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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Sabbath

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1. The Jewish Sabbath in apostolic days.-For the whole subject in its most general aspect readers are referred to the various Encyclopaedias and Dictionaries wherein the Sabbath is discussed. It is enough if here we briefly set forth what were its chief features as a Jewish festival in the days of the early Church.

In common with other ancient institutions of a similar kind, the Sabbath had undergone great modifications with the passing centuries, although preserving the essential character of one day in seven, observed mainly by a cessation of daily business and work. Shabbâth (whatever may be said of an Assyrian ðabbatum in support of a theory which gives a Babylonian origin to the institution) is undoubtedly connected with the verb shabhath, ‘to cease,’ ‘to desist from’; and cessation from labour was its most conspicuous and primitive characteristic (Exodus 20:9 f. = Deuteronomy 5:12 ff., Exodus 23:12; Exodus 34:21).

The Sabbath with which the NT makes us familiar is specially the product of post-Exilic times. There is a paucity of reference to the Sabbath in pre-Exilic days which is most striking. Yet the two or three references that occur (2 Kings 4:23, Amos 8:5) mention it as a well-established and familiar institution, and Amos in particular makes it clear that cessation from business was a special feature of the day. But after the Exile greater prominence is given to it (Isaiah 56:2; Isaiah 56:4; Isaiah 56:6; Isaiah 58:13 f.). Nehemiah 13:15-22 gives us a picture of vigorous Sabbath-reform. Its observance is not by any means introduced as a new thing. Rather it is the reestablishment, with new rigour, of an institution which had been allowed to lapse into a variety of abuses or even actual neglect (see Lamentations 2:6). We must also include in these post-Exilic references such passages as Jeremiah 17:19-27 and Ezekiel 20, with their glowing promises attached to Sabbath observance and solemn warnings against its profanation. These utterances indicate that rehabilitation of the Sabbath which increasingly characterized Judaism as it emerged purified and refined from the fires of the Exile.

It is clear that in the time of our Lord the observance of the Sabbath was one direct occasion of an open breach between Him and the religious authorities of His day. The well-known and remarkable logion found in cod. D (Luke 6:10), if it is to be relied upon, particularly illustrates the difference in standpoint so far as work was concerned. As for special religious services associated with the Sabbath, the synagogue was the particular scene of these devotions. The importance of the synagogue as a centre of Jewish life became greater and greater as the central sanctuary of the Temple declined and ultimately perished. In the Diaspora it was inevitable that this should be the course of development. So in the Acts of the Apostles the synagogue is the main scene of the first appeal of Christian preachers to the Jews, and the Sabbath was the special day on which they carried on their propaganda. How rich the day was, e.g., in opportunity for St. Paul from the first we see from Acts 13:14; Acts 13:44; Acts 14:1; Acts 16:13; Acts 17:2; Acts 18:4, etc.

Moreover, the observance of the Sabbath by cessation from labour was one outstanding peculiarity of the Jews which most forcibly struck the heathen observer. It is one special mark of the Jew as we meet him in the generally unfriendly pages of Roman authors. Seneca, e.g., is represented by St. Augustine as ignorantly condemning the Sabbath-keeping of the Jews: ‘quod per illos singulos septem interpositos dies septimam fere partem aetatis suae perdant vacando et multa in tempore urgentia non agendo laedantur’ (de Civ. Dei, vi. 11). For other references see Tac. Hist. v. 4; Hor. Sat. I. ix. 69; Juv. Sat. xiv. 96-106.

This shows indubitably how well Sabbath was kept by the Jews. Not only so; they suffered considerable hardship in adhering to a custom that was wholly disregarded by the world in general. At an earlier period, indeed, we read of certain Jews who perished rather than violate the Sabbath by fighting on that day (1 Maccabees 2:34-38). This led in those troublous times to a relaxation of the law, so that fighting on the defensive was permissible. Ultimately the Romans were obliged to release the Jews from military service, and that, among other things, on account of the great inconveniences attendant on Sabbath observance (Jos. Ant. xiv. 10).

Beside this we have the enormous importance attached to the Sabbath by tradition and instruction amongst the Jews themselves. The reference to the ‘Sabbath day’s journey’ (ὁδὸς σαββάτου, Acts 1:12) reminds us of the glosses and refinements (and, we may also say, absurdities) to which, as time went on, the Sabbatic law was subjected at the hands of the Rabbis. Even this limit of lawful travel was open to various interpretations according as the 2000 ells (the distance allowed) were to be reckoned in a straight line in one direction or as the radius of a circle. In at least one tractate of the Talmud (Shabbath) minute directions were treasured up as to what might and what might not be done on the Sabbath day. It may seem as if the day were thus made burdensome to the community, but, if we are to believe the testimony of Jewish writers who are worthy of all esteem, it was not so in reality. The Sabbath was a joyous day of rest from toil and business, of happy social intercourse, of assembly in the synagogue for worship. Josephus clearly though indirectly makes reference to this in c. Apion. i. 22 (cf. also Ant. XVI. ii. 3). But we need not go beyond the very definite allusion to the synagogue observance as an established practice in Acts 15:21. Abstention from the thirty-nine kinds of work specified by the Talmudists as forbidden (the number is evidently artificial, and probably not unconnected with ‘forty stripes save one,’ 2 Corinthians 11:24) was by no means the whole of Sabbath observance.

A passing notice may be taken of the emphasis which Philo, in his characteristic way, puts upon the Sabbath as a positive season to be devoted to ‘philosophizing,’ to contemplation of the works of God, to moral and spiritual examination and renewal (de Decalogo, 20). It is also a day specially appropriate for instruction. Again, the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, in a vein not unlike Philo’s, handles the Sabbath with an extension of the idea to the hereafter. How popular and deep-rooted this use has become the whole devotional language of the Church bears witness. ‘There remaineth therefore a Sabbath rest (a Sabbath-keeping, σαββατισμός) to the people of God’ (Hebrews 4:9). But in the Talmud, too, Sabbath is a foretaste of the world to come. See also Ep. Barn. 15 for further mystical treatment.

2. The observance of Sabbath in the early Church.-As far as we can see, there was no thought on the part of the first ‘disciples’ of ever discontinuing an observance to which as Jews they had been accustomed all their lives. Whilst Jesus was in direct conflict with the religious authorities as regards their interpretation of the Sabbath and its laws, we hear no word of any complaint of His primitive followers on that score. What mainly marked them off from their fellow-Jews was their testimony and declaration that ‘Jesus was the Christ’ (Acts 5:42; Acts 17:3; Acts 18:5). This was divisive and revolutionary enough, it is true; but they seem to have thought that the old faith could live with the new, or at least that old habits and customs which did not appear to clash with their loyalty to Jesus could still be maintained.

The inclusion of the Gentiles within the scope of the gospel brought with it inevitable complications-this among the rest: How far were the religious customs of the Jews to be considered as binding upon them? St. Paul, who was certainly revolutionary and advanced in his teaching in comparison with the Church at Jerusalem, was even openly taxed with advising Jews who lived amongst Gentiles to abandon Moses and ‘the customs’ (see Acts 21:17 ff.). Was that of Sabbath observance one of them Probably such teaching as we find in Romans 14 might give rise to this charge, though there he does not prohibit or even dissuade, but simply pleads for liberty of judgment. At the same time he certainly disapproved of all attempts to make the observance of the Sabbath and other peculiarly Jewish customs binding on Gentile converts to the faith (Colossians 2:16).

Where Jews continued to form the main personnel of Christian communities, Sabbath observance still lived on. Yet, just as surely the setting apart of ‘the first day of the week’ as the Lord’s Day grew up alongside as something distinctively Christian. Traces of this are clear even in apostolic times (see article Lord’s Day). The two existed side by side, alike yet different. In the Apostolic Constitutions, which reflect in this as in some other respects the usages of earlier times, we find more than one reference to the Sabbath and the Lord’s Day together as days equally to be observed (ii. 59, vii. 23, viii. 33). A stray papyrus-leaf discovered in middle Egypt in 1911, which appears to be a portion of a prayer-book that must have been familiar in Eastern Christian circles, probably in the 2nd cent., bears unexpected witness to this early custom. It contains what is called a σαββατικὴ εὐχή, whose liturgical phraseology is easily and closely paralleled in NT and early Christian literature, and follows immediately upon what appear to be the closing words of a prayer for Friday. (see Neutestamentliche Studien für G. Heinrici, Leipzig, 1914, no. 6: ‘Zwei altchristliche Gebete’).

As time went on, however, a considerable difference showed itself between the Eastern and Western Churches in their attitude towards the Sabbath. Both continued to keep it; but among the former it was accounted a festival, with the sole exception of the ‘great Sabbath,’ i.e. that which immediately preceded Easter Day (see Apost. Const. vii. 23), whilst among the latter it was very generally observed as a fast. This is unimportant; the main point is that the ancient Jewish institution was carried over into the Christian Church, and lived on in some form or other. Even to this day in the liturgical names for the days of the week, in both the Roman and the Greek Church, Saturday is known by its Jewish name, sabbatum, σάββατον. But it is now at most merely a prelude and preparation for the dies dominica; and a faint hint at such relation is found in the fact that, where liturgical uses are followed, the collect for the following day is said on Saturday evening.

How at length the Sabbath as an institution ceased to be maintained and gave place to the Lord’s Day as its Christian substitute may be briefly conjectured. As Christian became more and snore distinct from Jew, this and other things would naturally follow. The early propagation of the faith among Gentiles, as Christianity realized its world-wide mission, would necessarily tend in the same direction. In Ep. ad Magn., attributed to Ignatius, we meet with an early admonition, emphasizing the distinction: ‘Let us, therefore, no longer keep Sabbath after the Jewish manner (Ἰουδαϊκῶς) and rejoice in days of idleness.… But let every one of you keep Sabbath after a spiritual manner, rejoicing in meditation on the law’ (ch. 9). In the nature of things, the two days could not continue to be equally observed in the Christian Church. The Sabbath must needs give place to the Lord’s Day: the seventh day of the week to the first. The legislation of Constantine (a.d. 321), which recognized Sunday as a feast day, must have been no small factor in the case; though, again, that would not have been enacted if the custom of keeping the Lord’s Day had not already been predominant among Christians. As a concession to paganism, it may be noticed that the studied name given to the day (dies solis) ‘afforded the possibility of its universal encouragement, without thus appearing to enforce directly an ecclesiastical celebration’ (W. Mceller, History of the Christian Church, Eng. translation , i., London, 1892, p. 298).

Nevertheless, great confusion has continued to exist in the Christian Church as to the keeping of the weekly festival. This inevitably resulted from transferring the sanctions and some of the features of the Jewish Sabbath to the Lord’s Day, and from the incorporation of the unaltered Decalogue as a norm in Christian ethics. The Fourth Commandment was still held to be binding; only Sunday was tacitly substituted for ‘the seventh day.’ The confusion probably still exists, very much helped by the long-established custom of speaking of the Lord’s Day as ‘the Christian Sabbath’ or even simply ‘the Sabbath’ or ‘the Sabbath Day.’ But there is a clear distinction between the two; and for Christians the Lord’s Day is paramount. Great as the authority of the Sabbath is, the authority of the Lord’s Day for all who accept the resurrection of our Lord is equally great or even greater.

As a matter of fact, the practice of Sabbath-keeping among Christians has been made to rest on different grounds and has been differently interpreted, though the views may ultimately be classified as two, the Sabbatical and the Dominical. Some supporters of the former have argued even that the seventh day is the true Sabbath and ought still to be observed by Christians (see a curious work by Francis Bampfield written to show that the seventh-day Sabbath is the desirable day and according to ‘an unchangeable Law of well-establisht Order both in the Revealed Word and in Created Nature’ [Judgment for the Observation of the Jewish or Seventh-Day Sabbath, London, 1672]). And representatives of this view still exist: e.g. the Seventh Day Adventists, an American sect-not, be it noticed, with a desire to return to primitive practice and observe both Sabbath and Lord’s Day, but to observe the seventh day alone.

The Jews have long suffered special disabilities in Christian countries in this respect, but this has not availed to cause them to abandon Sabbath-keeping. And we have Sunday. We must discriminate between the day as a day of rest from labour (one day in seven) and as a day of joyful worship and of religious activities. The sanctions for the former are deep-seated in human nature itself. It is simple wisdom to guard such a space of liberty from the encroachments of labour, and to make it, in George Herbert’s words, ‘The couch of time, care’s balm and bay’ (Sunday, line 5). And all enlightened Christians will continue to make the worthiest use of the day so set apart.

Literature.-J. A. Hessey, Sunday: its Origin, History, and Present Obligation5, London, 1889; W. Lotz, Historia Sabbati: Quaestionum de historia sabbati libri duo, Leipzig, 1883; J. Meinhold, Sabbat und Woche im Alten Testament (= Forschungen zur Religion und Literatur des Alten und Neuen Testaments, v.), Göttingen, 1905; J. Bingham, Antiquities of the Christian Church, bk. xx. (= Works, Oxford, 1855, vol. vii.); R. Baxter, A Christian Directory, pt. ii. ch. xviii. (= Works, ed. W. Orme, 23 vols., London, 1830, vol. iv. p. 240), The Divine Appointment of the Lord’s Day (ib. vol. xiii.); E. Schürer, HJP [Note: JP History of the Jewish People (Eng. tr. of GJV).] II. ii. [Edinburgh, 1885]; L. Duchesne, Origines du culte chrétien, Paris, 1889; C. H. Toy, JBL [Note: BL Journal of Biblical Literature.] , ‘The Earliest Form of the Sabbath,’ xviii. [1899] 190 ff.; Eight Studies on the Lord’s Day (anon.), Cambridge, 1884; also articles ‘Sabbath,’ in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible (5 vols) (S. R. Driver), Encyclopaedia Biblica (Robertson Smith, K. Marti, T. K. Cheyne), Jewish Encyclopedia (J. H. Greenstone); articles ‘Festivals and Fasts (Hebrew)’ (F. H. Woods), and ‘Festivals and Fasts (Christian)’ (J. G. Carleton), in Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics .

J. S. Clemens.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Sabbath'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/s/sabbath.html. 1906-1918.

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Thursday, July 18th, 2019
the Week of Proper 10 / Ordinary 15
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