How widespread was the observance of the Jewish Sabbath among Christians during Early Christianity (A.D. 30–324)?
The Sabbath was the consecration of one day of the weekly period to God as the Author of the universe and of time as seen in the book of Exodus.
12 This, too, was the Lord’s word to Moses: 13 Give the sons of Israel a warning from me, Be sure that you observe the sabbath day.1 It is a token between us, that is to last all through the ages which lie before you, reminding you that I am the Lord, and you are set apart for me. 14 Keep my sabbath; it has a binding claim on you, on pain of death for all who violate it. The man who does any work on that day is lost to his people. 15 You have six days to work in; the seventh is the sabbath, a day of rest set apart for the Lord, and if anybody works on that day, his life must pay for it. 16 It is for the sons of Israel to observe my sabbath and honour it among themselves, age after age. It is an undying covenant, 17 a perpetual token between me and the Israelites; the Lord spent six days making heaven and earth, and on the seventh he rested from his labours. - Exodus 31:12-17
Christ, while observing the Sabbath, set himself in word and act against this absurd rigorism which made man a slave of the day. He reproved the scribes and Pharisees for putting an intolerable burden on men's shoulders (Matthew 23:4), and proclaimed the principle that "the sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath" (Mark 2:27). He cured on the Sabbath, and defended His disciples for plucking ears of corn on that day. In His arguments with the Pharisees on this account He showed that the Sabbath is not broken in cases of necessity or by acts of charity (Matthew 12:3 sqq.; Mark 2:25 sqq.; Luke 6:3 sqq.; 14:5). St. Paul enumerates the Sabbath among the Jewish observances which are not obligatory on Christians (Colossians 2:16; Galatians 4:9-10; Romans 14:5).
4 They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. - Matthew 23:4
The gentile converts held their religious meetings on Sunday (Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:2) and with the disappearance of the Jewish Christian churches this day was exclusively observed as the Lord's Day.
7 And upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached unto them, ready to depart on the morrow; and continued his speech until midnight. - Acts 20:7
2 On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with your income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made. - 2 On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with your income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made.
So we can see that even in Apostolic Times, the first day of the week as replacing the Saturday Sabbath Day (7th day) at least for gentile converts.
But how widespread was the observance of the Jewish Sabbath among Christians during Early Christianity?
Certainly some of first Christians were mainly Jewish and thus observed the seventh-day sabbath with prayer and rest, but as the gentile converts grew, they gathered on the first day, Sunday, reckoned in Jewish tradition as beginning, like the other days, at sunset on what would now be considered the Saturday evening. At the beginning of the second century Ignatius of Antioch (Epistle to the Magnesians 9:1: “If, then, those who had lived according to the ancient practices came to the newness of hope, no longer keeping the sabbath but living in accordance with the Lord’s day [μηκέτι σαββατίζοντες ἀλλά κατά κυριακήν ζῶντες], on which our life also arose through him and his death…) approved non-observance of the Sabbath.
The Coptic Churches in Egypt and Ethiopia certainly maintained this practice until the Council of Nicea. Not surprising since they maintain many Jewish traditions to this day and also claim to possess the Arc of the Covenant.
W. B. Bishai has attempted to shed some light on the development of the custom of observing Sunday as a rest day in addition to the seventh-day Sabbath in early Coptic (and related) Christianity. He suggests that it may have been under the influ- ence of the first Council of Nicea (A.D. 325)that this situation first came about:
It seems possible that Sabbath observance among the Copts in Egypt and Ethiopia may have passed through three stages: I) Only the seventh-day Sabbath observed from apostolic times until the Council of Nicea; Sunday and the seventh-day Sabbath both observed-from the Council of Nicea until perhaps a century or two later; and 3) only Sunday designated as a day of public worship-a practice still observed today (p. 31).
Some Notes on the Sabbath in Early Christianity
Outside of this unique setting the observation of the Sabbath on Saturdays seems a rather rarer occurrence.
One of the most popular arguments against the doctrine of the Sabbath is the purposed silence of the Early Church fathers on the issue.
Sunday was the first day of the week according to the Jewish method of reckoning, but for Christians it began to take the place of the Jewish Sabbath in Apostolic times as the day set apart for the public and solemn worship of God. The practice of meeting together on the first day of the week for the celebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice is indicated in Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:2; in Apocalypse 1:10, it is called the Lord's day. In the Didache the injunction is given: "On the Lord's Day come together and break bread. And give thanks (offer the Eucharist), after confessing your sins that your sacrifice may be pure". St. Ignatius (Ep. ad Magnes. ix) speaks of Christians as "no longer observing the Sabbath, but living in the observance of the Lord's Day, on which also Our Life rose again". In the Epistle of Barnabas (xv) we read: "Wherefore, also, we keep the eighth day (i.e. the first of the week) with joyfulness, the day also on which Jesus rose again from the dead".
St. Justin is the first Christian writer to call the day Sunday (I Apol., lxvii) in the celebrated passage in which he describes the worship offered by the early Christians on that day to God. The fact that they met together and offered public worship on Sunday necessitated a certain rest from work on that day. However, Tertullian (202) is the first writer who expressly mentions the Sunday rest: "We, however (just as tradition has taught us), on the day of the Lord's Resurrection ought to guard not only against kneeling, but every posture and office of solicitude, deferring even our businesses lest we give any place to the devil" ("De orat.", xxiii; cf. "Ad nation.", I, xiii; "Apolog.", xvi).
These and similar indications show that during the first three centuries practice and tradition had consecrated the Sunday to the public worship of God by the hearing of the Mass and the resting from work. With the opening of the fourth century positive legislation, both ecclesiastical and civil, began to make these duties more definite. The Council of Elvira (300) decreed: "If anyone in the city neglects to come to church for three Sundays, let him be excommunicated for a short time so that he may be corrected" (xxi). In the Apostolic Constitutions, which belong to the end of the fourth century, both the hearing of the Mass and the rest from work are prescribed, and the precept is attributed to the Apostles. The express teaching of Christ and St. Paul prevented the early Christians from falling into the excesses of Jewish Sabbatarianism in the observance of the Sunday, and yet we find St. Cæsarius of Arles in the sixth century teaching that the holy Doctors of the Church had decreed that the whole glory of the Jewish Sabbath had been transferred to the Sunday, and that Christians must keep the Sunday holy in the same way as the Jews had been commanded to keep holy the Sabbath Day. He especially insisted on the people hearing the whole of the Mass and not leaving the church after the Epistle and the Gospel had been read. He taught them that they should come to Vespers and spend the rest of the day in pious reading and prayer. As with the Jewish Sabbath, the observance of the Christian Sunday began with sundown on Saturday and lasted till the same time on Sunday. Until quite recent times some theologians taught that there was an obligation under pain of venial sin of assisting at vespers as well as of hearing Mass, but the opinion rests on no certain foundation and is now commonly abandoned. - Sunday (Catholic Encyclopaedia)
Sabbatarians or Sabbatarianism is the name, as appears from its origin, denotes those individuals or parties who are distinguished by some peculiar opinion or practice in regard to the observance of the Sabbath or day of rest. In the first place it is applied to those rigorists who apparently confound the Christian Sunday with the Jewish Sabbath and, not content with the prohibition of servile work, will not allow many ordinary and innocent occupations on the Sunday.
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