remembered that this privilege was allowed to the Sabbath from the very beginning, when the Sabbath-day itself was instituted. For although the Creator had forbidden that the manna should be gathered for two days, He yet permitted it on the one occasion only of the day before the Sabbath, in order that the yesterday’s provision of food might free from fasting the feast of the following Sabbath-day. Good reason, therefore, had the Lord for pursuing the same principle in the annulling of the Sabbath good reason, too, for expressing the Creator’s will, when He bestowed the privilege of not fasting on the Sabbath-day. In short, He would have then and there put an end to the Sabbath, nay, to the Creator Himself, if He had commanded His disciples to fast on the Sabbath-day, contrary to the intention of the Scripture and of the Creator’s will. But because He did not directly defend His disciples, but excuses them; because He interposes human want, as if deprecating censure; because He maintains the honour of the Sabbath as a day which is to be free from gloom rather than from work; because he puts David and his companions on a level with His own disciples in their fault and their extenuation; because He is pleased to endorse the Creator’s indulgence: because He is Himself good according to His example–is He therefore alien from the Creator? Then the Pharisees watch whether He would heal on the Sabbath-day, that they might accuse Him–surely as a violator of the Sabbath The Pharisees, however, were in utter error concerning the law of the Sabbath, not observing that its terms were conditional, when it enjoined rest from labour, making certain distinctions of labour. For when it says of the Sabbath-day, In it thou shalt not do any work of thine, by the word thine it restricts the prohibition to human work–which every one performs in his own employment or business–and not to divine work. Now the work of healing or preserving is not proper to man, but to God. So again, in the law it says, Thou shalt not do any manner of work in it, except what is to be done for any soul, that is to say, in the matter of delivering the soul; because what is God’s work may be done by human agency for the salvation of the soul. By God, however, would that be done which the man Christ was to do, for He was likewise God. Wishing, therefore, to initiate them into this meaning of the law by the restoration of the withered hand, He requires, Is it lawful on the Sabbath-days to do good, or not? to save life, or to destroy it? In order that He might, whilst allowing that amount of work which He was about to perform for a soul, remind them what works the law of the Sabbath forbade–even human works; and what it enjoined–even divine works, which might be done for the benefit of any soul, He was called Lord of the Sabbath, because He maintained the Sabbath as His own institution. Now, even if He had annulled the Sabbath, He would have had the right to do so, as being its Lord, (and) still more as He who instituted it. But He did not utterly destroy it, although its Lord, in order that it might henceforth be plain that the Sabbath was not broken by the Creator, even at the time when the ark was carried around Jericho. For that was really God’s work, which He commanded Himself, and which He had ordered for the sake of the lives of His servants when exposed to the perils of war. Now, although He has in a certain place expressed an aversion of Sabbaths, by calling them your Sabbaths, reckoning them as men’s Sabbaths, not His own, because they were celebrated without the fear of God by a people full of iniquities, and loving God with the lip, not the heart, He has yet put His own Sabbaths (those, that is, which were kept according to His prescription) in a different position; for by the same prophet, in a later passage, He declared them to be true, and delightful, and inviolable. Thus Christ did not at all rescind the Sabbath: He kept the law thereof, and both in the former case did a work which was beneficial to the life of His disciples, for He indulged them with the relief of food when they were hungry, and in the present instance cured the withered hand; in each case intimating by facts, I came not to destroy, the law, but to fulfil it, He exhibits in a clear light the different kinds of work, while doing what the law excepts from the sacredness of the Sabbath and while imparting to the Sabbath-day itself, which from the beginning had been consecrated by the benediction of the Father, an additional sanctity by His own beneficent action. For He furnished to this day divine safeguards,–a course which His adversary would have pursued for some other days, to avoid honouring the Creator’s Sabbath, and restoring to the Sabbath the works which were proper for it. Since, in like manner, the prophet Elisha on this day restored to life the dead son of the Shunammite woman, you see, O Pharisee, and you too, O Marcion, how that it was proper employment for the Creator’s Sabbaths of old to do good, to save life, not to destroy it; how that Christ introduced nothing new, which was not after the example, the gentleness, the mercy, and the prediction also of the Creator. For in this very example He fulfils the prophetic announcement of a specific healing: The weak hands are strengthened, as were also the feeble knees in the sick of the palsy.66
5.19 Now tell me, Marcion, what is your opinion of the apostle’s language, when he says, Let no man judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of a holy day, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath, which is a shadow of things to come, but the body is of Christ? We do not now treat of the law, further than (to remark) that the apostle here teaches clearly how it has been abolished, even by passing from shadow to substance–that is, from figurative types to the reality, which is Christ. The shadow, therefore, is His to whom belongs the body also; in other words, the law is His, and so is Christ. If you separate the law and Christ, assigning one to one god and the other to another, it is the same as if you were to attempt to separate the shadow from the body of which it is the shadow. Manifestly Christ has relation to the law, if the body has to its shadow. 67
Tertullian attacked the notion that an evil and fickle god gave the Sabbath command. Such a god, in Marcion’s view, required the death of someone carrying sticks, but allowed for the siege of Jericho on the Sabbath. In defense of the true and living God, Tertullian showed that the command allowed for a distinction of works between human and divine labor. The seige of Jericho was a divine work. Circumcising on the Sabbath was a divine work. Christ’s work was divine work. Christ proclaimed himself Lord of the Sabbath, having rights over it. He did not teach about a new god, but claimed the God of the Jews, who instituted the Sabbath, to be His Father. The Pharisees, who made no distinction between human and divine works, accused Jesus and His disciples of breaking the Sabbath. Rather than annul the law of an evil god, as Marcion would have it be, Jesus kept the law, doing that which God allowed. When Christ fulfilled the Old Covenenant, the signs and shadows became reality in Him. The Sabbath was temporary and proleptic, pointing to Christ.
In the next ROAR, we will examine when the Sabbath and Lord’s day became one.