Within this series of posts I hope to investigate some of the contextual factors that influenced the early church’s decision for Sunday gathering. I also plan to look at several of the earliest church documents that speak to the Sabbath/Lord’s Day issue.
In the previous post I discussed two significant sources of Jewish influence on the early church regarding their weekly corporate worship patterns. Now I want to explore several sources of Greco-Roman influence that helped shape the early church’s weekly pattern of gathering. Part I will look at the Roman persecution of the Jews, while Part II will examine the Roman calendar and worship practices to show how both are significant contextual factors for interpreting the early church’s liturgical patterns.
Greco-Roman Influence (Part 1)
Understanding the Greco-Roman setting in which the early church was birthed is crucial for properly interpreting the works of the early church fathers. Rocked gently by prevailing notions of anti-Semitism, the structure of Greco-Roman life, and divine Roman rule, early Christians had to simultaneously show their continuity with the God and people of the Old Testament, while also showing their discontinuity with the Jewish religion of the day.
Persecution of Judaism
Related to the previously discussed Jewish background of many Christians, the Greco-Roman animosity toward the Jews was also important in the shaping of early church practices. Odom succinctly explains:
The second century opened with intense antipathy manifested throughout the Roman Empire by pagan Gentiles toward Jews as a result of Jewish uprisings against the Roman government in Palestine, Egypt, Cyprus, and Cyrene during the reign of Trajan (98–117). It reached its climax during the Jewish revolt led by Bar Cocheba in Judea during 132–135. Emperor Hadrian (117–138) crushed the long and bloody revolt with terrible severity, razed Jerusalem, and established a heathen community there, and made it a capital crime for a Jew to set foot on its soil. Judaism was outlawed by harsh decrees of the emperor, and all of its religious practices—especially Sabbath observance, Passover celebration, and circumcision—were prohibited under penalty of death. Although the Hadrianic decrees were softened somewhat by Antonius Pius (138–161), widespread animosity toward Judaism and everything that seemed to smack of it smoldered long afterward.
The stakes were high for those early Christians who believed that Sabbath observance was still their responsibility. Furthermore, because Christians were linked with Jews, as was the case in the minds of many Romans, the early followers of Christ were also worthy of persecution. This persecution also shows that, at least for many early Christians, the Sabbath/Lord’s Day debate was not a mere academic exercise; it was, potentially, a matter of life and death.
In the next post I plan to highlight the Roman calendar as well as Roman worship practices to show how they were both relevant to interpreting the early church’s liturgical choices.
About the Author:Jon English Lee
Jon English Lee (M.Div.) is a Ph.D. student in Systematic and Historical Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His research interests include ecclesiology, particularly liturgy and sacraments, and the development of doctrine.
This post is adapted from Jon English Lee, “Second Century Witnesses to the Sabbath and Lord’s Day Debate,” The Churchman, forthcoming 2014. ↩
The impact of Gnosticism on the early church was incalculable. For a discussion of gnostic “rest” and the sabbath/Lord’s Day debate in the early church, see: Lee, “Second Century Witnesses to the Sabbath and Lord’s Day Debate,” The Churchman, forthcoming 2014. For a more detailed discussion of the influence, including references to gnostic primary resources, see: Richard Bauckham, “Sabbath and Sunday in the Post-Apostolic Church,” in Carson, ed., From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, 255, 276–7. See also: Willy Rordorf, Sunday : The History of the Day of Rest and Worship in the Earliest Centuries of the Christian Church, 96, 136, 284; Robert Leo Odom, Sabbath and Sunday in Early Christianity (Washington DC: Review and Herald Pub. Association, 1977), 93–97; and Roger T Beckwith and Wilfrid Stott, This Is the Day: The Biblical Doctrine of the Christian Sunday in Its Jewish and Early Church Setting, 118–19. ↩